Tag Archives: Vocals

The Difference Between The Record And The Show

Why is it that the live mix and the album mix end up being done differently?

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.

Jason Knoell runs H2Audio in Utah, and he recently sent me a question that essentially boils down to this: If you have a band with some recordings, you can play those recordings over the same PA in the same room as the upcoming show. Why is it that the live mix of that band, in that room, with that PA might not come together in the same way as the recording? The recording that you just played over the rig? Why would you NOT end up having the same relationship between the drums and guitars, or the guitars and the vocals, or [insert another sonic relationship here].

This is one of those questions where trying to address every tiny little detail isn’t practical. I will, however, try to get into the major factors I can readily identify. Please note that I’m ignoring room acoustics, as those are a common factor between a recording and a live performance being played into the same space.

Magnitude

It’s very likely that the recording you just pumped out over FOH (Front Of House) had a very large amount of separation between the various sources. Sure, the band might have recorded the songs in such a way as to all be together in one room, but even then, the “bleed” factor is very likely to be much smaller than what you get in a live environment. For instance, a band that’s in a single-room recording environment can be set up with gobos (go-betweens) screening the amps and drums. The players can also be physically arranged so that any particular mic has everything else approaching the element from off-axis.

They also probably recorded using headphones for monitors, and overdubbed the “keeper” vocals. They may also have gone for extreme separation and overdubbed EVERYTHING after putting down some basics.

Contrast this with a typical stage, where we’re blasting away with wedge loudspeakers, we have no gobos to speak of, and all the backline is pointed at the sensitive angles of the vocal mics. Effectively, everything is getting into everything else. Even if we oversimplify and look only at the relative magnitudes between sounds, it’s possible to recognize that there’s a much smaller degree of source-to-source distinctiveness. The band’s signals have been smashed together, and even if we “get on the gas” with the vocals, we might also be effectively pushing up part of the drumkit, or the guitars.

Time

Along with magnitude, we also have a time problem. With as much bleed as is likely in play, the oh-so-critical transients that help create vocal and musical intelligibility are very, very smeared. We might have a piece of backline, or a vocal, “arriving” at the listener several times over in quick succession. The recording, on the other hand, has far more sharply defined “timing information.” This can very likely lead to a requirement that vocals and lead parts be mixed rather hotter live than they would be otherwise. That is, I’m convinced that a “conservation of factors” situation exists: If we lose separation cues that come from timing, the only way to make up the deficit is through volume separation.

A factor that can make the timing problems even worse is those wedge monitors we’re using, combined with the PA handling reproduction out front. Not only are all the different sources getting into each other at different times, sources being run at high gain are arriving at their own mics several times significantly (until the loop decay becomes large enough to render the arrivals inaudible). This further “blurs” the timing information we’re working with.

Processing Limits

Because live audio happens in a loop that is partially closed, we can be rather more constrained in what we can do to a signal. For instance, it may be that the optimal choice for vocal separation would simply be a +3 dB, one-octave wide filter at 1 kHz. Unfortunately, that may also be the portion of the loop’s bandwidth that is on the verge of spiraling out of control like a jet with a meth-addicted Pomeranian at the controls. So, again, we can’t get exactly the same mix with the same factors. We might have to actually cut 1 kHz and just give the rest of the signal a big push.

Also, the acoustical contribution of the band limits the effectiveness of our processing. On the recording, a certain amount of compression on the snare might be very effective; All we hear is the playback with that exact dynamics solution applied. With everything live in the room, however, we hear two things: The reproduction with compression, and the original, acoustic sound without any compression at all. In every situation where the in-room sound is a significant factor, what we’re really doing is parallel compression/ EQ/ gating/ etc. Even our mutes are parallel – the band doesn’t simply drop into silence if we close all the channels.


Try as we might, live-sound humans can rarely exert the same amount of control over audio reproduction that a studio engineer has. In general, we are far more at the mercy of our environment. It’s very often impractical for us to simply duplicate the album mix and receive the same result (only louder).

But that’s just part of the fun, if you think about it.


How To Buy A Microphone For Live Performance

A guest-post for Schwilly Family Musicians

Please Remember:

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

vintage_microphone-wallpaper-1280x800

From the article: “At the same time, though, a LOT of mics that are great for recording are a giant ball of trouble for live audio. Sure, they sound perfect when you’re in a vocal booth with headphones on, but that’s at least one whole universe removed from the brutal world of concert sound. They’re too fragile, too finicky, too heavy, their pickup patterns are too wide, and you can’t get close enough to them to leverage your vocal power.”


