Tag Archives: Gig Planning

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?


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.

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

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.


For The Love Of Trim Height

Trim height is very helpful if you can get it (and do it safely).

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 are a couple of things I have to say before I dive into this:

1) I’m only going to get into the trim-height factors that, in my view, have a “snowball’s chance” of being helpful in a small-venue setting. Trim heights above 30 ft, with multiple, arrayable boxes in use can be a very handy thing…but they also involve venue size and PA deployment complexity that’s beyond the scope of this site.

2) The higher the trim height, the more dangerous things can be. I don’t say this to frighten anyone, but rather to call to mind the safety issues. Setting a box on a solid deck is very safe. Putting a box on a stand is less safe. Suspending a box is even less safe than putting the box on a stand. Higher trim heights, done with proper attention to weight limits, stability, and appropriate equipment, can be done “safely enough.” Not paying attention to those factors can result in someone being seriously injured or killed. Under NO circumstances should you compromise safety for an acoustical outcome. (I accept ZERO responsibility for anything you try, just to be clear.)

3) I’m using simplified drawings to make my points. They don’t exactly represent what sound does with real loudspeakers, real people, and a real room. However, the approximations are close enough to talk intelligently about what’s going on. (Just for a start, a box that claims 40-degree vertical coverage actually has a great deal of output beyond 40 degrees – as you have no doubt observed in real life.)

Anyway…

Trim height – that is, “gettin’ speakers in the air” – has real advantages. Done correctly, it lets you maximize the use of your loudspeaker’s output, minimize the amount that the PA “excites” the room’s acoustics, and use the acoustical impedance of your audience to an advantage.

Low Trim

lowtrim

We’ve all seen this at some point. An audio rig gets set up so that it’s sitting directly on the stage. It’s easy, cheap, and very safe. The loudspeakers are highly stable, and if one does get knocked over, it will probably hit someone’s foot or leg at low speed.

There are real problems, though. The biggest one is that the acoustical impedance of the audience is working against you. Electrical impedance is opposition to current flow. Acoustical impedance is the opposition to sound-pressure flow. Humans are pretty decent at absorbing sound, which means that firing a speaker directly into the front row is a waste of power. For all intents and purposes, the humans in the way of that audio are acoustical resistors, all lined up in series. A sonic “shadow” is cast by the people blocking the direct path of the loudspeaker’s output.

The upshot is that you can use up a ton of available output on trying to “push across” that absorption. Also, the front row gets a very different show than the listeners at the back. The folks in front are getting an experience with lots of direct sound, whereas pretty much everyone else is getting very different volume and a high proportion of indirect sound. The fictional venue I’ve constructed has a 20 ft ceiling, but it’s easy to imagine one with a much lower roof. Cut the ceiling height in half, and the direct sound that doesn’t hit the front row just hits the ceiling and starts bouncing around.

The thing is, we want to use our output to hit listeners, not boundaries.

Speakers On Sticks

The next step is to do what’s practical for most of us: We put boxes on tripods.

highertrim

This takes a little bit of doing, costs extra, and also requires some thought to safety. If a tripod falls over, someone could get hit in the head with a heavy piece of equipment; Due diligence is required.

Even so…immediately, you can see that the consistency of experience from audience-member to audience-member is greatly improved. Yes, the people in front do still generate acoustical shadowing, but the obstruction is far less pronounced. Pretty much everybody has a good chance at hearing the direct sound from the loudspeakers.

There is an acoustical downside, though. Getting the speakers in the air has increased the amount of output which is hitting the room’s boundaries. The reverberation we’ve introduced into our mix is rather greater, and we’re also firing output into a lot of nothing (before the output arrives at a wall or the ceiling, of course). If the ceiling is low, a lot of the loudspeakers’ energy is splattering against it. The situation is a waste of power, but at least it’s not as big a waste as trying to “blow through” the front row of spectators.

Just Hanging Around

What if we could get our boxes about 12 ft in the air, and angle them downwards?

hightrim

This is spendy and risky. You’ve got to have the proper rigging hardware, and whatever you rig to must be durable enough to handle the load. If the suspension system fails, a very heavy object could be moving very fast, and on a path towards somebody’s skull. The consequences for getting this wrong are high, so it shouldn’t be attempted without careful thought and professional help.

If the logistics are handled properly, then major advantages are conferred. Pretty much all of your output is being directed towards actual people. The audience obstruction of direct sound has been further reduced, meaning that there’s an even higher chance for everybody to be getting the same show. Our output is largely directed away from room boundaries, which means less indirect audio to reduce mix intelligibility.

This is also the configuration where the audience’s acoustical impedance works in our favor the most. A lot of the room reflections are likely to encounter a human’s absorption at an earlier time, further reducing reverberation intensity and the accompanying loss of intelligibility. Using our audience to soak up what we DON’T want, while letting them listen to what we want them to hear is a win-win.

