Tag Archives: Proportionality

Four Meditations

I got sidetracked this week. Here are some thoughts to ponder while I get back in the groove.

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.

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

Show patrons are like water.

Water naturally flows to where it “wishes” to go.

It’s possible to make it flow to other places, but doing so involves a great deal of effort.

Consider the implications of this.

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

If music is carpentry, the sound from the PA is the finish work on the musicians’ framing.

If the framing is bad, even the very finest finish work won’t fix it.

Consider the implications of this.

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

Singers are trucks. Backing bands are trailers.

If you try to pull a 20,000 pound trailer with a truck that can only handle 10,000 pounds, your experience will probably be unpleasant.

Consider the implications of this.

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

A great band running through four channels will trounce a bad band running through 32.

Consider the implications of this.


The Cost Effectiveness Of Premium Soda

$1.00 per usage cycle is a magical number.

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.

1Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

Whether or not you like them, energy drinks are actually pretty cheap.

That is to say, for about a buck you buy a can of soda. You consume the contents of that can and chuck out the container without a second thought. You got exactly one use out that product for $1.00, and you barely noticed the transaction at all.

In my mind, that’s a pretty strong definition of “cheap, and cost effective.” The acquisition price was basically forgettable on its own, and the amount of utility you got for that acquisition price was reasonable to you – maybe at an unconscious level, but reasonable.

For show-production techs, there comes a day when we either have to procure our own gear or procure gear with someone else’s money. On that day, we have to think about cost effectiveness. We may not give it the conscious thought it deserves, but some sort of mental evaluation takes place. In this business, an oft-occurring result of considering gear is “sticker shock.” We look at the price attached to something and go “Geeze! That’s a lot!” Sometimes the reaction is justified, but there are other times when the number associated with entry isn’t rationally compared with what happens after the entry occurs. In certain cases, the long-term utility of a piece of gear actually makes the entry cost seem microscopic – but that can be hard to see at the time.

Now, there are all kinds of ways to determine cost-effectiveness. Some available methods are incredibly granular, taking into account depreciation, cost of transport, industry acceptance, and so on. Dave Rat, for example, put together a rather interesting “Buy Vs. Lease” calculator that you can find at the bottom of this post. If you know me, you know that I’m a great appreciator of granularity. I like to be able to deal with all kinds of minutiae. I like sniper-rifle focus in lots of areas, especially when it comes to mixing FOH (Front Of House) and monitors from the same spot.

But when it comes to making purchasing decisions in a rational way, I think that getting buried in a barrage of detailed considerations can lead to paralysis. I think that a basic shorthand can help make cost-effectiveness decisions go much more quickly – which provides a shortcut to the fun part, which IS GETTING NEW GEAR AM I RIGHT?

Anyway.

When I talk about shorthand, I mean REALLY shorthand. It’s probably one of the quickest questions you can ask yourself about a piece of gear: “Will I be able to get enough usage out of this item that each deployment cycle will have cost $1.00 or less?”

Of Power Amps and Microphones

At my regular gig, the amplifier for the full-range FOH loudspeakers is a QSC GX5. It’s been very good to us, and by my shorthand test, it’s been entirely inexpensive.

See, I just passed my four-year mark at the job. We do just a bit more than 104 shows per year, so the amp has about 416 shows on it. GX5 amps retail for $400 when brand new. Divide $400 by 416 shows, and you get a “cost effectiveness factor” of $0.96/ deployment. To be brutally honest, that’s peanuts. It’s not that we’d want to, but at this point we could just give the amp away and have lost nothing more – proportionally speaking – than if someone had bought and consumed about 400 energy drinks.

And the amp is still going strong! (It needed a replacement power switch last weekend, but that’s it.) It’s cost effectiveness is already slightly better than what we, as a society, expect from a product that we simply buy, swallow, and eliminate into a toilet.

Four hundred dollars might seem like a sizable chunk of change (and it is when your budget is constrained) but when you look at the whole utility of something like a power amp…well, you ultimately realize just how cheap certain aspects of live-sound have become.

In the same vein, I bought six EV ND767a vocal mics at the beginning of last year’s August. One of them died early on, so the total cost per working mic was $155. They haven’t all been used at every show, but figuring everything out in excruciating detail isn’t what a shorthand is for. As a group, those EV mics have been available to me at about 132 shows so far. Their cost effectiveness factor (as a group) is $1.18 / deployment, and improving every week.

When you consider that a vocal mic can be trouble-free for hundreds of shows, $100 – $200 for such a transducer works out to be what you would expect for a “mediocre commodity.” In the long run, a bog-standard stage microphone doesn’t actually cost any more than something you would casually throw away.

So, when it all comes down to it, dividing the purchase price of gear by the number of expected usage cycles can be illuminating. There’s quite a bit out there that, over its lifetime, becomes of no more monetary consequence than “fancy sugarwater.” If you need a quick assessment of what it makes sense to buy, items that can reach the $1.00/ deployment neighborhood are probably decent bets.

