October 09, 2023
Possibly the biggest, most annoying challenge of playing live is having to handle your own sound. It can split your focus, double your workload, and compromise both sound quality and your performance. Nevertheless, it’s a necessity in many cases, and despite the challenge, it is doable. So, we’ll talk here about a few techniques for making it easier.
First and foremost, when it comes to success with multitasking on stage: prep. The better prepared you are, the better the result will be. This starts with organizing gear and systems, being clear about each band member's roles, and practicing.
One of the big pitfalls bands face is in rehearsing without including all the stuff you’ll have to deal with on show day. It pays to practice setting up the whole PA and practicing the moves you’ll need to make to manage sound alongside your performance duties, so you’re not caught off guard. Discuss each member’s responsibility in rehearsal and keep it clear on show day. Perhaps the lead guitarist is the front-of-house mixer, the keyboardist manages monitor mixes, and the drummer is responsible for triggering samples. Whatever the layout is, keep it clear and consistent and practice it every rehearsal.
It also pays to prepare gear properly ahead of the show and organize everything. As much as you can, build systems ahead of time so you can plug and play easily when you get to the gig. And by all means, keep your cables wrapped and organized!
Along with prep goes streamlining. One of the big mistakes you can make is cobbling together a live rig from various disparate parts – a hand-me-down loudspeaker here, a home-built cable there. This may be necessary if you’re on a shoestring, but it helps to invest in streamlined systems.
For example, Carvin’s TRC Active Column Array Systems are designed to make live sound easy, with everything you need as far as loudspeakers, power amps, and subs in one light, modular package. Add in a couple of SCX12A active monitors and your whole loudspeaker rig is taken care of.
It hasn’t been that long since you needed a sizeable mix console that you would have to physically sit at to run front-of-house, and another one side of stage monitors. For big shows, this is still the case, but with modern digital mixers you don’t necessarily need to run a cable snake 100 feet out into the audience and hire someone to manage it. You can’t do that from the stage, but you can leverage modern tech. Many digital mixers are now remote capable, and adjustments can me made wirelessly via a tablet.
This means you can walk to front of house during sound check and make adjustments. Even during the show if you’re using a wireless guitar system like Carvin’s WG5 System or for vocalists, any number of wireless microphone systems, you can walk to the front while you play to check the mix and adjust on the fly (watch out for feedback if you’re on the mic, though!).
Again, you’ll need to practice with this gear to get used to it, but new technology may be the best way to achieve great sound and still perform at your best.
Handling at least some aspect of audio on stage is no longer just for small acts who haven’t made it. In fact, it’s a key part of the package for several very successful acts, so here’s a couple examples for inspiration:
Ed Sheeran's live performances often involve intricate looping techniques, where he creates layers of sound using his guitar, voice, and a loop pedal. While delivering captivating melodies and lyrics, Sheeran simultaneously builds and controls a dynamic sonic landscape. His mastery of this technique showcases the potential of combining musicality with real-time sound manipulation.
Tash Sultana's captivating live shows demonstrate a remarkable blend of playing multiple instruments while crafting a mesmerizing soundscape. Juggling guitar, vocals, synthesizers, and other instruments, Sultana orchestrates a symphony of sound without missing a beat. This ability to seamlessly switch between instruments and sound elements exemplifies the synergy between performing and sound management.
Known for her experimental approach to music, Imogen Heap often integrates technology to enhance her performances. She pioneered the use of gestural gloves and digital interfaces that allow her to manipulate sound parameters while playing instruments. Heap's innovative methods underscore the creative possibilities of blending performance and sound control through cutting-edge tools.
Twenty One Pilots is renowned for their energetic live shows, where Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun fluidly switch between instruments and sound control. Their performances involve intricate arrangements, including triggering samples, handling synths, and playing drums, all while engaging the audience with their stage presence. This duo's seamless coordination of music and technology offers a prime example of harmonizing playing and sound management.
Not every musician wants to fuse playing with being a live sound engineer, but the point is, it is doable if you think of it just like performing itself – prepare, plan, utilize the tools available, and practice. And of course, when necessary, there’s no shame in delegating! May your next show sound amazing, whether it’s your PA or not!
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