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.
As critical as a soundcheck can be in order for the band to meet the club's requirements, it is seldom a practical option because many clubs won't allow it. If you're going to be playing a lot of shows without a soundcheck you might want to write a 'soundcheck arrangement' for your band. This is a song you've worked out that is designed for you to get a great mix without annoying the patrons. Casual bands have done this for decades, where the drummer and bassist simply start off jamming and then the other players join in one by one. The drummer should play at minimal level and while you mix the bass to sound full at that level. Every other instrument should be mixed absolutely as low as possible without dropping out of the mix. A song that starts with a rhythmic vamp can carry on until the mix is nicely adjusted and then your singer can start in on top. A really great blues band I used to go see always started their shows this way, with the instruments playing (ala The Blues Brothers) before the singer even walked out on stage. It made getting a good mix easy, and it also made a great dramatic entrance for the singer.
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. So 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 indispensible 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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