Testing 1-2-3: Advice on Live Sound

Testing 1-2-3: Advice on Live Sound

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Testing 1-2-3: Advice on Live Sound

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They've seen it all. In this post, an artist and a trio of sound engineers share their challenges and solutions.

It's not … working. Everyone's had this problem in all of its textures and flavors.  To find out how the pros prevail, we turned to a panel of performers, producers and sound engineers.

They should know. Singer/songwriter and producer Alex Del Zoppo made his debut on the world stage when Sweetwater was the second act at Woodstock. Paris Lahr is a globetrotting touring pro. Karen Kane, on the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington in the Recording Technology program, has decades of experiences producing hundreds of albums and live shows.  Nathan Miller, production director, cut his teeth as monitor engineer at Willow Creek where he worked with every major Christian artist that graced the mega church's 7,200-seat auditorium.

The band is too loud and the sound is harsh and thin. Can EQ or other processors be used to produce better overall sound?

"That's what comes to my mind, but only after the band itself does some of the work. They need a sound professional to see that their sound is less irritating and more desirable (within the parameters of their particular genre), does not distract from the vocals, and remain uniform in whatever venue they may find themselves performing in.

Without that input, if they are totally relying on the house sound people to cure their problem, EQ can improve the situation, but the right choice of mics (for each instrument and/or voice) also goes a long way toward achieving a great sound. A tight, balanced group sound should be the goal for any act, and always one which supports the vocals."

"The first thing I would do in this situation is to try and negotiate with the band to play at a slightly lower volume. This isn't always successful but after you explain that it'll sound much better if you (the engineer) control the volume. A harsh and thin PA can always be helped by the stereo graphic EQ that should be on the stereo buss. "

What are the options? Adding bass and mids? Cutting highs?

"Generally, if it's the abrasive upper range, yes. A band can sound harsh in many ways."

"Cut out harsh frequencies. Try to avoid adding too much in the low end, cutting frequencies is best."

"Twist knobs all you like, play with the processors 'til your fingers bleed. If the band is just too loud, it's fighting a forest fire with a garden hose. The real tool in this situation is a radio call to the stage.

An engineer working for the band needs to be in a position, that when the techs walk out there to turn the amps down, and point at you, the artist accepts the situation without question. Not any easy place to be, it takes the confidence of the artist, and one has to earn that trust.

Now, if you are just the house sound dude mixing a local band the solution is the same, turn the backline down, but the path to it is different.

Battle it preemptively.
When they are loading in the four Marshall full stacks, maybe go have a very friendly conversation with them about stage levels. Make a few suggestions, like turning the cabinets as far off stage as they are comfortable with, ask them to start a little quiet and "build" volume as the monitor mix comes together.

During line check, politely ask them to "bump down" a few db if they can.

In the end, if the band listens, they win, because the overall show will be better. If they don't listen, and it sounds awful, they only have themselves to blame. All one can do is keep cutting FOH channels until you can hear the vocals.

Start by pulling the loudest thing coming off the stage (probably the guitars) out of the PA, and keep doing that until you can hear the vocals. My order goes something like this:

Overheads --> Background --> vocals --> guitars --> Bass --> hi hat --> Track

They all don't come completely out, but pull them back until the lead vocals can be heard, and start rebuilding. That will help, but in the end there are not going to be any significant gains in sound "quality", the vocal will just appear louder.

The band's drummer is also a singer and uses a SM58® for vocals, but the mic picks up too much of the drum kit and stage noise. What's the solution here?

"While those are the standard tough-guy mics that can take repeated blows from stray drumsticks, a more directional mic or perhaps one with a tighter (super) cardioid pattern should help a lot. Using a lavaliere, or head-mount mic, often eliminates much of the unwanted surrounding noise as well as stays well clear of those occasional wayward sticks. But drums are tricky, due to their insistent percussive nature, their sounds can carry for great distances like gunshots. Having any mic placed in a direction that is pointed away from the drums typically helps. Having too many cymbals surrounding the kit emphasizes this problem. Not playing those particular offending cymbals during the drummer's vocals would be an arrangement solution."