A box that’s safely in the air and pointed in the right direction does more work that’s actually effective.


The Splendid Magic Of The Set-List

It’s basically rune-paper of future-sight.

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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Some of the best bands I work with have never, and probably will never hand me a set-list. This is important for me to say, because I otherwise might give the impression that bands who don’t hand set-lists to audio-humans are falling short of being professional. That’s not what I’m trying to get at.

What I AM trying to say is that providing a PA driver with a set-list, especially an annotated one, can be a very good thing for everybody. When well done, a document such as the one pictured is actually very powerful. When you get right down to it, what you’re providing a sound craftsperson is something that you might only expect to find in the fantasy worlds of JRR Tolkien or D&D:

A set-list is, for all practical purposes, a low-level, magic scroll of foreknowledge and telepathy. It grants people like me a bit of prescient vision into what you’re going to do next, and this can be a nice enhancement to your show.

If an audio operator knows what’s going to happen, they can anticipate the event and be “right there” when it’s time, instead of having to catch up. There’s less chance of an awkward delay between something needing to be addressed and the appropriate action taking place, because the audio-human can address the issue (or be ready to do so) without the issue having happened first. “Scrambling” can be greatly reduced by the application of a well-formed set-list.

Examples

The set-list pictured above is clean and organized, and it also packs an enormous amount of “procedural information” into a small space. All that’s required is for me to interpret it correctly for the specific situation. For instance…

“Megaphone” – This is going to be loud, band-limited, and the loop gain through the megaphone may contribute to feedback problems. Be ready to deal with that.

“VD” – Vincent D, who’s sitting in with us, is going to have prominent vocals on this tune. If you’ve pulled him down to save loop-gain for other things, you’ll need to be prepared to push him back up and otherwise adjust.

“Harp” – There are prominent harmonica bits in this tune. Be thinking about where to put the fader for those.

“Banjo” – This instrument is not going to sound the same as the guitar that’s normally plugged into that amplifier. You might need to pull some fast work with your channel EQ if things are really out of whack, and you might also need to “get on the gas” with the fader.

“Acoustic Guitar” – This is plugged into that direct box which you’ve connected to a channel that is currently muted. You’re going to need to unmute that channel, or things will be awkward for a minute.

The other thing about that little piece of paper is that it tells me an expected start and end time. This is great, because I don’t have to wildly guess at when the band will go on, nor do I have to speculate about how long they’re planning to go on. They’ve told me. (This is also an indicator of Hectic Hobo’s professionalism. They have a plan regarding their spot in the lineup, and they’re going to try to stick with that plan so that Tycoon Machete gets to utilize their slot to the fullest.)

Making Your Own

If you decide that you want to provide your friendly, neighborhood noise wrangler with a set-list, I can give you a few pointers as to what works best:

  • Maximize your simplicity. Try to find the most basic way possible to convey the information you want to convey. Color coding, for instance, IS neat, but if I need to consult a “map key” to remember what all 20 of your colors mean, you may be getting in your own way. (Also, some folks are colorblind, and colors are harder to discern in low-light. See below.)
  • Make things highly readable in low-light. Big, blocky, and simple fonts, plenty of “whitespace,” and generally high-contrast help with this in a big way.
  • Avoid skimping. If you think something’s important, include it. If that means printing out several sheets in order to play nicely with the first two points, so be it.
  • Don’t take offense. Some audio-humans won’t seem to care about your show, or your set-list. Give them the opportunity to care. Maybe they will. If they don’t, at least YOU tried.

For those of us who do care, and do read set-lists, I can tell you that being able to partially read your mind and see a little ways into the future is a super-spiffy power to have. A little bit of paper from you can grant that power.


A Public Decision

The public may or may not treat a place in accordance with what an establishment is called, or what that establishment looks like.

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’ve talked about this before. It’s a theme that I’ve returned to in various places. I’m covering it again because I think that it could do with having its own space. I find it to be especially relevant when the “periodic wave of blaming” comes back around to the idea that venues don’t promote live-music enough. I’ve covered that idea from different angles, with my current favorite approach being to point out that advertising is primarily for people who are already interested in something. (For instance, it makes sense to run broadcast-media ads for cars if you’re selling in the United States, because people in the USA are very likely to be car drivers.)

More to the point is pushing back against the idea that a place which hosts live-music can just decide to be a place where there’s a ton of “walk up” traffic. What I mean by “walk up traffic” is the phenomenon of people going to a public establishment for the establishment itself, rather than because a particular event is taking place at the location. The former is the traditional model for a bar, and the latter is the traditional model for a live-music venue. The point of consternation is the unspoken assumption that the public is magically compelled to abide by whatever label that the establishment has chosen for itself. If the public must accept that label, then the business not experiencing patronage consistent with that label must mean that the business is doing something wrong. If the business is doing something wrong, then getting something different to happen is just a matter of fixing whatever has gone awry. (The attitude seems to be that a proprietor can just advertise their way out of a difficulty.)

