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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!

Read the rest…

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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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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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At the Gig: Five Ways To Avoid Feedback

Live Sound No Comments

One of the worst events that can befall a band during a show, aside from actual injury to any of its members, is to have a screeching blast of feedback suddenly deafen the audience, sending the band’s approval rating spiraling downward. If there is a sound man, he’ll probably get the blame, although as we’ll see, it might not be his fault!

Feedback can come through either the main speakers or the monitors, although in my experience it is more often the monitor speakers that feed back. (That way the band is briefly deafened too.) Usually, the microphones are behind the main speakers and the system isn’t running at the very edge of feeding back, but if these are not the case, you may be able to coax out some feedback from the mains as well as the monitors!

Back to basics for a mo: what is feedback, anyway? As the name implies, it results from speaker sound “feeding back” into (i.e. being heard by) one or more microphones that are running through that speaker. Round and round goes the sound. It’s like giving oats to a sick horse - you get the feed back. (I’ve been waiting to use that stupid joke since summer camp in 1962.) There are a number of steps that can be taken to minimize the possibility of this unfortunate menace. Here are five of them.

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Use Direct Connections For Onstage Instruments

Live Sound 3 Comments

When you are setting up a PA system for use at live shows, an important general rule is to minimize the number of onstage microphones. There are two reasons for this, both having to do with feedback between the microphones and the main or monitor speakers.

The first reason to minimize the number of microphones is to avoid unnecessary sources of feedback. Every “live” microphone onstage has the potential to cause feedback, the scourge of the sound man. (The audience won’t notice if the vocal balance is a tad off. They will notice feedback.) If you can replace just one instrument microphone with some kind of direct connection, that will eliminate one more potential source of feedback!

The second reason that fewer microphones are better is that you can apply more gain to each one before feedback begins to occur. Every microphone onstage will feed back if you turn its gain up high enough. The gain applied to each microphone contributes its own small part to bringing the whole system closer to the inevitable feedback point. If fewer microphones are involved, more of the potential gain-before-feedback is available for each, allowing them to be louder.

So how do you go about limiting the microphone count? Obviously, the main vocalist(s) will each need their own mikes, and there’s nothing you can do about that. If there happens to be a group of two or three backup singers, they might be able to share a mike instead of each having their own, but in general you are kind of stuck with “one microphone per vocal.”

If you are miking a drum set, which is somewhat uncommon in smallish venues, you could think about reducing the number of mikes here too, although the loudness of the drums means that the contribution of these mikes to overall system gain is likely to be relatively small anyway. (Overheads will probably end up contributing the most.)

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Recording Guitar and Vocal: Together Or Separate?

Home Recording No Comments

As the owner and sole employee of an on-location recording company, I am often asked to record someone playing acoustic guitar and singing. The question arises, should I record the guitar first and then overdub the vocal, studio style, or should I record both at once, concert style? Both are valid approaches, and which to use in a given situation depends on (a) performance factors, and (b) recording factors. Let’s look at the performance factors first.

Some artists strongly prefer playing and singing at the same time, wanting to capture an actual performance of the song. They may be unfamiliar with studio overdubbing techniques, or they may be accustomed to playing the song “live” and feel most comfortable just “banging it out.” Others are delighted to learn that they can record the guitar part first without having to worry about the vocal, then record the vocal without having to worry about the guitar. Or they may like the idea of sitting while playing the guitar, then standing up for the vocal part.

If the artist has a preference for one or the other approach, my suggestion is to do it the way that they are most comfortable with. You can get a good recording of the song either way, but the artist needs to be comfortable to “get in the zone” and deliver a good performance. Now, if they offer to leave it up to you which to use, I would suggest the studio-style overdubbing approach because of the additional flexibility it offers, both at recording and mixing time. Read the rest…

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Why take a chance? Use redundant miking!

Home Recording No Comments

If you needed to make a recording of, say, a person playing the piano, one possibility would be to locate a recording studio with a piano and have the recording made there. Chances are the studio staff has already experimented extensively with microphone selection and placement, and can quickly set up for any kind of sound you might need from that piano.

But what if you have to make a recording of an unfamiliar player playing an unfamiliar piano (or other instrument) in an unfamiliar place? That is the problem I faced when I set up my own on-location recording company. The whole point is that “we bring the recording studio to you.” The trouble is, instead of having months of experimentation to get familiar with the instrument and the layout, I typically would have mere minutes to set up and start recording!

I must admit, I felt pretty nervous about the first few piano recordings I made on location. What if I set the mikes up wrong and end up with a mediocre recording? What if it sounds OK in the headphones on-site but fatal flaws appear when I hear it through the monitors in the mixing studio?

I read up on miking techniques on the Internet, but in a way this made me even more nervous. One knowledgable writer would say to always do some particular thing, the next would say to never do that! I printed out conflicting diagrams of optimal microphone placement for piano. Meanwhile, some writers said to use omnis, some recommended cardioids. Near, far, high, low - it seemed like all of these were approaches that had worked at least once for somebody. But would any of them work for me?

Read the rest…

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