Club Sound Tips

Nov 1, 2001 12:00 PM, By Buck Moore

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Most people who listen to live music have been to a club or a similar small venue to hear a favorite band or performer. Unfortunately, many music fans have told me that they don't actually expect to hear live music sound “good” in a club — inferior venue acoustics, an inadequate sound system or a poor FOH mix have blighted the experience too many times. Audience members often tell me that they expect the worst; when they happen to hear “great sound,” they inevitably mention it.


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Not every band or club mixer can achieve great sound every time, but I think that the overall standard could be higher. After all, mixing sound for bands in clubs and smaller venues is not rocket science! However, it can be a demanding and frustrating task and, quite apart from technical knowledge and experience, usually requires fairly well-developed interpersonal skills.

In this article, I will explain my typical setup and soundcheck methodologies and those mixing techniques that I've found to be effective in clubs. I will also explain how communication and cooperation among the musicians and sound crew are necessary to achieve balance and clarity, the essential components of any good mix.

AN IDEAL STAGE SETUP

The figure shows an ideal stage setup. As shown, all of the onstage speakers — instrument amplifiers and stage monitors — point in toward the band. This setup has two distinct advantages: it helps keep the “backline” amplifiers out of the vocal mics, and it means that the bandmembers have to set their amplifier levels so that they can hear each other — not too loud, not too quiet. A good balance onstage can make the FOH engineer's job much easier. Conversely, if the amps are too loud for the bandmembers to hear themselves and each other, then they are definitely too loud for a clear mix. The only drawback to this setup is that equipment nameplates may not be visible to the audience. This typically doesn't matter, but adjustments will have to be made if the band endorses a particular manufacturer.

In the figure, both guitar amps are aimed across the stage, and the bass amp is close enough to the drummer so that there should not be a need for bass in the monitors. Of course, not every band will immediately accept this “self-monitoring” arrangement. Musicians are often surprisingly conservative, and many set up their instruments a certain way because that's what they're used to. For example, most guitarists set up their amps so that the speakers point at the back of their knees, which usually corresponds to ear level to a seated audience. It may require some patient explanation to convince a guitarist that he (or she) will have a better idea of what the audience is hearing if the amp is at ear level.

10 STEPS TO A PRODUCTIVE SOUNDCHECK

Soundchecks can be very useful, but things can and will change by the start of the show. Obvious post-soundcheck changes include the room filling up with people, which will almost certainly change the room's acoustic character. Other factors beyond the sound engineer's control include the bass player who has just put on new strings and will now be using a pick, the guitar player who went home to get another distortion pedal, the singer who has had a few drinks, etc. In such cases, the soundcheck may have only served as a time-consuming line check. Nevertheless, I always attempt to schedule a soundcheck and have developed the following 10-step program.

Step 1: After setting up the band as shown in the figure, I usually ask them to play a song with only the monitors on — I leave the FOH mix in the Off position. If the band can hear themselves play and feel comfortable, then you're halfway there. Adding the FOH mix (see Step 4) typically adds the extra low-end information that monitors often can't reproduce, which may help the onstage monitor mix.

Step 2: Listen for any element that is too loud onstage. Adjust the problem element so that it will be controllable. For example, if you are miking the cymbals, they may need to be “unmiked.” If the stage is treated properly, then they won't be a huge problem. (See “Practical Acoustics” in June 2001 Mix.)

Step 3: Solo any instrument that sounds funny. Bring its fader up in the FOH mix alone and listen to it carefully. Bring the fader back down and go to the stage to compare the actual sound with what you heard. Adjust the instrument (with mic placement, a different mic or EQ changes) until the FOH signal sounds like the onstage signal.

Step 4: Start a rough FOH mix by bringing up the vocals until they sound loud and clear. Add the bass drum into the mix until it sounds loud and punchy. Don't overdo the low end — it will just make the mix muddy. Leave the outboard effects alone for now — adding them in too soon will only complicate matters.

Step 5: Add guitars, horns, keyboards, etc., one by one. If the vocals still sound good and the bass drum is still cutting through

while the rest of the instruments sound balanced, then go on to Step 7. If the mix falls apart and you are unsure of why, then proceed to Step 6.

Step 6: Ask the band to stop playing. Perform a rhythm section check by first asking the drummer to play “time.” Once you are satisfied with the sound, ask the bass player to join in. Shape the rhythm section until it sounds good and balanced. Ask the other musicians, one at a time, to join in and see which instrument is causing the sound problem. Repeat this step until you solve the problem and then go to Step 7.

Step 7: Fine-tune the mix with minor EQ adjustments. Keep in mind that your fader levels may have to be changed regularly throughout the show, so aim for approximate levels. You should be making sure that every signal is useable — that is, you must be able to cut or boost every signal using the fader and/or EQ (within a reasonable range). If you can't control some inputs — you can neither raise nor lower their levels in the mix — then go back to Step 6. To avoid running out of headroom, keep the faders at the nominal position (0 dB) and adjust the individual mic input gain controls.

Step 8: Bring in the effects, but only if they're really needed. If the band doesn't mention effects, then it's up to you. If they specify effects, then try to accommodate them. Try to keep reverb out of the monitors because it can cause feedback and may confuse the onstage mix. Also, too much reverb in the FOH mix will degrade the clarity of the mix. Effects should be used to enhance a signal, not cover it up — if a singer can't sing, then no amount of reverb will make it sound better. If you need a delay that matches the tempo of a particular song, it helps if you have preset all delay defaults to 100 ms, 200 ms, 300 ms and so on, all the way up to 1,000 ms if possible. The correct delay should then be easy to find.

Step 9: Walk around the room and listen for overall balance. Also, pay attention to vocal dynamics and make mental notes of how the singer is using the microphone. They could be “cupping the bulb,” screaming without backing away, moving around a lot, etc. All of these things will affect the quality of the mix.

