Keeping Murphy at Bay

Image placeholder title

Illustration: Peter Fasolino

Everyone knows Murphy. Murphy's the guy who came up with the law that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Chances are, he's been onstage with you more than once, vexing you with little things like feedback, bum cables, unruly sound, an apathetic soundperson, and more. Sound familiar? Never fear-you can keep Murphy from becoming a regular at your gigs.

I asked three professional sound engineers for some sage advice to gigging musicians on how to smooth out the rough edges when it comes to working with a house engineer or doing your own sound. Andy Heller has dealt with a gamut of bands and situations over the past ten years while running Location Digital, his live-sound and recording operation. Andy Lipnick, a 14-year veteran of live music, performing arts, and broadcast, does the sound at John Lee Hooker's Boom Boom Room in San Francisco and directs the Theater Sound and Lighting course at Ex'pression Center for New Media in Emeryville, California. John Karr, a seasoned San Francisco sound engineer, mixes at venues all over the city, including the Great American Music Hall, the Fillmore, and the Bottom of the Hill.

Load-In and Sound Check

Bad sound can ruin a good show. You may be tempted to blame it all on the soundperson, but you, the musician, can actually take some simple steps to help the house engineer create a better sonic experience. For starters, be prepared. Make sure you have your gear and your set material together. Making a checklist in advance is a good idea. When you're scrambling to get ready to leave for the gig, that's one aspect less to worry about-you can just run down your list and load the truck.

Every engineer I spoke to emphasized the following advice: Arrive early. This will allow you plenty of time to set up and still give you a margin for error. If you're going to get there late or you don't need a sound check, notify the club ahead of time. Remember, on most gigs you'll be sharing the bill with one or more bands. If you do your part, the sound check will go more smoothly and the sound engineer will appreciate it. Be cooperative-a little courtesy and teamwork will yield good results.

Image placeholder title

Fig. 1: A stage plot and input list is the best way for you to communicate your band's setup and sound requirements quickly to the house engineer.

Photo: Courtesy Karen Stackpole

Provide the house engineer with a basic stage plot and input list (see Fig. 1). He or she may also find it useful to have a set list with any instrument changes. For instance, I play in a band where the leader switches between acoustic guitar, electric guitar, accordion, banjo, sax, and other instruments, all while singing. A list of these moves gives the soundperson a heads-up. Also, let the soundperson know if the show has any other unique aspects-for example, maybe your perky lead singer likes to run into the audience in front of the mains with an open mic, like Mick Jagger.

If your band has an unusual sound, communicate that aesthetic to the engineer. "I think a lot of bands take for granted that an engineer will understand where they're coming from after a couple of tunes," says Lipnick. "Good engineers often do because they've had a lot of experience mixing different kinds of music, but some engineers don't."

Pet Peeves

A couple of things can put a burr under the saddle of even the most unshakable and diplomatic live-sound engineer. Karr offers two essential tips to keep you on the soundperson's good side. First, never unplug anything (direct boxes, instruments, amps, or microphones) without first turning down the gain all the way or turning the equipment off. Failure to do so can damage both the P.A. system and your ears. Second, refrain from telling the engineer how to do his or her job. You can't dictate how to mix the show from the stage because the house sound is totally different.

Conflicts inevitably arise from time to time between the engineer and the musicians. Naturally, a band wants to control its sound, but at times the engineer may have a better idea of what's going on. "The band's got to trust the engineer-that's hard to do, and I see both sides of it," Heller states frankly. "Unfortunately, if you run into enough ding-dong sound engineers who don't know what they're doing and mess up your gig, pretty soon you're thinking all sound engineers are a bunch of idiots. But many engineers are professionals, and they're good at their jobs."

Another point to keep in mind is that not every venue requires the same amount of sound reinforcement. If you're doing a show on a big stage at a large hall one night and a gig at a local club the next, don't expect to use an identical miking arrangement for both. Lipnick recalls a band that expected to use the same number of mics it had used for a big stage when it performed in the modest-size Boom Boom Room: "A horn player who also played some small percussion instruments and a talking drum wanted three mics. If I gave him three mics in that small space, it would sound like hell in front. The band must trust the engineer to know that."

Image placeholder title

Andy Lipnick, who mixes for both live sound and broadcast, stresses that the more control a band has over their dynamics and volume, the better they will sound out front.

