tips on songwriting pictureGreetings from the Cheap Advice Guy! This site features articles about songwriting, home recording, and live sound, all based on my own experience of several decades of writing and recording songs, seven years of on-location recording, and seven years of running live sound.

The most recent articles are posted below. Check out the master list to the right for articles on other topics of interest!

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48 Tips To Make Your Band Sound Better
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Drums Too Big And Loud? Use A Cajón!

Live Sound No Comments

According to Wikipedia, a cajón (pronounced ca-HONE) is a “box-shaped percussion instrument originally from Peru, played by slapping the front face (generally thin plywood) with the hands.” (This is, of course, not to be confused with the Spanish anatomical term cojones, which is a different matter entirely.)

As I mentioned in an earlier article, my band Acoustic Steel has been playing a series of acoustic gigs in a small restaurant, and our drummer had to scale down his drum set pretty drastically in order to fit. Instead of bringing a subset of his set, so to speak, he decided to just use a cajón instead. (He is named Alan, so of course he wound up with the nickname “Al Cajón”!)

The particular cajón Alan uses is from Pearl, and has snares behind the striking surface and a resonant bass port in the back for the bass sounds. By using hard and soft strikes on various parts of the striking surface, he is able to coax many varied sounds and beats out of this little crate! We usually mic the rear port and run it through the PA to emphasize the “bottom end”. In addition, positioning the cajón within a foot or so of a hard surface will boost the bass level heard in the room.

(One side effect of this acquisition is that Alan now has the lightest “load-in” of any of us, instead of the heaviest. Of course, when we play “electric”, it’s back to the Big Kit!)

For more information on this instrument, I refer you once again to the Wikipedia article on the subject. Verrrry interesting! And economical.


Consider a Portable PA System For Smaller Gigs

Live Sound No Comments

Acoustic Steel, the band I play keyboard in, owns a full PA system (mixer, power amplifier, main speakers, monitor speakers), and we normally set the whole system up when we arrive at a gig, unless it’s one of those places that already has a PA system in place. Being a six-piece band with several multi-instrumentalists, it can take us quite awhile to get the whole thing up and running. In fact, it seems to me that setting up a fully functional sound system for a band of that size in under two hours is actually more of an accomplishment than mastering and playing our music!

We recently began hosting weekly “Open Mic” events at a local restaurant, which means that we play a couple of mini-sets interspersed with sets from bold volunteer players (and a few comedians). We quickly realized the need to downsize both the band’s “musical footprint” and its PA system to match the venue, which is quite small compared to the clubs and parties where we usually play. For example, our drummer uses a cajon at the Open Mic shows, and all of the guitars are acoustics. We run the bass and keyboard straight through the PA, to save space on the “stage”. And, we got a smaller, portable PA system.

Read the rest…


Mini-Tip: Get a Good Location For the Sound Board

Live Sound No Comments

One issue you must face before you can start setting up before a gig is “Where should we put the mixing table?” Sometimes you won’t have a choice, because the venue provides a booth or designated table that they want you to use.  Sometimes they already have a sound system set up, and it is where it is.  But if you do have some flexibility in the location, here are the key points:

A.  Make sure you can hear the band from the mixing position.

There may very well be “hot spots”, especially in bars and clubs, where the crowd is louder than the band! Don’t mix from there.

B.  Make sure you can see the band.

If you can find a place with a good view of everyone in the band, use it. Sometimes you can see what’s causing a problem and figure out how to fix it.

C.  Think about the cabling.

Don’t even think of running cables anywhere people are walking!

D.  Don’t block the view.

Make sure your terrific sound position isn’t in someone else’s way.

[An expanded version of this Mini-Tip appears in my eBook Cheap Advice On Live Sound.]


Big Band? Use Multiple Monitor Mixes

Live Sound No Comments

For a three-piece acoustic act, a single monitor speaker might be enough to provide adequate stage sound for everyone in the band. A fancy (or widely spaced) setup might need two or even three monitors to do the job. These are normally all driven by the same signal, with the mix determined by the sound man at the FOH (Front-Of-House) position.

But when your band grows from four, to five, to six members and beyond, you are going to need a lot of monitor speakers. (Anyone who has worked with a six-piece or larger band is already familiar with the concept of a lot of equipment.)

