Every so often, I’ll be doing some consulting work (or just be in earshot) when musicians start asking about PA gear. Since loudspeakers very much represent the “business end” of a PA system, the conversation will often turn to these mystical transducers of electricity into sound.

These boxes are often bewildering. There are a great many to choose from, and what makes one implementation better than another can be very tough to discern.

Covering all that ground is far beyond the scope of what I can do here.

One thing I can do, however, is talk a bit about the phenomenon of “powered” speakers. Powered loudspeakers, which may also be referred to as active speakers, are often an excellent choice for people creating a PA or monitor rig. When working correctly, they simplify your gear spec and setup; Powered speakers remove the need for you to pick out and deploy separate power amplifiers, while also tending to reduce your overall footprint. (Jamming the amplifiers into the actual speaker boxes means fewer flightcases to wrangle in and out of vehicles/ venues/ houses/ etc.)

One pitfall, though, is that the label of “powered” on a box is what I call a “sloppy metric.” Because a good number of active speakers truly are packets of highly engineered, carefully tuned technology, it becomes easy to assume that all specimens able to be referred to as “powered” share similar traits.

This is not the case.

It Doesn’t Take Much To Be Powered

Let’s say you have a really cheap, passive loudspeaker on hand. It’s full range, with a cone driver for low(er) frequency content, and a horn-loaded compression driver for high end. You take the output of a basic power amplifier, and run that to the speaker input. Behind the jackplate, a relatively simple crossover network divides the power amplifier’s output into two frequency ranges, and each range is connected to the appropriate driver.

And that’s it. No other technology is involved.

If a person finds a way to package that amp such that it can be conveniently mounted inside the loudspeaker enclosure, with the connection to the crossover handled internally and the amplifier input placed on the outside of the whole shootin’ match…

…you have a powered speaker.

The setup is not really any better, from an audio standpoint, than the original. The logistics may be easier because a separate equipment enclosure has been eliminated – and that may be enough. Still, it’s a logistical advantage only. You have the same speaker, with the same capabilities, and the same amp (also with the same capabilities). It’s just that you’ve combined them.

A lot of inexpensive active speakers are that way. They’re a simple bit of engineering to get some better logistics. You might have some EQ on the back panel, but other than that, the package as a whole is very basic.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s more to be had.

Advanced Applications

As a powered speaker’s manufacturer gets more ambitious, there’s a lot they can do.

For instance, they can biamp the speaker.

Biamping is running an entirely separate amplification channel for each driver. Instead of one amp feeding a crossover that divides the audible spectrum, the incoming audio is filtered BEFORE it reaches the amplifiers.

When all things are equal, this can result in better performance overall. It might not be immediately obvious just by listening, but biamping allows for things like better overall headroom, and greater signal processing flexibility.

If none of that made sense to you, don’t worry. The intent here is not to make live-sound an end in itself. It’s just to make clear that some powered loudspeakers are really basic, and some are not basic at all.

With a really dedicated manufacturer, all kinds of splendid magic can be done on a powered box. Some of these goodies include:

  • The speaker can be precision-equalized at the factory, which (in some cases) can save you some work on getting the box to sound good yourself.
  • With every part of the loudspeaker system being known to the manufacturer, the amplifiers and drivers can be optimized to each other’s limitations such that the maximum reasonable output is very definitely available to you (with no guesswork).
  • Also because of everything being known, lots of protections against damage from overpowering can be put into place. The protections can even be dynamic, so that they “relax” when the box is at low output, and then become more aggressive as more output is called on.

The Takeaway

In the simplest form, I would say that, if you’re shopping for powered loudspeakers, accept nothing less than a biamped configuration. It adds very little to the price of the unit anymore, so you may as well go for gear that’s had some extra science put into it.

Identifying a biamped loudspeaker from marketing literature usually isn’t too hard. Many builders are very happy to tell you outright that an active box is biamped. They may also say that there are “dual power amps,” or list the available power to the HF and LF drivers separately.