But this is not what my experience suggests. Over the past several years, I have come to strongly believe that the establishment’s chosen label is irrelevant in the face of what the public decides. Obviously, a business that is very strongly geared in one way or another will tend to be perceived in accordance with the setup. However, the lines are not always sharp and bright. Especially when an establishment has mixed methods for generating income, it can be easy to misjudge the primary view that the public takes of the business.

Is This A Music Place With A Drinking Service?

In the case of a bar or club, there are two major categories that the public can assign:

1) A place for drinking and socialization that offers music as an additional service.

2) A place for music that offers drinking and socialization as an additional service.

Whatever ends up being the primary pull to get folks in the door is what the establishment becomes. If the public’s consciousness labels a place as being a hangout – a spot you go to because it’s just generally fun to go there – then that’s how the business will operate. People just show up, and so booking live music is an exercise in figuring out what will keep the “walk-ups” in the building for a longer time. Flip that around, and the ballgame is very different. If the public decides that the business is a music venue that just happens to serve refreshments, then booking live music becomes the process of figuring out which bands draw a crowd. After that gets settled, the food and drink equation is worked to maximize what the already-drawn crowd will buy.

Different bands thrive in different environments. Groups that are more about getting paid for musicianship tend to be better served by a “hangout” model, whereas groups that are built on nurturing their own specific audience are more suited to a straight-up music venue.

Research Beats Assumptions

Where this becomes hairy is when assumptions are made. There are plenty of bands out there who are content to accept the designation that was originally applied by the proprietors, or the label that the band thinks is applicable. This can be a kind of self-deception. There are musicians who look at a place with a prominent bar, and immediately assume that the place runs on a walk-up traffic model. Remember, though, that the public has the final say. If the public has decided that the business is a music venue that happens to offer tasty food and cool beverages, they are unlikely to just show up to see what’s going on. Rather, they will stay home (or go somewhere else) until their favored band is booked in the room. THEN they’ll show up.

I suppose that a natural question to answer is how to tell one business from another. One starting point is to try to determine the focus regarding the band. A place with lots of production support (and/ or a stage that makes the band the focal point of the room) has a high chance of being treated as a music venue. A place where everything except music seems to be the focal point has a good probability of being perceived as a hangout. You have to couple this with a business query, though, because it’s possible for an establishment to be set up one way while the public treats it the opposite way. If you ask how many folks show up regularly on a particular night of the week, and get a firm number, then you might just be dealing with a place for drinking and socialization that offers music as an extra. (Geography matters of course, as well as whether or not there’s some kind of “house band” involved.) If your question returns an answer with a lot of variance, or just a general lack of certainty, you probably have a “music venue” on your hands.

In the end, the trick is to know how the public treats the business, and what works for you.


Public Speaking, PA Systems, And You

Just like a concert, what we want is the best possible show at the lowest possible gain.

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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The inspiration for today’s article comes from Resli Costabell, a corporate trainer and professional speaker. She dropped by the Small Venue Survivalist’s Facebook page a few days ago, and left a note:

‘I know you’re about playing music, and I’d also be keen to hear your tips for speakers. Not speakers as in “big black box that pours out sound.” Speakers as in “human being talking.”‘

The great thing about sound for any event, whether that event is based on music or spoken word, is that the physical principles involved don’t change. At all. Sure, there may be differences in specific application, but all the science remains as it has always been. As such, any problems that occur will tend to crop up when there’s an attempt to “Captain Kirk” a situation: “Ya can’na change the laws of physics, Cap’n!”

As I’ve said before, sound reinforcement is all about the best possible show at the lowest possible gain. The first thing we have to figure out, then, is what is critical to the success of the event, and what isn’t. I, and many other audio humans, have been witness to situations where a non-critical element becomes prioritized to the point where it wrecks the experience of the critical parts. The major culprit for public speaking?

Visual Orientation At The Expense Of Sound

This is not, in any sense, about sound craftspersons believing that they are at the center of the Universe. This is about how audio itself IS the center of the Universe at any event where the primary mode for you to impart information is speech. If your engagement with your audience is based on an auditory event (talking, that is), then everything else MUST come second to that. It’s perfectly fine for that second-place finish to be “close.” Yes, you should look professional. Yes, your slide deck should be projected as beautifully as is possible. Yes, it’s good for you to be appropriately animated on stage. Yes, you should be able to hold yourself in a comfortable way. Yes, it’s great to be able to get right up to the first row of attendees.

Yes, but…

If any of that gets in the way of you being heard clearly and comfortably, then it has to take a back seat. If it doesn’t take a back seat, then the brutal, uncompromising, feral, and downright vicious physics of sound will begin clawing and biting at your event’s success. Gain is added to mics until the system begins to noticeably destabilize. More and more equalization is applied, assuming someone is around to apply it. The sound gets more and more “hacked up.” Eventually, an unpleasant equilibrium is reached where your talk is perhaps audible, yet of an irritating tonality, tough to actually parse, and given to “ringing” in a distracting manner.

