7 Tips to Sound Better Live
By Jen Zoratti
In 2005, Broken Social Scene played a now-infamous gig at Le Rendezvous. Simply put, the sound was horrible, the solution to crank everything up meant no one could hear the vocals and Kevin Drew essentially vowed never to play here again (he did).
The point is, bad sound happens to good bands. We’ve all seen it many times. And, for an artist, sound issues can have disastrous consequences; for touring acts, you’re as good as your live show — and it only takes a few bad reviews to ruin a reputation.
Happily, there are things an artist can do to sound better live. We sought advice from Cam Loeppky, a noted sound engineer; Jesse Matthewson, the frontman of hard-touring harcore act KEN mode; and Jason Hooper, the artistic director of the West End Cultural Centre.
1. Do your homework.
For Loeppky, developing good habits start in the jam space. “Practice, be professional or at least serious, try not to act like it's your first show every show, write good songs, rehearse, buy a guitar tuner,” Loeppky says. “Bands should set up as tightly and as close together as they can. The more spread out they are, the more spread out it will sound. In most small venues, at least 50 per cent of the sound is coming off the stage.”
Indeed, knowing your sound is key. “You need to have functioning gear that you are able to fluctuate the volume of depending on the size/sound of the room,” Matthewson adds. “You need to know how your overall mix stands without being mic'ed up if you don't trust soundmen/women.”
“Proximity to the microphone is what gets picked up so if singers want to be heard,” advises Loeppky, “they need to use the mic properly and adjust volumes or adjust distance from the mic according to their volume.”
Developing a stage plot will also go a long way in preventing issues. “Not every venue needs one, but the ones that do will appreciate you having it,” Hooper says. “This helps the sound tech be ready when you arrive at load in.”
Stage plots should be included as part of a tech rider. How many inputs are you going to need? Do you need a special mic? Are you bringing it? Do you need backline? Are you touring with a sound tech? This is all helpful information for the venue.
2. Respect thy sound tech.
Remember, the sound person is there to help you.
“Be respectful, do stick to the agreed upon schedule, do not treat a sound tech like the 'help', do not ask the audience how it's sounding and, if you hire someone, anyone, discuss the money up front,” Loeppky says.
Being respectful includes being on time and staying in communication. No one likes to have their time wasted.
“The worst I've seen was when a large band came in, and didn't arrive all at once. Our tech thought he had all the inputs in place and ready to go and then another band member would wander in,” Hooper says. “All the cable inputs had to be reset several times. When that happens, the band is standing around waiting for the tech to be set up. It's not a good use of anyone's time and because of the delays, the opening band only had time for a line check before doors opened.”
Know your load in and sound check times. “This is very important, especially on a bill with multiple bands and always err on the side of being early,” Hooper says. “This ensures that you get your sound check and shows respect for the others on the bill. Often there's not a lot of time, so being ready to go and on time is a big help for everyone.”
3. Take the time to soundcheck — or, at the very least line check.
“Sound checking is important if you know what you're doing as a band and need very specific things worked out,” Loeppky says. Have a system worked out as a band so that you know who is going to check first and each band members knows what they need to hear in their monitor. “A sound tech needs to hear each individual musician in isolation in order to understand volumes and EQ settings. After individual settings are dialed in it becomes much easier to mix the group.”
“Don't complain that you have horrible stage sound if you don't do at the very least a monitor check,” Matthewson says. “Personally, a quick line check is of utmost importance to me, as going in blind means you'll have at least a song or two of sounding awful, and that's not what people are paying for.”
Hooper also recommends a good ol’ fashioned warm up backstage. “I see a lot of bands that don't do that. You can tell watching them on stage, too. They start to hit their stride about 20 minutes in and then their set is done,” he says. “It's amazing to watch you see a great headliner back stage here and for a half hour before their set they've got their instruments and drum pads out and are playing as hard as they can; vocal exercises and even some calisthenics. Then you watch another band that goes out cold — very striking difference.” If you fail to prepare...
4. Know that not all venues are created equal.
As touring bands know all too well, there is a 100 per cent chance you’ll be working with rudimentary equipment in bare-bones rooms.
“Lower your expectations and try to make the best of what you've got,” Loeppky says.
Hooper also recommends keeping a cool head. “Relax and roll with things, shit happens, and it's not what happens but how you deal with it and are prepared to deal with it,” he says.
Remember that everyone wants you to have a great show. “Instill in everyone a sense of team work and that you are willing to compromise and you expect them to as well,” Hooper adds. “Some things you can't compromise on; in our case, doors open at 7:15 p.m. It's on all of our advertising, it's on our tickets. Don't leave your fans standing outside the venue for 20 minutes while you sort out your sound check. Sometimes you just have to walk on the stage and do it.”
Artists who really know their sound will be able to adapt. “Have your mix down,” Matthewson stresses. “Understand how you sound. Sometimes you're going to play a room that only mics the kick and vocals, but you can still sound totally badass if you know how to get your overall mix sounding right.”
“Every room sounds different” say Loeppky. “A good sound tech will hear the differences and help the band make adjustments.”
5. Know that louder isn’t better.
Cranking everything up to 11 is tempting, especially in situations described above, but it’s discouraged. Even if you’re in a loud band. Especially if you’re in a loud band.
From Loeppky’s perspective from the soundboard, “if you can't hear what's coming through your monitors, your instrument levels are probably too loud. You have to be able to hear yourself but your stage volume can't be so loud that the PA is overpowered.”
“I'm in a band that used to play unreasonably loud,” Matthewson says. “When you grow up in the DIY hardcore/punk/metal scenes you get used to not relying on sound techs, and playing many clubs that barely have a PA. In these situations, playing loud tends to be your only saving grace. The past several years we've been playing more professional tours, in real clubs, and began bringing our own sound techs with us, and have learned the louder you play, the less a sound tech is actually able to do anything with your sound. You need to develop a trusting relationship with your techs, as without it, you're lost and the entire show suffers. We're still a loud and heavy band, but we play much quieter than we did seven years ago.”
6. Be mindful of changeovers.
Whether you’re part of a festival bill or opening for a headlining act at club show, you will be dealing with changeovers. Be timely, be professional.
“Know if you are sharing gear in advance, prepare your gear if you aren't sharing and don't show up so late you can't adjust to things that might not be exactly how you expect them to be,” Loeppky says. “Festivals in particular are very scheduled.”
“Get your stuff off stage as quickly as possible, and use backline cabs when you can,” Matthewson says. “Drummers are usually the worst in the slow changeover, and it's just people so inexperienced that they don't understand that there's no time to take your gear apart on the stage. Get your drums off, deal with it after — someone else has to set up and check in a 15-minute time frame. Don't be an asshole and ruin that for them, you're all working as a team.”
7. Get your own sound person.
“And pay that person enough that they feel respected,” Loeppky says.
Matthewson also recommends finding a regular sound tech whom you can develop a working relationship with — someone who knows your sound as well as you do. “We bring our own on the road with us because I honestly can't stand working with locals. You get the odd one who will actually work with you, but more often than not you get people who don't care about their job, don't care if you sound good, and will usually be a thorn in your side every chance they get.”