Tag Archives: Contrast

On The Identification and Fixing of Live Show Arrangement Problems

An article I wrote 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.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

From the article:

“…In other words, arrangement quality is INVERSELY proportional to the musical corrective action required of the sound tech. Great bands with great arrangements don’t require me to fix anything. I just have to translate the songs through the PA – and actually, that’s a pretty good analogy. With a bad arrangement, I have to go beyond just helping the “onstage language” interface with “audience language.” If I’m able, I also have to correct the original grammar, fact-check, rewrite for clarification, and THEN translate.”


Read the whole thing here, for free.


Pink Floyd Is A Bluegrass Band

If you beat the dynamics out of a band that manages itself with dynamics, well…

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.

floydgrassWant to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

Just recently, I had the privilege of working on “The Last Floyd Show.” (The production provided the backdrop for that whole bit about the lighting upgrade that took forever.) We recorded the show to multitrack, and I was tasked with getting a mix done.

It was one of the toughest mixdowns I’ve attempted, mostly because I took the wrong approach when I got started. I attempted a “typical rock band” mix, and I ended up having to basically start over once…and then backtrack significantly twice more. Things started to work much more nicely when I backed WAY off on my channel compression – which is a little weird, because a lot of my “mix from live” projects actually do well with aggressive compression on individual channels. You grab the player’s level, hold it back from jumping around, fit ’em into the part of the spectrum that works, and everything’s groovy.

Not this time, though.

Because Pink Floyd is actually an old-timey bluegrass act that inhabits a space-rock body. They use “full-range” tones and dynamics extensively, which means that preventing those things from working is likely to wreck the band’s sound.

General Dynamics (Specific Dynamics, Too)

Not every Floyd tune is the same, of course, but take a listen over a range of their material and you’ll discover something: Pink Floyd gets a huge amount of artistic impact from big swings in overall dynamics, as well as the relative levels of individual players. Songs build into rolling, thunderous choruses, and then contract into gentle verses. There are “stings” where a crunchy guitar chord PUNCHES YOU IN THE FACE, and then backs away into clean, staccato notes. Different parts ebb and flow around each other, with great, full-range tones possible across multiple instruments – all because of dynamics. When it’s time for the synth, or organ, or guitar to be in the lead, that’s what is in the lead. They just go right past the other guys and “fill the space,” which is greatly enabled by the other guys dropping far into the background.

If you crush the dynamics out of any part of a Pink Floyd production, it isn’t Pink Floyd anymore. It’s people playing the same notes as Floyd songs without actually making those songs happen. If those dynamic swings are prevented, the arrangements stop working properly. The whole shebang becomes a tangled mess of sounds running into each other, which is EXACTLY what happened to me when I tried to “rock mix” our Floyd Show recording.

This usage of dynamics, especially as a self-mix tool, is something that you mostly see in “old school acoustic-music” settings. Rock and pop acts these days are more about a “frequency domain” approach than a “volume domain” sort of technique. It’s not that there’s no use of volume at all, it’s just that the overwhelming emphasis seems to be on everybody finding a piece of the spectrum, and then just banging away with the vocals on top. (I’m not necessarily complaining. This can be very fun when it’s done well.) With that emphasis being the case so often, it’s easy to get suckered into doing everything with a “rock” technique. Use that technique in the wrong place, though, and you’ll be in trouble.

And yes, this definitely applies to live audio. In fact, this tendency to work on everything with modern rock tools is probably why I haven’t always enjoyed Floyd Show productions as much as I’ve wanted.

In The Flesh

When you have a band like Floyd Show on the deck, in real life, in a small room, the band’s acoustical peaks can overrun the PA to some extent. This is especially true if (like me), you aggressively limit the PA in order to keep the band “in a manageable box.” This, coupled with the fact that the band’s stage volume is an enormous contributor to the sound that the audience hears, means that a compressed, “rock band” mix isn’t quite as ruinous as it otherwise would be. That is, with the recording, the only sound you can hear is the reproduced sound, so screwing up the production is fatal. Live, in a small venue, you hear a good bit of reproduction (the PA) and a LOT of stage volume. The stage volume counteracts some of the “reproduction” mistakes, and makes the issues less obvious.

Another thing that suppresses “not quite appropriate” production is that you’re prepared to run an effectively automated mix in real time. When you hear that a part isn’t coming forward enough, you get on the appropriate fader and give it a push. Effectively, you put some of the dynamic swing back in as needed, which masks the mistakes made in the “steady state” mix setup. With the recording, though, the mix doesn’t start out as being automated – and that makes a fundamental “steady state” error stand out.

As I said before, I haven’t always had as much fun with Floyd Show gigs as I’ve desired. It’s not that the shows weren’t a blast, because they were definitely enjoyable for me, it’s just that they could have been better.

And it was because I was chasing myself into a corner as much as anyone else was, all by taking an approach to the mix that wasn’t truly appropriate for the music. I didn’t notice, though, because my errors were partially masked by virtue of the gigs happening in a small space. (That masking being a Not Bad Thing At All.™)

The Writing On The Wall

So…what can be generalized from all this? Well, you can boil this down to a couple of handy rules for live (and studio) production:

If you want to use “full bandwidth” tones for all of the parts in a production, then separation between the parts will have to be achieved primarily in the volume and note-choice domain.

If you’re working with a band that primarily achieves separation by way of the volume domain, then you should refrain from restricting the “width” of the volume domain any more than is necessary.

The first rule comes about because “full bandwidth” tones allow each part to potentially obscure each other part. For example, if a Pink Floyd organ sound can occupy the same frequency space as the bass guitar, then the organ either needs to be flat-out quieter or louder at the appropriate times to avoid clashing with the bass, or change its note choices. Notes played high enough will have fundamental frequencies that are away from the bass guitar’s fundamentals. This gives the separation that would otherwise be gotten by restricting the frequency range of the organ with EQ and/ or tone controls. (Of course, working the equalization AND note choice AND volume angles can make for some very powerful separation indeed.)

