How Musicians Create Value Around Performance in the Digital Age – Part 3: Sound
Sound is the medium through which music is expressed.
Creating value around performance means executing the live show with great sound. It’s a very simple formula that’s deviously complex when you try to dial it in.
Anyone who’s played hundreds of shows understands that live sound is its own beast. There is a certain mindset to the experienced musician that can only be gained by attempting to recreate the same sound on a multitude of sound systems in a multitude of rooms with a multitude of engineers (or none whatsoever)… you get the picture.
Consistency is the key to great sound because the variables of live performance are always changing. It takes a while to get to the point where you have your own sound engineer and techs to keep the sound running smoothly. Until then, it’s a battle for consistency and constant improvement, fought every night you’re on stage.
In this section, we’ll look at how you can achieve a consistent live sound. We’ll also look at the role of the sound engineer as the gatekeeper of good sound in a given venue.
This series is about building value, not sound engineering. It’s obvious that you need great live sound to build great value around your performances. We’re focusing on the big-picture items that will make or break your sound at a show.
At the end of the day, great live sound is about trying to recreate a consistent “sound”. The sound itself will never truly be the same, there are too many variables in equipment, room size and shape, etcetera. That’s exactly why consistency is important — set a baseline, then play to strengths and address weaknesses on a show-by-show basis.
Bands always ask, “How does it sound?” from the stage. That’s the right idea, the wrong execution. First of all, it really pisses off the venue’s sound engineer. It’s as if a stranger came in to where you work and asked a crowd of customers, “Is this person doing their job well?” Add that to equipment limitations that often put house engineers into survival mode, and you’re off to a bad start. The last thing you want to do, as we’ll discuss later, is alienate the live sound engineer in any way. Ask your fans how it sounded after the show, then determine if there are any adjustments you could have made to be better.
You should constantly be asking yourself “How does it sound?” But in order to figure that out, you’re going to need a baseline to compare to, so you can give fans a consistent experience that’s as close to your ideal vision as possible. That’s what live sound is all about.
It might make sense to have the recording be the baseline for your live sound, and for some bands this works splendidly. However, one of the net negative effects of the dominance of recording on our concept of music is that fans often expect to hear the recording essentially recreated. Who can blame them? With music so far removed from the live performance that creates it in real-time, fans have come to think of a song as analogous to a recording. A song is performance, and the recording is a copy of just one possible combination of sounds in a given context. It’s a tricky balance — we should celebrate fans’ closeness to the song recordings, but at the same time, the expectation being set is often unrealistic and detrimental to the live performance.
With that in mind, you should try to strike a balance between staying faithful to the sound of your latest record and treating the live show as its own unique sound. Nobody should be under the illusion that live sound is as easy as dialing in the same settings you used for your recording. The knowledge and experience you get in the studio will translate live, the settings generally won’t.
For example, the bass drum (aka kick drum) of a drum set — particularly in rock styles — is often extremely loud at a live show, way louder than it would be in a recording mix. Being able to feel the drum thumping in your chest is one of the most thrilling parts of the concert experience. On a recording it would get old fast.
Therefore, your baseline should take into account some common live sound issues given your particular genre and the venue you’re playing. To itemize each one would be a chapter by itself. Hip hop artists need to be aware of monitor positions at a club so the mic doesn’t feed back. Guitar players need to be attentive to the elevation and position of their amps in a small room. If your rock band plays the NPR’s in-office Tiny Desk series, you may need to muffle the drums. And so on.
The best idea is simply to be attentive to all the sound issues that come up and fix them immediately instead of living in uncomfortable compromise with them. Like equipment, it’s good to predict and prepare for what can go wrong instead of always being in reactive mode. After all, that’s what a tech would be doing if you could afford to hire one.
At the end of the day, consistency will be contingent both on your ability to recreate a sound that’s close to your baseline, and without techs to help, it depends on how you communicate with the sound engineer.
If you haven’t read 9 Things Every Musician Should Know About the Sound Guy and the rebuttal, 9 Things Every Sound Guy Needs to Know About Musicians, they’re both entertaining reads with more than a grain of truth.
Novice bands don’t understand how important it is to have a good relationship and dialogue going with the sound engineer at the venue. It takes years of awful mixes, miscommunications and mishaps before many bands start to wise up.
Immediately upon entering the venue, your first order of business is to talk to the sound engineer and find out all the specifics about how they do things. When is sound check, where do you stow away gear and cases, what house gear is available, etcetera.
At sound check, you have a window of only a few minutes to communicate with the engineer to get the right sound both on stage and in the room. By this time you should have already shook hands, introduced yourself, and at least tried to have hit it off with the engineer, who will be your navigator of sound for the rest of the night.
Your monitor mixes are super-important, even if there’s just one or two wedges. Make sure during soundcheck you hear enough of what you need to hear. This is the time to be picky with the engineer, not when you’re in front of an audience. And your ability to get the engineer to pay attention to and respond to your requests is contingent on the rapport you develop before the show.
Some people will tell you to tip the sound engineer. This can pay off, but it has to be done right. If it’s not done right, you’re basically throwing money away. And in any case, you should never feel obligated to do it. The only exception is if you know a lot is on the line and you don’t want to take any chances, a tip can help.
First of all, understand that all sound engineers know tipping before a show is not an obligation or even an expectation, but a certain percentage of musicians nonetheless always tip for better sound. So when you tip, it should be because you’ve already established a rapport. Timing-wise, try to tip as close to before you get on stage as possible. This will make the engineer super-attentive when you first get on stage and lock in on your sound.
Whether you grease their palms or just shake them, get to know the sound engineer at every show. Chances are they’re a musician just like you, and their position at the venue gives them a unique opportunity to network with lots of other musicians. The sound engineer is actually a pretty important person to know in a lot of venues, and you should treat them accordingly… unless proven otherwise!
If a sound engineer is doing their job, you won’t need to do much gear adjusting on stage, and doing so will actually screw them up. However, there are bad sound engineers — in that case, improvisational adjustments may be your only hope.
It may feel like we’ve only scratched the surface of live sound, and we certainly have. There is much more to the technical aspects of dialing in a great sound in different venues. That’s why we encourage you so strongly to befriend or at least get to know a live sound engineer. If your job day in and day out is to deal with all different types of bands, you’re bound to have some best practices up your sleeve that you’re just dying to evangelize to a band. What… can you tell we’ve been there before?
Cheers to all the sound guys and gals that put up with us musicians, and cheers to all the musicians that put up with house engineers.
Tomorrow we dig in to the real nitty gritty — booking, and how you go about landing the gig you want. Until then…