"Try to talk the drummer into wearing a headset mic. If that doesn't work, use the bass roll-off switch on the drummer's channel. This helps with a lot of low-end bleed from the stage. Also, maybe add a little bit of 2-3K so that the vocal intelligibility is better and you can keep it at a lower volume."

"Ah, the age old question, singing drummers. There is no simple answer. Drummers are picky fellows, and by the time they reach the point of needing a sound engineer, they are pretty set in their ways, so changing the position they sing from may not be an option.

The biggest complaint with singing drummers, is that most do not hit the same when they sing. Usually they play softer when they are singing, though some have learned to overcompensate over the years and actually play harder when they sing.

Either way, it is going to affect the gain structure at both consoles, both on the drum channels and the vocal channel, as well as the gates.

Really, to find the proper solution, you must watch the drummer to observe his style. A headset might be the answer, but obviously the drummer has to be OK with it. Most don't like it, and the pickup pattern on a headset usually causes more problems then they solve.

Some simple starter questions:

  • How often do they sing?

  • How loud do they sing?

  • How prominent in the mix does the vocal need to be?

  • How far away from the mic are they?

  • Where do they prefer to place the mic?

  • Do they push the mic away when they don't use it, or does it always stay in the same place?

  • Are they on ears? Or wedges?

Based on the answers to these questions, and many others, choose the correct mic for the job.

Lots of drummers like the mic just to their left, coming in from below. Unfortunately, this causes the drummer to twist his body and lean into the mic when he sings. This is bad for his back and it causes him to hit the drums softer, because he in only using his arms instead of his shoulders.

If the drummer is OK with it, bring the stand in from behind if there is room on the riser. Extend the stand to near the limit, then bring the boom in from over his head. Put a very short gooseneck on the end of the boom and use a mic like a Beta 56. The mic cable doesn't stick out, risking the drummer accidentally hitting it with his stick. The closer you can get the mic to his mouth while he is in the normal sitting position, the better.

Try and get the mic placed with an upward tilt, so that the snare and hi hat are on the backside of the pickup pattern. Try flipping the phase on the vocal, or possibly on the snare to see if it helps.

No matter how well it's placed, it is still an open mic within a couple feet of the snare. There will be snare and cymbal bleed through it. The louder the drummer sings, and the less the mic has to be gained, the better it will sound.

If the drummer doesn't sing very often, it may be possible to use a switched mic. This way it can be turned off when not in use. But if the drummer isn't religious about turning it on and off, it will just get left on or he might forget to turn it on — and then blame the engineer.

A footswitch is sometimes better for a drummer, something like a hotshot, output switcher. Put the pedal on the floor just to the left of the hi-hat, and the drummer can stomp it on and off at their discretion. Of course, if the drummer sings really quietly, every time that mic opens, the whole drum mix will change. It won't work for every drummer.

If the drummer is not a main vocal, just background vocal, and speaks in between songs, give him a switched mic. Have him turn it on and off when he wants to talk to the band/audience, and put the background vocals on the track. It will clean up the mix, the monitors, free the drummer from having to sing, and make everyone's lives easier."

Not everyone has the luxury of using personal monitoring systems, so what are some tips on making a wedge sound good?

"With the better systems, each musician/singer can have a personal mix pumped to them in those wedges. As a musician/singer, it will be your job to ask the sound people in each venue to give you only what you want in your wedge. Say you ask for a mix consisting of 70% your vocal and 30% your guitar – that would allow you to hear the rest of the band on stage, but always hear yourself better. This is important to remain in tune vocally during loud passages. If you are part of an act that is necessarily more spread out on stage, you might want a personal wedge mix that is 50% voice, 25% guitar, and 25% the rest of the band. "

"It takes a little time, a good ear, and some knowledge of microphones. Once everything is set up, and close to being in place, pink noise all the mixes individually. Make sure everything is working, and they all sound the same.

