You have chosen the material for the show and you’ve formulated a plan as to how you are going to stage your band to leave a lasting visual impression on attendees. Now comes the question of audio, production and exactly how your crowd is going to hear your music. Since most bands don’t have a nerdy guy in glasses to roam around the crowd saying “can you hear them now”, you have to take dependable and adequate steps to make sure that you bring the right guns to the gun fight. Otherwise, you’ll look great but the people who count won’t be able to hear your brilliance. Here are some specific areas to focus on in this foray into audio fidelity.
1. Advancing the Show – We’ve talked about this in previous posts but it’s extremely critical to the issue of production. If you are walking into a club or festival that is providing production, you need to know EXACTLY what this includes. Often opening acts will have a limited number of inputs so you need to be prepared. As well, small clubs typically have very limited in-house PA and speaker coverage. Be prepared and I will offer some pertinent suggestions to do just that below.
2. Input List – We touched on this in Part 2 but it bears repeating in this section as well. Before you can make a decision about what your PA needs truly are, you need to establish how many inputs you need on a console to get everything in the mix. The best approach is to have a small set up list and a full set up list. If you are playing a small room like a coffee house or club, you might be able to get by without placing microphones on drums and amps. The only inputs would be vocals and any instrument going direct. For playing a club that is providing production, you might be able to send them a stereo feed from your own console – thus you still control the individual mix instrument to instrument and the house guy just sets the level. For larger venues, placing mics on drums and amps could be necessary to create a full mix of instrumentation and vocals. The obvious issue is how many inputs you have on your console or how many inputs you have available in the event of a festival. You can incorporate your input list with each station of your stage plot. I recommend ultimately that each band member be responsible for getting his or her signal to a snake or to a DI. The onus is on the player to make sure he has a duplicate patch cord or cable. You can also create a checklist to make sure that you not only brought everything you need to connect your band but you can also cross check as you pack up to make sure you go home with all you brought.
3. Patching, cabling and power – TIP – always have multiple back ups for each cable, patch cord or power cord you use. In the flurry of packing and unpacking, the risk is high to not only forget cables but also to inflict adequate stress to damage cables. I would recommend having at least 2-3 extra of each cable or cord. Even without failure, you might need the extra length for power or for getting to and from the console. Try to get in a routine for how you unpack and patch. Run power drops first and follow up with cabling to the console. Patch your instruments last as to allow for ease in gross patching and to protect your instruments from damage. Make sure that you use properly shielded cable for microphones and instruments. This will help with ground loops and general electrical interference. Remember that you really get what you pay for in this department. You might even invest in a snake that will help you get multiple lines to the console and in the process really clean up the stage. Give yourself some slack – don’t run cable so tight that there are raised lengths to trip on. And finally, try to tape down cables in high traffic areas that are more likely to be tripped over. Gaffer tape is perfect for this because it’s meant to be applied to rubberized cabling without binding to the sheathing of the wire. You may also use industrial door rugs to create covered crosswalks. These rugs are available at any hardware store in various sizes.
4. Consolation – choosing the right console. Let’s face it—most venues are not going to really provide an adequate mixing console that is predictable and dependable. The only way to guarantee consistent reproduction unless a pro production company is providing it is to carry your own console. Here are some points to consider:
a. Inputs – how many inputs do you really need to adequately reproduce your instrumentation and vocals?The difference in price from 8 inputs to 12 to 16 inputs is somewhat negligible. Buy a mixer that will be ideal to accommodate your large venue set up if you want to add drum and amp mics. Try to have a couple channels left over in case Bruce Springsteen wants to sit in and you need a channel for him.
b. Powered versus unpowered – although you can get smaller combo heads that have a limited mixer combined with a power amp, there is a danger in having everything in one piece of hardware. If one part goes down, everything is down. The optimum situation is to plan on components for mixer and power amp/speakers or at least powered boxes. Your set up can be expanded if necessary and you also have substitution options in the event of equipment failure.
c. Inboard versus outboard effects – many pro consoles also come with built in effects. This makes set up and patching easy. However, you’re often limited to one or two effects and real time changing can be tricky. This is a preference issue and depends on how much you really make multiple effects changes, especially if you run sound from the stage like most bands. One outboard effects unit that can be invaluable in a volatile live situation is a graphic EQ (or two) that help you trim frequencies that are feeding back. There are also feedback isolation preamps like the Behringer DSP 110 that will help you notch out the feedback in a mic or group of mics. You might not be able to tell the difference between 3 and 4 K but your audience can sure tell when a vocal microphone is constantly feeding back.
5. Microphones and DI s – For years, the go to vocal microphone has been the Shure SM-58 while the go to instrument mic has been the SM-57. Both these microphones are workhorses and are very effective in their designed ranges. There are great dynamic microphone sets that are designed specifically for drum kits and usually come with mounts or stands for each instrument. Again, your guide to how many mics you need will be how many inputs on your console you can afford. With DIs, it depends on how much signal you need to get to the console. Passive DIs are adequate to convert a line level input to an XLR signal and don’t require a power source to operate. Active DIs have a hotter output but also usually require either phantom power from the console or separate AC or DC power. They’re also going to be more expensive but make a great input point for keyboards.
6. Speakers and Amps – these components mix into one category very well because they’re designed to work together from output to input to output. There are even many great powered speakers that are very efficient and weigh not much more than their passive cousins. The first step is determining the coverage you need to make for the show to be heard in all functional locations of the venue and the power you need to accomplish that task. One general rule of thumb is 4 watts of continuous output for each person you need to reach. So for a crowd of 200 people, you should have somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 watts of output spread across your stage speaker configuration. Since adequate coverage can vary depending on inside or outside events, you can increase that rule of thumb to at least 5 watts per person for outside events. Another big consideration is whether to add subwoofers to the configuration. The wide sound waves of bass and kick drum can overtax regular dynamic speakers. Adding a sub or two to your configuration with appropriate crossovers will send that lower energy to speakers designed to handle it while allowing your mids and highs room in the regular speakers to shine. You’ll increase your headroom and spare your regular speakers possible damage. The ideal situation is to have a component system that you can add to or take away depending on the venue demands. It’s better to have headroom to spare than to bring too little PA and not be able to cover the room.
There have been hundreds of complete manuals written about the subtleties of putting together the right PA system for your needs. I don’t pretend to have answered every question in these 1500 words. But, my final advice is this:know the vocabulary, know the venue needs, and know what your band needs. Spend some time at your local music store looking around and getting feedback from pro audio reps. Take a copy of your stage plot and input list in with you and do some comparison. Make educated decisions with the most information you can gather. If you don’t own it, then at least you’ll know what you need to rent and your built-in limitations. If you follow these basic concepts and tailor your set up to fit your needs you will as always tour wisely, my friends! Next up – Me, Me Media - social media to the rescue!