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Cheap Advice On Live Sound
48 Tips To Make Your Band Sound Better
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Mini-Tip: Use Dynamic Mics Onstage

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When your band starts looking into microphones to use onstage, one thing you will notice right away is that there are two kinds of mics in wide use: dynamic mics and condenser mics. Condenser mics tend to be more expensive (sometimes much more expensive), and their sensitivity and frequency-response specs tend to be better than their dynamic brethren. So, you might assume, we should get condenser mics to use at our live shows if we can possibly afford them. Well, in my opinion, no. Dynamic mics are the way to go. Here’s why.

1. They are more rugged. Condenser mics are sort of “studio sissies” that don’t take well to being dropped, stepped on, etc.

2. They are less sensitive. Onstage, super-sensitive condenser mics can aggravate leakage and feedback problems.

3. They are cheaper. You can get Shure SM58s for vocals and SM57s for instruments for around $100 each.

Save the high-priced jobbies for the studio. For the real world, get yourself some dynamic mics!

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

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Use Sound Effects In Your Live Shows!

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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.

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Give Your Sound Man A Proper Set List!

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In the band I run sound for, Rusty Strings, there are three singers and two lead instruments, namely guitar and keyboard (the keyboard player also plays flute on some songs). Each different combination of lead vocalist, harmony vocalist, backup singers, and lead part(s) calls for a slightly different mixer setup: turn Singer 1 up and Singer 2 down for this song, get ready to bring up the keyboard solo in the middle, and so on.

For me, it is vital to at least know what the next song is so that I can preset the mixer appropriately for it during the prolonged applause for the song the band just finished playing. Having a simple list of songs may be enough if the sound man really, really knows the band’s songs and arrangements. But even then, it’s nice to have something beyond just a list of titles to go on. If the sound man is unfamiliar with the band, it’s even more important to provide a proper set list. OK, what would be a proper set list look like? I’m glad you asked!

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Send Out A “Sound Scout” To Check Your Mix

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The best place for a band’s sound man (or woman) to sit is right in the middle of the audience. (That’s where you see them at Rolling Stones concerts and the like.) If the sound man hears exactly what the audience is hearing, he can adjust the sound until it sounds good to him, confident that it will sound good to the audience as well. But how often does the sound man sit with the audience?

From my experience as the sound man for Rusty Strings, the answer is “hardly never.” I have been way off to the side. I have been right up front, right next to one of the main speakers. I have even been onstage with the band! None of these are optimal positions for creating the best sound for the people who are actually listening to the music.

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Use an “Anchor Fader” When Mixing Sound

Home Recording, Live Sound 2 Comments

Here’s a mixing tip that applies to both home recording and live sound. With both types of mixing, your mission is to establish and maintain a balance of levels for the various instruments and vocals, while keeping the mixer controls set somewhere close to their “normal” positions. Specifically, the volume faders should never end up all toward the bottom or all toward the top of their range, as this indicates a problem with gain structure, which can result in noise and/or distortion in your final output.

Why would this happen? In a typical scenario, you start out with all the mixer faders at the default “0″ point, i.e. about 3/4 of the way up. (This is accomplished by adjusting the mixer’s Input Trim controls for each channel so that each input produces a “0″ peak reading on the output meter with its channel fader set to the “0″ point.) Then you set the mixer’s Master Volume control to produce a suitable sound level through the onstage speakers (or through your home-studio monitors). Everything looks great. Then the music starts.

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Solo Performers: Use Recorded Backing Tracks

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I don’t suppose anyone reading this remembers The Perry Como Show, a musical variety program that ran in various forms on NBC-TV during the 50s and early 60s. Perry Como was a Bing Crosby-like crooner who enjoyed immense worldwide popularity in those years. I remember watching his show from time to time back when I was about 9 or 10 years old.

At the beginning of each show I saw, Como would sit in what looked like an ordinary living room and perform an opening song. Now, here’s why I’m telling you all this. Before he started singing, he would turn and lift the tone arm of a phonograph on the table next to him and then drop the needle on the opening grooves of a record. Music would swell, and Perry would croon. That’s right, he sang along with a record, karaoke style!

At the time, I couldn’t figure out why he did this, but later I realized that it was a clever artifice to gloss over the fact that Como’s singing was accompanied by lush orchestration despite the lack of any actual musicians visible on the set. (Earlier versions of show had featured a live orchestra, but by the time I was watching it they were apparently down to just a record player.)

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Should We Run Our PA System In Mono Or Stereo?

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We’ve all gotten used to hearing recorded music in stereo by now. Only real old-timers (like me) can remember when all records were mono and a “hi-fi” system only needed one speaker. Stereo arrived in the mid-60s, and following a brief period when each record was available in separate mono and stereo versions, often with very different mixes (see Pepper, Sgt.), we finally reached the point where all records, all cassettes, all CDs are now in stereo.

Lots of bands that play live have PA systems with two main speakers. Since home stereo systems also have two speakers on the left and right, the question arises, should we create a stereo mix of the PA signals to play through the “stereo” PA speakers? My answer is basically no, but before I go into why, let’s quickly review exactly what stereo is in the first place. (Audio engineers can skip the next section.)

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A Basic Live Sound Setup Diagram

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You know what they say about a picture and a thousand words. Well then, I have about two thousand words’ worth for you in this article!

I sometimes get e-mails from people who are uncertain about what components are part of a typical live sound setup, or exactly how to hook them up. Instead of trying to describe all the interconnections that are commonly involved, I decided to draw up a diagram (two, actually) of the setup that Rusty Strings, the band I run sound for, uses for their live shows.

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