I do need to point out that biamping is not a guarantee of quality, nor does it mean that one little box can magically handle the audio needs for a full stadium. It is, however, worth looking for as a sort of minimum indicator. It tells you that more than just a desire for the marketing advantage of a “powered” label went into the design of the speaker.

Spending a little more can be worth it, especially when it comes to the input and output ends of your signal chain.

Henry J. Kaiser uttered the quote that is the title of this article, and when I read that line, it struck a nerve.

It struck a nerve because I’ve been very guilty of “talking over” my work. Humility is a good thing. Not overpromising is a very good thing. At the same time, though, there’s a point where preemptive, overblown self-deprecation (and the tendency to explain everything to death in the wrong context) runs a person over. The opportunity to show someone that you know what you’re doing gets lost in all the noise you’re making.

And I’ve been behind mixing consoles on several occasions where musicians fell into this trap.

One of the most plainly visible examples is when, without irony, a musician tells the audience that the music being presented is bad. It seems like an embrace of one’s own limitations, and there’s nothing wrong with owning a total miscue, but there’s a problem with claiming – as a matter of regular course, and with a palpable sense that you mean what you say – that your art is crap:

The danger is that somebody might believe you.

The audience hears you say, “Sorry that this sucks so much,” and they subconsciously start to look for all the flaws they can find. Eventually, they find them, and start to agree. They end up pushing themselves away from what you’re doing, and with your help!

To channel Seth Godin for a moment: The vast majority of people in the world probably aren’t going to like your music, so why would you encourage everyone else to ALSO not like your music?

There are some acts out there who ironically claim that their tunes are just awful. There are blues musicians who have a whole schtick about how their guitar is always broke and their dog taught them how to sing…but it’s very recognizably a schtick. An act. Ironic. It’s easily recognizable that the players actually think that what they’re providing is quality entertainment. Their true confidence in what they’re doing is blindingly obvious. They aren’t overshadowing their own work with the commentary.

There’s also a more technical side.

I’ve been to shows where bands who have worked like CRAZY on their songs and their show end up getting in their own way. There are of course, many examples of how this can happen, but the one that stands out the most to me is that of being over-oriented to one part of the show at the expense of the whole thing.

For instance, some years ago a touring band came through my regular gig. They had decent songs and knew how to do the “small-time tour thing.” The stumbling block, though, was that the drummer seemed to believe that “energy” was all that mattered to the presentation. As such, the dude was hitting everything (especially the cymbals) as hard as was possible for him.

It looked great. VERY rock. The guy could have been on an enormous stage with a huge audience out in the seats. The visual aspect was certainly convincing.

But he OBLITERATED the actual music. All the carefully crafted lyrics, all the punch of the guitars, all the real emotional connection was lost in a storm of percussion. The music was trying to talk, but the “spectacle” was too loud. The flavors have to be in balance, or the holistic effect gets lost.

If your art is speaking to people, let it have its say.

If you are an audio person or a musician, someone you know will eventually want to do things involving audio (or data representing audio) and radio waves. They will think that such an idea is brilliant. They will think it will be so very nifty to be un-tethered and free, wild like the stallions and mares which once loped across the mighty plains of America’s central expanse, majestic in their equine kingship ov-

Yeah. About that. Don’t believe it. Wireless is a pain in the donkey.

Which is not to say it can’t work. It can. It can even be something of a joy, like when I first discovered Line 6 digital wireless systems. They really are decent (especially the “55” series and higher), with nice features like frequency agility, and remote monitoring of both mute status and battery level.

If you’re going to attempt wireless, accept nothing less than the features I’ve described.

Also, there are situations where wireless is a mission-critical implementation. If the band’s got to move around a lot, and they’ve got to have in-ear monitors, then wireless is probably an inescapable reality.

But wireless is still a pain in the donkey, and I personally intend to not deal with it in the future unless I absolutely have to.

Why?

It’s Expensive

One of my favorite Pro Sound Web – LAB quotes is this:

“It takes a very expensive wireless system to sound as good as a $25 mic cable.”

