Some of you all may remember my heartfelt letter to musicians about arrangements, and how they really are best treated as the musicians’ responsibility. In that article, I got into concrete examples of how arrangement issues manifest themselves.

This is sort of a follow-on to that. It’s addressing the same basic topic, but from a different angle.

Even with the examples that I wrote about, knowing when you have an arrangement problem isn’t always intuitive or obvious. I had years and years of experience behind mixing consoles without finally having the “Ah HA!” moment about why some bands just seemed to “happen.”

Of course, I’ve had plenty of experience with bands that DIDN’T sort themselves out, and that’s actually a good metric for determining if you have an arrangement issue.

Do You Sound Like A Band, Or Does Someone Have To Make You Sound Like A Band?

One of the dead giveaways regarding arrangement problems is the way that an audio craftsperson works on your show.

Let me be clear: It’s entirely possible for an audio-human to dial up a bad mix and get similar results. However, better arrangements resist bad mixing far more than poor ones.

With that being said, let’s assume that your friendly, neighborhood noise-management-artisan is basically competent and non-malicious.

1) If this person has no choice but to constantly ride fader levels to make your mix sound right, you probably have a poor arrangement.

2) If this person has to do a lot with EQ to make the different parts fit together, you probably have a poor arrangement. (This is apart from basic, corrective EQ required to make the audio rig sound decent in a particular environment. There might be a lot of that, but that’s not on you.)

In other words, arrangement quality is INVERSELY proportional to the musical corrective action required of the sound tech. Great bands with great arrangements don’t require me to fix anything. I just have to translate the songs through the PA – and actually, that’s a pretty good analogy. With a bad arrangement, I have to go beyond just helping the “onstage language” interface with “audience language.” If I’m able, I also have to correct the original grammar, fact-check, rewrite for clarification, and THEN translate.

If you’ve worked with an audio-human that you trust, you may want to ask them a question: “After we’re all set up and ready to go, do you have to work really hard to mix us?” The answer to that question might end up telling you a lot, especially if your arrangements are significantly “broken.”

Fixing Things

If it’s broken, fixing it should be a priority. How do you go about fixing an arrangement?

I’ve talked about this kind of thing before in multiple ways, but most of those approaches have been either abstract or anecdotal. I want to try a different approach here: The analogy.

To start, let me have you take a look at the three center shapes from this article’s illustration:
freqOverlap
“But, Danny,” you say, “that’s only one shape.”

Is it? Oh – sorry – I seem to have an arrangement problem. Let me try something…
timeSeparation
See? Three shapes.

This is a depiction of a classic problem that I run into. Several players try to occupy the same frequency space, at the same overall volume, at the same time. That is, their instruments have relatively similar tones, and the notes being played have similar fundamental frequencies. (For example, everybody is playing middle C, aka C4, a fundamental frequency of 261.626 Hz.)

If the instrument tones, notes, and volumes must stay the same, then the way to differentiate the shapes is limited to space. Of course, music is a very strange sort of magic. It’s very “Dr. Who.” In music, time IS space. If the different instruments play at different times, they will naturally separate and become identifiable.

Of course, the different musicians can all play together, but take turns being at lower volume.
volumeSeparation
Triangle and square have turned down to give circle a turn. Later, circle will do the same, and either triangle or square will be the lead part. It’s another bit of wibbly-wobbly stuff, in that size IS volume.

Are space and size the only solution? Not at all! I’ll bet you can see all three shapes now, even though they’re all happening at the same time, and are at a similar overall size:
frequencySeparationIn this case, the instruments are all playing significantly different notes. Just as a color of light corresponds with frequency, so does a “color” of sound. The complicating factor with sound is that a lot of harmonic content is involved. The instrument makes the fundamental note, but the overall tone of the part comes from other, mathematically related frequencies ringing along with that note. You may find that you need very large separations to make this work, especially if everybody is playing chords. (You may find it helpful to build a chord out of several instruments playing one or two notes each.)

There are many other possible permutations of all this, of course. These fundamental ideas, however, are enough to construct most (if not all) of them. Once you identify an arrangement problem, you DO have the tools to create a solution.

Oh, and one more thing: This also applies in the studio. If the producer or engineer has to build a ton of automation curves, program lots of “mutes,” or do a truckload of EQ to make your song work, you might want to go back and work on the song’s construction instead.

