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

I spent my weekend at the Songwriting and Music Business Conference in Nashville and had a wonderful opportunity to lead a break-out session on live performance training.  What was supposed to be a 60-minute presentation turned into a 90-workshop (thanks to Todd for allowing us to go longer) that included a question-and-answer session with attendees.

But even with the extra 30-minutes, I still walked out not having enough time to cover an extremely important facet of what we do at Rocket to the Stars:  Helping artists construct the perfect set list.  I felt it was so important to their careers, I gave everybody in the session my personal e-mail address and instructed them to contact me so I could send them a template for a nine-song set list I use with some of the artists I work with.

And now I am passing that template on to all of you.

Understand for whom this article is written…

If you are the type of singer-songwriter who just wants to get up on stage and sing your songs hoping the crowd will love you for said songs, you might as well stop reading now because this isn’t for you.  This breakdown of a set list is for artists looking for ways to make their live shows more exciting and more energetic.  It is for people looking for ways to bring in more money, increase attendance at live shows, move more merchandise, and collect more e-mails.

I am clarifying this now because I know my inbox will fill up with hate mail from people spewing venom like “Artists shouldn’t have to resort to your theatrics, jumping around, and bubble gum pop gimmicks to get fans to appreciate them.  The quality of the songs should speak for itself at the show”.

Artists attempting to make a legitimate career in music are in a dog fight right now competing for the population’s limited entertainment dollars.  When you are planning to do a show on a given Friday night, you are competing against every other singer and musician performing that night as well as the latest blockbuster movie to hit the big screen, every high school football or basketball game scheduled to take place, every musical in every local theater, every amusement park that is open, every video game begging to be bought and played, and every other form of entertainment that is available that night.

If you want people to spend their money on YOU instead of something else, you better give them a damn good reason to do it AND you better end the night with them feeling like they made the right decision.  Thanks to the speed in which we are able to communicate via social media and texting, the world will know your live show sucks before you even have time to tear down all of your equipment after the show…and your music career will be going in the wrong direction.

What you have to do first…

Grab a piece of paper and something to write with because I want you to actually do this while you are reading.

Make a list of nine songs that you do at your live shows.  Write them all down.  Do that now.

Done?

Okay, now I want you to “rate” each of your songs based upon tempo.  You are going to rate them “1” to “5” with a “5” being an extremely energetic song that gets people dancing and jumping while a “1” is an emotional ballad that leaves the room in silence.  Obviously a “3” would fall in the middle.  Understand that this is not an exact science so don’t sweat over whether a song should be a “2” or a “3”.  You can even use decimals if you feel you must.  Just rate them before reading further.

Got it?

Look at your list of songs and how you rated them.  Are most or all of them rated at “2” or “3”?  If they are, you just found your first major problem; your songs sound too much alike and it is sucking needed variety from your live shows.  Most artists sitting down and rating their songs in this manner find that a good a vast majority of their songs are “3”s.  Many of them are doing that because they have settled into a comfort zone in their songwriting that they need to break out of.

Now that you have listed and rated all your songs, we can take a look at the actual set list.

The word of the day is “moments”…

Live music producer Tom Jackson (who conceived much of the set list below) coined the term “moments” when talking about putting together a live show.  What are moments?  Moments are things that happen during various points in your show that fans remember after leaving the venue.  When I was speaking in Nashville over the weekend, I talked about seeing Garth Brooks for the first time in the late 90s when he was doing several shows at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh.  Anybody lucky enough to see Brooks perform live will tell you that his show was full of moments, whether it be Brooks swinging on a rope over the crowd while singing or the manner in which everybody in the crowd slow dances while he is performing “The Dance”.  Moments are when you see The Who’s Pete Townshend’s “windmill” while playing guitar.  Moments can be musical in nature, like a mind-blowing solo by a musician.

Moments are vital to creating a live show and a set list that people will remember and talk about and, ultimately, return for more the next time you are performing.  Think about how many times YOU have been at a live show and witnessed something on stage that made you FEEL something, whether it be excitement, love, longing, happiness, reflection, or any other emotion that you carried with you and remembered well after the night of the show.

Now ask yourself why YOU aren’t doing that for YOUR fans?  And be honest with yourselves when thinking about that question.

Picking the right order for the songs…

You have your songs rated by tempo.  You know what moments are and why they are crucial to the creation of your set list.  This is where your made-over live show is going to come to fruition.  We are going to use the set list and moments to control the emotions of the audience in the same manner in which authors and screenwriters control emotions in novels and movies.  We are going to do all of this with two goals in mind:  Getting fans to spend more money…and getting them to sign up for your e-mail lists.