I’ll even go further than that, because I’m a small-venue guy and kinda cheap. In my mind, it takes a very expensive wireless system to sound as good as a $10 mic cable. (I think $0.40 to $1/ foot is plenty of money to pay for an XLR cable.)

Which is to say that cables, compared to radio transmission, are stupid-proof. Cables don’t interfere with each other in any way that we have to pay real attention to. If you want to run more cable, you don’t have to worry about intermodulation distortion from an interaction with another cable. Cable transmissions don’t drop out or get noisy because another cable is transmitting on the same frequency at a higher intensity. Cables are much easier to definitively troubleshoot. Cables aren’t touchy about antenna placement, or transmitting through someone/ something that just blocked your line of sight.

I could go on and on.

Cables are cheap and robust. Wireless – half-decent wireless, anyway – is expensive and still pretty finicky. Really killer, un-finicky wireless is VERY expensive. Like, “$600/ channel at bare minimum” expensive, with the sky being the limit.

The Spectrum Is Getting Crowded

When wireless mics and in-ears first showed up, the smartphone “thing” hadn’t yet happened. Wi-fi hadn’t really come into being as we consumers would recognize it now. Digital TV was still just a discussion topic. There was quite a bit of “whitespace” to transmit in.

Fast forward to today. More and more is being transmitted in the “TV” bands that wireless gear has historically relied upon, and no, moving up to the 2.4 Ghz range is not a guarantee of a fix. For the past several weeks at my church, I’ve been trying to find a clear space for a 2.4 Ghz digital wireless rig to transmit across. The transmission spectrum we’re in is downright hostile, with a veritable firestorm of network access points all banging away in the same bandwidth that the mic tries to use.

Dropouts? We’ve got ’em. All the time.

The problem with “over the air” transmission is that your transmission medium is automatically shared with everyone else who wants to use it. If their signal beats up on yours (especially if they’re a licensed user and you aren’t, and pro audio usually isn’t a licensed use), that’s tough luck for you. You lose.

We’re Not In Control Of Our Medium

The third major problem with wireless connects up with the previous paragraph. There are lots of interests that want to use radio transmission space, and we can’t control what they do. Further, the radio transmission space is regulated by various bodies (The FCC in the US, for example), and those organizations can alter the legality of what we’re doing.

That is, a regulatory agency can reallocate a block of spectrum such that we can no longer transmit in it legally, and if we have a large investment in gear which uses that space, we’re well and truly screwed. There are people out there who lost a LOT of money on gear that worked within the “700 Mhz” band. The FCC reallocated the spectrum, and that was it. You can no longer legally operate a wireless system in the USA within that band. If you do, and somebody who’s allowed to transmit in that range takes offense, you will be on the losing end of whatever action gets taken against you.

So – I don’t personally want to spend any money or time supporting finicky technology that can stop working correctly for reasons that are hard to pin down. I don’t want to put resources into gear that remains functional, but becomes legally unusable at not much more than a strong whim from outside industries. I’m just not interested in fighting that battle.

If you want to get into doing a bunch of work with wireless, go ahead – but be aware that what you’re getting into isn’t a cakewalk. It may seem to be, especially if you’re lucky, but the day you become unlucky may be very un-fun for you. Buckle up, wear a helmet, and keep your avalanche beacon handy (if you know what I mean).

My end of this business is often driven by mythologies and half-truths.

“Class-A watts are louder!” (No. A watt is an SI unit of measure. You either have a certain amount of energy being dissipated, or you don’t.)

“Clipping any amplifier will destroy a connected loudspeaker.” (Sorry – incorrect. Clipping in itself is fine, though potentially ugly sounding. The problem is too much power, whether the red lights are illuminated or not.)

“You need a traditional kick-drum mic to capture a kick-drum.” (I’ve been proving this wrong on a weekly basis for quite a while. Tossing a beat-up MXL 990 inside in a kick sounds just fine, and saves me a little bit of floor space.)

Anyway.

