That picture up there is from a night I recently worked alongside The Steve Bassett Band. They brought a VERY healthy-sized crowd to my regular gig, which was something both the band and the venue could appreciate.

There’s a secret to how they did it, a secret which I will now impart to you.

They met their fans where they were.

What I mean is that their fans wanted downbeat to be rather earlier than what it would be usually. The usual time for a performance to kick off in this particular room is “somewhere in the nine o’ clock hour.” What people wanted was downbeat at 8:00 PM.

So, Steve booked the room and asked to start early. We obliged. As I said, a good number of people turned up – and more importantly, they ate, drank,and made merry throughout the better part of the evening. It was a winning situation all around. This crowd would normally eat dinner at home and then come down for only a short time. Instead, they ate at the venue and stayed for most of the tunes.

The band listened to the desires of the crowd, catered to those desires as they could, and had a rather nice night as a result.

It all seems very obvious in microcosm, but I think it calls to mind a deeper issue. Below the surface, there are parts of the music industry that really struggle with the idea of even meeting the fans halfway. In some cases, I think the struggle comes from not even realizing that meeting the fans on the fans’ terms is something to do at all.

Zen And The Art Of Audience Capture

You can’t throw a rock in this business without hitting either a strategy or a question about “audience capture strategy.”

“How do you convince people to come out to these gigs?”

“How do we get people to Twittergram or Faceblog with us?”

“How do we make people want to just hang out in the bars and clubs again?”

The inevitable online groups start, and huge ideas are proposed, and a few folks try for a while, and some things sort of work, and lots of things ultimately fizzle. A lot of effort gets expended, and great swaths of that effort just sort of vanish into the ether.

It’s exhausting, right?

It’s exhausting because it often has to do with an underlying challenge that is tremendously difficult and frustrating to surmount. It’s the challenge of getting people to do something they don’t really want to do.

On the flipside, getting people to do what they already want to do is comparatively effortless. You just create a space (physical or mental) for folks to do it in, keep adding whatever fuels their ability to keep going, and the momentum carries. There’s work involved, of course, but it’s not a struggle. Effectively, you take the route of convincing people of things they’re already convinced about. You change their minds without changing their minds at all.

How this works in the context of my opening case-study is like this: To get that crowd to come out for a 9:00 show is seriously tough. They just aren’t inclined to go out for something that starts that late. The “event” aspect of the night would have to be enormous, requiring weeks or months of intensive planning. It might be something that could only be pulled off once a year. The show might have to coincide with a major holiday. Even then, a lot of folks might just prefer to stay home. It could all be for naught.

Or, you could take Steve Bassett’s approach and meet the audience where they are. You come to the realization that most of the fans are going to want to come early and go home at 10:30, so you plan to start at eight and be mostly done when the crowd is naturally “done” anyway. You flow along with the fans’ desires instead of trying to swim upstream.

And it WORKS. You just tell everybody that, due to popular demand, the show is starting early, and…wow, there are a lot of people here tonight! Where are the extra chairs, again?

The fans aren’t being asked to do something they don’t want to do. They’re being helped to do what they already wanted to do all along. It’s not a battle.

The audience is captured without any capturing being done. It’s very “Zen.”

Why Struggle If It’s Not Necessary?

There are so many places where this applies.

If people want to stream your music, then let them stream it. Trying to force them to buy a download they don’t want is a contest of wills. Letting them get your music the way they like is easy.

If people clearly prefer to engage with you on Facebook, why are you struggling to get them talking on Twitter? (Or the other way around.) They’re already on their platform of choice, so meet them on that platform and save yourself the headache.

If people won’t travel more than 10 miles to see your shows, then you could try any number of promotions and lineups that might entice them, and you could engage in all kinds of marketing that just gets ignored, and…

Or you could find a way to play within 10 miles of them, and not have to attempt anything superhuman.

It’s like I said over at The Small Venue Survivalist: If it doesn’t work, don’t do it.

