May 15, 2022
With high quality live sound gear more available than ever, it’s easy to get caught up in equipment fever and go overboard at gigs – especially small ones. Whether it’s having more mics than you know what do to with, way too much front of house mixing, or just being too loud for a venue, using your sound gear wisely is the key to making each show really pop.
To reach this balance, it’s helpful to think in older terms. Instead of assuming every element needs amplification, think instead of the original idea behind live sound equipment: sound reinforcement.
Sound reinforcement doesn’t mean miking up and amplifying every element. What it really means is judicious use of technology to help reinforce or bolster the sound of instruments and singers on stage, so they can be heard properly, even when circumstances aren’t ideal – and they’re almost never ideal.
Getting back to this definition of sound reinforcement will help you to listen to the room and the stage and determine what really needs help to create a balance and of course – reach everyone in the audience.
In many situations, the only thing that needs reinforcing is the vocal. The reason is obvious. The human voice can’t out-volume something like a piano or a drumkit. So, for a typical four-piece rock band in a very small room, it may be all you need to amplify is the vocal. Doing this instead of automatically putting everything in the P.A. can make life a lot easier. So, step one in sound reinforcement: take a look at how the vocal compares to other elements.
Obviously, the loudest instrument in the room is usually the last that needs reinforcement. That’s probably the drumkit. But the kit has various elements. Kick, snare, hats, etc. Hats and cymbals tend to carry. They don’t always need miking even in big venues. Snares will fill a bar-sized room. Kick drums, however, don’t always cut through.
Depending on your genre, this may be the desired effect. A jazz kick doesn’t need to sound booming and punchy. A rock or hip-hop kick, however, might want to fill the space with low frequency woomph. So, it may be that what the drum kit needs is one kick drum mic and nothing else.
Guitar amps can be insanely loud. In fact, they’re often too loud. So, they may not need to be in the P.A. in a small space. See if you can balance drums, bass and guitar in the room with no extra gear. Acoustic guitars, on the other hand, will need help to cut through the mix.
These facts may seem obvious, but it helps to think about them from the ground up before setting up audio gear and mics.
The space you’re in is obviously a major concern, but it’s not just about size. Size is a factor of course - In a room that fits 15 people, you can do a nylon string guitar and vocal with no audio gear whatsoever, especially if that room is quite live. But make that room just a hair bigger and full of people and soft things, with a super-soft vocalist, and you might need subtle reinforcement for the vocals or even both elements.
To really get in the sound reinforcement headspace, start by setting up the group – whatever it is – without a P.A. Try to strike a balance and note what’s not working. Walk to every area of the room. Once the problem areas are noted, break out mics and P.A. gear to fix the issues and create a balance.
This often works better than starting with the P.A. setup because it leads to fewer connections, potential issues, feedback, and a generally quieter stage sound in general, which for most bands is the best place to start to achieve a better sound.
Not to mention, less overall work up front, less to tear down, and less to manage come show time.
Even when you think from a sound reinforcement mindset, sometimes you still need to mic it all up. If you’re recording the gig, for example, everything needs to be miked or fed directly to tape – but it doesn’t all need to be in the PA.
In huge venues, like stadiums or outdoor festivals, nothing is going to carry to the back. So everything needs to go into the P.A. In this situation, certain things – amps in particular – that might usually be cranked may need to be turned down or eliminated in favor of the PA to achieve balance and the right sound on the stage as well as out in the audience.
In other words, don’t be attached to the gear. You may need your amp. You may need the P.A. You may need both. But the music is what determines what gear you need – even if your whole thing is crushing eyeballs with face melting death bombs.
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