Given an infinite amount of time, and access to the digital processors, one could go into each mix and do all the EQ cuts in the digital realm, as well as adjust the crossover points and slopes to better suit the mic being used. But with most shows, there isn't enough time to do this. You have to trust that the sound provider has it all wired correctly and has the correct crossover settings loaded.

Consistency is key. If all the monitors are different, or have a mix of different drivers that are not all in phase, it's going to be a rough night.

Once everything is working, walk out and EQ the most important mix, with the mic s/he will be using. I prefer to do this by myself, time permitting, so that I can visually see all the cuts I have made as I'm doing them. This gives me a visual cue into harmonic problems. If there seems to be a problem at, let's say, 315, 800, and 2k, more likely it's a harmonic, either the 400-800-1.6, or 315-630-1.25.

Try pulling a few db of the harmonics and put the other frequencies back flat. Move the wedges or rotate them slightly to stop feedback, instead of reaching for the graph first. Sometime moving a pair of wedges 6" further apart will reduce your comb filtering problems and stop the feedback — no EQ required.

Once the main mix is loud and stable, copy that EQ to all the other mixes. At this point, it's useful to have another engineer "drive" the desk, allowing you to wander around the stage and get things done faster.

Now, mute the center mix and EQ the sidefills with the main mic. When the sidefills are stable, unmute the center mix and re-level and re-EQ the mic in both the main mix and the fills until it's all stable. Try throwing one sidefill, or the center mix, out of phase. Sometimes that can make a huge difference.

Walk around the stage adding the main vocal to each mix, listening to each, to make sure it sounds the same and is not feeding back. Once it's stable in each mix, walk down to main position again, and really yell. At this point, you should be able to hear any frequencies that are "building" on stage. Usually it's in the low-mid area, 400 Hz for example. Pull a db or two of 400 from each mix to see if it goes away. You don't want to pull too much on the graphs or you'll lose all of your gain.

If the problem frequencies are specific to that mic, dump a little low-mid, centered around 400 from the vocal mic channel strip. Again, be sparing.

Now go to each of the other vocal mics, and bring them up in their respective mixes, tweak EQ as needed, but it should be close.

Once it's all stable and sounds good (this could take two minutes or two hours depending on the situation), start line-checking everything else, starting with the drums, and add them around the stage sparingly as you go.

If you already know what the band wants, mix it in. If you're guessing, start with the basics, (kick-snare-hat in the sidefills and drum fill, vocals a little everywhere, but loudest in their own mix) and wait for the band to tell you what they want. If all the mixes are stable, you should be able to turn anything on, in any mix, with at least 60% volume, without fear of feedback.

A monitor engineer's job is never really done. Keep jumping around each mix with the cue system (it is critical to have a matching cue system). Always listen and compare levels. Sometimes turning down X, is just as effective as turning up Y, in any given mix. Just because the artist is yelling for input Y, doesn't mean that turning it up is going to help them.

If Y is the main vocal, and the artists are yelling they can't hear themselves, it could be that they keyboard just jumped in level by 15 db while you weren't paying attention. The solution to 'I can't hear my vocal' is actually more compression on the keyboard channel, not turning up the vocal. The only way to know this is to constantly monitor the inputs and outputs. Good engineers catch these problems as they happen, and solve them before the band has a chance to complain."

What about problems like comb filtering and phase cancellation? How can these issues be avoided?

"In-ear monitors solve that problem. But some artists will not use them. They want to see a row of speakers out in front of them and as much sidefill as you can fit in the room. In the end, comb filtering and phase cancellation cannot be completely avoided, only minimized.

If the artist demands 10 wedges downstage, plus flown sidefills plus stacked sidefills plus ego wedges, there is going to be comb filtering somewhere. Anywhere two different speakers are pointed at the same space, from different locations, there will be comb filtering.