Microphones, being somewhat mysterious fauna, are no strangers to being misunderstood. There are many specifications attached to them, and if you don’t know what they mean in context, it’s easy to misinterpret what’s going on.

A big, sort of “omnibus” myth is that microphones have some sort of magical ability to discriminate between what you want them to pick up and everything else. This myth manifests in such (understandable but spurious) notions like mics with higher sensitivity being necessary for quiet singers. The idea is that higher sensitivity allows the mic to “reach” farther from itself, and grab the sound of the vocalist. Also, the thought includes a guess that feedback might be reduced, because less post-mic gain is applied.

Like I said, this is understandable, but inaccurate.

Let me reiterate the title of this article: The loudest thing at the capsule always wins.

There, is, of course, nuance to this that bears digging into.

A Dumb Sensor Of Pressure

Microphones don’t have pattern-matching and synthesizing brains like we do. For all the sophistication in their construction, mics are rock-stupid devices which translate pressure events into electrical signals. They don’t know what you want and what you don’t want – they are only “aware” of sound-pressure changes.

If the sound-pressure change is what you want to pick up, that’s great. If not, too bad.

A mic with higher sensitivity relative to another model of transducer is not somehow able to “reach out and grab” a quiet source. All that the greater sensitivity means is that, for a given amount of sound-pressure, the mic has more output voltage. Without anything else going on in the room, the greater output might trick you into believing that the mic will give you more of the singer – but that’s not the case. When everything else on deck kicks in, the singer will be just as washed out as ever. Your problem is proportion, not absolute output level.

This also connects to the feedback problem. Feedback depends on the TOTAL gain through the “loop,” not just the gain from mic pres and consoles. Higher sensitivity means that (if you change nothing), the total gain through the loop is increased. Unless the high-sensitivity mic has a more feedback-resistant design overall, you will actually have a greater tendency towards feedback…until you reduce the post-mic gain to compensate for the increased sensitivity.

Of course, multiple things can change when you swap out a microphone. A microphone may, for example, have both greater sensitivity AND a tighter polar pattern in comparison to another unit. This can make the mic seem like it can “reach farther,” because the capsule is less sensitive at certain angles than others. However, move things around until an undesired noisemaker is at the same angle to the capsule as the thing you want to hear, and you’ll see that your problem comes roaring back.

(This is not to say that a tighter pattern can’t be helpful in working through certain issues. It’s merely to say that it doesn’t magically make the mic discriminatory for sounds arriving at the same angle.)

So, What Does It All Mean?

The upshot for you is that what you want to pick up should be – from the mic’s perspective – VERY loud in comparison to everything else. If it isn’t, then the mic is just helping you amplify a bunch of what you don’t want.

If, at the mic capsule, a singer is being almost totally drowned by a guitar amp, cranking up the mic through the monitors isn’t really going to help. The signal coming off the mic is a little bit of singer and a lot of amplifier, which means that more monitor means a little more vocal and a lot more of the guitar rig. And that very likely makes the problem even worse for the vocalist.

On more than one occasion, I have worked with bands where I was really on the gas with the vocal mics, and I was hammering the PA limiter. I was NOT hitting the limiter with actual vocal. The gain reduction indicator was perfectly in time…with the snare drum. (!) There was nothing wrong with the PA, or the equalization of the PA, or the mic choice. The problem was that the singers couldn’t “hang” with a rock drummer, and the rock drummer wouldn’t make space for the vocalists.

On another occasion, a drummer specifically asked me to hang some overheads above his kit. He also had me dial up a TON of the rest of the band in his monitors. Midway through the show, I soloed up the overheads into my headphones. I certainly heard some drums, but I heard at least as much of his monitor mix bleeding into those overheads.

The overheads were not something I wanted to put into the FOH mix – they would just be making the rest of the band louder, not bringing the drums out more.

The loudest thing at the capsule wins. Good mics are a fine investment, but some sort of inherent imbalance that the mic can “hear” requires fixing at the source. You have to make sure that mic is getting what you want it to get, because you’re the one with the brain.