The whole thing is available for free, so go ahead and take a gander.


The Loudest Thing At The Capsule Always Wins

Mics are not “smart,” and they can’t “reach.” Whatever pressure event is happening at the capsule is what they turn into electricity.

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.

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

“A big, sort of “omnibus” myth is that microphones have some sort of magical ability to discriminate between what you want them to pick up and everything else. This myth manifests in such (understandable but spurious) notions like mics with higher sensitivity being necessary for quiet singers. The idea is that higher sensitivity allows the mic to “reach” farther from itself, and grab the sound of the vocalist. Also, the thought includes a guess that feedback might be reduced, because less post-mic gain is applied.

Like I said, this is understandable, but inaccurate.”


The entire article is available, for free, at Schwilly Family Musicians.


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.

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

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.


Why Audio Humans Get So Bent Out Of Shape When A Mic Is Cupped

We hate it because it sounds bad, causes feedback, and makes our job harder.

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.

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

I recently posted something on my personal Facebook feed. That something was this:

[myface]

A number of people found it funny.

When you really get down to it, though. It’s an “in joke.” The folks who get it have lived through a cupped-mic situation or two, and probably know why it’s a bad idea. For other folks, especially those who have been surprised by being chewed on by an irate sound-craftsperson, the whole thing might not make sense. Why would an audio human get so irritated about how a performer holds a mic? Why is it such a big deal? Why are jokes about mics being cupped such a perennial feature of live-sound forums?

The short answer is that cupped mics sound awful and tend to be feedback monsters. The long answer has to do with why.

The Physics Of How Looking Cool Sounds Bad

Microphones are curious creatures. It might sound counter-intuitive, but creating an omnidirectional mic (a mic that has essentially equal sensitivity at all angles around the element) is actually quite simple. Seal the element in a container that’s closed at the back and sides, and…there you go. Your mic is omni.

Making a directional mic is rather more involved. Directional mics require that the element NOT be housed in a box that’s sealed at the back and sides. Sound actually has to be able to arrive at the rear of the diaphragm, and it has to arrive at such a time that the combination of front and rear pressures causes cancellation. Getting this all to work, and work in a way that sounds decent, is a bear of a problem. It’s such a bear of a problem that you can’t even count on a microphone patent to tell you how it’s done. The details are kept secret – at least, if you’re asking a company like Shure.

But, anyway, the point is that a directional mic is directional because sound can reach the rear of the element. Close off the porting which allows this to happen, and the mic suddenly becomes much more omnidirectional than it was just moments before. Wrapping a hand around the head of the mic is a very efficient way of preventing certain sounds from reaching the back of the capsule, and thus, it’s a very quick way to cause a number of problems.

Feedback

Fighting feedback meaningfully requires that mics be as directional as is practical. The more “screamin’ loud” the monitors and FOH have to get, the more important that directionality becomes. When setting up the show, an audio human inevitably finds a workable equilibrium ratio of gain to feedback. A highly directional mic has much lower gain in the non-sensitive directions than in the sensitive ones. This allows the sound tech to apply more gain in downstream stages (mic pres, monitor sends, FOH faders), as long as those devices result in output that the mic experiences in the “lower-gain detection arc.” At some point, a solution is arrived at – but that solution’s validity requires the gain of all devices to remain the same.

When a mic is cupped such that it becomes more omnidirectional, the established equilibrium is upset. The existing solution is invalidated, because the effective gain of the microphone itself suddenly increases. For instance, a microphone that had a gain of -10 dB at 2 kHz at 180 degrees (degrees from the mic’s front) might now have a gain of -3 dB at 2 kHz at 180 degrees. Although what I’m talking about is frequency specific, the overall result really is not fundamentally different from me reaching up to the mic-pre and adding 7 dB of gain.

Especially for a high-gain show, where the established equilibrium is already hovering close to disaster, cupping the mic will probably push us off the cliff.

Awful Tone

Intentionally omnidirectional mics can be made to sound very natural and uncolored. They don’t rely on resonance tricks to work, so very smooth and extended response is entirely achievable with due care.

Problems arise, however, when a mic becomes unintentionally omnidirectional. Directional mics are carefully tuned – intentionally “colored” – so that the resulting output is pleasant and useful for certain applications. The coloration can even be engineered so that the response is quite flat…as long as the mic element receives sound from the rear in the intended way. Much like the feedback problem I described earlier, the whole thing is a carefully crafted solution that requires the system parameters to remain in their predicted state.

