As a live-sound engineer, I've mixed many bands and musical acts throughout the years, and I've seen (and heard) a lot of things go wrong onstage. No, I'm not talking about bad notes, bad arrangements, or bad songs — although I've certainly experienced my share. I'm referring to onstage sound problems that are mainly preventable.
I know because I've been on both sides of the stage. Before focusing on running sound, I spent years as a touring guitarist and vocalist. During my first few years of touring, I rarely gave sound engineers the benefit of the doubt when it came to handling my sound. That was sometimes because of all-too-common communication problems between musicians and soundpeople, but it was also partly because of my own ego.
Eventually, however, I began taking mental notes on what the sound engineers were doing and how they were contributing to the show, and my attitude changed. Once I realized how critical communication between the individual musicians and the soundperson was to getting the best live sound, I found it easier to work as a team, and I encouraged my bandmates to do the same.
In that spirit of cooperation, here's my advice to musicians about what they can do to help sound engineers achieve the best possible mix out front.
If you want to get off to a good start with the soundperson, don't arrive five minutes before your performance and hand over a complicated stage plot. Realize that it takes a some time to get a decent sound and a little more time to get a good sound. Also, try not to “help” by doing things such as repositioning microphones and monitors — the soundperson almost certainly knows the gear and the room better than you do.
Another important element to consider is your onstage volume. The more amp and monitor sound there is onstage, the more difficult it will be for the soundperson to get a good overall balance and for the musicians to hear themselves. Moral: turn your amps down! And don't just turn them down for the sound check and then crank them back up during the show. For some reason, I've found that bassists and keyboardists seem to be the worst offenders in that area, the latter blowing away the soundperson, and in some cases the sound system, with 15 dB increases during solos.
THIS MEANS YOU
Most of the problems encountered in achieving a good live sound have to do with either volume or individual instrument sounds, and the majority of those problems have solutions. Here's a look at a few of the most common problems and how to solve them while keeping the band, the soundperson, the promoter, and the audience happy.
Between pickups, tone controls, amps, and effects processors, guitarists have an almost infinite number of sonic options at their disposal. Although all of that tonal flexibility can be great, your settings can sometimes cause problems in the main mix. There are, however, a few things you can watch out for.
FIG. 1: The Giant V amplifier EQ setting is popular with guitarists and bassists who play heavy rock. The highs and lows are cranked up all the way, and the mids are scooped out.
Having the preamp, or gain, control turned way up on a guitar amplifier or pedal may result in liquid-sounding solos and singing sustain, but often it also leads to lack of definition in a live mix. In the worst cases, people in the audience hear a distorted and buzzy sound that doesn't really change in pitch no matter what chord is played. A good solution for that is to lower the preamp gain from 10 to about 6 or 7 and turn up the master volume to compensate.
Another common problem with electric guitars is mismatched volumes. For example, the distorted sounds may be at a lower volume than the clean sounds. (The opposite problem also occurs.) When the guitarist switches from the louder sound to the quieter one, the audience perceives a hole in the mix. Try backing off the preamplifier on the amp's distortion channel or on the distortion pedal, and turning up the main volume; if necessary, set the EQ on the clean sound to a slightly flatter setting. Those changes won't alter your sound drastically, but they will make it more consistent from the audience's perspective. It's always a good practice to try to make sure that the various sounds that you switch between (whether from stompboxes, multi-effects pedals, or amp channels) are as balanced as possible from a volume standpoint.
If you must have your amp up really loud, side-washing it, or positioning it on the side of the stage facing toward you rather than toward the audience, is often a good idea; this is especially true in smaller venues. That way the soundperson will have greater control of the volume coming directly from the stage. (Naturally, that will work only if your amp is miked or taken direct into the P.A.) Furthermore, if your amp is directly behind you, pointing at the audience, and you move around in front of it, the sound will change intermittently as it is blocked, which is another reason to side-wash your amp.
That is not to say that your guitar amp should always face away from the audience. If you set the amp at a low enough volume relative to the other sounds onstage, it may be just fine facing forward. The point is that you want to give the soundperson as much control of the sound — or at least the levels — as possible. Therefore, if your guitar is too loud during a quiet vocal section, it can be taken down a little bit. Remember that having control of all of the sounds is an essential factor of a soundperson's job.
