A Beginner’s Guide to Live Sound: How bands get (or try to) their sound right.
As a devotee of the local music grind scene, how often have you been to a bar or small club and thought that the band had great original material, played and sang well, and had the audience really going, but something was just really off about the sound that really took a lot away from the performance? Maybe you could barely hear the lead guitar (and the keyboards were hurting your eardrums). Or maybe the tone of the vocals was too flat. Maybe the sound was echoing around and blurring into a sonic stew. You may have chalked that experience up to poor room acoustics, or a lousy sound system, or maybe a bad “mix”. Maybe it was a combination of the three? But what does all that really mean?
Truth be told, unless a band is at the national tour level (where a crew of expert audio engineering professionals toils to get the best sound out using top-of-the-line equipment), they are going to have to address sound issues at nearly every gig. They will need to take responsibility not only for creating the sound, but for getting their sound off the stage and to the audience. Smalltime local bands typically face a myriad of challenges doing this. Let’s take a look at some of the main issues involved.
First off, the acoustics might really be bad. Live music venues run the gamut from neighborhood bar or coffee house to arenas, stadiums and gigantic outdoor fields. Sound reinforcement systems for the latter can become enormously complex. They need to deal with many complex issues that smaller club bands don’t have to—such as delaying the mix signal sent to loudspeakers farther from the stage, so that the audience doesn’t hear the sound multiple times: first from the nearest speakers and then from speakers positioned at regular intervals, all the way to the stage speakers. This is because sound waves travel much slower through the air than the electrical signals that represent them do on cables. I’ll touch on some of the more advanced features of larger sound systems, but have no intention of going into intricate detail on how the Rolling Stones’ sound setup works. In this blog, we’ll be looking more at what bands face when performing in smaller venues: like bars, coffee houses, and dance clubs, with the intent that live music aficionados reading this might gain a little more understanding of what local bands face on the grind circuit.
Most clubs that were designed with live music in mind have had at least some thought go into the room acoustics. Places like plain old bars, and converted warehouses and the like, might have been constructed with materials and surfaces that reflect, refract(break up) and/or absorb sounds at various frequencies such that some some of the sounds coming from the stage are a bit dead, while others reflect into uncontrolled echoes.
A club owner who is serious about converting such an establishment to make it suitable for live music, will have ponied up significant dollars for appropriate acoustic treatment. You can sort of tell by glancing around if the venue has been designed with music in mind. If you see a lot of bare hard surfaces (like concrete, glass, hardwoods, ceramic and metal) and things like industrial pipes and ductwork that are not covered with some sort of fabric, then you can probably expect there to be issues with the sound. Nobody is expecting a bar to have acoustic properties on a par with Carnegie Hall, but if having live bands is a staple of a venue, the owners should have invested at least a little in addressing the most blatant acoustic flaws. As a last stopgap, running the final mix through a graphic equalizer can allow the sound engineer to fine tune any offending frequencies.
As for live sound reinforcement systems (PA systems), they come in all sizes and types. And a system could cost anywhere from about just under a thousand dollars for the basics, up to tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars (even millions for major arena events). Let’s consider what they need to accomplish by examining the needs of the typical performing band.
There are two types of sounds created by the band: electric and acoustic. The electric sounds are the electric guitars, acoustic-electric guitars (acoustic guitars with pickups installed), electric basses and electronic keyboards. The acoustic sounds are instruments like acoustic guitars, acoustic pianos, horns, strings, drums, and of course vocals.
The electric instruments are typically sent to a collection of amplifiers and speaker cabinets behind the performers known as the “backline”. In a small enough venue, these are usually adequate enough for the electric guitars, basses and electronic keyboards to be heard throughout the bar. The vocals and most of the acoustic instruments will need to be miked and amplified through a PA system. In a small venue, the drums are often loud enough on their own to not require any further amplification.
Some PA systems have more capabilities than others. The most basic operation of the PA system involves having vocal microphones on stands on the stage, plugged into cables that connect to a mixing console located either on the stage or in front of it, where somebody is tasked with mixing the levels and equalizing the tones that then get sent to an amplification system, and finally to the loudspeakers you see on either side of the stage. That’s a simple “vocals-only” PA system in a nutshell.
