Lessons in Live Audio: Sound Tip #8 – Don’t give up! Get creative!

I’m going to have to post this in both the Pro Tips section and the Blog section. I had a client this weekend have a conference and during their last night they had a 6 piece band scheduled to play, and they hired my services to run sound for the production/event. I was told that equipment would be provided and they just wanted a person to set up and run the board.

This was a great event and what might have been a bad experience for many, was turned into a venue for creative sound design and a few valuable lessons.

The event was held at a nice hotel in Nashville TN in a standard size hotel ballroom (max capacity approximately: 200). As I entered the ballroom I saw a small stage (just large enough for the 6 performers) and a small PA system.

Then there was a problem. The sound system wouldn’t quite support the 6 piece band. There were 2 powered PA speakers on either side of the room and a small 12 channel mixer complete with missing knob. HOWEVER, I didn’t say “I can’t work with this” or “we need to rent more gear”… instead I got creative.

I am often asked about how I grew my client list and how I have been able to get and keep great clients. This “Tip” is simple and straight forward! Get the job done with what you have and make it better than what they expect. I know far too many sound designers who would have walked into the situation, seen the equipment available, and would have had a melt down. Many trained sound designers are used to high end consoles with tons of bells and whistles, and when faced with the “basic” set up, they honestly don’t know how to adapt.

Learning the high end system is important, but it is equally (if not more) important to understand the basic gear. More people who will hire you will have basic gear before they will have the top shelf mixer and PA.

So how do you take this:

And produce a live show complete with drums, tracks, violin, guitar, piano, bass guitar, and vocals? I took a lesson from the Beatles!

First, I looked at the size of the room and decided not to send the drums or the bass guitar amp to the mixer. The room was a good size for the audience of 200 to clearly hear the drums and the bass guitar without the PA. By doing this, the bass frequencies from the kick drum and the bass guitar don’t clutter the audio coming from the PA speakers leaving room, sonically, for all the other instruments.

I sent the violin, tracks, guitar (mic’d with a SM-58) piano and vocals to the mixer.  Once the drums and bass were not in the mix, it was easier to get a clear mix from the other instruments and vocals. Those were amplified by the PA when the bass and drums held their own. Then I had them play a song and mixed my master level to the live level of the drums and bass. This took a small PA system and a large band and made them sound excellent to the audience. (The audience does not care how many channels and knobs you have… they just want it to sound nice)

Where did the Beatles come in with all this? Well, the Beatles really understood separating frequencies that fight with each other in sound systems. However, there was something else. Did I mention there weren’t any monitors? Yea… no monitors.

So, I treated the stage like a Beatles album. When the Beatles started recording in stereo, they would hard pan the drums and bass to the left channel and the rhythm instruments to the right channel and put the vocals somewhere in between. They did this in order to “unclutter” their recordings which had many parts, vocals, and instruments. Go listen to “Abby Road” on headphones and you’ll see what I mean. On the stage, I physically placed the drums and bass guitar on the left side of the stage and the rhythm section on the right side of the stage and put the vocal in the center. Surprisingly, this is an old way of stage placement that was used when monitors were not always available, and it works GREAT! From the vocals position, the sound is properly spaced live and the singer can hear themselves surprisingly well. The PA speakers boosted the level just enough to give a great mix to the vocals and performers.

All that is old is new again! Sometimes you just have to backwards in order to go forward! The show must go on! (insert your own cliche’ here)

-Lee Kebler

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