Drums are such fun.

I remember listening to “Enter Sandman” over, and over, and over again (driving everybody bonkers) because I wanted to hear that distinctive “Chunka, Chunka, Chunka, ChunCHUN” at the beginning of the tune. I’ve always wanted to do a gig where we actually got the “honest-to-goodness” Boston “sorta real, sorta synthetic, 1980s to the MAX” drum noise.

And I know that all of you can sing the drum part to “Tom Sawyer” by Rush. Admit it.

As much as I’m against devoting every possible resource in a sound system towards massaging the drums, I am a HUGE fan of great percussion. The unfortunate reality, though, is that audio humans spend a great deal of time listening to not great percussion. Over the years, I think I’ve started to get a handle on what can go wrong, and what can go oh-so-very right.

The Basics

First things first.

If the drums don’t “sound like that,” they probably won’t ever “sound like that.” Especially without a huge PA, unlimited audience volume tolerance, and an anechoic chamber, totally remaking the sound of a real kit in a real room is a truly difficult proposition. If the drum set naturally sounds like a pile of soggy pizza boxes and pie tins, then that’s what you’re going to get. With a lot of effort, we might be able to make it all sound like the nicest recycling-bin dumpout in the history of the world. It might even sound neat and interesting – but it’s not going to sound like a $10,000 shell pack with brand new heads. It doesn’t matter what mics we use, or how much processing is available in the console.

On the flipside, a setup that already sounds beautiful is hard to mess up, and requires fewer resources to translate effectively. An example that I’m fond of citing is that of Dave Murphy, the director of The Wasatch Music Coaching Academy. Dave is a top-shelf percussionist, and the owner of a truly stunning Gretsch kit. That kit, plus his maintenance and tuning, results in a sound that requires basically zero effort of any kind. When Dave steps on his kick pedal, for instance, the result is a truly beautiful blend of perfectly damped “thump” and “click.” Think of the most amazing bass drum, with a great mic in front of it, being run through a lot of PA: That’s what Dave’s kick drum sounds like WITHOUT a mic and a PA, and that basic template carries over to the rest of the set. As an audio tech, I don’t have to struggle with the sounds that Dave makes. Instead, I get to just pass them into the audience.

Along with this is the necessity of getting a shell pack and cymbal loadout that actually complement your band. You might love the tone when you’re playing by yourself, but if your kit is naturally too loud for the ensemble, or consistently steps on someone else’s frequency space, you’ve brought the wrong tools for the job. Tune your set to work with the rest of the group, rather than to compete.

Too Little

I once worked on a show where a drummer was somewhat annoyed with me. He was a bit upset that I wasn’t making his toms “sound big.” I put on my headphones and solo’ed up the drum channels.

Cymbals: “KUSH! KUSH! KUSH! KUSH! BWASH! KUSH!

Snare: “BAM! BAM! BAM! BAMrattle BAM!”

Toms: “blum, bum…bdum…dm…”

The dude was smashing away at everything else, and then sort of lightly touching the toms as he went by. Of course they didn’t “sound big.” He was playing so that, especially compared to everything else, his toms sounded minuscule. There wasn’t a whole lot I could do.

What we’ve come right back to is, if you want your drums to “sound like that,” then they already have to basically “sound like that.” If you want your tom rolls to feel enormous when compared to everything else, you’re going to have to play them in such a way that presents that proportionality. If everything else in the kit is being bashed as hard as is humanly possible, you’ve got nowhere to go for the fills. Think about how you want your accents to “pop,” and then dial back the steady-state (the average intensity) accordingly.

Too Much

It’s also possible to go in the other direction. I’ve heard drummers wailing away on sets that should have sounded great, but didn’t. A lot of those cases appeared to be a case of getting in one’s own way.

The initial transient of a drum hit is where the majority of the high-frequency information resides. This crack/ snap/ click/ thwack is melded in with all the low-frequency content, with the volume control being how much force goes into the strike. A very hard smack on the drum emphasizes the high end to a point where it completely overwhelms the “body” of the tone. At even further extremes, the stick or beater gets “buried” into the head, killing a lot of resonance that might contribute to a more “full” and satisfying sound. Put all this in the hands of a percussionist who has only one volume – maximum, that is – and what comes out is a harsh mountain of overbearing transients. In such a case, dialing back the “smackery” would do wonders for the overall sound of the kit.

So, if you’re trying to get a great drum sound, start without any audio gear. All those fun toys and enhancements will come later. There’s no electrically-powered transient designer that can do a better job than a great player. A good kit that’s been nicely tuned is worth more than a whole rack of Drawmer gates. The right choices of sticks and playing balance are some of the best EQ and compression you’ll ever find.

And I’ve never had any drum mics that were better than a basically decent transducer being pointed at a great drummer who’d done their homework.

“The more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain.”

-Scotty, Star Trek III

My other job is software development. I tell computers what to do, and they do exactly what I’ve told them – which is often upsetting, because exactly what I told them to do tends to not be what I want to happen.

For the projects I work on, a “local environment” for development is very helpful. Instead of having to push my code up to a remote server to see any change I’ve made, all I have to do is reload a local web page. The sticky thing with my current project was that, until a couple of weeks ago, I did NOT have a working environment on my own machine. When the project was set up, we had taken the approach of having a “computer within the computer” handle one set of tasks, with the main computer running a whole different server for the interface.

You might not know what all that means, but if it sounds complicated to you, you’re on the right track.

It was complicated. Too complicated. And it didn’t work properly until I finally decided to back out and de-complicate the setup.

