Getting a good sound, before your sound system

You can have the most expensive, most exciting PA system on the local scene, but if your bands sound before it even gets to the desk is bad, then you’re never going to sound any more than average.

Maybe this process starts at the audition/band development stage – but being in a band with a group of people who are as utterly obsessed with creating a great sound, as you are, definitely helps to drive up the quality of the act over a period of time.

Whether that’s investing in the best equipment that they can afford, or tirelessly tweaking in their own time to get guitar sounds right, or drums tuned, or tweaking the vocal sound – the first hurdle to achieving fantastic live sound in small to medium sized venues, is undoubtedly making it sound right in the rehearsal room.

What sounds great in a bedroom, doesn’t always sound great in the mix – so get it right in the rehearsal room:

One of the Black Market guitarists, has relatively recently invested in an Orange TH30 amplifier, boutique pedals, and a Gibson Les Paul Junior.  This combination has the potential to absolutely blow the doors off of most venues, and sounds incredible.

However, if you’re buying a piece of kit as serious as this, it’s worth remembering that it is unlikely that you will ever get the chance to use it at its full volume potential – so you HAVE to take the time to work out how to make the amp sound driven, without blowing away the entire band.

the immediate sound which came out of this combination was big, fat and very warm – it sounded incredible on its own – but it wasn’t until the lower end was rolled off (both on the amp, and on the EQ for front of house) that we started to get the required definition in the guitar section.

It’s imperative to check how the sound works in the WHOLE mix, BEFORE you get to a gig.

But surely the biggest issue, is the level of the drums?

Ah ha!  you’ve noticed the elephant in the room then!  The drummer – the only instrument which doesn’t have a kill switch!

There are several things you can do here.

Lighter sticks: 
If, like us, you have a hugely talented drummer, who exudes energy and is an outstanding player, but who has a tendency to allow that energy to manifest itself as a fairly loud sound at full tilt, then you might want to suggest lighter sticks.  Rhys moved to maple sticks, and it did make some difference.

Isolate one of the guitar sounds
One of our biggest challenges used to be hearing ourselves on stage.  But with a lack of proper monitoring, and a lack of space to put monitors into anyway, we found ourselves in a self perpetuating situation.

Drums play at a level, which guitars and bass then balance to.  Drums realise they can’t hear themselves – so hit the drums harder, so guitarists turn up to balance.  So drummer plays even louder!  And so, it perpetuates into a mushy mess.

We found that the best way of breaking this cycle, was to isolate the sound of at least one of the guitars.  Now guitarists, do NOT like using In-Ear Monitors in my experience – but on this occasion it has become necessary.  Our first gig using a single In Ear Monitor for the guitarist, was a bit of a revelation – cleaner sound as it was all controlled by the Front of House, and the band even played tighter, because everyone could hear themselves!!

Remember – Stage noise is the enemy!

The reality of playing on stage in small, medium and  large scale environments, is that stage noise is the enemy.  In an ideal world, from the perspective of the person mixing the band, none of the instruments on the stage would make any noise that didn’t come out of the Front of House, or the monitoring set up.  Stage noise creates muddy sound out front – a fact that is all too easy to overlook – especially when all a musician really wants, is to be able to hear what they’re.  Making sure your musicians can hear themselves, is one of the key elements of any live band scenario – and I have no problem admitting that this is an area which we’re really still working on as a band.

What have Black Market done?

From an initial starting point of blasting the living daylights out of everything, we’ve moved from micced cabinets, to DI’s (with cab modelling) on James’ guitar, a DI on Bass, and the lead singer using IEM’s.  James also uses IEM’s on occasion.  This has had the effect of “breaking the cycle” of noise growth – and has very much brought up the clarity levels of the band out front.


4 thoughts on “Getting a good sound, before your sound system

  1. Pingback: Unsuitable equipment! | Live Sound Blog

  2. Yes, this is always a tricky subject, from a sound engineer’s perspective. In small to medium sized venues, it’s always about balance. As part of the sound check, the band should play a number without the PA in order to get the stage sound as balanced as possible in terms of back line volumes vs drum kit. Once a good stage sound is achieved, the vocals can then be brought into the mix and the FOH sound adjusted to fit the venue – all good in theory until the guitarist decides he needs a little more, then the bass player….the vicious circle then ensues…sound familiar ? In truth, nearly all bands are too loud even before the PA is brought into play. Gone are the days when PA systems were in their infancy and relied on only a few watts driving poorly designed speakers, necessitating the use of multiple 100w guitar stacks in order to get the sound out there. Things have moved on guys, use the PA to do the hard work, use your on stage amps & speakers to produce the kind of sound you want but not to try to project that sound to the guy at the back of the venue, trust the PA and engineer to do that in a controlled and balanced way – after all, from where you are, you will never hear what the audience is hearing….trust your sound guy !

  3. And as for monitors…… I use RCF powered stage wedges where I can but as said before, there isn’t always room. I am convinced that from many standpoints, IEM is the way to go since it lowers stage volumes, lower volumes to the user, provides more control over each monitor mix, helps limit less stage clutter etc.
    Having experimented a bit with cheaper IEM systems, I have concluded that you need to be prepared to make a decent investment to get the best benefit from IEM systems – good quality custom moulded ear buds form a large part of this budget.
    You also need to think about how you are going to provide the mix to the IEM system. For me it’s an easier task due to the full control over the Aux mixes provided by both our Allen & Heath desks (GLD-80 and Qu-24), additionally Allen & Heath have developed a personal monitor mixing system in tandem with these desks (ME-1) enabling the user to mix their own sound from their stage position, a very neat trick. You can of course provide a basic IEM mix from the average analog desk but the opportunities to fine tune the sound will of course be limited. It has often been said that the job of a monitor engineer in far more demanding than that of a FOH engineer and for good reason – be under no illusions, even with the best equipment, getting the perfect monitor mix is a skilled and difficult task so in our world of pub gigs, weddings and the occasional festival, it will always be a compromise, so don’t be too picky.

    • Indeed. I use a Sennheiser EW300 IEM system, but have not invested in custom moulds as yet – they cost nearly the same as the transmitter and receiver systems! As a performer I’ve also not completed enough experimentation to know whether I consistently prefer a single Monitor, or both ears – Id like to get that clear before spending out money on custom moulds!

      The big thing about IEMs from a performers perspective is that they can feel very isolated an lifeless – there are ways around this, but they take some effort. Things like adding a boundary/Ambience microphone add complexity to a setup which is already tight on time most of the time!

      My personal routing setup consists of an iPad or iPhone to control my monitor mix wirelessly from the desk (6 auxes, mixable from an iPhone or iPad – again, a neat trick!)

      We are also using a powered monitor now, but that’s because one of our guitarists is absolutely adverse to using an IEM.

      Wired IEMs for the guitarists who don’t move quite as much as me, are also an option that we’re exploring.

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