Live Sound, Venues

Keep it simple!

I play a lot of festivals where there are many acts, all with different requirements, with pretty quick changeovers between them. I’ve noticed that some people cope easily with this, and others (both venues, engineers, crew and performers) don’t! My top tip to make life easy is keep it simple!

OK, not everyone is like me. Not everyone is a solo act using one microphone (however, I have fallen foul of engineers insisting that my mic isn’t suitable for the stage, or that I should ‘plug in like everyone else), but keeping things simple is definitely the way forward.

Now before anyone leaps on me, let me be clear. If you use particular gear as part of your sound, then yes, you need to use it, and no, you shouldn’t be bullied into not using it, but, I urge you to think carefully about whether you really need it, especially for a very short festival set when you have 5 minutes to get on and start playing.

I like to think of things in terms of ‘my problem’ and ‘someone else’s problem’. Everything the ‘other side’ of the microphone and/ or DI boxes IS NOT MY PROBLEM. That is stuff that belongs to and is operated by the venue. Everything my side of that IS MY PROBLEM. And of course, the more stuff there is, the more difficult it is to find out what’s not working when it goes wrong. The simplest setup can be fraught with problems. I used to have a uke with a pickup, into a preamp, then into the house DI. When the awful moment arrives (no sound, puzzled looking soundman saying “Nah, not getting anything mate”) I don’t know whether it’s my problem or theirs, and if it’s mine, is it the pickup? The cable to the preamp? The preamp? The battery in the preamp? The other cable to the DI? That’s a lot of stuff to check. A lot of unplugging and plugging in, scrabbling around on the stage and shrugging. In front of an audience. With 30 seconds left until it starts encroaching on your stage time.

Now, add a pedal board (and remember 5 pedals is actually 9 more things to go wrong, the 5 pedals plus the four extra leads you need to connect them to each other!), and maybe an amp. Multiply it by one, two, maybe three other performers in your band with similar setups. Now of course, any venue worth it’s salt would have checked the requirements beforehand and arranged to get most of that gear onto the stage, plugged in, checked, and ready to go. Of course, you checked all your cables and batteries at home, too, right? But still Sod’s law applies: if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. The less stuff you have to go wrong, the easier your life will be, the more relaxed you’ll be, you’ll spend less time tweaking things in between songs, and the better your performance will be.

Use a loop pedal? Make sure that if it fails you can still perform, even if it means changing your set on the fly. In fact, if you’re on for 20 minutes, and you only use the looper on a couple of songs in your set, consider leaving the pedal at home and writing a set list that doesn’t include those songs! You might think that all of the gear is what makes you sound like you, but the truth is that it only makes that exact sound on the stage, for you to hear. By the time it’s gone through the desk and out of the front of house speakers, that delicately set EQ and reverb on you pedalboard or amp will be meaningless as far as the audience is concerned.

If the crew at a festival start asking “Do you really need to use that?”, it’s not necessarily because they are lazy, but because they can forsee that it might be an issue. Be honest with yourself, and if you can lose a piece of equipment, do!

Live Sound, News, Venues

Venues closing

I’m reading about (and seeing first hand) venues closing just about every week. I used to play a lot at the 12 Bar in London (which hopefully is relocating), The Bull and Gate, The Rock Garden- all top London venues that are no more. Outside of London, many pubs that regularly held live music are now boarded up, too. Sheffield’s Boardwalk has now gone the same way:

Now of course there are many reasons for closures- developers buying up unprofitable pubs and converting them to flats, cheap supermarket alcohol making a trip to the pub less tempting, and the current oft-memed-on-facebook noise complaints issue. Town centre developers build flats next door to a music venues, residents complain about the noise, venue has to spend thousands on sound proofing or stop putting on music.