It starts with having the right equipment. Being able to specify monitor wedges with different horn patterns is a good start. If you have to have a whole bunch of monitor wedges close to one another, all with the same signal, using wedges with a very narrow horn pattern is probably best.

If the monitors need to cover a larger area, a wider horn pattern is better.

Try to overlap the horn patterns as little as possible, without creating "gaps" between them. You have to listen and compromise.

Build a full front of house style mix in the sidefills, vocal on top. Put the main vocal in all the wedges, as loud as you can get it. Then put a little kick drum in all the wedges, so it can just barely be heard when the singer is singing. Put anything "special" (maybe a piano or acoustic guitar) that the singer needs to hear in the wedges as well.

Then throw the artist on stage and roll.

In a small venue, is it really necessary to mic the guitar and bass amps?

"Generally, I'd say yes, as this will spread the sound, allowing it to reach every portion of the room. Actually, it depends on just how small the space is, but mostly how many different instruments/vocals are involved. The more complex the situation, the more I'd be inclined to mic "everything", perhaps with the exception of the bass amp, as bass usually has a way of filling the room, due to its omni-directional qualities.

Mics will allow the overall mix to be better. Having someone with a good ear at the mixing board also helps tremendously. They can achieve a great "room sound" as they can adjust the inequalities that the performers often cannot hear while playing."

"It ALWAYS depends on the room. You never know until you get there."

"It depends. But if anyone wants to hear that guitar in the monitors, (like the drummer for instance), you will need to have a mic on it. Even if it doesn't get turned up in the PA.

A fun trick in really small clubs is to mic the guitars, throw them out of phase, and then use the PA to cancel the guitars in the room. It's not a perfect science, but sometimes throwing them out of phase with the stage and putting a radical EQ on them can cut a harsh guitar tone coming off the stage in a really small room."

Is it possible to EQ a room?

"Yes, all spaces have their own 'sound personalities'. The main factor in this would be the room's resonant frequencies, based on the distances between parallel walls, or the floor and ceiling.

Reflection and other factors combine to create what people refer to as a venue's 'sound'. People speak in terms of a room having a 'warm sound"' or something not so pleasing. These resonant frequencies tend to emphasize certain ranges, creating an imbalance in the overall audio range. So, if a large hall hasn't damped its interior with bass traps, or by varying its hard and absorptive surfaces, the bass might sound twice as loud when playing in a small range (sometimes only two or three notes), and causing the room to reverberate just those notes for a longer time than all of the other notes being played. This can happen in the vocal ranges in medium sized rooms, too, making singers very uncomfortable.

A decent parametric EQ usually de-emphasizes those very specific frequencies, making all of the notes sound the same. There are kits for just this sort of thing."

"Using a pink noise generator, you can EQ your speakers for each room that you're in."

"What you're really doing is EQing the PA in relation to the room.

Every engineer has his own method of EQing a room. Some spend hours running pink noise through the system, making minute adjustments to the house graph, eyes glued to SMAART. Some blast their garage band recordings through the rig for hours. I use a combination of all three to EQ a room, though sometimes I just don't have enough time to do any of it, so I EQ as I go during line check and sound check.

Truly, the best way to EQ a room is to do it when the band is on stage. Given the convenience of having the same band, backline, mics, splitter, and consoles on a regular basis, especially if they are digital desk, sound check is how I ring the PA. I tend to run things pretty flat, so if the band fires up, and it doesn't sound pretty close, right off the bat, it's probably an issue with the PA.

Using all three methods, one is just looking for either a summing of frequencies, or a cancellation of frequencies across the room.

Every room is different, and depending on where the PA is hung in relation to the walls, there will be different reflections in different locations. Try and minimize these physical problems by getting the PA hung correctly and then make sure that all the cabinets are 'time-aligned' to one another.

It is possible to time-align 1 speaker, or an array of speakers, with another. However, the speakers are only 'aligned' over a percentage of the area they cover. The more speakers (or arrays) added to the system, the harder it is to get the sound waves to converge simultaneously and uniformly across the room. In fact, it is impossible.