The second rule is really just an extension of “getting out of the freakin’ way.” If the band is trying to be one thing, and the production is trying to force the band to be something else, the end result isn’t going to be as great as it could be. The production, however well intentioned, gets in the way of the band being itself. That sounds like an undesirable thing, because it is an undesirable thing.

Faithfully rendered Pink Floyd tunes use instruments with wide-ranging tones that run up and down – very significantly – in volume. These volume swings put different parts in the right places at the right time, and create the dramatic flourishes that make Pink Floyd what it is. Floyd is certainly a rock band. The approach is not exactly the same as an old-school bluegrass group playing around a single, omni mic…

…but it’s close enough that I’m willing to say: The lunatics on Pink Floyd’s grass are lying upon turf that’s rather more blue than one might think at first.


Audio Processing In Graphical Terms

A guest post 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.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

The “doing of things” to audio can seem pretty abstract, and so I decided to write a piece that uses pictures to demonstrate signal processing. Go on and have a look.


Transient Impact

Music that hits hard requires careful management of the parts that don’t hit hard.

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.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

A few weeks ago, I had the unexpected pleasure of working with a band called “Outside Infinity.” I say that the pleasure was unexpected because I had some major concerns going into the show. Metal, as a genre, can be pretty challenging in a small space. The sheer volume can be tough (or even impossible) to work with, and the arrangements are often quite dense – which compounds the volume problem. Several instruments banging away at full-blast can make for lots of challenges when trying to differentiate each part of a mix.

Outside Infinity had none of those problems. In fact, they were a prime example of how heavy metal – or any type of music that you want to “hit hard” – actually achieves that goal. (They were so much fun to listen to that I’m pretty sure I had a stupid grin on my face for large portions of the night.) I was really impressed by the sound that they had crafted, and I started to think about it.

Why were they so much fun?

Why did they capture what I’ve loved about heavy metal in the past?

Why did their sound have what so many rock and metal bands want, but so often fail to achieve?

I think that the generalized answer to all of those questions is this: Transient impact.

The Stopping Is As Important As The Starting

There are a number of necessary elements to a really great song performed live in a really great way. The lyrics have to be interesting, of course, and a memorable melody (or overall musical theme) is required. Skipping those steps will efficiently torpedo a tune’s ability to grab and hold an audience. There’s more, though: The overall sound of the song has to keep the listener interested. It’s analogous to eating a meal that leaves you remembering the food for years. Every bite is delicious, yes, but certain bites contain an extra explosion of flavor that plays on the mouth and tongue…and then dissipates. That “taste transient” pokes out from the “steady state deliciousness” of the rest of the meal, creating an ebb and flow of special delight, anticipation, and reward.

But if that burst of flavor just continued unabated, with no steady-state to contrast it against, then the “burst” wouldn’t be attention-getting anymore. It would BE the steady-state, and would quickly become unremarkable.

Sound behaves in a way that’s fundamentally the same. We perceive it differently, and the time-scales involved are sometimes much shorter, but the transient content is still the basis of what holds attention. Transient content is the determining factor behind the (ironically) nebulous idea of music that’s “really defined.” In music that aims to convey power and force, sounds that hit above the steady-state, and then swiftly decay are what cause the individual parts to “slam into you.” Everything just banging away at full throttle, continuously, for several minutes, has no impact. No spark of flavor. The brain starts to have trouble distinguishing the music from noise, because of the lack of anything to lock on to.

The mastery of stopping notes at the right time is what creates epic riffs. The mastery of creating a pleasing steady-state, which is then punctuated by sharp, sonic flavors, is the essence of the “thunderous” rock show.

…and because transients are all about proportionality, it is entirely possible to create a pile-driving artillery barrage of a show within the confines of a small venue. More on that later. First:

Dynamics And Articulation

Music, especially rock and metal, has a long history of breaking rules and pushing boundaries. This is what drives innovation, and it’s a good thing. However, there are certain rules that can’t truly be broken successfully. Those rules are the ones that are based in fundamentals of the physical universe and human perception.

One such rule is that, for a particular musical part to seem “big,” the other parts around it must be proportionally small. There are different ways of achieving this, but it all pretty much boils down to volume. The “small” part must either be quieter across the entire audible spectrum, or quieter across the most important part of the spectrum occupied by the “big” part. Especially in the small-venue context, plenty of bands shoot themselves in the foot with this. I’ve heard too many groups that interpret the instrumental breaks of their songs as “there’s no vocal, so now all the instruments should play as loudly as they can, occupy every frequency possible, and we’ll just hope that the audio-human can crank the actual solo above all that.”

(The best bands avoid this problem by interpreting the solo instrument as being “the new vocal,” and thus they keep all the other instruments in a supporting role until it’s their turn to be in front.)

Anyway.

In music, there are lots of broad-brush ways to accomplish this necessary contrast. There are the overall dynamics of individual parts across a number of beats, and there are also the rests – where a part is silent for a time. Whether formally or informally, these contrasts can be reliably notated. It’s pretty easy to explicitly define the necessary negative space, whether by a symbol for a rest, a “pp” for being very quiet, or a scribbled note saying, “For the fingerpicked guitar part, no drums at all and everybody else turns way down.”

There’s something else, though, that’s required for mastery. It’s hard to explicitly notate. It’s articulation.

