I'm going to try to help the new band to get a great sound right from the start and initially this means in the rehearsal room. The sad thing is that being in a band doesn't sound like it does in your imagination when you are playing air guitar.
Ok I've said band so I'd better elaborate. I'm talking about a typical rock/pop band with a singer, bass, drums and since this is UG at least one guitarist. You may be singing whilst playing or you might add more band members but the principles are the same.
If you want to sound good then you will have to spend some money or be good at scrounging/borrowing but I'm going to assume that money is tight and try to keep costs to a minimum. I'm writing this in 2010 and the prices I'm giving are new, you should aim to get used for half these prices.
Sounding good is about having good instruments and then amplifying them so all the instruments make a balanced sound. I'm assuming that you are happy with your axe but if you've been using a practice amp then you need to get something that will match the drummer. This means 30W'ish for a guitar (a bit more if you are using a solid state amp) and probably 100W for bass (200W is better for live performance) These are very approximate figures though and I suggest you read this
. These are kind of minimum figures but at this point I have to tell you that you now have the power to ruin the sound for everyone else. More about this later.
What you won't have, probably, is any way of amplifying vocals. Listen to any recorded music and you realise that the vocals are louder than all the other instruments although the soloists may be just as loud when their turn at the front comes. You've got to achieve this balance in the rehearsal room. The vocalist will need to hear their vocals above anything else, they don't have the luxury of frets and electronic tuners and if they can't hear themselves then they will sing out of tune. A vocalist will eventually need two lots of amplification, A monitor to hear themself on stage and a PA so the audience can hear them. You can save yourself some money by making sure that anything you buy to use in the rehearsal room can double up when you appear on stage, that way you won't lose out by having to trade up in a few months time.
Start with a decent mic. You would think nothing about paying 200+ on a guitar but your band is going to be defined, like it or not, by your vocal sound. You'll use the mic forever and if you ever play live a good vocal sound will make your band stand out from the other bands out there. The industry standard is the Shure sm58. (seen at Glastonbury 2010 and 1970 and in countless live performances across the world). Think of it as being like a Fender Strat. It has its own sound which you may like or not but a Strat is a good guitar and the Shure is a good mic. Costs about 90 here, it'll last you at least ten years or 9 a year. Alternatives are the Sennheiser 835 or the AKG D5 amongst others. If you are really short of cash there are a couple of alternatives which are basically SM58 clones which I've used and found to be nearly as good. They are reasonably well made too, the Samson Q6 (30) and the Behringer XM8500 (16, without a lead though)!
The next thing you need is an amp which for vocals is called a monitor. You'll need monitors for when you start performing (so you can hear yourselves on stage) and so buy something which will do this job as well as work in the rehearsal room. The alternative is to buy a small PA system which might help out with early gigs but which you can go on to use as monitors as soon as you can afford better. I'll explain.
Monitors are (usually) small speakers that are built so that the speaker is at an angle pointing up towards the performers ears. Because of their shape they are also called Wedges. They can be powered by a separate amp (passive wedges) but I'd recommend that you look for one with the amp built in. We bought a Laney CXP 110
which does a good job. It cost us about 130. The only disadvantage is that it only has a single volume control so you can't mix in sounds and it only has an unbalanced mic input. The advantage is that you just plug the mic in and away you go and you can run it off a mixing desk if needs be and also add an extension speaker. Most manufacturers make a version of this and you could probably find one to take a balanced mic input. This would be perfect for practice as well.
The alternative is a cheap PA like this
. You can get even cheaper if you go for non-branded. The mics are usually something to throw away and the PA won't be loud enough for anything other than an acoustic act. The problem is the speakers, Manufacturers have to compromise on the magnets to make anything at this price so the speakers are generally not very efficient (loud), however volume isn't such a problem if you use them as monitors as you will be close to the speakers and they will be quite adequate for even a large practice room.