Don’t be distraught! There are things you can do to fix this.

Prioritizing Audibility

Avoid Scrimping On Audio

An alarming number of presenters will spend enormous amounts of money on signage, computer graphics, handouts, goodies, nifty chairs, nice tables, uplighting, gobo projectors, and floral arrangements…and then have almost nothing left for audio. This is an inappropriate prioritization if speaking is the core of your audience engagement.

Instead, get your sound right first. If you are having AV provided for you, go for the best system available that makes sense. You don’t need a rock-concert rig to speak to 100 people in a breakout room, but a nice mic, a flexible mixer, and some decent loudspeakers on sticks are a much better approach than some $20/ day “mini-PA” that sits on a table. You might also want to consider owning your own PA. A few bits and pieces can sometimes outperform an installed AV system. Also, it can be very nice to have a flexible “front end” if the installed coverage is great…but the controls are poor.

This point is especially important because it underpins the rest of my particulars. With all of my following concepts, I am assuming that a correctly set up and reasonably tuned PA system is being employed. A sound system that is simply inadequate can not be correctly setup or reasonably tuned to best fit your presentation. A very nice system that is not working properly is not very likely to meet your needs.

Get Help

A competent sound crew, able to listen as though they were audience members, is an enormous help to your event. If some part of the system begins to misbehave, a dedicated craftsperson can begin to act on the problem while you continue on. Small issues can be corrected quickly, without you having to think about them. This isn’t even to mention that you can do other things while the audio rig is being set up.

The alternative is that you have to do double duty. There is a point where you alone simply cannot maintain your presentation’s flow and manage audio problems in parallel. Also, it is very hard for any “set and forget” system (whether meaningfully automated or not) to compete with a knowledgeable human operator wielding an appropriate set of tools. A crew, even if it’s just one trustworthy helper, that’s dedicated to your event alone does cost a bit more. The dividends paid from that investment can be enormous, though.

Mic Choice And Technique

For the love of all that is good, please get over any hangups you have regarding blocking your face with a microphone. Microphones work best when the apparent sound pressure of your voice is VERY large when compared to the apparent sound pressure of anything else – the PA system being a valid example of “anything else.” The louder your voice is at the capsule, the less gain is needed. Making your voice the loudest thing at the mic capsule means using a directional mic and holding that mic as close to your mouth as you can. If the overall result of sounds bad because of plosives (“p” and “b” sounds which “boom” or are otherwise problematic), then change the mic position so that the airstream from your mouth is less direct. You can try parking the front of the mic on the tip of your nose, or just below your bottom lip. Be careful not to tilt the mic so that you’re effectively talking into the side of the element. The front is where a directional mic is most sensitive and sounds the best.

Yes, holding a mic in this way is going to cause some sight lines to your face to not be the best. Remember, please, that the audibility of your speech must be the winner of all arguments. I do sympathize with the needs and wants of people running video. I recommend a cordial, polite, and firm stance that three-quarter and profile shots be used if there is a concern over straight-on views.

Implicit in the first paragraph is that a handheld mic is best. A headworn unit can be okay, but it must be placed carefully. Again, the mic should be as close to your mouth as is possible, but bear in mind that many headworns are not meant to be placed directly in front of the mouth. Their “pop-and-blast” filtering is inadequate for that approach. The corner of your mouth is the target area for many of these mics. Get the mic as close to that area as you can, and then ensure that it stays where you’ve put it.

Under no circumstances should your preferred solution be a lavalier mic attached to your jacket or shirt. Holding a directional mic at the level of your chest would not be acceptable, so I have no idea why doing the same thing with an omnidirectional unit would be considered a reasonable approach. With speech, lavalier microphones are indeed useful for “after the fact” video productions. For realtime sound-reinforcement they are simply inappropriate, and if anyone disagrees with me on that point, well, I just don’t care. I will gladly enter a competition where a properly placed lavalier and a properly placed handheld are set against each other in a battle of gain-before-feedback; I am confident that the handheld will be victorious.

Vocal Power

Just a while ago I said that, “Microphones work best when the apparent sound pressure of your voice is VERY large when compared to the apparent sound pressure of anything else.” This really is THE first principle of getting things right when speaking publicly with a PA. In the same way as a powerful singer makes concert sound much easier, so too does a powerful speaker. In fact, the PA system as a whole works best when your voice’s acoustical output is a “very hot” signal.

