Back in June, the band Advent Horizon came through my regular gig. They’re in the “mind-blowingly good” category. There’s certainly a lot of excellent musicianship to be had, but there’s something else. Let me tell you about when the display of that “something else” peaked:

Rylee’s guitar was having some tuning issues with a particular string.

Having identified the problem, Rylee stomped on something other than his tuner. The button that got pressed first was actually the one that switched in his looper. Rylee proceeded to play a little something on the strings that were in tune, looped the phrase, kicked on his tuner (in “silent” mode), and then directed the rest of the band to play over the loop.

Which they did.

It was brilliant – so brilliant, in fact, that I was a little disappointed that the tuning fix didn’t take longer.

Obviously, there’s a “how to” here. If you have to tune midstream, using what’s in tune to build a quick coverup soundtrack for the audience is a great idea.

But I think there’s something much more generally applicable to be gotten from the whole thing.

Owning The Stage

When Advent Horizon (or a band like them) is on deck, they truly “own” the stage.

That is to say, it is immediately apparent that they belong on that riser. They are fully in control of what’s going on, and are ready to manage pretty much any crisis that might occur. They have mastery over the show, and can decide to take it in any direction they wish.

The “looped tuning coverup” was an acute example of that reality. Their mastery of what was going on was so high that they could (seemingly without effort) take a musical detour to fix an issue…and not only keep their audience entertained, but use the problem as an occasion to show just how completely they were in command of what was going on.

No matter what happened, the entire band was eminently comfortable with what they were doing.

This kind of confidence is a huge part of what makes good playing into a great show. This kind of confidence can NOT be faked.

The Lie

I’ve been in the presence of performers who don’t truly own the stage, but try to act like they do. They attempt to deceive the audience and themselves into believing that they’re the master of what’s going on, but something always gives them away.

It can be quite subtle – little body-language and mannerism-driven cues that say “The events of the show are in control of me, instead of me being in control of them.”

On the other hand, the issue can also be brutally obvious. A performer might be so mechanical, and so unable to connect with their audience that even a distracted idiot would see the truth: That the show is fragile enough to crumble at the slightest provocation. The unfortunate musician is not captain of the ship in any sense; they’re completely at the mercy of what’s going on around them.

The latter case belongs most often to the deeply inexperienced.

The former case – the subtle giveaway – can belong to performers who have been doing shows for a short time, or years and years.

…and like other occasions where one pretends to be “in charge,” but aren’t actually, it can breed jerkdom. People who are not actually comfortable with being on stage constantly feel threatened, because they ARE constantly under threat of the show spinning out of control. This can make these folks anywhere from mildly to enormously unpleasant. They will grab at anything for control, refuse to let others do their proper jobs, and jump at the chance to place blame. They most certainly are not the true kings of the stage, and they know it – so, they cook up all kinds of bluster, bravado, and false machismo (this goes for males and females) to cover up their lack of actual command.

True Ownership

The fix for all this can boil down to one overarching concept: Internalization. Internalization creates real confidence, because it reduces the need to think actively about the whole show in real time. The show becomes effortless action, instead of a struggle.

Internalization comes from practice, preparation, and perspective. (Amongst other things.)

You obviously have to practice your instrument, and your show. Practicing to the point of internalization means that you don’t have to think about the mechanics of what you’re doing. You just decide what to execute, and then you execute. Internalization to that degree means that your higher cognition can go into connecting with the audience, responding to them, and making snap judgements about turning a problem into a demonstration of how in-control you are.

Part of practice is just plain-old immersion. To get comfortable with being on stage, you have to be on stage. You have to keep performing in an actual performance environment to become used to that environment. Where regular folks would walk onto the deck and be awed by it all, for you “it’s Tuesday.” (This doesn’t mean losing a sense of wonder. It just means that the wonderful and awesome fuel your enthusiasm instead of your nervousness.)

Another part of practice is having a backup plan, even if the plan isn’t explicit. The best performers I’ve worked with are able to deal with all kinds of problems – even those bordering on catastrophic – because they have internalized the building blocks of their show to a mind-boggling degree. They can strip their show down to nothing but the minimally required elements with zero notice. In the worst case scenario, they could walk out in front of the stage and sing acapella while everything else collapsed into a heap. They don’t just know the show, but they know the show with such intimacy that they can take it apart and put it back together again.

So…what’s the difference between that and preparation? For the purposes of this article, practice is what you do to get yourself ready, and preparation is what you do to get your tools ready. It’s also the knowing of the limitations of those tools. If that amp of yours is getting weird, what’s the workaround? Do you have spares? Is everything in the right case? Is your pedal layout organized so that you can figure out how the signal flows? Have you figured out how to pack everything for transport?

Preparation to the point of internalization means that you don’t have to think about whether or not your tools are going to perform for you. It also means that if something has an issue, you spend minimal mental energy on figuring out the fallback. The fallback is ready to go with as little effort as possible. This is also true in a wider sense. Literally everything having to do with your guitar/ vocal/ bass/ drum/ horn/ kazoo/ whatever rig should be ready to happen without you having to stop and think.

Perspective can encompass a lot more than what I can write in this space. It can be summed up, however, as knowing your place in the show and the show’s place in life. When you realize that you can be completely prepared, yet still somehow be surprised, you don’t have to agonize over the consequences. When you realize that the audience really would prefer to like you, you begin to see them as entirely non-threatening. When you realize that something going very wrong will probably be just a funny story in a week, you can stop worrying. When you understand that the performers and the crew are all full-partners in creating a great experience for your fans, you start to have a real chance at functioning as a team.

When perspective is internalized, you become secure in your own role…and thus, you’re willing to let everyone else have security in their own part of the gig.

Internalization creates comfort and confidence. If you’re naturally comfortable and confident on stage, you will have no problem having ownership of the show and the stage. It’s not a grasping, exclusionary ownership either. Because you’re completely un-threatened, you can be completely gracious. You aren’t in danger of losing anything, because you can’t help but be in command of the ship.

And when you truly have that kind of ownership, even a problem (like a string that’s out of tune) is an opportunity for you to show just how good you are.

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

 

Everything.

 

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

 

This is not necessarily a bad thing.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Anyway.

 

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

 

One Vocalist, One Guitar, And A Whole Lotta Trouble

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And this was just one guy.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

There Are Beautiful Corners Out There

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

I’m ambivalent about the current “clickbait” trend. On the one hand, I have a dislike for all those headlines that read “This One Crazy Trick Will Reveal 15 Lifehacks That Emotionally Successful People Use, And You Won’t Believe What Happens Next!”

On the other hand, I sometimes visit those links. I mean, come on, there was a cat wearing a dinosaur suit and riding on a Roomba! I had to see that.

Anyway.

I’m wary of oversimplifying live production. The more years I spend on doing it, the more I realize that the rabbit hole goes far deeper than I can imagine. The notion that there could be “One Crazy Trick” that can improve your show almost automatically makes me a little nervous. It’s a notion that seems to validate the idea of being merely a button-pusher. It seems to reward the tendency to memorize a procedure without understanding what the procedure means, or where it comes from.

