Tuesday Tip: Everything in its Place (Part 2)

Live sound mixing (in fact, any mixing for that matter!) is all about putting each instrument in its own space. That means using a variety of tools including EQ, panning, compression, gating, and volume levels to ‘carve out’ the important parts of each sound source, leaving just the most important elements.
In last week’s tip we covered blending sounds “in the room” (acoustic drums and guitar amps) with reinforced sounds from the PA. This post is about the larger gigs.

Everything in its Place

If you have complete control of the mix, everything can be treated separately and placed *exactly* in the right spot. That means a mic or DI on every source onstage. In a large room, with a full PA, you will want everything onstage to be run through in the system – at least a little!

It’s a matter of personal taste whether the end goal is a) faithful reproduction of the sounds onstage or b) a complete ground-up mix to “bring the band to life”. When you’re dealing with the folk or classical world, the end goal may be for the audience not to realise the PA is there at all – however for a rock gig sometimes “it’s not music unless you can feel it!”

Whichever approach you take, the first step will be giving yourself as much control as possible, meaning a mic on every drum (and maybe every cymbal), a DI/mic on bass, mics on guitar amps, DIs on keys and mics on leslie cabinets, in addition to each singer obviously having their own mic.

Physical space onstage can be important; with drums and guitars easily bleeding into vocal mics, the further you can get the mic away from other sources the better.

With that as a starting point, it becomes easier to tuck the snare drum in behind the vocal; bring the guitar volume up for solos; keep the bass controlled in volume while still having plenty of depth and power; bring out the twinkle of a piano without the block chords stamping on the lyrics…

And that’s when the job of being a sound engineer really becomes fun!

Tuesday Tip: Everything in its Place (Part 1)

Live sound mixing (in fact, any mixing for that matter!) is all about putting each instrument in its own space. That means using a variety of tools including EQ, panning, compression, gating, and volume levels to ‘carve out’ the important parts of each sound source, leaving just the most important elements.

If you have complete control of the mix, everything can be treated separately and placed *exactly* in the right spot. For most bands, that means a mic or DI on every source onstage. The majority of pub bands take an economy approach. The cheapest and quickest way to set up a gig in a pub is to use the amps onstage for guitar and bass, level them up so that they can be heard over the drummer (who, let’s face it, is probably loud enough already!), and then only the singers need a PA system. That’s easily done with a small desk and two “speakers on sticks”.

The problem with this approach, is that all sound sources come from different angles onstage; interact with different features of the room; share some frequencies, and lack others.
This isn’t problematic in and of itself – it’s a live experience of a real band, in a real room – however once you get the DJ powering out produced, mastered and limited songs between your sets, the band can sound weak in comparison.

And so the answer, is for the speaker system to reproduce the band in as produced a fashion as possible. With everything amplified, you can cut low end from the guitars, and the vocals. Bring the kick drum and the bass guitar up in the subs to extend the low-end and add the same power you hear in the DJ songs to the live band.
The goal is not volume (well, not *just* volume), but clarity, placement, and depth.

Finally, it’s sensible to make sure that the DJ (or house music, whichever) is not as loud as the band. After all, live entertainment is the main attraction!

A Bad Workman Blames his Tools: Analogue vs Digital

I hear a lot of engineers (of all levels) discussing the age-old analogue vs digital battle, debating which is “better”, and professing their love or hatred of specific pieces of equipment.

At its core, a mixing desk consists of pre-amps – which amplify a mic signal to match line level sources; EQ – which adjusts the level of specific frequency range; levelling faders or knobs; and a set of outputs.

Obviously the more expensive the desk, the more expansive the features – and usually the higher quality the components.

Cost

Most professional mixers have at least 6 “aux” outputs, plus mono and stereo “main” outputs. They will probably also have groups (an extra bank of faders through which audio can pass to be bulk processed). Usually you’ll be able to insert external effects onto channels or groups as well. Once you’re past the basic “utility” level, the wide range in cost can be attributed to the quality of each component, and therefore the overall effect on the sound.

