Use Sound Effects In Your Live Shows!October 23, 2009 6:00 am Live Sound
Here’s an easy way to put some “zing” into your live shows and to make your band stand out from the crowd. Liven things up and create a cool mood with sound effects! All you need is a spare mixer input, a portable mp3 player loaded with sound-effect files, and a sound man (or at least a sound effects man) to work the player for you, and you’re ready to go.
By the way, when I say “sound effects,” I am not limiting myself to sounds like doors creaking or alarm clocks going off, as cool as these can be. In the live-sound context, a “sound effect” could also be an ambient recording of a city street. It could be a spoken-word mashup of some kind. It could even be music! Maybe I should call them “auxiliary sounds” or something. But now you know what I’m talking about.
There are three main aspects to this idea: (1) What sound effects should we use, and when? (2) Where do we get these sound effect files? and (3) How do we hook up the mp3 player to the mixer? Let’s take these questions on one at a time.
Possible times to play your sound effects, or “auxiliary sounds,” include:
• Before the show
• Between sets
• After the show
• Between songs
• During songs
A lot of bands already play “auxiliary sounds” before and after the show and between sets, usually in the form of a CD player playing store-bought CDs. Or, they may just revert to the venue’s sound system and take whatever they get by way of background music. But why couldn’t you (i.e. the band) record your own CD of ambient sound or “in between music” or whatever, then play that CD before, between, and after? You could craft some sort of creative introduction that would “set the stage” for your first set much better than some random CD. Let your imagination go on this one!
You can also use auxiliary sounds to bridge the awkward “between songs gap” that plagues so many bands. Nothing kills the momentum of your set faster than three minutes of tuning, random riffing, and incomprehensible intra-band badinage between songs. Why not put on an actual show and have nifty soundscapes linking at least some of the songs in the set? Don’t give the audience’s attention any opportunity to flag! If you could link all of the songs in a set with auxiliary-sound bridges, the result could be a seamless 40-minute performance that would amaze everyone.
During a song, you may want to play that ambient street recording during some lyrics about city life. Or you might want a snippet of The Star-Spangled Banner to suddenly emerge when you mention the flag. Who knows? Again, use your imagination!
The best place to get sounds like doors creaking and alarm clocks is on sound-effect CDs from your local public library. (My library has dozens of these CDs.) And of course you can always go online and download The Star-Spangled Banner, as well as a lot of other music, samples, and sounds.
But the coolest, most apropos soundscapes and auxiliary sounds will be those you record yourself. Modern laptops have microphones and recording software built in, or someone in the band might have one of those portable digital recorders. With tools like these, you can make the most amazing recordings to become part of your live show! Record the ocean. Record the applause at a sporting event. Record a party. And so on. Then incorporate these audio elements into your show!
To make this work, you will need to connect the headphone output of the mp3 player (or portable CD player) to a spare input on your live-sound mixer. This raises two issues: (1) the headphone output is stereo (i.e. two channels), whereas the mixer input is mono (one channel), and (2) the headphone output is a 1/8″ mini-socket and the mixer input is probably an XLR connector or a 1/4″ phone jack.
To eliminate the need for a stereo-to-mono conversion, always make and use mono sound effects, i.e. ones in which the left and right channels are the same. This way you can use just one side (or the other) of the headphone output and still get the full effect.
To make the connection to the mixer, use an inexpensive adapter cable like this one if you only have a 1/4″ input on your mixer:
(You can use either of the 1/4″ plugs, since with mono sound effects the two signals are the same.)
Or better yet, use an adapter cable like this one to go into the mixer on an XLR connector:
(Note that in this cable, the left and right channels from the 1/8″ stereo plug are combined into a single-channel mono XLR connection, meaning that you can use this cable to play back stereo sound effects in mono.)
Once the cable is hooked up, set the Trim knob on the mixer to its “Line” (least sensitive) position to avoid initial overload. Some experimentation with the mp3 player’s volume control and the mixer’s Trim knob will lead you to the combination that minimizes the distortion and the noise. (I would start with the mp3 player volume 60-70% of the way up and the Trim all the way down and go from there.)
Once the optimal settings have been determined, all that remains is to locate someone who will work the mp3 player, playing the desired sound files at just the right times. Then hit the stage!Tags: effects, live mixing -->