But, in a way, there is that “One Trick.” It’s not crazy, nor is it necessarily simple to pull off.

Even so, if you do this one thing you will have taken a huge step towards making your live shows a lot better:

Sound Like A Band Before The PA Gets Involved

That’s it.

So, what does that mean?

It means that all of the sonic proportionalities involved in your music should be worked out in rehearsal.

I’ll say that again.

It means that all of the sonic proportionalities involved in your music should be worked out in rehearsal.

The way the guitars work together so that you can hear both parts distinctly? You should figure that out while you practice.

The amount of keyboard volume necessary to complement things in the song-proper, and then the amount of boost required for the awesomesauce organ solo at the end of the tune? You should nail that down before you’re on deck.

The way to tune the drums and choose the cymbals such that the drummer’s style makes the kit audible without obliterating everything else? You should do that at your regular time for working things out as a band.

Oh, and the vocals? If the lyrics aren’t sitting in the right place during your rehearsals, you should fix that. (Important: If the vocals are being drowned, it is better to partially drain the bathtub than to buy flippers and a snorkel. Meditate upon this.)

Without a “pro” PA, without an audio-human at the helm of a console, and without a stadium-class monitoring rig, your band should like a cohesive ensemble. The sounds that should be blending together into an interesting texture should be doing just that. The parts that should pop out and snap their metaphorical fingers under the audience’s collective nose should do that. If the singer is supposed to be sitting on top of it all, they should be doing that.

Why?

Because you’re asking for trouble otherwise.

Hoping That The Audio-Human Will Fix Everything Is Not A Safe Strategy

Some live-sound craftspersons are under the unfortunate impression that they need to fix everything, even if it isn’t broken. Some sound guys/ girls try to reinvent every band they work with. Unless you have your own audio human in tow, avoiding this problem entirely is incredibly hard, and I’m sorry if you’ve encountered it. This kind of “always do something to everything” attitude is the fault of the engineer.

Forcing a friendly, neighborhood noise-wrangler to reinvent the performance (whether they want to or not) is the fault of the band, however. That bands do force audio people into such situations is actually quite understandable.

Especially as audio production equipment for both stage and studio applications has become more accessible and powerful, that equipment has become more revered. Also, the usage of that equipment to do seemingly impossible things has become more commonly appreciated. With the advent of the Internet and the accompanying explosion of self-publishing, you could probably spend the rest of your life reading about audio tricks and tactics. This is actually neat, in a way.

The downside, though, is that there’s been the fostering of the idea that gear is what fixes problems. For instance, when the singer can’t be heard, the question that tends to come up is “Which expensive mic do we buy?” instead of “How do we get our volume under control?” There’s this sometimes latent, sometimes overt attitude that the pivotal work of a great show occurs at a mixing console attached to a PA system.

This is untrue. The pivotal work of a great show happens onstage. The console and FOH (Front Of House) PA are there to help translate that pivotal work to the audience.

In any case, the idea that “mixing console wizardry is what makes the show” leads down an unhelpful path. It’s a dark road where individual musicians hammer away, barely taking each other into account, and yet hope that someone else will make sense of it all.

Here’s the thing. If the band is out of balance at rehearsal, and opts to leave the correction of the problem to the audio human, they are making a number of dangerous assumptions. These assumptions include, but are not necessarily limited to:

1) The band making the assumption that the PA system at the venue has both the raw power and granularity of control necessary to fix their proportionality problem.

2) The band making the assumption that the overall gain-before-feedback of the venue’s PA system can jive with the gain necessary to fix the imbalance.

3) The band making the assumption that the audio craftsperson on duty has the knowhow required to operate the PA in, potentially, a high-performance, low-stability situation.

4) The band making the assumption that the wrangler of sound can figure out what’s wrong with the group’s music. With no preparation. At high speed. While the audio system is lurching around, barely under control, and the band is banging away.

5) The band making the assumption that the total show volume necessary to correct the imbalance will be tolerable by the audience.

If even one of these assumptions turns out to be wrong, the show can go downhill in a big hurry.

Going with these assumptions is not at all in your best interest as a musician. Think about it: You’re entrusting your show – your connection with an audience, and by extension, your career – to a frankly MASSIVE set of things that are outside your control. Not sounding like a unified band before you get on deck is taking a big, thoroughly unnecessary risk.

Other Implications

What I don’t want to say with all of this is that an audio tech can’t somehow work closely with you to craft a great show. I’m not saying that sound humans can’t do powerful things with technology to help you delight your fans. They can. They can also help you during rehearsal, if you need an extra set of ears to discern and fix problems.

I’m also not saying that SR craftspersons should be lazy, or shouldn’t pay attention, or shouldn’t have some knowledge of music. I’m not saying that, either.

What I am saying, though, is that you and your show have limited reserves of power, system control, gain-before-feedback, expertise, and audience tolerance for volume. If you don’t walk up to the stage, ready to be a cohesive ensemble without help from the audio rig, then you have to spend those limited resources on solving that fundamental problem. If you are significantly out of proportion (and it’s frightening just how little imbalance is required for “significantly”), then you may not have any production resources available for anything else.

If you would rather spend your finite production reserves on enhancing an already well-crafted experience, then your best bet is to sound like a band before the PA gets involved.

From an audio human’s perspective, it’s the most important thing you can do to help.

I was originally going to title this article “The Ultimate Party-Band Setup,” but I figured that being so superlative would invite unnecessary arguments. There’s always somebody who’s done a killer job with a setup that ISN’T what you think is the best, and so it’s plenty easy to get dragged into a vortex where “but this worked for me!” is being shouted by about 20 people.

Anyway.

Why would you care about the setup for a party-band? Simple: Party-bands are another avenue for you to make money by playing music. In fact, party-bands are one of the avenues for you to actually be paid to be a musician. (Most bands that play original material, especially in the pop and rock genres, are paid to be a crowd-drawing attraction that just happens to involve music. The lack of understanding of this has led to a lot of consternation in the music biz, in my opinion.)

“Hold on!” You’re saying. “What in the blue-blazes is a party-band?”

Fair question. In my mind, a “party-band” is a group that primarily plays covers, and that makes the majority of its income playing for events where people would have attended without the band having been booked. These events can take the form of corporate parties and other private functions, fundraisers, community festivals, grand openings, weddings (ESPECIALLY WEDDINGS), and other such goings-on. Many jazz groups are party-bands – musicians hired to bring a classy feel to a gathering that’s being held for a purpose other than purely listening to the band. It’s worth noting that some party-bands are good enough and lucky enough to gain followings, followings that can sometimes eclipse the fandoms of local acts that play originals.

The complete care, feeding, and economics of a party-band are a topic area that’s far too wide to tackle in this article. Suffice it to say that “event acts” can make good money, bad money, or no money depending on the local market and how the group is run. That’s not the point of this article. This piece of writing is about the technical side of things…

…and for a party-band, the technical side of audio production is driven by a simply stated yet befuddingly vague reality:

There are no hard and fast rules. In some cases, the band must be an inoffensive background element. In other cases, they must be front and center. The case that applies may even shift in the middle of the show.