The two things that soundpeople can't control without cooperation from the guitarist are the guitar and amplifier EQ settings. Certain styles of music require some pretty extreme equalization, and the more drastic the settings, the more difficult it is for the soundperson to make reasonable adjustments within the mix. For example, if you use the common Giant V curve (see Fig. 1), with the highs and lows boosted to the max and the mids scooped out, it may sound really cool to you as you play ultrachunky hand-mutes, but the sound probably will interfere with the bass and bass-drum sounds. Bear in mind also that if you use the Giant V EQ setting, the soundperson will likely counter it by rolling off some highs and lows at the console, further limiting the mixing possibilities. (It is a lot easier for a soundperson to cut and boost the board EQ when it's at or near the middle position.) Naturally, you want to be able to set your tone so that it suits your taste, but remember that using extreme settings can make it difficult for the soundperson to do his or her job properly.
Most problems presented by vocalists result from poor microphone technique. First, if you sing moderately in one section of a song and then begin to scream loudly, back away from the mic to compensate. Otherwise, the soundperson, who is probably not familiar with your music, will have to leap for the fader every time you begin shouting and then raise the levels again once you stop. Compressors can help to even things out, but there is a limit to what they can reasonably be expected to do.
FIG. 2: The proximity effect results from microphone design. Nearly all stage mics employ a cardioid pickup pattern. As a sound source (voice or instrument) gets closer to the mic, the lower frequencies are boosted by as much as 16 dB. You can take advantage of the proximity effect to add depth and richness to a sound, but beyond a certain point, feedback will result.
Also, if you tend to sing softly in the studio, consider pushing your voice a little harder when performing live. If you encounter feedback problems because your mic level has to be set exceedingly high (and the instrument levels have already been lowered to help), you'll need to find a way to get more sound pressure into the mic. That said, remember not to cup the bulb of the microphone with your hand in an effort to get more sound into it — or simply to look cool — because doing so will almost inevitably result in feedback and equalization problems due to a phenomenon known as the proximity effect (see Fig. 2). You might also consider using in-ear monitors (IEMs) rather than floor wedges to monitor your onstage sound.
In wedge-based systems, once a reasonable monitor mix is achieved, resist the temptation to continually ask to have your level turned up. Do your best to work with the level that you have. Monitors that are cranked too loud can cause feedback and can interfere with the main mix because so much of their signal is bleeding from the stage to the front of the house. Not only that, but the louder the monitors get, the more everyone else in the band will want to turn up to make up for it.
Bassists are subject to some of the same considerations as guitarists, particularly in their EQ choices. Try not to set the bass EQ all the way up and stay away from the Giant V setting, because it is a particularly difficult sound to deal with and work into a mix. Also, if your amp has a DI output, the soundperson may prefer to get your signal pre-EQ in order to have more control over how it fits into the mix. Often, the DI and miked sounds are blended.
On that last point, remember that if you send a direct signal to the house board pre-EQ, the soundperson will be equalizing it for you. If you are looking for a specific sound, you need to make the soundperson aware of it and perhaps assist in getting that sound.
The single most important thing you can do as a keyboardist is to make sure that the internal volumes of your keyboard's patches are balanced so they don't produce any abrupt shifts in level when you switch between them. If you use only one or two keyboards, you also may want to bring some direct boxes along to make sure that the signals you send to the house mixer are optimally matched to its inputs.
If you use multiple keyboards or modules with a mixer, you have several options, depending on your mixer's capabilities and your own musical needs. The simplest arrangement is to send a feed from your mixer's stereo output buses to the house mixer. Just be sure that you can hear all of the sound sources clearly; that way, the mix you send to the house mixing board is accurately balanced. If your mixer has direct outputs for each channel or a sufficient number of aux or group buses, you can send signals for all of your sound sources individually, giving the soundperson more control. (You'll probably want to tap the signals before they go to the fader so that any changes you make to channel levels won't affect the signals going to the house.)
If you use, say, layered synths to create a sound or sounds, you'll want to control the relative volumes of each layer. Send a submix of just those sound sources to the house mixer or send a stereo signal from the main output buses as described previously.
