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How to Get Great Live (And Studio) Sound

As you know, we spend a lot of time here at Audio Issues discussing recording techniques, tricks, and tools to help you get great sound in the studio.

But a lot of those fundamentals can be applied to live sound as well.

And more importantly, many of things you need to learn to get great quality sound in the studio have their roots in live sound applications.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably played in a band, been asked to help out with the sound system, and probably even mixed a few live shows.

While you can learn a lot by experimenting in the studio and recording music, there’s nothing quite like the thrill of learning live sound on the fly, with no time to spare.

“The band goes live in 2 minutes! Are you ready?”

Uhhhhhh….. sure….

2 minutes later:

Oh $#*%! where’s that feedback coming from?!

Today I’d like to share some more insights from James Wasem at the Great Sound Institute. He’s got some tips that can really help you get better sound – whether you work with live sound gear or in the recording studio.

Tips to getting great sound on stage and in the studio

Tip #1 – Signal Flow

One of the most critical things to understand when it comes to sound – recorded or live – is signal flow.

It’s easy to become complacent about signal flow when working with digital audio because the signal stays strong and clean as is passes through each digital process (it’s just a bunch of calculations, after all).

But when it comes to analog audio, things change in a hurry.

All audio starts out as analog unless you’re dealing with a MIDI device or software instrument. And even your studio DAW will emulate analog audio processes, so it is helpful to understand how traditional signal flow works.

Maintaining a quality signal through each piece of equipment in the sound system is critical.

Signals that are too weak or too strong can cause nasty issues like noise, distortion, and clipping.

Understanding signal flow and how a sound system is put together can help you troubleshoot problems faster and fix issues in your mix.

Challenge: Draw a diagram of how audio signals flow in your studio or live sound system. You can even map out how the signal flows through your DAW to get a better idea of what is happening “behind the screen”.

Here’s a basic layout to get you started. Your system may be simpler or more complex. Try to think of as many components as possible.

Microphone > Preamp > Mixer > EQ > Reverb > Compression > Pan > Fader > Subgroup > Master Output > Master EQ > Crossover > Amplifier > Loudspeaker

Tip #2 – Gain

There’s a reason why the Gain (or Trim) knob is the first control on every mixing console. It’s the most important parameter in the sound system.

It is absolutely critical that you spend the time to set your gain properly, or else you’ll pay for it with bad sound everywhere else in the system.

You want to have a strong and clean signal going through your system, whether it’s a recording interface or a live mixing console.

This seems like a simple issue, and it’s pretty easy to set the gain on your equipment. But you’d be surprised how many people can screw this up.

There can be multiple gain stages in your sound system or recording setup.

The main (and most important) stage is the first input at the preamp. You want to adjust the gain so that the signal is nice and strong, but you also need to leave enough headroom so the signal doesn’t clip or peak when a loud burst of sound comes through.

For analog systems, you’re looking for the signal level to be in the 0 dB or “Unity” range.

For digital systems, you’ll be monitoring and looking for the signal to be at around -20 dBFS (decibels full scale).

(Note: digital audio systems have a maximum peak level of 0 dBFS. For basic reference, an analog meter reading 0 dBu is about the same as a digital meter reading -20 dBFS.)

Either way, you’ll likely want the signal to be in the area where the green signal level lights just start to meet up with the yellow indicators.

It is important to regularly monitor the audio signal to make sure it doesn’t clip the input or distort at higher volume levels.

And it’s ok to turn the gain down a little bit to give you enough headroom for the dynamic range of a source. Just make sure that the gain isn’t so low that your fader is boosting a bunch of noise from the preamp or channel electronics.

Challenge: Connect a microphone to a preamp and monitor the channel (solo) in your headphones. (You might want to turn the headphone volume down before each step so you don’t damage your hearing.)

  • Set the gain very low, then boost the fader very high and listen. You may hear a lot of background noise. This is the self-noise from your preamp, cables, or other equipment.
  • Set the gain very high, then bring up the fader and listen. You may hear some distortion with peak signal levels. Turning up input gain all the way can also inject more preamp noise into the signal, depending on the device.

Tip #3 – Mic Placement

This is a big one for the studio and the stage.

Place a microphone in the right spot and you get sweet sonic bliss.

Put it in the wrong spot and you get to deal with a bunch of audio garbage.

Choosing the position of your microphone has a lot to do with the type of microphone used and the source you are miking.

In the studio, we can get away with a lot of different miking combinations and placement options.

Miking things at a distance can provide more ambience, space, or depth. Close-miking can give you that intimate or in-your-face sound.

Choosing an omnidirectional mic can open up the sound and capture more of the instrument/vocal and recording space. Going with a cardioid or tighter pattern mic can help control and shape the sound when using multiple mics or miking several instruments.

When it comes to live sound reinforcement, we tend to favor close-miking arrangements simply to prevent feedback and to enhance the signal quality on a noisy stage.

And using cardioid or super-cardioid mics with tight coverage patterns is important to prevent sound leakage from other nearby sources and feedback from stage monitors or main loudspeakers.

Either way, it is important to experiment with the mic placement for each source and achieve the best sound possible with the mics you have available.

Challenge: Solo a mic input channel and monitor the signal with headphones. Have an assistant move the mic around an instrument (like a guitar) or have a vocalist sing into the mic at different distances. Listen for how the quality of the sound changes with respect to distance and the coverage pattern of the mic. Listen for the tonal character and volume level.

If the mic is really close to the source you are likely to get a very strong signal, but you’ll also hear a more pronounced low end (proximity effect). If the mic is farther away, the signal level will be weaker and the sound will get thinner. Try to find the sweet spot. You can also experiment with using different mics on the same source to hear how they respond in the same locations.

And here’s a pro tip: If you have a frequency analyzer built into your DAW or mixing console, use that to monitor the mic signal and take a screenshot of the frequency curve with the mic in different positions. This can help you visualize what is happing with the frequency response of the mic.

Thanks James!

Those are some great challenges and a good way to practice getting better sound quality in your recordings and for mixing live sound.

If you’re looking for more information on live sound, check out the Ultimate Survival Guide to Live Sound here.

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About me

About Björgvin Benediktsson

I’m Björgvin Benediktsson. I’m a musician, audio engineer and best-selling author. I help musicians and producers make a greater impact with their music by teaching them how to produce and engineer themselves. I’ve taught thousands of up and coming home studio producers such as yourself how to make an impact with their music through Audio Issues since 2011.

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