A cupped microphone has its intended tuning disrupted. The mic system’s own resonant solution (which is now invalid), coupled with the resonant chamber formed by the hand around the mic, results in output which is band-limited and “peaky.” Low-frequency information tends to get lost, and the midrange can develop severe “honk” or “quack,” depending on how things shake out. At the high volumes associated with live shows, these narrow peaks of frequencies can range from merely annoying to downright painful. Vocal intelligibility can be wrecked like a ship that’s been dashed on the rocky shores of Maine.

An added bit of irony is that plenty of folks who cup microphones want a rich, powerful vocal sound…and what they end up with is something that resembles the tone of a dollar store clock-radio.

Reduced Output In Severe Cases

The worst-case scenario is when a mic is held so that the ports are obstructed, and the frontside path is ALSO obstructed. This occurs when the person using the mic wraps their whole hand around the grill, and then puts their thumb in the way of their mouth. Along with everything described above, the intervening thumb absorbs enough high-frequency content to make the mic noticeably quieter at frequencies helpful for intelligibility.

So the mic sounds bad, the singer can’t hear it, the whole mess is ready to feedback, the singer wants more monitor, and FOH needs more level.

Lovely.

I think you can see why sound techs get so riled by mic-cuppers. Holding a mic that way is fine if the whole performance is a pantomime. In other situations, though, it’s just bad.


EQ Or Off-Axis?

A case-study in fixing a monitor 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.

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

I’m really interested in monitors. They contribute immensely to the success (or crushing failure) of a show, affect musicians in ways that are often inaudible to me, and tend to require a fair bit of management. I wrote a whole article on the topic of unsuckifying them. Some of the most interesting problems to solve involve monitor mixes, because those problems are a confluence of multiple factors that combine to smash your face in.

You know, like Devastator, the Decepticon super-robot formed by the Constructicons. The GREEN (and purple) super-robot. From the 1980s. It was kind of a pain to put him together, if I remember correctly.

Sorry, what were we talking about again?

Monitors.

So, my regular gig picked up a “rescue” show, because another venue shut down unexpectedly. A group called The StrangeHers was on deck, with Amanda in to play some fiddle. (Amanda is a fiddle player in high demand. If she’s not playing with a band, she is being recruited by that band. I expect that her thrash-metal debut will come shortly.) We were rushing around, trying to get monitor world sorted out. When we got to Amanda, she jumped in with a short, but highly astute question:

“The vocals are loud, but I can’t really make them out. They sound all muddy. Is there a problem with the EQ, or is it something else?”

Indirect

Amanda’s monitor was equalized correctly. The lead vocal was equalized correctly. Well…that is…ELECTRONICALLY. The signal processing software acting as EQ was doing exactly what it should have been doing. Amanda’s problem had to do with effective EQ: The total, acoustical solution for her was incorrect.

In other words, yes, we had an EQ problem, but it wasn’t a problem that would be appropriately fixed with an equalizer.

One of the lessons that live-sound tries to teach – over and over again, with swift and brutal force – is that actually resolving an issue requires addressing whatever is truly precipitating that issue. You can “patch” things by addressing the symptoms, but you won’t have a fix until you get to the true, root cause.

What was precipitating the inappropriate, total EQ for Amanda could be boiled down to one fundamental factor: She wasn’t getting enough “direct” sound.

To start with, she was “off-axis” from all the other monitors she was hearing. Modern loudspeakers for live-sound applications do tend to have nice, tight, pattern control at higher frequencies. As the frequency of the reproduced content decreases, though, the output has more and more of a tendency to just “go everywhere.” Real directivity at low frequencies requires big “boxes,” as the wavelengths involved are quite large. Big boxes, however, are generally not what we want on deck, so we have to deal with what we’ve got. What we’ve got, then, is a reality where standing to the side of a monitor gets you very little in the way of frequency content that contributes to vocal intelligibility (roughly 1 kHz and above), and quite a lot of sound that contributes to vocal “mud.”

Another major factor was that the rest of what Amanda was hearing had been bounced off a boundary at least once. Any “intelligibility zone” material that made it to Amanda’s ears was significantly late when compared to everything else, and probably smeared badly from containing multiple reflections of itself. Compounding that was the issue of a room that contained both people and acoustical treatment. Most anything that was reflected back to the deck was probably missing a lot of high-frequency information. It had been heavily absorbed on the way out and the way back.