Articulation (as I see it) is the manner in which notes and chords are played. It’s a crucial part of getting transients to contrast with the rest of the music, because it involves dynamics and rests that are too short and frequent to write down…and yet have a massive effect on how other parts sound. Playing a power chord with a “micro rest” at the end can be key to getting a kick-hit to punch through. Making that kick-hit decay into silence quickly can make room for a note from the bass. Going through a run of notes where each tone is connected, but there’s a very slight volume drop just before the next sound, can make for a clean and precise solo line. The singer hitting a big note and then backing off means that they can help support that solo line without a miniature volume war erupting.

The very best bands have a reliable handle on making this all work – even if they’re not explicitly aware of what they’re doing. Their riffs are powerful and defined because the individual notes have space around them. Their drum hits are forceful and satisfying because there’s space for them to stick up above everything else – and yet the drums don’t overpower the tonal instruments, because the individual hits decay into the “steady state volume” before the tonals hit THEIR next transient.

This leads me into that promised bit about how this is possible in small venues.

The SPL Difference Is The Key, Not The Absolute SPL Magnitude

A common mistake in trying to reproduce big-show impact in a small room is trying to replicate the big-show’s absolute SPL (Sound Pressure Level). It’s very easy to think that “so and so sounded huge, and they were making about 115 dBC in the center of the crowd, so that’s what we should do.” What tends to happen, though, is that reaching that kind of level chews up all the power available in a small-venue audio rig. The result is a show that doesn’t have those oh-so-cool transient hits, because there’s just no room for them to assert themselves.

Instead of defeating yourself with excessive volume, what you have to think about is WHY the big-show PA was making 115 dBC in the center of that huge crowd. It’s proportionality. Several thousand humans having a big party can make a surprising amount of noise – and so, to be clearly audible, the audio rig has to make even more noise. If a giant crowd is hollering at 105 dBC, then the audio-human running the system up to 115 dBC is understandable…if maybe a bit excessive. (Or not. It depends.)

From that previous paragraph, you can see that the proportionality between the steady-state volume of the crowd and the steady-state volume of the band was 10 dB. In certain kinds of small venues, that might be a little bit too much. A window of +6 to +9 dB of continuous level above the crowd is worth trying for in most contexts – in my opinion. Note that the “trying” part is most likely going to be in the downward direction. Getting loud is surprisingly easy, but holding your level in check to a point where the crowd is still pretty-darned audible is HARD. It’s hard for bands, and hard for audio-humans, but it’s worth trying for.

The point of holding your continuous level down, beyond just being nice to your crowd, is that it creates space for your show’s transients. Especially if you’re a metal band, and you want that big, thunderous kick, your best chance is to be had by giving the PA lots of room. If the audio-human has to run the system at full tilt just to keep up, then there probably won’t be enough power available to put those chest-thumping transients where you want them to go. On the other hand, keeping the show’s continuous level at a manageable point means that there’s reserve power – reserve power that has to be available to create large, proportional differences for things that need accenting.

Running the audio for Outside Infinity was fun, because they had an instinctive handle on negative space and transient impact. There was plenty of power available for the musical peaks, because the continuous level of the band was appropriate and comfortable. They knew how to articulate their notes so that the music was sharp and defined. I was really impressed.

And, if you take the time to think about your music’s transients, you’ll probably also have a good shot at being that impressive.


In A No-Soundcheck World, The Reckless Spirit Is King

“Throw and go” is 100% possible – if you’re ready to do it well.

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.

I have a tendency to forget how good bands are. If I don’t work with a certain group regularly, my mental recall of their musicianship gets hazy and vague. Such is the case with Reckless Spirit, a really killer local band whose killer-ness I forgot.

Don’t get me wrong – I remembered that they were good. It’s just that I didn’t have a real grip on just how good.

Reckless Spirit was closing a two-band bill. It took a bit to get the bands changed over, and all we really had time for was a quick “line check.” Everything had a solid connection to the console, and the vocals were audible in monitor world, so –

Off we went.

And the show sounded fantastic.

With no proper soundcheck at all.

Their sound came together in about 30 seconds, and the result was one of the most enjoyable rock-band mixes I’ve heard in a while. I’m not joking. It was effortless.

Why?

Working It All Out Ahead Of Time

I’m convinced that Reckless Spirit’s “secret” is a pretty simple one: Make sure that the music actually works as music, before you ever get to the venue. When you get right down to it, the band has become expert at dealing with The Law Of Conservation of Effort, especially in terms of having their “ensemble proportionalities” dead on.

Seriously – I don’t know if rock n’ roll has its arrangements described as “exquisite” very often, but that’s the word I would use to describe the way Reckless Spirit’s show came together. At every moment, everything had a proper (and very exact) place. When it was time for a run on the keys, the timbre and volume of the keys rig was EXACTLY correct for the part to stand out without crushing everything else. The same was very much true for the guitar, and the bass-and-drum rhythm section was always audible and distinct…yet never overbearing.

Everybody had their spot in terms of volume – and not just overall level, but the levels for the specific frequency ranges that they were meant to cover. The guitar parts and keyboard bits weren’t trying to be in the same tonal range at the same time. The bass wasn’t stomping on the guitar, and the drums fit neatly into the musical “negative space” that remained. Sure, a really good PA operator (with a sufficiently powerful PA) can do a lot to create that situation, but it takes a very long time – and a busload of volume – if the band isn’t even close to doing it themselves.

The point here is that the band didn’t need the PA system to be a band. There was no requirement for me to take them completely apart, and then stick them back together again. Before even a single channel was unmuted, they were 100% prepared to be cohesive…and that meant that when the live-sound rig DID get involved, the PA was really only needed for a bit of room-specific sweetening. Sure, FOH (Front of House) was needed as a “vocal amp,” but that pretty much goes for everyone who plays amplified music. Aside from getting clarity into the lyrical portion of the show, the PA didn’t need to “fix” anything.

