Category Archives: Best Practices for Musicians

Advice for musicians on how to work well inside the small venue ecosystem.

Approaching The Venue That Doesn’t Know You

An article for Schwilly Family Musicians.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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From the article:

“When making your pitch, focus intently upon what is truly actionable in terms of creating a profitable event for the venue. This is something of a ruthless process, because a lot of standard sales-pitch elements simply don’t apply.”

The whole thing is available for free, here.


Percussive Maintenance

If you want your drums to sound “like that,” they should already pretty much sound “like that.”

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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“Especially without a huge PA, unlimited audience volume tolerance, and an anechoic chamber, totally remaking the sound of a real kit in a real room is a truly difficult proposition.”


Read the whole thing, free, at Schwilly Family Musicians.


When Do You Want To Sound Good?

Great gigs are the ones that get “picked at.”

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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There’s a point where a guys starts repeating himself; I have certainly reached that point here. Nevertheless, repetition of theme without rote regurgitation of content can be useful. So, I’m going to talk some more about time, and gigs, and showing up, and how it impacts success.

And I’m going to do it by borrowing the words of Jason Giron from Floyd Show and Loss of Existence. There was an occasion where a fellow band member asked, “When should we come to soundcheck?”

Jason replied, “When do you want to sound good?”

I tell you, every so often you get to stand next to someone who can perfectly encapsulate a tome of wisdom into a single sentence. This was one of those times for me.


There are plenty of bands, individual musicians, and production humans out there who want to minimize their exposure time when it comes to a gig. This is understandable, because in Western society, time and money sit on either end of an equality symbol. The problem, though, is that minimizing your on-gig time has an alarming tendency to minimize your on-gig success. When it comes to show production, getting the really amazing things to happen requires “picking at it.” Picking at it isn’t time and money efficient, but it’s necessary to create magic.

If you want to really get comfortable with how everybody sounds on a stage with no reinforcement, and truly dial that in so that the future reinforcement will be maximally effective, you have to take the time to pick at it. It doesn’t happen in the space of a minute. You actually have to get up there, play some songs, and figure out how everybody fits around everybody else.

If you want to dial up a truly killer starting point for monitor world and FOH, you have to pick at it. You can’t just throw it all up there, run a few test signals through, and walk off for a bite. You have to actually go up on deck and listen to a real mic through a real wedge. And then listen to a real mic through multiple wedges. At high gain! You also have to listen to real music through the FOH rig. If you want an objective measurement of the system, you have to get out your reference mic and attendant software, and then take a few minutes getting a good trace.

If you want me to create the best monitor mix possible for you in that room, you have to pick at it. We have to go through several iterations of tweak/ listen/ tweak/ listen/ tweak – and we have to be able to do it all with calmness and rationality. Thirty seconds of panicked gesturing from a cold start ain’t gonna get you there, pilgrim.

If you want to build the FOH mix that effectively translates what the band is doing into the house, leveraging and flowing along with the natural sound of the group in the room…You. Have. To. Pick. At. It. Before doors. Or do you want to be futzing around, “finding yourself” for the entirety of the first set? People, please. Bands and audiences deserve better.

As an experienced “Selective Louderization Specialist,” I can tell you that sounding good (and getting everybody truly comfortable) takes at least an hour of work. Bare minimum. (There are plenty of bands that require much more time than that.)

And that hour does NOT start until everybody is in the same room, with all the gear working, and with the entire audio system pre-tuned for the appropriate performance. (A hint for sound people: You have to be really early if you want a fighting chance at this.) It’s not to say that it’s impossible to sound decent in a smaller span of time. It can be done, and sometimes it must be done – but why choose that outcome if it’s optional?

“I’m not required to smack myself in the face with a sharp object, but I’m going to do it! Eugene, hand me that axe!”

Really?

Assuming that it’s going to take no less than 60 minutes of effort to make your show spectacular, I encourage you to ask yourself the “Giron Question.” When do you want to sound good? Figure out when that time is, and then show up a lot earlier than that.


To Hurry Is Useless

“To hurry is useless. The thing to do is to set out in time.”
– Jean de La Fontaine

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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Especially when it comes to show production, I will say this when it comes to time management:

If you’re in a hurry, you’re doing things the wrong way.

Of course there are exceptions. When a million things that you couldn’t have foreseen suddenly fling themselves at you, teeth gnashing, you can’t blame yourself. It’s entirely possible to get all your ducks in a row, only to have a vanload of psychotic kleptomaniacs with a fondness for waterfowl show up on the scene. The next thing you know, your ducks are gone.