Back in the day, there was a mantra that was taught to songwriting musicians, almost without fail:

“Keep your publishing.”

As I see it, the mantra was a call to keep some kind of control in a world where a lot of control had to be ceded to others. Recording was very, very expensive, and so was the release of that recording. In the age of physical media (heck – physical EVERYTHING), the people with the money to produce the physical media called all the shots.

By “the people with the money,” I am referring to the many and various record companies.

This is not to say that DIY was completely impossible, but for a musicpreneur to actually reach a wide audience in a short time required very large resources. The holders of the resources tended to demand a lot of control in exchange for the privileges involved: Unless you had a lot of pull, they would control what was released, where it was released, and in what quantity, and your opinion wasn’t worth a whole lot.

And they owned the copyright to the sound recording. You could NOT just take your masters and do whatever you liked. The control of the recorded music belonged to someone else.

If the record company owned both the sound recording AND the rights to the underlying song, you really had nothing except whatever fame you had managed to scrape up. All the money involved in anything to do with your tunes would first go to the record company, and then they would cut you in later – likely for as little as they could get away with.

Keeping your publishing meant keeping some control. Having a say somewhere. Owning your intellectual property instead of just being allowed to represent it.

That’s why you should have your own website. Having a web presence that you own and pay for is a 21st-century, internet-enabled version of keeping your publishing.

Who’s Making The Decisions?

If you’re like me, you may have a complicated relationship with social media. On the one hand, it’s a great way to get your material out there. It’s often the digital way to “meet people where they are.” People are naturally present there, and it’s usually a simple process (requiring no extra sign-in) for those folks to request notifications when you have something to say.

On the other hand, social media can vacuum up your time, offer a really troublesome signal-to-noise ratio (people are being bombarded with input, which means your input may or may not be recognized), and it just generally may not line up with how you prefer to interact with others.

As a long-ish form, deep thoughts sort of guy, I don’t really get along with Twitter.

Anyway…

Social media is also not truly under your control.

Sure, you get to pretty much post whatever you want, whenever you want to, but you’re ultimately using a platform at the pleasure of the platform owners. If they want to change how your content is presented to other users of the service, you don’t get any individual say in the matter. If they want to run some traffic-shaping experiment that just happens to wreck your big announcement, that’s too bad for you.

And if they decide to take control of your account, or just dump it off the server, there is basically no recourse open to you. (You can send an e-mail and beg, I suppose.)

Yes, you can pay for being featured, but you originally signed up for free.

If you signed up for free, you are NOT a customer. You and your data are the product, and the company’s well-being depends on them managing their product as they see fit. This may or may not be a good thing for you and your content, and if you have no independent platform for your online existence, you are very stuck with what other people decide.

So, I say, leverage social media. Leverage it in any way that will work for you. Don’t let it be your only presence on the web, though. Have your own site. To whatever extent possible, have it be a far better experience than social media offers to your dedicated fans. You can make all your own design decisions on your own site. You can have a site built specifically to offer the functions you want to offer to visitors. If changes are going to be made, you choose when they happen and how extensive they are.

You also retain complete rights to everything involving the site, instead of sharing those rights with an entity that can modify its privileges at a whim. (I don’t encourage paranoia, but you have to recognize a power imbalance when you see it.)

I could have a lot of the more “compact” material from The Small Venue Survivalist live entirely on Facebook, but then Facebook would have control over that material – and that content would have no presence if it disappeared from Facebook. If I post a meme on the Facebook profile, I almost always create a post for it on smallvenuesurvivalist.com as well. I want complete ownership of what I say, and I also want that material to be search-indexed on my site.

I could have all my longform content posted and managed entirely on Patreon, but then I’d be stuck with the display restrictions that Patreon puts on posts. Patreon’s design is pretty nicely functional, but it’s generic from creator to creator. It doesn’t really fit my specific needs for hosting my full articles. When it all comes down to it, I don’t want to look like everything else on that platform – I want my work to be presented in the exact way that I want it presented, thanks.