Now, why in blue-blazes would a live-sound engineer talk about auditioning people for your band?

Simple.

I deal with the fallout if you louse it up.

There have been many instances in my time where I’ve had to struggle with a band containing at least one member who was a terrible fit for actually playing shows. It usually makes for a frustrating and bad-sounding gig, in which a large amount (maybe all) of the available electro-acoustical headroom for the show is DEVOURED in trying to fix the problems. Nothing is left over to otherwise translate the show to the audience in a cool way. It’s all been spent on mere survival.

If that sounds like a bad scene – even a career-threatening scene – you’re getting the point.

Thankfully, you have the power to prevent this mess from being a part of your concerts. You just have to have the right members, and that means getting your auditions right. Getting your auditions right can mean challenging your pre-conceived notions, and one of those in particular is probably the most troublesome.

Technical Ability Is The Minimum Requirement, Not The Prime Factor

Playing is a technical enterprise. Playing live is even more so: You have to execute under pressure, in front of an audience, without the ability to invisibly stop and try again. Technical ability is 100% necessary. I’m not saying that it isn’t.

What I am saying, though, is that musicians have an alarming tendency to use technical ability as the sole measure of whether someone should be a part of the act. A bunch of drummers are auditioned, and the one that can do the most insane rhythm work gets the nod. A whole pile of guitarists are listened to, and the one who makes Joe Satriani seem like an amateur is hired. A herd of vocalists is lined up, and the one who can sing the highest/ lowest/ with the most beautiful tone is recruited.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, except that there are lots of cases where the person with the highest technical ability is a terrible fit for the ensemble. Getting the most proficient drummer, keyboardist, guitarists, bass player, and vocalists all together in one band does NOT guarantee that you’ve created the best band. It merely guarantees that you’ve created a band containing the most technically proficient people you could find.

The ensemble. The whole. The gestalt entity…that’s what matters.

The Wreckage Of An Arrangement

I harp on the importance of your band’s “natural arrangement” quite a bit. I keep returning to the idea as a theme because of how important it is to constructing killer shows. One of the problems with “technical ability is the main factor,” is that folks who don’t (or won’t) fit your natural arrangement are brought on board. The results are not pretty:

“Dude, the drummer’s really good but they’re all I can hear.”

“The guitar player is AMAZING by themselves, but their tone is so scooped that they get obliterated when anyone else is playing.”

“The bassist is totally locked up with everyone else, but why do they have to be so loud?”

“She has the most gorgeous voice. You need to magically add 30 dB more gain to her mic. Without feedback. And without picking up any of the other stuff on stage.”

After you’ve discovered whether or not a prospective member can actually manage the notes, the next thing to chew on is whether they truly fit. To do this, have an actual rehearsal with your potential bandmate. Don’t do anything special at a technical level. Do what you’ve always done (assuming that what you’ve always done has worked).

  • If the auditionee is suddenly drowning everything else, you have a problem.
  • If the applicant is being drowned by everyone else, you have a problem.
  • If the new recruit can’t “wait their turn”, you have a problem.
  • If the potential player can’t naturally create a tone which complements other tones and produces the necessary, audible distinction between parts, you have a problem.

If you have a problem, the next step is to decide what to do.

The Three Choices

If the person you’re auditioning has caused you to have a problem, there are only a few general ways you can go:

1) Make the band fit the new person.

Do NOT do this if it involves making the rest of the band louder, or buying new equipment, or doing something to your songs that you fundamentally dislike. It’s not worth it.

Consider doing this if it will make your arrangements better, or bring the band’s volume down, or encourage playing that’s more sensitive to others. Be careful, though, that you’re all equally on board with the idea.

2) Make the new person fit the band.

Similarly to the above, do NOT do this if it requires more volume or a gear investment by the musician you’re auditioning. If the musician you’re auditioning seems reluctant to fit themselves in, don’t fight that battle. It will likely be a Sisyphean task where you can never…quite…make it…work…

However, there are some folks who just need a little direction to slot in with the rest of the team. If they can take that direction and really internalize it, they’ve got a chance.

3) Say, “Thank you, but no deal.”

The easiest situation is when there are no problems, and so you don’t have to even consider #1 or #2. Notice that I said “easiest,” instead of “best.” Option 1 is hard, but it may be the best option if the band will benefit greatly from molding itself around a new addition. At the same time, for an established band with seasoned (and sane) members, finding someone who fits without any significant reworking is probably what you want.