Speak as loudly as you can without straining. Straining your voice will tire you out, maybe damage your vocal cords, and produce unpleasant overtones that irritate your audience. Without getting to that point, speak as though you had no mic and no PA system. This will help ensure that the direct sound of your voice from your mouth is the largest possible acoustical signal the microphone can encounter. You probably will not be “too loud,” but if you are (and if you’ve followed my advice about getting good gear and good help), you can very easily be turned down. Effectively reducing a system’s gain is trivial when compared to increasing the gain. Reducing overall system gain reduces “smear” from sound looping back through the system, which helps make the presentation sound better.

Where Do You Stand?

Following on some more from my “first principle,” you should seek to stand as far behind (or out of the way of) the PA system as you possibly can. The PA is not for you to hear the sound of your own voice. It is for your audience to hear you. The closer you stand to the PA loudspeakers, and the more you stand in front of them, the greater their apparent sound pressure is from the mic’s standpoint. This, of course, works against your voice being a very large signal when compared to other arrivals at the microphone.

This is another situation where sight lines may suffer a bit for some people. It depends on how the PA is deployed. As always, this is unfortunate, but your voice’s audibility must be the top priority. Your message will probably survive people not being able to see all of you at all times, but it may not survive people not being able to hear.

Acoustical Awareness

A sad fact of life is that many of our gathering spaces are built to hold many people while looking grand…and sound terrible while doing so. In the same way as musicians must be aware of how each player’s sound fits in with other sounds, so too do you have to be aware of your voice and the room. Intelligibility is key, and difficult acoustics ruin intelligibility. The sound of the room’s reverberation can easily “run over” and mask new sounds, even if it’s in a relatively subtle way. For intelligibility, you must have separation between the direct sound of your speech, and the indirect noise of previous sounds that are bouncing around the space.

To some degree, system tuning can help with this, but it’s just a “patch.” If a certain frequency area tends to build up, that area can be de-emphasized in the PA – but you have to be careful! Too much de-emphasis and it will be very obvious that a strange-sounding audio system is firing into a reverberant room. It is simply impossible to equalize one’s way completely out of an acoustical problem. Also, simply adding volume to the sound system doesn’t really help either. The audio system is a sonic emitter in the room, just like any other, and as such the room reverberation is proportional to whatever the PA is doing. A louder PA just means louder reverberation, and also a PA that’s less sonically stable. (Remember: We want the lowest possible gain.)

If PA volume isn’t the answer, then you have only one other element to work with: Time.

In a reverberant room, you MUST slow down. You have to allow for the reverberant sound to die off so that the next sonic event (a word or sentence) is separated from all the garble. Slowing down means that you may have to condenser your presentation, or allow for extra time.

There are some volume adjustments that work, but they have to come from the way you talk. Try to add a bit of emphasis to the “hard” sounds in your speech. Hard sounds act as signposts regarding where words start and end, and are critical to people figuring out what you’ve said if some of the other information is lost. Enunciating those bits mean that they stick out from other sounds, which gives intelligibility a boost.

Of course, if you can, you should pick a space with excellent acoustics for spoken word. That is, a room with a very short reverb time and very low reverb level. The larger such a room is, the more expensive it tends to be – and that loops right back around to not scrimping on audio.


Compact Can Be Accommodated

When the PA is big and heavy, other things can be small and light.

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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Related: A mouse can fit in a mouse-sized room, a dog-sized room, and an elephant sized room. An elephant can only fit in an elephant-sized room.

Meditate upon this carefully.

There’s also this bit about elephants and garden hoses.


Bore Me. Please.

July’s 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.

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From the article:

“Of course, your show should be exciting. It should be bursting with color, light, and sonic textures. The attention of everyone in attendance should be held rapt with every word, such that any notion of NOT being enthralled by your performance borders on the distasteful.

However…

The technical execution of your show should not be exciting at all. It should contribute nothing to the adrenaline rush of the experience. For the humans tasked with the practical work of ensuring that your show does burst with tangy lights and savory audio, pulling it all off should be routine.

Workaday.

Maybe even dull.

Why?”


Read the rest, for free, at Schwilly Family Musicians.


Let ‘Em Get Away From It

Maximum coverage isn’t always appropriate for small venues.

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.

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

I love the idea of a high-end, concert-centric install.

It excites me to think of a music venue where the coverage is so even that every patron is getting the same mix, +/- 3 dB. Creating audio rigs where “there isn’t a bad seat in the house” is a point of pride for concert-system installers, as well it should be.

Maximum coverage isn’t always appropriate, though. It can sometimes even be harmful. The good news is that an educated guess at the truly necessary coverage for live audio isn’t all that hard. It starts with audience behavior.

What Is The Audience Trying To Do?

Another way to put that question is, “What is the audience’s purpose?” At my regular gig, the answer is that they want to hang out, listen pretty informally, and socialize. This is an “averaged” assessment, by the way: Some folks want to focus entirely on the music. Some people barely want to focus on the tunes at all. Some folks would hate to be stuck in their seat. Some folks wouldn’t care.

The point is that there’s a mix of objectives in play.