1st Song:  Look over your list and find a song that is rated a “3”.  This is the song you are going to open your show with.  You are looking for a song that isn’t very long.  Maybe 3:00 to 3:30 in length.  Be sure you get into your lyrics quickly.  No extended solos.  From a relationship perspective (and you ARE trying to start a relationship with the people there to see you), this is your way of saying, “Hello.  It is nice to meet you”.  Think of this song as an icebreaker of sorts.  Also, you need to end the song with a trash can ending.  If you don’t know what that is, a trash can ending is when you end a song with flair and all members stopping at the same time.  Members of the band should be watching for visual cues from the lead singer so they know when to end.

After you wrap up this song, do a quick introduction, thank everybody for coming out to the venue, and thank the venue for having you there.  Three words:  Keep.  It.  Short.  You want to get into your next song without delay.

2nd Song:  Look over the eight remaining songs on your list and pick out something that is rated at a “4”.  Again, no extended solos.  You are continuing to break the ice but you are picking up the tempo a little bit.  As far as your performance goes and what people see visually, it is vitally important that this song doesn’t look like your first song.  If it does, people will begin looking at their phones or paying attention to other things going on around them and you will be downgraded to “background noise”, which is the kiss of death for live shows.   Like the first song, the second song should have a trash can ending as well.

3rd Song:  No talking between the second song and this one.  Just a brief pause before jumping right into it but do so knowing this is where you will create your first moment.  Look for something rated at a “3” but you want this song to be VERY catchy.  Something people in the audience will immediately get into.  This is actually a great spot in the show to do a cover of an immensely popular song.  It draws more people into the show and gets them to pay even more attention to you which is extremely important because as soon as this song ends you are going to…

Thank everybody and point out that you have your merchandise table set up and are selling a lot of really cool shit that they are going to want.  This is also where you are going to point out that you are offering a lot of great EXCLUSIVE content to fans for free and that, if they go to the back of the room and write down their e-mail address, you will be able to deliver said EXCLUSIVE content.  This is perfect for artists offering free downloads of music for fans signing up for e-mail lists.  Pro tip:  Watch how you word this offer.  You want to come across to fans as a giver and not a taker.  Don’t say “If you go back and sign up for my e-mail list I will send you some free downloads of my music and other content”.  Word it like this:  “I am actually giving away some of my music free and I would love to get it out to each and every one of you here.  For me to do that, I need you to go to the merch table and write down your e-mail address so I have a way to get that music to you.”  Human psychology has proven time and time again that people are more receptive to offers like this when you present yourself as a giver instead of a taker.

4th Song:  All movies and books that are full of excitement and adrenaline have parts where things slow down for a little while to allow readers and viewers to catch their breath.  That is what the fourth song is.  It is our “change of pace” song.  So you are going to look for something rated at a “2”.  This is where you ease off a little bit before making another run at bringing the energy.

5th Song:  Now you are starting to increase the energy and excitement levels.  This song should be something you rated at “3” or “3.5”.  You are looking for one of your stronger songs that will allow for you to include an instrumental solo so that you can create a musical moment.  Embellish and have fun with it.  If it is a guitar solo, get the musician right up to the front of the stage so that the crowd instinctively looks at him or her.

6th Song:  With this song you are going to bring the heat even more, this time with a song you rated at “4” or “4.5”.  But now you are looking for a song that you can include the audience in.  This has to be a moment in the show that is very FUN.  So it can be them singing along.  It can include some sort of call-and-response.  What matters is that the fans are having fun and they are included.  Those two things are essential to this particular song because that means fans will be more receptive to you finishing the song and…

Thanking them and calling their attention to the merch table and what ever you are offering them to get them to sign up for your e-mail list.  So now twice during this show we have strategically set up the audience with an emotional high just before encouraging them to spend money and surrender their e-mails.  Be sure to introduce yourselves again because you will have had new people enter the venue since introducing yourselves after the first song.  This is also a good time to introduce the individual members of the band.

7th Song:  Not only is it time to slow things down, it is also time to approach it from a different perspective musically.  Find a song you rated at a “2” or lower.  Something that you can strip down and do from a stool acoustically.  This is one of your show’s moments that are very touching and intimate. When it comes to lighting for this song, less is definitely more.  You want to use this song to make the audience feel touched emotionally.  I can think of few better examples than THIS.

8th Song:  This song marks the final run-up to your show’s finale and bridges the tempo gap that will exist between the previous song and the next.  Try to find something that includes a strong lyrical message that is important to you and something that your audience will be able to relate to easily.

