Live Sound 101: Getting Started

A couple of weeks ago, we were asked to provide training at one of the venues we consult with. They have an Allen Heath QU-24 (*) – with specific quirks (if in doubt RTFM), but we’d like to share the basics of the training session below, in the first of our Live Sound 101 articles.

Live Sound 101: Getting Started

Start with the basics

You might be working on a very small system (two powered speakers and a small mixer, perhaps), or something bigger and more complicated – in either case, start with the basics. Make sure your stage is set with enough space for the performers – that usually means 2m x 2m for the drum kit (if you have a drum mat from Protection Racket or similar, this is easy to check), and space in front for a singer or two to move around. In a lot of small venues you’ll be limited by space, so the drums don’t necessarily have to go in the middle – but give the drummer some space!
Next make sure your speakers are in the right place. Your main (front of house or FOH) speakers need to be in front of the microphones, otherwise you’ll get feedback (we’ll deal with that in more depth in a later article). If you’re on a very small stage, and you need to put the speaker stands offstage, then do it. Monitor speakers (the wedge ones that go onstage), can go anywhere that the artist can hear them – although it’s a good idea to shield them from the mics as much as possible.
Lastly – make sure that all the relevant equipment has power going to it. I’m always surprised how many engineers I see running about during the soundcheck trying to find another extension cable.
We always put the power cables in each speaker as soon as they’re set up, then you can easily see how many sockets are needed in each location. Run the neccessary extensions (and spread the load between as many outlets as you have available), and provide an extra couple of 4-gang extensions for the band’s amps and pedals.

Follow a simple process

Your process will vary according to the band, the venue, the PA rig, and personal preference – but it’s always best to have a simple system. Here is ours:
First make sure the speakers are working and that everything is routed correctly. The best way to do this is with an iPod or similar music source, so you’re not hunting down any issues with the band breathing down your neck!
Firstly, bring the music into the desk and check it in headphones, then bring up the two master faders and check the volume is at the level you’d expect it to be. It’s also worth panning left & right to make sure you haven’t cabled in backwards (again, a small mistake and it’s easily done!).
Next check the monitors; if you’re using more than one mix, check they’re coming out of the correct speakers. 9 times out of 10 everything will be fine – but if it’s not then you want to find out well before the band soundcheck.
Finally, once the FOH and monitor speakers are sounding good (for slightly more advanced readers this is where you set up your graphic EQ!), set up your mics and cable in. We suggest plugging in the desk (or stagebox) first, then running to the mic. That way your excess cable is distributed around the stage and you can easily move the mics if needed – run the other way and all the excess creates a mess at the desk end and the singer is stuck with whatever length of cable you’ve chosen to give them. We also avoid doing more than one wrap of cable around the stand. It’s nightmare when somebody wants to take their mic off the stand – and if they pull on it you can easily break cables.

One thing at a time

Go through channel by channel, raise the gain and check each source in headphones. I think of gain like shining a torch from the mic – not enough gain and you won’t hear anything but as you increase the gain, the mic “sees” a much wider view of what’s in front of it. You want a healthy sound level, but you don’t want to hear cymbals in your vocal mic, or bass in your guitar mic! You may need phantom power (+48v) on some DI boxes and condenser mics. Most desks have +48v on each channel, but some older/cheaper analogue boards have one switch that sends +48v to all mic (XLR) inputs(“global phantom power). Be careful as phantom power can damage some sensitive mics such as ribbon types (but you probably won’t be using those live anyway!) – and it’s not good for your iPhone either.

Preparation for the next gig

The packdown from one gig is the preparation for the next gig. Done right, it will make the next gig much easier! All your equipment should have a home (in the venue or in road cases), analogue desks will need to be zero’d (returned to “flat settings”) for the next person, and all cables should be neatly wrapped (and not around your elbow!). Anything that has broken during the show should be clearly marked and handed to whoever does your maintenance.

Live Sound 101 is a new series of posts from Clear and Loud, based on simple issues we’ve been asked to solve in the past. If there are any topics you’d like to cover, please let us know!
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