It’s sort of like looking up a very steep hill – there’s a venue you’re hoping to play at, but they have no idea who you are. How do you get their attention?

Having been a venue operator “back in the day,” I’ve received numerous “cold” contacts. Some of them got me to respond positively, and some didn’t. If you condense everything into the most concentrated form, the folks that had a chance of a positive response were the ones who took the time to establish a real, individual relationship. The ones who didn’t make the effort were either politely declined, or ignored completely, depending upon the severity of their conduct.

So…what does all that mean, exactly? Well, speaking for myself:

1) From a marketing standpoint, a cold-contact is you selling me (the booker) a relatively expensive product that I’m not sure I want. The key thing there is “I.” What might sell someone else on your gig is not guaranteed to convince me that it’s a good idea. You need to have some idea of what the individual venue wants. This means that you have to do your homework in some way. If there’s a web resource with booking information, make sure to read through that info, being careful to pay attention to anything that deals with the business side of the show.

2) The initial contact should come from someone who cares intimately about the specific show you’re trying to do. For a lot of independent musicians, this means you, the musician. Lots of emails, social-media messages, and phone calls get ignored. They get ignored even harder when they come from some nameless, faceless person at a booking agency or label. The prime reason for that rejection is because the nameless-faceless doesn’t care enough about your show to do the homework on the venue. They just “shotgun” a whole pile of messages to a whole pile of places after minimal research – and it’s obvious that they’re doing so.

As a booker, I got lots of emails from the nameless-faceless crowd that were clearly all from the same “Los Angeles Pop-Punk-Metal-Crossover Band Generator” template, and that blatantly ignored booking information that was publicly available. For a while, I answered those emails, only to get into crushingly tiresome conversations where the nameless-faceless tried to negotiate on various aspects of the (again) publicly available information. I eventually realized what a waste of time it was, and just deleted the emails.

3) Related to the above, be sure that however you make the initial contact, make clear that the venue’s business needs, as they’ve outlined, are understood by you. Failing to make this clear can cause you to be de-prioritized, especially if the venue does have booking information available You want to avoid creating a request that requires the information to be spoon-fed to you. The entire point of putting those whys and wherefores in a public place was so that it wouldn’t have to be endlessly discussed in a million emails and phone calls.

(Now, of course, if the venue doesn’t have that information available, you’ll probably have to ask them about it during the initial contact. There’s nothing wrong with that – just make sure that you ask BEFORE pitching anything.)

4) When making your pitch, focus intently upon what is truly actionable in terms of creating a profitable event for the venue. This is something of a ruthless process, because a lot of standard sales-pitch elements simply don’t apply. For example:

Who you’ve shared the stage with doesn’t matter. Plenty of bands who had no business being on stage with anyone else have talked their way onto shows with decent acts. I’ve been witness to it. Besides, the general public doesn’t care that you’ve been on deck with [someone they may or may not care about]. They (and the venue) do care about whether they like you, and are willing to come out and see YOU.

Where you’ve played doesn’t matter. It matters even less than who you’ve played with. It’s not a measure of meaningful exposure at all. You might have played a 1000 seat auditorium, but only 50 people were in attendance. And again, the show-going public doesn’t give a hoot. The biggest, hottest promoter in town could run giant ads through all the local media outlets, proclaiming that [Your Band] has played [Somewhere Else], and the reaction from the public will be “Who?” and “So?”

The number of Insta-Face-Twitter-Verbnation followers you have is almost completely irrelevant. How many of those people are local? How many will buy a ticket to your show, on the night in question, at that venue? How many are actually engaged?

An example of what IS actionable is evidence of people clamoring for you to do a show in their town. If you can show a venue some sort of real proof that you have an engaged, dedicated audience in their area that can at least half-fill the room, that’s a powerful tool.

