A lot of my musician friends are discovering just how viable it is to produce their own material in the spaces available to them regularly. Under the right circumstances, doing so allows for leaner budgeting, and even a much steadier release cycle. (You can work with and release tunes on, say, a monthly basis, rather than wadding everything up into a do-or-die album process that takes years.)
In the DIY-recording realm, a point of confusion tends to be the difference between acoustical treatment and soundproofing. I’ve heard more than one person refer to the placement of acoustical foam on various surfaces as “soundproofing,” and while I understand what’s actually meant, the terminology is still off.
So, what’s the difference?
It’s actually a fairly simple distinction, at least as I’ve come to understand it. Acoustical treatment is modifying the behavior of sound within a space. Soundproofing is preventing the transfer of acoustical events between spaces.
To be fair, acoustical treatment can – technically – aid in some soundproofing. Acoustical absorption means that sound energy is converted to thermal energy. If, through something like acoustical foam, a sonic event is prevented from ever reaching a wall, then you won’t have a problem with that sound causing the wall to vibrate. At the same time, it’s important to note that most building structures are less and less likely to vibrate effectively at higher and higher frequencies anyway, with the losses from acoustic foam quickly becoming essentially irrelevant.
Soundproofing is a much more difficult business, because it requires getting a handle on vibrations that are very strong and difficult to stop. It’s a game of mass and isolation. Very heavy objects are difficult to set into motion. Objects that have less surface-area in contact with other objects transfer vibration poorly. The transfer of vibration from air to solids is highly inefficient; You can easily feel a big thump on your chest from someone’s hand smacking into you, but that same sensation from a subwoofer firing into the air requires a TON of speaker power.
So, with all that, effective soundproofing tends to rely heavily on expensive, permanent (or quasi-permanent) construction. Rooms can be built within other rooms, for instance, with air gaps between the outer and inner walls. “Airlock” systems with multiple, heavy, gasketed doors can be employed. Floors may be floated with absorptive rubber spacers.
A room can be nicely soundproof, but sound terrible inside. Build a concrete bunker inside another concrete bunker, and not much sound will get in or out. The reflectivity of all those hard surfaces will be horrendously bad, though.
Basic treatment, on the other hand, is much easier. Gather up a few thick, fluffy blankets that you can hang, and you’re likely to create a noticeable change in the room’s internal behavior. Reducing the “splatter” of content at or above 1000 Hz isn’t exactly trivial, but the effort required is within reach for almost anybody.
(Please be aware, of course, that really great sounding rooms almost never happen by accident or by way of a few, hasty changes. Full-blown, world-class acoustical spaces require a great deal of thought and preparation. The best ones have effective treatment at low frequencies, which is not a simple thing to do. Big studios with renowned rooms are expensive for reasons that include both soundproofing AND treatment.)
As I said, room treatment and soundproofing aren’t the same thing. In your self-recording adventures you’ll likely encounter some “environmental” problems. Figuring out which of the two concepts applies the most will help you approach the issue in a way that actually has a chance of being effective.
These days, from the indie artists to the major labels, recording budgets are shrinking. This does not mean that we no longer need professionally recorded material, we as musicians, have to find ways to get the best sounding recordings, while trimming down the investment. Here is my list of tips for you and your band to hit the studio ready to rock. When I booked my first ever studio session with my high school band, the local engineer told us to be well rehearsed, so we played through our songs every single day leading up to the session, but we were far from ready. These tips are what I wish I would have known going in my first time.
10. Make Your Arrangement Interesting.
Chances are, your song has an intro, a verse, a chorus, a second verse and chorus, a bridge or solo section with a final chorus and ending. Almost every song has some variation of this format and for good reason… it works. However, while there needs to be a common thread for each section, you need to have subtle changes to keep your listeners engaged. This might be dropping a few instruments out in the first verse, bringing the dynamic down, adding a new instrument to the second verse, add a new element to each chorus so they get progressively bigger throughout the song. You might try changing time signature for the bridge or having a completely different chord structure. The idea is that the vocal melody is going to be the same from verse to verse and chorus to chorus, so change the other elements for some variety and to keep things interesting.