In general, I agree with the advice that Bob Rock gave to Metallica when they were auditioning Jason Newsted’s replacement: “I don’t think you should settle. If you don’t knock it out of the park, you’re just going to end up doing this again in five years.”

If option 1 is settling, don’t do it. If option 2 is settling, don’t do it. If at all possible, hold out for the right person. (It may not be possible.)

Epilogue

The personality and “culture” aspects that figure into all this are beyond the scope of this article.

However, I will say that there have been times in my career where I really liked everybody in a band, except for one of them. In those cases, I really did not want to work with that whole band.

Consider the implications of this carefully.

Of course, your show should be exciting. It should be bursting with color, light, and sonic textures. The attention of everyone in attendance should be held rapt with every word, such that any notion of NOT being enthralled by your performance borders on the distasteful.

However…

The technical execution of your show should not be exciting at all. It should contribute nothing to the adrenaline rush of the experience. For the humans tasked with the practical work of ensuring that your show does burst with tangy lights and savory audio, pulling it all off should be routine.

Workaday.

Maybe even dull.

Why?

An Excited Pilot Is Having A Bad Day

Of course, I’m oversimplifying my analogy – but stick with me.

Let’s say that you’re on a flight. The whole thing has been pretty “ho-hum.” You got a beverage about halfway through, fired up some tunes on your phone and settled in. It’s just another day in the air for you. It’s just another day in the air for the flight crew. They’re doing what they do all the time.

And then, an engine makes a sudden decision: It wants to retire. Immediately. So, it just stops. You’re at 30,000 feet, and one of the devices that keeps the plane moving forward (and thus acting like a plane instead of just a large, complex, soda can) is no longer doing what it’s supposed to do.

Emergency procedures are immediately put into action. The pilots get the other engines spooled up to handle the load that the dead motor isn’t dealing with anymore. They start looking for a place to divert to, and get on the radio with updates about the situation. It’s all very exciting!

But it’s not fun. You, the flight crew, and everybody else are living on the bad side of a classic mantra for flyers: It’s better to be on the ground, desperately wishing you were in the air, than to be in the air, desperately wishing you were on the ground. Everybody wanted the flight to be fun, but everybody also wanted the actual flying to be boring. The mechanics of flying should be routine, so that the experience of tearing down a runway, leaping into the air, and soaring above the Earth is an absolute hoot.

It’s the same with show production.

What You Can Do

The key to keeping the technical execution of your show routine – or as routine as can be practical if you’re doing one-offs – is to do just that. Keep things routine.

In other words, keep things as far inside the boundary of “this was expected to happen” as you can.

For The Big Show

For shows that are big, complex, or high stakes, this means rehearsals. REAL rehearsals, with all the technical elements either in play or being closely simulated. Get in the actual space if you can, get a real FOH mix going, get real monitors happening, run the lights, run the atmospheric effects, roll the video, and do everything that you’re going to actually do on the night. This is expensive and time consuming, but it does something very important: It reduces or (ideally) eliminates all surprises regarding how the show will be pulled off. On the night of the real show, this means that both you and the techs will have maximum mental capacity for dealing with unexpected issues, because the number of expected elements will be very high.

For The Little Show

For one-offs, keeping things routine also means rehearsals, but done differently. In your band space, rehearse as though you will have nothing. Practice like the audio and lighting humans will be deaf and blind. Practice as though you can’t get much – or even anything – in the monitors. If the PA barely exists, will your arrangements themselves create a balanced mix? Can the singer(s) be heard without a lot of fuss? (If the mix is wrong in rehearsal it will probably be wrong at the show. If the singers are being drowned in rehearsal, they will probably be drowned at the show.) If your show pretty much works without a lot of bells and whistles, there’s a good chance that an average tech will be able to put a decent show together. They’ll be able to run their rig well inside its normal limits of gain and output, which is a very “routine” and easy thing to do.

Also, COMMUNICATE. At least a couple of days before your show, make sure that the folks responsible for running the gig have a current list of your audio needs, and a basic idea of where everyone will be on stage. It’s fine if this is on your website, as long as it’s what you actually need to do a show right now. Yes, some techs don’t do their homework, but some of us do. For those of us who care, knowing what to expect means having everything out on deck, patched in, and maybe even partially checked before you arrive. We might even be able to cook up some cool light cues…if you tell us what you want in advance. Preparation = expected to happen = routine = “happy boredom.”