It’s working beautifully now; Even though the setup is still complicated, it’s not any more complicated than it actually has to be.

So what does this have to do with music?

Music production is actually very much like software development. You have a set of things that you want to do, and technologies available to help you do them. From recording a tambourine overdub to mixing 32+ channels of live music in realtime, there are all manner of gadgets and gizmos to get the job done. All the thingamabobs involved are interconnected in a logical way, and perform logical functions.

They do exactly what you tell them to do (assuming that they’re working properly). Just like with software, you can pretty easily dig yourself a hole by making a setup too complex. You think that you’ve put together a signal chain to do “x,” but you’ve really built a setup that does “y.” The gear doesn’t know what you want. It simply “runs the program” it’s able to run. The more unnecessary complexity you add, the more the risk of an unintended result goes up – especially if you exceed the limits of your own understanding.

Years ago, I watched a band chew up a large amount of their set time while fumbling with an FX rack for the guitar player. They had all this studio-grade gear bolted down, with all kinds of patching needed, and they weren’t really sure how to make it all interface with the rest of the guitar rig. They struggled and struggled until they finally got something they could use.

They could have been done in the space of a minute if they had just used a couple of stomboxes, or a multiFX floor processor. Instead of all the weird sorcery they were attempting, they could have plugged in a few, easy to understand cable paths and gone on.

Now, as often happens for me, let me be clear about what I’m NOT saying.

Technical production for music is not always simple, nor should it be. Big shows, for instance, can have a huge number of “moving” parts that interact in ways that are both fragile and bombastic. It’s just the natural state of putting together that kind of production. The thing is, ESPECIALLY with complicated production, the endeavor should not be made any more complicated than it actually has to be.

If it isn’t a problem, don’t solve it.

If you don’t have to constantly take it apart and put it back together again, don’t.

If it can all be wrapped up into one box while staying usable, don’t put it in three. (If it’s more manageable to put it in three boxes, then don’t put it all in one!)

If there’s a setup that will work with two cables, don’t insist on the “solution” that takes 10.

A rig or process that is just complicated enough to get you the desired result is what you want. Anything beyond that, and you may end up having to solve new problems that are sitting on top of the production problems you already have. Why subject yourself to all that stress? Simplify.

By my calculations, the music business should have completely ended at least 10 years ago.

Or, at least, it should have if all the predictions were right about the sky falling.

Every since the first MP3 files were traded by college boys on their .edu networks, the hysterics have been flying. Artistry was going to be completely destroyed. Recordings would stop being made entirely. Nobody would ever make any money at music, ever again. The Earth would fall into the Sun.

I was part of the hysterical crowd, by the way. I couldn’t see the opportunities for what they were. I was used to a world (actually, a fictional one) where the whole point of everything was to get picked. Some record exec would hear a great demo tape, sign you, and your troubles would be over. If the record companies went away, HOW WOULD THAT HAPPEN?

Well, first of all, it didn’t really happen anyway. Any really sizable record company is afflicted by “big corporation” disease, which makes them highly allergic to anything other than a reasonably sure bet. They either grab ahold of someone who already seems to be building something great without their help, or they manufacture something that fits the style of the month.

But the thing is this: The artistry of music. The beauty. The sublime charge of emotion and movement and mathematical relationships…

…it has basically nothing to do with capturing a signal representing sonic events, and then selling that capture to people.

Really.

The Blip

“Phonorecords,” as we’re used to in a conceptual sense, have existed since about 1890 or so. Humans have been making musical noises, on the other hand, for millennia. MILLENNIA, FOLKS.

That is to say, if you reference good ol’ Wikipedia, you’ll find that humans apparently were making flutes 40,000 years ago. So, do the math. The business of recorded music, with all of its arcane wizardry, chicanery of accounting and contracts, dashed hopes and dreams realized beyond all anticipation, is about 0.3% of the history of music.

From the statistical shorthand that “it’s got to be 5% before it’s relevant,” recorded music is completely insignificant when compared to the human experience of music on the whole. I’m not saying that it’s a passing fad; I don’t believe that recording will pass away into the aether – but I am saying that, as a matter of comparison, phonorecords and the selling of them is yet a tiny spark of nothing in the great sea of sounds.

So What?

So, why do I point this out?

I point this out because the “sturm and drang” related to people supposedly not buying/ not valuing/ stealing/ recorded music is, in my mind, a distraction. We fail to see the whole picture of the musical experience, and we pin everything on demanding money for captured sonic events. Before anyone could even begin to think of selling something as antiquated as a physical record, there were centuries upon centuries of successful and unsuccessful musicians.

Piracy is not killing music. Streaming is not killing music. The music business is not killing music. Music is very much alive and well, because the emotional experience of it is what people can not help but crave. Artists who have made the most powerful of those emotional experiences are selling out venues of all sizes, all over the world. If music was actually dying – if the public no longer cared about it – that would most certainly not be the case.

Recorded music is no longer scarce. Our computers have seen to that. That lack of scarcity means that the demandable value of phonorecords is dropping. But that’s okay! Recordings can still be sold for something, and they’re still a valuable tool for you to get your art across to an audience. It’s just that they’re not the only thing, and maybe not the biggest thing.

That’s really fine, because, in my mind, no one has ever, EVER purchased music. What they have always purchased is an emotional experience that was packaged up in some way. For a few years, the king of those packages was the artificially-scarce phonorecord. Just because it WAS king does not mean it will always be, nor should it always be.

And let’s be honest – when you look at the numbers, that king was just a Johnny Come Lately anyway. Let’s all take a few deep breaths.

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.