Get a great live mix – eight ways to take control of your live sound

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You’ve polished your tunes, rehearsed your set, double-confirmed your dates, and tested all your gear – but there can still be some big unknowns when it comes to getting a great live mix. Take, for instance, the sound system.

how to get a great live mix

For acts not yet playing stadiums (and some who do), dealing with sound at a music gig can often range anywhere from a minor annoyance to a major catastrophe. Broken PA components, weird-sounding rooms, difficult staff, or the lack of someone present who can mix live music can be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unexpected problems at the venue. On the bright side, there are any number of tried and true ways to minimize your headaches when it comes to dialing in your live band sound and getting a great live mix. Here are just a few live sound tips to keep you sane — and sounding your best.

Be flexible
“As an indie artist with a very diverse fan base, I wind up playing in a lot of different environments, and getting good sound was the biggest challenge on my latest tour,” says electronic music pioneer Moldover. “Some of my gigs were at venues with big sound systems, experienced sound engineers, and a proper sound check. Some were at dive bars set up for DJs, so I ended up plugging into a DJ mixer and doing my own soundcheck. Then there were also house concerts, where somebody’s friend was bringing and setting up a PA, and other artists were performing as well, doing more acoustic things.”

In practical terms for Moldover, this meant having to be able to quickly adjust his own rig and needs to fit the sound gear available — for example, being able to have his sound go directly into the PA’s mixer simply through a standard pair of stereo outs, or taking more of a multi-channel approach that included separate channels for his vocals, computer, monitors, and so on.

“Showing up with a rig that scales or telescopes to fit your venue and sound system is really helpful,” he says — and a trip to Radio Shack or your local music store to load up on an assortment of cables and plug converters can be a great start.

Be ready for the worst
“When you’re dealing with a house sound system, a good assumption is that nothing works,” says Mike Seddon, owner of Live Sound Inc. in Troy, New York. “Thinking in terms of what could go wrong will get you everywhere. Try to think three steps ahead.”

If you’re tech-ing your own sound, the first step that Seddon recommends is, as soon as you arrive at your venue, turn on the system to see what works and what doesn’t. “If you do that first thing, you have maximum time to troubleshoot, develop a workaround, or take other actions — like getting another PA in there if you need it,” he says.

Seddon recalls learning a valuable lesson while working as tour support for a band on a festival circuit, where each act typically had fifteen minutes to set up and get ready to go. “I assumed, incorrectly, that all of the gear provided would be working correctly, but it turns out that the signal indicator lights on a bus compressor were working, but the compressor circuitry wasn’t actually processing the signal,” he says. “Then another piece of equipment in the same rack, a gate, had its indicator lights burned out, but was processing signal. I became so distracted with this that I wasted our precious soundcheck time.”

If he had approached the gear provided with greater skepticism from the get go, Seddon says, the show would have gone more smoothly. “I learned to use only the minimum amount of gear I needed to get a good basic mix going, and then see if I could add other pieces to make it sound even better,” he says.

Part of preparing for the worst, Moldover adds, is bringing as much of your own sound gear as is reasonable. “If you have space in your vehicle and the money to do so, just bring your own sound system,” he says. “Or at least bring your own stands and microphone.”

If you don’t have access to a vehicle or are flying from gig to gig, you may not be able to bring the ten mic stands your horn section needs, for example, but even providing your own microphones in such a situation can put more sonic control in your hands at the end of the day. “The less you have to depend on venue’s backline, the better,” he says.

Minimize feedback
Ear-crunching feedback can be a curse for any soundperson, whether professional or self-appointed on the spot — so it’s a good to know how to minimize the chances of deafening yourself and your audience.

“First and foremost, keep your mics away from the speakers, and if you hear feedback, turn the volume down,” says Seddon. “It may seem obvious, but it’s worth restating that feedback happens because your volume is too high. More specifically, the volume is too high at the specific frequency that’s feeding back and you can correct that with the equalization on the PA. But before you do that, and to avoid the situation in the first place, turn your volume down until you can isolate and fix that offending frequency.”

“With experience, you can figure out by ear which frequency is feeding back,” he continues. “You can usually hear when a system is going to feed back before it actually does.”

If you don’t have the years of experience to figure out the offending frequencies on the fly, technology can help. “I use the EQ in Abelton Live, which can display a spectrum analyzer,” says Moldover. “If you get feedback, you can see on there which frequency you need to notch out. Any EQ with some kind of visual feedback is really useful. It could be hardware or software.”

Moldover offers a final tip: “It’s really helpful to be able to split your vocals, or other sounds that depend on microphones, out and control them separately from the rest of your mix,” he says. “Especially when you’re setting up your monitor mixes, it can help you avoid feedback.”

Focus on levels
“When you’re setting up your own sound, simpler is better,” says Seddon. “The most important thing to focus on is gain structure.”

