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Friday, October 12, 2007

“I Find a Little 2k Squeal Through the Monitors Works As An Excellent Disciplinary Device” or Be Nice To Your Sound Op

posted by on October 12 at 14:20 PM

Anybody who has ever played a live show of any size knows this feeling. After spending untold hours packed into a sweaty little rehearsal space practicing your songs and honing your act, you and your bandmates show up on gig night and play your hearts out only to walk off stage and hear:
“Man, you guys are great but the sound sucked.”
Now sometimes, with bands that aren’t as good as yours, these comments may be the result of friends trying to find a nice way of saying that they didn’t care for the music. But let’s assume that’s not the case with you, because your band truly rocks. What gives? What, if anything, can you do to insure good sound?
I asked one of the finest sound engineers I know this question. (Because this individual has known me for many years, he trusts me about as far as he can throw me, so I promised to provide his answers under a pseudonym. We’ll just call him Your Next Sound Op, or YNSO.) Here are his answers.

FlamingBanjo: What’s your biggest beef with bands as a sound guy? What causes the most sound problems?
YNSO: The top three problems faced by most live bands are stage volume, stage volume and stage volume. The number one thing that makes my job difficult is players on stage with their amps turned up too loud, because it affects everything else. Any mikes on stage will be picking up all that noise, which affects how high the monitors can go before feeding back, while simultaneously making it harder for everybody to hear what’s coming out of those monitors. If you want your monitor mix to sound good, you’ve got to keep stage volumes reasonable.
FlamingBanjo: Who are the biggest culprits here?
YNSO: This is going to come as a shock: Guitar players. Followed closely by bass players.
FB: Is this just Nigel Tufnel syndrome at work? Explain.
YNSO: There’s a lot of that, but there are other reasons. I think most bands practice too loud. They get used to playing in this tiny cramped space with their amps cranked all the way up and that becomes their comfort level. Then they get to the gig and they want to play at that level. When the guy behind the board asks them to turn down they react like he’s the Man telling them to stop rocking so hard! When all he’s trying to do is get a good balance in the mains and monitors. I can’t control the sound coming out of your amp, just the sound coming from the mains. Work with me.
With the bass there are also some issues with the physics of sound: A 100 Hz tone is like an 11 foot long wave, which means if you’re standing next to your amp you’re not hearing the actual signal, you’re hearing the wave after it’s bounced off the back of the club. Stand 10 or 11 feet away and you’ll start to hear what’s really coming out of the amp. The same thing applies to DJs who are pumping out a lot of low end. They want to hear that thump but unfortunately the laws of physics are working against them. They’re standing too close to the source.
FB: What about running sound for DJs? That should make your job fairly easy, right, since they’re basically just sending you a line from the stage?
YNSO: You’d think so. As far as not having to deal with a stage full of live amps and mikes it is easier. But unfortunately a lot of DJs don’t understand gain structure, so they turn their gear up all the way and expect the sound guy to clean up the distorted signal. I tell people “sit down in your car, turn up the stereo all the way. It sounds like shit, doesn’t it? Now come down from there until it sounds good. That’s how peak signal works.”
FB: You’ve run sound for everything from internationally-known Reggae artists to five-band local heavy metal nights. What’s the difference between amateur musicians and professionals in your experience?
YNSO: Professionals show up on time, set up, and get out of the way. They don’t socialize on stage. They don’t noodle. When I say “kick drum” through the talkback all I hear is kick drum. They don’t practice on stage. They’re less self-conscious so there’s usually less attitude. That’s not to say that professionals don’t ask for “More Me!” in the monitors. But they’re usually nicer about it.
A lot of pros are a little deaf. A guy like Engelbert Humperdinck runs his stage monitor levels at about 117 decibels, which is like standing next to a jet engine.
FB: Engelbert Humperdinck ? I had no idea he was so hardcore.
FB: I’ve noticed you’re one of the few sound guys I know who isn’t deaf. How’d you manage that?
YNSO: What?
FB: What should bands avoid when dealing with their sound op?
YNSO: Be nice to us. Understand there are limitations to what the gear can do. Understand that if you piss us off you won’t get our best work.
FB: Do you ever exact revenge?
YNSO: I find a little 2k squeal through the monitors works as an excellent disciplinary device. They stop asking for “More monitors!” after that. Works every time. 5-10Hz makes people shit their pants.
FB: Any parting words of wisdom?
YNSO: We hear a lot of complaints when people aren’t happy, but like anybody we like positive feedback (no pun intended.) Also, I rarely turn down a tip. $20 buys a lot of good will.

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