It's the day of your gig; you are nervous and excited, you have been practicing for months, you have scraped together all the gear you need. What can possibly go wrong? Well let's hope it isn't the PA.
This article is aimed at a band who are just starting out with live performance and who want to get the sound right. I'm assuming that you have decided against a fully mixed system because of the expense and there is no house PA. I am also assuming that you have read part 1 of this guide.
Of course things will go wrong. I can only give the galactic advice: don't panic. You can solve almost any problem with a little time and some forward planning. So get there early with all the gear and the band members. You'll need time to find where everything is at the venue and it is almost impossible to set up with the audience there. If something does go wrong just take things steadily and you will fix it. Try to think beforehand about what might stop you playing and take spares to act as backup. As a minimum have plenty of spare fuses, a spare for each type of cable and lead that you use, a basic toolkit, spare tubes/valves for your amps and replacements for anything that could go wrong and kill the gig.
Sound Engineers and Psychiatrists
You are going to struggle to do everything yourself if you are also playing, once the performance starts you have to concentrate on the music. Put somebody you trust in overall control of the sound, someone who knows a bit about music and who isn't scared of technology. Their job is to listen to the band from somewhere out in the audience and to make sure everyone is heard and the overall sound is well balanced.
You now need to work as a team to get the best sound you can. Band members should all be prepared to compromise because if any of the band sound bad then you will all sound bad. Work steadily and rationally making small adjustments and solve one problem at a time. Listen to what each other have to say and to the sound engineer' who is the only person who can hear all of the sound. You have to get the ego thing right. There is no place for the prima donna who only cares about themself and the shy retiring violet who tells you at the end of the gig that they couldn't hear what was going on isn't being very helpful either. You'll find that coping with the technology is easy but as a sound engineer your people skills will really be tested.
I'll now explain the routine which works for me. There are other ways and once you know what you are doing and have created a sound you are happy with then you will develop your own routine.
The Onstage Sound
Set up the drums, backline, monitors and PA. You should have some idea of volume settings from rehearsals so start there, remembering that you will probably need to be a bit louder at the gig. With the monitors on but the PA right down and your trusted sound engineer out in the auditorium run through a song you know you play well. Could you all hear what you needed to hear? Were the vocals really clear for the singer? Could the rest of you hear what they were singing? How about the sound in the auditorium? (Without the PA the vocals will be a bit quiet you are listening for instrumental balance at this point). If everyone says one instrument is too quiet turn it up. If only one or two people are unhappy then try moving them or the amps around. Try pointing speakers at people who can't hear or move them closer to the speaker. Move them away from whatever is drowning out what they want to hear. Band member's opinions are important at this time but you won't achieve perfection. Just use a little common sense and be prepared to try things. Think about essentials; bass and drums work together so put them next to each other, if a guitarist has a split stack can you move one of the speakers so that everyone can hear them? Don't forget you have tone controls too. Too much bass can muddy the sound and lots of middle will make things penetrate more.
There's a learning curve for the band here. Some players like to really hear themselves and others are put off if they think they are too far forwards in the mix. The former are always turning themselves up and the latter turning themselves down, both ruin the mix. You've got to be professional at this point. You all have to agree not to change your settings onstage once you've got a good balance. Only the sound engineer should change volumes once you've set a balance as they are the only ones who can really hear the sound from out where the audience will be.
Having got a reasonable onstage sound put the PA on. It needs to be set up so you can adjust the volume separately from the vocal monitors. Run through the song again adjusting the volume of the PA to give a balanced sound out in the auditorium. You might want to tweak some of the instrument amps a little but do not mess up the onstage sound too much. The vocals may sound a little too loud onstage at this point but don't worry, this is because the audience will soak up the sound from the PA. Without an audience the sound will be bouncing back at the band from the rear walls and floors. Play through a couple of numbers and if everyone is happy you are done.
