After watching Kat’s band play tonight, I realized that there were some simple things that bands should be doing in order to improve their audio performance. They were actually a pretty good R&B band, but something about sonic flaws just irritates the engineer in me. The problem is, it’s very rare that the band is even aware of these little sonic problems, as they stand on the stage being blasted by a relatively clean monitor mix and the guitarist’s entirely too huge stack they’re forced to stand downrange of. Nobody ever tells them this either, since in general your audience is not made up of audiophiles, and they’re used to this sort of live mix. The sound guy is probably not going to tell you either, since live sound engineers, as opposed to good recording engineers, are generally people who pick up a night’s work for like $50 and a beer or six, are usually half deaf, and about half of them are such bitter people they don’t give a shit anyway. Therefore, with the incredibly unlikely goal of getting a better audio experience the next time Wen drags me away from my computer, here are some useful tidbits I’ve found helpful. Note that all of this could be for naught if the venue you’re playing has SHIT gear, a SHIT engineer, or NO engineer. A lot of little places have these problems. Suck it up, I guess.
USING SMALLER DRUMS
I’ve always gotten the best results when the drummer plays on a kit that looks ridiculously small. Tony Graci, a really great NY freelancer, plays a lot of small venue gigs on this antique set of Remo Blues, which are really tiny. A small kit sounds tighter and cleaner in a small environment, well really in any environment. You can more effectively mike a small kit. A small kit doesn’t have as much bleed into every other goddamn mike on stage. A small kit removes about 70% of your mix problems up front, as a lot of the compensation work for everyone else results from the problems you get when a huge ass double bass 500 inch floor tom set is bleeding all over the goddamn place, getting everyone else’s reverb and delay, fuzzing everything through the console, and in general forcing everyone else to turn up more and more. You don’t need to be loud onstage in order to be loud up front; that’s what your PA is for. If you listen to a lot of recorded music, the kit is typically fairly background, except maybe the kick drum. An engineer is going to mic your kick anyway.
USING SMALLER MIC’ED AMPS
Smaller amps have a lot of advantages. Most importantly, they’re really light. You can get better tonal control out of a little amp. If you like to play with feedback, you can get really tight feedback control with a little amp at lower volume so you’re not blasting everyone else offstage. Some of the best distortion sounds in recording come from driving the shit out of your guitar and pre and funneling it through one of those MiniMouse practice amps, or a pignose. Shove an SM57 in front of it and let the engineer balance you in the front. Bass players may want a big cabinet anyway, since a loud bass is actually desirable and not nearly as annoying as a huge Marshall stack in a tiny room, but you can still do wonders with a little Gallien Krueger and a clean direct line.
HIGH END HEARING CONTROL (MUSICIANS AND ENGINEERS)
Live music guys, players and engineers, seem to be in hot sweaty love with the 8k band. This is a really annoying band to those of us who haven’t destroyed our ears. The reason 8k gets pumped so much is because it’s an early victim to hearing loss, and (in the studio) everyone seems to love those crappy, AWFUL SOUNDING NS-10 nearfield monitors that seem to put out nothing but 8k, causing further hearing loss and a bizarrely skewed audio picture of how things should sound. However, lots of people (including me) hate playing with plugs. One trick everyone who works in a loud music environment can do is to get some of those super high-reduction foam earplugs, and put them in for a few hours after the gig. Your high end range hearing can actually regenerate pretty well if you give your ears a good break like this. I played in some of the loudest bands I can think of for years and years, and did this. My last hearing test came out supernormal.
HORN MIC TECHNIQUE
Horn players in general don’t have good mic technique. It may be because they bought into those bad ideas about "the real sound of your instrument happens about 4 feet in front of the bell." Yeah this is true, except for French Horn players where the real sound happens about 8 feet behind the bell if you shove your hand into it. Because they play so fucking far back, horn mics have to get huge gain for any noticeable signal, and a big fat cardoid pattern, which means you’re micing everything in your immediate vicinity. You generally don’t want that, or horrific feedback, so the mics get turned down, so it doesn’t pick up anything or (at worst) the only thing you get is that horrible 8k band again. This means you may as well have no mic, and the horn player’s monitor mix is going to just suck. Brass instrument players never actually hear their own sound, since bone conduction interferes a lot with this, and if they’re suddenly getting no feedback at all from their monitor, they work too hard, have lousy relative pitch, get tired faster, and in general just don’t sound all that convincing. Eat that mic. Get up on it dude. Give the mixer something to work with. For reed instruments, where the sound bleeds all over the place, get up on it and hope for the best, unless you’re Jane Ira Bloom and can afford to have a custom multimic array wherever you go.
YOUR FIRST GIG WILL NOT BE TIGHT
There’s no way around this. Something about the first live performance makes people jittery, or overexcited, or lost in the feeling that they now have a chance to get a blowjob from that hot chick standing over there in the audience. No matter how tight your band is in the studio or the rehearsal space, you’re not going to have it completely together at the first gig. Your only hope is to rehearse yourself so totally goddamn thoroughly that you can be assured of not having any colossal train wrecks onstage. Tape all your gigs with a good stereo mic (more important than a recording system, though DAT or one of those old Sony D6 cassette recorders with the crystal control works pretty well), and copy them for the bandmembers. After the high of the first performance dies down in a few days, make sure they get copies. This will hopefully humiliate them into concentrating more on the job, meaning that while your first gig may have been a big wash rhythmically, you can get some really great performances later.
More to come later if I get really grumpy again.