Back in the heyday of the Grateful Dead, a special sub-scene emerged: The Tapers. Not to confused with tapirs, an exotic animal, Tapers would record the live shows to share with other people later.
Does that sound familiar?
I would argue that, in many ways, livestreaming your show is a new form of taping. It’s an attempt to capture part of the experience so as to give something to your current audience, and hopefully reach some new enthusiasts as well.
The thing with taping or livestreaming is that the physics and logistics have not really changed. Sure, the delivery endpoints are different, especially with livestreaming being a whole bunch of intangible data being fired over the Internet, but how you get usable material is still the same. As such, here are some hints from the production-staff side for maximum effectiveness, at least as far as the sound is concerned.
1) Directional microphones are your friend.
While it might seem like a good idea to grab a wide, or even 360 degree soundfield, you will generally get a better result overall by being selective. Especially if you’re streaming from a bar or club, it’s really not a great idea to capture all the conversations, room reflections, and general disruption happening around you. A full-on shotgun mic probably isn’t necessary; Just find a decent cardioid or super-cardioid and point it at what you want to hear.
2) Keep your gear out of the way. Super out of the way, actually.
Audiences have an incredible ability to walk into, stand on, swat, and otherwise mess with your recording setup, often without even trying. Endeavor to find a spot where your streaming goodies are protected from the general public. The audio human’s spot can be pretty good for this. Just remember to ask politely first.
3) Run your own gear as much as possible.
As a sound operator, I am (as a rule), happy to help by pressing record on your device. However, it’s important to understand that the start of a show can be a bit like getting an airliner off the ground: A lot is going on that requires my close attention. I may end up forgetting to hit the little red button. If you can do it yourself, that’s much better.
Also, if there is any complexity at all to getting things rolling (beyond just pressing the aforementioned button), you really should take care of it yourself. It’s THE way to ensure success.
4) A direct feed might sound better, but…
…remember that many direct feeds are just a split from some output, often the main bus. There are many rooms and situations where the main bus is carrying a ton of vocals and just a touch of a few other things. Unless the PA is truly doing all the heavy lifting, you may find that a line-level feed isn’t musically balanced.
I like clean audio as much as anybody – maybe even more – but I can also recognize when “clean” isn’t necessarily the best capture of the show as a whole.
(There are some ways around this conundrum, but they are beyond the scope of this article.)
5) If you want a feed, please do your advance work.
Find out the day before, or earlier, what kind of connections and signals might be available to you. Sometimes, it’s easy for a sound tech to get something sorted out for you…and sometimes, it’s nearly impossible. The difficulty generally rises as the amount of time before the show decreases.
And please, please, educate yourself on the different kinds of audio connections that you might run into, and have your own adapters. Again, when speaking for myself I can say that I’m happy to help out in whatever way I can – but it’s always best when YOU are “Johnny On The Spot” in terms of having what you need to make your own gear play nicely with everything else.
“Hey, Man. It’s a touch loud in the house. Can I trade you some amp volume for monitor gain?”
“But my amp’s only on, like, two!”
Have you been part of a conversation like this? I have. It rarely ends well, because somebody is always frustrated or disappointed at the end. Oftentimes, there are at least two somebodies: The audio human and the amplifier user.
The sticking point in the debate is an idea that “low knob position = acceptable volume.” Unfortunately, this notion is anything but watertight. The reality is that acceptable volume = acceptable volume, with the position of any relevant control being nearly immaterial.
To put it another way, the position of the knob is the cause, and the resulting audio output is the effect. In the end, the effect is what matters. If the effect is causing a problem for the band, then the “state” of the cause isn’t a valid argument that the overall result is okay.
Nobody has ever fought a speeding ticket by claiming that the car’s accelerator was only a third of the way down.
The same reasoning also applies when the disagreement ventures into drive percentages. Somebody might say, “I’m only using about 10% of the amp, and for it to sound right I need at least 40%.” That’s fair enough in some respects, but it points to an issue of bringing an artillery piece to a neighborhood cap-gun game. If the amplifier doesn’t sound good until most people think it’s too loud to sound good, then the amplifier doesn’t actually sound good.