Mixing at the Gig
Ok the time has come. The audience are there your gear is set up everything is in tune even your laid back multi-instrumentalist. Your sound engineer is out in the audience (but not so far out that they can't get back). You should sound OK if you did the soundcheck right but you will need to make further adjustments. Two things have changed: the audience have altered the acoustics of the room and the band are pumped up with adrenalin and will probably be playing louder than ever before except for the one whose stage fright makes them too scared to make any sudden movements. What can you do?
Generally speaking the audience will absorb a lot of the sound cleaning up the acoustics of the room. They absorb high frequencies more than the bass so you will have a very different tonal balance. This means vocals in particular can be lost. You might want to turn them up or down a little or to tweak the tone controls to give more clarity. Do this slowly so the audience don't notice sudden changes. You can turn the bass player up or down within limit's to get a better overall balance without disturbing the band too much. The bassist may even change their tone settings if you are nice to them (I play bass and people are rarely nice to me) at the other extreme guitarists are really fussy about their tone, depending upon their temperament, and you shouldn't interfere with their settings unless they really have it wrong. You are a sound engineer making technical tweaks not artistic decisions. If however they are too loud or too quiet they should accept your judgement and let you reset their levels, after all they can't hear what the audience hear. Only make minor tweaks at this stage though and be prepared to go back two or three times until the balance is right, don't mess up the sound on stage, the band absolutely have to be able to hear what they are playing. Unless the sound mix is truly awful only make adjustments between songs. The audience should only notice that the band gradually sound better as the set progresses and not sudden changes in the sound.
At the half time interval or at the end of the gig talk to the band members about the sound so you can improve it next time. As you get to know them as musicians you will find better ways to solve their sound problems and anticipate what they will do.
One of the biggest problems you will encounter is feedback or howl-round. As the volume rises the sound from the speakers reaches the microphone, it is then amplified and goes round again and is amplified again within seconds becoming a real howl. It is too complex to go into here but there are things you can do to avoid it or remove it:
Buy a proper stage mic,
Make sure the speakers are pointing away from the mic and have the mic well behind the PA speakers,
Make sure the singer isn't covering the rear mesh on the mic with their hand,
Get the singer as close to the mic as possible
Point the back of the mic at the monitors. They are designed to be less sensitive in a direct line from the back
Sometimes tweaking the tone controls helps
Turn down volume controls one at a time to find out where the feedback is starting.
Try moving the mic to avoid any resonant spots on the stage.
If all else fails you will just have to turn the volume down.
Singing Through The Soup
The next problem you will have is that although the instruments are in balance it all sounds a bit of a mush. There are a couple of reasons for this that you can clean up a bit. The first is due to the generally high level of sound on stage. The vocal mic will be picking up the instrument amps. If the sound level onstage is over 90dB, and it almost always is, then some of the sound will be louder than the vocalist. Have a listen to the PA when the vocalist isn't singing. Everything you can hear that shouldn't be there is muddying your sound and this is made worse because there is a slight time delay. Some mic's pick up more onstage sound than others (I love Shure sm58's), but moving the backline to point away from any vocal mic's will help.
The next thing to clean up the sound is to separate the instruments in tone. If your guitarist has the bass full up with an open backed cab and the bass player has the lower mids up whilst the keyboards are playing lots of full left hand chords then the energy in this area will swamp the stage. Equally guitars with too much middle will fight with the vocals. Some of this is about making an artistic decision but try to optimise tone settings within this. If you have a fully mixed system you also have the option of separating instruments in space by using the pan controls.
The other thing which really muddies the sound are the room acoustics. Long thin rooms, lots of hard surfaces and high ceilings can be killers. The only things you can do here are to make sure curtains are closed and point the speakers away from walls if you can. Sometimes moving away from rear walls and moving speakers away from reflecting walls and floors will help but some rooms just sound awful.
That's it then. If it has all been a bit obvious then I'm sorry, I was aiming at people just starting. There are so many variables of instruments, personalities and musical styles that this was much harder to write than I thought. I'd appreciate any advice from you though. In the end getting a great sound is more about the people than the equipment. If you all work together and are prepared to compromise and to discuss problems you can sound great with minimal resources. If you are all ego the laws of nature will make you sound rubbish, and that's how it should be.