You have to be careful, though, because this kind of shorthand doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

The Blind Spot

What you have to realize is that there’s plenty of gear in plenty of situations that can not, and should not be expected to meet a long-term goal of “throwaway” pricing.

Mixing consoles, for instance, are unlikely to quickly reach the price point of mass-consumables. Pricing as compared to functionality has indeed gone over a cliff, but even that hasn’t stopped mixers from being a premium product. A $3000 digital console can do a LOT these days, but even doing 312 shows a year (six days a week, every week) it would take over nine years to make the console “disposable.” Especially with digital consoles, nine years is rather longer than the effective product lifecycle.

A console is a premium product, not a consumable. You can use the dollars/ usage cycle calculation to get an idea of your potential value for money, but trying to get to the $1 point just isn’t an appropriate goal. If you’re going to use a shorthand to determine cost-effectiveness of gear, you have to take care to apply the appropriate “goal ratios” to appropriate items. Gently treated and well-constructed mics, cables, amplifiers, and small-venue loudspeakers can usually be looked at as commodity items. Mixing consoles and large-format loudspeakers usually can’t.

For the non-commodities, an approach more in line with traditional cost/ benefit analysis is far more appropriate.

For everything else, if it seems to be made decently and will have a long-term cost effectiveness that’s comparable to premium soda, it’s probably a decent buy.


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.


Painted Into A Corner

Everything you do is painting the audio tech into a corner. That’s not necessarily bad – it’s just the truth.

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.

There’s no hi-res version of this available, but you can still use the picture for other things if you like.

I haven’t been very consistent about posting links to my Schwilly Family Musicians posts. Sorry.

This article is about how what happens on stage has a VERY strong influence on what can be done with the PA. It’s sort of a companion piece to this other article about the most important thing for a band to do before they get on stage.


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.


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.)


Only So Much Addition

A PA system can only do so much – the band’s overall volume has to be right, and their proportionality has to be right, too.

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.

My last article was primarily written to technicians. However, the issue of “only being able to get so much, in comparison to full-tilt boogie” has big implications for musicians playing live. Small venue, big venue, whatever venue, there’s an important reality that has to be faced:

There’s only so much that a PA system or monitor rig can add to the sound of an instrument or vocal.

Now, this certainly holds true in the aesthetic sense. There’s a practical limit to the amount of sweetening that can be applied to any particular sonic event. A drumkit (for example) that sounds truly horrific can’t really be “fixed in the mix,” especially if the tech doesn’t have hours to spend on making it sound like a different, much better drumkit. What really needs to happen is for that set of drums to sound decent, or even amazing, without any outside help. At that point, the PA’s job is to make those drums loud enough for the audience (if the drums aren’t already), and maybe add some “boom” and reverb – if appropriate.

There’s another sense of “what the sound system can add”, though, that’s much easier to quantify. This is the relatively simple reality of how much SPL (Sound Pressure Level) an audio rig can deliver for a given input from a given acoustical source. This “amount of level deliverable” is often less – even a LOT less – than what the rig can do on the spec sheet. (This can often be surprising, especially to musicians and techs who are still working on gaining practical experience with live performance.) The other side of the coin is how much overall level the PA should be adding to the show to have the result sound decent, and be at a comfortable for the audience.

How Much Should The PA Contribute?

When trying to get a handle on how much the FOH (Front Of House) PA should add to the show, there are a number of things to consider:

  • How loud is the band, all by itself?
  • What do you really want the PA to be doing? (Carrying the room? Just putting a bit more “thump” in the drums? Vocals only?)
  • How much level will the audience and venue operators be happy with?

It can actually be helpful to work backwards through these points.

In small venues, the amount of tolerable level usually isn’t very high. Although some “pure music” rooms might work with 115+ dBC SPL continuous (decibels Sound Pressure Level, “slow” average), most places that cater to 200 patrons or less will probably see 110 dBC continuous as very, very loud. The problem is that, with a band and monitor rig that are REALLY cookin’, 110 dBC is very easy to achieve – and the PA isn’t even turned on yet!

In general, I recommend an upper limit of 105 dBC continuous for everything when working in a small venue. Band, monitor bleed, and FOH. Even that might be too much for some places, but it’s a start.

Once you’ve established how loud the whole show ought to be, you can begin figuring out what the PA’s contribution should entail. The handy rule of thumb here is that, for a given maximum volume, greater PA contribution requires you to keep a tighter rein on the stage volume.

To help illustrate this point (and others), I’ve prepared some audio samples in OGG format. I’ve used a live recording of a drum kit from Fats Grill, along with a reverb processor, to roughly simulate three conditions:

Of course, this is an imperfect representation. Although most PA loudspeakers are designed to be somewhat directional, they still excite the reverberant field – they often don’t “dry out” the sound quite as much as these samples do.