Meeting the fans where they are, even if only in a small way, is one of the ultimate labor-savers in this business. It’s not necessarily a trivial thing, but it’s much more likely to be rewarding than swimming against the raging current of what fans have no desire to do.

So, I should probably write about something technical after last month’s business-oriented ramble, yeah?

Okay, then. Let’s talk about equalization.

When it comes to the question of whether or not a soundchecking musician should set their tone controls to some neutral point, there is an answer.

It’s a standard answer that you’ll hear everywhere in live-audio.

It’s infuriating.

The answer is: Maybe.

As a gesture of cooperation and respect, I can certainly appreciate the “flattening” of an EQ. Setting your instrument (or amplifier) tone controls to a neutral sound can be a practical and powerful way of saying “We’re all on the same team here.”

But it’s not actually always helpful.

On more than one occasion, I’ve listened as players took a really nice tone and turned it into a mediocre sound. I’ve frantically tweaked console channel EQs as a musician struggled to recreate their sonic fingerprint (while in a pressure situation) without the benefit of their own gear’s controls. In those cases, the flattened EQ hindered the show instead of enhancing it.

Here, then, are some pointers about when it’s appropriate and inappropriate to reset your tone controls.

Use That EQ If You’ve Gotta Sound Like You

Purely at the level of individual taste, you may have some very strong, very specific feelings about how your instrument is supposed to sound. For instance, if you’re a “one guitar, one vocal” sort of act, a key part of your show might be a guitar tone with lots of percussive, deep, low-frequency content. Or, you might be a bass player where a specific part of the lower midrange has to be “just so.”

If you feel like the above paragraph describes you, then flattening your EQ as a matter of course might not be the best idea. As likely as not, you’ll end up trying to talk the audio-human through a rebuild of your sound in realtime – and there’s no guarantee that the engineer will be able to get what you want. If you get your rig in the room, give things a try, and hear “your sound,” then why throw that away? There’s no point.

Another issue to be mindful of is if your tone settings make your instrument fit the context of the group. Maybe you’re a keyboard player, and you’ve got things tweaked so that you perfectly complement the guitars. If you blindly undo those tweaks for the mere sake of courtesy, and your group stops sounding like a beautifully blended band as a result, then the show just got worse instead of better.

Now, in all cases, it’s helpful to keep a line of dialogue open with the sound operator. A ton of low-end might sound fine on deck, but be trouble out front. You might think your rig sounds “clear,” but some murderous top-end content might be missing your ears and frying the audience. There may be some large tonal adjustments necessary for your sound and the room’s needs to converge into a workable solution. Even so, as an audio-human I am a firm believer that we need to at least start by having “your sound” happening on stage. We might not end exactly where we began, but we might as well begin by being informed by your preferences.

There’s no reason to exchange a sound you like for one you don’t, purely for the sake of politics or politeness. (If there’s a specific problem to solve, then solve it. Otherwise…)

How About A Reset?

There are definitely some situations where going back to a “vanilla” tone is a good idea.

One such circumstance is when you’ve been using your tone controls to compensate for a sonic deficiency in another piece of gear. You may normally play through a rig that naturally de-emphasizes a frequency range that you want to be prominent. In that case, you may have used equalization (and perhaps a TON of it) to compensate. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that…until you get plugged into a system that doesn’t have that problem. In that case, your corrective EQ may now be providing you with an incorrect solution. If you’ve done a lot of tone shaping to work in a specific situation, and the situation changes, it might be time to start fresh.

(A specific example of this is a guitar player who uses a pickup-loaded acoustic with an electric-guitar amplifier. A 12″ cone, say, naturally rolls off the high-frequency content from the guitar, and so the player might boost their treble to compensate. This is perfectly okay until the player plugs directly into a PA that doesn’t roll off the highs. All of a sudden, their sound might be painfully crisp.)

