These are the seven words a live sound engineer really doesn’t want to hear. I used to be guilty of saying it myself…
So why doesn’t Darth Fader want to hear you say this? Because what you’re asking is practically impossible. I’m all for bands in small and medium venues playing “mostly backline” or “as if acoustic”. I’ve also heard lots of players say something like: “don’t worry about it, we’ll balance ourselves”. In theory, that’s great…
The thing is that front-of-house and onstage sound are organically linked. For instance, if somebody gets more of them in their monitor, they’ll probably wind up playing quieter and you’ll have to add some beef out front. Of course, if their monitor is chained to someone else’s then that someone else will play differently as a result. And some people just want to be turned up anyway… (actually a few want to be turned down.) The permutations just go on and on and on. And we’re not even into the dark side of EQ…
Of course, it’s horrible when you’re onstage and just can’t hear yourself – been there, got that T-shirt. Furthermore, some setups have automatic cutouts, which can be particularly annoying. Your monitor’s gone dead, you might as well be making bread for all you can hear, and the engineer is off at the bar asking somebody: “what’s your sign, baby?” (Been there. Honestly, a concert grand can be inaudible when pitted against rambunctious horn and percussion sections. On a salsa gig, I once had to submit a beautiful Steinway D to the indignity of playing so hard I moved it about 2ft forwards, against the brakes…)
Rooms are different, there are resonant frequencies, stages are different, bands like to be positioned differently. And then there’s the audience. From an acoustic point of view, they are a random job lot of bags of water that come and go randomly, move around the place unpredictably and get progressively more, let’s say “audiency” as the night wears on and the wine flows. So you can soundcheck to perfection at the start of the night and then the whole thing sounds markedly different two hours later.
LET US PLAY…
Incidentally, I’m not one of those purists who demands that an audience sit in holy hush – in fact, I like it when they do their thing, get drunk, argue, fall in love, etc. While jazz can be concert music, it was born in communality – later thrived in brothels and speakeasies – and I think that’s still a very important part of the “vibe” at a jazz gig. But this changeability does mean that you have to consider acoustics and levels as the night waxes and wanes.
Live sound is a Rubik’s Cube, basically – change one thing and you wind up changing loads of other things too. Unintended consequences…
A ROOM WITH A CLUE
Here’s an example of how I set up for a regular jazz gig in a venue that holds around 80.
- Piano and drums are at opposite ends of the stage, about 20ft apart. So the first monitor goes down by the drummer’s knees and is fed mostly piano. I don’t mic the drums for this kind of venue – basically because your challenge is to get everything else up to the level of the kit and hopefully allow the drummer to play as un-whacking as possible. Golden rule: if you can’t hear something, don’t turn it up, turn everything else DOWN.
- Piano is a decent modern baby grand with a surprisingly robust low end – so close-miced in the mid-hole. Because the room is medium sized, this reinforcement blended with the piano’s natural full-stick sound is fine – doesn’t sound too pingy for being close-miced. I also pan the desk output for the piano channel mostly to that side – it sounds more natural that way. Another wedge faces the pianist’s knees.
- Bass is at the back-centre. Pure backline. The bassist has the general’s view of battle and is helped because while the soloist isn’t facing him, their monitor is.
- Lead horn or singer at the front-centre. Another wedge is there just for them. Now most saxes and brass don’t need anything at all going out front in this kind of room. But… I always have a mic set up, even for the most muscular blower. The output doesn’t go out front at all, it’s just for their monitor. They can choose to use the mic if they need to hear themselves better.
- It’s quite a live room – by which I mean acoustically active – so a gentle reverb naturally comes from the environment. If you boost too much artificially it winds up sounding like God’s Bathroom. But special cases include singers, flautists, flugels. Mix to taste, and if in doubt, give them the reverb in their monitor only. The room has got most of the rest.
- When there is a guitarist involved, the amp goes at the back alongside the bassist and they play purely from backline too. I often ask them to turn the presence down so the guitar doesn’t swamp all the upper frequencies and bury everyone else.
- I have occasionally taken lines out from both bass and guitar amps for a little extra control out front, but for a room of this kind they tend to sound better as self-regulating point sources.
- It starts as a gig, then becomes a jam session, so I also set up a radio mic for announcements (and emergencies) and have a dedicated singer’s mic ready to go on a stand by the curve of the piano, pointing above the lid of the piano. Of course, sometimes the featured soloist is a vocalist, in which case I get them to use this mic. Otherwise, insofar as practically possible, it’s muted when not in use. In general, this and the horn soloist’s mics can be retasked where necessary.
- Oh, and a DI box is onstage too, ready to go for other contingencies.
- Since it’s a gig then a jam session, when I’m not playing I can deal with the desk myself and when I am playing, I know the setup so well that I can give hand signals (hmm) to whomever is near the desk.
IF IN DOUBT ASK… THEN FEEL FREE TO IGNORE
I also sometimes ask the audience: “can you hear us okay?” after the first number. Never hurts, and it gets them involved. Usual feedback is along the lines of “more piano”, “vocals a bit muddy” or hopefully “sounds great”. Then I might hop off the stage, perhaps while the soloist starts the second number with just bass, and fiddle with the controls of the Death Star at the back to fix things (or just pretend I’ve made an effort).
Which brings me on to the final point. Sound is an incredibly subjective thing. Live engineering is the art of the possible. The girl at the front with mortgage worries will hear things differently to the lounge lizard draped over the bar in the back corner. Musicians will be used to hearing themselves in certain ways. Everybody’s ears are different ages too. As long as it doesn’t sound like the whoomphing from a pimped-up ride drawing up to the lights with the suspension bouncing to the sub-bass, or a trip to the dentist, you’re probably about okay. There’s always room for improvement, but hey – art of the possible first…