This guide actually started life as a draft to an Ebook, pulled directly from my personal notes taken throughout my time spent as a sound engineer, and now as a commercial recording studio owner.
My goal in writing this guide to is to help readers overcome common issues known to plague new bands or artists when they first hit the stage. Internalize this guide’s secrets and you will sound better live than most bands by your very next gig. Great live sound will help you create a demand for respect that most other artists will spend their entire career trying to achieve. People will take you seriously, your fanbase will grow larger with every show, and success will come quicker than you ever imagined.
WHAT YOU’RE UP AGAINST
For as long as I can remember, it’s been a given that in a band’s infancy, their shows will be borderline unlistenable. Of course, every band has to start somewhere, but when a group first ventures out of their rehearsal space, there are always a multitude of factors working against them. From the cramped stages, low ceilings, and power issues inherent to many small venues, to the nerves, forgotten gear, and faulty equipment that could throw any musician off their game, it’s plain to see that the deck is stacked against new and emerging artists when it comes to live sound. Unless you do something to combat these issues, you will remain in the shadows like most other bands, waiting for luck to take you to the top.
WHY I CARE AND HOW I CAN HELP
After withstanding show after show of young or inexperienced bands that suffer the effects of a lousy mix, deafening volume, and a host of bad habits they’ve picked up from a lifetime spent rehearsing in basements, I’ve had enough. And I’m writing this now because I want to help.
As an audio engineer and now commercial recording studio owner, I make bands sound good for a living. And although a majority of my experience is in the studio, I have also put in my time on stage, and there are plenty of basic principles that will translate no matter the environment. In fact, as you’ll read here, there are some very specific things you can do to immediately rise above the other amateur acts that are gigging at your level. You can even sound better than most seasoned working bands on your first night of playing out, just as long as you take the time to do everything right and get everybody on the same page.
Through obsessive journaling, I have assembled this collection of the top 14 secrets you can use to sound better live than any other band at your very first gig. As stated above, these notes were compiled with the intention of publishing a full-fledged Ebook, but I ultimately decided that this information was just too crucial to sit on until that project was complete.
So here you have it in in raw form: How To Sound Better Live Than Anyone Else: The 14 Secrets to Achieving Perfect Live Sound at your Very Next Gig.
Secret #1: You CAN and WILL have great live sound at your very first gig.
Get it in your head that you are going to do whatever it takes to sound great at your first gig. Newer bands and artists have often had to “break through” in spite of their not-so-great live sound. They stand out because of their energy, vibe, demo recordings, or whatever else. But with excellent live sound, all the details ofyour band’s songwriting will take center stage, and communicate much more closely what you are REALLY about. All you have to do is take measures to make sure that people can actually hear this stuff.
Secret #2: Your most dedicated fans may find you by accident.
When you play live (especially when you are not the headliner), many people are experiencing your band for the very first time. They don’t know what they are going to get when you step up on that stage, and for that reason your show is pretty much your first impression.
To many people, their experience at your gig will be the deciding factor that leads them to look you up online, stream your music, buy a t shirt, buy tickets to your next show, etc. An incendiary live show will show the audience that, even though they have never heard of you, you are an artist that demands attention. This is your chance to convert nobodies into loyal fans overnight.
Secret #3: You can sound great even if you are not that good.
As an amateur band, uncommonly good live sound will IMMEDIATELY set you apart from the bands that you gig with. Sounding great will grab the audience’s attention, and will show them that you are a group to be taken seriously. Make it your goal to work on your live sound as much as you work on your songwriting or band chemistry. Every rehearsal and gig is an opportunity to implement something new or different in an effort to sound great on stage.
Remember too that rehearsal is for rehearsing, not practicing. Practice at home alone and show up to rehearsal polished and ready to work together with your bandmates — they will appreciate you for it and you’ll get a lot more done as a unit.
Secret #4: The opening act sounds bad on purpose.
