When it comes to producing live music, getting the sound to come out flawlessly is one of the most difficult aspects. Both the performers and the sound team share responsibility of this particular aspect, but even if both are consistent, different venues and different PA systems can mean that all conventional wisdom and “what worked before” can go right out the window.
That means that from show to show, the rules will be different, particularly if you’re a sound engineer, and you’re going to have to be flexible and make some on-the-fly adjustments.
Yet, even as your band bounces around from place to place, delving into unchartered tonal and acoustic territories, there are some tactics you can employ that should consistently give you an edge in terms of your live sound.
Basically, these are things you should attend to every time you get set up to play live, regardless of where you’re at:
1. Getting there early — Every member of the group— not just the sound folks or one of the guitar players— needs to be there early; if possible, really early.
No matter who you are, how great your equipment is or how good of a sound tech you might be, timing is the only thing that’s going to win the battle in terms of a great live sound. If you constantly have to rush before shows to even get a sound check in, the best you can hope for is decent, and that’s only if you’re lucky.
Get to the venue in the middle of the day (for weekend shows, this should be easy) and get the sound just right without anyone around to listen during the first few awful takes. Once it’s show time, you’ll have a clean slate.
2. Amp positioning — Don’t think that this is just the guitar and bass players’ responsibility. A sound tech is the one who can hear directional sounds coming from the stage, so make sure you pay attention to what you’re hearing from the amps, even if they’re mic’d and coming through the main speakers.
Know that loud amps will mean higher volume in certain direction and not others, so you’ll have to adjust accordingly.
3. Noise suppression and compressors — There are several different places where you can include these, and several different forms as well.
The most basic is in the form of effects pedals for your guitar and bass players. They’ll cut down on excess noise, smooth out the dynamics and volume of their playing, and in some cases, will even do a good job of hiding mistakes.
If you’ve got a bit more money to spend, consider adding a rack-mounted noise suppressor or compressor for your entire sound system.
4. Initial volume adjustment — This has got to happen everywhere, meaning guitars, pedals, amps and the mixing board. Keep in mind that turning everything on and pushing everyone to around the same volume isn’t going to get it done. You’ve got to make adjustments based on the room you’re in and typical volumes for each band member.
5. On-the-fly volume adjustment — Once you’ve set your initial volumes for everyone, sitting back and disengaging from what’s going on can mean your sound will deteriorate as the show progresses.
The reason is that what works for one song, might not work for another. For example, if the lead guitar is louder for a heavier song on the setlist, and the band then plays something softer with less guitar emphasis, continuing to have a loud guitar is going to sound pretty strange.
That means that you have to make adjustments on-the-fly, and that you’ve got to pay particularly close attention to what you’re hearing when songs change.
You know that a musician isn’t going to check out mentally during a live show, which means a sound tech shouldn’t either.
If everyone can stay focused and attend to the subtle nuances and changes in sound as the show wears on, you’ll set a new standard for what a show should sound like. Keeping that up over the course of several performances means the group probably will start to worry a lot less about a horrible sounding live performance.
Marcela De Vivo is a writer for Arena online streaming site, a music enthusiast and business owner who loves going to see live shows in Los Angeles, and she knows that if anything can ruin a band’s performance, it’s their sound. Follow her on Pinterest to find more tips like these.