Drums and percussion
Drum sets come in all sizes and varieties, and what constitutes a good drum sound varies radically from drummer to drummer according to personal taste. A few constants do exist, however, the most important being tuning. If you show up with a set that is tuned correctly, you can avoid a variety of problems. For example, if you have several toms, ensure that they are tuned in distinguishable intervals and not to similar pitches. Listen for hardware rattles, too, and eliminate them before the gig.
As for individual parts of the kit, bass drums with two heads and no hole can be difficult for some engineers to work with. Consider bringing an additional front head with a hole just in case. Similarly, piccolo snare drums can cut so strongly that they may be hard to control. Consider bringing a different type of snare along, as it may sound better in some circumstances (and you can use it as a backup if your main snare breaks).
FIG. 3: Drummers should position cymbals high enough to allow room for the tom mics and to keep the cymbal sounds from bleeding into them. The overhead mics pick up the cymbals. Keeping the two sound types separate gives maximum control of the overall blend of drum sounds.
Cymbals, particularly crashes, also can be problematic. Try positioning your cymbals so that they are high enough above the toms to allow easy access for the tom mics. The cymbals themselves should be picked up by the overheads (see Fig. 3). Speaking of mics, if you sing, keep your vocal mic away from the snare, preferably pointing up at your mouth from below.
The subject of percussion is huge, but as a rule, I try to use as few mics as possible. Having too many open mics in a small area can result in phase cancellation, which will color the sound in an unpleasant way and result in feedback. If you are a conga player, I can offer one definite suggestion. Sometimes I mic congas from both the top and the bottom to get the full range of sounds. If a mic is on the bottom of the conga, do not move the mic so that the drum covers it. The result most likely will be a blast that overloads the mic input, and you may even blow a speaker or subwoofer.
If you play trumpet or trombone, don't use a mute during sound check and then blast the microphone during the show. Let the soundperson know the full dynamic range of your instrument and don't forget to back off from the mic when you're really wailing. Also, never put the mic directly inside your instrument; doing so will trigger the proximity effect and inevitably result in horrendous feedback.
Sometimes horn players have difficulty hearing themselves in the monitors. A clever trick used by some trumpet players is to play behind a Plexiglas shield with a mic hole in it. That way they get a strong sonic reflection back in their ears without having to rely too heavily on floor monitors. Although that is a wise and inexpensive solution, it doesn't work for all horns or in all situations.
Backing tracks and DJs
In recent years, it has become increasingly common for bands and musicians to use backing tracks to augment their live performances. (For additional information on using backing tracks, see “Look, Ma, No Hands” in the November 2001 issue; text is available at www.onstagemag.com.) Backing tracks are usually either mono or stereo mixes recorded onto CDs, MiniDiscs, or DATs. Sometimes the mixes are good, but often people put them together without considering how they will sound coming out of a P.A., and the tracks have problems such as buried background vocals or too much bottom or high end. To avoid those problems, put the backing tracks on a multitrack of some sort and send the individual tracks to the soundperson. If you don't have a multitrack, try creating a few different mixes, in mono and stereo, so you can choose the best one for a particular venue.
If you are a DJ and set up onstage with or without a band, the only things you need to do are to make sure your EQ is flat and keep your master volume at about 7 or 8. Keeping your EQ flat will allow the soundperson to make the necessary EQ adjustments from the front of the house rather than force you to adjust it while standing behind the main speakers. If you go out front and don't like the sound, talk to the soundperson and make suggestions as to how he or she can help get the sound you'd like. Communicating in that fashion will let you concentrate on your craft while allowing the soundperson to get the best sound.
AFTER THE SHOW
Working with bands day after day affords me insight that may not be obvious to most people. I generally make subtle adjustments on the stage and at the front of the house, and I request (if necessary) that the bands meet me half way. When somebody tells me I made the band sound great, I generally mention that it's partly because of the band's cooperation (the members had their sound together). Also, when I begin to pack up onstage and hear audience members compliment the band, the act usually says it had a lot to do with the soundperson. Achieving a symbiotic relationship with most bands proves that proper communication results in a better-sounding show.
Buck Moore is a freelance sound engineer and the house soundperson at the 360 Club in Toronto, Canada. He is a teacher of live-sound reinforcement at Toronto's Trebas Institute (www.trebas.com) and is in constant pursuit of the ultimate live mix. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.