When you finish that song, you will want to thank the audience for coming out and thank the venue for having you.  This is VERY important:  Do NOT tell the audience that your next song is the final song of the set.  When people know a show is about to end, many people check out mentally.  They begin looking for their phones, their purses, their friends that might be standing in other areas of the venue, and their keys.  Some will even leave at that point hoping to beat the traffic in the parking lot.  You do NOT want people leaving right when you are about to unleash the best part of your show.

9th Song:  This is when you break out your “5” song.  You must end the show with a bang.  Excitement.  Adrenaline.  Dancing.  Jumping around.  Singing along.  Cheering.  If you are not exhausted at the end of this song, you did not give your audience enough.  This is when the lights are flashing and the show ends with you accepting your fans’ applause properly (we will discuss that in the next article) so that when they walk out the door, they are thinking to themselves, “Shit….I didn’t want that to end!”.  When you make them feel THAT, they will come to your next show and they will drag their friends with them.  They will stop at your merchandise table and buy your stuff.  They will sign up for your e-mail list.

That’s it.  BOOM!  That is how you create a killer set list for a 35-45 minute show.  Props to Tom for cracking the code.  Keep in mind that, for all of this to work, you also have to know a lot of things like staging, angles, and how you interact with the crowd during a show…and you need to actually utilize those techniques.  I can’t tell you how many people learn about this stuff and then never use it.  Don’t expect the set list itself to be some sort of voodoo magic that is suddenly going to make your lives as artists so much easier.  It is just one piece of a very complicated puzzle.

If you haven’t done so already, be sure to download a FREE copy of “The $150,000 Music Degree” (Get it HERE), the music business book I wrote with former Taylor Swift manager Rick Barker of Music Industry Blueprint and John Dwinell of Daredevil Production, LLC.  And remember that Rocket to the Stars offers live performance training and live show production as one of our MANY services for artists all over the world.  You can inquire about those services, as well as our music PR offerings, by calling (724) 714 – 9010 or e-mailing me at WadeSutton@RockettotheStars.com.

Strident, yelly, thin, numb, hooty, nasal voice – if you are acting in a scene that calls for a weak, angry or weird character or cartoon, or you are singing backgrounds for an artist that sounds like that, you might want to make those sounds. But if you’re an artist or a public speaker, these kinds of vocal tone habits can limit your career. They can even damage your voice!

These vocal sounds are not nearly as “listenable” as rich, clear, bell-like, multi-textured musical tone that results from good technique. Many people believe that they were just born sounding the way they do. But with vocal training to open the throat, amazing changes can take place. If a student comes in particularly plagued with bad vocal tone, I tell them to celebrate when a family or friend calls them and doesn’t recognize the voice at the other end of the phone. It happens all the time!

Limited, poor vocal tone of all kinds share a common cause- the resonance cave of the voice is not completely open.

The resonance cave of the voice involves a forked channel along which vibration from the larynx can travel and be amplified by alternative resonation zones. The channel goes from the larynx in the throat upwards and forks into the mouth and the nasal passages. The interior of the nose is quite big. The top of the nasal membrane goes all the way up to the eyes. Resonance is created and modified by the state of this channel – how wide it is, how accessible it keeps the resonation zones as the voice travels throughout the range.

How vocal resonance is created:

• The vocal cords vibrate the larynx.
• Sound waves generated by the larynx go through the channel and bounce against other tissue surfaces and cavities in the throat, mouth, trachea.
• These alternative resonation zones add their own characteristics to the sound waves.
• If the throat channel is open, more vibration can reach more surfaces. The composite, amplified vocal sound is much richer than when the channel is constricted anywhere.

Another reason for keeping the throat channel open: different pitches need to vibrate through different resonation zones. If your throat is tight anywhere, vibration can’t travel as freely. This will limit your vocal range and cause vocal strain as you try to hit inaccessible pitches.

Things you can do for richer vocal tone:

1. First, record yourself speaking or singing to have a baseline from which to assess your progress.

2. Understand that the throat channel opens in three directions: up (soft palate and upper nasal membrane), down (jaw and tongue) and back (neck vertebrae). Miss a direction and you will limit your vocal tone.

3. For excessive nasality: If you have a “nasal” sound, the nose is actually congested or closed – like when you have a cold. Paradoxically, to get improve nasality, you need to open your nose! Try singing or speaking with a flared nose to experience the effects.