A general rule of thumb is that the overall sound and mix quality of a live show will improve incrementally with each act moving up the lineup. In other words, if you’re first, you’re worst! Unfortunately, this is largely done on purpose, and it makes sense when you think about it. Assuming there’s a sound man working your show, his primary motivation is to make the headliner sound awesome. The headliner is who most of the audience is there to see — their name sold the bulk of the tickets, so they better deliver.
One way for the sound guy to guarantee the headliner’s success is to make sure that their mix kicks ass. Another much easier way is to make sure that everybody performing before them sounds like garbage, so that they sound great by comparison. This isn’t to imply that a venue’s sound personnel are deliberately sabotaging their openers (they definitely aren’t). It just means that venue staff have a ton of things on their plate. They aren’t going to do more than the bare minimum needed to ensure that the opening sets aren’t going to actively drive away audience members.
The really fancy sound engineering, the live fader riding, the song to song remixing, the intricate and detail oriented stuff, that’s all reserved for the band at the top of the bill. To get in on that action, try tipping the sound guy a $20 before your set to let him know that you appreciate his work. Sound professionals are some of the busiest and hardest working folks in the biz, and they are almost never compensated fairly for their expertise. Maybe one band in a hundred will tip them anything and acknowledge the important role they play. So kick them a few bucks to let them know you care. Now you’re on your way.
Secret #5: Great bands mix themselves.
A great mix lives or dies based on a band’s own performance. The best bands are made up of musicians who listen to each other, play off of one another, and vary their approach or dynamics as each song requires. Great musicians don’t show off, don’t do fills every four bars, and are always closely in tune with the natural thrust of the song.
They understand which instruments matter most at which times, which element of the song is driving things forward, and they are comfortable adjusting their own playing to compensate for these factors at all times. These musicians create bands that are greater than the sum of their parts.
Secret #6: Don’t just practice; rehearse.
“Good bands start their notes at the same time. Great bands end their notes at the same time.”
When working with your bandmates, it isn’t enough to just “know” the arrangement of your songs. You should never think about each song in terms of the number of times you repeat a certain section before moving on — in fact, never let yourself get in the mindset of solely waiting for a visual cue to switch parts, or counting the number of times a certain part loops before the next part comes in.
Instead, always think in terms of progression, and how you can add something new to the song even when you are technically playing the same riff or chord progression over and over. This can be a change in dynamics, a tasteful fill, interplay between yourself and another instrument, or whatever else. The point is that great songs aren’t just about repetition. They are calculated performances, complete with subtle variance, interesting dynamics, and an underlying pulse that builds throughout their runtime.
Take a few weeks to get your band past just “knowing” your songs before booking your next gig. Having the patience to really know the inner workings of your songs will do wonders for your live sound. This is the hallmark of a truly mature band.
Secret #7: Kill them softly with your song.
“The amateur says, ‘I can’t hear myself, I need to turn up!’ The master says, ‘I can’t hear myself, “you all need to turn down!’ ”
An overall lower stage volume is a must for improving your group’s live sound. This isn’t to say that your set can’t be loud, just that it has to be loud in the right way. When one element in the mix is too loud, the approach should never be to compensate by turning up everything else around it. In a live performance environment, this can inhibit the ability for performers on stage to hear each other well, and can also make it harder for the sound guy to do his job.
When the noise coming off the stage rivals the output of the venue’s PA, the sound person will struggle to create a mix the really showcases your band well. Remember, you want the crowd listening to the fully mixed output coming from the mixing desk, not the raw material coming from the amps on stage.
It’s also important not to worry that a low stage volume means that your band must sacrifice energy or intensity. A quiet stage doesn’t mean that your set will sound quiet to the audience! Just that it’s the sound guy’s responsibility to make the band loud, not yours. So go ahead and head bang or jump around to your heart’s content, and rest easy knowing that the crowd will actually hear what’s going on.
Secret #8: Success is a winning stage setup.
A quality stage setup facilitates good communication between band members, and will also help keep the stage volume down. A first priority in setting up the stage is to ensure that clear sight lines exist between all members of your band, so that visual cues are a breeze to execute. This is fairly easy to accomplish, but is still not to be overlooked.