The Agent of Change principle seeks to address this. Agent of Change says that the person or business responsible for the change is responsible for managing the impact of the change.This means that an apartment block to be built near an established live music venue would have to pay for soundproofing, while a live music venue opening in a residential area would be responsible for the costs. (this is taken from a Music Venue Trust post, read the whole thing here). However, this principle is not yet enshrined in law. You can sign Frank Turner’s petition here:

I shouldn’t have to explain why this is important, because if you’re reading this you are a musician, gig goer, or are otherwise interested in live music. However, if you’ve stumbled across this, a simple fact is worth remembering: Simon Cowell et al are not how the bands you love came about. They did not pop up fully formed, they cut their teeth in small venues, honed their skills in front of tiny audiences, paid their dues on the sticky carpets of pubs and clubs all over the country. No venues = nowhere for young musicians to play, get better, and maybe get spotted.

And let’s not forget that for many musicians (me included), “making it” in the sense of playing for nothing for years in the hope that an A&R man (do they still have those?) will sign you and propel you to the big time is NOT what it’s about. There are many, many hard working musicians touring around playing small venues. This is their job, their living, and those venues are not a stepping stone to Wembley, they are their bread and butter.

Acoustic, Live Sound


More and more, on social media and (shock! horror!) in real world conversations, I see people complaining about people talking at gigs. In fact, it’s probably more common than the moans about mobile phones held aloft to video the gig. Now 20 years back I never really encountered it much at all. OK, maybe at noisy pub gigs, but certainly not at venues where people had paid money to see the band. Now it seems to happen all the time, and I wonder why? What’s changed?
Well undoubtedly people’s attitude to live music has changed. We experience music now as background noise, or on TV, and are not as used to engaging with human beings performing it for us (it even happens in the classical world, with recent news stories about mobile phone use becoming a problem in concert halls). Still, I can’t help but wonder if it is something to do with the seemingly endless pursuit of volume in even the smallest venues. If people are talking over the music, making the music louder will most likely make them talk louder! However, in a fairly quiet room, anyone talking , even in a whisper, will be immediately obvious, and hopefully will feel self-conscious enough to stop!

Live Sound

Horror stories

If you’ve been gigging for a while, you’re bound to have a collection of horror stories, whether they are tales of the transit van, dressing room or stage. As this is a blog on live sound, here are a few of my PA horror stories. Feel free to add your own!

The ever louder monitor
From the first number to the last, my monitor speaker gradually got louder and louder. No-one at the desk seemed to be aware of this, possibly because they weren’t there. By the final number, coincidentally one I was required to windmill a huge power chord on, it was so loud and distorted that I felt like Marty McFly.
Marty McFly

The radio mic
No-one who’s ever seen Spinal Tap ever believes this one, but at a gig in Nottingham my radio mic seemed to be on the same frequency as the local taxi company’s radio. Periodically, I would be interrupted by calls for a pickup on Lenton Boulevard.
(incidentally, this very same gig was the location of another horror story. Upon arrival, we found that the owners dog had left a rather large deposit in the middle of the floor. The owner was called, and after berating the dog he fetched a chair, placed it over the turd… and left)

The pro setup.
Having been assured that the venue had a PA numerous times, upon arrival it became clear that it was a karaoke system (and a small, portable one at that). The tech-spec request for Shure SM58s had gone unnoticed, instead we were provided with the plastic mics that had been supplied with the system. I got a red one.

We weren’t expecting those
At a pub that, it became clear, had little experience of live music, we arrived with our small PA. There didn’t seem to be anywhere obvious to set up, and when we asked, we were told “I wasn’t expecting you to bring those big boxes”. “Pardon?”, says us, “without them we’re not going to be heard at all in here” (it was a large, busy, chatty bar). “We thought you might wander around the place and play” was the response.

New Years Eve. Duo booked for entertainment. Upon arrival, we ask where to set up. We are told our entire performance space is currently occupied by glass-fronted fridge, which would be moved for us after the diners had finished. Not only was this space woefully inadequate for two people and a PA, the fridge still contained the same solitary piece of cheesecake that was there when we arrived, 5 minutes before out scheduled kick-off time.

I mentioned this one before, but on more than one occasion the supplied PA has been a pile of stands, cables, speakers and flight cases piled up in a corner, with no-one at the venue with a single clue as to who will arrive to set it up nor how it works.

XL what?
Upon setting up my mic, plugging it in, and handing the other end of the XLR cable (industry standard mic cable) to the ‘sound man’, I received a puzzled look. “Never seen anything like that before!”, he said cheerily.

