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Cheap Advice On Live Sound
48 Tips To Make Your Band Sound Better
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This is the real deal. You get 48 full-length articles from the Cheap Advice Guy covering all aspects of setting up and running a live sound system for a band.

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Drums Too Big And Loud? Use A Cajón!

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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.

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Consider a Portable PA System For Smaller Gigs

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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…

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

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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.]

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Big Band? Use Multiple Monitor Mixes

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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…

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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…

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Use Floor Pads To Minimize Feedback At Live Shows

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This summer Rusty Strings, the band I run sound for, had one of their strangest gigs ever! It was a reunion-style party, held in a park-like setting featuring a good-sized pond with an island in the middle of it. Here’s the strange part: the band was set up on a covered wooden dock/pier projecting into the pond, and the “audience” was partying on the mid-pond island, several hundred yards from the “stage”. I hope they could hear the band way over there, since we could barely hear them. And they were pretty loud!

Anyway, my topic today is not the weird gig where the band played on a dock (and yes, they did play “Dock Of the Bay”!). My topic today deals with the problems we had with setting up the sound system in this unique location. One problem was that the sheer distance to the audience, plus the fact that we were outdoors, required us to turn the two main speakers WAY up, thus flirting with distortion at those moments when everyone was playing. (See my article Playing Outdoor Gigs: What’s the Difference? for some tips about outdoor shows.)

A much worse problem, though, was our inability to turn the vocal monitor speakers up far enough to be useful (i.e. audible to the singers) without producing howls of feedback from the three vocal mics. We repositioned the speakers, we repositioned the mics, we did all the things you do in this situation, but still the feedback came. Then we discovered what the real problem was!

Read the rest…

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Where Should Our PA Speakers Be Placed?

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When I run sound for Rusty Strings, we use a PA setup featuring two identical “main” speakers (on stands, with the drivers about six feet up), which we position somewhat arbitrarily to the left and right of the playing area, facing the audience. Wherever we first put them, that’s where they stay.

This procedure usually works OK, which is a good thing too, since we rarely get a sound check (unless you count the first two or three songs as a “sound check”) and we are pretty much stuck with the sound we have as the show begins.

Recently, we had an opportunity to play in a small performance space attached to a record store, where we were able to set up and check the sound during the afternoon, then come back for the evening show with everything ready to go. What a luxury! I knew that some tweaks would be necessary once the throngs of Rusty fans (and their bodies) filled the sonic space, but that would be nothing compared to “flying blind” in our usual manner.

Sure enough, thanks to the afternoon sound check it was one of our best-sounding shows ever! As it turned out, determining the best position and orientation for the main speaker (only one was needed for the small venue) was, I believe, what made the difference in the sound that night. Based on what we observed, I would offer the following four rules for speaker placement, for use in those cases where you do have the luxury of a sound check.

Read the rest…

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Use Your Laptop As A Synthesizer - Live!

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If you use your laptop and your favorite recording software as the basis for your home studio (like I do), you are accustomed to the idea of playing your studio keyboard and recording the part as a MIDI track, giving you the flexibility of assigning a new voice to the already-played part right up to the time when you mix the song.

But has it occurred to you to use that same recording software to turn your MIDI-ready keyboard into a synthesizer with all the latest and greatest voices that you could play as part of a live show? Me neither! (Until recently.) Here’s how to do it.

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