Now, I don’t want to overstate things, but I once had the pleasure of working with a band that had the handling of the above COMPLETELY figured out. They were called Puddlestone, and I had lots of fun at FOH during their shows. I miss the crap out of those guys.

So – how did they have the whole bit of “background, foreground, and everything in between, even at a moment’s notice” completely figured out? Simple. Puddlestone could, for all intents and purposes, choose any arbitrary SPL (Sound Pressure Level) to play at. If we needed to be quiet, we could be quiet. If people wanted something more “in your face,” we could do that as well. (Even so, when asked to turn up the band I wouldn’t go as far as some people thought they wanted. I had the option of not running the PA any louder than what I thought was necessary, and so I was pretty conservative.)

How do you get a band to be able to play at almost any arbitrary sound level? Well, the first thing to do is to recognize one very important “natural law” of live audio:

The Loudest Player Is As Quiet As You Can Be

Makes sense, right? Whoever is making the most noise on deck is the human that sets the minimum volume. Furthermore, the person making the most noise with the least flexibility in regulating that noise is “the muso to beat.”

What I mean is that some musicians have more ability to regulate their volume than others. For example, I have largely given up on trying to get drummers to play more quietly. The reason is because a drumkit’s volume is so intimately tied with the drummer’s muscle memory as a player. How the drums feel, and how the drummer hits them are not at all trivial to the drummer’s ability to play properly. Really accomplished percussionists do have the chops to vary their volume wildly as a situation demands, but not everybody is at that level (or even cares to cultivate that skill).

On the other hand are the folks who play amplified instruments, like electric guitar and electric bass. In general, these musicians have a lot more flexibility with their volume – at a functional level anyway. They might hate being asked to turn down. They might lose some of their “mojo” when the volume is reduced. Even so, the instrument feels basically the same at high and low volume. Yes, there are nuances to how a guitar or bass reacts when the amp is really “talking” to the instrument. Even so, the player’s fretting and picking hands don’t have to move at different rates or exert less force when the amp’s master volume is rolled to a different position.

Anyhow, the issue with all of this is that if the loudest player, playing as quietly as they can, is too loud for the event, then the party-band’s client is going to be displeased. Displeased clients are unlikely to hire you back. Not being hired back means not making as much money. Your volume problem can quickly become an economic problem.

There are all kinds of things that contribute to your “mandatory minimum” level. The Party-Band Setup To Rule Lots Of Them is basically constructed around getting your mandatory minimum SPL to be as tiny as possible.

Electronic Drums

“Boo!” You shout. “Boo! Hiss! Edrums don’t sound right and the cymbals have no nuance and you don’t look cool playing them and they just SUCK.”

I can actually sympathize, but I need to be clear and direct:

In all likelihood, nobody really cares but you.

Especially when you’re playing events where the band is a background element, the nuances and subtleties of an acoustic kit are basically worthless. The majority of the folks in the room just plain don’t care if the kit doesn’t sound 100% lifelike, and that one dude who’s “got a band” and is judging you for not being “rock enough” probably isn’t the guy writing your check. Even if there’s a point in the night where you become foreground, the majority STILL won’t care. They just want to dance to some tunes that they know at a volume that’s just enough to feel a bit of “thump” and “snap.”

…and the thing with Edrums that they allow you to stick a volume knob on your drummer. The drumkit becomes like an electric guitar: The feel of the instrument becomes essentially divorced from the volume produced.

Yes, Edrums have a different feel than actual heads on actual shells. Yes, the cymbals feel different. The thing to keep in mind is that having the drummer get used to an electronic kit is something that happens in rehearsal, where it’s actually possible to get settled into the various quirks of the instrument. As such, the drummer can take the time to develop some muscle memory on the quiet kit, and that muscle memory can be used on the quiet kit every time – which removes the necessity of figuring out how to play the same groove as last week, only with 10 dB less force. The drummer just plays the same way every night, with the drums coming through the PA at an event-appropriate level.

Go Direct (And Silent) With Everything

“No way! No way! An amp modeler just doesn’t capture the mojo of my specially-selected, all-tube Fender/ Marshall/ Mesa/ Orange/ Bogner/ Egnater/ Ampeg/ Whatever…and modelers just sound crappy and you don’t look cool playing them and they just SUCK.”

Notice how I wrapped that up in the same way as I did for the Edrums? Now I’m going to say the same thing as a follow-on.

I can actually sympathize, but I need to be clear and direct:

In all likelihood, nobody really cares but you.

What this all comes down to – and this expands on the issues with the drums, by the way – is that you, as a musician, very probably are interested in things that your audience is disinterested, or even anti-interested in. Again, when the band’s purpose is to be background, the folks that you’re playing to (or just around) don’t even want any of those sonic events that you think are so magical. They want to hear their favorite songs, played live, except at a level that’s similar to what they would get with an iPod or phone plugged into a half-decent stereo set at “inoffensive.”

The other thing is that “too loud for the event” is too loud, regardless of where a prized amp’s volume control is set. Telling a displeased event coordinator that “gee, I’ve only got the amp at two” is meaningless. They don’t care about how the knobs on your amp’s faceplate interact with the circuitry inside the case. They just know that you aren’t doing what THEY want, and consciously or unconsciously, they are regretting having hired you. That’s a very bad thing for a party-band, especially if you want the good paying jobs.

As a final note for this section, I will tell you that I’ve heard modelers sound both bad and great. I’ve also heard all-tube rigs sound gorgeous and atrocious. A player that knows how to dial up a basically pleasing, ensemble-appropriate tone is much more important to the endeavor than how the guitar rig generates signals.

In-Ears

It is, of course, entirely possible to quickly wreck all your effort at creating a silent stage. You’ve gotten Edrums that you can live with. You’ve found guitar and bass modelers that don’t torment you. The keys player is elated at not having to lug around that amp that feels as though it were lined with lead.

And then all that effort comes to naught because you break out a set of conventional wedges at the gig. Before you know it, you’re turning everything up to “rock” volume anyway. Here comes that event coordinator, looking mighty irritated…

The thing with a minimum-SPL setup is that the endeavor goes “all or nothing” in a hurry. Getting your monitoring to be as silent as everything else is pretty important for “presentation,” but it’s also great from a functionality standpoint. Create a rig with separate mixes for everybody, and everybody can go hog wild without bugging anyone else. If the bass player wants the level to be earth-shattering in his head, it’s no problem. The audience doesn’t know, and nobody else on deck needs to care.

Because party-bands aren’t always the featured part of an event, you do need to have flexibility with your in-ear setup. Having an option to go wired (in case of problematic wireless traffic) is really important, because you just don’t know if anybody will care enough to do frequency coordination with you – and on a silent stage, not having your in-ears is just not an option.

Some Final Thoughts

“Running silent” is an investment, both of time and money. It’s also not as easy to pull off as a straight-up rock band setup. It requires a fair bit of “homework,” because you have to get used to making it work correctly all the time, every time – you can’t fudge your setup and just get by. This also means that it’s very helpful for you to be as self-contained as possible. Ideally, you should be able to get your in-ear rig doing exactly what you need it to do without the help of an audio human that’s unknown to you. Further, some audio humans may not know quite what to do with a band that runs everything (including the drums) direct. Even if you don’t want to have an entire FOH PA for yourself, you might want to have a band engineer and console along for your shows. A person you trust who can tie into whatever sound system is provided can be a tremendous help.