4. For nasality, thinness, lifeless sound: Use your eyes! Try counting to five LOUD with your eyes narrow and frozen. Count again with your eyes wide and active like you’re talking to a puppy or a baby.

NOTE: singing through the nose (excessive nasality) and singing through the mask are different. You DO want to vibrate your mask, which is an important resonator. The mask consists of the bony orbs of the eyes, forehead, nose bone. The sinuses lie in back and add their characteristics, too. Again… you must open your nose to get the facial mask vibrating.

5. For tight, thin, weak, edgy, strained sound: Open the throat channel at the back of the mouth: Articulate your words in the front of your mouth… don’t speak from your jaw! Try putting your knuckle between your molars as you sing. Then take your knuckle out and try to sing or speak like it’s still there. Also: Try speaking or singing with an imaginary ping pong ball on the back of your tongue.

NOTE: A tight jaw will also prevent the soft palate from lifting. The ‘floor’ affects the ‘ceiling’ of the open throat.

6. For hooty, too-dark sound: Do not over-lower your larynx! Relax at the center of your neck… don’t over-lift or over-lower your voice box. It should float there with no tension around it. Also… only use the feeling of the beginning of the yawn – not the end of the yawn – to open the throat.

7. For all kinds of tonal issues: To keep from tightening the channel at the post nasal drip zone (where nose flows into back of mouth) – balance your head over your tailbone or heel… do not hold your head forward! Try doing wall work: Stand against a wall (head and heel against the wall, flexible spine, chin level and floating) and speak or sing. If you have big shoulders, put a small towel or cushion behind your head. Feel and hear the difference?

8. When using a mike, pull your mouth back from the mic like you’re playing tug of war. Don’t go too far, just a little stretch. Keep your chin flexibly level.

And finally… breath can also be an issue in bad vocal tone. The throat will tighten to try to defend the vocal cords from pushy, excessive breath pressure. Power, Path & Performance vocal training combines breath techniques along with open throat and communication techniques. It’s a three-stranded-cord, professional training approach to voice that creates great vocal tone with which to deliver memorable stage and studio vocals.

Judy Rodman
www.judyrodman.com

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.

But what if I told you that there is a good possibility that you are making the problem even worse due to your diet?  In our “what is good for you today will be bad for you tomorrow” world, dairy products have had their fair share of criticism, including some that have been launched from within the music industry.  So, in true Rocket to the Stars fashion, I went looking for answers…

…Meet Renee Grant-Williams…

A native of Johnstown, Pennsylvania now living in Nashville, celebrity voice instructor Renee Grant-Williams has a list of clients that reads like a “Who’s Who” of the current music industry.  She has worked with some of the biggest names in the business, including Miley Cyrus, Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Christina Aguilera, Keith Urban, and Huey Lewis.  She has been quoted or reviewed by major publications such as the New York Times and Cosmopolitan and has made television appearances on all four major US networks, as well as CNN, BBC, and MTV.  She is also the author of Voice Power.

…What is casein…

Casein has become the source of quite a bit of controversy over the past few years. Grant-Williams described it as a protein found in dairy products that contributes to the creation and formation of mucus that can find its way to a singer’s vocal chords. Casein, which has a molecular structure similar to that of gluten, is also used independently as a binding agent in a number of processed foods and is sold in various protein powder forms used by many fitness enthusiasts. Some people are allergic to casein. Others, while not allergic, are still sensitive to the effects of casein and don’t even know it.

“Casein amplifies the thickening of the mucus on the chords,” she explains. “A lot of people are allergic to casein but most of those people don’t realize it because they don’t notice the symptoms on a daily basis.”

And for those of you living in or near cities infamous for environmental allergies (looking at YOU Austin, Texas and Nashville, Tennessee), casein can become even more of an issue. According to Grant-Williams, a diet high in fatty dairy products can double the severity of your allergy symptoms, including the accumulation of the mucus on the vocal chords, making singing properly extremely difficult and/or uncomfortable.

The controversial protein has drawn criticism from more than just vocal instructors and singers. Some studies have attempted to link casein proteins to the development of cancer cells. In fact a well-known book, “The China Study” by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, argues that casein promotes the growth of cancer cells in all stages of cancer development. The findings in Campbell’s book were based loosely on the China-Cornell-Oxford Project, a 20-year study for which Campbell served as a director.

…Trying to avoid the mucus build-up…

Avoiding consumption of casein is extremely difficult for some people. Research shows that casein makes up approximately 80% of the proteins found in cow milk, which is then used in the creation of several other dairy-based products. The protein is found in higher quantities in dairy products with greater amounts of fat.