On the flipside, finding out just before downbeat that you “need a couple more things” is problematic. It’s not that we shouldn’t try to pull it off – we should – but it’s exponentially harder to get gear on the deck, patched in, and preset when the general chaos of getting a show rolling is already happening in full force.

Please DO excite us, all of us, with your show. Excite us with the prospect of doing your show. Excite us with helping you design and produce your show.

But when it comes to running the show, bore us. Bore yourself. Bore us all to tears.

Dear Bands,

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.

Dear Bands, I think that’s what you really want.

It’s happened to me more than once. I’ve worked a show where I thought I was being polite, accommodating, and helpful. A band goes up on deck and plays their set. They seem to be having a fine time on stage. After they’re finished, someone from the group approaches me.

“Dude, I couldn’t hear myself/ the singer/ anything up there.”

…and I’m standing there, thinking, “Why are you telling me this now? It doesn’t help you or me to tell me this now. Why did you suffer through your entire set, with me standing here behind this mixing console the whole time, and say nothing?”

Performance Notes

I do get the concept of receiving “notes” after a show. I started this long, strange trip in live production at the metaphorical bus-stop known as high-school theater. After a performance, the director would go over what happened and communicate the changes that needed to happen for the next night.

In a sense, complaints were mostly held until the end of the show. (Yes, we had a working comm system, but you can’t work out everything in realtime.) Holding the discussion of those issues until after everything was over was appropriate, because a play or musical isn’t a rock show and midstream communication is a different creature. Delaying the complaints was also appropriate because we were engaged in an iterative process. The next night, we would be running the same production, but with the requested tweaks implemented. Then we’d do it all again.

But that’s not how a lot of music gigs are. They’re NOT iterative, where each night is built upon the previous. They’re one-offs, and that means that course corrections have to happen as quickly and completely as possible. We’re probably not going to do the same show tomorrow, and further, the problem with your show might not actually be a “systemic” flaw in how productions are handled by the venue or the crew. It’s very possible that the encountered pitfall was specific to your set. Waiting until after your slot to talk about your problem may very well not be making things better for anyone.

Take A Number

Another thing that I (unfortunately) get is that some audio humans are just crap to work with. There are sound practitioners out there who have three states of being: Drunk, surly, and both at once. There are board-ops who practice set-and-forget to the degree that they set the mixing console to where they think it should be, then walk away, and then forget to come back. There are dudes and dudettes who are sure they know better than you about literally everything, and who will snap at you for the merest suggestion that something might not be right.

In short, I completely understand that you may have had a LOT of experiences that mirror the illustration up there: Where the registration of a complaint caused a violent, unpleasant reaction.

I’m sorry about that.

Let me encourage you to take each individual audio human as…just that. An individual. If you’ve clearly established that a sound operator is unreceptive to your needs, then you can just grit your teeth and get on with life. However, when presented with a new operator, I urge you to try again. It’s entirely possible that you’re now working with someone who is interested in making your show meet your needs – but you do have to ask. Especially if one person is running FOH and monitor world, it can be really difficult for them to have any functional idea of what any individual player is experiencing on deck.

I also encourage you to be polite. On my own site, I wrote a whole article about how to be “demanding” in regards to your show. One of the major points is that you can ask for quite a bit (and maybe even get it) if you’re nice. If you initiate conflict and defensiveness where none was before, well, the source of the problem isn’t the audio human.

But the wider point is, ACT NOW. Waiting until after your set is over to register a problem, even in the name of politeness, is futile. If you can’t catch the eye or otherwise flag down the tech, then get someone with an open mic to talk to them. At the end of a song, take a minute to suss out your issue. You might be able to get a direct fix for what’s ailing you, and even if not, making folks aware that something’s wrong might net you an indirect solution.

Unless you have incontrovertible proof that asking for help will not work, please do (politely) find a way to speak up. Let’s get things fixed for you when it will actually do some good – right now, in other words.

Wait, wait, wait, WAIT!

Before you bail on this article because you’ve already heard a million exhortations to “turn down,” I want to make something clear:

This article is not about letting the audio human control your sound. That’s actually not even a universally desirable thing, especially if the noise-management creature du jour is grossly inexperienced, malicious, stupid, or just plain absent.