Having a silent stage isn’t strictly necessary to being a party-band, but it can be a big help in getting you the widest variety of gigs possible. Event work can get you into some very swanky places – places that I think Puddlestone could have gone if the band had stayed together. (The bass player ended up moving, and the other guys just didn’t have the heart to continue without him.)

To keep this article at a manageable size, I didn’t dig deep into all the issues surrounding direct guitars and in ear monitors. If you’d like some more detail on these topics, pay my site (The Small Venue Survivalist) a visit:

Electric Guitar: Mic Or DI And Why?
Personal Monitoring Is Just That…Personal
In-Ear Success – A Basic Guide

The managing, mangling, massaging, and massacring of audio can be strangely abstract. I have a theory about why. My notion is that we are much more culturally ready to be analytical about visual information than we are about sonic information. As an Internet culture this is only reinforced, because our primary Internet access-point (the Web) is all about displaying things on screens. It’s primarily a visual medium.

Anyway.

One of the realities that has started to really blow my mind as an audio-human is how so many concepts are cross-disciplinary. For instance, there was a moment when I realized that a monitor loudspeaker and a microphone form an acoustical resonant circuit that’s basically the same as an electronic resonant circuit. When that moment occurred, it was like being able to see the fabric of the universe. In much the same way, there comes a time when you realize that sound and light can often be thought of in the same terms.

When we consider light as a wave, different light colors have different frequencies. For sound, different pitches have different frequencies. Interestingly, both technical and non-technical discussions of sound make use of this as an analogy. For instance, we refer to lower frequency sonic material as being “warm,” in much the same way that lower frequency colors of light (reds, oranges, and some yellows) are called “warm colors.” Different kinds of audio noise with different power distributions are also referred to by color – noise with a power distribution that favors high frequencies is called “blue” or “azure,” whereas noise with equal power per frequency is called “white.” Sound pressure waves have intensity, and so do light waves. As such, both sound and visual information can be discussed in terms of dynamic range.

Bearing in mind these strongly analogous characteristics between visual and auditory input, it becomes possible to represent audio processing in a graphical way. This can be very helpful in understanding what’s going on with a band’s arrangements and tonal choices on stage, as well as getting a feel for what studio and live audio folks are doing with all those knobs and switches.

Compression – Dynamic Range Reduction

compression1Here’s a picture of a mixing console that has a rather pronounced dynamic range. That is, there are deep darks, and brightly lit areas…and not a whole lot that’s in between. It’s much the same as an instrument or singer who’s either really quiet or VERY LOUD. (In the case of this image, as in the case of certain kinds of music, highly pronounced “dynamic swing” is dramatically appropriate.)

Dynamic range compression (or just “compression”) reduces the range of that dynamic swing. This can help to reveal details of a performance that might otherwise be swamped by some other sound, or help to prevent one instrument’s extra-loud passage from obliterating everything else. In terms of a band’s arrangement and playing style, sometimes the reduction of dynamics is necessary for certain situations. In a noisy bar, for instance, it’s a good idea to avoid being so quiet that the audience drowns the delicate passages. However, you also don’t want to be so loud that the audience is driven away.

compression2Here’s the same picture with reduced dynamic range – compression – applied. The parts that were once a very deep grey are now rather lighter, and some of the details that were lost in shadow have been partially revealed.

In this particular case, the appropriateness of this is debatable. As I said earlier, the original intent of the picture was to have a large dynamic swing, details in shadow be danged! This reveals an important issue that surrounds both electronic dynamic range compression and playing with limited dynamics: You can make your “sonic picture” unpleasant in a hurry. This is not to say that compression is bad at all times, but rather to say that compression is not always helpful or desirable.

compression3Here’s the same picture again, now having been “smashed flat” in terms of dynamic range.

Yuck. The picture has lost a tremendous amount of definition, because the contrast between the “quiet” and “loud” parts has been wrecked. The picture is approaching a point where it’s all one level, and that’s neither visually nor aurally appealing. If this picture were sound, it would have been a victim of an engineer crushing it do death with a limiter, or a casualty of a band that just plays everything as loud as possible at all times.

Another revealing thing about this picture is that the details that were in deep shadow have NOT been recovered. Instead, all you have is patches of noise. The same thing happens in audio: Sonic information that actually gets drowned in the acoustical or electronic noise floor is lost forever. Further, overcompression followed by the necessary, compensating gain boost can make the noise floor much more audible than it ought to be.

Expansion And Gating – Dynamic Range Augmentation

gating1This picture also has a pretty decent amount of dynamic swing, although the range isn’t as pronounced as the console picture I used for the compression example.

Dynamic range expansion allows us to isolate the “loud enough” parts of a signal from lower-level material. This can be used both for artistic effect and for limited amounts of problem solving. For instance, imagine that the light parts of the picture are a drum hit, and the darker parts are unnecessary bleed from cymbals, monitor speakers, amplifiers, and whatever else you can imagine. Apply a bit of dynamic range expansion, and…

gating2…the parts of the sonic (or visual) signal that were already emphasized are now MORE emphasized. This reveals a limitation of expansion and gating – namely, that dynamic range expansion is only effective on signals that already have a sufficiently large amount of dynamic swing. Large dynamic swings allow the processor to discriminate between what you want to keep and what you want to ignore. On the flipside, the processor can’t help you with signals where the unwanted material is at a similar level to the desired signal.

gating3This picture is an example of “full” gating, which differs from expansion in that any part of the signal that doesn’t cross the “loud enough” threshold is pushed all the way into silence. Visual silence is blackness; the absence of light.

This is pretty extreme, although the subject of the picture is still probably identifiable. It’s the same way for sound. Full gating can be tough to get right, and it’s pretty easy to kill off parts of the sound that you actually want. At the same time, though, the tradeoff might be worth it for one reason or another.

EQ (And Arrangement)

As I mentioned before, both audio and light waves have frequencies. Equalization is altering the gain of specific frequency ranges, whether for stylistic reasons or to correct an issue. To get started, here are two pictures of a mini mixer. One picture is relatively neutral, while the other is fairly blue. The blue picture emphasizes high-frequency material. If it were an audio signal, it might have a somewhat excessive amount of hiss or “snap.”

eq1

Using EQ, we can selectively dial back the excessive highs, so that the second picture has a balance that’s closer to the first.

eq2

Now, that’s all fine and good.

But, do you notice that the two pictures are now a little bit harder to distinguish? In a subtle way, they sort of “run into” each other. This exposes a problem that can crop up in both EQ and arrangement. If everything is equalized to emphasize the same frequency range, or if different instruments don’t play in different tonal ranges, different parts become less distinct. Sounds all start to compete for the same piece of sonic real-estate, and you can quickly get into a situation where raw volume makes one part dominate all the others. On the other hand, if one part carries the low end (red) material, and the other part carries the midrange (yellow/ green), you get something like this.

eq3

Although two different frequency ranges have been emphasized, neither picture looks wholly unnatural. There’s enough of a difference to easily pick them apart from each other, even though they’re both about equally “loud.”