It’s the wrong tool. And the wrong tool at the right price, or with the right look, or with the right capabilities for some other job is still the wrong tool.
If two is too loud for the band, then two is too loud. If you’re finding yourself in this kind of situation, it may be time to do some horse-trading. Find yourself a rig that’s just a little too hot for the band when it’s wound up all the way, and you’ll have lots more room to actually use the front-panel settings for creative control.
You might even end up with something easier to carry, as a bonus. (Maybe.)
Over the years that I’ve worked with you, many things have become apparent. One of those concepts is that, quite often, you need me to make some sort of change in the middle of a show. Often, that change is necessary to make your life on stage more comfortable, such that you can create the best possible experience for your audience.
At times, it may have been hard to get that change made for you. Such difficulties commonly arise due to communication problems. As such, I am writing this letter to help you transmit your needs and wants to the audio humans you will inevitably encounter.
First and foremost: Please use your words.
I understand that there is a stubborn stigma attached to “talking through” an issue in the middle of a show. However, any aesthetic problems this can cause are quite minor, especially when you consider that not getting a need met may cause real problems with your performance.
When it comes to a complex topic, especially in a pressure situation, the ability of spoken language to convey nuance and relay information unambiguously is a huge bit of leverage. By speaking over the PA, you can make it very clear, say, that “I think my vocal is starting to feed back in the highs.” There’s actually a lot of information in that sentence, yet it comes across quickly and elegantly when turned into speech.
On the flipside, I’m not sure how that concept would be effectively transmitted by way of hand signals – unless there was a lot of rehearsal time with the engineer involved.
Also, concerts are full of distractions to the eye. A sound operator may have their visual attention elsewhere, while still devoting their ears to the music. As such, addressing them over the PA is generally a sure method for getting their full attentiveness returned to you.
My second point is in regards to visual signals: Think big, think simply, and think patiently.
When you don’t have the opportunity to verbalize a request, visual communication is a necessity. However, as I’ve alluded to already, it has limitations. You have to restrict yourself to basic concepts that have a small number of interpretations, and require no rehearsal to understand.
(Many years ago, I had a musician attempt to take me through a large number of hand signs that would convey things like “The stage-left guitar needs more midrange in the monitors” and “Less reverb on my vocals for this next tune.” I can’t say that it worked out very well.)
Simplicity and “largeness” go together. Remember that the audio engineer may be quite a distance from you, causing detailed motions to become lost. Ad-hoc sign language at shows must be “big” so that it can be seen, and only so many ideas should be signaled in a short period of time.
I highly recommend the approach of “Who, What Instrument, Where, and Up/Down.” For instance: Point at the guitar player, mime the guitar playing, point at your monitor, and then make an up or down motion until the guitar level is where you want it. It’s compact, relatively unambiguous, and the involved motions are easy to see.
As to patience, please do remember that it takes time to interpret your signals, figure out how to get you what you want, and then start to make it all happen. Several seconds may have to elapse before you hear any change, and some “iteration” may have to take place before you’ve gotten exactly what you want. This is simply an inherent hazard of doing things on the fly, but when taken in stride it’s not too hard to handle.
Hopefully this all makes sense. Effective communication is important for a good show, and a little bit of forethought about how to go about it can make a huge difference.
Thank you for taking these thoughts into consideration.
The last time around, I talked about how most bands don’t need more or better gear to solve their problems. Mostly, they need to work as a team.
That idea closely ties in with equipment used to reproduce the sound of the band and it’s gear. You know – PA systems. There’s a myth about sound-reinforcement gear which can be voiced in many different ways, but usually boils down to this: “This problem will get better when we’re on a big stage, with lots of monitors and a big FOH system for the audience to listen to, all with enough power to melt somebody’s face off.”
You know what I’m going to say, of course. The above is not true.
Bigger and better reinforcement rigs are sort of like fortune or wealth, as understood by Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni. She said: “Fortune does not change men; it only unmasks them.” In the same vein, I can tell you that more and better PA rarely solves a problem with a band. Rather, it confirms the problem, or makes it more obvious.
I’ve been in more than one situation where the monitor system was far, far better than what a band was using in rehearsal. We had much more power, better initial tuning, and a ton of EQ available. Do you think the poor singer could finally hear themselves?