This piece of writing is not about the economics of selling food and drink, and how that requires people to communicate with waitstaff. You already know all that.

This missive is not about safety and career extension via the taking care of your ears. You’ve had that talk so many times that you can quote all the major themes from memory.

This article is about psychology.

In this business, we talk about so many things at a “mechanical” level, as I referenced above. We talk about technical reasons for things. Business reasons. Safety reasons.

But a theme that I’ve started to see emerge in the last few years is a topic that is rightfully taking its place in the list of Things That Music People Need To Think About. It’s the issue of the audience’s emotional involvement. The audience’s emotional involvement with your tunes is probably THE driving force behind a career that satisfies you. It’s probably THE propellant that fires a live show into the stratosphere.

If an audience isn’t emotionally engaged with your songs, what’s the point? The most awkward and depressing shows are the ones where the musicians and the listeners fail to connect.

And I can tell you with a great deal of certainty that volume causes a disconnected audience (or an audience on the fence) to disconnect MORE. They are getting something they do not want, and they are getting it in quantity. That’s not a good situation.

The Objection and The Rebuttal

Whenever I talk about “loud,” there’s almost always some pushback. The most relevant pushback in this case goes something like this:

“I was at a show for [National Act] the other night, and nobody told [Famous Musician] to turn THEIR rig down. Everybody was loving it.”

The unspoken assumption is that the Sound Pressure Level (SPL) of the show created excitement in the crowd, and that same amount of overall level at any other show will help to create the same excitement.

No. Sorry.

The people at that show were already “amped up” BEFORE a single note was played. They were excited enough to experience live versions of beloved tunes that they stood outside in uncomfortable temperatures, so as to have the privilege to fork over tens of dollars, so as to have the privilege of being in the crowd. That’s what the all-important emotional connection does.

And yes, they did “like it loud.” They liked it loud because they already liked it. The pre-existing emotional connection was in place, and a bit of extra level acted as a sort of flavor enhancer. The audience had ordered up a scrumptious musical meal of all their favorite comfort-food songs, and they got heaping portions of it all. Of course they were happy.

The analogy holds when things are going the other way, too. If somebody is served a meal that they aren’t particularly interested in, or worse, that they just don’t like, is the answer to serve them more of it? Is the answer to hold them down and spoon it all down their throat? If that were you, don’t you think that you’d just get more and more pissed off at the jerk who was forcing you to eat?

That’s what happens when you’re too loud for your audience’s pre-existing acceptance of you and your music.

Anecdotal Evidence

Offhand, I don’t have any scientific studies to cite in defense of my position. What I have is the veracity of my analogies, my own experiences, and the experiences of others that have been related in various ways.

I recall a story told by an engineer who worked on (what I believe) were Tejano shows. The crowd was so into the music that they weren’t satisfied with the level until the system was driven to audible distortion.(!)

Another audio craftsperson related the story of a show played to some older folks. Whether it was the break music or an earlier act is something I can’t remember, but I do remember that the music wasn’t what the crowd wanted. They kept demanding that it be turned down, and turned down, and turned down. The engineer assumed that they just couldn’t handle the level. Then, the main act came on, which was big-band music that the crowd adored. Suddenly, people in the audience were complaining that it wasn’t loud enough.

I once worked a wedding where the mother of the groom was very upset at how loud I was playing the dance music. It ended up being so quiet that a couple of people were standing next to one of my main loudspeakers and easily holding a conversation.

I once ran Front Of House (FOH) for a local pop-punk band that was giving a farewell show. The kids in the audience were ecstatic to be at the gig. I got a mix going, and it was very much at “rock” level. I was glad that my earplugs were in. A camera operator got my attention, and I assumed that he was going to tell me that I had gone too far. What he basically said was, “Man, it needs to be WAY louder.” We were in the very back of the room, and the entire band was clearly audible over the crowd.

Loudness as an experience enhancement is a special privilege that is not granted easily. If 90% of a crowd is unambiguously begging for more volume, then it’s okay to give them a bit more level. (Not too much, though.) If the previous sentence is not what you’re experiencing, then don’t take the risk of alienating the audience. Too much level can quickly turn the listeners into your enemies.

Loud doesn’t create excitement. Excitement, on the other hand, will sometimes allow a bit more level to be acceptable.