It turns out that as the band grows, the need for different monitor mixes for different band members grows with it. It may be a matter of a performer properly hearing her counterpart who happens to be on the other side of the stage and can’t hear her over the general din either. Or someone playing a specialized instrument may need to hear specific cues from specific other players to stay in sync. In any case, here’s an easy way to set up a pair of independent onstage monitor mixes using equipment you are probably already using or have on hand.

Read the rest…


Connecting Multiple Speakers to a PA System

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In the simplest PA system setup possible, you would have a power amplifier with one speaker output connector and you would connect one speaker to it. Boom. Done. Some power amplifiers have two independent speaker output connectors. In this case you could connect one speaker to each connector. Again, boom. And twice the sound!

But what if you need to connect more than one speaker to a single speaker output connector on your power amplifier or powered mixer? If you have just a single speaker output, it would be nice to be able to connect two speakers to it, one for each side of the stage. Even if you have two independent speaker outputs available, you still might want to have an additional speaker or two further back in the audience, in addition to the two “mains” flanking the stage.

But where do we connect the additional speaker(s)?

Read the rest…


Making Your CD’s Song Titles Appear In iTunes

Home Recording No Comments

So you finally finished recording enough songs for a CD of your music. Or maybe your band has accumulated enough decent live recordings to collect onto a “Promo CD” to show off the band. You’ve burned the CD and made a few copies, you’ve even printed up some cover art. Wow! You’re ready to roll. Or are you?

If this were 1997, hey, you would be good to go. But as they say, that was then, this is now. Now, the very fact that you are putting your music on a CD is considered somewhat retro! Most people will either play your CD on a laptop or other computer or, more likely, they will import it into iTunes, where your songs will get mixed in with all the songs by Arcade Fire or Jefferson Airplane or whatever they have on there.

Here’s the problem. When you first pop your home-burned CD into your MacBook, iTunes comes up, ready to import. But what are these song titles it’s showing? Instead of “Dreams Of Saskatchewan”, the first song seems to be called “Track 01″. The second song is “Track 02″, that’s not right either. They’re all like that!

What’s more, if you put your CD into a regular CD player, perhaps in your car or home theater system (remember, DVD players will play CDs), it will not display the song titles like it does when you put in the latest Jack White CD. How could it? You haven’t told it what they are!

The fact is, if you don’t do something about this, the appeal of your CD could be greatly reduced, especially for habitual downloaders. So, you’re saying, how can I get the correct song titles to appear when I import my CD under iTunes or play it in a player?

Read the rest…


Make A Cheap Music Video Of Your Band

Home Recording No Comments

This is the story of how a really cool music video got made on a very low budget. It all began with the first CD of original songs by Rusty Strings, the band I run sound for, called Please Stay Tuned. The band asked me to do the cover art for the CD, and the design concept I came up with involved having the band photographed striking the same onstage pose repeatedly, but in five different outfits: formal wear, winter coats, Hawaiian gear, super-casual, and bathrobes. For some reason they went along with this idea!

Since the band would be posing on a stage for the CD art anyway, we decided to take advantage of the situation and shoot video of them lip-syncing to one of their songs in the various outfits. Luckily, we had access to a local coffeehouse with an actual stage from 8 AM to 1 PM on one August Sunday, time enough to go through the song twice in each outfit, with two video cameras running continuously during each pass. The band hammed it up, lip-syncing to the version of the song that would be on the video, while the camera operators shot a variety of long shots and closeups of the various band members. It was fun!

Read the rest…


Using Wikipedia For Concept Album Ideas

Songwriting No Comments

Despite the emphasis on individual songs and personal playlists these days, I and other old-timers still like the idea of an album, not just one song but a set of songs, put on a record or CD in a certain order and meant to be heard straight through from beginning to end (Shuffle Mode “off”). But let’s face it. This is not the way most people listen to music nowadays!

Even today, though, there is a place for multi-song suites that illuminate different aspects of a songwriter’s personality or different parts of a story that takes an album to tell. Sure, such a work demands more of the listener, but there are listeners out there who want to be challenged a bit. Right?

I have written before about the enjoyment I get from conceiving, writing and recording sets of songs with a specific theme or story, yes, those long-form works known as “concept albums”. (See, for example, my article Mini-Tip: Write and Record A Concept Album!) I have picked up ideas for concept albums from movies, novels I’ve read, and the lives of historical figures. I use plot points in the movie or story or significant events in the life of my human subject as springboards for songwriting. It makes it MUCH easier for me to write a decent song when I start out with something specific (but not too specific) to build on.

Read the rest…


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