WARMER COMMUNICATIONS

Step 10: If possible, make a recording from the soundboard. If the mix holds up through the recording and the FOH mix, then you're on the right track. If any one element is way out of control, then you'll have to put less of it through the console, which will further limit your control of it. If something doesn't come through on a recording, then it's probably too loud onstage. This should be pointed out, tactfully, to the offending musician. Surprisingly, musicians who point-blank refuse to turn down in order to improve the FOH mix are often much more compliant if a well-balanced “board tape” is in the offing.

The soundcheck routine I've outlined above requires at least some communication between the FOH engineer and the band or musician. Using a talkback mic to talk to the musicians through the monitor system can be handy when a room is packed, but I prefer to walk to the stage. I find that musicians tend to believe what they see rather than what they hear — if they see you standing in front of them asking them to help you solve a sound problem, then they are more likely to respond than if you are just a disembodied voice in the monitors. A cold request like, “Turn down the guitar!” is likely to be met with a similarly cold response, so friendly communication is necessary to achieve a great FOH mix.

MIXING THE SHOW

Unfortunately, live sound people in small venues are often seen as jaded, crusty, has-beens who never made it as rock stars. With this mindset, communication between sound person and band can suffer from the very start. It's important for the band to give the sound person the benefit of the doubt, and equally important for the sound person to indulge in the band's requests and explain why some things can't be done, rather than just say, “Sorry, can't do it.” As a live sound person who works six or seven nights a week and comes across the same issues almost daily, I can get tired of explaining myself over and over again. But I have to remember that most of the bands I work with deserve to be treated equally, and so I explain the same thing to them as I do for anyone else.

Now it's time to mix. The pre-show music fades out, the band adjusts their instruments, the singer taps the lead vocal mic and the audience quiets down a bit in anticipation of what will happen next. The focus is on the band, and if they don't sound good right away, then the focus will soon be on the sound person. Here are some tips on keeping things under control.

Don't make any sudden changes. If you need to turn a guitar up for the solo and you miss it by a few seconds, then fade the guitar up smoothly. Turning it up quickly will make the error more noticeable.

Don't make drastic changes. Major EQ adjustments should be made as smoothly as the “fade-up” guitar mentioned above. If you find yourself putting a 15dB boost or cut on any input, then you might want to explore other ways of getting something to sound the way you want.

Don't run out of headroom. Pay attention to those overload LEDs on board channels and outboard gear. Remember, cutting frequencies on a graphic EQ will preserve headroom, while boosting frequencies will cut into headroom.

Don't lose control. If you feel the mix is falling apart, then go back to the flat settings for the channel strips. (If your system is set up properly, you will get an accurate-sounding signal for each source, but accurate doesn't always mean good.) If all the minor EQ/fader moves you did along the way didn't combine properly, then you'll have to backtrack or start over.

Don't freak out. If you are losing control of the mix, try to keep cool and stay calm. Chewing gum and moving to the beat of the music tends to make you look like you know what you are doing. Promoters, managers and family members can get quite emotional if they feel that their band's sound is being compromised, but you should just nod, chew your gum, move to the music and keep looking at the console. Keep a straight face and you'll be back on track in no time.

Keep a close eye on the performers. If the guitar suddenly drops out of the mix, then check the stage before reaching for the fader — you may see the guitar player hunched over his effects pedals or fishing for a disconnected lead. Watch out for gestures that mean “more monitors.” If the singer is looking directly at you while singing, it may mean something is wrong.

Keep a close eye on all incoming signals. Watch those telltale LEDs to pick up on keyboard peaks, mismatches between output levels of different guitar pedals, etc. Check your power amps, outboard gear and console for overload. Many peak indicators light up as a warning that the signal is 6 dB away from distortion, so lowering an input signal by 3 or 4 dB may be enough.

Don't be too sensitive to criticism. Everyone's entitled to an opinion and there's no sense getting into a big discussion in the middle of a show. But if someone says, “I don't want to tell you how to do your job, but I think the singer/guitar player/drummer should be louder/quieter,” try to acknowledge the input politely and use your own judgment as to whether changes are called for.

Every working sound person should own a sound level meter and earplugs — and use them. An SPL meter can help you convince managers and bandmembers that the volume needs to come down, especially if you keep records of the SPL levels of each performance. At high SPLs, it is easy to lose perspective and wind up with an excessively bass- or treble-heavy mix. If audience members are sticking their fingers in their ears, then there is probably too much treble in the mix. Similarly, if anyone reports a breathing problem, then there is probably too much bass energy.

Finally, be ready for anything. Almost anything can happen during a club performance. The mixture of loud music, performing musicians, adrenaline, alcohol and other mind-altering substances, all crammed together in a relatively small room, can make for a potent cocktail.

Happy mixing!


Buck Moore is a freelance sound engineer living in Toronto. Moore has been the house sound person at the 360 Club for the past few years, where he takes copious notes and conducts extensive experiments in constant pursuit of the ultimate live mix. He can be reached at www.mood-swing.com.

QUICK FIXES


Here are some tips on solving common club sound problems.

To clean up the vocals, drop the low mids between (125 to 300 Hz) 3 to 6 dB, boost 6 kHz by 3 dB, and use the 100Hz shelf control to cut lows by 3 to 6 dB.

To clean up bass guitar, cut the lows a bit, lower the bass amp volume onstage or reduce the amount of LF from the bass amp. Compress the bass signal if necessary.

To fix a flabby kick drum, roll off the low end (125 to 150 Hz) and boost at 2 to 3 kHz.

To fix a tinny guitar sound, aim the amp across the stage rather than into the audience, cut high mids by 6 dB and add 3 dB of low-end EQ.






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