If the mixing console is in front of the stage (also known as front-of-house or FOH), there is usually a person dedicated to operating it. This person usually (but not always) has an understanding of audio engineering and/or acoustics. A knowledgeable and dedicated sound engineer is like another member of the band in that he or she can really make or break the performance. Bands know to treat the sound engineer with respect and courtesy. Sometimes however (especially in restaurants and small bars) there is no house PA system, and the band needs to bring and operate their own. If you see a little mixing console right on the stage that one or more band members keep going over to and adjusting, and two smallish loudspeakers on tripod stands, then you know this is the case.
If the club is big enough, then the drums and even the backline amplifiers may need a boost to be heard well. In this case, special microphones may be set up over the drums, and in front of the amplifier cabinets and run back to the mixing console. With more inputs into the console comes more control over the overall mix, but it also comes with a cost of more complexity and more expense. If the backline amps are not miked into the console, then each band member is responsible for setting his or her instrument level right on the amplifiers behind them. And that imposes its own set of issues.
In order for the musicians not to get into a competition to see who can play the loudest (not generally good for the performance), they typically rely on a friend (or friendly bartender or even the club owner) to relay to them that something needs adjusting. They just cannot tell from their unique perspective on the stage, what they sound like as a whole to the crowd.
And then there is a little problem with the drummer in that he has no backline amplifier. He can only modulate his loudness by attacking the drums harder or softer. Although drummers in local bands usually know to do this from experience, it means they have to impact their performances to get their sound at the right level in the mix.
To play well, each musician has to be able to hear his or her individual performance, but in a good combination with the rest of the band. And this is difficult (if not impossible) to do on a stage crowded with performers and a row of backline amplifiers and cabinets—each blasting out but one instrument.
Which brings us to one of the optional additional capabilities of a PA system: the monitors. Some PA systems can route a special variant of the house mix back to amplified speakers on the stage in front of the performers (known as monitors or wedges) so the band members can hear approximately what the crowd hears. Some mixing consoles can route more than one monitor mix back to the stage, so perhaps the front man (lead vocalist or lead guitarist) can hear a little more of his own performance over the rest of the band. On high-end tours, each performer is likely to be fed his or her own personalized mix.
In a very large concert venue, you might even notice some engineers sitting at a second mixing console on the side of the stage. This secondary console is dedicated entirely to providing individual monitor mixes to the performers. These engineers closely watch the performers for hand signals indicating what they need in their monitor mix.
Some mixing consoles can also feed a multi-track recording deck to capture the performance. Or there might even be a third mixing console just dedicated to recording the performance.
Sometimes (especially at higher-end performances on large stages), in lieu of the big monitor wedges scattered around the stage, you might see musicians wearing in-ear monitors. These sophisticated earbuds give the musicians a carefully controlled personal mix and (importantly) allow the musicians to move around the stage at will, without being glued to a spot in front of their own amplifier cabinets or behind a stage monitor wedge. The lead vocalist and lead guitarist particularly enjoy the freedom to move around at will. Vocalists can then use a wireless handheld microphone or wear an over-the-ear wireless microphone freeing them up from having to stand in front of a microphone stand. The guitarists and bassist might opt for wireless connections for their instruments to their amplifiers or even straight into the console. You won’t see the stage cluttered up by amplifier cabinets and floor monitors (unless a performer wants to show off his Marshall Stack as a prop). At a recent Buddy Guy concert I attended, Buddy walked slowly up one aisle of the theater all the way to the back, across and then back down the other aisle, all the while playing a guitar solo. He gave much of the audience a unique experience of being able to be right next to him as he played (a big roadie of course accompanied him).
In summation, there are a number of factors influencing the quality of the sound coming from the stage to the audience. First off (obviously) the band has to perform well. Then they need to have their sounds mixed, equalized and amplified properly to get a consistent (and good) combination of their instruments and voices projected into the venue. And lastly, the venue needs to have at least a basic acoustic treatment to ensure sounds aren’t either being overly soaked up or echoing around wildly. It doesn’t take much to detract from a band’s otherwise dynamite performance.