I don’t suppose anyone reading this remembers The Perry Como Show, a musical variety program that ran in various forms on NBC-TV during the 50s and early 60s. Perry Como was a Bing Crosby-like crooner who enjoyed immense worldwide popularity in those years. I remember watching his show from time to time back when I was about 9 or 10 years old.
At the beginning of each show I saw, Como would sit in what looked like an ordinary living room and perform an opening song. Now, here’s why I’m telling you all this. Before he started singing, he would turn and lift the tone arm of a phonograph on the table next to him and then drop the needle on the opening grooves of a record. Music would swell, and Perry would croon. That’s right, he sang along with a record, karaoke style!
At the time, I couldn’t figure out why he did this, but later I realized that it was a clever artifice to gloss over the fact that Como’s singing was accompanied by lush orchestration despite the lack of any actual musicians visible on the set. (Earlier versions of show had featured a live orchestra, but by the time I was watching it they were apparently down to just a record player.)
Most of my articles about PA systems, mixers, etc., are in terms of running live sound for a multi-member band, perhaps because that’s what I do for Rusty Strings. But I sometimes get questions from individuals who are interested in performing alone on acoustic guitar and vocals, or keyboardand vocals, in small settings but who are uncertain about what kind of sound reinforcement to use or how to achieve a particular echo or reverb effect on their vocal.
Before I even start discussing configuration options or specific recommendations, I must stipulate that I will not be addressing computer-based setups for live sound, that is, where a laptop is used as a mixer. Such a setup calls for a different kind of audio interface hardware that I will discuss in a future article. Here, I will be talking about systems based on conventional mixers. With that attended to, I will begin by describing the basic system configurations for solo performers.
In my opinion, the two worst things that can happen to a band sound-wise during a show are (1) feedback, and (2) talking to the sound man over the PA system (”More of me in the monitors, Biff”). These occurrences make the band seem amateurish and not ready for prime time. Check out my article At the Gig: Five Ways To Avoid Feedback for some ideas about avoiding the dreaded feedback. As for communicating with the sound man (or the lighting guy, or someone backstage) without letting the audience listen in, the Panic Button from Pro Co is a handy addition to your gig bag that gives you this capability.
The Panic Button is a stomp-box style A/B switch with a low-impedance (XLR) microphone input and two XLR outputs (called A and B, of all things). It allows one of your singers to switch his or her microphone signal from Output A (the normal connection to the PA system) to Output B (a separate connection that only the sound man can hear) and back again just by stomping the button on the box. Voila! No more private announcements on the public address system.
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!
Once a musician (of any age) starts writing and playing his or her own songs, or joins a band and starts playing in front of actual people, it’s not long before the urge to get some of this music recorded for the ages begins to settle in. After all, why write a song if the only way to play it for someone is to grab your guitar and actually, well, play it for them? And why should everyone in the audience know exactly what your band sounds like playing live when you yourself have no idea?
So the idea dawns. “Hey! I ought to have some kind of recording setup here in my basement (or spare room, etc.) so that I can record my songs and put them on a CD! And wow, maybe I could take the recording stuff to one of our gigs and record the band playing, then put that on a CD too!”
It’s a great idea, but for someone brand new to the world of recording, that phrase “some kind of recording setup” raises a lot of questions, beginning with, what kind of recording setup? In the Ancient Days, there was only one answer: get yourself a multi-track tape recorder and use that as the basis for your home studio. The audio world has changed, but the descendants of those early units still exist in the form of “standalone” DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) such as those made by Korg, Tascam, and others.
These economical standalone DAWs have evolved to the point of becoming truly “a studio in a box.” Want reverb? It’s built in, with 100 variations. Want delay or chorus? Built in. Distortion? Guitar amplifier simulations? Compression? Mastering algorithms? Yup. All built in and ready to go. Everything works together because it was designed that way. The amount of equipment needed to provide similar flexibility 20 years ago would have filled half of your studio!
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.
If your studio is based on a computer workstation running ProTools or Cubase, you probably don’t have to worry about running out of tracks to use for your musical recordings.These days, most commercial recordings use dozens of tracks to achieve the sample-heavy, layered sound of today’s music.A new track for that subtle timbale part is just a mouse click away!
If you are using a hardware-type recorder unit, though, you have a certain number of tracks - usually 4, 8, or 16 - to work with, and that’s it.That’s how “wide” a single pass at your song is.When those tracks are full, there is no way to add anything more.It doesn’t matter that the song needs another keyboard and two more vocal tracks.You’re done.
Or are you?Here are a couple of techniques for cramming extra parts into your song by “premixing” groups of tracks, both of which allow you to record up to 16 tracks of music for your song on your 8-track recorder.Double your pleasure, double your fun!
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)!