Not really. All that the extra toys did was confirm that the rest of the band wouldn’t give the vocalist any room to work. They were convinced that pro-audio could make up the difference in their teamwork (or lack thereof). Unfortunately, the difference was too great to be mended. There wasn’t enough gain-before-feedback to undo their steamrolling.
On the other hand, a PA becomes a powerful tool when used with an act that sounds balanced and beautiful right out of the gate. In that case, the system’s reserves can be used to optimally translate the group into whatever space they happen to be in that day. Tasteful sweetening can be applied, just as one might season a bit of carefully prepared food; Good ingredients can be enhanced, but bad ingredients will stay bad.
There are limits to these metaphors, of course. In some cases, an engineer can use a powerful system to blast over a problem. Depending on the situation, this might result in a tolerable sound. It might also be so loud that half the audience leaves. Even so, the need to take drastic measures is an unmasking: It tells you that something is very wrong somewhere.
A great PA with an experienced operator won’t fix inherent flaws with your music or performance. What it will do is make them obvious, because everything that can be improved will be improved. The unsolvable problems, then, will remain…unmasked.
I figured that I should probably write an article about an actual technical issue in live-sound, seeing as how Carlos always introduces me as an audio-human. I mean, it was getting a little ridiculous there (my piece about why some audio guys are unhelpful notwithstanding).
Some of you have instruments with non-preamplified pickups. That is, the pickup doesn’t run to any kind of processor, doesn’t need any batteries, and isn’t connected to an amp that you’ve brought along. Instead, the pickup simply turns your instrument’s vibrations into electricity, and that electricity travels down a cable that gets plugged into the audio rig.
…and some of you have had real problems. I have very definitely heard several variations on “When we played at that other place, we couldn’t get any level out of my pickup. I might need a new one.” It hardly happens to me every day, but I’ve encountered people with similar issues often enough for me to think: There’s something out there that needs to be addressed.
Let me start by saying that the news is probably good, actually.
It Probably Didn’t Break Between Rehearsal And The Gig
Yes – sometimes gear does get mangled on the trip to the venue. You can’t discount that possibility. However, if you just recently plugged your pickup into a practice amp, and everything was fine, it’s unlikely that your gear spontaneously killed itself.
Most instrument pickups that I run across are fairly hardy creatures in and of themselves. These days, the actual pickup part of the pickup should be able to withstand at least a bit of abuse before having an internal failure. (I’m not advocating that you do mean things to your pickup. I’m just saying that riding around in a gig bag probably won’t wreck the actual transducer.)
Oh – if you didn’t know, “transducer” just means “a device that converts one form of energy into another, corresponding form.” In this case, we’re talking about taking the energy of your instruments vibrations and turning it into electrical energy.
The actual transducer is usually attached to a cable. That cable, while probably not delicate, is likely to be far more fragile than the pickup itself. For that reason, it’s worth keeping a mental note as to whether or not that cable might have been yanked, bent at a sharp angle (especially near the plug or the pickup), stepped on, rolled over by a roadcase, smashed during transit, or otherwise treated poorly. That’s just due diligence when you have a problem.
But, what if everything seems like it should be okay? What if you’ve connected your instrument to the PA system via the audio craftsperson’s shiny, new, undamaged direct box…and all you get is a “tinny,” weak signal? Do you need a new pickup?
Short answer: No.
You Probably Have An Impedance Problem, Not A Pickup Problem
Impedance is really the “meat” of this issue. So, what is it?
Impedance, by itself, is not a complex idea. It’s the opposition to the flow of current in a circuit where the voltage changes over time. Yes, that’s right: The signal on your instrument pickup’s cable is a kind of alternating current. Sure, the voltage is much lower than the alternating current that comes out of a wall socket. Sure, the frequency content is complex.
It’s still alternating current, though.
The basic concept of impedance is not difficult to make sense of. What gets audio and music folk into trouble is that impedance issues can have profound effects on how our gear works. What also gets us into trouble is that we live in an age where a lot of “impedance matching and bridging” problems have been thoroughly worked out. We just don’t have to think about impedance issues very much (or at all), and so we forget to consider possible impedance pitfalls when a problem occurs.