Keep your publishing. Keep ALL your publishing. Have your own site, and be THE owner of both your content and its presentation. Be subject to your whims, instead of someone else’s.

Our business loves to talk about the highest grossing tours. Gossip about who had the biggest ticket revenue is everywhere, and treated as being very important.

And it makes sense.

The gross is a really decent way to measure things like audience interest and performer clout, especially when you bring other measurements into the equation. If a band had an enormous gross, and also had high ticket prices, that tells you that their drawing power is gigantically healthy. The Grateful Dead recently brought their career to a coda, playing at Soldier Field to a total, multi-night crowd of over 200,000 people. (According to Billboard.) They brought in a lot of money, naturally.

The thing is, there’s a question that seems to go unasked and unanswered with all of our hoopla over the gross:

What did the show net?

The Entrepreneurial Aspect

This site is all about being a “musicpreneur.” As a musicpreneur, you are heavily and intimately involved with the business of your music – and a business can’t just look at the gross. You have to be concerned with the net. That is, you have to think, “what’s left over after the costs are subtracted?”

See, it is entirely possible to gross millions of dollars at every show, and end up completely bankrupt in a year. If $1 million comes in, and you spent $1.1 million to make the show happen, you just LOST $100,000 dollars. You might be able to afford to do that for a long time, but unless your cashflow is +$100,000 somewhere else, you won’t be able to do it forever.

A high gross is not a panacea. It’s easy to think that it is, that it will solve all your money problems, but it’s not a guarantee in any way. All it means is that you were able to generate a lot of revenue. That’s great, but the net is what actually determines whether your venture is viable. If the point of doing shows is to make money, and you spend all your earnings on doing the shows, you’re not actually getting anywhere. (You might be having tons of fun and gaining fans, which are two things which do have real value, but that’s beyond the scope of this piece.)

If you want to make things bigger and better, you have to have profits. Even if your “development” expenses can be deducted in an accounting sense, you still have to make enough money to have something to spend and deduct. Even if you’re able to pay yourself as an employee and deduct that from the venture’s earnings, you still have to have an effective net after everything else has been handled.

Billboard estimates that the Soldier Field shows by the Grateful Dead had a revenue of over $24 million. That’s pretty darn nifty, but the entrepreneur in me wants to know more: After all the lighting, sound, video, promo, venue rental, and so on, how much did the band actually get to take home? What’s the net? It may not be a huge issue, seeing as these were the shows to close things up and celebrate, but it’s still relevant.

And for you, who probably are NOT doing your very last show in the near future, the net is even more relevant.

Some of you all may remember my heartfelt letter to musicians about arrangements, and how they really are best treated as the musicians’ responsibility. In that article, I got into concrete examples of how arrangement issues manifest themselves.

This is sort of a follow-on to that. It’s addressing the same basic topic, but from a different angle.

Even with the examples that I wrote about, knowing when you have an arrangement problem isn’t always intuitive or obvious. I had years and years of experience behind mixing consoles without finally having the “Ah HA!” moment about why some bands just seemed to “happen.”

Of course, I’ve had plenty of experience with bands that DIDN’T sort themselves out, and that’s actually a good metric for determining if you have an arrangement issue.

Do You Sound Like A Band, Or Does Someone Have To Make You Sound Like A Band?

One of the dead giveaways regarding arrangement problems is the way that an audio craftsperson works on your show.

Let me be clear: It’s entirely possible for an audio-human to dial up a bad mix and get similar results. However, better arrangements resist bad mixing far more than poor ones.

With that being said, let’s assume that your friendly, neighborhood noise-management-artisan is basically competent and non-malicious.

1) If this person has no choice but to constantly ride fader levels to make your mix sound right, you probably have a poor arrangement.

2) If this person has to do a lot with EQ to make the different parts fit together, you probably have a poor arrangement. (This is apart from basic, corrective EQ required to make the audio rig sound decent in a particular environment. There might be a lot of that, but that’s not on you.)