Photo: Pat Codoceo

Get Your Mojo Workin'

Make sure that your equipment works and that your bag of tricks includes several spare cables, connectors, batteries, strings, fuses, and so on, in case of an emergency. Once again, a checklist is your friend. It will ensure not only that you arrive with adequate gear to dodge the wily Murphy, but also that you leave with everything you brought. Haven't you ever departed from a late-night show, only to realize halfway home that you left your tuner on the windowsill or your stick bag behind the stage? I once found a guy's sax on the sidewalk as his car's taillights disappeared around the bend. (Luckily one of his bandmates was still around.)

Each instrument in a band typically presents its own set of problems for sound engineers. Here's an individual breakdown.

Guitar. "For God's sake, get a tuner!" implores Karr. Not only will this save time spent tuning between songs-you'll also sound better. Heller points out that most guitarists tend to want more level in the mix, and complain about not being able to hear themselves. If you have this experience, even with your amp cranked up full blast, Heller recommends elevating the amp and moving it closer, or putting it right next to you, tipped up toward your head. You could also try getting an extralong instrument cable and stepping off the stage into the house to hear how you sound from the audience's perspective. This can be a real ear-opener.

Bass. Some bass players go for a really low, boomy sound, but that can work against a good mix and muddy up the overall sound. Keep track of your stage volume. Lipnick notes that a lot of times the bass is too loud, and he ends up taking it out of the P.A. because there's enough coming off the stage. Sometimes I'll roll off all the low end on the bass because that's the loudest part," he says, "then I'll add in some upper-register stuff and put that in the P.A. to give it more punch." Work on your tone and think of how your instrument will come through in the mix. Does it have enough definition and body?

Keyboards. Bring all the cables you'll require and a few extras. It's helpful if you bring an amp to use as a personal monitor for your sound. If you play electric piano, Lipnick advises to keep in mind how your instrument will sit in the mix when you work on your sound: "Electric piano players who try to get an acoustic piano sound out of their keyboard in a band setting will find that it doesn't necessarily work in the mix. The low end will sound muddy and the highs will sound plinky. Go see bands with similar instrumentation playing in a good setting with a really good sound system, and listen critically to what's happening in the mix. Is there really low end on that electric piano? Maybe not."

Drums. Make sure you have a well-tuned kit with good heads. "If the instrument sounds good, you can put any mic on it and it'll sound good," says Heller, who's a drummer himself. "If the heads are ringing, that's fine. You might as well leave some of those overtones open instead of taping the hell out of the kit, because that may actually help your sound cut through in a case where it might get buried." It's important that drummers grasp the concept of dynamics. If you're creaming the kit, you may be tromping on everything. Try to blend into the mix.

Vocals. Work on your microphone technique and be aware of the relationship between feedback and mic position. Whatever you do, don't cover up the head of the mic, and don't point it at the monitors! Karr, whose modus operandi is to ring out a system based on the frequency-response characteristics of certain microphones, stresses that if you're bringing your own mic you should notify the engineer before you get to the show (or upon arrival) so he or she can work it into the system. Understand that your favorite studio condenser mic may not be ideal for a live show-its greater sensitivity can make it more prone to feedback than a dynamic mic.

Unusual instruments. If you have a few odd instruments in your setup-such as cello, oud, sarod, or clarinet-and you're playing on a bill with a bunch of rock bands, go up to the engineer and explain your setup and the dynamics of your instrument. A lot of engineers who primarily mix for rock bands may not have dealt with exotic instruments, and they may appreciate your guidance. Karr recommends that you familiarize yourself with the trouble spots on your instrument (for example, the cello often has feedback in the bass frequencies).

It's Fine to Turn Down

You don't have to play at deafening levels to rock the house. Achieving acoustic balance onstage can immensely improve the quality of your sound-as heard from both the audience and the stage-and makes the sound engineer's job easier. Heller's high school band director drilled into his head that when you're playing you should hear everyone else's parts; if you can't hear somebody, play down until you can. "If you establish that as the stage balance, then everything falls into place, allowing dynamics to really happen-allowing the music to breathe," says Heller.

If someone turns up the volume to hear himself or herself, it has a cumulative effect-everybody else turns up, and you reach what Karr calls the point of diminishing returns. "The best advice for bands is to try to be as dynamic as possible," he says. "When someone's taking a solo, everyone else should come down and the soloist should come up." Lipnick stresses the importance of understanding that the more control that band members have over dynamics and the better they manage their volume, the better they'll sound out front.

Image placeholder title

Andy Heller, who runs his own live sound and location recording company, says that even with a small sound system, it often helps to mike the band and put at least some of the instruments into the P.A. along with the vocals.

Photo: Andy Lipnick

You and Your Monitor Mix

Consider what kind of monitor mix you want before you get to the club, then write it down or tell the engineer. This gives the engineer a reference point. If possible, don't ask them to put all the sound in the monitors, as this can bog down the mix.

