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Cheap Advice On Live Sound
48 Tips To Make Your Band Sound Better
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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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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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Let A “Cue” Track Be Your Guide

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Most home recording engineers are accustomed to recording a metronome-like “click track” to keep all the parts on the beat as the song is built up. The click track serves as a “rhythm guide.” It gets erased when the track it’s on is needed, which is OK because by then the drums are usually on there keeping the beat.

Let’s take this “guide” idea a little farther. Some of my more exotic arrangements are rather complicated, with repeated segments (a little different each time, natch), shortened or lengthened lines, very long solo sections, untoward key changes, etc. When I’m recording tracks for this song - the rhythm guitar, let’s say - the hardest part is remembering which segment is coming up next (is it the bridge?) and exactly when the change occurs (now? now?). This makes it hard to concentrate on the music. What I need is someone to signal me somehow when these changes are coming….

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One Track, Several Parts: The Art Of the Premix

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One of the rules of home recording states: There are never enough tracks. Even if you are using the latest whiz-bang computer setup, there will still come a point where you just can’t add any more tracks without crashing the whole system. (Of course, this point may not come until you try to add Track #79!) Obviously, the problem is much more acute if you are using a standalone recorder unit with 4, 8, or 16 tracks. You may ask, How can I “shoehorn in” just one more part?

The best way to get those extra parts on there is to combine two or more instruments on some of the individual tracks, “premixing” these combinations to free up tracks for additional recording. (See my article Record A 16-Track Song On Your 8-Track Recorder for a very methodical approach to cramming lots of parts into a limited number of tracks.) The question is, which parts does it make sense to combine on a track? And what should I not do? Here are some tips that will help you get the most out of your track stacking.

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Can I Run Live Vocals Through an Instrument Amp?

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Many new bands want to know, can we just run our vocals through a spare input in one of our instrument amps when we play out, instead of buying and setting up a whole fancy-schmancy PA system? Well, my answer to this question is no, yes, and kind of. (How’s that for razor-sharp clarity?)

1. No

Most of the time, when we think about a high-powered onstage amplifier, we think about the guitar player’s amp. The thing’s huge! Why don’t we just run the vocals through that along with the guitar?

The main problem with this is that guitar amplifiers are purposely designed to not have a flat frequency response. If they did, they’d all sound the same! And yet we know that there is a “Marshall sound,” a “Fender sound,” and so on. It stands to reason that your vocals would sound markedly different if run through different guitar amps, and that can’t be good.

The electric guitar and its amplifier are best thought of as a single instrument. After all, an electric guitar makes very little sound without an amp! The frequency response and other sonic characteristics of the amp combine with those of a specific guitar to create a sound unique to that combination. This makes guitar amps great for guitarists, but not so good for vocalists.

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Mini-Tip: Can You Understand the Words?

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I started going out to see bands when I was about 16. The very first rock band I ever saw play right up close was an outfit called Kicks, Inc. They never made it big, but they’ll always be special to me! One thing that disappointed me was that I could barely hear the singing, even though I was near the front of the crowd. The instruments were good and loud but no vocals. I figured it was a fluke.

Imagine my further disappointment as I went to see other bands and came to realize the simple fact that when you watch a live band, you can’t make out the words. It was always that way! It was as sure as the show starting late. What shocks me is how often this still happens today, even after all these years of playing rock music live. What gives?

Maybe the gear is set up wrong and there would be feedback if they turned the vocals up to the right level. Maybe they don’t have a sound man and they just don’t realize how they sound. But if you are the sound man, do the audience a favor and follow a simple rule when setting the vocal levels: make sure you can understand the words. If you can’t, turn up the vocals a bit, or give them more “presence” EQ, turn down an instrument, move the speakers - do something until you (and the audience) can make out the lyrics! And keep checking this during the show.

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

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Recording Guitar and Vocal: Together Or Separate?

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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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Use Intentional Distortion For Xtreme Power!

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Distorted waveformWe spend a lot of time in our studios avoiding distortion. Watching the gain structure, making sure we aren’t clipping, using compressors and limiters to put the kibosh on high-level transients. But could there ever be a time when distortion would be good? And how do you get it if you want it?

Of course, we know that distortion can be good. Techno and industrial music use a lot of distorted keyboard-type sounds. We’ve all heard of distortion pedals for guitar. But what about distorted vocals? Or piano? Harmonica? In this age where every sound is sampled and twisted by someone, it shouldn’t seem too strange to add distortion to your music in unexpected ways.

Normally, you want to record a clean signal on the actual track, then add effects to it at mixing time. That way you can change your mind about which effect to use and how much of it to apply. If the track had been recorded with a lot of reverb already on it, there is no way to remove the reverb if you decide you don’t like it while you’re mixing the song.

As it turns out, distortion is actually easier to add while you are recording. Your options for adding distortion at mixing time are fairly limited, requiring an internal or external effects unit with one or more distortion settings (no doubt intended for use on guitar tracks) set up in a send-return loop. This “electronic” distortion, based on a digital algorithm, will sound different (and probably less satisfying) than the warmer “overload” distortion you can get from overdriving one of the input stages during recording. Read the rest…

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Recording and Mixing Backup Vocals

Home Recording 3 Comments

When we record and mix a new song, we naturally give a lot of thought to handling the primary musical elements: the drums, the vocals, the lead guitar, and so on. We consider relative volume levels and EQ, stereo placement, and the use of reverb or other effects for each track. But to make a great recording, we need to give just as much consideration to the secondary musical elements, like percussion, harmonies, and backup vocals. These elements provide the details and accents that make a good song into something really special.

In this article, I want to focus on the recording and mixing of backup vocals. Now, when I speak of backup vocals, I am not talking about harmony vocals, in which the harmonizing vocal part sings the same lyrics at the same time as the lead vocal. I am talking about vocal parts that just go “oo” or “ah” in the background, or that repeat (or anticipate) lyrics sung elsewhere in the song, or that sing lyrics not sung elsewhere in the song in a call-and-response pattern with the lead vocal.

For me, backup vocals must be sung in at least two-part if not three-part harmony. In general, there is nothing more pathetic than a single voice going “oo, oo” behind the lead singer! Most of the backup vocal parts in the songs I record are in close two-part harmony.

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