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.

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 QU24 – 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!

Tuesday Tip: Keep It Simple Stupid

Live Sound Tip: Keep It Simple Stupid

Disasters happen. Electrical failure cuts your setup time in half. The event runs late and you’re still expected to get your portion onstage on time. The desk you requested isn’t available, or breaks last minute.

You don’t know the room, you don’t know the band, you’re not using your system. Whenever you’re thrown a curveball, remember: Keep It Simple Stupid!

With a short lead-in time to the show and very little soundcheck, you can always go back to basics.

In those situations, I forget everything I like to do with VCA groups, parallel compression, delay effects, and multiple reverbs. My aim is to set the levels, bring out the lyrics in the vocal, and have all the instruments sit together.

No matter how complex your mix could be, it’s worth remembering the basics. And if that’s what it takes to make a gig happen, that’s all you need to do.

New Tombola TV Advert

We recently provided PA and lighting for our friends in top function band Groove Allstars, when they were asked to perform as part of a shoot for Tombola’s new TV ad, to be shown across the UK.

Let’s Make You Rock!

Our friends at Polaris Audio have started a great blog at http://letsmakeyourock.blogspot.co.uk/ – sharing tips and long-form articles to help your band go from good to great!

Included in the blog are all the small things that will make engineers (like us) love working with your band, and in turn get your name around for support slots and other opportunities with local and national promoters.

Kim from Polaris is a touring engineer with a wealth of experience to share, and Let’s Make You Rock will become an invaluable source of knowledge for bands of any level.

The Exhibitor’s Guide to Event Marketing

We were recently asked by our friends at Display Wizard for our thoughts on A/V provision at marketing events. The full article provides a thorough insight for all event organisers and would-be organisers, and our contribution appears below.

“High quality PA (and A/V) can make or break an event. At the basic level, the right sound system will ensure that all presenters can be clearly heard and understood, and that the event can run as a totally interactive experience. Additionally, outstanding visuals and great sounding entertainment will make a lasting impression on every attendee, meaning the brand and/or products on offer will be more attractive and retain attention for longer.

Doc Marten’s launch night video

A great video has appeared on YouTube covering the launch night we teched for Doc Martens in Newcastle. The music is by our friends HATI, who played live on the night, and we have to thank OPR for booking our services at the event.

In-store Promotions

Some of the most interesting bookings we’ve had recently have been the ones in unusual venues, from the Calvin Klein department of Debenhams, to the Harley Davidson showroom, or the opening of the new Doc Marten’s shop in Newcastle.

There are unique challenges to providing sound in a retail shop – especially when the sales teams are trying to sell over the top of a rock band! These are the events that make every day different for Clear and Loud, and can be the most enjoyable.

Some photos here below:

Funeral Services

We have been asked to attend a small number of Funerals recently, to supply our services to those wishing to pay their respects. We have provided service recordings to allow family members living abroad, and those who can’t attend for other reasons, to experience the eulogies and the tributes to their loved ones.

We have also provided sound reinforcement for smaller venues, where the number of attendees has involved people standing outside and needing to hear the tributes.

Our discrete approach to these unique occasions has received positive comments from family, church & crematorium staff, and funeral directors – and we have found it very rewarding to offer our help to those suffering a loss.