Back in the heyday of the Grateful Dead, a special sub-scene emerged: The Tapers. Not to confused with tapirs, an exotic animal, Tapers would record the live shows to share with other people later.

Does that sound familiar?

I would argue that, in many ways, livestreaming your show is a new form of taping. It’s an attempt to capture part of the experience so as to give something to your current audience, and hopefully reach some new enthusiasts as well.

The thing with taping or livestreaming is that the physics and logistics have not really changed. Sure, the delivery endpoints are different, especially with livestreaming being a whole bunch of intangible data being fired over the Internet, but how you get usable material is still the same. As such, here are some hints from the production-staff side for maximum effectiveness, at least as far as the sound is concerned.

1) Directional microphones are your friend.

While it might seem like a good idea to grab a wide, or even 360 degree soundfield, you will generally get a better result overall by being selective. Especially if you’re streaming from a bar or club, it’s really not a great idea to capture all the conversations, room reflections, and general disruption happening around you. A full-on shotgun mic probably isn’t necessary; Just find a decent cardioid or super-cardioid and point it at what you want to hear.

2) Keep your gear out of the way. Super out of the way, actually.

Audiences have an incredible ability to walk into, stand on, swat, and otherwise mess with your recording setup, often without even trying. Endeavor to find a spot where your streaming goodies are protected from the general public. The audio human’s spot can be pretty good for this. Just remember to ask politely first.

3) Run your own gear as much as possible.

As a sound operator, I am (as a rule), happy to help by pressing record on your device. However, it’s important to understand that the start of a show can be a bit like getting an airliner off the ground: A lot is going on that requires my close attention. I may end up forgetting to hit the little red button. If you can do it yourself, that’s much better.

Also, if there is any complexity at all to getting things rolling (beyond just pressing the aforementioned button), you really should take care of it yourself. It’s THE way to ensure success.

4) A direct feed might sound better, but…

…remember that many direct feeds are just a split from some output, often the main bus. There are many rooms and situations where the main bus is carrying a ton of vocals and just a touch of a few other things. Unless the PA is truly doing all the heavy lifting, you may find that a line-level feed isn’t musically balanced.

I like clean audio as much as anybody – maybe even more – but I can also recognize when “clean” isn’t necessarily the best capture of the show as a whole.

(There are some ways around this conundrum, but they are beyond the scope of this article.)

5) If you want a feed, please do your advance work.

Find out the day before, or earlier, what kind of connections and signals might be available to you. Sometimes, it’s easy for a sound tech to get something sorted out for you…and sometimes, it’s nearly impossible. The difficulty generally rises as the amount of time before the show decreases.

And please, please, educate yourself on the different kinds of audio connections that you might run into, and have your own adapters. Again, when speaking for myself I can say that I’m happy to help out in whatever way I can – but it’s always best when YOU are “Johnny On The Spot” in terms of having what you need to make your own gear play nicely with everything else.

“Hey, Man. It’s a touch loud in the house. Can I trade you some amp volume for monitor gain?”

“But my amp’s only on, like, two!”

Have you been part of a conversation like this? I have. It rarely ends well, because somebody is always frustrated or disappointed at the end. Oftentimes, there are at least two somebodies: The audio human and the amplifier user.

The sticking point in the debate is an idea that “low knob position = acceptable volume.” Unfortunately, this notion is anything but watertight. The reality is that acceptable volume = acceptable volume, with the position of any relevant control being nearly immaterial.

To put it another way, the position of the knob is the cause, and the resulting audio output is the effect. In the end, the effect is what matters. If the effect is causing a problem for the band, then the “state” of the cause isn’t a valid argument that the overall result is okay.

Nobody has ever fought a speeding ticket by claiming that the car’s accelerator was only a third of the way down.

The same reasoning also applies when the disagreement ventures into drive percentages. Somebody might say, “I’m only using about 10% of the amp, and for it to sound right I need at least 40%.” That’s fair enough in some respects, but it points to an issue of bringing an artillery piece to a neighborhood cap-gun game. If the amplifier doesn’t sound good until most people think it’s too loud to sound good, then the amplifier doesn’t actually sound good.

It’s the wrong tool. And the wrong tool at the right price, or with the right look, or with the right capabilities for some other job is still the wrong tool.

If two is too loud for the band, then two is too loud. If you’re finding yourself in this kind of situation, it may be time to do some horse-trading. Find yourself a rig that’s just a little too hot for the band when it’s wound up all the way, and you’ll have lots more room to actually use the front-panel settings for creative control.