I’m not here to argue the (bogus) point that you’re responsible for every eventuality, just because you have a certain position of responsibility on a show. That kind of thing sounds good for corporate motivational posters, but it’s as helpful as a greasy hammer when it comes to real life.

What I am saying, though, is that boredom is infinitely preferable to panic, and that you can often choose to not be in a pressure situation. You just have to allow yourself significantly more time than you think you need. If everything goes perfectly, then you can lounge around and enjoy being done. If everything does NOT go perfectly, you still have some cushion to work through your conundrum.

Again, what I’m talking about is when there are clear choices involved.

There are people who have a habit of thinking, “We can set up for our gig in the space of [timeframe], so we’ll show up at [timeframe] before doors.” These people CAN have a good show – if everything goes their way, and the folks supporting them are really top-shelf. If anything (at all) goes pear-shaped, though, the trouble will be very serious. The show probably will be late, or on time but something of a mess. The stress factor will be increased, and live music is plenty intense without any additions, thank-you-very-much-folks.

It’s also entirely possible to show up with plenty of time to spare, and then use that spare time poorly. I remember one show that I did where everybody, including me, was plenty early. We got the band’s gear all set up. I had a basic mix dialed in for the wedges before anybody else arrived. (I’ve told this story here before, I believe, but with somewhat less detail.)

And then, we didn’t soundcheck. The band wasn’t interested, for some reason. I stood by my console at FOH, and waited. As Douglas Adams would have said, nothing happened. Then, suddenly, and with no warning…nothing CONTINUED to happen. Roughly 90 minutes passed this way, as I remember.

Finally, at pretty much the precise moment that the band was to start, they took the stage and proceeded to do what they should have been doing all along: Soundcheck. Except, we had no time. We had to pretty much be in full swing immediately. Nothing was really where it was supposed to be, and so there was this flurried and chaotic activity of trying to dial everybody in all at the same time. Everybody needed something fixed in the monitors, and as I focused on one person, another player’s requests got lost. The drummer, in particular, had precisely what he didn’t want (a lot of everybody else’s vocals), and he wasn’t really in a position to communicate clearly about it. I think the poor guy suffered through a significant part of the first set before anything could be done. It all wasn’t a complete trainwreck, but it was an infinitely bigger sandwich-o-crap than it actually had to be.

To be brutally frank, the band could have socialized for a whole hour before downbeat – with everything being in place for downbeat – if we had only taken 30 minutes to get things dialed in beforehand. It might not have even taken that long.

There’s a big difference between not being able to put your ducks in a row, and not even attempting to arrange those little birds in a linear fashion. Why be in a hurry if it’s not necessary?


The Majestic Grandeur Of Tranquility

Not everyone will appreciate it, but staying calm during a show is a really good idea.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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I didn’t really come up with the title of this article. Washington Irving did. I’m pretty sure Washington Irving knew basically nothing about production for rock shows, but he knew about life – and rock shows follow the rules of life.

One of the rules of life is that panic can kill you. It especially kills you in pressure situations involving technical processes. The reason why is pretty simple: Panic shuts off your rational mind, and a technical process REQUIRES your rational mind. When the…stuff…hits the fan, and you’re driving an audio rig, frantic thrashing will not save you. It will, instead, dig you an even deeper pit.

Calmness, on the other hand, allows you to think. The suppression of a fight-or-flight response means that your mental process is freed of having to swim upstream against a barrage of terrified impulses. You get more solutions with less work, because you’re able to linearly piece together why you’ve just been bitten in your ample, fleshy rear. Maintaining a tranquil, logical flow of problem solving not only means that you’re likely to get the problem fixed, it also means that you’ve got a fighting chance at finding your root cause. If you find and fix your problem’s root cause, your problem will stay solved. If all you do is mask the failure in a fit of “band-aid sticking,” you’re going to get bitten again – and soon, probably.

Another thing to keep in mind is that your emotional state is infectious in multiple ways. The most obvious connection is the simple transfer of mindset. If you’re seen as being in charge of the show – the person flying the plane, as it were – then you’re also unconsciously perceived as having authority over how to interpret the situation. If you, the authority are losing your crap, then the signal is being sent that the loss of one’s crap is the appropriate response to the problem. Deep down, we humans have “herd mammal” software installed. It’s a side-effect of how we’re constructed. Under enough stress, our tendency is to run that software, which obeys the overall direction of the group.