Just like other forms of processing, EQ can definitely be abused. For instance, some folks love to make the “smiley face” curve on graphic equalizers. Here’s what that looks like in a visual context:

eq4

The result is all high and low frequency content (reds and blues) with nothing in the middle. Boom, thump, and sizzle are lots of fun, but they aren’t actually where most of the music is. Scooped EQ is certainly exciting and attention getting, but it’s so unnatural that it can quickly get annoying. Beyond that, anything with mid-frequency content, whether a desirable sound or an undesirable sound, will very easily dominate the sonic picture. (For guitarists, this is a very important consideration. Scooped mids give distorted guitar a very aggressive tone, but going too far means that the actual notes are annihilated by the rest of the band.)

Reverb

Reverberation, whether electronic or acoustic in nature, is basically the audio equivalent of motion blur. If it were gaussian blur, the sound would “smear” both forwards and backwards in time, but that’s not what happens. The wash of reflections extends after the sonic event only, because the sound has to actually…you know…happen before any reverb can be generated.

Anyway, here’s a picture that’s “dry.” It has no artificial blur added.

reverb1

“Adding some verb” means that a certain amount of sonic motion blur is blended with the non-blurred, direct signal. At a certain point, an effect that’s highly noticeable can be produced. Even so, the different objects in the image retain some intelligibility. They’re all still identifiable and distinct from each other, even with the blurring of the “visual reverb.”

reverb2

Even with this somewhat restrained picture, a problematic reality of reverberation begins to reveal itself. All reverb, whether from a processor or from the room, reduces musical definition. Individual notes and individual musical parts become less distinct from each other, because their sonic presence is extended and “smudged” in time. In a certain way, reverb acts as a kind of time-variant dynamic compression. Whether visually or sonically, “reverberant blur” smooths sharp volume-level transitions into softer versions of themselves. This is not necessarily bad. Properly applied reverb can be beautiful, but go too far and…

reverb3

…everything loses its shape.

This picture also reveals why acoustical problems are hard to fix via electronic processing. Would making the picture brighter fix the blurring? No – the blur would just be brighter. Would pulling the yellow colors out of the image help? No – not fully, anyway. In audio terms, this means that making the PA system louder just makes the reverb louder. Trying to EQ around the reverb has limited usefulness (although it can sometimes help a bit in the right situations, if you’re careful).

In audio, just as in visual art, a canvas that imposes its will upon the painting is tough to fix with brushes and paint – no matter how expensive they are.

But fully getting into that analogy is probably best saved for a different time.

I figured that I should probably write an article about an actual technical issue in live-sound, seeing as how Carlos always introduces me as an audio-human. I mean, it was getting a little ridiculous there (my piece about why some audio guys are unhelpful notwithstanding).

So…

Some of you have instruments with non-preamplified pickups. That is, the pickup doesn’t run to any kind of processor, doesn’t need any batteries, and isn’t connected to an amp that you’ve brought along. Instead, the pickup simply turns your instrument’s vibrations into electricity, and that electricity travels down a cable that gets plugged into the audio rig.

…and some of you have had real problems. I have very definitely heard several variations on “When we played at that other place, we couldn’t get any level out of my pickup. I might need a new one.” It hardly happens to me every day, but I’ve encountered people with similar issues often enough for me to think: There’s something out there that needs to be addressed.

Let me start by saying that the news is probably good, actually.

It Probably Didn’t Break Between Rehearsal And The Gig

Yes – sometimes gear does get mangled on the trip to the venue. You can’t discount that possibility. However, if you just recently plugged your pickup into a practice amp, and everything was fine, it’s unlikely that your gear spontaneously killed itself.

Most instrument pickups that I run across are fairly hardy creatures in and of themselves. These days, the actual pickup part of the pickup should be able to withstand at least a bit of abuse before having an internal failure. (I’m not advocating that you do mean things to your pickup. I’m just saying that riding around in a gig bag probably won’t wreck the actual transducer.)

Oh – if you didn’t know, “transducer” just means “a device that converts one form of energy into another, corresponding form.” In this case, we’re talking about taking the energy of your instruments vibrations and turning it into electrical energy.

Anyway.

The actual transducer is usually attached to a cable. That cable, while probably not delicate, is likely to be far more fragile than the pickup itself. For that reason, it’s worth keeping a mental note as to whether or not that cable might have been yanked, bent at a sharp angle (especially near the plug or the pickup), stepped on, rolled over by a roadcase, smashed during transit, or otherwise treated poorly. That’s just due diligence when you have a problem.

But, what if everything seems like it should be okay? What if you’ve connected your instrument to the PA system via the audio craftsperson’s shiny, new, undamaged direct box…and all you get is a “tinny,” weak signal? Do you need a new pickup?

Short answer: No.

Long answer:

You Probably Have An Impedance Problem, Not A Pickup Problem

Impedance is really the “meat” of this issue. So, what is it?

Impedance, by itself, is not a complex idea. It’s the opposition to the flow of current in a circuit where the voltage changes over time. Yes, that’s right: The signal on your instrument pickup’s cable is a kind of alternating current. Sure, the voltage is much lower than the alternating current that comes out of a wall socket. Sure, the frequency content is complex.

It’s still alternating current, though.

The basic concept of impedance is not difficult to make sense of. What gets audio and music folk into trouble is that impedance issues can have profound effects on how our gear works. What also gets us into trouble is that we live in an age where a lot of “impedance matching and bridging” problems have been thoroughly worked out. We just don’t have to think about impedance issues very much (or at all), and so we forget to consider possible impedance pitfalls when a problem occurs.

I know that this is getting REALLY technical. Don’t panic. Yet.

The problem with us pro-audio types is that we predominantly live in a world that thrives on low impedance. Sending signals across “long” lines (like a 100’+ snake), and then applying a ton of gain to those signals are “Very Pro-Audio Things To Do.” The doing of Very Pro-Audio Things is facilitated by having relatively low-impedance signal paths. Low impedance is great for driving long cables. Low impedance is great for keeping noise manageable.

…and low impedance can make your instrument pickup sound awful. Getting into precisely how that happens is a bit beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that low impedance can result in signal loss, unwanted resonances, and the filtering out of either low or high-frequency signal content (depending upon the situation).

But What About That DI Box?

Now, at this point you might be saying, “But at my last show, we plugged my pickup into a DI box. It sounded terrible! DI boxes were made so that my gear would work with pro-audio gear, right? My pickup must be bad.”

Firstly: You’re correct that DI boxes are primarily used to help with getting different kinds of gear to play nicely together.

Secondly: Not all DI boxes are the same.

(I’ve actually written a whole article about this on my own site.)

These days, a lot of the most affordable DI boxes are basically meant to serve one purpose: They take an unbalanced, actually low-ish impedance signal that might be a bit too “hot” for a mic pre, and turn it into a balanced signal that’s at an even lower impedance, and has been reduced in voltage to a mic-pre friendly level.