Another occasion to return to flat EQ is when you aren’t sure what you want. If you don’t have a strong opinion about how your instrument should sound, then you might find it easier to just let someone else drive. You’ll eventually form a preference, and there’s no point in faking that preference before it settles in.

Yet another time for flat EQ is when you feel like you’re plenty loud, but are still getting swamped by the other parts in an ensemble. It may be that you’ve chased yourself into a tonal corner that’s completely blocked off by the rest of the group. In that case, returning to a neutral setting might help reveal where you do fit.

As I said, what you need to do depends on the situation. Start by listening. If your EQ isn’t flat, and everything sounds great, then leave your EQ alone. If your EQ is flat, and you don’t like what you hear, you may as well start turning some knobs. Getting your sound while retaining a spirit of collaboration and compromise is absolutely polite and professional.

As has often been my tendency on this site, I am straying away from production tech topics and towards “biz.” I figure I can get away with it every so often, especially because being a production tech gives a person a different, perhaps interesting perspective on the business issues. The musicians are sitting where they are, and the venue operators are sitting wherever they sit, and the promoters are kinda standing over there…and the production humans are hanging out at FOH control, or standing on deck, watching.

Or sitting right in the middle, depending on how cross-discipline the audio or lighting human happens to be.


Back in March, a thought formed in my mind. I wrote that thought down in a simple little TXT file, where it has stayed until today:

“Promoters advertise because they know they’ll make their money back – plus a lot more.”

It’s a simplified statement, but its true.

And it could be used to justify a lot of haranguing aimed at musicians about growing their own fanbases and not relying on other industry members to propel their careers, but…well, it actually hits on something much deeper.

You see, the entertainers are the people in this business who can really amass and wield power. (I’ve touched on this before, in a different context.)

Of course, this isn’t much fun to hear when you haven’t amassed much of any power to wield. Depressing, even. Let’s embrace that depression, at least for a few minutes.

Cold Economics

When there was that whole thing with U2 releasing their new songs, for free, on Itunes, a question arose. It was probably asked by numerous different artists in numerous ways, but it all boiled down to one composite query:

“When will an industry giant buy my songs for, say, a million bucks each, and then market them for me?”

The answer to that question is that it will happen as soon as that industry giant figures that it can profit (NOT just “take in,” but PROFIT), say, a million bucks for each song it buys and promotes.

So, if you don’t have a large cadre of raving fans who will gleefully fling money at someone – anyone – selling your music/ merch/ appearances/ etc, then your health will be in serious jeopardy if you hold your breath waiting for the industry to “king” you.

Yeah, I know. Ouch.

Let’s keep talking about U2 for a minute, and bring in the live-show element. When their 2011 tour showed up in Salt Lake (the metro area I’m closest to), the stadium sold out. The stadium’s capacity for that concert was just north of 47,000, and just north of 47,000 people were there. They paid about $63 – $64 each for the privilege. (So saith Wikipedia.)

Now then. I have no idea how much was spent on promoting the show, but let’s go for what seems like a big number. Let’s say it was $500,000. That’s enough to really do some damage in print, as well as on the radio.

What I’m going to assume is that some sort of deal was worked out where the production overhead – I guess it was about $750,000 – was paid out to the band immediately. My guess is that the full promo cost of $500,000 was covered from receipts and removed from “settlement consideration,” and maybe someone had to fork over an additional $250,000 to use Rice Eccles Stadium. So…that’s $1.5 million just to put on the show, which would leave a roughly equal amount as actual profit. If the promotions arm of the whole thing (LiveNation, local promo, whoever) got, say, 15% of that, what that promo effort made from that one show is about $225,000.

Again, let me be clear: I have NO idea if this scenario is close to what actually happened. It seems plausible to me, though.

And no matter how exactly it all worked out, I can’t imagine that the “promotion profit” was anything less than six figures. That’s why promoters want to work with bands like U2 – an act that can fill stadiums is a good bet. Any band with a draw where $1 spent on promo returns $1.45 is an act that makes good financial sense to promote.

