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Cheap Advice On Live Sound
48 Tips To Make Your Band Sound Better
(pdf format)

This is the real deal. You get 48 full-length articles from the Cheap Advice Guy covering all aspects of setting up and running a live sound system for a band.

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Drums Too Big And Loud? Use A Cajón!

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According to Wikipedia, a cajón (pronounced ca-HONE) is a “box-shaped percussion instrument originally from Peru, played by slapping the front face (generally thin plywood) with the hands.” (This is, of course, not to be confused with the Spanish anatomical term cojones, which is a different matter entirely.)

As I mentioned in an earlier article, my band Acoustic Steel has been playing a series of acoustic gigs in a small restaurant, and our drummer had to scale down his drum set pretty drastically in order to fit. Instead of bringing a subset of his set, so to speak, he decided to just use a cajón instead. (He is named Alan, so of course he wound up with the nickname “Al Cajón”!)

The particular cajón Alan uses is from Pearl, and has snares behind the striking surface and a resonant bass port in the back for the bass sounds. By using hard and soft strikes on various parts of the striking surface, he is able to coax many varied sounds and beats out of this little crate! We usually mic the rear port and run it through the PA to emphasize the “bottom end”. In addition, positioning the cajón within a foot or so of a hard surface will boost the bass level heard in the room.

(One side effect of this acquisition is that Alan now has the lightest “load-in” of any of us, instead of the heaviest. Of course, when we play “electric”, it’s back to the Big Kit!)

For more information on this instrument, I refer you once again to the Wikipedia article on the subject. Verrrry interesting! And economical.

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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.

Read the rest…

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Use Floor Pads To Minimize Feedback At Live Shows

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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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Use Your Laptop As A Synthesizer - Live!

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If you use your laptop and your favorite recording software as the basis for your home studio (like I do), you are accustomed to the idea of playing your studio keyboard and recording the part as a MIDI track, giving you the flexibility of assigning a new voice to the already-played part right up to the time when you mix the song.

But has it occurred to you to use that same recording software to turn your MIDI-ready keyboard into a synthesizer with all the latest and greatest voices that you could play as part of a live show? Me neither! (Until recently.) Here’s how to do it.

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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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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!

Read the rest…

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A Basic Live Sound Setup Diagram

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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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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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