On a digital mixer, everything except the preamp stage is handled with software. Again the more expensive the desk, the better the software (and the hardware processors required to run it).

Horses for Courses

Debates rage about whether analogue is better than digital (it is, sometimes), whether digital is better than analogue (it is, sometimes), and whether Brand X is better than brand Y. Brand X and Y may in fact both be fine – but certain engineers will see brand A or B as ‘unusuable’, ‘cheap and nasty’, etc etc.
Some specs state “mixer must be digital”, “prefer brand X, will not use brand Y”, others simply say “I need 16 inputs and 4 outputs”.

With analogue, everything is laid out in front of you – it’s intuitive and user friendly. If something goes wrong you can physically see where the issue is, even if you’ve previously been busy looking at another part of the desk.
The main drawbacks are the amount of time it takes to set up every bit of outboard equipment you want to use, and the fact that you’re limited by the physical capability of the hardware. If you’ve got 16 inputs, that’s all you’ve got without getting another desk. If you’ve got 4 grpahics and 4 compressors, that’s all you’ve got without buying more equipment.

With digital, depending on the desk, you’ll have as many channels of EQ, graphic, gates/compression etc. as you can load until you run out of processing power. Each desk has its quirks and its limitations, and some engineers strongly prefer one brand over another, usually because of a) the sound and b) usability.

Cost

There’s a huge range in price of mixing desks, from £200 up to £20,000 and above!

“Budget” desks such as the Behringer X32 get a lot of stick in “pro” circles because they’re fairly limited in terms of how many FX units you can use, the EQ and dynamics stages sound relatively weak compared with something like MIDAS pro series or Soundcraft Vi, and the overall build quality isn’t as sturdy as the professional desks. However – a lot of engineers who complain about budget desks don’t pay for the equipment they use, and the huge savings in cost don’t factor into their considerations.

Ultimately, as long as you have enough inputs and outputs to run your show, the rest is fairy dust and glitter.

Meanwhile back in the real world

A good engineer can make anything work. Recently I was asked to run an event for a client who provided their own PA. The desk turned out to be a low-brand, small format analogue mixer with some basic built-in FX and no EQ/outboard. I ran the gig, and I wasn’t the happiest with the result, the sound coming out of the speaker, or the equipment I was using – but the client was very happy and we now have that night as a regular event.
I think it was the first time that anyone had used all the features on that little desk – set the correct gain stage, EQ each channel (to a very basic degree), use the onboard reverb, set the levels correctly and provide two separate monitor mixes with the 2 aux ouputs the desk had.

We are now using our Allen & Heath desks and our own PA. The client agrees that it sounds better – but they can’t tell me why, or what was wrong with the sound they had before!Big ticket gear is amazing, when you’re working big ticket events. When you’re mixing big venues, you’ve got to know that your equipment is up to the job – and a consumer mixer just isn’t going to cut it. However it’s a long way to come from the Dog and Duck karaoke, where the budgets are a lot tighter, and the quality of everything else in the signal path probably means you’d be wasting your time putting anything other than a basic desk in.

A good soundman will make anything work, and a bad soundman blames his tools.

Tuesday Tip: Get your own mic!

This video from AT shows what can happen to venue (or hire!) mics from one night to another. Metal singers love to use their hands and arms in the show – and that means storing the mic somewhere: in their mouth, armpits, between their sweaty legs, wherever is easiest at the time!

That’s all well and good until the quiet jazz singer on the next show wants to get up close and personal with the mic grille. Quiet singers obviously need to be closer to the mic, and the last thing you want when you do that, is to pick up sweat from last night’s metal band, lipstick from the last diva act, and dried up spittle from last week’s grime MC, all congealed together on the venue mic’s grille.

The last thing I’ll say on hygiene is that a singer’s voice and throat is their instrument, and their talent. A cough, a sore throat, or a chest infection can mean the difference between earning a solid living or having a hungry week or two!