…and getting clarity was easy, because the band was playing at a volume that fit the vocals in neatly. We actually REDUCED the monitor volume on deck, because my “standard rock show” preset made the vocals too loud. Even with that, Brock (the guitarist and main vocalist) informed me that he was really backing off from the mic, because it seemed very, very hot.

Great ensemble prep + reduced stage wash = nice sound out front.

I’m convinced that just about anyone can be in possession of that equation up there. The key is to do your homework, Reckless Spirit style. Use as much rehearsal time as you can to figure out EXACTLY where everybody’s sound is supposed to be, and EXACTLY when those sounds are supposed to be there. Figure out how to do all that at small-venue volume, and how to get the vocals spot-on without powerful monitors, and your chances of a sonically great show will jump in a massive way. You’ll be 90% down the road to a successful partnership with any given night’s audio-human, because by doing your job you’ll enable them to do theirs more effectively.

Be Reckless (proper noun).


Inconsistent Distance

In small rooms, audience proximity to loudspeakers can mean a wildly different mix.

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.

I love doing “advanced application” stuff where people don’t expect it. It’s not that I’m into complexity for complexity’s sake, but I do like to exceed expectations when possible. So, when The Floyd Show wanted to take things to the next level by having quadrophonic sound available, I was pretty thrilled.

I was so thrilled that, the second time we did a show that way, I went a little too crazy. I put a bunch of channels through reverb and delay, and pushed all that through the rear speakers. Loud. I wanted to hear it!

About a third of the way through the show, one of the club’s security humans came up to me.

“Dude, you’ve REALLY got to turn those down.”

Oops.

What went wrong? Was I tearing people’s heads off?

No, as I found out later. What was happening was that some people were getting an overpowering “FX to dry” ratio – and it was all because they were really close to the rear loudspeakers.

The Correct Solution Over Here Is Wrong Over There

In small-venue sound, there’s a bit of truth that’s hugely relevant…and yet rarely discussed:

A mix “solution” that is the result of both acoustical sources and PA reinforcement is spatially dependent. A listener at a different point in space is not necessarily receiving a solution of the same validity as people at other points in space.

In other words, what sounds perfect in one spot may not sound all that perfect when you’re on the other side of the room, especially if a listener gets (proportionally) very close to part of the PA.

Why?

SPL (Sound Pressure Level) increases as distance to a source decreases. Not everybody knows the math involved for modeling this reality with physics, but I’m pretty sure that almost everybody has an intuitive grasp of the idea. (The math actually isn’t that hard, by the way.) The reason this matters so much for small-venue audio humans is as follows:

If the sound reinforcement system is only responsible for a portion of a mix “solution,” a listener that is in close proximity to the system is likely to be experiencing a mix which is overbalanced in favor of the PA.

(Yes, this is essentially a restatement of the first point.)

A Common Example

To look at this in familiar terms, let’s consider a PA system that’s only reproducing vocals. The PA is located just in front of the band, with about twenty feet between the stacks. Everything else in the room is coming from the band’s instruments on stage. An audio human, situated 30 feet from the stage, in the center of the audience area, creates a mix solution that they like. This mix solution is, of course, a blend of the PA plus everything else. The validity of the solution depends on the blend’s proportionality remaining the same.

For many points in the room, the proportionality does indeed remain relatively stable. It remains stable because the DIFFERENCE in distance from the listener to either the PA or the band doesn’t change too wildly. In fact, as listeners get farther away, the proportion between the distance to the PA versus the distance to the band is reduced – that is, the proportion gets closer and closer to being 1:1. If you’re somewhere behind the sound operator, your chances of getting basically the same mix solution are pretty good – even if you’re off to one side.

(Of course, that mix solution may be highly colored by room reflections – that is, reverb – but the fact remains that what you’re hearing is the “correct” solution plus reverb. Then again, to be fair, very strong and/ or unpleasant reverberation can result in a total acoustical sound that’s utterly terrible…)

Anyway.

Where problems start to happen is in the area in front of the FOH (Front Of House) engineer. The closer that a listener gets to the front of the room, the more the proportionality between the sound sources diverges from 1:1. In this particular example, a person standing dead center, four feet from the stage is almost three times closer to the stage than they are to the PA. It’s quite likely that, for that listener, the stagewash is overpowering the vocals-only PA to some degree. (The issue is probably compounded by the listener being out of the throw patterns of the PA speakers, although that’s beyond the scope of this article.) On the other hand, a person that’s down front and off to one side could be getting four times as much PA as stagewash, if not more. For them, the vocals might be a bit too “hot.”

Some Things Can Be Fixed. Other Things…

The bottom line here is that if the PA (or even just some part of the PA) isn’t the whole mix, then you have to be mindful of where and how your mix solution can change. In my case, what I failed to consider was that the people in the back of the room were getting an overdose of FX from the surrounds. I pulled the rear speakers down, and everybody was a lot happier. The folks in front probably weren’t getting much from the rear boxes anyway, so it wasn’t a big loss to them.

You can’t fix everything, though.

In small venues, people can listen from all kinds of places, and you probably won’t have the gear available to cover all of those places. Big shows can fix their problem areas with fills and delay stacks of all kinds, but little shows just have to “shoot for the average.” In my personal opinion, if 75% or more of the audience seems to be getting basically the same mix, then you’ve done your duty. Of course, trying for 100% is usually praiseworthy, but completely overcoming the problem of inconsistent distance in a small venue is expensive, time consuming, and chews up a lot of space. In fact, 100% coverage might not even be what you want – in small rooms, it can be very nice for people to be able to “get away” from the full-blast of the show.

(You also have to consider other psychology that’s involved. For some folks, an “off” mix is a tiny price to pay for being able to be nose to nose with their favorite band. A happy audience is a happy audience, any way you slice it.)


For The Love Of Mid

The material that’s critical for a mix is between about 200 Hz and 4000 Hz.

