When the lights turn down and the first notes start to play, you might feel it. When the crowd hushes down and the tension is in the air, you can feel it. When the stage right vocal mic is not giving any signal in the middle of the show, you can feel it. When the night is over, the talented band members have thanked you for your work, you have packed up all your gear, and you reflect on the last several hours… That is the feeling of Running Live Sound.
Just the other day, my friend Zack asked me to help set up some sound at his upcoming art gallery show in Hudson Falls. I liked the idea, so we met a few times before the gig to discuss how things might go and which acts would be providing music for his gallery show.
The day before the show, I visited the gallery location to help set up some art props and get a feel for the place. Talking with Zack, I asked who would be performing the next day, as well as what instruments the performers would be bringing. This leads me to point number one.
Always get a complete picture of your gig.
When the day of the gig arrived, I had a hazy idea of what to expect. This lead me to arrange for all three of the bands to come in two hours before the show for a soundcheck.
The first act was a solo artist (playing keyboard and vocals.)
The second act was a quartet called Brain Medicine (consisting of a Tenor guitar, Mandolin, Banjo, Upright Bass, and three vocal mics.)
The Third act was a quartet called Gay Twin (two simultaneous drum kits, keyboard, and bass.)
In the future, I would get all this information BEFORE the day of the gig. Obvious, right?
The band members arrive, bring their gear to the back of the stage, and set up what they need before the show. While the band members are shooting the breeze and checking out the art, I meet the house sound engineer, John, who I also learn is the first act. (Useful information to know before the day of the show!)
John is a nice fellow, and I have him miked up and doing a sound check in no time at all. At this time, Zach (the gallery artist) and John (first act and house engineer) and I talk over the band schedule and what to do with our sound checks in between acts. John provided an idea, to play a little filler music from an iPod plugged directly into an unused console channel while the next bands are setting up. This turns out to be a great idea, and worked well all evening.
The show starts at 7:00, with a half hour piano medley played by a friend of the gallery artist. (The piano was positioned at the entrance to the gallery, and was not miked.) At 7:30, John, our first act stepped on stage and played a few jazzy selections from his keyboard (which we brought into the console using a DI box.) The first act went extremely well, and the gallery visitors were pleased. When John finished his set on stage, I muted the Key and Vox channels and put on some iPod music through the house speakers while we set up the next band, Brain Medicine.
John and I got the band set up with three vocal mikes, a DI box for the Mandolin, a mix on the upright bass, and let the tenor guitar play straight through his amp with no input to our console (which turned out pleasantly nice.) John displayed lots of comfort working on stage, and with Brain Medicine, (A local band that he was very familiar with.) None of this I knew until the show was over, which is why I mention you want to try and get a complete picture of how your gig will run before the band steps on stage. The band starts jamming, to let us check the signal on our eight-or-so channels on the board. I started setting gain levels on the upright bass, and then moving to EQ to roll off below 50hz and looking to dial in the bass’ presence. This was my first mistake.
First, concentrate on your GAIN STRUCTURE.
John stepped over to the console fast, and immediately brought up the faders near unity gain. Setting the levels for all of the instruments right away, he quickly dialed in a nice, up front mix that focused our mandolin and banjo tracks as a highlight. Watching this, I learned that Live and Studio sound differ greatly. To be effective in a live setting, get your gain structure sounding right before you focus on EQ for a single channel. At this point, the band continues to play, and John is becoming more comfortable with the mix. We noticed that our stage right vocal mic was not sending any signal to our board. As soon as the next song break started, I rushed up to check our mic connection (which looked good,) and proceeded to switch the microphone with a Shure SM-57 while the frontman said a few things to the crowd. This was my second mistake.
Be thorough and precise in your setup and sound check.
The band resumed playing, and the crowd was having a great time. at the console, John and I were still not receiving signal from our newly replaced mic. The band noticed and quickly adapted, having the mandolin player sing alternatively with the frontman on the same stage center mic (which worked extremely well, solidifying the importance of a great band who can adapt to anything.) The band finished their set, and the audience was very happy and gave a huge round of applause!
I put on the house music again and headed up to the stage to tear down and get the last band set up for the night. When tearing down the stage right vocal mic, John noticed that the XLR cable coming from the mic to the input snake was not firmly connected for the performance, resulting in no signal from the mic to our board. This could have easily been avoided by double checking our connections from the start of setup, or even fixed in between songs by thoroughly checking connections (and not being an idiot to assume the only reason could be the mic itself.)
Lesson learned, so in the future I will always double check my connections while setting up, and if I have to troubleshoot during the performance, to be thorough and unobtrusively follow the entire signal path to fix the issue.
4. The Importance of Fun
The last band turned out to be “self sufficient,” meaning they would be mixing their own instruments. With two drum kits set up at stage center, a keyboard plugged into the band’s own amplifier, and a bass guitar rigged through a pedal board and into an amplifier, John and I decided to mic the each of the kick drums. The band was an experimental group and required no vocal mics, so we set the kick drum mics to give a little presence through the main speakers and proceeded to let them play. I personally feel that this would not be a smart way for things to proceed in a high stakes gig, because this leaves all the responsibility to the band to create a good mix, great sound, and stay within a reasonable gain level. Listening to the band, they turned out great. In Live Sound, being comfortable with adaptation is a huge key to survival. It was this part of the show that I popped open a fresh IPA from Common Roots Brewing and took a moment to relax and enjoy the music.
The night ended well and most everyone had a great time at the gallery show. From this experience I managed to learn quite a bit about what it takes to survive and thrive in the world of Live Sound and made a few friends while I was at it.