The Soundman

Q: Why should our band have a sound engineer?

A: Because everything sounds different in front of the speakers. If you have a newly formed band, you’ll need to focus your efforts on stage to making the music, not worrying about how it sounds on the dance floor. It is true that many experienced wedding bands play without a soundman, but I’ve often found that they have succeeded in sounding over-produced, flat, and boring. If you are going to play a gig where you are the center of attention (as opposed to the bride), you need to sound energetic, and dynamic, and different from one song to the next. Your sound engineer can make that happen.

Q: What does the sound engineer do exactly?

A: The sound engineer is responsible for making the band sound as good as possible to the audience. S/he uses microphones, a mixer, signal processing electronics, amplifiers, speakers, and many yards of cables, to balance and reinforce the music created on stage so that it sounds like great music on the dance floor. There are several basic skills that involve connecting up all of the equipment. In addition, each piece has it’s own set of knobs and controls which need to be learned. The last, but most important is being able to match the various pieces of the system to the music that you hear. The trick is to know which knob to turn to make it sound better. This is a classic combination of art and technology.

Q: Who should be our sound engineer?

A: Anyone who you can convince to do the job. Often it is the boyfriend or wife of one of the musicians. The job of sound engineer can be learned just like any other. I became one because two bands merged and so there were 2 bass players (and you know what that means). Since Roy was 10-times better on the bass, I learned to play the “slide pots”. The sound person should be considered a member of the band. S/he should attend rehearsals, and s/he should get paid one share of the money. Just like other musicians, there are good sound guys, bad ones, and style issues. The main requirements are having a good ear, a logical mind (at least mostly), and an ability to explain to musicians with large frail egos why they have to make a minor adjustment so that they don’t sound like crap. The rest is just learning the cause-and-effect of all the knobs and sliders, most of which are either ignored, or set-and-forget.

Q: How much PA is enough?

A: These days, a modest PA should be enough, because if you ever need a bigger system, it will either be a house PA, or you can rent it. Your own PA need only be big enough to run your rehearsals. You’ll need mics, cables, a mixer, a stereo graphic EQ, a reverb unit, a 200 watt per channel amplifier, and two medium size full range speakers, and enough cables to hook it all up. Oh yes, and get a snake (a bundled set of mic and line cables). This single item will save you more time and trouble than you’ll ever know. I can’t draw out the exact system for you (unless you email me directly), but if you count up all the mics, including the lead guitarist and at least one for the snare drum, and get a mixer with at least 4 more channels than that (honest, you’ll need them sooner than later), you’ll be fine. For the smallest gigs, use only one speaker for the audience, and use the other as your side-fill monitor. For slightly bigger gigs, use both speakers for the audience, and obtain (buy, borrow, rent) two smaller monitor speakers. Always run your system in a bi-mono arrangement, never stereo; one channel of the amp should be for the audience, and the other is for the monitor. For bigger gigs, use your system for the monitors, and rent a bigger amp and speakers (remember to add that fee to your gig price) for the audience.

Never use your home stereo for this. It is not designed to be overdriven at the high sound levels that even a rehearsal can run. You will break your speakers, your amplifier, or both. And besides, it won’t sound very good.

Q: Where should I buy this stuff?

A: With the arrival of online auctions and classifieds, the opportunity for buying from numerous sources for the lowest price is appealing, but I don’t recommend it. The best way to buy your first PA is from a local music store that you trust. Where does your guitarist go and spend 4 hours trying out different effects boxes? Where does your keyboard player go for MIDI stuff? Sam Ash and Guitar Center are fine, but they rarely have the time, and they often don’t have a large stock of what you are really looking for – USED STUFF! Electronics and speakers don’t go bad. If they work in the store, then they’ll work for a long time, so long as they are well cared for. The only thing that can cause you trouble is the mix board, because it has moving parts and is open to the elements, but a new unit is subject to the same troubles. So write down a list of all the members of the band, and the make and model of their instruments, and the type of music you play, and the type of places you’d like to be playing in. Take this list to the selected music store, and find a salesman you like, and tell him you want to buy a simple, flexible PA from his available used gear. You’ll buy some stuff new if absolutely necessary, but not the mixer, amp, or speakers. But why, you ask? Because by building, and maintaining, this relationship, this store is going to be a lot more helpful when your amp gets rained on the morning before your “big gig”, and you need to borrow a replacement amp right away. This is not just “support your local business” jive, this is what really works. Spend your time and money all in one store (but do your homework, they are salesmen), and the relationship will pay off at crunch time.

Q: What is it going to cost?