Most PA speakers nowadays are built in a wedge shape deliberately so you can use them as monitors so be reassured this is just as good a choice as a dedicated monitor. They'll act as your practice set up now and occasional PA use and form your monitor system as soon as you can afford something better.
A third option would be to buy an active PA speaker; more expensive but much better quality. Something like this
As a singer you need to invest if you want people to think you are serious. Other band members have bought a guitar and amp as tools of their trade. They are really going to appreciate you coming with a good mic and your own amplification.
Ok you've got all your gear together and away you go with the first song. You can't hear yourself over the drums so you turn up a bit. Now the guitarist can't hear their licks so they turn up a bit. Now the bassist decides they are too quiet and they turn up so you can't hear the vocals and these go up again. After two songs everyone is turned up to 11 and no-one has any idea of what they are doing through the mud. Welcome to the volume war.
I want to be a little bit sympathetic though. It is really hard when you start out to pick yourself out of the mix. Some people are better than others at this and it is a skill you have to learn. It is much easier to pick yourself out of the mix when it is not too loud though. Your ears will try to protect themselves from damage at high sound levels and this restricts your hearing of detail, so, keeping the volume down makes a lot of sense. As well as the fact that human sense organs are just not designed to cope with rock band sound levels there is another problem and that is the physics of sound. Your amps are designed to be heard clearly at the back of an audience perhaps 10 or 15 metres away. You are standing 2metres from your amp. The sound from your speakers radiates out as a cone at high and mid frequencies and almost halves in volume every time you double the distance from the speaker. There's not much point in having the cone of sound shining on the backs of your legs (as many bands do)and missing your ears before going on in an ever widening cone to blast out your band mates.
Whether you are on stage, or in the practice room, space yourselves out. Then you can move around. Get in the habit of moving towards your own amp to get a bit more of your own sound. Try leaning it back to point at your ears or raise it on a stand. Try not to stand in a direct line with anyone else's amp. If one instrument is drowning out everyone else it is always better to get them to turn down rather than to turn yourself up.
Getting a Balance
How loud is it fair to be in a band? Very roughly you should all play at the same level. Being louder than your mates is just selfish and just sounds bad. Listen carefully to the bands you want to sound like though and you'll get a good idea of the balance you wish to achieve. There are couple of ways people usually set up. The vocals should usually be the loudest sound and high mic levels will lead to feedback, so some bands start with these. Then set up each instrument in turn to a comparable level letting the rest of the band decide the appropriate level. You're going to have to make your drummer go easy. Good luck with that! The second method is to start with the rhythm section; bass sets to drums then guitars and finally vocals, By the way bass tone is almost completely dependent upon room acoustics. Small rooms and the close floors and walls reinforce the bass so turn the deep bass off and generally go for a toppier sound if you practice in a small room. Once you have set levels leave them alone. Make sure any effects are set up so your level stays good. If you can't hear yourself try moving into your amps spotlight' area. If someone is drowning you out move out of line with their amp, only then ask if they are drowning out everyone else and turn them down. Only turn yourself up if the rest of the band can't hear you. Remember no-one will get everything they want so you all have to compromise.
Once you get used to it this all becomes second nature.
Feedback or howlround is that shrieking sound you get when the mic' picks up the sound from the speakers and sends it back round to be amplified again. In the small practice room with lots of hard surfaces and not much space it happens a lot because the sound is bouncing off walls in all directions. The best way of avoiding it is to have a good mic' and know how to use it. If it is a cardioid mic then put the monitors directly behind the mic in its blind spot. If it is hyper-cardioid then the blind spots are behind the mic' at about 45 degrees off centre. Never hold the rear grille on the mic as this makes it pick up from every direction. Be prepared to move the speakers and mic' to avoid hot spots. Listen to the frequency of the howl and try to tune it out with the tone controls. If all else fails then you have to turn everything down.
I hope that this gives you a few practical tips. So go out and get your mic' and monitors and have some fun. I'll see you when you're rich and famous.