This differs from going to show at, say, The State Room or, even more so, at Red Butte Garden. My perception of those events is that people go to them – paying a bit of a premium – with the intent to focus on the music.

At my regular gig, where there’s such a diversity of audience intent, perfectly even coverage of all areas in the room is counterproductive to that diversity. It forces a singular decision on everyone in the room. It essentially requires that everybody in attendance has the goal of being primarily focused on the music as a foreground element. This is a bad thing, because denying a large section of the audience their intended enjoyment is likely to encourage them to leave.

If they leave, that hurts us, and it hurts the band. As much as possible, we should avoid doing things that encourage folks to vamoose.

So, I’m perfectly happy to NOT cover everything. The FOH PA is slightly “toed in” to focus its output primarily on the area nearest the stage. The sound intensity is allowed to drop off naturally towards the back of the room, and there’s no attempt at all to fill the coverage gap off to the stage-left side. People often seem to congregate there, and my perception is that many of them do it to take a break from being in the direct fire of the PA. They can still hear the show, but the high-frequency content is significantly rolled off (at least for whatever is actually “in” the audio rig).

If I knew that almost everybody in the room was primarily focused on the music, I would take steps to cover the room more evenly. That’s not the case, though, so there are “hot” and “cool” coverage zones.

Cost/ Choice Parametrization

Another way to view the question of how much coverage is appropriate is to try to define the value that an attendee placed on being at a show, and how much choice they have in terms of their position at the show. This is another sort of thing that has to be averaged. Not all events (or people) in a certain venue are the same, so you have to look at what’s most likely to happen.

When you state the problem in terms of those parameters, you get something like this:

coveragenecessity

If the cost of being at the show is high (in terms of money, effort spent, overall commitment required, etc.) and the choice of precisely where to take in the show is low (say, assigned seating), then it’s very important to have consistent audio coverage for everyone. If people are paying hundreds of dollars and traveling long distances to see a huge band’s farewell or reunion, and they’re stuck in one seat at a theater, there had better be good sound at that seat!

On the other hand, it’s not necessary to cover every square inch of an inexpensive, “in town” show, where folks are free to move around. If the coverage isn’t what someone wants, they can move to where it is what they want – and, if they can’t get into the exact coverage area they desire, it’s not a huge loss. For a lot of small venues, this is probably what’s encountered most often.

Now, please don’t misconstrue what I’m saying. What I’m definitely NOT saying is that we should just “punt” on some gigs.

No.

As much as possible, we should assume that the most important show of our careers is the one we’re doing now.

What I’m saying is that we need to spend our effort on things that matter. We have to have a priorities list. If people want (and also have) options available for how they experience a show, then there’s no reason for us to agonize about perfect coverage. As I said above, academically perfect PA deployment might even be bad for us. They might not even want to be in the direct throw of our boxes, so why force them to be? In the world of audio, we have finite resources and rapidly diminishing returns. We have to focus on the primary issues, and if our primary issue is something OTHER than completely homogenous sound throughout the venue, then we need to direct our efforts appropriately.


The Priorities List

An enumeration of critical tasks and considerations for making a live show work.

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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If you look at any desk that I use, you might not think that I have an ordered mind. It can be a little scary, I admit. I am of the opinion, however, that I’m capable of imposing order on certain parts of my mind – especially when there’s a show to be done. This is important, because I think that really pulling off a show requires some kind of plan. It doesn’t have to be written out in detail, but it has to exist in some form. You can’t just throw things together at random and expect them to work. A clear idea of what’s truly important is a really helpful sort of thing.

It did strike me one day that it might be interesting to attempt putting my basic, mental plan down in writing.

So, here you go.

The Pre-Game

Early Is The New On-Time

My general philosophy is that, if you’re early enough, you remove the need to worry about “the critical path.” The critical path is the shortest sequence of tasks necessary to complete a project successfully. Our project is the show, and the critical path for the show is the minimum necessary to survive the night.

Sometimes, that’s all you can do – but do you really want the bare minimum to be your best practice?

Nah.

The critical path for the show might be two vocal mics and a bit of level in the monitors, but that’s not really “full-service” and this IS a service industry. We have other things we can do…if we have the time. So create the time.

Make The Stage A Place You Want To Be On

Oh my. That stage is a mess, isn’t it? Cables are going everywhere from last night’s chaos, there’s gum stuck to various things, trash is strewn around, there’s a beverage glass jammed in a corner, and there’s a pile of wood fragments from that drummer whose hero is apparently Animal from “The Muppet Show.”

Guess whose responsibility it is to clean that up and make the stage look nice?

That’s right.

YOU have to have comfortable, happy musicians in order to do your job properly, and part of making people comfortable is presenting them with a working space that’s as nice as possible. So, get after it. You’ll be fine if you wash your hands afterwards.

