How to Sound Better Live

author: guitarlessonoid date: 05/08/2014 category: guitar techniques
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How to Sound Better Live
Live sound can be complex and unpredictable. Here are some ideas to improve your guitar sound in the mix of your live band.

The Six Rules (In Order of Importance)

There are a lot of big and small ways that you can improve your live sound. The truth is, you should always be looking for ways to sound better and perform better. I've made a list of 6 ideas for how to sound better live.
  • Make sure you can hear everyone, listen to them!
  • There is a difference between a great stand alone guitar tone and a great guitar tone in the mix of the band.
  • Find your volume sweet spot. Hint: it's not full volume.
  • Use the EQ knobs on your amp.
  • Know the proper order in which to place your effect pedals.
  • Befriend the sound technician. Don't be a d-ck.
So there's my list. Let's talk about each idea in detail.

1. Make sure you can hear everyone, listen to them!

Listening is and will always be the most important part of having a great sound. This idea is important for every other item in my list (except befriending the sound technician).

So to be clear, as a guitarist you will want to hear yourself loudest, then just underneath you should be the drummer, bass, other guitars and vocals. Basically everyone wants to hear the mix that is going out to the crowd, with the only difference being they can hear themselves just on top of the mix. If you play guitar and sing, you want to hear your guitar and vocals on top of the mix that goes out to the crowd.

One common problem is putting yourself too loud in your monitor mix. Also, having anyone in the band too low in the mix (meaning you can't really hear them) can cause problems. What kind of problems, you ask?

1. The worst problem you could run into is having your band get out of sync. Your hitting your chords at different times, you start to wonder if your bandmates are even playing the same song as you because you are at different parts in the same song. If this happens then the crowd starts feeling uncomfortable. People will be too busy noticing the terrible sounds coming from the stage to enjoy your face-melting guitar solo.

2. There are lots of little problems that can arise from not being able to hear anyone. One example would be bad or incorrect tones. Maybe someone is on the wrong channel, or they forgot to turn off their reverb when they switched to their gain channel. This can result in a really bad mix if it goes unfixed. Other problems that could go unnoticed are bad cables, EQ problems, bad batteries and a variety of other things.

The reason hearing and listening to your band is so vital is that your audience is listening to the band's final product, not just your individual performance. Even if you have the perfect gig, if your bandmates are having problems then the crowd won't be talking about you tomorrow.

2. There is a difference between a great stand alone guitar tone and a great guitar tone in the mix of the band.

This is something I see far too often in my local music scene. There is not enough space hear to go into detail about how you should choose your tones, but let's at least scratch the surface.

When plug your guitar in at home by yourself, you start flipping the channels, turning up the gain, turning up the bass on your EQ knob, searching for this super thick, bassy, full tone. You start hammering your power chords out and you've got the volume cranked up. You start thinking to yourself "I sound like a full band all by myself..."

Meanwhile your rhythm guitar player is doing the same thing. He finds a super thick, deep, rich tone that fills up his entire basement. Then you both come together for practice Friday night and you start playing your parts together and your mom is upstairs thinking, "My god, do they call this noise music?"

Guess what? Your mom has a point. One of the secrets of great live (and recorded) sound is giving every instrument its own space. What does that mean exactly?

When a sound engineer talks about space, he is referring to a variety of things, but the big one is the sound/pitch spectrum. Bass drums and bass guitars have most of their sound in the low end of the spectrum, guitars and vocals usually have most of their sound in the middle of the spectrum, and snare drums, cymbals and sometimes guitars and vocals can have sound in the high end. In live sound, these spaces are referred to as lows, mids and highs. We will talk a bit more about this in the EQ section.

The point I'm trying to make is that if you try to get this full, deep, thick guitar tone to use in your band, then you are going to be using up a lot of "space." You will be soaking up a lot of the "lows" where the bass drum and bass guitar belong, and you'll be using up all of the space in the "mids." There won't be any room for the vocals and rhythm guitar.

Ok we can finish this discussion in a minute.

3. Find your volume sweet spot. Hint: It's not full volume.

I know it's a bit cliche to be talking about turning your volume up too loud. I've been in bands where the other guitarist always wanted to be louder. But I want to talk about something that's not cliche.