Next, it is key to set up the stage in such a way that each musician can clearly hear what’s happening around them. Guitarists and bassists: your ankles don’t have ears. If you are using a combo amp, invest in an amp stand that will tilt the amp up to ear level. This will ensure that when dialing in your tones, you hear exactly what the mic (and in turn the audience) will hear. This is a HUGELY underrated technique; you’ll be surprised just how different your amp sounds “off axis” as it does dead on.
For circumstances when your band is mic’d up and working with a sound person, another great idea is to “sidewash” your amps. This simply means that your amps will be pointed across the stage, rather than out toward the audience. This technique will help ensure that your bandmates can hear one another well (since the amps are now pointed right at them). And more importantly, it guarantees that the audience will primarily hear the venue’s PA over all other sound sources.
Secret #9: Find (and mark) your sweet spot.
Once the stage setup is firm, spend some time roaming the stage during soundcheck to identify the spot(s) where the balance between each instrument sounds particularly good. Mark these spots with gaffers tape so your bandmates can find them easily during the show and spend as much time in their “sweet spot” as possible.
When things sound great to a player, they can let go and let the music flow through them without straining or forcing it. When all players are able to effortlessly hear their fellow bandmates, when they “feeling it” so to speak, they will elevate their playing to a new level that comes across to the audience as an all around tighter and more inspired performance.
Secret #10: Your stage setup, down to a science.
Once you have optimized your stage setup at a few venues of different size, quality, and layout, you’ll notice patterns that start to emerge. Have all members in your band learn the ideal setup for everybody else’s instrument, not only their own. Come up with a repeatable workflow for each show that will allow your band to replicate a quality stage setup in a matter of minutes. You can assign each band member a specific role during setup, or devise a team based approach as well. This process can be helped along by taking pictures of stage setups that have worked well for your band in the past, and compiling them in an album for later reference.
Also, be sure to practice your stage set up under venue conditions, not just in the comfort of your rehearsal space. This means getting used to doing things quickly, under pressure, in the dark, and with severe space limitations. A band that can set up and strike a stage in a matter of minutes is a rare thing indeed. This skill will make you an instant favorite of any venue you play at, while communicating to audience members that your group is made up of consummate professionals.
Secret #11: Lean on your fans.
Alright, this secret really only applies once you have established your band enough to attract “regulars” to your gigs, but it is still important! Once you have reached this point, find that one guy or gal who always sticks around to chat after the show, who seems particularly interested helping the band out. Not only will you have met your first superfan, but you will have your first official roadie who gladly works for the privilege of being a part of something bigger than him or herself.
You will find these types of fans to be loyal, dependable, and good for word of mouth advertising. They will work hard to bring their friends out to come see the new band they are “working” for. Your new roadie will be a lifesaver in a number of situations, like when your band van breaks down or when your guitar player forgets he has no extra strings in his gig bag. Superfan roadies can break land speed records driving to Guitar Center and back before curtain.
Secret #12: Master the soundcheck.
The point of soundcheck is to give the sound guy a general snapshot of what your band will sound like during the show. This way he can “rough in” a mix that will work well for most of your songs with minimal tweaking. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to prepare two or three snippets of your songs to be used as “sound check material.” These snippets should be highly representative of the overall sound of your band, and should use all the instruments you have at your disposal. E.G. if you are a hard rock band, don’t soundcheck with your ballad, since the mix achieved here won’t translate to the rest of your set at all.
Drummers: you will no doubt be singled out during soundcheck to audition each drum in your kit. Remember that you will ALWAYS strike your kit louder with your full band in the context of a song than you will with your kit in isolation. Se even though it may feel unnatural, hit the skins a little harder than is comfortable during soundcheck, because believe it or not, this is what you are gonna do anyways once the show starts.
Secret #13: Know your equipment inside and out.