These DI boxes are passive, meaning the only electricity that they need is what they get from the signal source plugged into their input.

Let’s be clear. “Passive” does not mean “bad.” I myself have a handful of passive DI boxes that are perfectly adequate – when they’re being used for the correct purpose. The issue with passive DI boxes is that they are simply not the best choice for high-impedance devices, like your “stick it in the soundhole” inductive guitar pickup.

Further, passive DIs are a THOROUGHLY AWFUL choice for really, really, really high-impedance devices, like that “no installation necessary” piezo pickup that sticks to your classical guitar/ mandolin/ violin/ whatever.

The reason is impedance. A passive DI box’s input impedance just isn’t that high, especially for a piezo pickup. A magnetic pickup might get by with some “ultimately tolerable yet still disappointing” loss of high-end, but a piezo pickup might seem like it has no output, no “body,” and a rather disgusting sort of “nasal honk” if you can get enough gain applied to hear anything.

On the flipside, active DI boxes and preamps designed for instruments DO have high-impedance inputs. This is why the question of “did your pickup work with a practice amp” is an important one to answer. If your pickup worked with the practice amp in rehearsal, then the problem at the gig might just be DI box’s impedance. Mate your pickup to an active DI, and chances are that your pickup problems will “magically” resolve themselves. Active DI boxes have undergone significant price drops over the years, to the point that they can be had for only slightly more than a passive model. If you’re using an instrument with a passive pickup, you might want to invest in an active DI or preamp of your own…

…because even an otherwise competent audio human might not be aware of the above, just as you weren’t aware of it. Which leads me into a bit of a rant:

We Seem To Also Have An Education Problem

I don’t want to get too “tinfoil hat” about all this, but it seems like the constant drive to reduce packaging and reduce costs has resulted in the death of The Truly Helpful Instruction Manual. Back when I was much younger, it seemed like all kinds of things shipped with thick, detail-oriented instruction books that did more than just tell you how to plug things in. These Truly Helpful manuals had all kinds of background information in them, which helped you to understand how a product actually worked. If the customer actually bothered to read the book, they stood a good chance of understanding enough to know WHY something might be acting up.

Now, as many things have gotten highly commoditized and much more “stupid resistant,” manuals have been reduced to quickstart guides that tell you very little about the whys and wherefores of your gear. In some cases, this is excusable…especially when the manufacturer has truly eliminated most of the guesswork involved in using the product.

The issue with passive instrument-pickups (and other things) is that the informative manual has been eliminated while the uncertainties remain. Active or preamp-equipped instrument pickups can be plugged into almost anything and work acceptably, so a manual that talks about things like DI boxes and impedance issues would be nice…but not 100% necessary. On the passive side, though, it’s troubling as to the lack of information that would help customers understand what affects their gear – perhaps profoundly.

Of course, this lack of education on the part of equipment manufacturers helps folks like me, in terms of giving us consulting gigs and letting us write articles like this. In the case of someone’s live-performance, though, I think that the cost of saving money on the manual might just be a little high.

I dunno. Maybe I’m wrong.

But I do miss informative, well written, engagingly illustrated instruction manuals.

Anyway – your pickup probably isn’t broken. Just remember that impedance is a factor, and be ready to try a couple of different things when the unexpected occurs.

I sure do spend a lot of time talking about non-audio topics. I guess it’s because I’ve worn different hats in this business. Sure, the sound-dude hat has always been the one that fit me best, and also the one that I’ve always worn – but even so.

There’s a certain point where a production tech starts to notice and internalize various other aspects of the business. Because we see so much of what goes on behind the scenes that are, themselves, behind OTHER scenes, audio and lighting craftspeople can develop a certain sense about how the show fits into a much bigger picture.

For me personally, this “dip” into the other aspects of the business was pretty deep…because I used to run an all-ages venue in Salt Lake. Like I said, my main role was to be an audio tech, but I also did all the booking, financial, general admin, and janitorial work. It was a BLAST, and I developed quite an appreciation for the “full spectrum” of the live-music biz.

I also developed quite an appreciation for bands that were great to work with. Concurrently, I began keeping a mental list of things that made me never want to see a band again, ever. This article is all about putting that list (or bits of it) into a written form. What’s odd about an article like this is that you wouldn’t think it would be necessary – you’d suppose that all of this is common sense. However, these issues do come up again and again, which suggests to me that maybe all of this ISN’T common sense.

…and please be assured that nothing in this article is meant to be “snarky.” I love bands, and I want you guys to succeed.

That sometimes means that things get a little pointed, though.

Also: Be aware that my opinions and perceptions may or may not reflect anyone else’s opinions and perceptions.

Shall we begin? Here’s how to influence people to not book you:

Bring Nobody To Your Show. Act Like It’s The Venue’s Fault.

Before you hit the roof, let me say that, yes, venues should update their calendars, do something to get the word out about upcoming shows, and just generally be a place where people want to go. If a venue has found a promotion avenue that seems to work, they should make sure that every show is announced through that channel.

Absolutely agreed.

At the same time, though, promotion isn’t magic. (That’s a concept that I repeat like a mantra these days.) If the venue has done its due diligence, and nobody cares enough to come to your gig, then laying the full measure of blame at the feet of “the room” is just jerkery. As far as I can tell, folks are very unlikely to go out to see some random act anymore. On any given night, “just getting there” is NOT half the fun for people anymore.

It’s not 1975, folks. People are laser-focused on what they want to do these days. If they don’t care about your act, then there’s probably no reason for them to visit the bar/ club/ theater/ whatever that you’re playing at.

If you don’t draw in the venue’s market, then no amount of venue promo is going to change that.

Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody will eventually book a room that their fans don’t want to visit. Everybody will have an off night. It’s inevitable, and I think most venues get that.

But if you “fail to convert,” and then start to publicly moan and groan about how the room didn’t do its part (when the room did what it’s done for successful nights), then you are going on my “don’t book these guys again” list.

Steal Or Damage Something…Or Have Fans Who Do

I once worked a show where a relatively spendy mic was on a stand in a backstage area. At the end of the show, the mic was gone – and the “geniuses” who took it were so clueless as to how to get it off the stand that they broke the stand.

I never found out who absconded with my microphone and busted my gear. It could have been the performers, or it could have been “the entourage.” (There was a point where it was hard to tell which group was which.)

Do you think I cared about who it was, exactly? Nope. Not a snowball’s chance. That group was very unlikely to play the room again. (The whole thing was unpleasant, not just getting robbed.)

Yes, accidents happen. Gear gets broken unintentionally. Also, there are bad apples to be found in the nicest groups of fans. Trust me, venue staff are aware of this.

However, gear does cost money and time to replace. It’s the same with the building we’re in, the accoutrements used to serve concessions or drinks, and everything else in the room. If you are intentionally abusing a mic stand, or threatening a monitor wedge with a beverage, you should consider yourself marked for “never coming back” status.

In the same way, if your fans are a pain in the venue staffs’ various body parts, or if your fans are an outright threat to the room’s property, you ain’t comin’ back. Again – one person being a fool is something that can be understood, but the consistent behavior of your fan base has a lot to do with whether or not you’re bookable. If a show with you and your followers consistently ends with something missing or broken, why would the venue want you back? No, you aren’t responsible for the behavior of every individual who comes to see you, but you ARE intimately connected to the general tolerability of your crowd.