Karr, Lipnick, and Heller all agree that the louder the stage volume, the worse it usually sounds out front. Loud stage volume makes the engineer's job harder because suddenly the stage mics are picking up more of the monitor mix than the actual instruments and vocals. "You're just getting a bunch of spill, and it sounds like hell," Heller says.

A Helping Hand

Karr advises bands who want to do their own sound to hire someone instead. It's difficult, if not impossible, to mix your own sound from the stage because that environment is completely different from what's happening soundwise out in the audience. You need to walk out and listen to what's going on. Better still, give a friend a crash course in acting as your ears in the crowd-he or she can help you mix. "You'd be so much happier doing this than if you try to mix yourself," says Heller. "I've done it-put my mixer next to my drums-but I don't know what's going on. I walk back and forth, and I say, 'Well, I guess that's okay.' But someone in the audience will invariably yell, 'Turn up the vocals!'"

When it gets right down to it, you probably want to focus on getting into the music, not on playing the role of technician. "The thing about having a P.A. of your own," says Heller, "is that someone's got to haul it around, you've got to have something to haul it in, and at the end of the night, when it's four in the morning, you've still got to take it somewhere and put it away again. And bands that are playing clubs should remember (I'm talking mostly rock bands here) that most clubs have P.A. systems. Unless you can put together a P.A. that can handle what you're doing adequately, it may not even be worth it. A couple of speakers on sticks can only do so much."

If You Must D.I.Y.

Let's say that, despite the above admonishment, you still want to do your own mix. You've acquired a new powered mixer, or a mixer and an amp, speakers, and a couple of monitor wedges. You've got a milk crate full of assorted microphone cables and dynamic mics-a few Shure SM57s, a Beta 58 or two, maybe an AKG D112 or a Sennheiser MD421, plus a direct box you found on eBay. Now what? Let's start with a few technical pointers and some general mixing tips from our panel of pros. Then it's time to think about more gear (it never ends) as we cover some basic techniques for maximizing your P.A. system.

You can patch keyboards, samplers, sound modules, and other electronic devices directly into your mixer at line level, but you're best off using a direct box for a long cable run. Although miking an amp often yields a fuller sound, you can also use a direct box for bass or guitar. If you run into a ground loop (a low-frequency hum), switch the ground lift on the direct box. If it doesn't have a ground-lift switch, use a 3-to-2-prong ground lifter.

To avoid potentially damaging pops and thumps, always remember to turn on low-level electronics (mixers, graphic equalizers, and signal processors) before turning on power amps. When you're powering down, reverse the sequence.

Mixing It Up

Lipnick advises that you build the mix around the vocalist (provided you have a song-oriented band). "If you can get the vocals to sound good, it's a lot easier to get everything else to sound good," he says. With a smaller P.A. you could put just the vocals in and it would sound fine, but Heller encourages bands to experiment a bit. "If you have the inputs, you can also mic the band," he says. "I often will, even when I'm working with a smaller system. I may not put a lot in the speakers or get the baddest sound in the world, but there's a certain cohesiveness when you do that. If you just put the vocals in the P.A., the vocals are up here and the rest of the band is back there somewhere. I'll mic the kick and snare and put in just enough to bring that out."

One technique that Lipnick often employs to clean up a mix is to take the low end out of instruments that don't need it. "I'll roll the lows off every instrument except the bass guitar and the kick drum," he says, "because the other instruments don't need it, and it muddies up the bass and the kick drum. Doing that makes room for those aspects to come through."

Image placeholder title

John Karr, who mixes at numerous San Francisco venues such as the Great American Music Hall and the Fillmore, recommends that bands doing their own sound use graphic equalizers very judiciously.

Photo: Chris Kehoe

Equalization and Feedback

Place monitors and speakers carefully, keeping in mind where you have the mics set up in relation to them. The mains should go at the front of the stage facing into the house, and you should put the front row of mics behind the main speakers. Place monitors strategically on the floor, in front of and facing up toward the performers.

With mains, monitors, and open mics onstage, you're in potential feedback country. A graphic equalizer can combat this problem, and both Heller and Karr recommend adding one or two to your system (one for the monitors, another for the mains). But if extra gear isn't in your budget just yet, Heller offers the organic approach: "If the vocals are soft and you can't get them loud enough before you get feedback, then everyone should play down." See a pattern emerging here? Play dynamically. Listen. Establish a good acoustic balance.

