Mixing sound in a small venue requires forethought, awareness and planning as well as execution. There are some basic elements of live sound in a small room that you should always consider beforehand: How large should your system be, and what instruments should you mix through it? Where are the best places to set up your speakers? How will you handle monitoring? How much volume can the room handle and what are the management's requirements? Here is a basic primer to get you started on the way to getting compliments instead of complaints in those smaller venues.
What Are the Management's Priorities?
Before you ever back up the equipment truck to the gig, you need to find out what priorities are important to the manager/promoter of the venue. Because a small room can put you right on top of both patrons and the bar, volume is usually the number one priority on every small gig. It is so difficult to find bands that can manage their volume (without sounding terrible), that the ones who can will find it isn't at all hard to stay busy in smaller rooms.
Find out how much volume the staff can handle before the band ever plays a note. If people are going to be conversing in the same room it will be extremely low. You may also find a dB meter is a useful tool for negotiating with clubs about volume. Being asked to keep the band below 75-80dB isn't uncommon.
Another request you will often get from small clubs is to offer flexible start times. These smaller venues often advertise pay-per-view or major league sports events that don't always have a precise ending time. Sometimes smaller gigs are in restaurants that want to let their dinner crowd linger to let drink sales accumulate and again they'll request a flexible start. Keeping a great attitude about requests that the band might find slightly annoying will also win over the hearts of the staff.
But What About Great Sound?
Start by taking a realistic appraisal of your tactical situation. Now that you know what the staff expects, ask yourself what needs to happen to make your music under those conditions. If you're a soloist or a duo, this might be as easy as setting up a portable PA and balancing a couple of levels. For a full band it is more complicated because a small PA may be all that fits the available space, but may be unable to reproduce all the instruments clearly. A system like this often lacks the power and drivers necessary to reproduce a full bass signal without muddying up everything else. A solution to this problem can be a small, portable powered column array system like the TRC200A, which does have the power and speakers to make a band sound great in a small venue.
If you're fortunate enough to get a soundcheck, run all your instruments through their individual amplifiers and adjust the level by sending someone out into the room to monitor the mix. Your wireless may not be crucial for showmanship in a small venue, but it can be indispensable in getting your sound adjusted if you're mixing yourself from onstage (small gigs rarely have budgets for sound techs). You can listen and give hand signals to the musicians in order to get a good mix. Obviously any egos will require additional sound pressure level that your continued employment may not survive, so get the buy-in of the band ahead of time. Remind them the goal is to not get fired and playing too loud is the number one reason that happens in small rooms.
What if the Band Doesn't Get a Soundcheck?
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