In other words, he advises, pay close attention to the levels that you’re getting from your inputs, whether they are mics or direct input boxes. Always strive for a reasonable level that registers strongly on your mixing board, but avoid anything that’s so hot that it distorts or maxes out the channel. “You want your signals to hit that sweet spot where the electronics are designed to perform their best,” says Seddon. “With signals that are too low or too high, you can get more noise in the system or not have enough room on the faders to make real adjustments.”

“Gain structure is a really important thing,” he adds. “Right off the bat, that can make whatever sound system you’re using perform at its best.”

Know how to soundcheck yourself
Every band longs for a great venue with up-to-date equipment, a knowledgeable and patient sound engineer, and plenty of time to tweak your live vibe to perfection — but reality rarely lives up to such lofty dreams. Knowing how to perform your own soundcheck can be a huge blessing.

“This is one area where it’s fortunate that I make electronic music,” says Moldover. “I play guitar and create vocals live, but have set up a very simple way that I can record my guitar and vocals into Abelton Live and have that loop over backing tracks. Then I walk to the back of the venue, hear what the live mix sounds like, and adjust from there.”

Even if you’re more of a guitar finger-picking wizard than a live mashup guru, using a similar strategy can help. “Having some sort of looping device, or any other playback device that represents exactly what the sound will be like when you’re playing live can help,” says Moldover. “That way you can jump back and forth and dial in the sound that you need.”

Seddon agrees, adding that any calibrated sound source that you’re intimately familiar with — whether it be a CD or demo program on your keyboard — can help you figure out what aspects of your sound system need to be tweaked.

Seddon adds that, like much in the music world, practice makes perfect. “For me, my calibrated sound source is my voice, and I do the same thing every time — ‘Check, one two, hey hey.’ It’s pretty standard, but I’ve done it a gazillion times. I can tell right away what the sound system is doing or not doing and what needs to be adjusted. It’s always important to just listen.”

Use signal processing, carefully
Once you have your volume levels set, equalization can play a big role in getting your sound as clear, warm, and powerful as you need it to be. “The shape and size of the room you’re playing in can give lots of color to your live mix, either drowning out or exposing different things,” says Moldover. “The only big changes I make in contexts like those would be adjusting bass, either to turn it down in a bass-heavy room or to amp it up a bit in a room that swallows bass frequencies. I also sometimes notch out a frequency that’s really harsh if the sound system is really cheap.”

There are many different schools of thought when it comes to equalization, says Seddon, but he advises to keep everything simple. “Don’t make huge adjustments unless you have to,” he says. “Your three priorities should be, in order, setting the EQ to avoid feedback, then tuning the PA to fit the room, and then tweaking the sound to improve musicality.”

When it comes to effects like echo or reverb, Moldover simply advises that you use them sparingly, and turn them down if vocals, or other key elements, get drowned out. “If you start getting heavily into effects like dramatic EQ or compression, it’s likely to cause feedback,” he says. “Really, you should stay focused on correcting the big problems, like if the left channel is out of phase with the right channel, which makes everything sound completely messed up. You’d be surprised how many systems have a problem like that.”

Stay cool
Moldover advises that one of the most important keys to a great-sounding show has little to do with wires and circuits and everything to do with attitude. “Regardless of who you’re working with — sound engineer, house concert organizer, promoter, bartender — having a good personal rapport is probably going to influence the sound and quality of your show more than you might realize,” he says. “Be nice to whoever has control.”

“Musicians in particular tend to be perfectionists about sound,” continues Seddon. “It’s something you work hard on and it’s easy to get emotional about it. Given that, it’s always key to remember that things never sound better when people get upset.” Regardless of how many obstacles or technical difficulties you encounter, Seddon advises, keep your cool. “Staying level headed and treating others with respect, no matter what the circumstances, always helps,” he says.

Listen
When not working with Live Sound Inc., Seddon also serves as Technical Director for the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in Troy, New York, a 1,200-seat venue built in 1875 and renowned for its acoustics. His work there has taught him a thing or two about managing live sound for any type of music.

“Long before amplifiers were invented, musicians would listen to the sound of a room, and not just the sound of themselves,” he says. “At Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, we support both orchestral performances and contemporary acts. An important part of my job is to help the contemporary acts adapt to the more lively acoustic space.”

It’s extremely valuable, Seddon continues, for musicians to train themselves to pay attention to more than what’s coming out of their monitors when they’re on stage. “If you can live with less monitor volume, you can hear what’s going on out in the room and sometimes you can adjust your performance to the benefit of everyone,” he says. “If you’re a hardcore metal act, it’s harder, obviously — though there are some even in that genre who do listen to the house. You just get used to it.”

Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download now through iTunes, jam along with the new JamBandit app, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.