You might even end up with something easier to carry, as a bonus. (Maybe.)

Dear Musicians,

Over the years that I’ve worked with you, many things have become apparent. One of those concepts is that, quite often, you need me to make some sort of change in the middle of a show. Often, that change is necessary to make your life on stage more comfortable, such that you can create the best possible experience for your audience.

At times, it may have been hard to get that change made for you. Such difficulties commonly arise due to communication problems. As such, I am writing this letter to help you transmit your needs and wants to the audio humans you will inevitably encounter.

First and foremost: Please use your words.

I understand that there is a stubborn stigma attached to “talking through” an issue in the middle of a show. However, any aesthetic problems this can cause are quite minor, especially when you consider that not getting a need met may cause real problems with your performance.

When it comes to a complex topic, especially in a pressure situation, the ability of spoken language to convey nuance and relay information unambiguously is a huge bit of leverage. By speaking over the PA, you can make it very clear, say, that “I think my vocal is starting to feed back in the highs.” There’s actually a lot of information in that sentence, yet it comes across quickly and elegantly when turned into speech.

On the flipside, I’m not sure how that concept would be effectively transmitted by way of hand signals – unless there was a lot of rehearsal time with the engineer involved.

Also, concerts are full of distractions to the eye. A sound operator may have their visual attention elsewhere, while still devoting their ears to the music. As such, addressing them over the PA is generally a sure method for getting their full attentiveness returned to you.

My second point is in regards to visual signals: Think big, think simply, and think patiently.

When you don’t have the opportunity to verbalize a request, visual communication is a necessity. However, as I’ve alluded to already, it has limitations. You have to restrict yourself to basic concepts that have a small number of interpretations, and require no rehearsal to understand.

(Many years ago, I had a musician attempt to take me through a large number of hand signs that would convey things like “The stage-left guitar needs more midrange in the monitors” and “Less reverb on my vocals for this next tune.” I can’t say that it worked out very well.)

Simplicity and “largeness” go together. Remember that the audio engineer may be quite a distance from you, causing detailed motions to become lost. Ad-hoc sign language at shows must be “big” so that it can be seen, and only so many ideas should be signaled in a short period of time.

I highly recommend the approach of “Who, What Instrument, Where, and Up/Down.” For instance: Point at the guitar player, mime the guitar playing, point at your monitor, and then make an up or down motion until the guitar level is where you want it. It’s compact, relatively unambiguous, and the involved motions are easy to see.

As to patience, please do remember that it takes time to interpret your signals, figure out how to get you what you want, and then start to make it all happen. Several seconds may have to elapse before you hear any change, and some “iteration” may have to take place before you’ve gotten exactly what you want. This is simply an inherent hazard of doing things on the fly, but when taken in stride it’s not too hard to handle.

Hopefully this all makes sense. Effective communication is important for a good show, and a little bit of forethought about how to go about it can make a huge difference.

Thank you for taking these thoughts into consideration.

Your friend,

Danny (An Audio Human)

I seem to be on a bit of a theme lately.

The last time around, I talked about how most bands don’t need more or better gear to solve their problems. Mostly, they need to work as a team.

That idea closely ties in with equipment used to reproduce the sound of the band and it’s gear. You know – PA systems. There’s a myth about sound-reinforcement gear which can be voiced in many different ways, but usually boils down to this: “This problem will get better when we’re on a big stage, with lots of monitors and a big FOH system for the audience to listen to, all with enough power to melt somebody’s face off.”

You know what I’m going to say, of course. The above is not true.

Bigger and better reinforcement rigs are sort of like fortune or wealth, as understood by Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni. She said: “Fortune does not change men; it only unmasks them.” In the same vein, I can tell you that more and better PA rarely solves a problem with a band. Rather, it confirms the problem, or makes it more obvious.

I’ve been in more than one situation where the monitor system was far, far better than what a band was using in rehearsal. We had much more power, better initial tuning, and a ton of EQ available. Do you think the poor singer could finally hear themselves?

Not really. All that the extra toys did was confirm that the rest of the band wouldn’t give the vocalist any room to work. They were convinced that pro-audio could make up the difference in their teamwork (or lack thereof). Unfortunately, the difference was too great to be mended. There wasn’t enough gain-before-feedback to undo their steamrolling.