And the group obeys the leader. So, lead well.

The more indirect way that emotional state transfers is through your actions which affect others. The musicians on deck are not, of course, oblivious to what you’re doing with the console and system processing. If you’re banging away without much direction, eventually you will do something that seriously gums up a musician’s performance. This is especially true if you’re wildly tweaking every monitor channel in sight. One second, things are a little weird due to a minor problem. Then, you panic and start futzing around with every send and mute you can reach, and things get even weirder. Maybe even unusable. You don’t want that.

The majestic grandeur of tranquility, on the other hand, embodies itself in making precise, deliberate changes that mess with the performance as little as possible. It is engaging in the scientific process, running experiments and noting the results at very high speed. Being deliberate DOES slow down individual actions, but the total solution arrives more quickly. You end up taking the direct route, instead of a million side trips.

It’s Not Easy, And Not Everybody Gets It

If this sounds like a tough discipline, that’s because it is. Even being aware of its importance, I still don’t always do it successfully. (And I’ve had LOTS of practice.)

Also, some folks confuse serenity with inattentiveness.

I once worked a show where a member of the audience was a far more “high-powered” audio human than myself. This person worked on big shows, with big teams, in big spaces. This person knew their stuff, without a doubt.

The problem, though, was that the show was hitting some snags. The band had been thrown together to do the gig, and while the effort was admirable, the results were a little ragged. The group was a little too loud for themselves, and monitor world was being thrown together on the fly. It was a battle to keep it all from flying off the handle, and the show was definitely trying to run away. I was trying to take my own advice, and combat the problems surgically. As much as the game of “feedback whack-a-mole” wasn’t all that aesthetically pleasing, I was steadily working towards getting things sorted out.

Unfortunately, to this other audio-human, I didn’t look like I was doing enough. Their preferred method was to sledgehammer a problem until it went away, and I was NOT sledgehammering. Therefore, I was “doing it wrong.”

We ended up doing some pretty wild things to the performers in the name of getting things under control. In my opinion, the result was that the show appeared to be MORE out of control, until our EQ and monitor send carpet-bombing campaign had smashed everything in sight.

The problem was “fixed,” but we had done a lot of damage in the process, all in the name of “looking busy.”

To this day, I think staying calm would have been better for that show. I think staying calm and working things out methodically is best for all shows. My considered advice is (to take a page from Dumbledore) that everyone should, please, not panic.


Why Chaining Distortion Doesn’t Sound So Great

More dirt is not necessarily cool dirt.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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One day, just before Fats closed, I was talking with Christian from Blue Zen. We were discussing the pursuit of tone, and a discovery that Christian had made (with the help of Gary at Guitar Czar). Christian had been trying to get more drive from his amp, which already had a fair bit of crunch happening. So, he had put a distortion pedal between the guitar and the amplifier input.

He hadn’t liked the results. He found the sound to be too scratchy and thin.

Upon consultation with Gary, the distortion pedal had been removed, and a much cleaner boost substituted. Christian was definitely happier.

But why hadn’t the original solution worked?

The Frequency Domain

Distortion can be something of a complex creature, but it does have a “simple” form. The simple form is harmonic distortion. Harmonic distortion occurs when the transfer function of an audio chain becomes nonlinear, and a tone is passed with additional products that follow a mathematical pattern: For a given frequency in a signal, the generated products are integer multiples of that frequency.

Integers are “whole” numbers, so, for a 200 Hz tone undergoing harmonic distortion, additional tones are generated at 200 Hz X 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, etc. Different circuits generate the additional tones at different intensities, and which pattern you prefer is a matter of taste.

For example, here’s an RTA trace of a 200 Hz tone being run through a saturation plugin.

pure-tone-distortion

(The odd-numbered harmonics are definitely favored by this particular saturation processor’s virtual circuit.)

The thing is that harmonics are always higher in frequency than the fundamental. The “hotter” the harmonic content, the more the signal’s overall frequency response “tilts” toward the high end. As distortion piles up, the overall timbre of a signal can start to overwhelm the lower-frequency information, resulting in a sound that is no longer “warm,” “thick,” “fat,” “chunky,” “creamy,” or whatever adjective you like to use.

