The last time around, I talked about how most bands don’t need more or better gear to solve their problems. Mostly, they need to work as a team.
That idea closely ties in with equipment used to reproduce the sound of the band and it’s gear. You know – PA systems. There’s a myth about sound-reinforcement gear which can be voiced in many different ways, but usually boils down to this: “This problem will get better when we’re on a big stage, with lots of monitors and a big FOH system for the audience to listen to, all with enough power to melt somebody’s face off.”
You know what I’m going to say, of course. The above is not true.
Bigger and better reinforcement rigs are sort of like fortune or wealth, as understood by Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni. She said: “Fortune does not change men; it only unmasks them.” In the same vein, I can tell you that more and better PA rarely solves a problem with a band. Rather, it confirms the problem, or makes it more obvious.
I’ve been in more than one situation where the monitor system was far, far better than what a band was using in rehearsal. We had much more power, better initial tuning, and a ton of EQ available. Do you think the poor singer could finally hear themselves?
Not really. All that the extra toys did was confirm that the rest of the band wouldn’t give the vocalist any room to work. They were convinced that pro-audio could make up the difference in their teamwork (or lack thereof). Unfortunately, the difference was too great to be mended. There wasn’t enough gain-before-feedback to undo their steamrolling.
On the other hand, a PA becomes a powerful tool when used with an act that sounds balanced and beautiful right out of the gate. In that case, the system’s reserves can be used to optimally translate the group into whatever space they happen to be in that day. Tasteful sweetening can be applied, just as one might season a bit of carefully prepared food; Good ingredients can be enhanced, but bad ingredients will stay bad.
There are limits to these metaphors, of course. In some cases, an engineer can use a powerful system to blast over a problem. Depending on the situation, this might result in a tolerable sound. It might also be so loud that half the audience leaves. Even so, the need to take drastic measures is an unmasking: It tells you that something is very wrong somewhere.
A great PA with an experienced operator won’t fix inherent flaws with your music or performance. What it will do is make them obvious, because everything that can be improved will be improved. The unsolvable problems, then, will remain…unmasked.
If you’re playing in bars and clubs, there will most likely come a day when you encounter a certain artifact. Some might call this artifact “The Scepter Of Plagues.” Others might name it “The Odiferous Transducer Of Doom.”
The rest of us just call it a mic that’s been beaten half-to death, and which has never been cleaned.
Such awfulness alone is a really decent reason to have your own vocal mic. There are other justifications, of course, like predictable performance (especially if you use your own vocal processor), and knowing that you’ll have a transducer handy which works nicely with your voice.
But there are so many mics out there! How do you figure out which one is the right choice?
1. Forget About What You Liked In The Studio
Some mics used in studio settings work well on stage, it’s true. Some people use “on stage” mics in the studio anyway.
At the same time, though, a LOT of mics that are great for recording are a giant ball of trouble for live audio. Sure, they sound perfect when you’re in a vocal booth with headphones on, but that’s at least one whole universe removed from the brutal world of concert sound. They’re too fragile, too finicky, too heavy, their pickup patterns are too wide, and you can’t get close enough to them to leverage your vocal power.
…and yes, I know that those studio microphones look cool. I also think they look cool. Looking cool is neat, but what’s awesome is actually getting the job done. I personally run into very few “studio” mics that can actually function usefully in the nightmare hellscape that is commonly referred to as “live vocal reproduction.”
2. Don’t Agonize About The Spec Sheet
There are people who spend months looking at all the numbers associated with every mic they might want to purchase. They worry about the sensitivity, and the self-noise, and how low the frequency response goes, and the impedance, and…
Folks, any halfway decent mic that’s actually designed to be on stage will be fine in all those areas.
If you want to spend time looking at something, look at the frequency response graph and polar patterns. Even then, recognize that those plots can be fudged and averaged to look better than they really are.
Mics with flatter response curves will tend to behave better across different systems. Some manufacturers “dial up” a lot of studio-mic-esque high-end into their offerings, which causes them to sound better on systems without a lot going on in the high-frequency area. However, that can also translate into feedback trouble and harshness when you perform on a rig with an extended response.
Mics with tighter polar patterns are generally better at rejecting feedback and picking up less of everything that isn’t you. Tighter patterns mean that you have to be more diligent about staying “on the mic,” though, and may cause you sudden problems if you have a tendency to cup your hands around your microphone.
3. Rent Your Shortlist, And Rehearse With Them
Once you’ve narrowed your possibilities down, try to find a pro-audio rental house that will let you pay to try them. If you can’t find a rental, reach out to your contacts and see if you can get a loaner.
Then, get in a real room, with your real band, and rehearse as hard as you can using a relatively unsophisticated audio setup. (Caveat: If you use your own vocal processor, definitely make sure to rehearse with that, and definitely make sure to use all the presets you call up during a real gig.)
The point of this is to figure out how the mic actually delivers in all the noise and chaos of a show. The microphone that’s the right choice for will “make it easy to sound like you.” The reason for the simple audio rig is to find out how the mic works WITHOUT a lot of toys and whizbangs attached. A good mic won’t need superhuman effort and a rack of processing to get the necessary gain to hear yourself. A good mic won’t need a ton of EQ fiddling to dial up an overall tone that fits in with the rest of the band.
Also, that “rest of the band” bit is very important. It’s nice if a purchase candidate sounds sweet through the wedges when nobody else is making noise…
…but the mic REALLY has to work for you when the drummer gets excited, and the guitarist turns up, and the keys player recalls a patch that occupies the entire audible spectrum, and the bassist is trying to move the stage through sheer force of sound pressure.