Figuring It Out

This is not to say that all of the above snapped instantly into my head when Amanda asked what was wrong. I had to have other clues in order to chase down a fix. Those clues were:

1) Before the show, I had put the mics through the monitors, walked up on deck, and listened to what it all sounded like. For the test, I had a very healthy send level from each vocal mic to the monitors that were directly behind that microphone. Vocal intelligibility was certainly happening at that time, and although things would definitely change as the room changed, the total acoustical solution wouldn’t become unrecognizably different.

2) Nobody else had complained. Although this is hardly the most reliable factor, it does figure in. If the vocals were a muddy mess everywhere, I’m betting that I would have gotten more agreement from the other band members. This suggested that the problem was local to Amanda, and by extension, that a global change (EQ on the vocal channel) would potentially create an incorrect solution for the other folks.

3) On the vocal channel, the send level to the other monitors was high in comparison to the send level to Amanda’s monitor. This was probably my biggest and most immediate clue. When other monitors are getting sends that are +9 dB in relation to another box, the performer is probably hearing mostly the garbled wash from everything OTHER than their own monitor. If the send level to Amanda’s wedge had been high, I might have concluded that the overall EQ for that particular wedge was wrong – although my encouraging, pre-show experience would have suggested that the horn had died at some point. (Ya cain’t fix THAT with an equalizer, pilgrim…)

So, with the clues that I had, I decided to try increasing the send level to Amanda’s monitor to match the send levels to the other monitors. Just like that, Amanda had a LOT more direct sound, everything was copacetic, and off we went.


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.

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

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…


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.


A Vocal Addendum

Forget about all the “sexy” stuff. Get ’em loud, and let ’em bark.

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.

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

This article is a follow-on to my piece regarding the unsuckification of monitors. In a small-venue context, vocal monitoring is probably more important than any other issue for the “on deck” sound. Perhaps surprisingly, I didn’t talk directly about vocals and monitors AT ALL in the previous article.

But let’s face it. The unsuckification post was long, and meant to be generalized. Putting a specific discussion of vocal monitoring into the mix would probably have pushed the thing over the edge.

I’ll get into details below, but if you want a general statement about vocal monitors in a small-venue, “do-or-die,” floor-wedge situation, I’ll be happy to oblige: You do NOT need studio-quality vocals. You DO need intelligible, reasonably smooth vocals that can be heard above everything else. Forget the fluff – focus on the basics, and do your preparation diligently.

Too Loud Isn’t Loud Enough

One of the best things to ever come out of Pro Sound Web was this quiz on real-world monitoring. In particular, answer “C” on question 16 (“What are the main constituents of a great lead vocal mix?”) has stuck with me. Answer C reads: “The rest of the band is hiding 20 feet upstage because they can’t take it anymore.”

In my view, the more serious rendering of this is that vocal monitors should, ideally, make singing effortless. Good vocal monitors should allow a competent vocalist to deliver their performance without straining to hear themselves. To that end, an audio human doing show prep should be trying to get the vocal mics as loud as is practicable. In the ideal case, a vocal mic routed through a wedge should present no audible ringing, while also offering such a blast of sound that the singer will ask for their monitor send to be turned down.

(Indeed, one of my happiest “monitor guy” moments in recent memory occurred when a vocalist stepped up to a mic, said “Check!”, got a startled look on his face, and promptly declared that “Anyone who can’t hear these monitors is deaf.”)

Now, wait a minute. Doesn’t this conflict with the idea that too much volume and too much gain are a problem?

No.

Vocal monitors are a cooperative effort amongst the audio human, the singer(s), and the rest of the band. The singer has to have adequate power to perform with the band. The band has to run at a reasonable volume to play nicely with the singer. If those two conditions are met (and assuming there are no insurmountable equipment or acoustical problems), getting an abundance of sound pressure from a monitor should not require a superhuman effort or troublesome levels of gain.

So – if you’re prepping for a band, dial up as much vocal volume as you can without causing a loop-gain problem. If the vocals are tearing people’s heads off, you can always turn it down. Don’t be lazy! Get up on deck and listen to what it sounds like. If there are problem areas at certain frequencies, then get on the appropriate EQ and tame them. Yes, the feedback points can change a bit when things get moved around and people get in the room, but that’s not an excuse to just sit on your hands. Do some homework now, and life will be easier later.

Don’t Squeeze Me, Bro

A sort of corollary to the above is that anything which acts to restrict your vocal monitor volume is something you should think twice about. If you were thinking about inserting a compressor in such a way that it would affect monitor world, think again.