Take a look at this transfer function trace comparing a signal run through one distortion stage and two distortion stages. The top end is very pronounced, with plenty of energy that’s not much more than “fizz” or “hiss”:

transfer-function-dualdistortion

If you chain distortion into distortion, you’re quite likely to just pile up more and more harmonic content, thus emphasizing the high end more than you’d prefer. There’s more to it than that, though. Look at this RTA trace of a tone being run through chained saturation plugins:

pure-tone-doubledistortion

To make things easier to see, you can also take a look at this overlay of the two traces:

pure-tone-overlay

There’s noticeably more energy in the high-end, and the distortion products are also present at many more frequencies. The original harmonic distortion tones are being distorted themselves, and there may also be some intermodulation distortion occurring. Intermodulation distortion is also a nonlinearity in a system’s transfer function, but the additional tones aren’t multiples of the original tones. Rather, they are sums and differences.

IM distortion is generally thought to sound pretty ugly when compared to harmonic distortion.

So, yes, chaining distortion does give you more drive, but it can also give you way more “dirt” than you actually want. If you like the sound of your amp’s crunch, and want more of it, you’re better off finding a way to run your clean signal at a higher (but still clean) level. As the amp saturates, the distortion products will go up – but at least it will be only one set of distortion products.

Dynamic Range

The other problem with heaping distortion on top of distortion is that of emphasizing all kinds of noises that you’d prefer not to. Distortion is, for all intents and purposes, a “dirty” limiter. Limiting, being an extreme form of compression, reduces dynamic range (the difference between high and low amplitude signals). This can be very handy up to a point. Being able to crank up quieter sounds means that tricks like high-speed runs and pinch-harmonics are easier to pull off effectively.

There’s a point, though, where sounds that you’d prefer to de-emphasize are smashed right up into the things you do want to hear. To use a metaphor, the problem with holding the ceiling steady and raising the floor is that you eventually get that nasty old carpet in your face. The noise of your pickups and instrument processors? Loud. Your picking? Loud. Your finger movement on the strings? Loud. Any other sloppiness? Loud.

Running distortion into distortion is a very effective way to make what you’d prefer to be quiet into a screaming vortex of noise.

Is Chaining Distortion Wrong?

I want to close with this point.

Chaining distortion is not “wrong.” You shouldn’t be scared to try it as a science experiment, or to get a wild effect.

The point of all this is merely to say that serial distortion is not the best practice for a certain, common application – the application of merely running a given circuit at a higher level. For that particular result, which is quite commonly desired, you will be far better served by feeding the circuit with more “clean” gain. In all likelihood, your control over your sound will be more fine-grained, and also more predictable overall.


Music Is So Much More Than Recordings

A Schwilly guest post.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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“Before anyone could even begin to think of selling something as antiquated as a physical record, there were centuries upon centuries of successful and unsuccessful musicians.”


The entire article is available (free!) at Schwilly Family Musicians.


We Are Water Flowing Downhill

If you’re stuck, try to go around.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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One of the most lethal threats to successfully pulling off a show is getting stuck.

Or, rather, agreeing to remain stuck when you don’t have to be.

We’ve all seen it happen. You’re setting up and dialing in, and something won’t cooperate. The entire flow of show-prep suddenly diverts towards making that thing cooperate. Minutes pass as more and more resources are devoted to solving the problem. An hour goes by, and you’re still stuck, and you look up, AND IT’S 15 MINUTES TO DOORS, HOLY CRAP!

I’ve been there. I’ve been there (and been guilty of perpetrating it) when a snag has brought an entire production – even a decently planned one – to a grinding halt for far too long. So what do you do?

One thing you can do is learn the lesson of water flowing downhill.

Zen And The Critical Path

Consider the stream flowing down a rocky bed. The current has a destination which it must reach, yet there is impedance to the flow of the liquid. The rocks are obstacles. Snags. The water cannot flow through them.

Yet the water is untroubled. It merely flows around the rocks, acknowledging the stones by slowing – yet not stopping. The water continues down the critical path, and thus overcomes the rocks without overpowering them. The current strives against the impedance without effort.

The water does not confuse an obstacle in the path with the ending of the path.


Too often in troubleshooting, we make the assumption that we can not move onto solving the rest of a problem until we have solved each piece of the conundrum in some arbitrary order. However, this is rarely the case. Many shows are inherently “parallel” in nature. The lead vocal has a route to the PA, and the kick drum has a route to the PA. Those routes are very likely independent of one another until they are summed into an output path. If the kick drum’s independent route fails, but the lead vocal can still make it, you have a workable show. It may not be the exact show you were hoping for, but you still have a show.