Still, these clips give you an idea of what happens as more PA is applied. The overall level goes up, the PA sound starts to overcome the stage volume, and the transients get more defined. Putting more direct sound, with clean transient response into the audience is usually a good thing – but notice how much volume the PA had to add before the drumkit really “cleaned up.”

On a discussion forum, I believe that Mark from audiopile.net made a simple, profound, and very true statement with important implications: “Audio engineers don’t feel like they have control until they are 10 dB louder than everything else in the room.” With this guideline in mind, the issue crosses into the first point:

If you want the PA to really define how your band is heard by the audience, then the band’s stage volume should be about 10 dB below the PA. If the maximum volume for a small venue is about 105 dBC SPL continuous, this means that the band and monitor rig need to stay in the close vicinity of 94.5 dBC SPL continuous.

I’m not gonna lie – squishing a rock band into a box smaller than 95 – 100 dBC SPL is tricky. It can be done, but not everybody is willing to take on the challenge and make the decisions involved.

This is why, most of the time, small venue sound involves careful compromises. The PA is often used only to “fill spaces.” That is, the guitar amps might carry the room with only occasional reinforcement for solos, while the midrange and high-end from the drums is stage volume with a bit of “kick” from the subs. The vocals will be getting pretty much constant attention from the FOH rig, of course. In the end, the contribution from the FOH PA is minimal…or at least kept under tight control.

Proportionality Can Kick Your Butt

Beyond the issue of raw volume, though, is the conundrum of how much an audio reproduction system (be it an FOH PA or a monitor rig) can add to a given acoustical event on stage. This is where “sounding like a band without the PA” becomes really critical.

Here’s why.

For most audio rigs that are even half-decent, gain-before-feedback is at least as critical, if not more, than total output power. That is, a loudspeaker might be physically capable of creating earth-shattering SPL, but the squeals and howls of feedback will prevent you from actually getting there. Either the overall differentiation between the stage volume and the PA volume is too great, or the differentiation between on-stage sources is too great.

This is a little abstract, so here’s an object example.

Every so often, I’ll run into a group that has a proportionality problem. They’re not too loud for the room by any means – they might be an acoustic duo, for instance. The issue is that one person is vigorously strumming a big-body guitar, using a pick. Another person is playing a different guitar, with a much smaller body.

…and they’re playing fingerstyle.

Delicately.

Hoo, boy.

Depending on the players, that big guitar might already be a LOT louder than the small guitar – and then, the player of the big guitar decides that they want a pretty healthy amount of monitor level. No problem for the big guitar, especially if the instrument is free of resonance problems and includes a decent pickup. The small guitar? Well – it doesn’t have a pickup installed, so we had to mic it. We were only able to get “so” close, and the player’s not making a whole lot of level anyway.

The chances are that feedback issues will prevent even the most competent monitor operator from making that fingerstyle guitar compete with the big boy.

It’s not the absolute volume that’s the problem. It’s the proportionality. The massive level differential between the two instruments just can’t be dealt with in a live situation. In the studio, where feedback is basically non-existent, it’s another story. Here, though, getting through the set will be a struggle.

As a generality, I would propose the following guidelines for the feasibility of what a small-venue audio system can add to an onstage source’s volume – especially when talking about monitors on deck:

  • +3 dB – Usually trivial.
  • +6 dB – Usually very simple, if not entirely trivial. Depends on the situation.
  • +10 dB – Average, may be challenging for sources that are resonant, or when using certain microphones.
  • +20 dB – Difficult to impossible, can be done in certain cases with instruments that have well-isolated pickups and physical feedback reduction. May be possible with certain microphones in certain orientations relative to the monitors, or with common microphones and in-ear monitors. With line-inputs, noise may also be a problem.
  • +30 dB – Generally impossible unless the source is completely feedback isolated. Noise from line inputs will probably be a big issue.

The way to get around these issues is to fix them before you arrive at the venue. If somebody is getting positively drowned during rehearsals, it’s simply not a safe assumption that a PA system (even a professionally operated one) will fix the issue. If everybody is clearly audible in rehearsal, on the other hand, then your proportionalities are either right on the money or “plenty close enough.”

This may sound a bit preachy, but I want to assure you that there are big benefits to “sounding like a band” before a PA system is added to the equation. If you’ve done the hard work of being balanced without outside help, then you have a much better shot at sounding killer with PA and monitor rigs that are only minimally adequate – or operated by a minimally competent audio human. Even better, when you get to work with great gear and great techs, they’ll be able to put their maximum effort towards presenting a flat-out amazing sonic experience for your fans. They’ll be able to do this because they won’t have to make the compromises necessary to fix big imbalances amongst instruments, or between the instruments and the vocals.

Bottom line? Being at the right volume, both in terms of absolute levels and relative balance, is a huge part of creating a brilliant stage show.