How to improve your live sound before a single mic is turned on

This is my microphone. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

This is my microphone. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

As you might imagine, around here we place a large emphasis on recording, but there are a few things that any artist can do to improve their live sound before a single mic is turned on. Some of this list will be a bit obvious, but personally I need reminders of obvious stuff most of all. I’m dumb like that.

Keeping an eye on this aspect of your show will make you slightly more popular with your local sound person, which is always a plus. Some people say sound guys and girls are naturally grumpy people, but having personally worked as many sound gigs as playing gigs I can tell you that at least some of that grumpiness comes from dealing with difficult artists.

It behooves us as artists to not be difficult! That way we get the most good vibes from the club, which means we get the best chance of being invited back. Venue owners will tell you that they often ask their staff which artist they liked and which acted like a butt, so be as cool as you can possibly be to everyone.

With that out of the way, perhaps the number one most obvious thing to do is to make sure all your gear is in working order and properly maintained. Effects pedals need fresh batteries or a working power supply. Instruments with active electronics such as acoustic/electric guitars also need fresh batteries. Strings need to be changed frequently and tuned properly. Drummers need to be led to the stage and propped up on their thrones. Lead singers need their egos stroked. Bass players need their beards trimmed, combed, and/or braided. Guitarists need an hour before show time to get some of their between-song noodling out of their systems. You get the idea.

News flash! Everyone with a stringed instrument needs a tuner. This is a personal pet peeve of mine. My feeling is if you have a gig but not a tuner, you do not deserve to have the gig. Of course everyone makes mistakes and forgets stuff, but come on.
Okay, okay. You’re a pro, so you know all that stuff already. Now we’re going to talk about how to get your sparkling stage sound out to the house in the best way possible, and that means we’re gonna talk about gain.

In this context, when I use the word “gain,” I mean “a measure of the increase in signal amplitude produced by an amplifier, expressed as the ratio of output to input.” That’s how Dictionary.com defines what I’m talking about, but to express that in easier terms, think about each microphone as a funnel for sound. Gain, therefore, would be the size of the funnel. Note that this is different from “volume” which is a measure of how loud the sound system projects the things that are in your funnel.
If you are too far from your microphone, the sound person will have to increase the gain on your mic in order to get enough of your voice, which is fine, except that turning up the gain funnel might mean some things we don’t want in that particular funnel. So with more gain on the lead vocal mic of a singer who is too far back, we might get just the right amount of vocal, but we might also get a ton of crash from the cymbals behind the singer. If the cymbals are too loud, everyone in the room is likely to wince every time said cymbals are hit. Now the sound person is in a difficult position. Would he rather wince every time a drummer hits the cymbals, or turn the lead singer’s vocal down? Probably option two, which means you, the artist, are going to see a bunch of Facebook comments tomorrow that say “Dude, we couldn’t hear you at all.” Then you’re gonna walk around town thinking the sound guy did you wrong, when really it was your own fault for not being up on the mic.

If you’re in any kind of doubt about your gain levels, ask your sound person. This topic is called “gain staging,” and sound people love talking about it. Just asking during sound check whether you are getting it right or not is likely to send the sound staff scrambling from the booth to bear hug you. Forgive them if this happens. They’re used to artists who just show up and make noise, all the while acting like they’re the coolest thing since Led Zeppelin 1976.

Another big gain staging misstep is made by amplifiers being turned up too loud. Hey, Marshall stacks look cool. Hell, they are cool. No one disputes that, but they’re also slightly louder than a 777 taking off in a bathroom. A lot of amps have to be turned up pretty loud just to get the tubes going, but unless you’re jamming out in a medium to large sized room they’re going to overpower the mains, which means crap sound for everyone who attends. Only one person has any chance of enjoying loud guitar amps, and that’s the guitar player who is plugged into them. Your sound person is not going to turn up the rest of the band to compensate for your super loud amp, because the houses across the street will call the cops and then the club owner will be chewing out the sound guy.

Life is better for everyone involved when stage volume is as low as possible. Even if you are a hard-rocking ass-kicking band from the mouth of Hell itself, keeping your stage volume low will mean better sound out front every time.

So that’s it for now, gang! If you can think of any other points to add here, please let us know. We are all about getting you the best sound possible. It’s kind of our thing.

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