Recording Live Music

Read More
Recording Your Live Gig, Pt. 1
Help the soundman get you a great live music mix
Get a Great Live Mix – Eight Ways to Take Control of Your Live Sound
Ditch the pre-show performance jitters
Improving Your Music Performance Starts With a Vision

16 thoughts on “Get a great live mix – eight ways to take control of your live sound

  1. Good article with some great advice and ideas. I am lucky to be part of the live performances here in my home town as well as on the road and I get the calls when a venue has an issue with live sound. You are right, you never know what you’re going to run into. I fell lucky that venues and bands give me the call when they have equipment issues or need help on stage. There is no business like live sound.

  2. I like to position the system for good coverage of the room, then connect a signal generator (with a frequency counter) to the board and run through the frequency spectrum, adjusting the EQs until all frequencies SOUND equal (I’ve never liked the results of an automatic noise generating calibrator). I find that once I have a good spectral balance (approximately A-weighted in this case) in the system and room (including a separate tuning session for the monitor system), I have very few feedback problems. Yes, now and then you find a speaker or mic with a resonant later that you have to pull down at one frequency, but those are generally few and minimal.

    I had a vocalist that had performed in hundreds of rooms and numerous system setups, do a warm up in a room I set up this way, intentionally point a hot mic at a hot monitor 2 feet away and got no feedback – and said “how’d you do that?” (and no, I did not have a feedback eliminator connected 😉 ).

    Spectral balance goes a long way. (Yes, doing this very thoroughly can take more time than the schedule often allows, but with practice, you can fit it in fairly quickly right after initial setup.)

  3. …I must say that having been playing live not long after the so-called “British Invasion” as a part-
    time career while in the Army,this one critical and quite accurate article is far and away perhaps
    in it’s own way a fantastic “Boy Scout”-like guide that took a LOT of us “old-schoolers” a LONG
    time to learn and cling to,at least for the most part!!!…although,in my own humble opinion,most of
    the great info WILL stick with you,no matter how long your Creator allows you the true feel of the
    instrument of your choice,and will NEVER leave you,no matter how many bands you’ve already
    been a part of,now or in the future!!!-you’ll get MORE pleasure by not overpowering your loyal
    and perhaps new fans,and concentrating MUCH more on your “volume discipline”-yep,I said an
    ugly word-discipline!!!…and,even if you don’t take my word for it,then just give it a TRY at your
    very next gig!!!-too cool!!!…

  4. My basic take for bands is…if you have any sense at all, hire a consultant for a few hours to set up your system right and at least then you have a reference. Reference being THE most important thing to have and the thIng very few actually have.

  5. I’ve been doing my own sound for acts I’ve played in and also done sound for large festivals for over 50 years.

    Darn near everything you really need to know is in this fine article!

    Pay CLOSE attention to the “Stay Cool” section!

  6. I would say when setting up your own system the most important thing might be aiming the speakers correctly. That would seem to eliminate many of the problems discussed. Obviously stage monitors are going to be close to the performer so coverage area is actually more important than volume. Plus if they sound good they don’t need to be as loud.

  7. Music Halls like that were designed centuries ago. The best help for those rooms are proper booking of acts that are quiet enough to not excite the room to much.
    Wouldn’t you ask the house engineer if any fear was not working before making a blanket assumption that..”nothing works?”
    I would want a system tuned and balanced BEFORE I eq’ed to eliminate feedback!
    More later…..

  8. Good points made here. I especially enjoyed his treatment of “the room”. Learning to listen to the room is essential in the long term. When I started in the club scene back in the 70s, we had no monitors, so you had to develop an ear for what it sounded like “out there”. In time, you can judge how you’re coming across to the audience, and also, how to shape the sound from the stage, if need be.
    BTW – the Troy Music Hall is one of the best live music venues around. I heard the Great Guitar series there around 1978 and the sound was incredible. Mike Seddon, you lucky dog! 🙂

  9. Great article. I’ve found over the years that each hall has its headroom limit. Driving the sound level beyond that just creates mush. Better always has been to listen to the hall before soundcheck, let the band do a song check without the mains, and during that check, then bring things in enough to fill the hall warmly, giving the vocals priority, which also allows more room for the melodic instruments. Then ride as needed during the show. Sometimes only a tiny bit open is needed on each instrument, to give the FOH mix balance and depth. Use effects per show programming and keep it simple!

    The vocals are crucial to a good performance. One mix I did at a local venue, the band was loud and balanced enough, that I backed off all the mics except the lead vocal and just the tiniest bit of kick. The mix was perfect, and the band never knew. The owner came up to me after the show and said, “That’s the best f&*#ing sound I ever heard!”

  10. It’s so much work that sometimes you just want to throw things around just relieve stress. Hopefully nobody actually does that, but trying to work with defective hardware is so annoying.

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