A lot of guitarists don't realize that your guitar's tone is affected not only by their gain knob, but also by the volume knob.

This isn't a very complicated idea, and it is often just a matter of taste. All I really want to say on the issue is that you should be aware that your volume knob on your dirty channel can affect the tone that comes out of your amp. So you may play live with your volume at 5 even if you practice with your volume at 6.

The sound technician can always turn you up louder on the PA system. Your band doesn't have to be at the same levels you practice with because you have a PA to set the levels for you.

If you didn't already know this, most amps sound best when they are very loud, usually between 5 and 8. But they will start to distort in a bad way if you turn them up too loud.

4. Use the EQ (Equalization) knobs on your amp.

There are two benefits from becoming familiar with the EQ knobs on your amp. The first is one that we discussed earlier when we talked about "space" in your live sound. The second is by changing the tone of your guitar so that it can take on new characteristics.

Without getting too technical, I want to briefly talk about how to EQ two guitars playing together. In a live setup, there are two places that a guitar is EQ'ed. The first is inside your amp, and the second is on the soundboard that the sound technician is using. Obviously the soundboard will have more control because it usually has 4 or more EQ knobs while a guitar amp never has more than 3.

So when you play live, you hope that your sound technician does a good job of creating space for every instrument in the mix, but you can also do a bit of that yourself. The easiest way is to dial one guitar back a bit on the lows and dial the other guitar back on the highs. This gives one guitar a strong presence in the lower mids and the other guitar will have presence in the high mids.

HOWEVER, this is not what your amp EQ's were created for!!! So you must understand that you should not take this practice to the extreme. A good sound technician would not require any help from an amps EQ knobs. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of good sound technicians in my local music scene, so sometimes my lead guitarist and I will create our own space.

The other use of the EQ knobs is to change the guitar's overall tone. Since again, I cannot relay this message accurately with text, I will refer you to another video. This video does a great job of addressing the effects of different amp settings on tone. It also addresses some extra things that I haven't written about here. It's worth a watch. And no, that's not me.

5. Know the proper order in which to place your effect pedals.

The order of your pedals can have a significant effect on your sound. It may not be obvious, but if you think about it, that makes sense.

An effect pedal takes the signal going into its input, changes it, and sends the new signal through its output. So think about it like this.

Let's say you have two pedals. And let's say your original signal can be represented by a number, we'll say 10. Pedal A changes the signal by dividing it by 2, and pedal B changes the signal by adding 10.

If pedal A comes before pedal B, then your final signal will be 15 (10 / 2 + 10 = 15). If pedal B comes before pedal A then you final signal will be 10 (10 + 10 / 2 = 10).

Guitar pedals work in the same way. So you should figure out what order gives you the best tones.

There is no universally accepted order of pedals, but here is one suggested configuration.
  • Tuner - It is best to tune to the raw unchanged signal.
  • Wah - wah effects are often influences by the attack of your pick, so its best to keep it early in the chain.
  • Compression - Compression should be early in the chain, because it can water down effects by attenuating the signal. Even if the compressor is making things louder it still attenuates the signal before it amplifies it.
  • Overdrive - Overdrive's main function is to cut the peaks and valleys of the signal. It is important to keep this after compression, but it can potentially move elsewhere in the chain.
  • Pitch - Pitch shifters change the signal's frequency, This could really go just about anywhere in the chain.
  • Flangers/Phasers/Modulation - Modulation effects change the signal a lot, so you want them near the end of the chain.
  • Reverb/Echo - Reverb and Echo can get out of hand if they are not at the end of the chain.
  • Volume/Tremolo - Volume effects can go at the end, because they only affect the amplitude of the signal, they don't change the sound at all.
This is just a suggested order. Just make sure you know that order matters and that its up to your own ears to decide what sounds best.

6. Befriend the sound technician. Don't be a d-ck.

This is a pretty self explanatory one. If you're good to the sound technician, he will probably be good to you.

If you treat him poorly then he won't care about your show. It's also just a good policy in general. Don't be a D-ck.

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