So…

You’ve done some playing and singing. You’ve written some songs. You’ve got this whole “music” thing down to some degree, and now you’re thinking about gigging or recording.

But you’re bewildered. You don’t know how to get started with the maddening, intimidating, even terrifying pile of hardware and software that gets used in modern production. This series is for you. It should help you understand a little more about what’s going on, so you’re not as mystified.

We’re Going In!

Obviously, what we’re working with is sound – a vibration in something physical that we can hear. Any real dive into the physics of sound is beyond the scope of this series, but you should be aware that all sound:

1) Has an intensity, or amplitude.

2) Has a rate of vibration, or frequency.

Sound has other properties as well, but these two will be the most important for a basic understanding.

Now, then. The fundamental key to all audio production is that we MUST have sound information in the form of electricity. Certain instruments, like synthesizers and sample players don’t produce any actual sound at all; They go straight to producing electricity.

For actual sound, though, we have to perform a conversion, or “transduction.” Transduction, especially input transduction, is THE most important part of audio production. If the conversion from sound to electricity is poor, nothing happening down the line will be able to fully compensate.

Mr. Microphone

Transducers come in various forms, but the most commonly recognized sound-to-electricity transducers are microphones.

Microphones come in a large array of sizes, shapes, and behaviors. They all derive from one of two basic flavors, though:

1) Dynamics, which use wire coils and magnetism to generate current.

2) Condensers, which create a “variable capacitor” to produce current.

You should be aware that there are sub-categories for each basic flavor, such as moving-coil dynamics, dynamic ribbons, “active” dynamics, electret condensers, tube-amplified condensers, and whatever else the industry can cook up. However, in the most common scenarios, what you can keep in mind as a baseline is that dynamic mics don’t fundamentally require a steady supply of electricity to work, whereas condensers do.

Another generalization that can be made is the overall character of the microphone flavors. Although all microphones react quickly by human standards, dynamic microphones have moving parts which tend to be “heavy.” The moving portion of a condenser microphone can have far less mass, which makes for a vibration sensor that can start and stop moving very easily. Condenser mics are a common choice for the transduction of quiet, “delicate,” or “complex” sounds, and condensers can more easily be extremely accurate – but this does not necessarily mean that condensers are correct for what you need to do. There are plenty of dynamic mics which sound very pleasing on a tremendous variety of sound sources, and they tend to be more resistant to accidents and mishandling (although dynamic ribbons can be very fragile indeed).

Microphones also differ from one another in terms of their directionality, or the relative sensitivity of the microphone at different angles around the microphone element. This is also referred to as the “polar pattern,” in reference to how this directionality is commonly plotted on specification sheets. In terms of the basic microphone types, any directionality is possible. There are omnidirectional dynamics and ultra-selective condensers, and the opposite is also true. A list of common polar responses includes:

1) Omnidirectional, which has essentially the same sensitivity at all angles around the element.

2) Figure-Eight, which is sensitive to the front and rear, and tends to reject sound from the sides.

3) Cardioid, which is highly sensitive to the front, somewhat less so at the sides, and has a point of very low sensitivity at the back.

4) Super-Cardioid, which is highly sensitive to the front, less sensitive than a cardioid at the sides (with a particular side angle which is very low sensitivity), and has some sensitivity at the back.

5) Hyper-Cardioid, which is like super-cardioid, but narrower and with a more pronounced “sensitivity bump” for sounds coming from behind.

In many applications, mics with strong directionality are often preferred and even necessary. However, omnidirectional transducers see quite a bit of utilization as well, especially when accuracy is needed or tonal consistency at varying distances is required.

Contact

To close this installment, it’s worth talking about another kind of transducer, the “contact mic.” Contact transducers aren’t really microphones at all, in the sense that they are not designed to work well with sounds in air. Rather, they are intended to be fixed to a vibrating surface, which causes the element to deform or flex and thus create an electrical current. This is a piezoelectric effect, and so these pickups are often referred to as piezos.