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.

We’ve all seen and heard it, in some way. You know what I mean. The “smiley face” EQ. “Scoop” switches. The midrange all the way down – and, optionally, the bass and treble CRANKED.

“Hi-fi.”

“Bedroom tone.”

Heck, most of us have been practitioners of this very thing. When trying to make something sound impressive, polished, and big, ruthlessly carving out the midrange is like the Dark Side of The Force: Quick, easy, and seductive.

Also, really bad for you in the end.

What a mix (live, studio, monitors, stage-volume, anything) actually stands or falls on is the midrange. Sure, you want the top and bottom octave to be in the right place, but they really aren’t as critical as you may have been led to believe.

So, why do people de-emphasize the midrange so much?

Tough, Lonely, Unexciting Rooms

There are all kinds of contexts that drive scooped, sizzle-thump tones. Getting into every detail could make for a very long, barely readable article. I think that you can get a decent picture by generalizing, though:

Midrange is common, unexciting, and – due to its criticality – annoying when it’s wrong.

See, humans hear midrange better than almost anything else. We’re great at detecting and analyzing human speech, because our lives basically depend on it. Human speech is all about midrange, and expressive, detailed vocalization is one of the things that makes humans actually…you know…human. We grow up hearing midrange. We communicate using midrange. We hear midrange all the time, in every possible place, in all kinds of contexts.

Midrange? More like, mundane-range.

When we come across a sound-generating item that can do the bits of the audible spectrum that are outside the boring and everyday, we fall in love pretty fast. “Bass” and “air” are like candy to our common meal of mid. They’re impressive. Fun. Exciting. Everything that those pokey, old-hat mids aren’t.

So, there’s a strong temptation to emphasize the fun bits at the expense of the boring parts.

At the same time, our particular human genius for detecting problems and unnatural weirdness in the mids makes us intolerant. Our brains are also VERY good at synthesizing missing information, especially when a lot of the basic cues are still intact. If your stereo or amplified instrument are in a not-so-acoustically-nice room, a quick fix is to yank out as much of the troublesome midrange as you can. The music still sounds fine, because the mids are still audible enough for you to imagine whatever you’re missing as you revel in the sounds that are emphasized.

The success of this is further enhanced by being alone, which is what leads to “bedroom sound.” With nothing else “in the mix,” you can hear your instrument just fine – and it sounds GREAT! All the midrange problems are sucked out, and the impressive “body” and “top” ends are dialed way up.

Awesome sauce.

Until real-life intervenes, of course.

Midrange Makes Mixes Musical

In the context of modern music, especially in small venues, what you have is an assemblage of amplified sounds that coexist with a lot of acoustical goings-on. For example, take a typical rock band’s rehearsal space. You’re probably going to run into an un-miced drumkit, one or two guitar amps, and a bass rig. The guitar and bass players, through electronics, have very immediate and dramatic control over the timbre of their instruments. Within the limits of their instruments and amplifiers, they can dial up some wild and weird tones.

On the other hand, the drummer can’t go quite as crazy. Sure, there’s a lot of variation to be had from shellpack to shellpack, especially with different heads, tunings, sticks, and everything else, but the reality is that most acoustic drumkits impart a tremendous amount of midrange into the room. If nobody else has much midrange left over, then the kit is going to obliterate the tonal parts of the song arrangements…unless, of course, the guitar and bass rigs are much louder than the drums.

So, here’s the major thing:

Sufficient midrange content is the primary and essential component of a tonal instrument’s place in a mix.

The reality is that, for all the excitement and fun that low and high-frequency information give us, there is very little actual music that occurs far below 200 Hz, or far above 4 kHz. It’s not that there isn’t ANY musical information beyond those areas – of course there is – it’s just that it usually isn’t critical to the actual song.

(Yes, bass guitars produce lots of fundamentals that are around or below 100 Hz, but the reality is that we mostly end up listening to the harmonic content of what the bassist is doing. Seriously – find yourself some songs with prominent, melodic basslines. Load the files into a DAW and filter everything below 200 Hz. I’ll bet that you can still hear the bass-human doing their thing.)

If the midrange content of a given part is de-emphasized in a big way, there is a very good chance that the part will disappear in an ensemble context. The flipside is that allowing everybody to have their own piece of the mids means that you’re much likely to get a better mix…especially when you’re playing live in a small room, where the interplay between purely acoustical sounds and amplified tones can be either beautiful or horrific.

Practical Considerations

The biggest take-away from this is that everybody – guitar players, bassists, vocalists, monitor guys, FOH (Front Of House) humans, and anybody else that I’ve missed – should resist the urge to “kill the mids.”

I should know, because I’ve had my own “scooping” bite me. Killed-mid vocals sound great in FOH and monitor world, right up until they have to be matched up with an actual band. At that point, you have to get the vocals VERY loud to get audible lyrics, and that can lead harshness, feedback, and an audience that wants to not be in the seats anymore.

I once had vocals dialed up in the monitors that sounded “super-studio.” Very hi-fi. It would have been great, except that when the band actually started playing you could barely hear the vocals in the wedges. You’ve gotta let those boxes “bark” a little if people are going to hear themselves sing.

On the flipside, I once worked with a band where one of the guitar players had a serious fascination with HF content. Once the drummer was playing, all you could hear out of that guitar was basically “eeeeeeessshhhh.” He would play these super-fast solos, but you couldn’t hear what he was doing. His actual notes were dialed out so far that, even when he was painfully loud and clearly in front of everybody else’s volume, you still only had a sort of screechy, clicky hiss to listen to.