A compressor reduces dynamic range by reducing gain on signals that exceed a preset threshold. For a vocalist, this means that the monitor level of their singing may no longer track in a 1:1 ratio with their output at the mic. They sing with more force, but the return through the monitors doesn’t get louder at the same rate. If the singer is varying their dynamics to track with the band, this failure of the monitors to stay “in ratio” can cause the vocals to become swamped.

And, in certain situations, monitors that don’t track with vocal dynamics can cause a singer to hurt themselves. They don’t hear their voice getting as loud as it should, so they push themselves harder – maybe even to the point that they blow out their voice.

Of course, you could try to compensate for the loss of level by increasing the output or “makeup” gain on the compressor, but oh! There’s that “too much loop gain” problem again. (Compressors do NOT cause feedback. That’s a myth. Steady-state gain applied to compensate for compressor-applied, variable gain reduction, on the other hand…)

The upshot?

Do NOT put a compressor across a vocalist such that monitor world will be affected. (The exception is if you have been specifically asked to do so by an artist that has had success with the compressor during a real, “live-fire” dress rehearsal.) If you don’t have an independent monitor console or monitor-only channels, then bus the vocals to a signal line that’s only directly audible in FOH, and compress that signal line.

The Bark Is The Bite

One thing I have been very guilty of in the past, and am still sometimes guilty of, is dialing up a “sounds good in the studio” vocal tone for monitor world. That doesn’t sound like it would be a problem, but it can be a huge one.

The issue at hand is that what sounds impressive in isolation often isn’t so great when the full band is blasting away. This is very similar to guitarists who have “bedroom” tone. When we’re only listening to a single source, we tend to want that source to consume the entire audible spectrum. We want that single instrument or voice to have extended lows and crisp, snappy HF information. We will sometimes dig out the midrange in order to emphasize the extreme ends of the audible spectrum. When all we’ve got to listen to is one thing, this can all sound very “sexy.”

And then the rest of the band starts up, and our super-sexy, radio-announcer vocals become the wrong thing. Without a significant amount of midrange “bark,” the parts of the spectrum truly responsible for vocal audibility get massacred by the guitars. And drums. And keyboards. All that’s left poking through is some sibilance. Then, when you get on the gas to compensate, the low-frequency material starts to feed back (because it’s loud, and the mic probably isn’t as directional as you think at low frequencies), and the high-frequency material also starts to ring (because it’s loud, and probably has some nasty peaks in it as well).

Yes – a good monitor mix means listenable vocals. You don’t want mud or nasty “clang” by any means, but you need the critical midrange zone – say, 500 Hz to 3 KHz or 4 KHz – to be at least as loud as the rest of the audible spectrum in the vocal channel. Midrange that jumps at you a little bit doesn’t sound as refined as a studio recording, but this isn’t the studio. It’s live-sound. Especially on the stage, hi-fi tone often has to give way to actually being able to differentiate the singer. There are certainly situations where studio-style vocal tone can work on deck, but those circumstances are rarely encountered with rock bands in small spaces.

Stay Dry

An important piece of vocal monitoring is intelligibility. Intelligibility has to do with getting the oh-so-important midrange in the right spot, but it also has to do with signals starting and stopping. Vocal sounds with sharply defined start and end points are easy for listeners to parse for words. As the beginnings and ends of vocal sounds get smeared together, the difficulty of parsing the language goes up.

Reverb and delay (especially) cause sounds to smear in the time domain. I mean, that’s what reverb and delay are for.

But as such, they can step on vocal monitoring’s toes a bit.

If it isn’t a specific need for the band, it’s best to leave vocals dry in monitor world. Being able to extract linguistic information from a sound is a big contributor to the perception that something is loud enough or not. If the words are hard to pick out because they’re all running together, then there’s a tendency to run things too hot in order to compensate.

The first step with vocal monitors is to get them loud enough. That’s the key goal. After that goal is met, then you can see how far you can go in terms of making things pretty. Pretty is nice, and very desirable, but it’s not the first task or the most important one.


Tuesday Thoughts

Just some ideas to chew on.

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.

If the singer is being drowned it is better to partially drain the bathtub than to buy flippers and a snorkel.

Meditate upon this.

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

It’s not a “binary” choice. There are plenty of grey shades. Even so…

At some point, you will probably have to figure out what means more to you: The craft, or the money.

Only the very lucky get all they want of both.