Quite apart from any hygiene issues, every type of mic has its own sound – and so does every voice. There will be a perfect match for you, somewhere, and it pays dividends to spend the time to find it. Your voice may really suit an SM58, a beta57, e945, m88, a D5, or something else entirely. Every engineer has their preferred “go to” mic; but a pro singer will walk into a venue, announce that they have their own mic, and ask if it’s OK with the engineer if they use it. Most engineers (as long as it’s a recognised, quality brand) will thank you for saving them time EQing your voice – and you’ll know that you’re getting the best possible sound.

Live Sound 101: Wireless In-Ear Monitors

I’ve just completed an email response to one of our clients, who had asked me for recommendations and information about In-Ear Monitor (IEM) systems. Just as I was hitting send I thought I would share my response on the blog – as we must have been asked this question a dozen times.
I owe thanks to Kim at Let’s Make You Rock for her depth of knowledge on this subject!

Live Sound 101: Wireless In-Ear Monitors

Wireless IEMs can be a dark, murky world, so here are our top picks:
Gear4Music have a basic, own-brand IEM set. It’s good value for money, but they’re unlicensed frequencies so you can only run 4 mics/IEMs legally. (Remember that includes any RF the venue or other bands in the vicinity might be using!) With cheaper RF kit it’s a good idea to place the transmitters at the stage end, close to the relevant receivers.
You may also get frequency interference and there’s very little you can do about it. However, on the plus side – they’re really very cheap!

The next step up is the LD Systems MEI1000G2*. They’re still on the unlicensed frequencies – and you’ll still only fit 4 wireless items in the available bandwidth – but you have control of which frequency to use, which is better for solving interference issues.
It’s a step up in price, but for that increased spend you get higher sound quality, and the product doesn’t look like it’s just been manufactured on your Uncle’s 3D printer.

After this step you’re into professional territory, the big players being Shure and Sennheiser.

Most of the function bands we work with are using the Shure PSM200 units. These are channel 38 (so you need a license) which means you can plot them wherever you want to, and you can use as many transmitters/receivers as you can physically fit on the RF spectrum.
You get much better quality earphones, the transmitter/receivers are really built to last, and you can use these sets at any pro event or tour throughout the UK.

Finally, the “mutt’s nutts” are Sennheiser G3, as used by Beyonce, Jamiroquai, Rihanna, and many more.
Again they’re on the professional, licensed channel 38, they have really good quality earpieces, they’re incredibly robust (both in terms of wireless connectivity and build quality), and you’ll never need to upgrade.
They are, of course, the most expensive set – but they’re practically bullet-proof.

Shure 215 IEM

Other important considerations:

Firstly, you have to think whether everybody actually needs wireless IEM.
Vocalists and horn players need to hear themselves well to pitch correctly, so it’s no-brainer for them – and if their mics are wireless too, they can be almost anywhere in the venue.

However, drummers and keys players are likely to be rooted in one spot all night, and a cleaner solution for them is a small desk or headphone amp* and a decent set of wired-in headphones. This can be fed from a aux so they still have their own mix setup, but without all the RF issues.

Secondly – and many people think this makes the biggest difference of all – think hard about the earpieces. You’re better off with custom molded earpieces and the LD Systems RF, than with the top-of-the-range Sennheiser G3 and the cheap “one size fits none” earpieces that come with that set.

In terms of earpieces, I’ve had a perfectly good time using VT600 series for vocals, however their frequency range is limited, and when you step up the ladder I can recommend the Shure 215s* and, at the real high-end, ACS custom molds.

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!

(*) From time to time our articles will contain Amazon affiliate links to products that we recommend.
These links are marked, and help us to continue sharing our knowledge on this blog.
Every product we recommend has been used, tested, and – most importantly – loved by our engineers.

Tuesday Tip: Get Out Of The Way!

During the setup of a gig, and especially on changeover between soundchecks, there’s a lot of equipment and a lot of people onstage. It’s really easy for this to get stressful and slow everybody down, tripping over each other.

