What The xxx Is The Sound Engineer Up To

author: Phil Starr date: 12/20/2011 category: gear maintenance

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We've been having some technical problems with our live sound and a lot of this comes down to the lack of techie knowledge of our band members. In particular they weren't taking sound checks very seriously. I wrote this guide because it seemed slightly better than shouting at them. I hope it might be useful to other people on UG so here it is, slightly adapted. We were having two problems, hearing ourselves on stage and feedback (howlround) . There are easy technical solutions to both of these, most of which cost very little or nothing at all. Having said that you must all understand that there are limitations. For a band to be loud enough at the back of a pub we have to be loud on stage. Secondly we are a six piece and that makes our system exactly four times as difficult to run as a three piece band. We each tend to want to be slightly louder than the rest of the band to help us hear ourselves but as we all share the same space this is never going to happen. The Importance of Soundchecking. Sound checking is the only time the engineer gets to sort out the sound. If it starts badly then they can tweak the front of house sound but they can only solve technical problems by stopping or otherwise disrupting the set. The engineer can't hear the on stage sound so that can't be tweaked once we have started. This is especially true for bands with lots of people as tweaking any one affects them all. You are pretty much stuck with the sound you start the set with so get it right before the first song. Remember it is about balance so if you are turned up or down then everyone else will need to be readjusted too. I can't do this if you wander off, I need you there even if I am adjusting someone else's levels at that moment. No fag breaks or going to the bar. You know who you are! It would probably help if you understood what I am trying to do. The sound check is in stages and I try to work through it logically. Line Check Basically I'm just checking everything is working. one two' on the mic' or a ten second spell on a guitar is usually enough. I may need to repeat this to check the monitors are working. Level Check The mixer has two volume controls and three tone controls plus a load of other buttons. I need to set these individually for each mic and instrument. Because you have volume controls and all sorts of different instruments and mics I have to set the desk up so you are all operating at roughly the same level with the sliders set to the middle of their range. I'm going to need a little more than just one-two to get this right and I need to repeat the procedure for every mic and every instrument separately. Once this is done you shouldn't really touch your volume controls again. On Stage Balance The next stage is to make sure everyone can hear what they need and that the monitors aren't feeding back through the mic's. I'll do a quick check one at a time to see that each of you is coming through the monitors at roughly the same volume then I need to run through something we all plaY together to check no-one is drowning the rest out. Ideally I like to do vocals and instruments separately I don't need full songs to do this, 30 secs to a minute is usually enough and then I need a clear answer as to what you can hear and then perhaps another blast until everyone is happy. The more feedback (sic) you give me as individuals at this stage the better the results will be. If you don't tell me what is wrong I can't put it right. At this stage we will have set the volume levels on stage for the rest of the gig and any fiddling you do with volumes will mess up the on stage sound for everyone else, don't be a selfish git. The vocals, especially the lead vocals, will be quiet at this stage because the PA will be off. Front Of House Balance Only now can I set up what the audience will hear. About half of what they get is what your amps are putting out but I can add a bit of everything. The vocals the audience will hear will all come through the PA. On stage the mix is likely to sound thin as the sound will echo back when there are no people in the room. Again I don't want whole songs to set a balance, I need a minute of something in which all the instruments are playing. Ideally I'd set the vocals with something acapella followed by a bit of a song with everything going at once. Unless we take bigger speakers the bass and drums can't go through the PA. So they will have to be balanced separately and may sound over-loud on stage. As you can see I need at least 4 checks on each and every mic and instrument separately, and that is only if I get it right first time. The more goes I get to balance you the nearer I will be to perfection. If you change any amp settings I need to go right back to the level check again, which wastes everybody's time. If you leave in the middle of checking then I can't adjust you but it makes it difficult to adjust anyone else too, because a good sound is more about balance than absolute volume. If this doesn't seem like what we/you do normally that is because we don't do it properly and is one of the reasons we don't always sound so good on stage. On stage sound We have two problems, balance and volume (too much). When the sound levels are high muscles in our middle ear contract to protect our inner ear. This stops our hearing being damaged but It doesn't just reduce the sound it muffles it, giving us the it's so loud I can't hear' feeling. We will all hear more if we turn down. Have some sympathy though for the drummer who doesn't have a volume control and who has to reach the whole room without any amplification. One way of reducing the volume is to use musicians' ear plugs. They have holes in so they reduce the sound but don't muffle it (much). They also emphasise your own voice so singers tend to like them. The on stage sound is determined at the sound check. If it is wrong in the first song it won't improve during the night, well not by much. Remember the sound engineer can't hear the stage sound and each of us only hears a little bit of it. If you want a good sound you have to take the sound check seriously. This is especially true for a bigger band. Once we have set up you shouldn't touch your volume controls. If you turn them up you'll drown out someone else so the rest of can't hear their cues and if you turn down then the rest of us won't hear you properly. Feedback We're not the first band to have to fight this. The feedback comes from the mic's picking up the onstage sound and sending it amplified to the speakers which get picked up by the mics and reamplified Feedback can be solved by: Keeping the guitar amps and drums (which are high frequency sources) away from the line of the mic, Careful positioning of the mic with respect to the speakers, Using a mic which rejects outside sounds better, Using a mic which emphasizes vocals more, Adding a vocal compressor, Using a feedback filter Use better monitors To summarise we only need to turn down a little and take the sound check more seriously and we can improve our experience of the gig and with less to worry about, probably our performance.
More Phil Starr columns:
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+ A Guide To Amplifier Classes The Guide To 02/29/2012
+ A Guide To Live Sound Speakers And Amps Gear Maintenance 02/07/2011
+ Sound Good In The Rehearsal Room Junkyard 08/24/2010
+ Choosing Speakers To Drive Your Cabs Gear Maintenance 02/19/2010
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