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The Sound and the Fury

Hello Troubadourians! Even when you know what you’re doing, you don’t know what you’re doing. That was the epiphany I recently experienced while trying to configure the perfect sound system for a very imperfect gig. With my sincerest apologies and acknowledgements to William Faulkner and to any of you readers who saw the title of this column and thought you might have stumbled upon some sort of classic literature essay; no, this is still my simple music/technology monthly, but I thought the title appropriate in so much as sound – the making of it and our attempts to control it – can make us furious. Let’s be candid, live sound is a bitch. Especially so when you are trying to control the house mix – and one or more monitor mixes – from the stage. Everyone who has ever performed in public has experienced this challenging situation, usually more often that we ever wanted to; and with varying success ranging from a miserable howling mess to “hey, that almost sounds okay.” In rooms and on stages that I’m familiar with, I’ve dialed-in some damn-decent mixes for both the audience and my bandmates – sometimes even during the same show. But having had the pleasure of playing shows where there was a professional operating the mixing console from the perfect spot in the house and supplying me and each of my bandmates with exactly the monitor blend that we need, leaving me free to focus strictly on my performance, I have to say I much prefer the relative pampering that that scenario implies. There is a reason why a really good Front of House (FOH) mixing engineer (aka soundman) is always busy. They know their gear – or the gear that is installed in the venue – and they have the experience, the “ears,” and the patience to work with fussy musicians, venue owners, and audiences. They are comfortable with the inherent chaos that is a live show. Gear malfunctions, annoying 60 cycle hum, and inexperienced performers are all handled quickly and with minimal bruising of schedules and egos. When you can’t indulge in the luxury of having a professional sound engineer create your live sound, you or a bandmate are likely doing it yourself. In my opinion, mixing your sound onstage is like trying to paint the outside of a house while standing in the dining room. But we do as we must so I’ll do my best to guide you to your best results.

If you don’t own any PA or sound gear and you rely completely on whatever equipment is provided by the venue, then you don’t have much to decide when planning a gig. If, however, you are like me and my band, Folding Mr. Lincoln, you have multiple options. Sometimes this isn’t as awesome as it seems to be. It’s easy to bring too much or not enough equipment. Not bringing enough gear is easy to imagine, but too much? More is always better isn’t it? No, and here’s why: anything you choose to bring to a gig needs to be lifted, carried, set up, broken down, and accounted for at the end of the gig so you don’t end up leaving anything behind. I recommend that after you have worked through the multiple possible configurations, weighing such things as sound quality and the space available at the venue, it is wise to minimize the amount of gear and maximize the basic functionality of the equipment you have at your disposal. The list below is a guideline to what equipment is necessary to optimize your setup for whatever gig you entertain.

Mixer: You need as many actual microphone input channels to accommodate the number of vocals and any instruments that have to be amplified through the PA, such as acoustic guitars. A solo performer can often simply use an amplifier designed to support a single guitar and microphone. A duo, each with this set-up, can likewise be suitable. When expanding to three or more performers it becomes essential to switch over to using a mixer to facilitate the most natural blend of the guitars and voices.

Microphones: Bring a microphone for every vocalist and include a cable and mic stand for each one. It is wise to bring one extra of each one as backup in case of failures.

Main and monitor speakers: You will need a minimum of two speakers. In this case, they will likely be serving double-duty as mains and monitors. Since there are differences in configuration between monitor speaker cabinets and dedicated mains speaker cabinets, it is advisable to use monitor speakers exclusively when using speakers in a double-duty role such as this. Monitors often make excellent mains speakers for small venues but mains usually make lousy monitors under the same circumstances. One speaker can be placed on a stand and will serve as the mains and a partial monitor. The remaining speaker can either be placed onstage next to a performer or offstage in front of a performer. This would be a combination of personal preference and stage space. If more speakers are required, they should be deployed in pairs. As to why using four speakers rather than three, three speakers present an unbalanced load on the output of the power amplifier which results in diminished clarity and performance as well as the potential for failure of the amplifier. Consistently running three speakers can, over time, cause failures in the amplifier. So, in this case the best solution vocally and electrically is to use four speaker cabinets. Sometimes more is better. Speaker usage and placement is especially critical when the stage or performance area is linear in layout – the worst for hearing each other when there are three or more performers. Outside gigs and proximity to heavily traveled areas often create a “perfect storm” for not hearing yourself and each other. Most bands rehearse in a circular layout – up close and personal – so that postage stamp-sized stage can actually be better for hearing each other than being spread out. Whatever stage or environment you encounter you need to maximize the localized sound sources for the vocals to be heard clearly by each singer. This also applies to instruments that are amplified only through the PA.

Thanks for reading this column. I hope you found it useful and entertaining, at least as entertaining as an essay on Faulkner…. Some of these concepts may have been addressed in previous columns but it’s like I said, “Even when you know what you’re doing, you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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