On the other hand, a PA becomes a powerful tool when used with an act that sounds balanced and beautiful right out of the gate. In that case, the system’s reserves can be used to optimally translate the group into whatever space they happen to be in that day. Tasteful sweetening can be applied, just as one might season a bit of carefully prepared food; Good ingredients can be enhanced, but bad ingredients will stay bad.

There are limits to these metaphors, of course. In some cases, an engineer can use a powerful system to blast over a problem. Depending on the situation, this might result in a tolerable sound. It might also be so loud that half the audience leaves. Even so, the need to take drastic measures is an unmasking: It tells you that something is very wrong somewhere.

A great PA with an experienced operator won’t fix inherent flaws with your music or performance. What it will do is make them obvious, because everything that can be improved will be improved. The unsolvable problems, then, will remain…unmasked.

I don’t think I’ve ever been a fan of any “Battle of the Bands” setup, but I’ve been a judge for a couple of them. People asked, and it was something to do.

After one such outing, a band that didn’t win was curious as to what had prevented them from reaching the top of the podium. Having conferred with one another, they had identified at least one potential “deal breaking” problem – and they asked about it:

“Do we need better equipment?”

The answer that day was “no.” The answer for most bands on most days is “no.”

What they had failed to do was to play as a team, and that made their perfectly adequate gear SEEM like a problem area. (To be specific, you couldn’t hear anything the fiddle player was doing, because nobody would give the poor guy any space.) So, of course, the answer is to spend money on a bigger, fancier amp for the fiddle player, along with some extra doodads and geegaws to fight the inevitable feedback that results from trying to make a fiddle SCREAMING LOUD…

…Right?

People, please.

Their gear wasn’t fancy, but it was adequate and working. The only upgrade they needed was teamwork.

Now, yes, there’s a point where instruments, amplifiers, and their associated accoutrements just can’t do the job. However, that point is best identified as an “absolute:” The setup just sounds terrible, or it’s constantly breaking down, or it’s too hard to use. If that isn’t the case, though, then it’s very likely you’re facing some sort of issue with working together properly.

If your band doesn’t sound right, but everything seems to be working decently for everyone individually, you most likely need to put your wallet away. Before you spend any money on stuff, spend time on becoming a team.

Inevitably, as you try to make money playing live, you will run into the question of what might be a reasonable amount of money for your act to bring in per night. (This question is also tied to what rooms you can expect to work in.)

Now, of course, there are no hard and fast rules. It’s not like everybody in the music business gets together and decides how live music payouts are going to work. However, as someone who has been “behind the scenes” on the money side of small venues and concerts, I can say that there’s some basic math which starts to make sense over time.

I call it “The 2X Net/ 4X Gross Guideline.” Here’s how it works:

A band’s monetary clout is directly proportional to the real value they offer the venue or event organizer. For an act to ask for a specific payout amount, the real value they represent to the venue or event should be 4X their asking price. The exception to this is when the band, in and of itself, is THE draw to the event. In that case, the multiplier is only 2X – but venue or organizer expenses should be factored in.

That probably doesn’t make any sense without examples, so…

Let’s say that you’re booked for a private party. You’re being paid to be entertainment for guests who will (very likely) show up whether you’re there or not. The overall event value, which includes things like space rental, food, decor, etc, is $4000. In such a case, it wouldn’t be out of line for you to ask for $1000 as a payout to the band, as $4000 is 4X $1000.

Or, let’s say that you’re looking to get booked at a club, and you want a guaranteed minimum payout of $750 for the night. The club may or may not charge a cover, but they will definitely be selling drinks and/ or food. For your request to be seen as reasonable, the booker has to be pretty danged sure that bringing you in will generate at least $3000 of revenue for the club. ($3000 is 4X $750.)

Finally, let’s say that a small theater is going to bring you onto a ticketed event. The only major source of revenue will be admissions. If you’re looking to be a $500 act for them, then you need to be able to bring in enough of a crowd to create ticket sales that cover your share of the production expense, plus $1000. ($1000 is 2X $500.)

Now, again, this isn’t some system of rules that everybody will recognize. However, I do think it will put you in the ballpark of what’s reasonable.

There are a couple of keys to using this idea effectively:

1) Remember that, for non-ticketed events, “real value” is something decided entirely by the venue or organizer. For some folks, it’s going to be all about how much food their restaurant can sell if you’re on hand. For other people, all they care about is that you’re really killer at playing tunes they like. It’s up to you to work with the booker in figuring out what “real value” means to them. If you don’t figure it out, there may be a large mismatch in terms of what you consider “real value,” and how the venue sees things…which can lead to real heartburn later.

