Onstage Sound Tipsheet title

Don't gamble when it's time to go onstage. These tips will help stack the odds in your favor.

Your demo is great, but the record company wants a band with stage experience and a fanatic following. Maybe you've played the casual "weekend warrior" scene, but now you want to take a more serious approach to live performance, the ultimate testing ground. It's necessary to try your ideas, observe their immediate impact, and make adjustments.

The band is well-rehearsed, and based on your demo, you're able to book a gig at a good club. But for some reason, the dance numbers aren't keeping people on the dance floor, your heartfelt ballads jerk no tears, and the audience is walking out on your high-flying improvisations. People aren't humming the tunes during breaks, they're screaming for mercy. What are you doing wrong? Are the band and the material poorly matched to the club's clientele, or is it just an off night?

Maybe the band and the material are fine, but your synth is screaming with ear-torturing highs, the reverb and flanging that sounded great on the demo are turning the mix into a mud bath, and the system is humming instead of the audience-and the only problems you can detect from the stage are the feedback (the sound system's and the audience's) and the club owner's scowl. Perhaps the problem is that, despite endless rehearsals, you weren't fully prepared.

There's nothing quite like the voice of experience. The following ideas were gleaned from the lessons of half a lifetime "on the road." Some of them may be just what you need to turn your next gig into a showcase.

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Signal Processing Tips

’ΔΆ Effects that work well in the studio (such as reverb) don't always translate to the stage. To reduce the mushy sound that comes from combining the natural ambience of a live environment with onstage processing, decrease delay and reverb levels (especially those that add ambience). Also, decrease the decay times of reverb effects and the regeneration of delay effects.

’ΔΆ Tailor your reverb settings to complement the room ambience. For example, many larger spaces have excessively long bass-decay times, so use a digital reverb with very short decay the bass and long decay on the high end to balance out the overall reverb contour.

’ΔΆ For effects that serve as punctuations or rhythmic accents (e.g., rhythmic echo effects), increase the effects' level a bit to help them stand out from the room ambience and noise.

’ΔΆ Muddiness can result from using several time-altering effects (chorusing, flanging, echo, etc.) simultaneously. Remember that processors are often more effective when they're highlighted.

’ΔΆ Watch for distortion: flangers and phase shifters often include a control (usually called "emphasis" or "regen") that feeds the effect output back to the input, creating a more resonant sound. Turn this up too far, and you'll overload subsequent stages.

’ΔΆ "Flipping over the volume pedal can be a major problem" according to one performer consulted for this article. Duct (gaffer's) tape is the cheapest way to hold effects in place.

’ΔΆ Pedal boards can help organize your effects. Many good, packaged systems are available today, or you can build your own. If nothing else, a pedal board will provide DC power so you don't have to depend on batteries live (which is definitely not recommended).

’ΔΆ Avoid spring reverbs. Minor stage vibrations or an accidental jostle will result in aural mayhem. If your guitar amp comes with a spring reverb, it's not difficult for a technician with the proper schematics to add connections for an outboard digital reverb.

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Mixing It Up
’ΔΆ The onstage mixer is mainly a submix feeding the house board, so you won't need lots of inputs unless you're using it a multitimbral instrument's individual outputs. To economize on sends to the mixer, mix the various timbres inside the multitimbral synth and route them to the synth's stereo or mono outs instead of the individual outs.

’ΔΆ When sending to the house mixer, if you don't know (or you distrust) the main engineer, you can submix all your instruments, complete with effects, and send a premixed stereo feed. However, since the sound engineer will have no control over your individual instruments, your balance must be perfect, which implies very accurate monitoring. Mixing onstage is illusory-the mix in the house doesn't sound like what you think it sounds like-so a sound person may be invaluable.

’ΔΆ If you work with a trustworthy engineer, it's best to do as much of the EQ, level balancing, and effects as possible at the main board. Special effects (such as long delays) can be triggered at a prearranged cue, and you won't have to worry about how the balance and timbres sound in the house. (For more ideas, see "Digital Signal Processors in Live Performance" in the January 1987 EM.)

Before finding a home at EM, assistant editor Steve O spent half his life on the road. He claims that with an act like his, he had to keep moving. Associate editor Gary Hall is the former product manager of Lexicon Corp. With a class act like Gary's, he'll stay right here.

This article is reprinted from the May 1990 issue of Electronic Musician magazine with the permission of its publisher, Penton Media. For more from EM, please visit www.emusician.com.