9. Frequency and Rhythmic Separation Sounds Bigger.
Far to often, a standard rock combo hits the studio, two guitars, bass and drums. They’ve got a killer main riff for the song, but that riff gets played on both guitars and the bass. This is a perfect way for your big and powerful guitar melody to sound extra small. I’m not saying never double, but when you do, know why you’re doubling and certainly don’t have it be your go-to if you’re only planning to track two guitars. Rather, try one guitar on your riff, the bass doing some staccato stabs right where the kick drum is and have the second guitar do some chord stabs opposite the bass and see how huge that riff gets.
For some rhythmic variance, if one part is based off 8th notes or 16th notes, have the next instrument play something based off hole notes or half notes. This can give a really nice pushing and pulling feel and keep your song interesting.
For some frequency separation, maybe your song is in C. Try having one guitarist play the open chords down the neck and have the second guitarist either do some bar chords up the neck, or even put a capo on the fifth fret and play G shape chords. This provides a constant stream of ear candy that makes people want to listen all the way through and then listen again.
8. Highlight the Focus.
the listener should never have to guess what they’re supposed to be listening for. When the vocalist is singing, everything else needs to back off to make room for that vocal to shine. Sometimes this means playing quieter, or less or some instruments dropping out altogether. When the guitar solo comes up, the rest of the band needs to make room for the soloist. This can be very tricky because usually, the solo comes at one of the loudest and dense parts of the song. Work out what might need to be changed to accommodate. Everyone in the band should always be mindful of where the focus is at any given time and take the spotlight when it’s there’s and relinquish it the rest of the time. Think of it this way, if you have a four piece band, and everyone is playing equally, you each take up 25% of the mix. However, that means nothing is the focus. If three players back off to 20% of the mix, you give the focus musician an extra 15% to work with. The entire band playing at 100% 100% of the time never works.
7. Make Friends with the Click Track.
I can’t stress this one enough. Nobody can dance to your song if the tempo speeds up every time the drummer plays a fill and slows down every time the dynamic drops. Before hitting the studio, put headphones on your drummer so he or she can have a click during rehearsal. I normally encourage the rest of the band not to have the click, but just to follow the drummer. Once it’s time to count in the song, the drummer should be the leader. You’ll find the first time you put your drummer on a click in rehearsal how much the drummer plays to the band rather than the other way around.
Drummers, you really need to take control. Put your headphones on, play to your click and don’t try and conform to the band. Only play tight to the click and make the band conform to you. Do not give an inch. You’ve always wanted to ignore you band mates anyway, here’s your chance. I give you full permission.
6. Drummers, Balance Your Kit.
Playing balanced drums is what separates the good drummers from the big boys club. The best drummers know exactly how hard they want to hit each part of their kit every time. This comes from back when drums were recorded with just one or two microphones and there was no really way to have control of each individual drum during the mix. Since you couldn’t turn the symbols down and the kick and snare up, drummers learned to play their symbols quieter and their kick and snare louder. Hit your drums and tap your symbols. This way the overheads can be used as more than ridiculous symbol wash. You’ll cut down on the bleed in your other microphones. Another helpful tip, as you’re going down your toms, don’t lose steam. You can hear a lot of records where a tom fill starts nice and loud, but by the time they get down to the floor tom, you can barely hear it. Remember, a 16In floor tom head takes more energy to excite than a 10In rack tom. Hitting your floor with the same intensity as your smallest rack will not produce the same result.
5. Creating Musical Drum Fills.
It might seem like I’m picking on drummers, but the track starts with you guys. Without amazing drums, no matter what the rest of the song sounds like, the whole will never be as good as it could have been. Before you start tracking, take some time to think through your fills. Don’t fall back on the chug chug chug, chug, around the drums. This fill can be the perfect one for building intensity in certain spots, but isn’t always your best choice. Think about your fills as part of the music. Is there a strong melody line played on a keyboard or guitar that leads in to the chorus? You might want to try similar subdivisions for your transition fill. You might even want to choose the drums you hit in the transition based on the direction of the melody. If the guitar is going down, try going for your rack toms to your floor. If it’s going up, try floor to rack. Then try the opposite and see if contrary motion works better. There’s no, “This works every time,” here, but keep these ideas in mind when writing your drum part. This is where you can really influence the song musically rather than just rhythmically.
