HOW TO SOUND GOOD LIVE WITHOUT BUYING MORE EQUIPMENT!
In this article I go into depth about how to make sure that your band sounds good live every night of the week, for free, and regardless of where you are playing and the equipment in use.
Playing to a room full of people is a great experience, but it can be stressful playing a new venue and working with a sound engineer who’s never heard your music before. You can’t put on a great show if you’re struggling to hear yourselves on stage! You have the opportunity to win over new fans, but is the audience going to be able to hear the nuances in your music clearly, or is it just going to be a garbled mess of sound?
Wouldn’t it be great if you could take a lot of the guesswork out and almost guarantee it’s going to sound good live every night? What if I told you, you can, you don’t need to buy any equipment, and it’s easy to do!
Over the past 20 years I’ve worked with thousands of bands, at different venues all over the world, and some bands just sound great as soon as you throw up the faders, and are really easy to mix. At first I didn’t understand why this was, but over time I figured it out, and that’s what I’d like to share with you today.
Balancing The Band
It all starts with the balance of the band. How does the band sound before you throw mics in front of everything and amplify it further? If one of the guitarists has their amp turned up to eleven while the other guitar is much quieter, then the engineer is going to have to compensate for this. There have also been plenty of times when the bassist has had their amp too loud onstage and I’ve had to turn it off completely in the PA, and even then it’s still been too loud. This never sounds good live. Live sound is supposed to be sound reinforcement, where the engineer is amplifying what is already there, not trying to create something audible out of the mess on stage!
If everything is already loud onstage it doesn’t mean everyone is going to hear themselves better. Just try turing up a guitar amp and standing behind it while your guitarist plays. All the definition is lacking and there’s a lot of lowmid and low frequency information which just creates more reflections as sound bounces off the walls and stage and adds more mud to contend with. Now add two more amps and it’s impossible to make out what anyone is playing!
So let’s start by turning down onstage. At this point guitarists always point out that their guitar amp doesn’t sound as good when it isn’t cranked. But what good is a great sounding guitar amp, when everyone else has had to turn up to hear themselves over the guitarist’s amp, and the audience can’t hear a thing through the mess of sound coming from the stage. So to sound good live, find your tone at lower volume, be it by driving the preamp tubes harder with an overdrive pedal, using an attenuator between the power amp and the speaker or using a digital guitar amp.
Then we need to address the drums. One of the most important factors to sound good live. Chances are the drummer is wearing earplugs, as they don’t want to damage their hearing. The problem with this is that regardless of price earplugs are much better at dampening the higher frequencies than the lower ones. This means the drummer can be unaware that they are hitting their cymbals harder than they need to and are squewing the balance of the drumkit. Cymbals are also unfortunately in the frequency range which collides the most with the detail in vocals and guitars, making those things harder to hear.
Unlike the rest of the band, who have one instrument to play the drummer has a tougher job of balancing their instruments, by varying how hard they hit certain things.
A good way to visualise a good balance for a drumkit it is that the drummer should hit the hardest at the bottom of their kit and hit the lightest at the top of it. So heavy on the kick, medium on the snare and toms and light on the cymbals.
A great way to check your levels is if you rig up at your rehearsal space in the same way you would for a gig, with everything inline with the drum kit, then all stand next to one another on the opposite side of the room, and take your earplugs out to listen while you play. That’s how an audience will hear your band and you'll be able to hear if it sounds good live. You’ll probably find that it gets too loud to hear anything clearly, but you can now easily balance the levels of the amps and drums. This will take some time, but you’ll find that if you work at it you’ll be able to hear everything much better the quieter you manage to play.
Then we come to Monitoring, or as I once heard them described by a band, feedback speakers!
The more experienced a band is playing live, the more they understand what they need to hear in their monitors.
A sure fire way to tell that a band is inexperienced is when they ask for everything in their wedge, you don’t need that. This just ends up being confusing when combined with the sound coming from the amps and drums onstage and won't sound good live. If you have a balanced starting point, and you are stood in front of your own amp, then you don’t need much in the monitors at all.
So the key is to keep it minimalistic.
Lets start with the singer. Seeing as they probably can’t sing as loud as a guitar amp, they will need to have lots of vocals here to be able to hear themselves at all and that’s it! Unless there are any other instruments that don’t make much sound, like Keyboards or acoustic guitar.
Then we come to the guitarists. They might need a bit of the other guitarist if there is one, as when they are stood on one side of the stage they probably can’t hear the amp on the other side and perhaps a little bit of vocals so they know where they are in the song. The same with the bass player. They might need to hear a little of the guitar amp that’s furthest away and vocals. The drummer, who’s now mastered balancing their playing won’t need any of the drums in the monitor but as they are behind all the amps, they will need to hear guitars and vocals.
So the gist of it is as little as possible, just the things that are too far away for you to be able hear clearly.
Once you’ve done all of this your band will sound the best it possibly can and sound good live every night. You’ve given the engineer an easy job and your audience will be wowed over by your songs.
A lot of these concepts will also help your band sound great in the studio.
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