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.
Have you ever considered getting one of those multi-effects boxes to play your guitar through in your studio? If you play guitar and you don’t have one of these units in your studio you are like, so totally missing out! This podcast tries to convince you to buy a multi-effects box, using a Digitech RP100 (pictured) to demonstrate some of the many cool sounds you can get out of one crummy electric guitar (mine, in this case)!
Those of us who record and mix music in our home studios have become quite familiar with the use of effects like reverb and delay, usually applied during mixing, to enhance the sound of the basic recorded tracks and to help the pieces of the mix “fit together” properly.But what if the band is playing live, using a PA system, instead of laying down tracks in the studio?Do we really need to bring along our whole arsenal of studio effects?
A key difference between the live situation and the studio situation is that a PA system, where the live effects would be added, is generally used mostly or entirely for vocals (see my article Using Onstage Amps vs. Playing Through the PA for some thoughts about using the PA for instruments as well as vocals), whereas in the studio, every instrument and vocal, even the drums, can have effects added.
Another reason to focus primarily on vocal effects in a live situation is that the instruments typically have effects added to them before they get to the PA.I am thinking of the “stomp boxes” or multi-effect units that guitarists often insert between the guitar and the amp, and the built-in effects that most keyboards make available.All this means that when we talk about PA effects, we are basically talking about vocal effects.
Most songs we write and record have instruments and/or vocals, but nothing else. Let’s face it, the most exotic sound on most of our recordings is a tambourine. This is not necessarily a Bad Thing. After all, “instruments and/or vocals” takes in a pretty wide range, from Gregorian Chant to Smooth R&B and everything in between! But every now and then, just for the sheer novelty value, you ought to consider using some kind of sound effects in one of your songs.
Some songs, like “Yellow Submarine” by the Beatles, are positively filled with scene-setting sound effects. Birds twitter throughout “Blackbird” by the same band. More recently, digital mixmeister Beck and others have combined “found sounds” and other effects with musical samples to create audio collages in their songs. Of course, this is a technique where a little bit can go a long way. There’s no need to overdo it!
As a songwriter, you can specify what sound effects will be heard when by adding notations like (alarm clock here) to your lyrics sheet, or at least having a firm idea of what specific effects will be used where as you write the song. In this case, the effects would be considered part of the song. Alternatively, you can wait until you have your Producer hat on and decide whether and where to add sound effects when you mix the song. Here, the effects would be considered part of the arrangement. Read the rest…
Among the many decisions we face when mixing a typical song, one of the most important is what effects, if any, we are going to add to the recorded tracks.In particular, the addition of artificial reverb to one or more of the vocal parts can have a big impact on how that vocal sounds in the final mix.In this article, I will use one of my own songs to demonstrate the result of adding reverb to lead and/or backup vocals.
Let me start with some general advice about using reverb.To begin with, I recommend that you record the vocals “dry,” with no reverb, to give yourself maximum flexibility at mixing time.You don’t want to get locked in to a reverb setting that sounded great during recording but now doesn’t “go” with the rest of the mix.(Note that I would put plenty of reverb on the vocal monitor signal you send to the artist - it’s a real confidence builder.Just don’t record the reverb.)
My second tip is to make your reverb adjustments for individual vocals and instruments while listening to the full mix.When setting reverb, it is always tempting to “solo” the vocal or instrument in question (i.e. listen to it by itself) to see how the reverb sounds. The fact is, it doesn’t matter how it sounds with the instrument alone, since that’s not the way it will be heard!Every reverb adjustment, whether to level, duration, or color, should be made in the context of the full mix.(After you get it perfect, then listen to each source alone if you want, but I’m warning you.Some will sound “wrong.”Don’t you go “fixing” them!)
We spend a lot of time in our studios avoiding distortion. Watching the gain structure, making sure we aren’t clipping, using compressors and limiters to put the kibosh on high-level transients. But could there ever be a time when distortion would be good? And how do you get it if you want it?
Of course, we know that distortion can be good. Techno and industrial music use a lot of distorted keyboard-type sounds. We’ve all heard of distortion pedals for guitar. But what about distorted vocals? Or piano? Harmonica? In this age where every sound is sampled and twisted by someone, it shouldn’t seem too strange to add distortion to your music in unexpected ways.
Normally, you want to record a clean signal on the actual track, then add effects to it at mixing time. That way you can change your mind about which effect to use and how much of it to apply. If the track had been recorded with a lot of reverb already on it, there is no way to remove the reverb if you decide you don’t like it while you’re mixing the song.
As it turns out, distortion is actually easier to add while you are recording. Your options for adding distortion at mixing time are fairly limited, requiring an internal or external effects unit with one or more distortion settings (no doubt intended for use on guitar tracks) set up in a send-return loop. This “electronic” distortion, based on a digital algorithm, will sound different (and probably less satisfying) than the warmer “overload” distortion you can get from overdriving one of the input stages during recording. Read the rest…