What does this button do?
Small gig, nice little PA set up for us on arrival. A very quick plug in and line check, and off we go. Then the PA operator spots the digital effects on the desk. Wow, it really had a lot of them. He tried them all, all the way through the gig.

A bicycle made for 2Kw
Not a horror story at all, but worth a mention. A festival stage powered by bicycles, which as a very sound and fun idea. People pedal, and the sound system keeps running. Worth a mention due to my musical partner Ian Emmerson, in the middle of a particularly loud version of ‘Ace of Spades’ during which the PA could be heard to be struggling a bit, screaming (still in his best Lemmy voice) at a bunch of terrified children, “PEDAL! PEDAL FASTER!”

Live Sound

The Soundcheck… check.. 1… 2…

The soundcheck is often shrouded in mystery for many performers. Often it is a simple case of plugging in strumming, talking into a mic and the engineer giving you the thumbs up before you launch into your first number (actually, what I’ve just described is a line check, which is a very basic does-everything-work check, and it’s what you’re most likely to get at a festival or multi-act gig where there isn’t time to do anything else). A soundcheck proper shouldn’t take place in between acts, but prior to the gig starting (preferably before the audience has been let in), and its something you should take time over. What is it for? Well primarily it’s to get a good sound in the room for the audience (never forget that it’s about making it a good experience for the crowd first and foremost) and after that, getting a workable sound for the performers on stage. The stage sound is all about providing the right mix for the performers so that they can hear themselves and the rest of the band. Different band members may want very different mixes in their monitor speaker.
Going in armed with some information about what to say and do is going to make it a lot less painful. Bear in mind that this info is aimed at the acoustic performer, but most of it holds good for any kind of band.

1. Always be nice to the engineer. Turn up on time. Find out their name. Be polite. Thank him/her after the gig.
The engineer has the power to make you sound great or awful. They regularly put up with people who want the impossible and moan at them when they can’t have it. If you’re pleasant, they will go out of their way for you. If the soundcheck is at 6pm, be there at 6pm and not 5 minutes before the doors open and the audience come in.

2. Get set up quickly, and do not rehearse.
Rehearsal time is before the gig. If you don’t know it now, tough. Soundcheck is not for playing through the 3 new songs in your set that aren’t quite ready. Once everything is set up, plugged in and ready to go, the engineer will probably ask individual musicians to play something so that they can check they are getting a signal. Have something in mind to play or sing. If you have a volume knob on your instrument, now is not a good time to keep playing with it.

3. Know what you need to bring
This sounds obvious, but if you are plugging in, bring a lead. If you have anything that takes batteries, carry a spare. Bring the necessary tools to do so (screwdriver, wire cutters for string changes, spare strings, etc.) Guitarists cannot assume there will be an amp awaiting them on stage, and drummers (even if you are sharing another band’s kit) should at least make sure they have brought their own sticks. Whilst a venue will have lots of equipment, they cannot cater to everyone’s individual requirements, so if your tech spec is a little unusual, bring the gear with you. For example, I use a large diaphragm condenser mic. Venues will not have these in their big box of mics, so I bring my own.
Oh, and make sure what you bring works. Test it, regularly.

4. Once it’s established everything is working, many engineers get the monitor mix done first. This isn’t always wise. The monitors are the speakers pointed at you (most likely wedge shaped speaker cabinets on the floor at your feet). If you’re in a big loud band, getting the monitor mix done first is the right thing to do (a loud rock band is going to be very loud on stage, as the stage volume has to compete with the acoustic sound of the drum kit. There may also be guitar and bass amps on stage. Performers will need to hear the right mix of things in their particular monitor to help them perform or hear their cues. High stage volumes mean that the performers are unlikely to hear much of what is going out to the crowd, so they get their monitors sorted out first). Acoustic acts do not want high stage volume. Instruments feed back, and if there’s no thunderous drum kit and huge amp stacks on stage, then there’s no need for deafening monitors. Get the front of house sound set first, and the performers might well find that they can hear quite a bit of what they need from the front of house speakers or even from their own instrument acoustically. The monitors can be brought up a little if needed. Lower stage volume, fewer feedback problems.