Live Sound Tip: Get Out Of The Way

In my experience running stages for events large and small – the easiest thing is for everyone to get out of each others’ way.
Smart drummers will get to the gig early and set up their kit (on the “drum mat… you have one of those right?(*)) first, then they’re done – and can chill out while 3 guitarists fight over whose 1960a 4×10 is getting shared throughout the night.
Anybody with pedals will obviously need more time to set up, as will laptop setups, etc. etc. – and singers tend to stand front & centre until the exact moment they’re asked to do a linecheck, at which point they’ll go for a cigarette.
However, jokes aside – let the band get themselves set up onstage (with reminders that you’re on a schedule if necessary), give them the space to do it, and then ask to have the stage for 5 minutes while you whizz round and mic/cable everything together.
Usually the band will thank you, as they can go to the bar or talk to girls while you do all the techy stuff in a swift, efficient manner.

(*) From time to time our articles will contain Amazon affiliate links to products that we recommend.
These links are marked, and help us to continue sharing our knowledge on this blog.
Every product we recommend has been used, tested, and – most importantly – loved by our engineers.

Live Sound 101: Running a Soundcheck

One of the first indicators of an engineer’s skill level is their approach to running a soundcheck. As with everything, a pro engineer will have a system. A soundcheck usually happen in reverse order – that is, the headline band goes first and takes the most time so that they’re happy, then everybody else comes and sets their equipment up in front of the headliner, tweaking anything that they need to be different from the headline’s settings.
That way, the last band to soundcheck is the first band to play – and their settings are ready to use. Each band takes their backline offstage with them, eventually leaving the headliner’s equipment where they left it.

Live Sound 101: Running A Soundcheck

Setup

To recap our article on getting started, let’s assume you’ve already done a number of things:
1) Set the PA correctly for the room
2) Powered up your equipment in the correct order (desk first, then outboard equipment, racks, and finally speakers)
3) Checked the sound through the FOH system and monitors
4) Set up your mics as necessary onstage

Linecheck

Go through channel by channel, raise the gain and check each source in headphones. Once you have a signal in headphones, slowly bring up the fader until you hear enough of each channel in the main PA. Each sound source may need a little help with EQ, to cut away the cluttered, “fighting” frequencies, and bring out the best characteristics on each instrument. EQ is both a science and an art, and this is definitely an area that takes some knowledge, and a lot of practice.

Setting Levels

All being well with the equipment, you’re now ready for the band to run through a song, so that you can set the instrument levels relevant to one another.
Remember that what you’re doing is sound reinforcement – try not to deafen everyone in the room! I find a good rule of thumb is to set your vocal slightly louder than the loudest acoustic sound (usually the snare drum), and bring everything else in around that. This often means asking/telling/forcing the guitar player to turn down.

Monitors

Once everything’s at the right level in FOH, ask the band if there’s anything they can’t hear onstage. They’ll usually want vocals, and some musicians will also want to hear more of themselves. When you and the band are both happy, write down or photograph your settings (on an analogue desk) or save your scene (on a digital board).

This “mix” is then to be treated as a starting point – everything changes in live sound, and a good mix engineer is constantly adjusting their levels to compensate for what’s happening onstage, to smooth out level changes, react to differing sound levels reaching the mics, and bring focus to the most important instruments at any given time.

Support Bands

If you have the luxury of a digital mixer, you can save a “scene” for each band, whose settings will then be recalled exactly as you left them, meaning that the support bands can ask for whatever changes they like. However in many situations you may be limited by the channels available, the equipment you’re using, and – almost always – time.
The easiest thing to do is to start with the headliner’s mix and simply change anything that jumps out – usually vocal EQ, and sometimes levels of backline/guitars – but the basic drum mix, effects, and initial levels can often be left in place throughout the night.
The idea of a soundcheck is to discover and solve any issues you may have, to avoid issues during the show. Make sure the bands are happy with their sound onstage, as musicians often won’t ask for changes during the show and then you’ll hear negative comments long after they’ve left the stage!

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!

