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How to Improve Your Live Sound

Bob Craypoe (also known as R. L. Crepeau) is a musician, writer, webmaster, 3D artist, and creator of the Punksters comic strip series.

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You could be the best musician in the world but it does you very little good if your live sound is terrible. Music is about listening. So if your live mix is awful, it just makes it more difficult for people to enjoy listening to it.

I have seen a number of live bands perform their songs well, yet they had a terrible mix that was quite detrimental to their sound. I mean, some sounded like a grade school band tuning up. Then they post their performances on YouTube and their social networking pages. I give it a listen and I think to myself: “My God, do they even know how terrible they sound?”

It’s not about me thinking that I am so much better than anyone else. It’s more like I try to do what I can to make myself sound as good as possible when I play out live and I have a hard time understanding as to why others don’t. Okay, maybe some people try to mix things well and yet fail. Maybe it’s not so much as to how hard they try but maybe it’s more like how they try.

It’s my belief that most of the work in developing a good live sound is actually not done at the venues you are playing but in the preparation you do when practicing. That’s where I really do most of my work when trying to develop a good quality live sound. I have some tips, though, that I think others may use to help develop a better quality live sound. So let’s get down to it.

Work on Your Sound Alone First

Whether you are a solo act or in a band, you need to develop your own sound. This involves practicing with the same equipment you will be using when you play out live. So once you really achieve a good quality sound at home, you could take that sound with you wherever you go, including your band rehearsals. Then, when you get to the venue where you will be playing, you should only need to make minor adjustments in order to compensate for the acoustics of the room in which you are playing.

Developing a good quality sound is not accidental. It is something that requires some experimentation. You have to know your equipment and try to figure out how to get the most from it. Sometimes most of what you need to know is what makes it sound bad and just refrain from using your equipment in the ways that make you sound bad. With any equipment, there are some settings that simply don’t work for the equipment you have.

One example is if you have one guitar that sounds good at a certain setting but another one you have sounds terrible with the same settings on your mixer, effects or amplifiers. You have to customize your sound for each of the two different instruments. I use a couple of different guitars when I play out. They don’t sound equally as good when running through my effects units and into my mixer or amps when using the same settings. So I have to treat them differently when doing the settings.

So I sort all of these things out just using my practice amp at first. Once I have it somewhat worked out and sounding pretty good on my practice amp, I know it will sound much better when I run it all through my much more expensive and better quality mixer and sound system.

Then Work on Your Sound in Band Rehearsals

After you get everything down in your individual practice sessions, you need to do the same in your band rehearsals. But, at least now, after you have been experimenting on your own, you are ready to take it to that next level. It is important that your band rehearses with the same equipment and set up that you use when playing out live. Once you develop a good sound in your rehearsals, recreating that good quality sound when you play a gig should not be too difficult.

Developing a good sound with a full band can be challenging. Also, the more people you have in the band, the harder it is to mix. But if you have a small four or five man band or even a trio, mixing your sound should be much easier than trying to mix a ten piece band. The thing you need to worry about the most is trying to avoid cutting into each other’s frequencies.

A simple setup would be if you had just a drummer, guitarist, bass guitarist and a singer. It would be quite easy to mix things in a manner in which every instrument is easily heard in the mix. The guitar would be mostly mid range to high frequencies, the bass guitar would be mostly the low to low midrange frequencies and the drums would be a mix of frequencies because you have the cymbals, bass drum, toms and snare.

The mix for the vocals is dependent upon the singer. Much of that should be geared around the singer’s voice. There are some frequencies that will make a singer’s voice sound worse when boosted and some that will make the singer’s voice sound better when boosted. One setting may make a certain singer’s voice sound good but another equally talented singer might sound terrible with that same setting. So it is an individual thing. I know with my voice, I sound better taking out some of the low end in the mix.

Things can get pretty muddy and indistinguishable if the various instruments are cutting into each other’s frequencies. If you have two guitars, you may want to have one with more treble and the other with more bass in order to make them more distinguishable from each other. Or if you have keyboards and a guitar, you may want to have one of them with the highs boosted and the other with the lows boosted.

Once you really get that mix down in your rehearsals, sounding great at your gigs should be easy. You just basically use mainly the same settings. Since you have already worked much of it out before hand, you should only have to make minor adjustments at the show.