Spending hours aligning the room with SMAART will time-align all the speakers to one spot in the room. With enough time, this process is repeated at different spots in the room and the average is worked out, giving the engineer the 'correct' delay time for each array. But it's still an average and not an exact science. SMAART is a great tool, don't get me wrong, but one can do the same thing with a tape measure, some basic geometry, and a good ear."

"Yes, it is possible to mix the room. Sometimes this is actually necessary in situations where the venue doesn't have the system to support a full sounding mix. It is also important in these situations to have clear communication with the band as they will be helping (or hurting) your house mix."

What can be done to lower the overall on-stage volume? IEMS are one solution, of course, but what else can we do?

"Some decades ago, well before IEMs, we opened for the Beach Boys, and were in awe of their absolutely perfect sound. They were one of the first acts that we knew of who brought all of their own sound equipment, along with several sound people. Their trick: using fairly small amps on stage (all mic'd, of course) and matched vocal mics, all patched through the more-than-ample board.

The sound that came out of the mix was exactly like their records. Nothing was missing, every tiny vocal inflection was heard, yet it still had an exciting live feel. This was probably conceived of necessity, given their complex vocal arrangements. Every other act in that era was bringing increasingly larger, more powerful amps, trying to quake those in the cheap seats, while they could have done a better job with a great P.A. No wonder rock musicians began to lose their hearing. Sorry, did you say something?"

"Educate. Teach band members how to lower their levels while maintaining their tone.

You can use isolation cabinets for extremely loud guitars. Reduce the number of open mics on stage. Every open mic is picking up a time-delayed mixture of what is washing around on stage. Every one of those is raising the noise floor of the mix.

The engineers, the musician, and the techs, should work together to reduce volume and improve tone. A good monitor engineer is the key to keeping things under control. If artists can't hear themselves in the monitors, they turn up the volume and that's bad for everyone. Making sure the monitors are right will go a long way to keeping the stage volume down.

"Here are a few suggestions: turn guitar amps backwards, use remote guitar amps and drum shields (as much as I hate them) and consider heavier cymbals for the drummer."

It's two minutes until showtime, and there's no output on one channel. Now what?

"Assuming that all of the connections have been tested, and cords replaced as needed, and it has definitely been determined that the problem is the amp . . . give it a serious slap. Not a polite reprimand, but a good whack! Sometimes that Neanderthal gesture will do the trick.

If it seems to jolt it out of its sleep, it may be because the female connections (usually located at the rear of the power amp) may have oxidized or even rusted somewhat. This is common in rental equipment that spends much of its time in outdoor situations. Spraying each of these connections with contact cleaner might at least get you through the show. If not, it's back to MONO for that gig!"

"As fast as possible, change the channel and/or change the cable."

Besides a credit card and a cell phone, what should every engineer have in an emergency kit?

"I'd take several extra cables, and extra raw cable, numerous ¼" and XLR connectors and various adapters (male–to-female, etc.), electrician's pliers, diagonals, a fast soldering gun, and a serious flashlight. These problems often seem to pop up after a set has already begun, and crawling around the rear of the stage looking for a connection problem in the shadows is no fun."

"Spare adapters of all kinds, flashlights and I like to carry around a couple of 'Feedback Busters' for acoustic guitars that still have issues in the monitors even though it's a DI."

"Not just a cell phone, a cell phone with a huge list of numbers in it. Numbers for people you can call in an emergency when you absolutely have to have something, or need someone, to make a show happen. No one can carry enough adapters to fix every situation, but knowing the right guy in town, who will have what you need, can save a show, or even a tour."

"I like to have at least two dynamic mics, two pencil condensers (because they're easy to pack), one JDI Passive DI, gaffer's tape and some Sharpies®.

So there you have it. A spectrum of solutions, a range of opinions – and a few tricks you can apply in your own live sound applications, whether you're on a national tour or running sound for your teenager's garage band. One thing everyone agreed on: it's about experimentation, advance planning and trusting your ears.