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Cheap Advice On Live Sound
48 Tips To Make Your Band Sound Better
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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.

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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 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

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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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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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Mini-Tip: Use Your PA’s EQ For Vocal Clarity

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Whether your band uses a standard mixer feeding a power amp or an “all in one” powered mixer as your PA system, you have a fair amount of control over the sound that emerges from the unit. The most powerful of the mixer controls (besides the gain!) are undoubtedly the EQ knobs. Every PA system has at least “bass” and “treble” controls, and many add a third “mid-range” knob. In a few cases, the frequency that the mid-range control boosts or cuts is even settable!

In my work with Rusty Strings, I use the mixer EQ knobs for two main purposes. The first is to compensate for the bass boost that occurs due to the “proximity effect” when a singer gets very close to the microphone. When I see that this is about to happen, I drop the bass EQ for the appropriate channel, and the vocal sounds normal. Later, when the singer backs off, I restore the flat bass setting.

The second, and perhaps more important, purpose for my use of EQ is to make sure that the lyrics are clearly intelligible. Depending on the microphone and the singer’s distance or angle, the resulting vocals sometimes become a bit “muddy,” making the lyrics difficult to pick out. In this case, a slight boost in the treble EQ, or at the high end of the mid-range control, puts that “snap” back into the sound - and I can hear all the words!

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

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