A graphic equalizer in uneducated hands can be a disaster, though. Karr recommends learning to recognize the frequencies by routing a microphone signal through a 31-band graphic equalizer, then out to an amplifier hooked up to a monitor speaker. "Cautiously make the system feed back by nudging up the different frequencies one by one," he says. "Learn which notes are closest to that sound using a keyboard or guitar. When you learn the frequencies and figure out which ones are notoriously problematic, you'll be ahead of the game."

Every room has a resonant frequency or two that may cause problems in an amplified environment. "Get on a mic and just start making weird noises and turning up the gain," suggests Heller. "It'll start to feed back and you'll hear those resonances. Another thing a lot of guys do is play their CD and start pushing up frequencies on the equalizer, listening to what happens in the room. Certain things start to jump out or sound unnatural, and you can pull those frequencies down a little."

Both Karr and Heller warn that you should take a minimal approach with the graphic equalizer. "You have to be careful," says Heller. "You don't want to do a whole lot of radical stuff. Every time you turn a filter, you start introducing phase shift, and if you introduce more and more by doing tons of EQ, pretty soon the whole thing just sounds like crap." Karr also recommends a moderate approach. "Pull out what you need to pull out, but stop when you get to three or four frequencies," he says.

Getting Squeezed

Compression can often be a very effective tool, but it sounds horrible when it's overdone. Heller's recommended technique is conservative. "Just use it for a little bit of control-but don't make it sound like you're squeezing the life out of it," he says. "I'll use a compressor on vocals and horns; and a lot of times I'll use a limiter on a keyboard because they can be plinky sometimes, and things will jump out and hurt you a little." Lipnick uses compression for problems with dynamics. For instance, if he's working with a guitarist whose solo volume is high but whose rhythm volume isn't cutting through, he'll add compression to the guitar. This will bring up the general level so he won't have to ride the fader as much.

Heller recommends a general ratio of 2:1 to 6:1 with a threshold setting of 2 to 10 dB, but the setting you choose really depends on the instrument and how it acts, as well as the situation. "A little overall compression can also work really nicely sometimes," he says. "It can smooth things out and make the mix sound tighter."

On With the Show

Getting great sound for a live show depends on many different factors. The only predictable thing is unpredictability. But through preparation, cooperation with the sound engineer, and experience, you can easily circumvent or deal with these unpredictable aspects. Be aware of your acoustic balance onstage; you needn't play louder than God to achieve a rockin' show. Arrive on time, communicate your needs to the sound engineer, and trust him or her to handle the system.

If you do your own sound, spend time with your P.A. to understand its ins and outs thoroughly-before your gig. Learn the tones of the frequencies on your graphic equalizer so that you can more readily recognize problems with room resonance or the hot spots on a mic and can quickly notch out the offending frequency. Experiment with mild compression on your mix and explore the range of what your system can handle. Play around with reverb and effects if you want to add some texture to your sound. Indoctrinate a willing person who can listen in the house and help you mix your show. With an understanding of your gear, some commonsense preparation, and a good attitude, you can introduce Murphy to the bouncer.

When working with the house sound engineer, follow this protocol:

1. Arrive early for a sound check.
2. Provide a basic stage plot and input list.
3. Provide a set list with information on instrument changes, dynamic shifts, and so on.
4. Provide a basic outline of what you need in the monitors.
5. Come prepared with extra cables, fuses, batteries, strings, a drum key, and the like.
6. Be cooperative.
7. Remember that loud isn't necessarily good. Work on your onstage acoustic balance, and it will sound better out front.
8. Never unplug equipment with the levels up.
9. Observe mic-handling etiquette. Don't cover the head of a mic or point it at the monitors.
10. Indoctrinate a friend to help you mix.
11. For a basic system, you'll need a powered mixer or a mixing console and a power amplifier, a minimum of two loudspeakers and one or more monitor wedges, a graphic equalizer (or two-one for the mains, one for the monitors), a compressor, a signal-processing unit such as a reverb or multi-effects box (some mixers have built-in effects), an assortment of dynamic microphones, and a direct box or two, depending on your setup requirements.
12. Make sure all the components of your P.A. are in good working order, and check all your cables before you take off for a gig.
13. Get a graphic equalizer and learn the frequencies as they translate to notes on a piano or guitar. This will help you recognize and de-emphasize problematic feedback frequencies in different rooms.
14. Familiarize yourself with compressors-a little compression for the whole mix on a smaller P.A. can smooth out the sound. But don't overdo it!
15. Use a reverb or other effects unit to fill out vocals or add texture to drums and other instruments.

Karen Stackpole schlepps tons of gear every week as percussionist and location recording engineer. Many thanks to Andy Heller, Andy Lipnick, and John Karr.