Even if you’ve polished your tunes, rehearsed your set, double-confirmed your tour dates, and tested out all of your gear, there can still be some big unknowns when it comes to sharing your music with a live crowd. Take, for instance, the sound system.
For many acts who are not yet playing stadiums (and even some who do), dealing with sound at a music gig can often range anywhere from a minor annoyance to a major catastrophe. Broken PA components, weird-sounding rooms, difficult on-site staff, or the lack of someone present who can actually mix live music can be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unexpected sonic problems at the venue.
On the bright side, there are any number of tried and true ways to minimize your on-the-gig headaches when it comes to dialing in your live band sound. Here are just a few live sound tips to keep you sane — and sounding great.
“As an indie artist with a very diverse fan base, I wind up playing in a lot of different environments, and getting good sound was the biggest challenge on my latest tour,” says electronic music pioneer Moldover. “Some of my gigs were at venues with big sound systems, experienced sound engineers, and a proper sound check. Some were at dive bars set up for DJs, so I ended up plugging into a DJ mixer and doing my own soundcheck. Then there were also house concerts, where somebody’s friend was bringing and setting up a PA, and other artists were performing as well, doing more acoustic things.”
In practical terms for Moldover, this meant having to be able to quickly adjust his own rig and needs to fit the sound gear available — for example, being able to have his sound go directly into the PA’s mixer simply through a standard pair of stereo outs, or taking more of a multi-channel approach that included separate channels for his vocals, computer, monitors, and so on.
“Showing up with a rig that scales or telescopes to fit your venue and sound system is really helpful,” he says — and a trip to Radio Shack or your local music store to load up on an assortment of cables and plug converters can be a great start.
Be ready for the worst
“When you’re dealing with a house sound system, a good assumption is that nothing works,” says Mike Seddon, owner of Live Sound Inc. in Troy, New York. “Thinking in terms of what could go wrong will get you everywhere. Try to think three steps ahead.”
If you’re tech-ing your own sound, the first step that Seddon recommends is, as soon as you arrive at your venue, turn on the system to see what works and what doesn’t. “If you do that first thing, you have maximum time to troubleshoot, develop a workaround, or take other actions — like getting another PA in there if you need it,” he says.
Seddon recalls learning a valuable lesson while working as tour support for a band on a festival circuit, where each act typically had fifteen minutes to set up and get ready to go. “I assumed, incorrectly, that all of the gear provided would be working correctly, but it turns out that the signal indicator lights on a bus compressor were working, but the compressor circuitry wasn’t actually processing the signal,” he says. “Then another piece of equipment in the same rack, a gate, had its indicator lights burned out, but was processing signal. I became so distracted with this that I wasted our precious soundcheck time.”
If he had approached the gear provided with greater skepticism from the get go, Seddon says, the show would have gone more smoothly. “I learned to use only the minimum amount of gear I needed to get a good basic mix going, and then see if I could add other pieces to make it sound even better,” he says.
Part of preparing for the worst, Moldover adds, is bringing as much of your own sound gear as is reasonable. “If you have space in your vehicle and the money to do so, just bring your own sound system,” he says. “Or at least bring your own stands and microphone.”
If you don’t have access to a vehicle or are flying from gig to gig, you may not be able to bring the ten mic stands your horn section needs, for example, but even providing your own microphones in such a situation can put more sonic control in your hands at the end of the day. “The less you have to depend on venue’s backline, the better,” he says.
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