2) Ticketed events can, on a regular basis, be run fairly lean. This is part of what creates the “push-pull” of the multiplier being lower, but expenses having to be taken into account. Bars and clubs often have high overhead, but they can factor in their overall expenses to the consumables they sell, and also carry a bit of momentum from sales not directly related to your appearance. At the same time, a certain level of “built in” draw can exist (due to the business model being something other than live music), which weakens the bargaining position of musicians. A theater or similar venue, on the other hand, doesn’t generate any income until a show plays in the room – and even then, it can be hard to predict how any particular performance will do. It’s not at all unreasonable for expenses to be a direct part of the payout equation. The flipside is, if you are very definitely THE reason that the patrons showed up, you have much more power and influence over the show’s success – and you should be paid as such!

At all points, a reasonable payout expectation comes from being able to figure out the scale of what you bring to the table.

I really don’t think you should get a record deal.

Wait – let me rephrase that.

I really don’t think you should spend time, effort, money, and emotional stamina to get a record deal. I played music myself, once, and hungered after a contract. I never got one, and I’m actually pretty okay with that. I had a non-realistic view of what a recording contract meant, and I’m betting that the same sort of reality distortion is in effect for quite a few other folks.

Of course, my opinion doesn’t amount to a hill of chili (super chunky or otherwise) without some reasoning behind it, so here are my bullet points, in no particular order:

1) A recording contract isn’t a career, or even a job. It’s a loan.

Carlos has said as much on social media, and I agree. I especially agree because I think I might have been the one who came up with the idea that a record company is just an unregulated bank. (I think. Actually, somebody else probably came up with it long before I did.)

Anyway.

The whole point of a recording contract is basically to say, “We’ll help finance the creation of a recording and other things, because we think we can sell those things for a TON more than the price of the financing.” If it works out, it’s a sweet deal for the record company, because they very likely have all the rights to the sound recording of your songs – and they can keep selling that sound recording to as many people as they can manage. If you’re not careful, or don’t have enough negotiating power, they will probably own those rights “in perpetuity.” (That means “forever.”)

Record companies don’t give you money for anything. They “front” funds to produce something with your name on it, hoping that your brand will be great for them. If you manage to carve a long-term career out of that situation, then that’s great for you (and the label, for whom it’s probably an even better deal), but the loan itself isn’t a guarantee that things will work out.

Plenty of artists have been dropped by their labels, by the way.

And no, if you get dropped, you won’t be likely to get the rights to all that hard work you did in the studio. That belongs to the people who paid for it, people who aren’t you.

Sidenote: KEEP. YOUR. PUBLISHING.

Actually, just forget about all the record deal hoo-hah and keep everything.

2) Recording contracts don’t create careers. Fans do.

Musicians tend to think that a really snazzy recording, sold in all the big outlets, backed with a spendy video, and pushed with a fancy marketing campaign is what generates a career-powering phenomenon.

Well, no, what creates the phenomenon is people hanging on every note that you play.

Now, to be fair, all the fluff can help you get in front of more people. But you have to ask yourself if all the costs are actually necessary. Sure, it strokes your ego to have spent a whole year in a studio that makes a starship look dinky, and to have display ads in all the papers, plus a launch party featuring 100 white horses and an airdrop of 7000 popsicles over New York. Sure, that’s hard to ignore.

It’s also a frighteningly expensive way to reach a few folks who would have loved you for the music, glitz and glam or no. Yes, it takes more time and effort to find those people without all the hooplah, but if YOU find them, and YOU make the connection, then YOU are in control of your career.

And you might have an actual career, instead of just a big party that lots of people showed up to because of the free popsicles. Those folks are just there for the fun and spectacle, and will be gone in an hour. A career has to last longer than that. The shortcut isn’t a shortcut – it’s a conversion of money to time, and the conversion rate is lousy.

Oh, and of course that expenditure gets tacked onto the loan that the label made you.

Here’s another thing: Record companies look for products that are either selling themselves, or likely will be able to sell easily as the flavor of the month. If they see that you’re building a a real fanbase for yourself, they may come calling, dangling a juicy deal in front of you. Why? Because they want to make money off of what you’ve built.

Ask yourself: If you’re building it on your terms anyway, why should you sell it all off to somebody else for an advance that’s actually a lowball offer, plus the “opportunity” to do everything their way? That doesn’t make sense.

3) Recording contracts don’t do much that you can’t do for yourself anymore.