I know that this is getting REALLY technical. Don’t panic. Yet.
The problem with us pro-audio types is that we predominantly live in a world that thrives on low impedance. Sending signals across “long” lines (like a 100’+ snake), and then applying a ton of gain to those signals are “Very Pro-Audio Things To Do.” The doing of Very Pro-Audio Things is facilitated by having relatively low-impedance signal paths. Low impedance is great for driving long cables. Low impedance is great for keeping noise manageable.
…and low impedance can make your instrument pickup sound awful. Getting into precisely how that happens is a bit beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that low impedance can result in signal loss, unwanted resonances, and the filtering out of either low or high-frequency signal content (depending upon the situation).
But What About That DI Box?
Now, at this point you might be saying, “But at my last show, we plugged my pickup into a DI box. It sounded terrible! DI boxes were made so that my gear would work with pro-audio gear, right? My pickup must be bad.”
Firstly: You’re correct that DI boxes are primarily used to help with getting different kinds of gear to play nicely together.
Secondly: Not all DI boxes are the same.
(I’ve actually written a whole article about this on my own site.)
These days, a lot of the most affordable DI boxes are basically meant to serve one purpose: They take an unbalanced, actually low-ish impedance signal that might be a bit too “hot” for a mic pre, and turn it into a balanced signal that’s at an even lower impedance, and has been reduced in voltage to a mic-pre friendly level.
These DI boxes are passive, meaning the only electricity that they need is what they get from the signal source plugged into their input.
Let’s be clear. “Passive” does not mean “bad.” I myself have a handful of passive DI boxes that are perfectly adequate – when they’re being used for the correct purpose. The issue with passive DI boxes is that they are simply not the best choice for high-impedance devices, like your “stick it in the soundhole” inductive guitar pickup.
Further, passive DIs are a THOROUGHLY AWFUL choice for really, really, really high-impedance devices, like that “no installation necessary” piezo pickup that sticks to your classical guitar/ mandolin/ violin/ whatever.
The reason is impedance. A passive DI box’s input impedance just isn’t that high, especially for a piezo pickup. A magnetic pickup might get by with some “ultimately tolerable yet still disappointing” loss of high-end, but a piezo pickup might seem like it has no output, no “body,” and a rather disgusting sort of “nasal honk” if you can get enough gain applied to hear anything.
On the flipside, active DI boxes and preamps designed for instruments DO have high-impedance inputs. This is why the question of “did your pickup work with a practice amp” is an important one to answer. If your pickup worked with the practice amp in rehearsal, then the problem at the gig might just be DI box’s impedance. Mate your pickup to an active DI, and chances are that your pickup problems will “magically” resolve themselves. Active DI boxes have undergone significant price drops over the years, to the point that they can be had for only slightly more than a passive model. If you’re using an instrument with a passive pickup, you might want to invest in an active DI or preamp of your own…
…because even an otherwise competent audio human might not be aware of the above, just as you weren’t aware of it. Which leads me into a bit of a rant:
We Seem To Also Have An Education Problem
I don’t want to get too “tinfoil hat” about all this, but it seems like the constant drive to reduce packaging and reduce costs has resulted in the death of The Truly Helpful Instruction Manual. Back when I was much younger, it seemed like all kinds of things shipped with thick, detail-oriented instruction books that did more than just tell you how to plug things in. These Truly Helpful manuals had all kinds of background information in them, which helped you to understand how a product actually worked. If the customer actually bothered to read the book, they stood a good chance of understanding enough to know WHY something might be acting up.
Now, as many things have gotten highly commoditized and much more “stupid resistant,” manuals have been reduced to quickstart guides that tell you very little about the whys and wherefores of your gear. In some cases, this is excusable…especially when the manufacturer has truly eliminated most of the guesswork involved in using the product.
The issue with passive instrument-pickups (and other things) is that the informative manual has been eliminated while the uncertainties remain. Active or preamp-equipped instrument pickups can be plugged into almost anything and work acceptably, so a manual that talks about things like DI boxes and impedance issues would be nice…but not 100% necessary. On the passive side, though, it’s troubling as to the lack of information that would help customers understand what affects their gear – perhaps profoundly.