Contact transducers generally sound rather artificial when compared with microphones, but most microphones aren’t in direct physical contact with a sound source. At the same time, piezo pickups can be very handy for dealing with certain problems, like instruments which need to be made disproportionately loud with minimal feedback.

Back in the heyday of the Grateful Dead, a special sub-scene emerged: The Tapers. Not to confused with tapirs, an exotic animal, Tapers would record the live shows to share with other people later.

Does that sound familiar?

I would argue that, in many ways, livestreaming your show is a new form of taping. It’s an attempt to capture part of the experience so as to give something to your current audience, and hopefully reach some new enthusiasts as well.

The thing with taping or livestreaming is that the physics and logistics have not really changed. Sure, the delivery endpoints are different, especially with livestreaming being a whole bunch of intangible data being fired over the Internet, but how you get usable material is still the same. As such, here are some hints from the production-staff side for maximum effectiveness, at least as far as the sound is concerned.

1) Directional microphones are your friend.

While it might seem like a good idea to grab a wide, or even 360 degree soundfield, you will generally get a better result overall by being selective. Especially if you’re streaming from a bar or club, it’s really not a great idea to capture all the conversations, room reflections, and general disruption happening around you. A full-on shotgun mic probably isn’t necessary; Just find a decent cardioid or super-cardioid and point it at what you want to hear.

2) Keep your gear out of the way. Super out of the way, actually.

Audiences have an incredible ability to walk into, stand on, swat, and otherwise mess with your recording setup, often without even trying. Endeavor to find a spot where your streaming goodies are protected from the general public. The audio human’s spot can be pretty good for this. Just remember to ask politely first.

3) Run your own gear as much as possible.

As a sound operator, I am (as a rule), happy to help by pressing record on your device. However, it’s important to understand that the start of a show can be a bit like getting an airliner off the ground: A lot is going on that requires my close attention. I may end up forgetting to hit the little red button. If you can do it yourself, that’s much better.

Also, if there is any complexity at all to getting things rolling (beyond just pressing the aforementioned button), you really should take care of it yourself. It’s THE way to ensure success.

4) A direct feed might sound better, but…

…remember that many direct feeds are just a split from some output, often the main bus. There are many rooms and situations where the main bus is carrying a ton of vocals and just a touch of a few other things. Unless the PA is truly doing all the heavy lifting, you may find that a line-level feed isn’t musically balanced.

I like clean audio as much as anybody – maybe even more – but I can also recognize when “clean” isn’t necessarily the best capture of the show as a whole.

(There are some ways around this conundrum, but they are beyond the scope of this article.)

5) If you want a feed, please do your advance work.

Find out the day before, or earlier, what kind of connections and signals might be available to you. Sometimes, it’s easy for a sound tech to get something sorted out for you…and sometimes, it’s nearly impossible. The difficulty generally rises as the amount of time before the show decreases.

And please, please, educate yourself on the different kinds of audio connections that you might run into, and have your own adapters. Again, when speaking for myself I can say that I’m happy to help out in whatever way I can – but it’s always best when YOU are “Johnny On The Spot” in terms of having what you need to make your own gear play nicely with everything else.

“Hey, Man. It’s a touch loud in the house. Can I trade you some amp volume for monitor gain?”

“But my amp’s only on, like, two!”

Have you been part of a conversation like this? I have. It rarely ends well, because somebody is always frustrated or disappointed at the end. Oftentimes, there are at least two somebodies: The audio human and the amplifier user.

The sticking point in the debate is an idea that “low knob position = acceptable volume.” Unfortunately, this notion is anything but watertight. The reality is that acceptable volume = acceptable volume, with the position of any relevant control being nearly immaterial.

To put it another way, the position of the knob is the cause, and the resulting audio output is the effect. In the end, the effect is what matters. If the effect is causing a problem for the band, then the “state” of the cause isn’t a valid argument that the overall result is okay.