There’s even a “technologic-economic” side to the whole thing. Making lots of low end and high end are tough things to do with an amplifier or a PA system. Killing the midrange and cranking the ends means that you’re probably wasting a ton of internal headroom and power-stage output on material that might not even be audible. If you want that material to be audible, you need lots of power and lots of speakers – and that’s spendy. Want to get the most out of more affordable gear? Get the midrange in the right place as the first step, and then use what you’ve got left over for the top and bottom.

The mids can be tough to love at first, but it’s a worthwhile relationship.


How To Figure Out Who Sings On Stage

The minimum requirement isn’t being able to stay on pitch, nor is it having a nice voice.

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.

It’s amazing how you can use microphones to shoot yourself in the foot. Metaphorically, I mean.

Each open mic on a stage increases the “loop gain” in monitor world and FOH (Front Of House). More loop gain means more system instability. More mics means more backline bleed cluttering up the mix – even if only in subtle ways. More mics means more volume wars on deck, as everybody struggles to hear themselves over everybody else.

More mics means live shows that don’t sound as good as they could, and yet, bands have this tendency to want vocal mics handed out to individual members like cheap candy.

Mostly, I blame this on recording. Not that recording is inherently bad – it just has unintended consequences, like everything else.

It’s A Different World In There

See, it’s easier than ever to record. You can turn any half-decent computer into a highly functional console and tape machine for about the cost of a basic combo-amp. As a result, folks are able to make acceptable (or even excellent) quality, multichannel, overdubbed recordings much earlier in the band’s life cycle than ever before.

This means that “studio magic,” even when it isn’t recognized as such, can be experienced before a musical ensemble has really gotten their live presentation to gel.

The problem here is that the studio has a much larger amount of “usable positive gain” available, especially when parts are overdubbed. So what happens is that Joe, the bassist/ guitarist/ drummer/ xylophonist/ euphonium player/ whatever, is tapped to sing a vocal harmony – because, you know, “we were listening back to the tracks one day, and he started singing a little, and it was just SICK dude…”

And it probably was pretty cool, because Joe has a pleasant voice, and a good sense of pitch. So, Joe gets handed a pair of headphones, and put in front of a mic. He sings just a bit louder than he can talk, which is fine, because that’s loud enough to mostly drown the quiet background noise in the recording area. He’s 10 – 20 dB less powerful than the lead singer, but hey, all you have to do is twist the gain up on the mic pre, and you’re golden.

No problem.

In the studio.

When overdubbing in the studio, feedback isn’t much of an issue. When overdubbing in the studio, the only thing that can bleed into that vocal track is the whir of a computer fan, or leakage from the headphones.

So, Joe lays down that vocal track, and it makes the song sound huge. Or haunting. Or just cooler than it was an hour ago.

And now, of course, the band TOTALLY has to have Joe sing that part for the live show they booked for Saturday night. Oh boy…

We’re Gonna Need One More Mic. And A Miracle.

The band is now unwittingly charging towards a problem with that live gig. The world of live audio has a lot of similarities to the world of studio audio, particularly in the area of terminology. However, live sound has a TON of inherent compromises that aren’t present when you’re overdubbing a “throw it in” vocal track.

On stage, Joe’s mic is part of a partially-closed loop that involves both the monitor speakers and the FOH speakers. (This is what I mean when I talk about “loop gain.”) As more total gain is applied, the likelihood of feedback goes up. For Joe, this is especially problematic, because he’s 10 – 20 dB quieter than the lead singer. Fixing a 10 dB difference in a live environment can be anywhere from challenging to impractical. Fixing a 20 dB imbalance can be anything from “just doable if everything cooperates” to “im-freaking-possible.”

…and total loop-gain goes way up when everybody wants to hear Joe in the monitors, loudly, “because that harmony just makes it sound so FULL, dude.”

Then, there are the feedback issues to contend with in FOH, plus the whole problem that a massive amount of the backline is coming through Joe’s high-gain vocal channel. All the backline bleed makes the show unnecessarily loud, and washes out the lead vocal, so the total gain on the lead vocal goes up, which makes the show even louder.

Folks, when a vocal mic picks up the snare drum and the output HAMMERS the PA’s limiter, you’ve got a problem.

Joe should not be singing live. Trying to make that vocal harmony happen is making a mess of the show as a whole.

So, how do you figure out who gets a vocal mic?

+20 dB, RMS

That heading, right there, is pretty much the answer. As a rule of thumb, you should consider the minimal qualification for someone to have a vocal mic to be this: Compared to all other sources in the room, the vocalist should be able to produce an average of 20 dB more sound pressure at the mic capsule.

Yes, this can be a tall order. Yes, there are situations where the rule doesn’t fully apply.

But, generally speaking, if you want a trouble-free live vocal, the singer has to be able to create lots of separation between them and everything else. Some of this is raw power, and some of it is being good at using the tools. For instance, if someone just can’t abide the concept of being in contact with the grill of a vocal mic, then they either need to sing with the force of a tornado or be denied a microphone. (Proximity buys you more relative sound pressure at the capsule – for “free.” You’d be amazed at how many people refuse to take the deal, though.)

So, how do you figure out if someone is in the ballpark?