Of course, this lack of education on the part of equipment manufacturers helps folks like me, in terms of giving us consulting gigs and letting us write articles like this. In the case of someone’s live-performance, though, I think that the cost of saving money on the manual might just be a little high.
I dunno. Maybe I’m wrong.
But I do miss informative, well written, engagingly illustrated instruction manuals.
Anyway – your pickup probably isn’t broken. Just remember that impedance is a factor, and be ready to try a couple of different things when the unexpected occurs.
Ari Herstand recently wrote a “matched pair” of articles about audio humans. You know – sound guys. Noise boys. Audio craftspersons. FOH engineers. I guess there was a bit of a kerfuffle over it all, some of it being fueled by musicians who have had terrible experiences with “aerial vibration management technicians.” (Sound guys.)
Now, a lot of my articles put the onus on musicians. I don’t think I’ve been unfair when I’ve done that. At the same time, though, audio humans bear their fair share of responsibilities – and when they fail to uphold their part of the bargain, extremely frustrating situations can develop, and morph, and snowball into a cluster[censored] of epic proportions.
But…beyond the fact that craptastic and infuriating sound dudes/ dudettes do exist, a question remains. What causes certain audio humans to be so painful to work with? I believe that, in many cases, you can trace the issue back to a fundamental, “negative” force, which is:
Lack Of Knowledge
Now, sure, there are some highly knowledgeable audio techs who are jerks. There are highly-experienced and entirely competent people who are the very picture of “a control freak.” However, I’ve found that many bad behaviors are initiated and intensified by having insufficient understanding of a situation that you’re a major player in. There is also, of course, flat-out incompetence…which can actually happen alongside a great attitude.
To talk about this more in-depth, let’s take a look at some of the points made in Ari Herstand’s piece that addresses audio humans directly.
The first heading, “Not All Of Us [Musicians] Suck,” addresses the issue of the sound guy who – from the first moment – is clearly uninterested in working with you. My feeling is that these situations are driven by techs who only want to work with their favorite kind of music, or their favorite kind of people. On the surface, this is about preferences – but I would suggest that the root is “lack of knowledge.”
There are plenty of audio craftspeople out there who are “button pushers.” That is, they’ve learned an explicit procedure for getting workable results, but don’t truly understand why that procedure exists. I would venture to say that most techs spend some non-trivial amount of time in that phase – I know that I certainly did. The problem with being a button pusher is that, when confronted with something that’s unfamiliar, you aren’t well suited to adapt to it. The narrower an audio human’s experience is, the less they will be able to work competently on your show – and this can make the tech feel threatened. Threatened people are often unpleasant, and so if your genre is unfamiliar to the sound guy, or even if it’s just you as a person that’s unfamiliar, you may get the cold-shoulder as a result.
This also carries over into Ari’s second point, which gets neatly wrapped up in one sentence: “You may know how to run a 5 piece rock band, but I have more experience with my gear and my show. Why not put your ego aside for a second and work WITH me?”
Again, the issue is lack of knowledge. The engineer has the procedure for “making a full band work” down to a science, even to the troubleshooting of any problems. Even so, there isn’t enough understanding of the general, fundamental underpinnings of the craft to be able to adapt to an unfamiliar situation.
Lack of knowledge is also why some techs absolutely lose their minds when you move a mic, or your instrument, or want to substitute your own mic, or use your own DI, or sing at the “wrong” distance from the mic.
(Please do sing closely enough that your monitor-mix desires and hopes for the sound out front are in accord with the laws of physics, but beyond that…)
These folks go bonkers when you change things because they only know how to make things work when the setup is PRECISELY in accord with their experience. Their comfort zone is tiny, because their understanding of their craft is restricted. Mess with their comfort zone – especially when their self-worth rides on their results – and BOOM! You end up with a very pissed-off technician.
Why Is There So Much Lack Of Knowledge?
I could go on, and on, and on, and on with the examples in the previous section, but I think that what’s more helpful is to talk about why you are so likely to encounter audio humans that suffer from “lack of knowledge.”
1) All audio techs have to learn their craft.