In other words, arrangement quality is INVERSELY proportional to the musical corrective action required of the sound tech. Great bands with great arrangements don’t require me to fix anything. I just have to translate the songs through the PA – and actually, that’s a pretty good analogy. With a bad arrangement, I have to go beyond just helping the “onstage language” interface with “audience language.” If I’m able, I also have to correct the original grammar, fact-check, rewrite for clarification, and THEN translate.

If you’ve worked with an audio-human that you trust, you may want to ask them a question: “After we’re all set up and ready to go, do you have to work really hard to mix us?” The answer to that question might end up telling you a lot, especially if your arrangements are significantly “broken.”

Fixing Things

If it’s broken, fixing it should be a priority. How do you go about fixing an arrangement?

I’ve talked about this kind of thing before in multiple ways, but most of those approaches have been either abstract or anecdotal. I want to try a different approach here: The analogy.

To start, let me have you take a look at the three center shapes from this article’s illustration:
freqOverlap
“But, Danny,” you say, “that’s only one shape.”

Is it? Oh – sorry – I seem to have an arrangement problem. Let me try something…
timeSeparation
See? Three shapes.

This is a depiction of a classic problem that I run into. Several players try to occupy the same frequency space, at the same overall volume, at the same time. That is, their instruments have relatively similar tones, and the notes being played have similar fundamental frequencies. (For example, everybody is playing middle C, aka C4, a fundamental frequency of 261.626 Hz.)

If the instrument tones, notes, and volumes must stay the same, then the way to differentiate the shapes is limited to space. Of course, music is a very strange sort of magic. It’s very “Dr. Who.” In music, time IS space. If the different instruments play at different times, they will naturally separate and become identifiable.

Of course, the different musicians can all play together, but take turns being at lower volume.
volumeSeparation
Triangle and square have turned down to give circle a turn. Later, circle will do the same, and either triangle or square will be the lead part. It’s another bit of wibbly-wobbly stuff, in that size IS volume.

Are space and size the only solution? Not at all! I’ll bet you can see all three shapes now, even though they’re all happening at the same time, and are at a similar overall size:
frequencySeparationIn this case, the instruments are all playing significantly different notes. Just as a color of light corresponds with frequency, so does a “color” of sound. The complicating factor with sound is that a lot of harmonic content is involved. The instrument makes the fundamental note, but the overall tone of the part comes from other, mathematically related frequencies ringing along with that note. You may find that you need very large separations to make this work, especially if everybody is playing chords. (You may find it helpful to build a chord out of several instruments playing one or two notes each.)

There are many other possible permutations of all this, of course. These fundamental ideas, however, are enough to construct most (if not all) of them. Once you identify an arrangement problem, you DO have the tools to create a solution.

Oh, and one more thing: This also applies in the studio. If the producer or engineer has to build a ton of automation curves, program lots of “mutes,” or do a truckload of EQ to make your song work, you might want to go back and work on the song’s construction instead.

Now, why in blue-blazes would a live-sound engineer talk about auditioning people for your band?

Simple.

I deal with the fallout if you louse it up.

There have been many instances in my time where I’ve had to struggle with a band containing at least one member who was a terrible fit for actually playing shows. It usually makes for a frustrating and bad-sounding gig, in which a large amount (maybe all) of the available electro-acoustical headroom for the show is DEVOURED in trying to fix the problems. Nothing is left over to otherwise translate the show to the audience in a cool way. It’s all been spent on mere survival.

If that sounds like a bad scene – even a career-threatening scene – you’re getting the point.

Thankfully, you have the power to prevent this mess from being a part of your concerts. You just have to have the right members, and that means getting your auditions right. Getting your auditions right can mean challenging your pre-conceived notions, and one of those in particular is probably the most troublesome.

Technical Ability Is The Minimum Requirement, Not The Prime Factor

Playing is a technical enterprise. Playing live is even more so: You have to execute under pressure, in front of an audience, without the ability to invisibly stop and try again. Technical ability is 100% necessary. I’m not saying that it isn’t.

