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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

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.]


Mini-Tip: Immerse Yourself, Then Write Your Song

Songwriting No Comments

In language learning, there is a technique called immersion, in which the student spends her time surrounded only by people speaking the new language.  The idea is to force the brain to quickly burn all kinds of new neural pathways as necessity becomes the mother of quick learning. Over time, the new language begins to feel like a natural part of the student’s surroundings, and soon enough she finds herself joining in, effortlessly speaking to others by simply mimicking what she has heard them say.

Interestingly, a similar approach can be applied to expanding your songwriting horizons. Here, the plan is to first identify a musical genre that you would like to write in but know little about. It might be reggae, or show tunes, or 50s rock-n-roll, or….well, pretty much anything!  Then, make a point of listening to that kind of music, lots of it, by lots of artists, over a period of two or three weeks. If possible, listen to nothing but this kind of music! The idea is to immerse yourself in this genre. (You needn’t make any specific effort to notice musical details like what beat the snare is on or anything like that. Just let it wash over you - then rinse and repeat!)

After a few weeks of this, when you go to write a song in that general style, guess what - the tools you need will be right at your fingertips!

[An expanded version of this Mini-Tip (with an example) appears in my eBook, Cheap Advice On Songwriting.]


Mini-Tip: Use Short Links Between Song Segments

Songwriting No Comments

A lot of songs that I hear online (and elsewhere) have the major problem of losing momentum at some point in the song.  To me, this is one of the worst things that can happen.  Think of it like you were talking to someone in person, telling an important story. What you don’t want to see is them looking at their watch, or at something going on behind you! That means you’ve lost their interest, which is a Bad Thing.

There are a number of ways to lose the momentum of a song. One is to repeat a song segment without development (”second verse, same as the first” is another Bad Thing). Another is to have lengthy “dead zones” between the verses of your song, the dreaded “wait for it to come around on the git-tar” effect. Here’s my advice for avoiding this: don’t repeat the whole song intro between the first and second verses.

When you’re writing your song, start by trying it with no space between the verses. OK, the lyrics will overlap, you have to breathe, whatever, it was worth a try. Then try it with just one bar in between. Musically awkward? Sometimes. But you will rarely need more than two bars of “link time” between verses, so don’t use four - or eight!

(An expanded version of this Mini-Tip appears in my eBook Cheap Advice On Songwriting.)


Mini-Tip: EQ Your Monitor Speakers

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The monitor speakers you use while mixing and mastering are a key factor in how your mixes will sound on someone’s stereo or in someone’s car. Although there are reasons to use headphones to verify the details of your mix (see my article Check Your Mixes In Headphones), there is no doubt that a good set of monitor speakers are required if you want your mix to sound good on a wide range of systems.

Sadly, though, the room you do your mixing in has a huge effect on how your monitor speakers actually sound, and the effect is usually to mar the sound in some way, generally by over- or under-responding to certain frequencies or frequency ranges. The room shape and dimensions, wall reflectivity, etc., are optimized in “real” mixing studios so that the overall frequency response is essentially flat. But what if you do your mixing in a basement or spare bedroom? Acoustic treatments are expensive, and no, egg cartons don’t work. So what to do?

One workaround that will definitely improve the situation is to put an EQ box between your DAW output and the monitor speakers. I use a 15-band unit, but any kind of EQ will help. Listen to CDs that you know well, and adjust the EQ a little at a time until the system consistently “sounds right.” In most cases you will apply the same EQ to both speakers, but if one of them is in a corner it may need a little extra bass reduction.

(An expanded version of this Mini-Tip appears in my eBook Cheap Advice On Home Recording.)


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

Live Sound No Comments

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.]


Mini-Tip: Record Every Gig

Live Sound No Comments

For a band that plays out live, feedback is usually a Bad Thing. But there’s another kind of feedback that can be extremely helpful for your band (and its sound man). I’m thinking of feedback about how your band actually sounds when you’re playing. How can you improve your performance and sound production if you don’t listen to and critique the show afterwards? Baseball teams make and watch videos of their games. Your band should listen to recordings of your gigs, for all of the same reasons.

Now, this doesn’t have to be a fancy, CD-ready recording, but it does have sound halfway decent to be of any use. Your best bet is probably to get a Zoom H4 or similar unit and have it recording somewhere in the audience area during at least one set (preferably the whole show). Afterwards, the sound man and the Main Band Person should listen to the whole recording, taking notes on areas needing fixing or improvement. Doing this can give a sense of direction to your rehearsals and will ultimately make a huge difference in your sound!

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


Mini-Tip: Leave Extra Headroom When Mixing Live

Live Sound 1 Comment

Two things always seem to happen when an artist or band plays a bunch of songs at a gig:

1. They get louder as they go along.
2. They get faster as they go along.

I’m not exactly sure why these things happen, but I have observed them at many gigs. The tempo increase is a strictly musical matter, but if you are the sound man for the band you need to anticipate increasing volume and take it into account in your initial PA settings.

If you are lucky enough to have full metering on your mixer channels, you can adjust where the peaks of the signal on each channel fall with respect to the 0 dB reference point to provide yourself a little extra headroom. (Headroom is a measure of how much louder a signal can get at a given gain setting before clipping or distorting, not to be confused with Max Headroom, the fictional artificial intelligence.)

Normally, you would set the trim control for each channel so that the signal almost reaches 0 dB on the peaks with the main channel fader in the “0″ position. But, if you do this during a soundcheck (or more likely, during the first song), you will end up with a signal that will be too hot after a few songs, due to the inevitable increase in volume. So, my advice would be to set the trim control to provide somewhat lower peaks, perhaps -6 dB or so. You will still have to adjust the fader when the volume goes up, but at least the signal won’t clip.

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


Mini-Tip: Let Your New Song Sit For A Bit

Songwriting No Comments

If you’re like me, when you finally write down the last line of lyrics for that new hit song you’ve been working on all weekend, the first thing you want to do is to run into your home studio and record the thing. Or maybe you’ll take it to band practice that night and have the lads spend some time working it up.

It’s the next week, with the song already demoed or rehearsed, before you realize that actually the bridge should repeat again after the solo, or the third line of the chorus has a clunky word in it, or the intro is too long, or, or, or…. So now what?

To avoid the pain of redoing a demo or making the band learn a new version of the song at every session, I recommend that you leave the lyric sheet and chord chart for your new song lying about in easy reach and play it through several times every day. As you play you can “sanity check” the lyrics, chords, and arrangement. You may be surprised at how many tiny changes you find yourself making! Once you’ve played it the same way without changing anything for several days in a row, then maybe it’s ready for the world.

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


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