Nobody has ever fought a speeding ticket by claiming that the car’s accelerator was only a third of the way down.

The same reasoning also applies when the disagreement ventures into drive percentages. Somebody might say, “I’m only using about 10% of the amp, and for it to sound right I need at least 40%.” That’s fair enough in some respects, but it points to an issue of bringing an artillery piece to a neighborhood cap-gun game. If the amplifier doesn’t sound good until most people think it’s too loud to sound good, then the amplifier doesn’t actually sound good.

It’s the wrong tool. And the wrong tool at the right price, or with the right look, or with the right capabilities for some other job is still the wrong tool.

If two is too loud for the band, then two is too loud. If you’re finding yourself in this kind of situation, it may be time to do some horse-trading. Find yourself a rig that’s just a little too hot for the band when it’s wound up all the way, and you’ll have lots more room to actually use the front-panel settings for creative control.

You might even end up with something easier to carry, as a bonus. (Maybe.)

Dear Musicians,

Over the years that I’ve worked with you, many things have become apparent. One of those concepts is that, quite often, you need me to make some sort of change in the middle of a show. Often, that change is necessary to make your life on stage more comfortable, such that you can create the best possible experience for your audience.

At times, it may have been hard to get that change made for you. Such difficulties commonly arise due to communication problems. As such, I am writing this letter to help you transmit your needs and wants to the audio humans you will inevitably encounter.

First and foremost: Please use your words.

I understand that there is a stubborn stigma attached to “talking through” an issue in the middle of a show. However, any aesthetic problems this can cause are quite minor, especially when you consider that not getting a need met may cause real problems with your performance.

When it comes to a complex topic, especially in a pressure situation, the ability of spoken language to convey nuance and relay information unambiguously is a huge bit of leverage. By speaking over the PA, you can make it very clear, say, that “I think my vocal is starting to feed back in the highs.” There’s actually a lot of information in that sentence, yet it comes across quickly and elegantly when turned into speech.

On the flipside, I’m not sure how that concept would be effectively transmitted by way of hand signals – unless there was a lot of rehearsal time with the engineer involved.

Also, concerts are full of distractions to the eye. A sound operator may have their visual attention elsewhere, while still devoting their ears to the music. As such, addressing them over the PA is generally a sure method for getting their full attentiveness returned to you.

My second point is in regards to visual signals: Think big, think simply, and think patiently.

When you don’t have the opportunity to verbalize a request, visual communication is a necessity. However, as I’ve alluded to already, it has limitations. You have to restrict yourself to basic concepts that have a small number of interpretations, and require no rehearsal to understand.

(Many years ago, I had a musician attempt to take me through a large number of hand signs that would convey things like “The stage-left guitar needs more midrange in the monitors” and “Less reverb on my vocals for this next tune.” I can’t say that it worked out very well.)

Simplicity and “largeness” go together. Remember that the audio engineer may be quite a distance from you, causing detailed motions to become lost. Ad-hoc sign language at shows must be “big” so that it can be seen, and only so many ideas should be signaled in a short period of time.

I highly recommend the approach of “Who, What Instrument, Where, and Up/Down.” For instance: Point at the guitar player, mime the guitar playing, point at your monitor, and then make an up or down motion until the guitar level is where you want it. It’s compact, relatively unambiguous, and the involved motions are easy to see.

As to patience, please do remember that it takes time to interpret your signals, figure out how to get you what you want, and then start to make it all happen. Several seconds may have to elapse before you hear any change, and some “iteration” may have to take place before you’ve gotten exactly what you want. This is simply an inherent hazard of doing things on the fly, but when taken in stride it’s not too hard to handle.

Hopefully this all makes sense. Effective communication is important for a good show, and a little bit of forethought about how to go about it can make a huge difference.

Thank you for taking these thoughts into consideration.

Your friend,

Danny (An Audio Human)

I seem to be on a bit of a theme lately.

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.