I’ve talked about this on other occasions. Back in the day of physical media, access to large-scale manufacturing was necessary to keep a large fanbase supplied. Back in the day of a few, tightly gated media outlets, money and clout were needed to dialogue with a significant number of people.

Now, it’s all digital. Making a copy of the entire, uncompressed contents of a full-length recording is trivial. Compression and transmission is only slightly less than trivial. Everybody can get on the Internet and say whatever they want to whoever they want, with the only real limit on audience size being the number of people who will listen. (Social media platforms ARE gated, yes, but not nearly as much as traditional media.)

You can do all of this yourself. You don’t need the label’s advertising machine to connect with your fans. They’re on your favorite social media platform already! Go talk to them. Be available. Answer and ask questions.

You don’t need the label’s production machine to have a music video. A half-decent phone-recording on YouTube can be a major attention grabber.

You don’t need the label’s recording machine to lay tracks. A few okay mics in an okay room can be connected to a $300 audio interface with basic software, and make a recording that sounds just fine. Maybe even great. Plus, you’ll own the rights to your music, and the recording, AND the means to make more.

You ARE the label. You ARE the contract. You ARE your fan-connection machine.

Why pay somebody else? You don’t need a record deal to make art and make connections. All the tools are readily available.

I got into this business thinking I would be an engineer in a studio. That’s not how it worked out. Live-sound got a hold of me, and that was pretty much it. Even so, I do some occasional studio-style mixing, and I think I’m starting to get the hang of it.

One of the major problems with recordings is that you don’t control the playback system. One person might play your music on a rig that’s built to reproduce the entire audible range of sound with a laser-flat response curve. Another person might be listening on barely-working earbuds. Someone else might be one of those incredibly annoying people who listen to music by pumping it through their phone’s speaker. CAN WE STOP THAT PLEASE?

Anyway.

Even before the age of smartphones, “translation” was a big issue for folks making records. The question that was constantly asked was, “How do I make this tune sound good everywhere?”

In my mind, that’s the wrong question.

The real question is, “Does this mix continue to make sense, even if the playback system has major limitations?”

I realize that this is an appeal to absurdity, but I see it as counterproductive to try to make a song sound “good” on a half-dead clock-radio. A mix being played through a small, damaged speaker should sound like a mix being played through a small, damaged speaker. Spending hours and hours trying to make things fool people into thinking they’re listening to a better playback device isn’t worth it for most folks, especially because the mix will probably sound strange on more decent systems.

But spending some time on making sure that your recording basically works in a variety of situations IS worth it.

It’s actually pretty easy. If you already have a digital audio workstation of some kind (ProTools, Logic, Cubase, Reaper, GarageBand, etc, etc), you won’t need any additional equipment. Back in the day (and now), studios used to have small, limited bandwidth speakers they could route mixes through. That was before you could get another equalizer, basically for free, simply by running another instance of a plugin.

And that’s what I recommend doing.

Put an extra EQ plugin across your main mix. Set that plugin to kill off both the low and high-end of your tune. A high-pass and low-pass filter set at about 200 Hz and 5000 Hz respectively should be a good start. Collapse the mix to mono if you can. Your mix should now sound like it’s being played through a phone speaker (gah!), or pretty mediocre earbuds.

Does the mix still make sense? Can you still hear all the instruments that you feel are crucial? Are the vocals still intelligible? If not, start making changes. Get to a place that you like, and then pop the “crappy speaker” EQ into bypass. Restore the stereo field, if you were working in mono before.

With all the high and low end restored, does the mix still make sense? Are the bass and kick overwhelming in the bottom end? Is there too much traffic way up high? If so, make changes in just those areas – the areas that were cut out by the EQ. Try not to touch the midrange much, though, because that’s what you just got yourself satisfied with.

Do some back-and-forth checking as you work. You’ll know that you’re done when the mix still works in both scenarios. The mix without the “sucky playback system” EQ should sound “good,” assuming that you think your regular playback monitors sound good. The mix with the EQ should work, and be basically listenable. Your tune will now have a much better chance of “translating” in multiple scenarios.

And, as a final opinion, I would say this: If your mix absolutely must be mind-blowing on a specific format, make a special mix just for that format. If, for example, you know that a huge chunk of your fanbase is definitely going to be listening on Airpods, create (and clearly label) a mix that’s designed to be stunning just for them.

But, if you’re not really sure what people will be listening on, basic attention to translation should go a pretty long way.