4. New Strings and Heads Required.
This should be a no-brainer, but I was never told to have new strings on my guitars the first time I went in to track. You might say you don’t want your guitar to have that new string sound, but that brightness is something that can be taken away in the mix if you still feel that way at that point in the process, but it can’t be put back in if you track with old strings and change your mind and want the bright sound at mix down. You can make new sound a little older, but you can’t make old sound new. This even goes for bass players. No, the strings that came on your bass from the music store when you bought it three years ago are not going to cut it on a professional recording. Same for drummers. There’s considerable debate on whether you need to change out all of your bottom heads each session, but get some new top heads on, especially the snare and just use judgement for the bottoms.
3. Intonation and Tuning.
It doesn’t take much effort or money to get your guitars in to the shop a couple of days before your big session and have the intonation checked. Nothing is more disappointing than having your perfectly tuned guitar and you go to hit that blazing solo up the neck and everything sounds out of tune. Just bring your guitars and basses in, have a tech do a once-over, you’ll probably get out for between $20 and $50. When you’re about to drop a couple grand on your record, it’s not very smart to have every solo are bar chord out of tune to save $20.
Drummers, since you’re putting on those new heads anyway, take the time to tune up. A well tuned kit can really stand out in a track. If you’re not the best at drum tuning, find someone in your local scene who always has a great sounding kit and offer them a few bones and a case of beer to tune yours up the night before you track. It’ll be worth it.
2. Take a Few Chances.
Here’s where I make the engineers really mad, but hey, I don’t only pick on drummers. Leave room for some creativity in the studio. The common wisdom is before tracking day, know every note, every beat, every solo and vocal line perfectly. I say don’t do that. Get your songs most of the way there, but leave yourself some room to be in the moment. If the Beatles would have written every note before they started rolling tape, we’d never have the backwards guitar solos. John would have never tried singing a lead vocal while holding his nose just to see what it sounded like. The Rolling Stones never would have put a mic on an unplayed piano in the live room just to pick up some of the resonance of the piano strings while the band played. These are little pieces of magic that are getting left out of the process in these days of throw-and-go low budget recording. If you really have the rest of your stuff together, you’ll have time to try a few different things and make your own form of magic.
1. Don’t Fix-In-The-Mix.
That’s not quite the guitar tone we wanted, but we can fix it in the mix right? Never utter that last sentence… just never. Have a vision for your songs and take the time to uncover the tones before you hit record. What takes you a few minutes to dial in on tracking day saves you hours of trying to create a sound that you didn’t track that you knew you wanted all along. Here’s another place where some engineers will disagree with me, but if you know you like a specific delay that you’re getting from your pedal track it with your delay pedal. If your engineer refuses and it’s too late in the process to find another studio, offer to do a dry pass or have him take a DI from your guitar along with the pass that has your pedals. Here’s the catch, make sure your pedals sound good. Some engineers don’t like you tracking with them because they are afraid to commit, but most might hear something that sounds less than great in your rig and they only want to make sure that you have a great sounding record. If you take care of things on your end and really have your stuff dialed in, it shouldn’t be a problem. If your engineer still hears something unpleasing, ask them to help you dial it in based off your idea, but take the time to find the sound you want and print it that way.
I know somebody who has a large collection of guitars. He’ll have them all out for a session while he’s tracking. Then at mix down he’ll come out with something like, “Can you make this track I recorded with my Les Paul sound like my 335?” That is an extreme example, but always have your final sound in mind and do whatever you need to do to track as close to it as you can. You’ll be surprised at how much faster and easier mixing time is.
I hope these tips help you have nothing but incredible recording sessions in the future. I spent a lot of time and money learning how to create amazing sounding records. Hopefully you can skip some of that. If you follow these simple tips, I can guarantee that your first professional recordings will sound much better than mine.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.)
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.
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