What we really want is the best possible show at the lowest practical gain.
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.
As it happens, there’s a bit of a trilogy forming around my last article – the one about gain vs. stability. In discussions like this, the opening statement tends to be abstract. The “abstractness” is nice in a way, because it doesn’t restrict the application too much. If the concept is purified sufficiently, it should be usable in any applicable context.
At the same time, it’s nice to be able to make the abstract idea more practical. That is, the next step after stating the concept is to talk about ways in which it applies.
In live audio, gain is both a blessing and a curse. We often need gain to get mic-level signals up to line-level. We sometimes need gain to correct for “ensemble imbalances” that the band hasn’t yet fixed. We sometimes need gain to make a quiet act audible against a noisy background. Of course, the more gain we add, the more we destabilize the PA system, and the louder the show gets. The day-to-day challenge is to find the overall gain which lets us get the job done while maintaining acceptable system stability and sound pressure.
If this is the overall task, then there’s a precept which I think can be derived from it. It might only be derivable indirectly, depending on your point of view. Nevertheless:
Live sound is NOT actually about getting the best sound, insofar as “the best sound” is divorced from other considerations. Rather, the goal of live sound is to get the best possible holistic SHOW, at the lowest practical gain.
Fixing Everything Is A Bad Idea
The issue with a phrase like “the best sound” is that it morphs into different meanings for different people. For instance, at this stage in my career, I have basically taken the label saying “The Best Sound” and stuck it firmly on the metaphorical box containing the sound that gets the best show. For that reason alone, the semantics can be a little difficult. That’s why I made the distinction above – the distinction that “the best sound” or “the coolest sound” or “the best sound quality” is sometimes thought of without regard to the show as a whole.
This kind of compartmentalized thinking can be found both in concert audio veterans and greenhorns. My gut feeling is that the veterans who still section off their thinking are the ones who never had their notions challenged when they were new enough.
…and I think it’s quite common among new audio humans to think that the best sound creates the best show. That is, if we get an awesome drum sound, and a killer guitar tone, and a thundering bass timbre, and a “studio ready” vocal reproduction, we will then have a great show.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it tends to create situations where a tech is trying to “fix” almost everything about the band. The audio rig is used as a tool to change the sound of the group into a processed and massaged version of themselves – a larger than life interpretation. The problem with turning a band into a “bigger than real” version of itself is that doing so can easily require the FOH PA to outrun the acoustical output of the band AND monitor world by 10 dB or more. Especially in a small-venue context, this can mean lots and lots of gain, coupled with a great deal of SPL. The PA system may be perched on the edge of feedback for the duration of the show, and it may even tip over into uncontrolled ringing on occasion. Further, the show can easily be so loud that the audience is chased off.
To be blunt, your “super secret” snare-drum mojo is worthless if nobody wants to be in the same room with it. (If you follow me.)
Removed from other factors, the PA does sound great…but with the other factors being considered, that “great” sound is creating a terrible show.
The correction for trying to fix everything is to only reinforce what actually needs help. This approach obeys the “lowest possible gain” rule. PA system gain is applied only to the sources that are being acoustically swamped, and only in enough quantity that those sources stop being swamped.
In a sense, you might say that there’s a certain amount of total gain (and total resultant volume) that you can have that is within an acceptable “window.” When you’ve used up your allotted amount of gain and volume, you need to stop there.
At first, the selectivity of what gets gain applied is not very narrow. For newer operators and/ or simplified PA systems, the choice tends to be “reproduce most of the source or none of it.” You might have, say, one guitar that’s in the PA, plus a vocal that’s cranked up, and some kick drum, and that’s all. Since the broadband content of the source is getting reproduced by the PA, adding any particular source into the equation chews up your total allowable gain in a fairly big hurry. This limits the correction (if actually necessary) that the PA system can apply to the total acoustical solution.
The above, by the way, is a big reason why it’s so very important for bands to actually sound like a band without any help from the PA system. That does NOT mean “so loud that the PA is unnecessary,” but rather that everything is audible in the proper proportions.
As an operator learns more and gains more flexible equipment, they can be more selective about what gets a piece of the gain allotment. For instance, let’s consider a situation where one guitar sound is not complementing another. The overall volumes are basically correct, but the guitar tones mask each other…or are masked by something else on stage. An experienced and well-equipped audio human might throw away everything in one guitar’s sound, except for a relatively narrow area that is “out of the way” of the other guitar. The audio human then introduces just enough of that band-limited sound into the PA to change the acoustical “solution” for the appropriate guitar. The stage volume of that guitar rig is still producing the lion’s share of the SPL in the room. The PA is just using that SPL as a foundation for a limited correction, instead of trying to run right past the total onstage SPL. The operator is using granular control to get a better show (where the guitars each have their own space) while adding as little gain and SPL to the experience as possible.
If soloed up, the guitar sound in the PA is terrible, but the use of minimal gain creates a total acoustical solution that is pleasing.
Of course, the holistic experience still needs to be considered. It’s entirely possible to be in a situation that’s so loud that an “on all the time” addition of even band-limited reinforcement is too much. It might be that the band-limited channel should only be added into the PA during a solo. This keeps the total gain of the show as low as is practicable, again, because of granularity. The positive gain is restricted in the frequency domain AND the time domain – as little as possible is added to the signal, and that addition is made as rarely as possible.
An interesting, and perhaps ironic consequence of granularity is that you can put more sources into the PA and apply more correction without breaking your gain/ volume budget. Selective reproduction of narrow frequency ranges can mean that many more channels end up in the PA. The highly selective reproduction lets you tweak the sound of a source without having to mask all of it. You might not be able to turn a given source into the best sound of that type, but granular control just might let you get the best sound practical for that source at that show. (Again, this is where the semantics can get a little weird.)
Especially for the small-venue audio human, the academic version of “the best sound” might not mean the best show. This also goes for the performers. As much as “holy grail” instrument tones can be appreciated, they often involve so much volume that they wreck the holistic experience. Especially when getting a certain sound requires driving a system hard – or “driving” an audience hard – the best show is probably not being delivered. The amount of signal being thrown around needs to be reduced.
Because we want the best possible show at the lowest practical gain.