Regarding Paint, Corners, Audio-Humans, and You

Posted on September 10th, 2014   2 Comments

Small Venue Survivalist

In this month’s installment from my favorite audio-human, Danny Maland expands on his explanation of balancing your live sound and how to use that as a tool against incompetent (or inexperienced) audio techs.

I didn’t originally think of this as a companion piece to my article on sounding
good as an ensemble, sans PA-system
, but the connection is pretty unavoidable. When it comes down to it, the corollary of pretty much everything I said in that article is this: Everything you do is painting the audio tech into a corner.


Everything.


Especially in the context of smaller venues, which have limited gear and (often) people of limited experience to operate that gear, your choices have a profound effect on what the audio-humans can and can not do to help you…or hinder you, depending on the situation.


This is not necessarily a bad thing.


Yes, we tend to think of painting someone into a corner as a mistake, but it’s only a mistake when it’s avoidable. In small-venue sound, being painted into a corner (or painting someone else into one) is just “the job.”


So – don’t get the idea that I’m ripping on musicians with this.


Also, I need to acknowledge that the people involved in manipulating electronic signals representing sonic events do, just as inevitably, paint the performers into a corner. Everybody is at everybody else’s mercy. If I fail to get a vocalist’s monitor mix in the right place, then that vocalist is painted into a frustrating corner where the performance is un-fun and physically challenging. If the vocalist is painted into a corner, then the band supporting that vocalist is also, by extension, painted into a troublesome corner.


Anyway.


Painting the tech into a bad corner is a very quick way to sabotage your own show, and you’d be surprised at just how easy it is to do.


One Vocalist, One Guitar, And A Whole Lotta Trouble


Back in my all-ages days, I did some shows with a singer-songwriter.


He was a perfectly pleasant sort of guy, at the personal level, but he would unwittingly throw a metaphorical wrench at both his show and me.


You see, he wanted the guitar to be pretty loud in monitor world. Maybe not “stupid loud,” but definitely at a level that was pretty barkin’. The next thing he wanted in monitor world was vocals that would compete with the guitar. Before that could happen,
though, he painted me into a corner.


He wasn’t a particularly strong singer, and he wanted to stand about three feet (!) from the mic. The amount of gain necessary to get his vocals into an even half-decent place – both on deck and out front – was such that the (otherwise) reasonably well-behaved audio rig was constantly threatening to tip over into feedback. As I remember it, I had to use every ounce of my craft at the time to just get a resemblance of proper proportion and intelligibility. There was no room to make his vocal sound better, or to really balance the FOH (Front Of House) guitar sound with the monitor wash that was careening around the room. I couldn’t EQ his vocals to get a bit more body, because I had no more gain-before-feedback. Plus, pretty much all my EQ had been devoured by the PA trying to ring at multiple frequencies simultaneously. The guitar would have sounded better if I could have run more through the FOH PA (to hit the audience with more “direct path” sound), but his vocal was almost swamped anyway.


The sound of his show was thoroughly unpleasant. I was painted into a corner. All my attention and control flexibility was eaten up by just surviving, a situation referred to by some pro-sound folks as “combat audio.”


And this was just one guy.


Seriously, folks, I’ve had bands that filled almost every inch of a good-sized stage that were joys to work with, and “one guitar/ one vocal” acts that made me want to beg to do something (anything) else. It’s entirely possible for any act, of any size, to obliterate a tech’s prep and force a huge struggle.


This is why I harp on proportionality like I do. Yes, raw volume matters. A band with good proportionality but too much volume will quickly paint both the noise wrangler and themselves into a troublesome corner, but an inter-member volume mismatch can be much worse. With high-output source material, a PA or monitor rig can be run to the clip lights at surprisingly low gain. In situations where one source is low-output, and another high?


Well, let’s just say that it’s very possible (and not uncommon) to run out of usable gain LONG before you run out of power.


There Are Beautiful Corners Out There


This might all sound very negative, but there is a positive side: Some corners are great places to be painted into.


For instance, when a sound-operator works with a band like, say, Stonefed, you’re pretty much instantly pushed into a wall from which escape would be very difficult.


But it’s a super-groovy wall. A wall that sounds good. A wall with nice balance and complementary tones that have been worked out well in advance.


When a band like Stonefed is on the deck, and I’ve been painted into the Stonefed corner, I’m in a great place. I don’t have to struggle to “work magic,” because the magic has already been worked. I just walk up, channel a few bits of that magic through the PA for “bonus clarity,” and there it is. If I never even showed up, the show would still be pretty good. Maybe even great.


And using the PA to reinvent the band into something they aren’t might be possible, but it would be a fair amount of work…and I would have to do so with deliberate intent. In other words, the only way to screw up a show like Stonefed’s is to actively fight your way out of the corner.


As such, thoroughly painting a tech into a corner can be a great defense against bad judgment and incompetence. It’s not a complete defense, of course. Some guys and gals are thoroughly determined to have it their way, and are at the helm of an audio rig that can get them their wish. Even so, starting them in a corner that already reflects the show you want means that they have to work that much harder to get out of that corner.


So – since you’re already going to be painting the audio tech into a corner, it’s in everybody’s best interest to make that corner a pleasant one.


Danny Maland appears here on loan from The Small Venue Survivalist, where he muses about all kinds of things related to doing local shows.

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