What I am saying, though, is that musicians have an alarming tendency to use technical ability as the sole measure of whether someone should be a part of the act. A bunch of drummers are auditioned, and the one that can do the most insane rhythm work gets the nod. A whole pile of guitarists are listened to, and the one who makes Joe Satriani seem like an amateur is hired. A herd of vocalists is lined up, and the one who can sing the highest/ lowest/ with the most beautiful tone is recruited.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, except that there are lots of cases where the person with the highest technical ability is a terrible fit for the ensemble. Getting the most proficient drummer, keyboardist, guitarists, bass player, and vocalists all together in one band does NOT guarantee that you’ve created the best band. It merely guarantees that you’ve created a band containing the most technically proficient people you could find.

The ensemble. The whole. The gestalt entity…that’s what matters.

The Wreckage Of An Arrangement

I harp on the importance of your band’s “natural arrangement” quite a bit. I keep returning to the idea as a theme because of how important it is to constructing killer shows. One of the problems with “technical ability is the main factor,” is that folks who don’t (or won’t) fit your natural arrangement are brought on board. The results are not pretty:

“Dude, the drummer’s really good but they’re all I can hear.”

“The guitar player is AMAZING by themselves, but their tone is so scooped that they get obliterated when anyone else is playing.”

“The bassist is totally locked up with everyone else, but why do they have to be so loud?”

“She has the most gorgeous voice. You need to magically add 30 dB more gain to her mic. Without feedback. And without picking up any of the other stuff on stage.”

After you’ve discovered whether or not a prospective member can actually manage the notes, the next thing to chew on is whether they truly fit. To do this, have an actual rehearsal with your potential bandmate. Don’t do anything special at a technical level. Do what you’ve always done (assuming that what you’ve always done has worked).

  • If the auditionee is suddenly drowning everything else, you have a problem.
  • If the applicant is being drowned by everyone else, you have a problem.
  • If the new recruit can’t “wait their turn”, you have a problem.
  • If the potential player can’t naturally create a tone which complements other tones and produces the necessary, audible distinction between parts, you have a problem.

If you have a problem, the next step is to decide what to do.

The Three Choices

If the person you’re auditioning has caused you to have a problem, there are only a few general ways you can go:

1) Make the band fit the new person.

Do NOT do this if it involves making the rest of the band louder, or buying new equipment, or doing something to your songs that you fundamentally dislike. It’s not worth it.

Consider doing this if it will make your arrangements better, or bring the band’s volume down, or encourage playing that’s more sensitive to others. Be careful, though, that you’re all equally on board with the idea.

2) Make the new person fit the band.

Similarly to the above, do NOT do this if it requires more volume or a gear investment by the musician you’re auditioning. If the musician you’re auditioning seems reluctant to fit themselves in, don’t fight that battle. It will likely be a Sisyphean task where you can never…quite…make it…work…

However, there are some folks who just need a little direction to slot in with the rest of the team. If they can take that direction and really internalize it, they’ve got a chance.

3) Say, “Thank you, but no deal.”

The easiest situation is when there are no problems, and so you don’t have to even consider #1 or #2. Notice that I said “easiest,” instead of “best.” Option 1 is hard, but it may be the best option if the band will benefit greatly from molding itself around a new addition. At the same time, for an established band with seasoned (and sane) members, finding someone who fits without any significant reworking is probably what you want.

In general, I agree with the advice that Bob Rock gave to Metallica when they were auditioning Jason Newsted’s replacement: “I don’t think you should settle. If you don’t knock it out of the park, you’re just going to end up doing this again in five years.”

If option 1 is settling, don’t do it. If option 2 is settling, don’t do it. If at all possible, hold out for the right person. (It may not be possible.)

Epilogue

The personality and “culture” aspects that figure into all this are beyond the scope of this article.

However, I will say that there have been times in my career where I really liked everybody in a band, except for one of them. In those cases, I really did not want to work with that whole band.

Consider the implications of this carefully.