The critical path is getting whatever MUST go through the audio rig to go through it. Everything else is a bonus. The vast majority of small-venue shows can come to a workable conclusion with nothing but the lead vocal working. Like I said, that may not be the best possible show – but it will still be recognizable as a show. If you hit an obstruction that you can’t quickly clear, take a moment and think: “If this can’t be made to work, is it truly the end of the show?”

If you answer in the negative, you are snagged on something that is NOT on the critical path. Flow around it. You can always come back to it later, but for now, you need to focus on arriving at the minimum viable product. In many cases, people only get stuck on a technical problem because they “assent” to being stuck. They decide to stop and bang away at the issue when there is no physical reason that other (actually more critical) issues could not be addressed first. The longer they consent to remaining obstructed, the more that the effort required to handle the rest of the show is concentrated into a shorter span of time. At some point, a threshold of panic is reached. This is a bad scene.

Do not confuse an obstacle in the path with the ending of the path. We are water flowing downhill.


When Your Work Speaks For Itself, Don’t Interrupt

Schwilly Family. Guest post. You know the drill.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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“One of the most plainly visible examples is when, without irony, a musician tells the audience that the music being presented is bad. It seems like an embrace of one’s own limitations, and there’s nothing wrong with owning a total miscue, but there’s a problem with claiming – as a matter of regular course, and with a palpable sense that you mean what you say – that your art is crap:

The danger is that somebody might believe you.”

The whole article is available at Schwilly Family Musicians.


Load Out Begins Immediately Upon Load In

Everything is prep for something else.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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You may not have known this, but loading in and loading out aren’t different processes. They are the same thing. Setup and teardown also share this behavior.

Basically, every part of doing a show is the preparatory step for what comes after it. If you’re lazy about the prep (and we all get lazy from time to time), you are making the next bit harder.

For example, let’s say that you load in a show with gear going absolutely everywhere. It’s spread out all over creation. There’s no plan, at all, for how things should be grouped. It all looks like a giant two-year old was given a set of blocks that look like flightcases, amplifiers, and storage tubs, and that two-year old suddenly decided the world was unfair and threw a major fit.

Nobody knows where anything is, exactly. Not even you.

How do you think setup is going to treat you, starting from a place of chaos?

If setup treats you poorly, how will the show go?

If the show goes poorly, as most amalgams of entropy and stress tend to do, how will teardown go?

If teardown is a ball of stress, sullenness, “I don’t care, just throw it in,” and general capitulation, will loadout be easy on you?

What will the next show be like, probably?

Problems cascade. It’s just like breaking a microphone’s cable: For that microphone, every other connection is effectively broken. If any part of the show is afflicted with disorganization, every other part of the show will suffer from the effects.

On multiple occasions, I’ve been told that I run a very tight stage. That is, I try to start with things in a neat and orderly configuration. I’ll tell you right now that such habits, for me, are not just about aesthetics. Yes, I do appreciate the look of a clean and organized show. I’m aware of the “political” implications of presenting that kind of setup to musicians, and I think those implications are worth the effort all by themselves. However, it’s also about survival, plain and simple.

There are people in this business who I term “sound ninjas.” They can take any mess and make it functional in the space of a few seconds. I’m not so skilled as to pull that off. I have to be able to understand what’s going on with the rig, and have some “homework” done if I’m going to do a decent job at selective noise-louderization. If the system looks like some giant violently vomited black spaghetti and steel poles all over the place, I’m going to have a bad time.

So, I try for the opposite, because I want to have a good time.

…and, of course, any show will involve the setup racing towards the maximum possible entropy. If the system’s entropy – the chaos and disorder involved – starts as low as you can get it, then its end value will be as low as the circumstances allow. If the entropy starts high, it’s only going to get higher by the time you’re ready to pack and leave.

Pack the boxes neatly, and it will be easy to find things at the next setup. It will also be much easier to setup in an organized way.

The show will be pulled off much more easily.

The end level of disorganization will be lower, making it easier to pack neatly.

Pack the boxes neatly, and it will be easy to – (You get the idea.)

The time and effort required to make a show happen can not be created or destroyed. It can only be transferred around. Spread it evenly, and the process stays manageable. Pack it all into one huge lump, and you may not be able to handle it all.