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If you are reading this, there is a chance that you fall into one of two categories: You are either reading this because you are relentlessly pursuing that never-ending quest for better tone, or you have realized that your live performance could use a little polishing and are hoping for a pair of fresh ears on the subject. As a full-time live and recording sound engineer as well as a performer, I hope you will find this advice comes from the heart to help you achieve your own vision.
The key to a good live performance always starts at home with personal accountability. Practice your part to the best of your ability until you are thoroughly knowledgeable about what you are contributing to the feel and tone of each individual song. Play your instrument until you know what it sounds like in all of its various tunings, settings, and/or other technical abilities. And when I say, “play”, I mean that quite literally. Sometimes when you are serious about achieving a musical goal it is just as important to give yourself free time as it is to have dedicated practice toward attaining an objective.
Understand where in the EQ spectrum your instrument generally falls into compared with other instruments. * What role does your instrument play and where should it sit in the mix? How does your personal volume affect and interact with other instruments in your band and contribute to your band’s overall volume? If you don’t already, start recording your practices and your performances. Sit down and review them afterward like a coach reviewing a football game. Take notes and analyze how you can improve the quality of your individual and overall tone.
I’d like to take this moment to let you know that while joking about stereotypes can be fun, I’ve got some news for you: All musicians, regardless of instrument, are guilty of being too loud from time to time. Drummers tend to get louder the longer the set goes on or when a song has a faster tempo.** Guitar players are usually too loud right from the start (You’d be amazed how good a 5-watt amp can sound on stage when combined with appropriate stage monitors).
Always practice with a metronome or click track. Seems like the same old song and dance here, but you would be amazed at how practicing each song at the desired tempo will cause you or your band to sound seasoned beyond your years. In addition to sounding professional, the tempo of the song can have an enormous effect on the way the song influences how a listener feels and how the message of the song is conveyed. Since you probably plan on playing a song more than once in your lifetime, lock it down early.
Do your own research about the various equipment being used in the venues you are performing at. Many venues post their equipment on their websites or can send them to you via e-mail on request. Be prepared to share a stage plot and input list,*** and offer it to your immediate contact as early on in the process as you can. Ask your contact whether or not there will be a line-level check or a sound check prior to your performance.****
Arrive on time for your load-in. You are one piece of the puzzle contributing to the overall quality of the show, and if you are incapable of showing up on time for load-in without a really good excuse than it is time to find a new line of work. Even if the time from load-in to performance seems terribly unbearable, it is still in your best interest to make yourself available as early as possible (Tune in next time for “How to Make Efficient Use of Your Time While Waiting to Perform”).
Introduce yourself to your sound-engineer as soon as you arrive. Be polite and personable. Provide them with your stage plot and input list. Let them know if you have any special needs or requests (like using your own microphone, etc), and let them know that you are willing to heed their advice in order to help you sound your best. Chances are good that the engineer has some specific experience working within the parameters of the room and will give you suggestions that are in your best interest to follow.
If there are stage monitors, take advantage of them. Don’t be afraid to ask for more or less of your particular monitor mix, even after the performance has already started. If it sounds good to the band on stage and creates a comfortable atmosphere for the performers, that confidence will weave its way throughout the audience as well.
And, hey, if ya still can’t get the sound you’re looking for, hire a professional sound engineer of your own and take them with you wherever you go. Pay them to coordinate the equipment, backline, sound check, and mixing during the performance (be sure to let the venue, promoter, or agent know that you are providing your own engineer for your performance). Sometimes your engineer will need to work in tandem with the house engineer in order to get the job done. Other times your engineer may need to be able to utilize house equipment sight unseen. Sonicbids hosts a great article on basic instrument EQ by author Aaron Staniulis.
**Almost every sound engineer I have ever worked with recommends that drummers port their kick drum.
***A stage plot is a simple drawing that outlines where band members will be placed during their performance. Many venues can provide you with a blank stage plot that you can modify. An input list is (Yup. You guessed it.) a list of all the inputs the band typically uses in order to achieve their sound. For example, a keyboard player often requires at least two inputs (one for each keyboard), and sometimes may need up to four inputs if both keyboards are sending a stereo signal. Also, a keyboard player often utilizes house DI (Direct Input) boxes and this would also be noted on your input list.
****A line-level check is, more or less, just to ensure that the signal from the instrument or microphone is not clipping and relative in volume to other instruments. A sound check is a more thorough and comprehensive way of ensuring that each individual performer has exactly the right volume, EQ, and monitor mix.
Well, that’s my time. Thanks for spending yours reading this article. Hope you find it useful in your adventures to come!
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Daniel Warren Hill is known mostly for his contributions as singer-songwriter and guitar player for Alt-Rock band YellowTieGuy. He is also the owner of Alchemical Records, Sales Manager of VVT Amplifiers, and an independent Producer and Engineer with over seventeen years of personal experience in the music industry. www.yellowtieguy.com