It is crucial to have a working understanding of any equipment that you plan to bring on stage with you. As with anything else, Murphy’s Law applies here, and when everything that can go wrong will, you need to have the technical know- how to identify issues and solve problems in a timely manner.
First of all, all gigging musicians must understand that the tones that sound best alone in one’s bedroom don’t always translate well in the context of a full band. For this reason, set the tone on your amps not to sound good on their own (necessarily), but to suit the needs of the band as a whole. This will guarantee that every instrument sits well in the mix, articulates clearly, and cuts through without being overly loud or harsh.
Bassists: you and the kick drum dominate the low end, so set your amp to reflect that.
Guitarists: you live in the midrange. Though low and high frequencies can add impact or brilliance to your tone, these frequency ranges will be washed by the rest of the band, leaving you sounding muddy and undefined.
Another key element is level matching: when switching patches on a keyboard or turning on and off different pedals, it is crucial that the overall volume of each element is set precisely and correctly. You don’t want the distortion pedal your guitarist steps on for a solo to end up making him quieter, simply because the level knob was too low. For guitarists, a good rule of thumb is to set your solo tone 5% louder than your distorted rhythm tone setting, which is set 10% louder than your clean rhythm tone. Once gigworthy tones have been dialed in for everyone’s amps and pedals, take notes (and pictures if possible) of all these settings to facilitate easy and consistent replication.
Secret #14: Put your best foot forward.
There are certain tangible factors that you and your bandmates have full control of going into each and every gig that are dead simple to stay on top of. First of all, all stringed instruments need to be tuned (SILENTLY) between each and every song. No exceptions, just do it. This is what we do between takes in the studio, and that fact holds true no matter the quality of the instruments with which we are working. You naturally hit the strings harder and generally play more aggressively during live performance, which necessitates more frequent tuning adjustments.
Also for guitarists and bassists: change your strings every couple of weeks or every 2-3 gigs, whichever comes first. You owe it to yourself to use new (but broken in) strings any time you perform in front of an audience. Just because they aren’t broken doesn’t mean they sound good. Even if you think your two month old strings have some life left in them, I’d bet money that you’d be surprised at how much better new strings will sound when you finally swap them in.
The drummer equivalent of this practice is to change your heads every few months. This doesn’t have to be done as frequently as changing strings, but it is still an important factor that has a marked impact on tone. Drummers, don’t underestimate the impact of tuning your kit well either. A well tuned kit is one of the most overlooked aspects of quality drum sound, and is the first thing that professional audio engineers assess when working on drum tones in the studio. A $100 dollar drum kit that is tuned perfectly will crush a poorly tuned $2000 custom shop kit every time. Bar none.
Finally, a quality stringed-instrument “setup” is an absolute must for working guitarists and bassists. A professional set up done correctly will improve all aspects of an instrument’s playing experience, from its general comfort to its overall intonation. This has an effect on tone as well as playability, both of which serve an important purpose relative to live sound. Seriously, if you don’t know how to perform a proper setup yourself, invest in the necessary tools and learn how. If you are unable to do that, pay a professional to do it for you. It will be the best $50 you ever spend.
Like anything else, you get out of your live sound exactly what you put in. If you put in more effort than the the other guy, you will rise above him with ease. Average efforts yield average results, and you are entirely in control of your own destiny as a performing artist. Luck is a very small part of every success story. Don’t be out-hustled by less talented musicians and work as hard as you can every day to create amazing music, share it with your fans, and realize your dreams of superstardom.
This guide is part of an ongoing series dedicated to helping readers run their bands as a business, which you can choose to have delivered right to your inbox. You can skip the signup process and get the first guide in PDF Ebook Format here: 14-secrets
Author: Samuel Waymire, Founder, Owner, & Head Engineer, R1N Recording Studio. Edited by: Samuel Waymire, Shane Hopkins. Contributing Authors: Kirk Bland, Shane Hopkins.
Version 1.0 September 2016
Copyright 2016 rottedonenote.com, Rotted One Note: Sound Recordings, LLC