I don’t think I’ve ever been a fan of any “Battle of the Bands” setup, but I’ve been a judge for a couple of them. People asked, and it was something to do.

After one such outing, a band that didn’t win was curious as to what had prevented them from reaching the top of the podium. Having conferred with one another, they had identified at least one potential “deal breaking” problem – and they asked about it:

“Do we need better equipment?”

The answer that day was “no.” The answer for most bands on most days is “no.”

What they had failed to do was to play as a team, and that made their perfectly adequate gear SEEM like a problem area. (To be specific, you couldn’t hear anything the fiddle player was doing, because nobody would give the poor guy any space.) So, of course, the answer is to spend money on a bigger, fancier amp for the fiddle player, along with some extra doodads and geegaws to fight the inevitable feedback that results from trying to make a fiddle SCREAMING LOUD…

…Right?

People, please.

Their gear wasn’t fancy, but it was adequate and working. The only upgrade they needed was teamwork.

Now, yes, there’s a point where instruments, amplifiers, and their associated accoutrements just can’t do the job. However, that point is best identified as an “absolute:” The setup just sounds terrible, or it’s constantly breaking down, or it’s too hard to use. If that isn’t the case, though, then it’s very likely you’re facing some sort of issue with working together properly.

If your band doesn’t sound right, but everything seems to be working decently for everyone individually, you most likely need to put your wallet away. Before you spend any money on stuff, spend time on becoming a team.

I got into this business thinking I would be an engineer in a studio. That’s not how it worked out. Live-sound got a hold of me, and that was pretty much it. Even so, I do some occasional studio-style mixing, and I think I’m starting to get the hang of it.

One of the major problems with recordings is that you don’t control the playback system. One person might play your music on a rig that’s built to reproduce the entire audible range of sound with a laser-flat response curve. Another person might be listening on barely-working earbuds. Someone else might be one of those incredibly annoying people who listen to music by pumping it through their phone’s speaker. CAN WE STOP THAT PLEASE?

Anyway.

Even before the age of smartphones, “translation” was a big issue for folks making records. The question that was constantly asked was, “How do I make this tune sound good everywhere?”

In my mind, that’s the wrong question.

The real question is, “Does this mix continue to make sense, even if the playback system has major limitations?”

I realize that this is an appeal to absurdity, but I see it as counterproductive to try to make a song sound “good” on a half-dead clock-radio. A mix being played through a small, damaged speaker should sound like a mix being played through a small, damaged speaker. Spending hours and hours trying to make things fool people into thinking they’re listening to a better playback device isn’t worth it for most folks, especially because the mix will probably sound strange on more decent systems.

But spending some time on making sure that your recording basically works in a variety of situations IS worth it.

It’s actually pretty easy. If you already have a digital audio workstation of some kind (ProTools, Logic, Cubase, Reaper, GarageBand, etc, etc), you won’t need any additional equipment. Back in the day (and now), studios used to have small, limited bandwidth speakers they could route mixes through. That was before you could get another equalizer, basically for free, simply by running another instance of a plugin.

And that’s what I recommend doing.

Put an extra EQ plugin across your main mix. Set that plugin to kill off both the low and high-end of your tune. A high-pass and low-pass filter set at about 200 Hz and 5000 Hz respectively should be a good start. Collapse the mix to mono if you can. Your mix should now sound like it’s being played through a phone speaker (gah!), or pretty mediocre earbuds.

Does the mix still make sense? Can you still hear all the instruments that you feel are crucial? Are the vocals still intelligible? If not, start making changes. Get to a place that you like, and then pop the “crappy speaker” EQ into bypass. Restore the stereo field, if you were working in mono before.

With all the high and low end restored, does the mix still make sense? Are the bass and kick overwhelming in the bottom end? Is there too much traffic way up high? If so, make changes in just those areas – the areas that were cut out by the EQ. Try not to touch the midrange much, though, because that’s what you just got yourself satisfied with.