Another example of what’s actionable is you being friends with some local bands that have a track-record of doing well at that venue, or at places similar to it. That leads into the “Zen” approach…

…which is “cold contacting” a venue without cold contacting them at all. Rather, you make friends with a band that has a good relationship with the room. They are the ones who are known as being a money-maker for the place, and as cool people. They get booked, they get you on the bill by leveraging their reputation, and then (very crucially), you come in, treat everybody beautifully, and help increase the size of the crowd. Everybody wins, and the venue gets to know you.

The point is that you have to create a relationship with someone, somehow. It involves time and effort, but the potential payoff can certainly be worth it.

Drums are such fun.

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

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

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

The Basics

First things first.

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

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

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

Too Little

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

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

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

Toms: “blum, bum…bdum…dm…”

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

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

Too Much

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

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

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

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

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

-Scotty, Star Trek III

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

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

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

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

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

So what does this have to do with music?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A while back, one of our Schwilly Family members, Adam Price, wrote me an e-mail to tell me how he is making a living playing music in nursing homes. I thought it would be a great idea to share with you all, so I interviewed Adam to find out how he got started and where it has led him. I know you’ll get some great information out of his answers!

Captain:

Thank you very much, Adam, for sharing this idea with us and taking the time out to answer my questions.  Let’s start at the beginning. Why did you start playing in nursing homes?

Adam:

Actually, life threw me a curve ball. I was a marketing consultant working 18 to 20 hours a day and it nearly killed me. I had no time for music or for anything else except the business. After a time, I fell ill and was sent to the hospital. While I was there in the hospital, I realized that at least I would be able to get out, but many of the people there had only one way out and that was in a box. These are people who have built our local cities, business people, doctors, white and blue color workers, and many of them were lonely and didn’t have anyone.

While I was in the hospital, I LOVED seeing a new face. Being in isolation is extremely hard and lonely . . . and that is my WHY. The joy I give to the people in the nursing home is the joy I get out of playing my music to them.

Captain:

What did you do to get started?

Adam:

When I first started, I got in touch with the homes and quickly found out I needed to ask for their “Activities Director.” Many homes have more than one, but I speak to one and go from there. I needed to be ready to answer questions such as:

  1. Where are you from?
  2. Do you have insurance and tax forms for payment?
  3. How much do you charge?
  4. Do you have a criminal background check?
  5. What type of music do you play?

Very early on when I first started, there was no payment for such gigs, only a $10 or $20 gift certificate or perhaps some money for gas. This is where some artists might think, “Oh, there is no money in nursing home gigs,” but over time I built a reputable name for myself as a professional entertainer who specializes in aged care and senior concerts.

After about 2 years of building up my name, I told them I couldn’t keep going without payment. When I set up a price range of $80 to $100 for an hour show, they were happy to oblige since their residents were already relying on my shows.

I also approached local businesses and got sponsorship from those who wanted nursing homes as their clients. Music was the perfect gift for the business to give to the residents and their business cards were left with the homes: A win-win situation for both (and for me).

Captain:

Sure sounds like it. So, let’s get down to specifics. How often do you play? How long is a normal set? What is your audience like? How much do you get paid now?

Adam:

I play 10 shows a week at nursing homes, mostly on weekdays. This is now a full-time income for me and makes up the bread and butter for my music career in between gigging on the weekends.

Typically a show goes for 1 hour and fits in with the nursing home schedule which is usually from 10:30 to 11:30 in the morning or 1:30 to 2:30 in the afternoon.

In a nursing home, typically you’ll have anywhere from 20 to 50 residents attend, but if you’re new, don’t expect too many to come. But over time, as they grow to like you and your music, they don’t want to miss your shows.

But it really varies. I’ve sung for a room with three elderly citizens in it (two of them dozing off to sleep but waking up to clap at the end of each song—hilarious!), and I’ve also sung for a room of 200+ seniors in local clubs where morning tea shows are held and attended by all the nursing homes in the areas.