5. Know what you want your instrument to sound like.
You know your sound, so you need to communicate that to the engineer so he/she can adjust the EQ on the desk to suit. You might ask for less bass, less treble, more reverb, etc. Really fancy people even ask for specific frequencies to be cut or boosted, if they know their instrument, and how it reacts to amplification, really well.

6. BANG!
Don’t plug in or unplug anything without checking with the engineer that you have been muted. It’ll make a really nasty, potentially speaker damaging noise.

This next bit is for people like me who use microphones for instruments.

7. Ring out the room.
When you have live mics on the stage (that aren’t the normal vocal mics you have to get within 2″ of), it’s good practice to ‘ring out the room’. This means turning up the mics until feedback, then cutting the frequency that is feeding back on an EQ unit, then turn up some more, cut again, etc. This allows for more volume, and is very much dependent on the acoustics of the room (you can’t assume that because you set the EQ for last night’s gig in a different town that it’ll be the same tonight). Some PAs have automatic feedback detectors/ killers that almost instantly cut out the ringing frequency.

What is feedback? We all know the nasty, ear-piercing squeal of feedback, but how does it happen? Well, simply put, the microphone ‘hears’ the sound coming out of the speakers, and then of course that sound is amplified and played… through the speakers. The mic hears it, etc… you get a loop of sound entering the mic from the speakers and hen coming back out of the speakers, and the only way to stop it is to turn down. It doesn’t even have to be a mic, it could be a plugged in acoustic guitar being made to vibrate by the sound coming from the speakers.
This is why you should never point a mic at a speaker!

Live Sound, Pickups

Piezo pickups: Best thing since sliced bread or triumph of convenience over sound?

First off, a brief history of guitar electrification. Guitars of all kinds were acoustic. As bigger bands came along (such as jazz bands with drums, piano, horns, etc.) guitars became inaudible. At best they could be heard as part of the rhythm section, chugging along playing rhythm, but lead guitar was out of the question. Then magnetic pickups were added to them and they could be plugged into amps. Eventually it was realised that a solid lump of wood (i.e. solid electric guitar) would be better than a hollow box with a pickup on it, as it would be much less likely to feed back when turned up loud. Electric guitarists used their new found volume to turn themselves into soloists who could compete with trumpet and sax players. If you want a great potted history of electric guitar pickups, have look at
Of course, the electric guitar doesn’t sound like the acoustic guitar, but that wasn’t the point. However, the sound they made was pleasant, and players adapted to it and it became an instrument in its own right.
Those choosing to play the acoustic guitar, and desiring an acoustic guitar tone, were still stuck with a microphone in the main, until the invention of the undersaddle piezo pickup.
This is a piezo-electric (it generates a small charge when pressure is applied) strip that sits under the saddle of the guitar (uke, whatever). When wired up to a jack socket and plugged into an amp, you get a sound that approximates the sound of the instrument.

Here’s the thing. I hate the sound they make. OK, maybe hate is a harsh word, at best it’s OK, and at worst it is truly awful. Yes, I used them for years, and yes I did everything I could to make the sound better. In fact, here are a few ways you can help an undersaddle pickup sound better:
Use a preamp: Your instrument may have a preamp installed in it (you’ll know if you need to put a battery in it). If not, you need to run the signal through a decent preamp box, like the L.R. Baggs Gigpro. It not only makes the signal into a level that mixers and amplifiers expect, it also gives you some EQ control.
Plug it into something appropriate: A decent PA. A good quality acoustic amp. Not a fizzy little guitar amp.
Adapt your playing style: People who get a decent sound out of a pickup have learned to play to the plugged in sound, adapt to it and make it work for them, rather than thrashing away as they normally would. You need to reign in the heavy handedness, or your sound will be very ‘edgy’ and unpleasant to listen to.

There are many many expensive boxes that promise to restore your fizzy, tinny pickup sound back to the sound of an expensive instrument in a room. They work with varying degrees of success, but it’ll still sound like a pickup. And they’re expensive. There are of course players who have taken the pickup sound and worked with it, and turned it into something new. Adrian Legg created an electric/ acoustic hybrid sound that is truly his own, and he’s always experimenting with technology. 

