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Cheap Advice On Live Sound
48 Tips To Make Your Band Sound Better
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Use Floor Pads To Minimize Feedback At Live Shows

Live Sound No Comments

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!

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Where Should Our PA Speakers Be Placed?

Live Sound 3 Comments

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.

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Use Your DAW Software To “Assemble” A Song

Home Recording, Songwriting 1 Comment

In the Ancient Days, the only way to record a song was to get your guitar (or whatever) ready, hit the “Record” button and simply play the entire song straight through. If you wanted additional instruments or vocals, you listened to the existing tracks as you recorded those new parts, playing straight through the whole song each time.

The capability of “punching in” new material to fix weak passages in an otherwise great part began to break this pattern, but you were still basically playing (or singing) the song all the way through every time you put on a new instrument or vocal.

With the current-day DAW software that so many of us use (GarageBand, Logic, Cubase, etc.), you can still record a song this way if you want to. But, the amazing editing capabilities of even the simplest of these software packages allow you to take your creativity down paths that simply never existed before.

As an example, let me lead you through the process I followed to create a song that was never played all the way through by anybody, but rather was “assembled” from selected bits of previously recorded musical parts.

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Use Different Scales To Create Unique Melodies

Songwriting No Comments

The subject of scales and musical modes is complex, and deserves an entire article or book chapter to cover it properly.  (For example, Wikipedia offers this lengthy discussion of musical modes.)  But you don’t have to understand this rather arcane subject in any depth at all to take advantage of it in your songwriting.  Let me walk you through a quick (well, fairly quick) exercise that may just open your eyes.  (For best results, follow along on a piano or keyboard.)

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Q&A: Achieving Stereo “Fullness”

Home Recording 2 Comments

Dear Cheap Advice Guy,
I’m trying to do a simple pan. I laid out 3 tracks with the entire song on each track. I put one track to the left, one to the right, and one in the center. When I listened to it on my home receiver it sounded no different than before. I first listened to the song with it only in the center. Then I mixed the 3 tracks with one in the center, one 100% left and one 100% right. There was barely a difference! I heard more sounds coming out of my left and right speaker when I rendered it with it in the center only. Why is there barely any difference?
I just want to make my music sound a little more full. I’m finding out this is not as simple as I hoped it would be.
Puzzled Songwriter

Dear Puzzled,

Thanks for getting in touch. And don’t despair! Your idea for expanding your single-track song by panning copies left and right is spot-on. All you are missing is one concept and some techniques. (It’s not that common to have a song on a single track, but everything I will discuss applies to individual tracks as well.)

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Use Your Laptop As A Synthesizer - Live!

Live Sound 3 Comments

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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Use Velcro To Keep Your Gear In Place

Home Recording 1 Comment

OK, I admit it: I tend to be compulsively neat. Not to the point of mania, mind you, but I do like to tie up my cables in a harness, arrange my gear neatly, and replace my guitar strings in alphabetical order. (OK, I was kidding about that last one.)

Just as duct tape is a key tool for repairing all manner of things, for me those little Velcro squares you see in office supply departments are a “magic” solution to keeping small items in place that otherwise tend to go astray and become part of what recording engineers call “a big tangle of cables and stuff.”

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Mini-Tip: Use Dynamic Mics Onstage

Live Sound No Comments

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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