Did you find the key phrase in that last sentence? Did you find the key element in my theoretical payout to the promotions people?

The Band Is The Nail Holding It All Together

The answers to my two questions are:

“Any band with a draw where” and “15%.”

Bands have a tendency to put tons of power in the hands of other people. “If we only had a promoter who would shout our name from the rooftops. If we only had the right management. If we only had someone to run our social media accounts. If only the venues would advertise more. If only…”

Here’s the thing, though. In that whole, long, theoretical scenario up there, who really had all the power? The promoter?

Are you kidding me?

U2 owned the whole thing. The reason why concert promoters want to work with U2 is because U2 has a giant army of fans that can actually be promoted to. If you think that 47,000 people coughed up over $63 per seat because a cleverly designed, large surface-area print ad “made them believe,” you’re giving the ad WAY too much credit. They showed up because they wanted to hear their favorite songs performed live, with an over-the-top set and a huge PA system. Their minds were already made up to go – they just needed to be told where, when, and how much it would cost.

Because they love U2. U2 has a mind-boggling “draw,” otherwise known as the ability to get people to go to shows, buy records, purchase merch, and spread the word.

U2 made the emotional connection. U2 was the driving force. U2 had the power to get that audience out there. U2 could conceivably demand 85% of the net receipts after expenses, and get it (with a smile, even), because U2 fills stadiums. Not newspaper ads. Not radio mentions. Not clever marketing tricks. Not the promoter.


The artist, as the constructor of emotional connections with fans, commands all the power until such time as that power is conceded.

Let me repeat that.

The artist, as the constructor of emotional connections with fans, commands all the power until such time as that power is conceded.

Of course musicians get taken advantage of by sleazy managers, greedy promoters, evil industry execs, and so on. It’s because they concede their power to those people, whether intentionally or by accident.

You can also be in a position where you willingly concede power to a promoter, manager, or exec who’s entirely decent. It might just be more convenient for you. My guess is that U2 doesn’t actually need LiveNation for anything, but LiveNation makes life easy for them somehow – so, U2 concedes a bit of power and profit in order to be comfortable.

Let me put it this way: If U2 put it out there on Facebook, Twitter, and their website that they were coming to Salt Lake to do a special show for $40 a seat (where the fans would vote on the setlist) and then did no other promo, would Rice Eccles not be filled to capacity? I can’t seriously imagine that it wouldn’t be completely jammed.

In the age of self-publishing and high-speed data, I don’t think that U2 actually needs a promoter in the traditional sense. They certainly have the money to pay for anything they WANT, however.

What If You Feel Like You Don’t Have Any Power?

I can’t imagine that any of this is particularly encouraging if you don’t draw.

If you aren’t making that kind of connection with fans, then not feeling empowered is appropriate. Uncomfortable, yes, but also appropriate. Knowing when your empowerment isn’t yet built is what helps keep you humble and tolerable to be around. (Remembering what it was like to not be empowered is what keeps big players humble and tolerable.)

But it may just be the case that you’re not connecting YET.

You have to keep at it.

This doesn’t mean continually doing the same thing and expecting different results. It’s a good idea to try different things, allow a “dud” band to break up, pursue a solo career, switch genres, and just generally rock your own boat. To use a metaphor, if you try to launch a rocket and it just sits on the pad, then you have to figure out what you’ve learned and then rework the rocket. You don’t just continually try to light the same rocket.

It’s a bit of a buzzword anymore, but I think it’s a useful concept: You have to iterate, iterate, iterate.

Keep trying. Keep trying different things. Don’t put all your hopes into one “do or die” effort. Allow yourself to be incremental. Be nice to people, write the best tunes you can, put on the best shows you know how, and learn as much from it all as possible.

That’s how you’ll have any hope of forging connections with fans, and connections with fans empower you.

Because you’re the draw, and the bigger the draw you are, the more power you get.

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.




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.




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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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


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.


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:


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.)


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.


“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.”


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…


…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.