A: Assuming you start with nothing, you’ll spend at least $1000, but probably less than $2000 (US). This may seem like a lot of money, but the cost of a rental system is usually $300-600 for a weekend, and you still need something to practice with. Sometimes it can be practical to “share” a PA with another band. There are ways to pool your money, or finance the purchase. Also, remember that used stuff can be sold at prices closer to what you paid for them. And you can rent your system to other fledgling bands as well, with an added fee for your sound engineer!

Q: We can’t get our acoustic guitarist to be heard.

A: Did you know that there is an acoustic guitar on many songs that you wouldn’t think of. The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” comes to mind. Why in the world did they add that track – because it sounded good to them! In any case, getting an acoustic guitar to work in a live environment can be challenging. If the guitar is a true acoustic, and you are trying to use a vocal mic, that is about the toughest method. The guitar is the softest instrument on stage, and it will reflect any sound from the monitors back into the mic, creating feedback. So keep the acoustic out of the monitor if you can. If you still can’t make it work, then you’ve got to use a different method to get the sound out of the guitar. A warning to acoustic guitarists, there is no way to get your rich beautiful sound out across the dance floor without changing it a little, or a lot. This is the difference between live and in-studio. The first best option is to use an Ovation-style guitar. These guitars have built-in pickups and have been optimized for the best amplified sound. If you can’t switch guitars (due to cost or devotion), then try a mounted pick-up. These come in two flavors, acoustic and magnetic. The acoustic pickup is a mini-mic that gets “stuck” on the guitar, usually near the bottom bridge. This will pick up more of the body resonances and tone, but is also more susceptible to feedback and picking up spurious guitar noises. The magnetic pickup is essentially an electric guitar pickup mounted in a holder that fits inside the throat of the acoustic guitar. In fact, if you turn down the volume, distortion, overdrive, and effects, you can make an electric guitar sound just like an acoustic. The advantage to these pickups is that they only pick up the vibrations from the strings, and are almost totally immune to acoustic feedback. The drawback is that they pick up the least amount of the “character” of the guitar body. Basically, the louder the stage, the more you’ll need the magnetic pickup.

Q: How do we control the level of the Lead Guitar?

A: The Lead Guitar is another vocal, so it needs to be treated that way. Have the guitarist set up the amp so that it is near ear level, and facing back toward himself and the band. A good place to hide it is behind the PA speakers. Set up a mic in front of the amp speaker. If the amp is a dual-speaker type, put the mic in front of one or the other, not halfway between. If the stand gets in the way, hang the mic from the cord under the amp handle, not the best sound, but out of the way. Now the Lead Guitarist can always hear himself, and the mixing person can handle the levels correctly.

Q: Our drummer can’t hear the monitors.

A: Get a mini-speaker and set it on a stand behind the drummer. If it has it’s own volume control, great. Otherwise, she can control the level by turning the speaker away as needed. If the drummer sings, place the speaker lower (on a chair) and behind, opposite from the vocal mic.

Q: Our sound is too muddy.

A: The first place to look is the equalizer settings (EQ). First of all, make sure that all of the vocal and guitar channels on the mix board have the low EQ turned down as much as possible. If you have a particularly sultry singer, remove as much of the low end as you can without ruining the voice. Be sure that the low-cut option is enabled (if available) on the mix board. If you run the bass, piano, or kick drum, through the PA, leave their low settings close to flat, but remove the lows from any other drum mics. The reason for all of this is that all low sounds are omni-directional, that means that they travel in all directions, including to the rear, equally. The higher the frequency, the more directional it becomes. Thus the sound from the bass guitar amp gets into every mic on stage – no matter where you put his amp!

Q: The sound is still too muddy.

The second place to look is at the house EQ. If the place you are playing has a house PA which normally plays background or dance music, then you may be a victim of the “smiling equalizer”. Many times you can look at a graphic equalizer and see that the knobs are arranged like a smile; the lows and highs are turned up, and the midsection is turned down. On an EQ with lots of bands, the top- and bottom-most band may also be down. This is done so that the music can be turned up louder, but not interfere with conversation. The funky bass may be rattling the windows, but the bartender can still hear your beer order. However, this is YOUR music, and you want it to be heard and listened too, so try and convince the house sound guy to change it to a “loaf of bread” (my term) where it is mostly flat (at 0db change) until you get to the far end, where it drops off. In most medium-size places, having a flat EQ from 200-8KHz is plenty. If you are running the bass guitar through the board, then go down to 100Hz on the low end. Be careful, because everything will be louder now.

Q: The house sound man doesn’t know how to make us sound good.

A: If you want the job done right… If you are lucky enough to be playing a place big enough to have a house PA, be sure to bring your own sound person. Let the place know that your sound guy is expected to be at the mix board, and to either run or direct it’s operation. The house guy may be cautious, because even an experienced engineer can mess up a system he’s not familiar with, but they tend to understand about wanting it to sound good. In fact, most house guys will be impressed that the band has hired their own engineer.