If you and the people who follow you are a liability, then there are plenty of other acts that aren’t. They’ll get the nod.

(On the other side, though, being clear that you want your following to respect the venue goes a long way towards venue staff being more tolerant of shenanigans.)

Fail To Honor The Payout

If the room pays you what was agreed, in good faith, and you still get bent out of shape about it, then the booker might just think twice about doing battle with you again.

This applies at all levels.

I once had a touring act come through a venue, and they didn’t draw very well. The deal was that they would get 60% of the door, and the house would get 40%. (The venue didn’t sell drinks or anything else, so the only money for us was the door.) By “didn’t draw very well,” what I mean is that the house cut for the night was $4. (Yikes!)

After loadout, without a word, the band grabbed the entire stash of door money and bailed.

It wasn’t about the amount. I could live without having the $4. The problem was that we had made a deal, the band had suddenly decided it wasn’t good enough, and they took money that wasn’t theirs. I know they needed gas money. If they had asked, I’m pretty sure that I would have “recut” the deal to 100% and wished them well.

Instead, they didn’t honor their end of the agreement, and they stole money from me. Do you think I responded to their “booking manager’s” e-mails after that?

Look, it’s perfectly okay to wish you had made more money on a night. It’s even okay to say it. This isn’t about being happy when you aren’t. The key thing is, though, that acting like the venue screwed you over when YOU AGREED to the terms of the settlement is…well, unfair, unprofessional, and unlikely to endear you to the folks who work at the room. You want to negotiate? Go for it! Just do it at the right time, which is before you agree to appear.

Leave An Unwarranted Mess

So, your drummer got a little excited, and left a pile of wood shavings under the kit? It’s cool! We have a vacuum.

You accidentally spilled your drink when you were changing guitars? Stuff happens!

You threw food at each other, spat a fountain of beer over everything “because rock and roll, Dude,” left bottles and string-package wrappers everywhere, tossed your used band-aid or finger wraps on the floor (EWWWW!), and just generally treated my stage like a trash bin?

Here’s a hint: I am either going to refrain from booking you myself, or urge the booking manager to have you back as infrequently as possible.

Act Like The Venue Owes You Its Profit Center

If you walked into the room, and the venue staff immediately started rummaging around in your merch bins for free stuff, you would be irritated, right?

Yes, you would. It would be different if you were thrilled with us, and wanted all of us to have a free shirt in gratitude – but us costing your band money because “we should just get what we want” wouldn’t be something you’d appreciate.

So, if you’re playing at a place that makes money by serving food and drinks, why do you think it should be automatically free?

Now…I get it. Back in the day, it became a bit of a tradition that the band was fed and watered (or beered and liquored) on the venue’s tab. It was part of the compensation package, because the room would make it all back anyway.

Like I said further up the page – it’s not 1975 anymore, folks.

Those days are gone, unless you have proven yourself to be a huge draw at a particular room. If your show isn’t going to bring outsized profit to the venue, then no, the venue isn’t obligated to subsidize your meals and beverages. If you want to fight about it, do so when you’re negotiating the gig’s compensation. If you didn’t get food and drink explicitly included in your gig agreement, then trying to pressure the venue into it “the day of” is inappropriate.

Being inappropriate makes you less bookable.

Eat, Drink, Or “Guestlist” All Your Profits, Then Complain About It

You: “Oh man, we let a ton of people in for free, and we ran a huge tab. We barely made any money on this gig. Your venue should have a better payout and treat artists better.”

Me: “Maybe you should drink less, and not let all your friends in for nothing.”

Say That It’s Not About The Money, Then Be All About The Money

If you can’t be consistent about what you want to get out of playing, then I will eventually begin to desire that your inconsistency be inflicted on someone else. This connects with failing to honor the payout, and complaining that the venue didn’t do its part (when the venue DID do its part).

If you go through this whole spiel about how music is a spiritual thing for you, and you just want to play, and everything is too commercial anymore…and then later grumble about how venues are greedy, and don’t support musicians, and how “stuff costs money,” then I would just rather not be subjected to it all.

I’m fine with you thinking that money is worthless in music, as long as you’re willing to apply that thinking in a way that’s predictable. Trying to manipulate your way into more money after everything has basically been said and done is seriously unpleasant.

I don’t like being manipulated, so if you try it on me, I’ll be happier when you aren’t around, thanks.

Be Too Drunk Or Too High To Play Properly

Wrecking your own show is never a good idea. (Duh.) It’s also bad for the venue, because it chases away the people who, you know, pay money to see you. If you want music to be your full-time job, then please act like you actually care about doing a good job. That means being in a mental and physical state where you can actually play properly.

…and don’t hand me a bunch of fluff about how “Janis and Jim Morrison and those guys did it.” I don’t mean to be mean, but if you aren’t drawing thousands to arenas then you definitely are NOT in the same class as Janis and Jim and Hendrix and Bonham and [insert classic act here].

At an utterly selfish level, I can tell you that one of the worst feelings I get as a tech is being embarrassed for people. In some cases, I have become physically uncomfortable at how badly a musician has sabotaged themselves. I don’t think – and I’m pretty sure audiences don’t think – it’s “cute” or “rock” when a musician can’t even play their own songs.

Also, when you’re toasted/ baked/ cooked/ whatever, your personality tends to change. That change is rarely a pleasant one. I don’t always get to pick and choose who I work with, but when I do have the choice, I work with pleasant, professional people who don’t undergo frightening mood swings.

Play Too Loudly For The Room, Or Each Other

It’s a little ironic that I left this for last, but here’s the thing:

You can get everything else in this article to be spot on, and then wreck it all by being too freakin’ loud.

I’d have a nice stash of mad-money if I had a dollar for every time I’ve said, “They were great guys, and really decent players, but they are just too loud for this room.” Too much volume is INCREDIBLY powerful as a factor in whether or not you get asked back, and it’s very rare that I’m successfully able to tame a “too loud” situation in real time. The fact is that what you’re used to doing on stage and in rehearsal is what you’ll always tend to do, so please:

Practice the snot out of being tolerable in very small rooms, and if you can’t hear someone in rehearsal, fix the problem in rehearsal.

Otherwise, you’re very likely to be a pain in the neck, and pains in the neck don’t get rebooked very much.

The Fix

So – there’s a lot up there. What can you do?

Simple:

Be courteous, kind, and professional. Make agreements and honor them. That might seem tough, but it’s actually a lot less work than the alternatives.

Ari Herstand recently wrote a “matched pair” of articles about audio humans. You know – sound guys. Noise boys. Audio craftspersons. FOH engineers. I guess there was a bit of a kerfuffle over it all, some of it being fueled by musicians who have had terrible experiences with “aerial vibration management technicians.” (Sound guys.)

Now, a lot of my articles put the onus on musicians. I don’t think I’ve been unfair when I’ve done that. At the same time, though, audio humans bear their fair share of responsibilities – and when they fail to uphold their part of the bargain, extremely frustrating situations can develop, and morph, and snowball into a cluster[censored] of epic proportions.

