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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

It’s Expensive

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

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

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

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

I could go on and on.

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

The Spectrum Is Getting Crowded

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

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

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

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

We’re Not In Control Of Our Medium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway.

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

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

Like I said, this is understandable, but inaccurate.

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

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

A Dumb Sensor Of Pressure

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, What Does It All Mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.