  1. Set aside some time at your next full-band rehearsal.
  2. Find yourself an audio device of some kind – hardware, software, whatever – that has clear and unambiguous metering between two points that are 20 dB away from each other. For example, a cheap little mixer may be pretty clear about where -20 dB is, and where 0 dB is, but be unclear about how far above 0 dB the clipping point lies. In that case, you’ll want to use -20 dB and 0 dB as your reference points.
  3. This audio device doesn’t necessarily have to be disconnected from any stage monitors or other vocal amplification that you use, but you should be able to control the volume of those loudspeakers without having an effect on the meters. If this is not the case, disconnect the loudspeakers.
  4. Have the band play like they mean it. If you back things down in the rehearsal space, but then “get on the gas” for the show, this isn’t going to work. (There’s probably a whole other article right there, actually.)
  5. While the band is playing, set the gain on the vocal mic so that the average level is at your -20 dB point. You may have to “eyeball” this a bit if the meter ballistics (response time) are set to read peaks and not average levels.
  6. Now, have the prospective vocalist do their thing. If possible, have them do some different songs with varying feels.
  7. If the vocalist is consistently able to drive the meter to an average level that’s 20 dB higher than the “bleed,” then they’re probably a good candidate for singing at an actual show. Again, note that I’m talking about an average level. A momentary peak at +20 dB isn’t going to do the job when there’s an audience in the room and “things get real.”
  8. If the singer can’t “bring it to the table,” then you have to consider your options. If their vocal parts aren’t really core to the songs, then you should probably just go without their contribution during shows. If the parts are crucial, then the band needs to find a way to lose enough volume to make the 20 dB difference happen.

You may find yourself wanting to bend this rule, and I’ll certainly admit that you can. Bending the rule by 3 dB probably isn’t a huge deal. Being 6 dB off is almost certainly manageable by an experienced tech, although some extra compromises might be involved. Nine decibels or more of “fudge factor” is probably more than you want to try to work around, however.

It’s not that pitch and tone don’t matter, because they do. However, just being able to sing the right note in a cool way isn’t enough to earn an open vocal channel. A vocal that sounds beautiful, but isn’t loud enough, doesn’t create a beautiful experience as a whole. Really great bands are about making the whole experience as amazing as possible, so make sure a vocalist’s volume is there before adding a bunch of mics to your live show.


Out Of Lighting Ideas? Go Look At Art.

Artwork and photos can give you great ideas for your light show.

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.

I have an inordinate love for sci-fi concept art. It’s embarrassing, in a way. Drive me over to a gallery full of “serious” paintings, and I’ll be bored in about 20 minutes. Let me load up an online collection of spaceships, planets, and giant robots, and I’ll be there ALL FREAKIN’ DAY.

I think I like the art I like because the practitioners are great with making things dramatic. Huge scale. Great use of contrast. Exciting color schemes.

You know, all the stuff that makes a light design stand the test of time.

I think that it’s easy to fall into a couple of thought traps:

1: An exciting light show means a light show that’s moving all the time.

2: Stage lighting is somehow removed from other artistic disciplines.

Neither of those two points is true.

Every Picture Has A “Light Cue”

Take a look at this piece of art:


Overwhelming Thunder by *LordDoomhammer on deviantART

Is it animated? No. Is it exciting? You bet!

There’s a lot of light in the piece, but there’s plenty of shade, too. There’s also this great interplay between cool color (the blue engines and missile trails) and warm tones (the reds and golds in the background). The saturated colors “shout” at you, and yet the whole thing stays balanced. There’s detail in the piece, but it doesn’t become a chaotic barrage of information.

So – there’s the first point. Animated light cues are neat, and have their place, but you can set a very dramatic scene by bringing the lights up and leaving them alone for a song or two. You just have to do a bit of work to create a look that invites attention without being annoying or “busy.”

The second point is also in play. It’s tempting to pass off the picture as being unrelated to anything else. It’s easy to do that.

But…can’t you see the rock show that’s going on in that picture? Just for a minute, pretend that you’re not looking at spaceships. Pretend that there’s a drum riser in the background, guitar and bass players in the midground, and a singer up front. The song is a “middle piece” in a set that’s a little darker and mellower than their other tunes. Call that up in your mind.

See?

The drummer is highlighted by the warm colors. Golden hues are reflecting off the cymbals and stands. The faces of the mid and downstage band members are visible, but shaded. Strong, pale-orange colors from side and top fixtures provide rim-lighting that accentuates the movement of the band. Piercing, yet saturated beams of blue lance out through the fog and haze.

That’s a rock show, right?

The thing is, a little bit of deconstruction can net you a tremendous stack of ideas to use when designing a light show. Because all visual art is a representation of light (when you get down to it), all you’ve got to do is take the time to ask yourself, “How would this look in the context of a live performance?”

It’s not all about direct mimicry, either. For instance, I usually use more front light than this piece, but I can definitely get some notions from it in regards to an overall color scheme. Yellows, whites, and reds seem like they’d be good for a high-energy tune.


Rebel Medium Frigate by *MotoTsume on deviantART

…and, if I need some general pointers on how to get greens and deep oranges to work together, I can spend some time looking at this picture:


Ceahlau – Durau 89 by ~cipriany on deviantART

Art will speak volumes about lighting rock shows, if you just let it. I’m not a “classically trained” lighting tech/ designer/ whatever, so how do you think I get ideas like using a warm key light with cool accents?


Pleasant Company by *LordDoomhammer on deviantART

If making your light show interesting has got you stumped, just go cruising around an art site for a while. If you’re willing to do a little thinking, you won’t be stumped for long.


Great Lighting = Contrast

If every light cue is an attention-grabbing extravaganza, you will very quickly fail to grab much attention at all.

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.

I realized last week that I’ve been neglecting the “Lighting Strategies” category on this site. So – here’s an article for the lighting techs among us. The squints. Lampies. LDs (Lighting Designers/ Directors). You know.

…and I’m including myself in the “lighting human” group, because I currently run both audio and lighting for the shows that I do. I rather enjoy it, actually.

Anyway.

The older I get, the more I realize that art is primarily a game of contrasts.

In music, you create flow and interest within a song (or instrumental) by having passages that differ from one another. You create tension and release by adding a bit of dissonance in one area, and then letting that “clash” turn to harmony a touch later. You may punctuate a legato (smooth and connected) section with a phrase or two of staccato (sharp and detached) notes.