 

Performance video is something that I readily place in the category of Very Good Things™. Why try to describe the experience of your show to someone when you can just show them? In HD. Over the Internet.

Seriously, it’s a no-brainer.

The argument for it, I mean.

What IS a “brainer” is the process of actually filming a performance. Especially if you’re trying to do it at a professional level, interfacing video production with the normal production of the show is not necessarily a trivial thing. To be brutally frank, shooting video (really shooting it, I mean) is a disruptive addition to the performance. Even if there’s only one video craftsperson involved, what has suddenly happened is that there is a whole new layer of crew at the show. These people have their own needs for space, power, audio, and lighting, and those needs don’t always line up neatly with everything else.

This is not a bad thing. It does NOT mean that video is evil. It does mean, though, that trying to do a serious job with video at your show requires a lot more than just having a person with a good camera on hand.

Advanced Notice, Advanced Arrival

One thing that really grinds my gears as an audio human is the sudden appearance of a “pro” camera operator with the show only minutes away from downbeat.

What grinds my gears even more is the sudden appearance of video after the show has already started.

It’s not because they have a camera, or are taking up space. That’s just life. What bugs me, though, is that they have a knack for needing things from me, in a hurry, during a “pressure situation.”

“Is there any extra power, dude?”

“Where’s an okay place to put my tripod, dude?”

“Can I get a board-feed, dude? I have adapters for [literally everything except what would actually make it easy].”

What I want to say in reply is, “There was a convenient time for all of this to get sorted out. That time was roughly two hours ago. Other things are currently demanding my attention. Why did nobody tell me you were coming, and why could you not manage to be on time?”

I don’t say that of course, but the desire is very strong.

Anyway.

The point is that knowing about video’s arrival in advance is more than just courtesy – it’s extremely helpful in making it possible for me to be useful to the video crew. If I know that video is coming, and have some general idea of what they need, then I can “do some homework” and be ready to interface smoothly with both them and you. If I don’t know that video humans are on their way, and I have no specific clues about what they might need, then assisting with any issues will very likely require me to interrupt some other production task so that I can “babysit.”

Ask yourself: When the pressure’s on, do you want me to paying full attention to your show and your needs on deck, or do you want me to be splitting my focus between you and an unprepared video dude with non-trivial issues?

Further, the video crew being able to show up with lots of time to spare has a VERY large bearing on how much can be done to accommodate their needs. I have no problem finding extra power, discussing camera placement, changing stage layouts, tweaking light-cue choices, and digging around for appropriate audio I/O…if it’s all being done with lots of time (say, one or two hours) before the doors open. If the show is minutes away from happening – or in the process of actually happening – I’m going to do the minimum possible to get video out of my hair. It’s not that I don’t want to do more, it’s that I CAN’T do more when other things are at the top of the priorities list.

To be blunt, shooting video for later presentation is not on the critical path for making a show happen. If getting video squared away threatens the execution of tasks on the critical path, video is going to get ignored until such time as the critical path is completed.

It’s A Personnel Problem

So, what’s the overarching principle here? In my mind, it’s pretty simple: When finding someone to shoot high-quality video of your show, the key thing to look for is professional people, as opposed to professional gear.

Now, I’m not saying that decent cameras and “pro-level” ancillaries aren’t necessary. They are. But what has to be realized is that the only thing required to get one’s hands on a good video camera is money. There are lots of folks with the money for very nice cameras, but who have no clue about how to be a functional part of the chaotic vortex that is live music. It’s much the same as a high-performance car. There are plenty of people driving around in Lamborghinis who simply could not handle themselves competently in a real race.

If you want to do pro-level video at your show, look for videographers who will do some real homework with you about what you want and need, ask technical questions of you and the venue, and arrive at an appropriately early time in order to get everything sorted out in practice. Sometimes, people like this will have the very latest and greatest gear, and sometimes they won’t.

It doesn’t matter if a person has a cinema-grade 4K camera. Understanding how to function as a professional at a live show is make-or-break factor. Everything else is gravy. If you want to make a killer video of your show, my advice is to find professional attitudes first. You can always fork over some extra cash to have those truly varsity-level-attitude video humans equipped with high-end gear.

But professional poise is not something that I’ve ever seen on a list of rental stock.

So, I should probably write about something technical after last month’s business-oriented ramble, yeah?

