Have you ever been to a concert where you could hear the singer loudly, but somehow still couldn’t understand a word? Or maybe you’ve played a show where the instruments were cranked to 10, but it all just sounded like mud? As a musician, this can be a huge frustration—you’re playing your best, but it still sounds bad to the audience! If this has ever happened to you, it may be time to improve your live sound.
Bad sound at a gig can happen for many reasons. The good news is that despite the challenges that come from playing somewhere new, there’s a lot you can do to make your live sound shine:
- Stage setup. If the amps, acoustic instruments, and microphones aren’t placed well, then you can get screeching feedback or level (volume) imbalances on stage. Here are two great rules-of-thumb:
- If you play through an amp, make sure it’s a) a little closer to you than the other musicians, and b) facing your head (and not your knees).
- If you sing into a mic, make sure it’s always facing away from the stage monitors and venue speakers. Otherwise, the mic will start amplifying the speakers, which are already amplifying the mic, and you’ll get a very unpleasant—and loud—feedback loop. Want to read more about ditching that feedback? Here’s our take.
- Venue setup. On stage, the sound should be optimized to make the musicians happy; in the venue itself, it’s all about getting a great sound for the crowd. For example, if the venue speakers are too close to the ground, the audience at the front will get blasted while the audience at the back hears a totally different tone. It never hurts to ask the soundperson if you (or they) can shift some of the equipment around—but it helps if you show up early!
- Communication with the soundperson. This is a big one. The soundperson helps the band set up the stage and then controls the soundboard throughout the show. Want more vocals in the monitor? You’ll need to go through the soundperson. Forgot that extra mic and need a spare? Soundperson. Want a louder sound in the venue? Soundperson. Just remember that your sound is in their hands, so a friendly relationship goes a long way (some have been known to tip before the show, though that’s up to you).
- Microphone technique. Standard vocal microphones like the Shure SM58usually sound best when the singer is within an inch or two. If the singer’s not the right distance from the mic, then the sound will suffer. And if you’re singing into this mic from a foot or two away, it can be impossible for the soundperson to turn you up to audible levels. Know your mic!
- Levels, EQing, and effects. There are many, many effects you can add to your sound, but just using the right levels (volume) and EQ settings can go a long way. I’m a huge fan of EQing (here’s a primer if you want to learn more), because with the right EQ settings all instruments in a band can fit together well; without good EQ settings, there’s a good chance you’ll end up in a volume war and the most likely winner will be muddy sound.
- Equipment. I put this at the end of the list, because the venue’s equipment—the speakers, cables, soundboard, etc.—is usually outside of your control. Often times you just show up at a gig and have to deal with what they have. That said, there are definitely a few things you can do:
- Bring your own mic. That way, you’ll know it hasn’t been dropped a million times, plus it’ll be easier to get up nice and close to that mic.
- Show up early. That’ll give you a chance to test the equipment, find any problems and swap them out, and uncover any unpleasant surprises (like an ungrounded jack that sends shocks through the microphone… not ideal).