Always Read Up and Seek Out Advice

There are all kinds of articles online that you could read to learn more about how to develop a good live sound. There are also a number of videos online as well. You could even approach your local musicians when they perform at a local venue. I have done that a number of times. When they took a break, I would walk up to them and ask them questions about some of their equipment. Not once did any of them ever tell me to leave them alone because they were on a break. They were all very polite and helpful.

I think one reason they were usually polite and helpful is that most musicians just love talking about equipment. They like talking about the equipment they have, the equipment they want to get and about some of the new stuff that’s out there. They even like to learn about the equipment other musicians use.

It’s great to see local bands live for the purpose of doing research on the type of equipment that is out there being used in a live setting. You could really learn a lot that way. You could also see examples of what not to do as well. The good examples show what to do and the bad examples teach us what not to do. Either way, there is usually something to learn.

Watch Your Frequencies

There are certain frequencies, when boosted, that can make an instrument sound bad, just as there are ones that make it sound good when boosted. So, let’s say you play guitar and you notice that certain frequencies make it sound terrible when boosted. Try to cut them out. I personally don’t like it when a distorted guitar has too much treble and it makes it sound real thin. I also don’t like it when there is too much bass and it becomes indistinguishable from the bass guitar, in the mix.

In the past, I have actually taken a stereo EQ and ran the output from my mixer into it, to see what frequencies were being used. I used to perform as a duo and as a trio and we used to all use the same mixer and sound system. So when we each played our instrument alone, We could actually see what range of frequencies each instrument was using most. We would make adjustments to minimize us cutting into each other’s frequency range. It provided a fuller sounding and much better mix.

Knowing when It’s Bad

To determine if your mix is bad or not, you just do the simplest thing at first. That is to just listen. If you are too busy concentrating on your playing to pay close attention to your mix, record yourself. Just remember that when you record yourself with microphones, microphone placement is very important. You want to make sure that the microphones are placed in a location where the bulk of the mixed sound will be prominent.

I’ve done a lot of rehearsal recordings with a number of bands over the years. There were times when I had been horrified by the poor quality of our live sound, as I listened to the recordings. In the early years, I had very little understanding about mixing or how to obtain a good quality mix. It really wasn’t until much later that I learned enough to really be able to develop a decent quality mix.

Simpler is Sometimes Better

I have found that it is much easier to have control over your live sound when the bulk of the sound comes from a single sound source; like when most of the sound everyone in the band produces goes through the same mixer and speakers. This gives everything one centralized control unit where the bulk of the sound produced can be adjusted.

So let’s say that you have a distorted electric guitar. You could run that through a small amplifier set at a low volume and mic the amplifier. Run the microphone into your PA mixer, where most of the sound will then be coming through. Do the same with the bass guitar. Also, run all your vocal mics through the same mixer. Now, the bulk of your sound is controllable through the same mixer and speakers. So no matter where anyone stands in the room, the mix is generally the same and most of your sound is controlled through a single mixer.

Acoustic drums can be difficult to deal with. Mainly because they are usually quite loud and some drummers are, unfortunately, much louder than others. The ideal situation would be to have a very good drummer who has a lot of control over his volume when he plays. I’ve worked with a few but they weren’t as common as easy to find as I would have liked. But if they are that good at controlling their volume, this allows for you to mic their drums and have them run into the same PA system as everyone else, thus giving you a lot of control over the quality of the drums' sound.

Electronic drums are so much easier to deal with than acoustic drums, especially in a small venue. Every aspect of their sound is completely controllable. Just run them straight into the mixer and adjust the sound like you would the guitars, basses or keyboards. You have full control over their tone and volume.

If you play a keyboard and like to use distortion with that keyboard like John Lord of Deep Purple used to do, you could use a keyboard amplifier and mic it like you would a guitar amplifier. The point of all this is to simplify matters by being able to control most of your sound through a single mixer.

Tip of the Iceberg

these tips are really just a few suggestions to get someone started. There are so many factors that come into play that I have not even referenced in this article. It’s impossible to cover everything in a single article. But, as I have already stated, there are plenty of other sources you could refer to online and other places. Always be willing to learn more and you should benefit from that significantly.

© 2020 Bob Craypoe

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