Okay, then. Let’s talk about equalization.

When it comes to the question of whether or not a soundchecking musician should set their tone controls to some neutral point, there is an answer.

It’s a standard answer that you’ll hear everywhere in live-audio.

It’s infuriating.

The answer is: Maybe.

As a gesture of cooperation and respect, I can certainly appreciate the “flattening” of an EQ. Setting your instrument (or amplifier) tone controls to a neutral sound can be a practical and powerful way of saying “We’re all on the same team here.”

But it’s not actually always helpful.

On more than one occasion, I’ve listened as players took a really nice tone and turned it into a mediocre sound. I’ve frantically tweaked console channel EQs as a musician struggled to recreate their sonic fingerprint (while in a pressure situation) without the benefit of their own gear’s controls. In those cases, the flattened EQ hindered the show instead of enhancing it.

Here, then, are some pointers about when it’s appropriate and inappropriate to reset your tone controls.

Use That EQ If You’ve Gotta Sound Like You

Purely at the level of individual taste, you may have some very strong, very specific feelings about how your instrument is supposed to sound. For instance, if you’re a “one guitar, one vocal” sort of act, a key part of your show might be a guitar tone with lots of percussive, deep, low-frequency content. Or, you might be a bass player where a specific part of the lower midrange has to be “just so.”

If you feel like the above paragraph describes you, then flattening your EQ as a matter of course might not be the best idea. As likely as not, you’ll end up trying to talk the audio-human through a rebuild of your sound in realtime – and there’s no guarantee that the engineer will be able to get what you want. If you get your rig in the room, give things a try, and hear “your sound,” then why throw that away? There’s no point.

Another issue to be mindful of is if your tone settings make your instrument fit the context of the group. Maybe you’re a keyboard player, and you’ve got things tweaked so that you perfectly complement the guitars. If you blindly undo those tweaks for the mere sake of courtesy, and your group stops sounding like a beautifully blended band as a result, then the show just got worse instead of better.

Now, in all cases, it’s helpful to keep a line of dialogue open with the sound operator. A ton of low-end might sound fine on deck, but be trouble out front. You might think your rig sounds “clear,” but some murderous top-end content might be missing your ears and frying the audience. There may be some large tonal adjustments necessary for your sound and the room’s needs to converge into a workable solution. Even so, as an audio-human I am a firm believer that we need to at least start by having “your sound” happening on stage. We might not end exactly where we began, but we might as well begin by being informed by your preferences.

There’s no reason to exchange a sound you like for one you don’t, purely for the sake of politics or politeness. (If there’s a specific problem to solve, then solve it. Otherwise…)

How About A Reset?

There are definitely some situations where going back to a “vanilla” tone is a good idea.

One such circumstance is when you’ve been using your tone controls to compensate for a sonic deficiency in another piece of gear. You may normally play through a rig that naturally de-emphasizes a frequency range that you want to be prominent. In that case, you may have used equalization (and perhaps a TON of it) to compensate. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that…until you get plugged into a system that doesn’t have that problem. In that case, your corrective EQ may now be providing you with an incorrect solution. If you’ve done a lot of tone shaping to work in a specific situation, and the situation changes, it might be time to start fresh.

(A specific example of this is a guitar player who uses a pickup-loaded acoustic with an electric-guitar amplifier. A 12″ cone, say, naturally rolls off the high-frequency content from the guitar, and so the player might boost their treble to compensate. This is perfectly okay until the player plugs directly into a PA that doesn’t roll off the highs. All of a sudden, their sound might be painfully crisp.)

Another occasion to return to flat EQ is when you aren’t sure what you want. If you don’t have a strong opinion about how your instrument should sound, then you might find it easier to just let someone else drive. You’ll eventually form a preference, and there’s no point in faking that preference before it settles in.

Yet another time for flat EQ is when you feel like you’re plenty loud, but are still getting swamped by the other parts in an ensemble. It may be that you’ve chased yourself into a tonal corner that’s completely blocked off by the rest of the group. In that case, returning to a neutral setting might help reveal where you do fit.

As I said, what you need to do depends on the situation. Start by listening. If your EQ isn’t flat, and everything sounds great, then leave your EQ alone. If your EQ is flat, and you don’t like what you hear, you may as well start turning some knobs. Getting your sound while retaining a spirit of collaboration and compromise is absolutely polite and professional.