Do some back-and-forth checking as you work. You’ll know that you’re done when the mix still works in both scenarios. The mix without the “sucky playback system” EQ should sound “good,” assuming that you think your regular playback monitors sound good. The mix with the EQ should work, and be basically listenable. Your tune will now have a much better chance of “translating” in multiple scenarios.

And, as a final opinion, I would say this: If your mix absolutely must be mind-blowing on a specific format, make a special mix just for that format. If, for example, you know that a huge chunk of your fanbase is definitely going to be listening on Airpods, create (and clearly label) a mix that’s designed to be stunning just for them.

But, if you’re not really sure what people will be listening on, basic attention to translation should go a pretty long way.

“Should I bring my amp?” the musician asks in the show-planning email thread.

Yes.

Thanks everybody, see you next mon- okay, I’m kidding.

But the answer is yes. If you have some sort of device that you can use to tweak the sound of your instrument, even if that’s just a bit of extra volume, you should definitely have that handy. Here’s why:

1) What if the PA and/ or monitor system can’t quite get the job done?

Of course, if you’re careful about advancing the show, this is much less of an issue. However, it’s still possible that, for any number of reasons, you won’t be able to get what you need. Maybe there won’t be enough mixes, and you’ll have to share with someone who needs monitor-world to sound very different from what you need. Maybe you won’t be able to get enough volume. Maybe something will be tuned very strangely. Maybe you actually need an active DI, but the engineer doesn’t have one on hand. You want to have a fallback option, even if it never becomes necessary. Speaking of which…

2) What if the live-sound setup is adequate, but suffers a failure?

Sometimes, the last direct-box just dies, and that’s it. Sometimes a monitor wedge quits, and there isn’t a spare. Sometimes your in-ears don’t work the right way, or at all. Sometimes a whole mixing console (even an expensive one) just takes a giant dump.

If you’ve got your amp, you can still make some noise and have some kind of show.

3) What if the live-sound engineer is stupid, uncooperative, malicious, or absent?

I hear the horror stories. The person behind the console doesn’t always get what you need, or they may try to make every band – even a Celtic folk ensemble – sound like 1980’s-era Metallica. They may not understand your directions, or be able to carry them out. They may not have time to recreate (from basically scratch) the sound you’ve been dialing up for months in rehearsal.

(You have dialed up your sound in rehearsal, right? When you can hear whether or not it works well with the rest of the band? Please, answer in the affirmative.)

And some engineers are just plain jerkfaces who think they know better than everybody else, or, when you need something, they’ve gone out to take a 45-minute smoke break. When that happens, you will benefit greatly from having some knobs that you can reach over and turn.

You have to have some level of control over what’s happening to you.

4) What if the engineer likes it when you can make your own choices?

I can only speak for myself, but I’m all for letting you get yourself dialed up. It tends to reduce stress for both of us, and I can get a clue regarding what you want without having to start with a purely abstract conversation. Plus, if you have different tonalities that call up for different songs, you can just make that happen naturally while I translate it out front.

Now – what does this not mean?

Well, it does NOT mean that you have to carry around enough audio firepower to be “loud” in the upper bowl of a stadium. Save your time and back. A smallish rig that’s perfect in rehearsal will do the job. (There’s another lesson: Rehearsal volume and blend should be show volume and blend. If your band is going to the gig, and then suddenly adding 10 dB or drowning somebody out, that’s a whole other issue.)

It does NOT mean that you should be obnoxious. The point of having the amp handy is that you have a tool for ensuring that the band continues to sound like a band under different circumstances. It’s not so that you tear people’s heads off, or dial up enough high-mid that your instrument clangs like a steel bar against concrete.

It does NOT mean that you’re prevented from running direct if you want to. If everything’s as smooth as butter, and you love the sound of the PA, and the amp is completely superfluous, no problem! You don’t have to run any audio through it if you don’t want to.

The point is to not leave your backup at home. It’s easy to not use it, and really hard to go back and get it.