Regarding Arrangements and Audio Humans – A Letter

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.