But…beyond the fact that craptastic and infuriating sound dudes/ dudettes do exist, a question remains. What causes certain audio humans to be so painful to work with? I believe that, in many cases, you can trace the issue back to a fundamental, “negative” force, which is:

Lack Of Knowledge

Now, sure, there are some highly knowledgeable audio techs who are jerks. There are highly-experienced and entirely competent people who are the very picture of “a control freak.” However, I’ve found that many bad behaviors are initiated and intensified by having insufficient understanding of a situation that you’re a major player in. There is also, of course, flat-out incompetence…which can actually happen alongside a great attitude.

To talk about this more in-depth, let’s take a look at some of the points made in Ari Herstand’s piece that addresses audio humans directly.

The first heading, “Not All Of Us [Musicians] Suck,” addresses the issue of the sound guy who – from the first moment – is clearly uninterested in working with you. My feeling is that these situations are driven by techs who only want to work with their favorite kind of music, or their favorite kind of people. On the surface, this is about preferences – but I would suggest that the root is “lack of knowledge.”

There are plenty of audio craftspeople out there who are “button pushers.” That is, they’ve learned an explicit procedure for getting workable results, but don’t truly understand why that procedure exists. I would venture to say that most techs spend some non-trivial amount of time in that phase – I know that I certainly did. The problem with being a button pusher is that, when confronted with something that’s unfamiliar, you aren’t well suited to adapt to it. The narrower an audio human’s experience is, the less they will be able to work competently on your show – and this can make the tech feel threatened. Threatened people are often unpleasant, and so if your genre is unfamiliar to the sound guy, or even if it’s just you as a person that’s unfamiliar, you may get the cold-shoulder as a result.

This also carries over into Ari’s second point, which gets neatly wrapped up in one sentence: “You may know how to run a 5 piece rock band, but I have more experience with my gear and my show. Why not put your ego aside for a second and work WITH me?”

Again, the issue is lack of knowledge. The engineer has the procedure for “making a full band work” down to a science, even to the troubleshooting of any problems. Even so, there isn’t enough understanding of the general, fundamental underpinnings of the craft to be able to adapt to an unfamiliar situation.

Lack of knowledge is also why some techs absolutely lose their minds when you move a mic, or your instrument, or want to substitute your own mic, or use your own DI, or sing at the “wrong” distance from the mic.

(Please do sing closely enough that your monitor-mix desires and hopes for the sound out front are in accord with the laws of physics, but beyond that…)

Anyhow.

These folks go bonkers when you change things because they only know how to make things work when the setup is PRECISELY in accord with their experience. Their comfort zone is tiny, because their understanding of their craft is restricted. Mess with their comfort zone – especially when their self-worth rides on their results – and BOOM! You end up with a very pissed-off technician.

Why Is There So Much Lack Of Knowledge?

I could go on, and on, and on, and on with the examples in the previous section, but I think that what’s more helpful is to talk about why you are so likely to encounter audio humans that suffer from “lack of knowledge.”

1) All audio techs have to learn their craft.

There’s not a single audio human who knows everything about live-sound from the moment they’re born. Learning the discipline takes years, and that’s often just for the functional part. The fundamental principles behind everything – the math, the science, and getting a feel for how those fundamentals express themselves in practical reality – can take even longer. In my own case, I’ve been doing something with audio for just short of 20 years…and I can’t say that I was really comfortable with the craft until I was about 15 years in. I didn’t actually become internally confident (consistently, anyway) until I had 17 or 18 years under my belt. I still have a “breakthrough” every now and again.

I wish I was smarter.

Anyway, getting to be competent at real-time audio takes a while.

2) Not all audio techs really want to learn the craft.

Coupled with the first point is that not everybody is fascinated by live-audio to the same degree. Some folks are happy to learn just enough to be able to work in a few specific situations. At that point, they’re done, they’re fine with it, and they may even be highly confident – especially if their experience has been limited enough to fuel that confidence. If that confidence becomes challenged, however, they may suddenly turn into a very unpleasant sort of creature (as described earlier).

3) Misinformation is everywhere.

The world of audio is rife with mythology, and even outright falsehood that becomes accepted as fact. This is driven by how incredibly deep the craft is. There is a massive amount of science that underlies the working of any given piece of live-sound, and it’s entirely possible to reach a conclusion about “x causes y” that seems consistent and correct…and is UTTERLY FALSE. This misinformation can be believed and propagated by even very competent and respected audio humans.

For instance, I was taught by a live-audio instructor who was clearly a knowledgeable guy. He knew how and why things were done, as far as I could tell. He was also convinced that “clipping destroys speakers because the signal contains DC, and the DC stops the speaker from cooling itself via movement.” When he said that, I believed him.

He was COMPLETELY incorrect – but he was still a good sound guy, and an instructor that I learned a lot of correct things from. (For the record, clipping does NOT destroy speakers, and most power amplifiers probably won’t pass DC at their outputs anyway. That’s not the point of this article, though.)

4) Techs are often hired by people who know less than they do.

When an audio human goes to work for a sound company, especially when the founder is still in charge, they’re probably going to be mentored. They’re probably going to grow in their knowledge. They’re probably going to become a better, more flexible craftsperson, and it’s because their boss is better at live-sound than they are.

However, there are plenty of other situations where audio humans are employed by definitely-not-audio-people. The tech gets hired because they can consistently make sound come out of the PA, and nobody else in the building may even know where to start. There are some techs who aren’t even people that are dedicated to live-sound. It’s just that they know enough about hooking up A/V gear to make things work, and that’s it.

5) Really good techs are expensive.

The real, honest-to-goodness top talents in live-sound are very spendy to hire. Some audio-humans charge a “per day” rate that’s a multiple of what a small venue can expect to gross in a night…perhaps even by an order of magnitude. As a result, there are a lot of venues that have to settle for what they can get on a small budget. People with the experience and maturity of, say, Dave Rat, are unlikely to be found at “some bar.” It’s just economics.

Heck, even average techs are expensive. The club I work for pays me more than they can really afford, because they believe in doing the best they possibly can for musicians. People seem to enjoy working with me, but I’m not exactly a guy who could mix FOH for a stadium act, or do realtime, rock-and-roll monitors in Vegas.

6) You wouldn’t believe what floats to the top.

Up there, I said “the real, honest-to-goodness top talents.” This was to distinguish from the folks who are working above their level of actual experience. There are plenty of stories out there of people mixing big acts in big rooms, but who aren’t really “Varsity Level” craftspersons. Politics and “right place at the right time” play a huge role in this business, and it’s not just for the musicians. If getting promoted past your level of competence can happen at the high levels, just imagine what can happen in bar-and-club land.

Anyway – this article could go on for days, but I think I’ve hit the major points. Obviously, the problem of the “sucky sound dude” can’t be fixed by simply talking about the causes. Still, I think it’s helpful to have an understanding of why things are the way they are. If you’re a musician, you can be more prepared to recognize the signs of an impending problem. If you’re an audio human, you can take a good look at yourself…and try not to suck.