Be Ready To Put Everything Through Some Part Of The Rig

Yes, it might be true that you technically don’t have to mic the amps or the drums to make the FOH mix work. However, just because you don’t need something in FOH doesn’t mean it won’t be wanted in monitor world. If you’ve got the inputs, plug things into them. Have the option available. The musicians will probably appreciate it, and that counts for a lot.

Also, make sure your gear is working during the course of setup. If a mic, cable, lighting instrument, loudspeaker, or whatever else is not cooperating, now is the time to find out. It’s easier to fix a problem before soundcheck rather than during, and much, much easier to fix a problem before the actual show is rolling.

A Tsunami Of Vocal

Vocals are often THE critical thing to get right in monitor world, so take the time to get a baseline sound that’s essentially pleasant, focused on the critical midrange instead of extreme low and high frequency “fru-fru,” and LOUD. You should take your basic cue from this chunk of Iggy Pop’s tour rider. (That’s where I got the “tsunami of vocal” bit.)

Now, yes, not everything will ultimately require “rock show” vocals in the monitors, but you have to be ready. You have to be prepared for situations where the ultimate volume isn’t that high, but the monitor-world loop gain is cranked. Start with the assumption that you need full-blown-rock-show level in the monitors, and make that work as well as you can. Make sure to kill your feedback problems as dead as they can possibly be killed. Test with all your vocal channels unmuted, because the total gain of the entire setup really does matter. A little bit of ringing is NOT acceptable. Do things as correctly as you know how.

If you’re particularly lucky, the musicians will be thoroughly impressed, and then ask you to turn things down. If you’re not particularly lucky, at least you’ll be prepared. (I have nothing against luck, and I acknowledge its ability to trump almost every other factor, but it’s not something you can plan on.)

Everything Else

For mics meant for other sources, you still have to have some idea of how they’ll work in monitor world. You do need to establish some kind of tuning to ward off their major problems regarding mixes for the deck. Your favorite instrument mic may have a tendency to ring at a certain frequency when you’re in a high-gain situation, so you need to get that under control. It’s possible that you’ll only have to take a look at the issue a few times – but you have to take that look.

Just as with vocals, the primary goal is to be able to supply the monitors with sound that’s basically nice to listen to, without a lot of “pre-emphasis” on any particular frequency range, and with plenty of level available. Run up the send level of an instrument mic and talk into it. Does it wound weird? Fix it.

Not On The Fly

Make sure your mixing console and/ or lighting system has “sane” presets applied. You want to be able to push things up in a hurry and have a result that is basically okay. Starting completely from scratch is a fun thing when you have rehearsal time and a single band to invest all your energy in, but that doesn’t happen so often in the small-venue world. (It’s especially rare when the venue signs your paycheck instead of an individual act or tour package.)

From a sonic perspective, if a mic is pointed at something and you push the fader up, the resulting sound should be a believable facsimile of that thing. From a lighting perspective, you should have several basic “looks” or “moods” that you can summon without having to think about it too much.

Don’t worry about your presets not being exactly right for everything. If they’re not helpful, you’ll recognize it and take steps to correct it (or learn to). If your preset works for the average case, it’s a good preset and will save you time. Dealing with something truly crazy has to be done on a case-by-case basis anyway, but the average stuff is what you’ll run across the most. That’s why it’s average.

Get The Band In The Room

I often say that loading the band in “is the job.” If the band isn’t in the room, and their gear isn’t in the room, then there isn’t going to be much of a show, right? So, get your hands dirty. Find some heavy stuff and move it. Not only does this help you actually get the show moving, it is often highly appreciated by the musicians. It’s a great way to actually show them that you’re all on the same team. It’s also a great way to prevent the band from getting fatigued before they’ve even played a note.

Also, to a certain extent, helping with the load in gives you a chance to really see the gear you’re going to be working with. If you see four toms for the drum kit, but you only have mics for three, you can make a note to get out another mic without having to be asked first. Did you run an XLR for the bass amp, but it doesn’t have an XLR direct out? Now you know, and you have a bit of time to get out a DI or set up a microphone.

But the main thing is to be helpful and facilitate the musicians being pleased.

Happy, comfortable musicians. Let that be your mantra.

Downbeat and Beyond

What’s Needed On Deck?

Your first priority is to get the stage sounding the way the musicians need it to sound. If they are comfortable and can play their best, then they will deliver the best show possible. Mixing FOH around what’s required for the musicians to deliver is a perfectly acceptable compromise. Forcing the sound on deck to conform to FOH in such a way that the actual performance is harmed? That is not an acceptable compromise.

This goes for lighting, too. If that super-moody light cue with the lasers prevents the players from seeing something they need to see, that just doesn’t work.

If the musicians are truly “in the zone” and fired up, that will translate to the audience. It will translate even if every production factor isn’t exactly where you might want it. You might not get to call your favorite light cues, or FOH might not be as clean and punchy as you might want, but the crowd is still very likely to be happy.

