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Cheap Advice On Live Sound
48 Tips To Make Your Band Sound Better
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A Basic Live Sound Setup Diagram

Live Sound 19 Comments

You know what they say about a picture and a thousand words. Well then, I have about two thousand words’ worth for you in this article!

I sometimes get e-mails from people who are uncertain about what components are part of a typical live sound setup, or exactly how to hook them up. Instead of trying to describe all the interconnections that are commonly involved, I decided to draw up a diagram (two, actually) of the setup that Rusty Strings, the band I run sound for, uses for their live shows.

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PA Systems For Solo Performers

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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 keyboard and 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.

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Use the “Panic Button” To Talk To Your Sound Man

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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.

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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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Get Smart: Setting Up Your Live Mixer

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We all remember hapless 60s TV detective Maxwell Smart, also known as Agent 86. (He was the one with a phone in his shoe.) Poor Max bumbled through caper after caper, making it out alive only through the dumbest of dumb luck, and a little help from Agent 99.

When you set up the mixer for your next live gig, don’t be like Agent 86! Some of the choices you make regarding the channel assignments, connection points, etc., that you use can have a big effect on the ease with which you can get a good sound and then keep it that way through the show. Why count on dumb luck when you can “get smart” instead?

Here are five specific tips that will make life easier for the sound man, who just might be you!

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Using PA Effects For Live Shows

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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.

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What Kind Of PA System Should My Band Use?

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There comes a time in the life of every band when someone wants them to actually play somewhere. (Somewhere that isn’t the drummer’s basement, I mean.) Up until now, the singers have been using a microphone plugged into the keyboard amp, but is that going to be enough when we play at a restaurant (or a barn, or a patio)? The truth dawns: we need a PA system of some kind for the vocals. But what kind?

There are several factors you need to consider and a number of pitfalls you must avoid. I’ll just hit the high points here, outlining the key decisions you and your band need to make to be sure you get the right system for your hard-earned cash. Since I’ve only worked extensively with a couple of systems myself, I won’t recommend specific brands or models here. But I’ll give you some points to ponder as you sort through the available systems.

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Mini-Tip: Send Monitor Signals On the Snake

Live Sound 3 Comments

As the sound man for Rusty Strings, I usually set up the PA gear somewhere in the listening area. We run a snake from there to the stage to carry the microphone and instrument signals back to the mixer. We used to also run a fairly heavy cable from the PA output to the main speakers and another cable to the monitor speakers. It’s a lot of trouble to run (and tape down) three separate long cables, especially in a restaurant where customers are already having dinner!

I soon realized that the snake had four unused connections terminating with 1/4″ TRS connectors at the stage box and pigtail. Aha! At an on-site rehearsal, I tried running the monitor signal down one of these snake leads instead of using a separate cable. It works great! Even though the wires in the snake leads are very thin, it didn’t seem to affect the monitor level. And now we only have to run two cables.

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

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