The right mic will satisfy the needs set out above, and will also be well constructed, feel decent in your hands, and mate with XLR cables without fuss or flimsiness.
Buying your own mic is an investment in your career. Take your time and find something that actually works for you.
I want to thank you for what you’ve entrusted me with as an audio technician. Whether or not you’ve done it consciously, you’ve placed the translation of your music in my hands. That’s correct – translation. My job is to take what you produce and send it along to the audience in the seats, doing so in the best way that I know how. Seeing as your career depends on connecting with the folks who’ve come to your show, I have an important responsibility to both you and the listeners.
So, again, thank you for being willing (whether that willingness is enthusiastic or grudging) to “hand me the lightning bolt.”
It has come to my attention that some of you have, often by accident, placed more responsibility in my hands than might be prudent. This may have come from many things: A misunderstanding of how our roles intersect, an overestimation of what physics will allow me to get away with, misplaced hero-worship, or other such thoughts.
What I am referring to specifically is the idea that your song arrangements are best managed by way of a sound person wielding a tremendous chain of signal transduction and processing equipment. You’ve seen and heard concert setups that have impressed you, and you’ve thought, “This gear, in the hands of a competent tech, will make us sound good.”
My dear Bands, I don’t wish to be combative or contradictory, but I cannot agree with you on that concept.
I have sometimes been paid a sincere (and truly appreciated) compliment. It has been said that I have made a lot of crappy bands sound great. I am certainly pleased to have done work such that it elicited praise. As I said, the compliment was appreciated. However, alongside my enjoyment of being recognized, I must also ensure that I am not recognized for the incorrect things. It’s unhealthy for everyone involved.
In a good number of years of operating audio systems in a live context, there is one fact of which I am supremely confident: The set of situations where I made a bad band sound good is a collection containing zero elements. I have never pulled off such a feat. It is not physically possible. I may have managed to minimize the damage that a bad band was doing to itself and its listeners, but that is the extent of my achievements in the area.
It may sound like mere semantics, but I believe the true form of the “make us sound good” thought is actually this: “This gear, in the hands of a competent tech, will translate our show to the audience as well as is possible.” It may seem that this is merely a difference of word-choice, but take a closer look and you will see that there is a great difference in functionality.
This is where your arrangement – and your control of it – comes in.
From an audio human’s perspective, song arrangements are the choice of what sound sources are producing signals in certain frequency ranges, when those sources are making those signals, and the overall intensity of the signals. Music is made to fit together by allowing signals to compliment each other – especially in ways that contrast nicely. These contrasts are what allow you, me, and the audience to hear and understand each source distinctly. When the contrasts are not in place, what you get is merely a jumble of sound…and often, a volume war.
Let me give you a concrete example, one which I have heard many times.
A keyboard player and a guitarist are playing together. They are both hammering away. The guitar player is constantly strumming at a bunch of chords produced by finger positions that are low on the neck. At the same time, the keyboard player is steadily and repeatedly playing large chords that mostly occur in the middle range of the instrument. The sounds smash together into a result that I refer to as “guitano.” Both instruments get lost in each other, and increasing the volume of one causes it to mostly obliterate the quieter source.
The keyboard player asks for more monitor, which swamps the guitar. The guitar player turns up and masks the keyboards again. The keyboard player asks for more monitor. The guitar player turns up. The keyboard player…
(You get the idea.)
There IS a sort of “patch” that an audio human can apply. We can attempt to carve a yawning chasm in the midrange of one of the instruments, with the idea that the conflicting frequency content will go away. We can then try to push the overall level of the “scooped” source, in the hopes that the remaining content in the upper harmonics will make the source’s presence known. We also hope that those upper harmonics will not be too “clangy” or “harsh.”
We can also listen hard, and try to push one source over the other when an important bit for that instrument comes up.
But those are only patches, not fixes, and worse, the EQ solution requires that at least one instrument be made to sound rather strange. The problem with the “more volume” approach is that it’s either-or. The instruments can’t really coexist together. There’s also the danger that we won’t have enough PA to do the job, or the overall result will be uncomfortably loud. None of this amounts to the best translation for the audience – and, if we’re talking about onstage sound, it’s really not the best translation for you.
The actual fix resides in your hands. The fix resides in the arrangement. If both instruments must be playing all the time, they can both retain their natural sounds by playing in very different frequency ranges. The keyboards might hold down a low-mid area, while the guitar plays up high. The inverse is also doable. If you prefer both instruments to play in the middle of their range, you might pick one to play only intermittently. This will create a space in overall volume where the counterpart can be clearly heard.
Dear Bands, live-audio humans can’t reduce the level of an instrument below its natural volume in the room. For instruments that make no sound without the audio rig, there is still a “natural level” to be had: The mix we get for the monitors on stage. Sound work for concerts is, by necessity, an additive sort of affair. As I said, I can patch some problems by “getting on the gas,” but I have a finite amount of volume I can produce. Also, your audience may not be able to tolerate even that limited amount of sonic intensity.
Yes – studio engineers with producer-area skills can help you with your arrangement. They have the luxury of not having to translate your performance to the audience in real time. They also have the luxury of being able to reduce a signal all the way down to silence.
Live-audio practitioners have neither of those things.
I urge you to view your song arrangements as your responsibility. Make room for each other. Unlike me, you can engage in a subtractive process: When it’s time for that amazing guitar solo, everyone else can quiet down a bit or play in a different frequency range. If the verse is sung quietly, the instrumentalists can pull back so as not to drown the singer…and then surge into a thunderous roar for the big chorus.
If you already “sound like a band” without me taking corrective action, I can use all the tools at my disposal to translate that already-good-sound to your audience. It will be done as well as can be possible in that circumstance.
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.
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.
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