Vocals/ Melody, Then Everything Else

Anyone who tells you that drums and bass are the foundation of a mix is dead wrong. (There, I said it.) The foundation of the sound is the vocals. If there aren’t any vocals – either generally or just at some particular point – the foundation of the music passes to whatever carries the melodic theme.

I can prove my assertion about the vocals.

“Your head is humming and it won’t go – in case you don´t know
The piper’s calling you to join him
Dear lady can you hear the wind blow and did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind?”

What song is that? That’s right! It’s “Stairway To Heaven” by Led Zeppelin. Amazing that you knew that without any music being played. Maybe it’s because you could understand the vocals?

I’m not saying that “Stairway” (or any other song) isn’t a total package. I’m not saying that the iconic guitar intro doesn’t matter. I’m not saying that the rhythm section is unimportant. The way the song builds to a thundering climax is a great bit of fun, and a major part of the song’s overall success.

What I AM saying is that if the vocals or key melodic elements – like a guitar solo – are lost while you try to dial up a crushing drum-n-bass tone, then you’ve got your priorities wrong.

Adjust For The Sake Of The Show

If you’re going to make a sonic change, that’s great. If you’re going to make a lighting change, that’s great.

But make sure you can easily justify that change in terms of serving the actual show. There’s a piece of advice that was given by Dave Rat which I particularly agree with:

Don’t fiddle.

That is, don’t make changes for the sake of making changes. Your existence at the audio or lighting console is justified by the need for an operator to be present and conscious; no further justification is required. If the EQ on the vocal channel is working, and you can’t supply a reason to change it other than “I have to change something,” then keep your paws off the EQ. If the light cue looks fine, and you’re worried that you should flash some PARs or twirl some movers because, you know, you’ve got all these buttons and knobs… Really. It’s okay. Leave it alone.

Of course, if the light cue looks okay, and changing to another cue will totally punctuate the transition to the song’s bridge, then PUNCH THEM BUTTONS, COWBOY!

Context matters.

I do support the idea of experiments. If you want to try something because you’re curious, then that’s a good thing. However, take the time to figure out how to do the experiment without calling a lot of attention to what you’re attempting. Be as subtle as you can. “Roll” things in and out instead of jumping around, if possible.

By extension, this also means that you don’t have to drive everything all the time. Let the music ebb and flow. The balance amongst all the parts doesn’t have to stay exactly the same all the time. Having that balance change just might be part of the ride. There’s no need to manage all the faders all the time. They will continue to exist even if you don’t touch them.

Breathe.

Try To Keep The Audience Happy

This one’s tricky, because you have to have a certain amount of confidence in your production decisions. You have to know when certain requests aren’t physically possible, or really aren’t in the best interests of the show at large.

Even so, do your best to be aware of the audience’s needs. If the crowd is running for the exits while holding their ears, then ask yourself if you’re being unnecessarily loud. If somebody asks for more bass/ less snare/ a different approach to the top end on the vocals/ whatever, then try to accommodate them if you can. This stuff is subjective, and if you can make one more person happy without wrecking the experience for everyone else, you might as well try it. The worst that can happen is that everybody else will hate the adjustment, and ask you to put things back to where they were.

This goes for lighting folks as well. Watch what happens when you call different cues, especially the ones that put light directly into the audience. If a bunch of people suddenly look unhappy, change to a different cue and don’t call the offender again.

Aftermath

Socialization

Once the show is over, you still need to keep the band happy. Try not to rush them out of the venue. Let them talk to the folks who came out, because that will help them build their audience. It’s also nice for players to just generally depressurize after all the excitement. Don’t run the post-show playback (if any) too loud. Giving everybody some time to unwind is just a courteous thing to do, if it’s feasible.

Load Out

The performers are probably rather tired after all the excitement, so the after-show is another great time to help with the moving of heavy objects. This further cements the idea that you and the band are on the same team, with an emphasis on building a good relationship for the next gig.

Further, this means that you can be on point to ensure that the gear is watched. Gear has a nasty tendency to get stolen in the post-show chaos, so keep an eye on things. If the load-out is a multi-trip affair, and it looks like gear might be left unattended, then stay where everybody else isn’t. You might just prevent something from “walking off.” Then, when somebody else returns, you can make another trip with a heavy object.

Setup Begins At Teardown

If you do nothing else, grab the grilles and pop-filter inserts off the vocal mics and wash them thoroughly. A nice, fresh, non-smelly vocal mic is much more hygienic, and also communicates (in a subtle way) that you care about the performers’ comfort.

If you know that someone else has to use the stage before you come back, then you have to clean up now. Get the cables wrapped and the trash picked up.

It’s ideal, of course, to get cleaned up even if you don’t strictly have to. Something might come up before the next show, meaning that you’ll have less time than you planned for. No matter what happens, leave the stage in a condition that you can manage even if you don’t have all the time you want for the next show’s prep.

Now, loop back to the top and do it all again…