There’s not a single audio human who knows everything about live-sound from the moment they’re born. Learning the discipline takes years, and that’s often just for the functional part. The fundamental principles behind everything – the math, the science, and getting a feel for how those fundamentals express themselves in practical reality – can take even longer. In my own case, I’ve been doing something with audio for just short of 20 years…and I can’t say that I was really comfortable with the craft until I was about 15 years in. I didn’t actually become internally confident (consistently, anyway) until I had 17 or 18 years under my belt. I still have a “breakthrough” every now and again.
I wish I was smarter.
Anyway, getting to be competent at real-time audio takes a while.
2) Not all audio techs really want to learn the craft.
Coupled with the first point is that not everybody is fascinated by live-audio to the same degree. Some folks are happy to learn just enough to be able to work in a few specific situations. At that point, they’re done, they’re fine with it, and they may even be highly confident – especially if their experience has been limited enough to fuel that confidence. If that confidence becomes challenged, however, they may suddenly turn into a very unpleasant sort of creature (as described earlier).
3) Misinformation is everywhere.
The world of audio is rife with mythology, and even outright falsehood that becomes accepted as fact. This is driven by how incredibly deep the craft is. There is a massive amount of science that underlies the working of any given piece of live-sound, and it’s entirely possible to reach a conclusion about “x causes y” that seems consistent and correct…and is UTTERLY FALSE. This misinformation can be believed and propagated by even very competent and respected audio humans.
For instance, I was taught by a live-audio instructor who was clearly a knowledgeable guy. He knew how and why things were done, as far as I could tell. He was also convinced that “clipping destroys speakers because the signal contains DC, and the DC stops the speaker from cooling itself via movement.” When he said that, I believed him.
He was COMPLETELY incorrect – but he was still a good sound guy, and an instructor that I learned a lot of correct things from. (For the record, clipping does NOT destroy speakers, and most power amplifiers probably won’t pass DC at their outputs anyway. That’s not the point of this article, though.)
4) Techs are often hired by people who know less than they do.
When an audio human goes to work for a sound company, especially when the founder is still in charge, they’re probably going to be mentored. They’re probably going to grow in their knowledge. They’re probably going to become a better, more flexible craftsperson, and it’s because their boss is better at live-sound than they are.
However, there are plenty of other situations where audio humans are employed by definitely-not-audio-people. The tech gets hired because they can consistently make sound come out of the PA, and nobody else in the building may even know where to start. There are some techs who aren’t even people that are dedicated to live-sound. It’s just that they know enough about hooking up A/V gear to make things work, and that’s it.
5) Really good techs are expensive.
The real, honest-to-goodness top talents in live-sound are very spendy to hire. Some audio-humans charge a “per day” rate that’s a multiple of what a small venue can expect to gross in a night…perhaps even by an order of magnitude. As a result, there are a lot of venues that have to settle for what they can get on a small budget. People with the experience and maturity of, say, Dave Rat, are unlikely to be found at “some bar.” It’s just economics.
Heck, even average techs are expensive. The club I work for pays me more than they can really afford, because they believe in doing the best they possibly can for musicians. People seem to enjoy working with me, but I’m not exactly a guy who could mix FOH for a stadium act, or do realtime, rock-and-roll monitors in Vegas.
6) You wouldn’t believe what floats to the top.
Up there, I said “the real, honest-to-goodness top talents.” This was to distinguish from the folks who are working above their level of actual experience. There are plenty of stories out there of people mixing big acts in big rooms, but who aren’t really “Varsity Level” craftspersons. Politics and “right place at the right time” play a huge role in this business, and it’s not just for the musicians. If getting promoted past your level of competence can happen at the high levels, just imagine what can happen in bar-and-club land.
Anyway – this article could go on for days, but I think I’ve hit the major points. Obviously, the problem of the “sucky sound dude” can’t be fixed by simply talking about the causes. Still, I think it’s helpful to have an understanding of why things are the way they are. If you’re a musician, you can be more prepared to recognize the signs of an impending problem. If you’re an audio human, you can take a good look at yourself…and try not to suck.
Enter your name and email address below and you'll receive DAILY Musicpreneurial Wisdom, Tips, and Inspiration!