In audio, the same thing is true. If you’ve got two guitars to mix, it’s very helpful if one of them emphasizes a different frequency range. If the kick drum is going to be the low-frequency foundation at 50 – 100 Hz, then the bass guitar should probably live in the 100 – 300 Hz range. Overall, an audio tech needs to leave themselves some headroom, or else there will be nowhere to go when things need to get bigger.

What’s funny is that music and audio humans often talk about contrast in terms of “light and shade.” In doing so, they directly invoke the language used to talk about lighting. An LD creates different looks by incorporating a range of colors and intensities into their light cues. They might start with a “cool” wash, and then accent certain areas with “warm” colors. Some parts of the stage might be in shadow, whereas down-center might be as bright as high-noon.

The Volume War

Contrast is a huge piece of making great art, so it’s shocking that it will often go on the chopping block. The “volume wars” are a perfect example.

In a somewhat misguided attempt to make their recordings stand out, bands/ producers/ mastering engineers/ A&R humans decided that they needed to be “louder than the last guy.” There was just one little problem: They couldn’t raise the maximum peak volume of their delivery mediums, or the output devices that people were listening on. To get around this problem, heavier and heavier limiting was used.

As a result, the average level of their music was raised – but because they couldn’t also raise the peak level, the volume contrasts within the songs (at both the “macro” and “micro” levels) were greatly reduced. People started saying that music sounded “flat,” or too-loud, or tiring. The diminished contrast meant that people’s brains started to interpret the music as something more akin to noise – and tuned it out.

Here’s the thing.

Lighting humans are not immune to the volume war.

I admit, I don’t see many shows that aren’t the ones I’m working on. However, every so often, I will catch an example of a light design that has fallen victim to the all-too-common notion that “If it’s super-intense all the time, that means that it’s exciting all the time!”

Nope.

I’ve had bands bring light shows into venues, and when mistakes have been made, they’ve almost exclusively been made in the “being loud all the time” category. You’ve probably seen several examples of what I’m talking about.

  • Different colors are flashing constantly, driven by the beat.
  • You get the impression that the LD had an unrequited love for strobe lights earlier in life.
  • You get the impression that the LD has just discovered what the “bump” buttons do, and has set out to put as many miles on those buttons as is possible.
  • You get the impression that the LD is gravely concerned that just hearing the kick drum is not enough. Every kick hit must be punctuated by a lighting event of some kind.
  • The movers are constantly flipping around, cycling their color gels and gobos.
  • The blinders are used every few seconds.

Here’s what I’m betting happened after a short while: You started to unconsciously “filter” the light show. Sure, you continued to be aware of it, but because it was “loud” all the time, it turned into nothing more than a bunch of visual noise. Without contrast, nothing can actually get any attention – all attentiveness gets spread out equally.

You know what’s beautiful, though?

The solution is easy. The way that you fix this is to hold back. “Do less stuff.” Turn the “volume” down.

Better Results Through Doing Less

Seriously, how often have you ever been able to solve a problem by working less hard?

I’m not always perfect in using contrast with lighting, but I think I can give a good, object example by how I light a Stonefed show. Every so often, I’m privileged to be able to work with these guys. Stonefed is a funk, jam, blues, and soul outfit from Moab. They have honed their craft to a razor point. When they play a show, it’s the ultimate party. Killer rhythm section + fun guitar work = massive win.

The temptation, then, is to run animated light cues all night long. Chases. Flashing stuff. Lots of excitement.

But that would actually end up being less fun than what really works.

On a Stonefed night, I try to stay basic as much as I can. I try to get varied looks with “static” cues, and only call one or two per song. I try to call only a small amount of attention to the lights.

And then, they play “Take Me To The River.”

I actually have an animated cue named that, because I always call it when Stonefed plays the tune.

“Take Me To The River” is an animated cue where the front light alternates between blue and green, and the other fixtures light up in sequence, all in blue colors. The overall effect is meant to be a sort of “underwater” look.

In my opinion, calling that cue feels much more like a major event, because it wasn’t preceded by a bunch of other, animated cues. For some shows, I’ve felt that the cue made the song stand out more, because the whole feel of the show was – suddenly, and very tangibly – different.

After that song is over, it’s back to the static cues. Again, we’ve got to have contrast with what just happened.

And then…DRUM SOLO! As Ed Stone gets cookin’ I get out all the flashy, animated, strobing cues that I’ve been saving up. I do have to remember to keep things varied, though. If I have one cue roll all the time, it just gets filtered out by people’s brains. If I just keep a strobe hammering away, it ceases to be fun and simply becomes annoying. If the drum solo is long, I need to remember to call and hold some static cues every so often, so that the animations will become interesting again.

The different feel of the lights also punctuates the different feel of the drum solo – but the lights wouldn’t feel different if I’d been going “full tilt” since the first song.

When the end of the show comes, and if I get the opportunity, I have a “roto-strobe” cue that flashes the lights around the stage in a chase. Once again, it only works as an “exclamation point” at the end of the show’s “sentence” if the lights have been relatively static beforehand.

Of course, this is just talking about the overall visual style of a show. The “macro” interpretation. There are very good reasons to have contrast in your cues, at an internal or “micro” level. Also, at a technical practicality level.

To illustrate, I’ll pose a question:

If you’re like me, and you love using haze to make light beams show up, in what situations will those light beams be the most striking?

A) With lots of other lights involved, which are at high-intensity?

Or…

B) When other lights are at a lower intensity than the “beam” lights?

Think about it.

Contrast.

Also, to provide an example of a well-constructed set of light cues, I’ve included this video of The Australian Pink Floyd Show playing “Comfortably Numb.” Yes, the light show does do some very huge things – but notice how the “super crazy lighting explosion” is limited to the end of the song.

(…and this isn’t even – in my opinion – the best version of the lighting for this song. If you can find the PBS special that these guys did, make sure to watch it. The lighting for “Comfortably Numb” at that show was even better.)