I should say at this point that I am realistic. If a rock band has an acoustic guitar on a track, miking it up is going to be tricky. In a loud band, an undersaddle pickup works well, and the rather thin, compressed sound they produce actually sits in the mix quite nicely. If you play acoustic in a loud rock band, it’s definitely the way to go.

However, if you play in a more acoustic vein, and you have a nice instrument, that you bought because it sounds great, but every time you perform with it you make do with a sound that you could get from a cheap instrument with the same pickup, then it can be very frustrating. But you still plug in, because, well, that’s what you have to do, right? And anyway, so many instruments come with an undersaddle pickup fitted by default nowadays. You turn up at the gig, plug it in and away you go… easy peasy.

Except it sounds rotten. I genuinely believe that the piezo pickup has become the friend of the lazy sound engineer. It’s a quick fix, a that’ll do, a triumph of convenience over sound quality. And if, as musicians and listeners we accept convenience over quality, we’ve missed the point completely. I picture Antonio Stradivari, sweating over a violin in his workshop, finally finishing it, stringing it up, dragging the bow across the strings and saying, “that’ll do, sounds pretty much like a violin to me”.

I’ll leave you with this. Here’s Bob Dylan in 1988 playing a piezo equipped guitar.
And here he is at the Newport Folk Festival in ’66 doing just fine with a nice collection of mics. I know which one I’d prefer to listen to.

Live Sound

Most PA systems are awful

Yes, I know that’s contentious, and I know there will be some fine sound engineers with excellent systems getting ready to reply already, but let me explain why I think this. First of all, I said most. I have had the pleasure of playing through lots of wonderful systems, operated by highly skilled and generally lovely people. Also, I include the setup and the operator in the definition of PA. Here are a few situations I come across far more times than I should.

1. The PA isn’t actually a PA. Seriously. I have been told quite clearly that a PA will be available, only to arrive to find a DJ with a radio mic./ several small battery-powered guitar amplifiers/ one of those one-step-up-from-a-megaphone things they use for school sports days/ and (I kid you not), an iPod dock. None of these things are a PA, and whilst I have always tried to make sure the gig goes ahead (including driving home and getting my own PA), I would be within my rights (and the terms of my contract) to walk away from such a gig with full pay.

2. The PA isn’t safe. Wires hanging out of the back. Fuses ‘replaced’ with bits of foil. 17 things all plugged into one wall socket through an intricate web of extension leads. Huge heavy speakers precariously balanced on top of wobbly stands. I’ve seen them all.

3. The PA isn’t assembled. This can be anything from it not being plugged in and wired up, to literally a pile of stuff in a corner (yes, I’ve had to set up someone else’s PA from scratch, without them there, before playing).

4. It’s assembled, but incorrectly. I don’t care why you’ve done it, how many extra chairs and tables you can get in because you’ve done it, or who told you to do it, the main speakers should NOT be behind the performance area (mics will feed back, and I will be deafened by a speaker right behind my head), and the speaker stand tripod legs should be fully extended (so it doesn’t fall on someone’s head).

5. It’s broken Yup, just plain broken. Maybe the amp doesn’t work, or one speaker is intermittent, or one of the channels on the mixer doesn’t work, or the knobs have dropped off, or maybe it’s just that the mic stands won’t stand up on their own.

6. It’s a fine PA… but no-one knows how to operate it Very, very common. No-one knows where the box of leads is kept, or where the mics are, or why nothing seems to be coming out of the speakers. Someone will play with it for a bit before getting it to make a bowel-emptying howl and then give up.

7. It’s a fine PA, and someone thinks they know how to operate it. Which may actually be worse than number 6. They will confidently tweak things. It will sound awful. They’ll finally get something acceptable, and you’ll start to play. Throughout your performance, they will keep on tweaking, somehow managing to make it steadily worse. At some point they’ll discover that the desk has built in digital effects. I know this seems like a rant, but just think. If you’re a music venue, and you are putting on touring acts in front of a paying audience, how does it look to both the performer and audience if the PA is unfit for the job? How does it look if the performer says, “I can’t play through this” and leaves, and how does the audience feel if the sound at the gig they’ve paid to see is terrible (or a speaker falls on their head)?