At the moment, my rates are as follows:

Weekday shows – 10 am to 4 pm – $80 / hour

Saturday shows – 10 am to 4 pm – $100 / hour

Sunday shows – 10 am to 4 pm – $150 / hours

The important thing is to have a rate card ready, but DON’T talk turkey until after they’ve at least heard you play or you will shoot yourself in the foot and possibly close the doors before they even open.

I did shows for free to a very little ($30) for the first year or so to get booked solid, then I told them I needed to up the ante to $50 / show for the following six months. After that I increased prices slow to get to where I am now.

Captain:

Great! Now, tell us what kinds of adjustments you need to make in your show when you play in a nursing home.

Adam:

You really need to think about repertoire and how you can get the residents (especially the high-dementia patients) out of themselves and reacting to the music you’re playing.

It is important to remember that it’s not about you or you music in the homes. It’s all about how skilled you are at holding their attention, interacting with them and making them come alive. If you do this, you’ll gain a place in the hearts of the nursing home activities directors and the managers as someone who is therapeutic to their residents, and you’ll NEVER be without paid work.

As far as volume goes, always ask the activities director if the volume is OK. I crank the volume up at some places but others need it at a whisper. But you will find that residents with hearing aids will cover their ears, not necessarily because you are a bad singer but because the loudness hurts their ears.

As for pace, do a mix of slow older songs (Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Englebert Humperdinck) and then mix it up with some faster rock ‘n roll and country rock—anything with a good beat they’ll like once you connect with them.

For interaction, do singalong songs such as “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”. Look up singalong songs on Google and you’ll find tons of them. The key is to ask the residents what their favorite songs are. You’ll get golden nuggets of songs you’ve never heard of before, but when you learn the song and sing it for them the next time, their families and staff will be amazed at how they “wake up” to their favorite songs.

Captain:

That must be an amazing feeling to see that. Another question: have you been able to book other shows as a result of playing in a nursing home?

Adam:

YES . . . Weddings, 60th to 100th birthdays (mind you, 100th birthdays play BIG TIME, like $1,000s for a couple of hours), engagement parties, special event days, etc . . . All of these facilities have staff and the residents have family members who have seen you play.

You can also take CDs/DVDs to sell at these places and they will buy them by the bucket load at some of them. At others not so many, but it all adds up.

Captain:

Great ideas! I know that the Senior Center here in town has music for their lunch hour and many different holiday celebrations. I imagine that is similar to the morning tea shows you mentioned before.

Adam:

Yes, any place or activity where seniors are specifically invited can be a potential gig. I would like to add, though, that it takes a special personality to get along best in this type of venue. You must be someone who GENUINELY cares about senior citizens and their well-being and who likes the crooning songs, old time favorites, and singalongs that they enjoy.

I once got some feedback about a band that said to the audience, “Don’t sing. We are the singers and you should be listening to us.” If you’re one of this type of entertainer and don’t want to hear the residents singing or yelling out of tune back at you, then DON’T DO nursing home shows!

One of the funniest times of a show is when the nursing home staff get involved and dance and try to sing along with me. The residents absolutely LOVE it when the staff they know get involved in a show, and so do I!

Captain:

Thank you so much, Adam, for the great information. Do you have a website or e-mail address where other musicians might get in touch with you if they have any questions?

Adam:

You’re welcome. Yes, they can get in touch with me at: AdamPriceCountryMusic.Com

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

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

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

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

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

This is not the case.

It Doesn’t Take Much To Be Powered

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

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

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

…you have a powered speaker.

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

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

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

Advanced Applications

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

For instance, they can biamp the speaker.

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

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

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

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

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

The Takeaway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The danger is that somebody might believe you.

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

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

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

There’s also a more technical side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

It’s Expensive

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

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

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

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

I could go on and on.

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

The Spectrum Is Getting Crowded

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

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

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

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

We’re Not In Control Of Our Medium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway.

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

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

Like I said, this is understandable, but inaccurate.

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

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

A Dumb Sensor Of Pressure

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, What Does It All Mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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