“Sour cream in high in fat,” explained Grant-Williams. “The same goes for ice cream. Pizza is something singers should stay away from because it typically has heavy, fatty cheese in addition to toppings that are usually high in salt.”

Grant-Williams also mentioned that casein is less prevalent in yogurt and low-fat milk because both products have lower fat contents, but she did emphasize that the protein is still present in those products. There are some alternatives to which vocalists can turn, including the common choices of both soy- and almond-based milks, which are absent of both casein and lactose.

“I also tell my students to drink water in abundance,” says Grant-Williams. “I also recommend they drink fruit juice.”

If you find it too difficult to give up dairy products entirely, Grant-Williams suggests not consuming them for an entire day leading up to a performance. She feels that allows enough time for them to disappear from the body.

…A vocal exercise to combat the mucus…

Nearly every vocalist has experienced the feeling in the throat that comes with a heavy build-up of mucus on the vocal chords. Most voice instructors tell their students to try to avoid clearing their throats with the common “AHEM” because it can actually make the problem even worse. So what do you do if you are getting ready to perform and you can feel the mucus build-up at a higher than normal level? Renee Grant-Williams has a technique she refers to as “Three Stutters, Three Swirls” which she demonstrates in this special video she made for Rocket to the Stars (CLICK HERE FOR VIDEO).

While more and more singers are starting to catch on to the idea of reducing or eliminating fatty dairy products from their daily diets, it is important to remember that casein is also used in a lot of processed foods. So, even if you do cut back on dairy products in an effort to combat that music build-up affecting your voice, the problem will still be present if your diet continues to include those processed foods (which also tend to have a high fat content).

One quick thing in closing: You can get a FREE copy of my new music business book that I co-authored with former Taylor Swift manager Rick Barker of Music Industry Blueprint and John Dwinell of Daredevil Production in Nashville. It is called “The $150,000 Music Degree” and covers everything from when artists should hire a manager to how to get sponsorships for your shows to how artists can better communicate with the media. Before you do anything else, go get the book by clicking HERE. And you can find a complete list of my services for artists HERE.

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.

If you don’t have big money to make a big budget video, consider making a lyric video to bring your song to life!

There are essentially a couple low-cost ways to create a lyric video- DIY or hire someone at a reasonable indie musician rate.

DIY

If you’re a techy person with a good eye, try getting a program like iMovie to make your own lyric videos. Essentially you can just drop in the song as an Mp3 and then make titles over photos or plain backgrounds. Here’s a pretty neat sample of a DIY video that my friend Marcum made for a song we wrote. There are some great tutorials on YouTube about how to make these types of videos like this one.

Hire a Reasonably Priced Pro

When I was personally in the market for lyric videos, it took me some time to find some affordable and professional lyric video makers. Prices vary depending on what you want specifically, but the average you can expect to pay is anywhere from $200-$400.

Below are a few resources and a sample from each video maker I found, and they all have videos priced in the range listed above:

Nicole Nelson

Sample Video

Contact her at nicolenelsonmusic@gmail.com

Justin Dahl- Rain City Productions

Sample Video

Contact Page

Anthony McGrace- Great Heights Design Studio

Sample Video

Contact Page

When you finish with your video, post it on your YouTube page, then on your website. It’s important to put the video on your website, because you want to drive people to your site, not YouTube where they can get distracted by cats!

Once posted, share, share, share! Send emails to your fans and friends and create social media posts. Remember to share it multiple times on Facebook and twitter especially in different ways- tag the video maker, pick out a line you like the best to highlight, shout out to your co-writers or musicians that played on the record, etc.

I can’t wait to see your new lyric videos- so tag me with your new lyric videos on twitter at @shansmusic and I’ll be sure to re-tweet and share!

I was in a band that got lazy.

We had a solid stable of clubs that we played regularly. We were growing and starting to make decent money.

Well, we stopped scouting new places in order to focus on building our fanbase in the clubs where we were regulars.

Not a good idea…

We were no longer relentlessly marketing. In fact, we weren’t marketing at all. We had become complacent.

By and by one bar went out of business, one quit having bands, and one now only has bands once a week.

There are a lot of dangers out there that will cost you gigs if you’re not marketing yourself relentlessly. In addition to the reasons that I mentioned, you need to realize that a DJ or Karaoke host will charge a club between $150-$300. So if you don’t pull in a crowd you can easily be replaced.

So if you are gaining momentum with your gigging don’t ever stop marketing relentlessly because it will stall or even completely derail your momentum.

Have you ever lost a gig due to an oversight? What happened? How did you recover?