Tuesday Tip: Turn the Guitar Amp Down

It’s a running joke in the live sound world, but lead guitarists often suffer from “LG syndrome”, which involves turning the amp up throughout the soundcheck or gig, resulting in the singer not being heard. You will get mum, dad, managers, and punters all shouting “turn the singer up!” at you – when the issue is often too much guitar.

Live Sound Tip: Turn the Guitar Amp Down

Somewhat obviously, all the mics onstage will pick up whatever’s in front of them, so if you’ve got a quiet singer, a loud drummer, and a guitarist who turns themselves up to match, you’re in trouble. The more you turn the vocal mic up, the more guitar and cymbals you get through the PA.
The solution: Turn the backline down! Often, the guitarist can’t hear themselves because their amp is on the floor and – news flash! – their ears are not in the back of their knees. Raising the amp on an amp stand, or (more rock ‘n’ roll) a flightcase will help. If that’s not possible, rocking the amp back so the speaker points to the guitarists’ ears may do the trick (amps like the Fender Twin have built-in supports for this reason).
Turning the amps so they’re angled towards the player and away from the audience/FOH, moving the lead singer so they’re further from the amp, or snare drum, or other offending stage noise, can all help keep onstage noise away from the mics – so when you raise the singer’s mic, you’re only raising the vocal.

Tuesday Tip: Tuning the PA

Live Sound Tip: Tuning the PA

The previous Live Sound Tips have been very basic, and that’s an important place to start. However I’d like to share more of an “intermediate” tip today, inspired by this post on Izotope – 5 Songs That Are Brilliantly Mixed and Mastered. Today’s trick is – tuning the system (sometimes referred to as ‘tuning the room’).

Most systems other than very basic “speakers on poles” will have a Graphic EQ for Front-of-House. Once you’ve eliminated problem frequencies, you can use a Graphic EQ to make the system sound the way you’d like it to. But what are you aiming for? And how is that achieved? The best answer is to take songs that you know really, really well – and play them through the PA. Walk around the room, see if there’s anything jumping out that usually doesn’t sound that way, or anything missing in the track.

The song choice is up to – as long as it’s high quality, well produced and preferably low distortion.(The Beatles, for example, won’t work – the vocal only comes out of one speaker and the bass is covered in tape saturation!)
A very popular choice is anything by Steely Dan – or their singer Donald Fagen. So make yourself a playlist (not with mp3s!), listen to it on every set of headphones or speakers you own, and learn how it sounds on all of them. Your ears will thank you, and hopefully – so will the clients you’re mixing for!

Tuesday Tip: Follow the signal flow

Every engineer has been there – the PA is set up and checked, the band or client are ready to speak, you get a thumbs up, the lights go up, you raise the faders and… Nothing happens. Not a sound. Obviously this is your fault, either you are an idiot or the microphone is rubbish, or broken, or any number of other alternatives.
More likely is that something very simple has gone wrong. So while most people would frantically unplug things or start pressing random buttons on the desk, mics, or speakers, it pays to take a more measured approach.

Live Sound Tip: Follow the signal flow

The simplest thing to do is to follow the signal flow, check everything in order, and you’ll quickly find your issue. You can think of signal flow through a desk like the flow of water in a plumbing system. You have the source (inlet), in our case usually a microphone, and the signal then flows through various valves or taps, before reaching its destination (the speakers). On an analogue desk this is laid out top-to-bottom. On a digital desks, the layout may be different – but the process is identical.
First check the microphone – PFL(pre-fade listen) in headphones – is your signal coming into the desk? If your mic has a switch, make sure it’s on. If you’re using wireless you can see the input on the receiver, which will tell you whether the mic is sending an output. Does your mic need +48v phantom power? Once you have signal into the desk, check the routing. Is the channel sent to the correct output? Is the fader up? Is the mute switch on? Are your master faders turned up? Is the system turned on? Has somebody unplugged your speakers since you checked them (not unheard of!). Follow the signal from source to output, and you’ll soon find your problem.