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The Ultimate Live Sound Survival Guide


Get the Soundcheck Checklist and Learn:

  • Step by step instructions to run a successful soundcheck even if you're doing it for the very first time.
  • How to soundcheck specific instruments and make the vocalist sound (and feel) great!
  • How to build your mix during soundcheck so you can sit back and enjoy the show.
  • The easy way to look like a pro even if you don't have a clue what you're doing

Late musicians, venue feedback, bad cables and sticky speakers…

Sounds like a shitty gig, but most of the time it’s the opposite.

Whether you are just starting out as a live sound engineer, or you have tons of gigs under your belt, we all struggle with these similar issues.

In this survival guide, I will share with you to the best of my abilities:

  • Some tips to think about before you ever hit the stage.
  • Everything involved in a live sound setup.
  • EQ shortcuts and sound system tuning tips
  • and lastly some tricks I picked up over the years on how to get the right sound for your venue once the sound system is all set up and ready to go.

But first things first.

6 Ways to Be a Professional Sound Tech Even If You’ve Never Run Sound Before

Let me touch upon a few very important things you need to keep in mind for success in the industry.

Remember that doing live sound is 20% technical skills and 80% attitude.

It’s a service industry. Serve the artist.

1. Make the Band Comfortable With Their Monitor Mix

A good example of serving the artist is how you approach the monitor mix. Monitor engineers need to communicate and talk to the artist.

If an artist wants something, give it to them. If the singer needs more vocals in the monitor, give it to them. Don’t hold the signal hostage in the mixer if you have sound to spare.

2. Keep Calm and Troubleshoot

When you have a problem, you need to go from A to Z in order to figure out what’s wrong.

When you have a technical problem in the system make sure you troubleshoot every variable. Stay calm when things go wrong. Problems only take a few minutes to solve if you just keep your head straight and think things through. More on that in a bit.

3. Pay Attention and Be Aware

Listen to what others say about your sound.

Especially if you are starting out, make a note to listen to what others say and how you can improve on that.

If you’re just trying to break into the industry, persistence is key – call, call, call. And then call again.

Make sure established sound engineers know you and make sure you are the first name that pops into their head when they need someone to fill in for them.

4. Keep Learning and Pay It Forward

Knowledge is to be shared. Hell, that’s the whole point of this website. If you have a mixing trick or know of a better way to do a particular job, share the wisdom.

For example, if you’ve calibrated the monitors on stage to go as loud as possible before feedback you’re probably pretty experienced in knowing what certain frequencies sound like. You will never forget a specific feedback frequency once you’ve gotten the hang of the graphic equalizer. That information is great to pass on to those that are just getting started in the industry.

They might be looking at the graphic equalizer with complete befuddlement, but if you share your wisdom you’ll not only make your job easier in the future, you’ll also earn the respect of those who will soon become your peers.

5. Embrace the Limitations

Use what you got. If your venue only has a Shure Sm58, then I guess you’ll be using the Sm58, whether it’s on kick drum, bass or snare.

Another way to embrace your limitations is to make the most of your soundcheck time.

If you are running out of soundcheck time just tell the band to play a complete song instead of mixing individual instruments. It will make you work faster and you’ll get more done with the limited time you have.

6. Serve First

Give artists the outstanding service that they deserve. They are up there playing their hearts out. Help them out and give them your absolute best.

A happy band on stage shines through to the crowd. If you are mixing at FOH, help your monitor engineer out so that the band is happy. If everyone works together as a team to achieve the goal of a great concert then you’re more likely to be remembered and you’ll keep getting more work and moving up in the industry.

If, however, you think you’re going to become a grumpy live engineer like the one in the video below, you’re probably better off finding a job somewhere else.

Obviously, this is satire and it’s hilarious, but I’m tired of grumpy engineers thinking they’re better than everybody else.

Soundcheck_Checklist_02Get the Soundcheck Checklist and make all your future gigs run smoothly.

  • Step By Step Instructions to Run a Great Soundcheck, Even if You’re Doing it for the First Time
  • How to Soundcheck Specific Instruments and the All-Important Vocal
  • How to Build Your Mix During Soundcheck So You Can Sit Back and Enjoy the Show
  • The Easy Way to Look Like a Pro During Soundcheck, Even If You Have No Idea What You’re Doing

Get the Soundcheck Checklist right here.

Nobody is coming to the show to see how good you are at placing microphones, they’re coming to see the band.

Serve the band and you’ll become a respected engineer in your industry, even if the band is difficult to deal with.

Speaking of…

Dealing With Musicians

Back when I was doing live sound, I had this constant struggle with the bands.

They were ALWAYS late!

I told them soundcheck was at five and they’d show up at six with their drummer missing.

Just another typical indie band that doesn’t know how to be professional.

It seriously used to annoy the $#!t out of me. Why couldn’t they appreciate the chance they were given to play? Why wasn’t this concert the most important thing right now?

Didn’t they understand that they needed to soundcheck?

No, they didn’t. Because they didn’t really need to.

It’s not Them, It’s You

See, the soundcheck isn’t really for the bands. It’s for you.

Yes, they’ll complain about their stage sound being bad until you fix their monitors. But for the most part, that soundcheck is your responsibility.

You’re the sound tech and it’s your job to make the band sound good, no matter what.

As a live sound engineer you’re always in a lose-lose situation.

  • If the band sounds good, it’s their awesome performance.
  • If a band sounds bad, it’s all your fault.

So once I realized this I decided to make sure I could turn this lose-lose scenario into a win-win situation.

I was in charge of the venue after all so I made the soundchecks run as smooth as possible.

First order of business was showing up early to set everything up before the band came.

That meant checking the system, setting up the mixer as well as miking everything. Even if I didn’t know the line-up, chances were they had a typical set-up of drums, bass, guitar and vocals. Then I threw in a few DI boxes on stage in case of any keyboards, playback and/or acoustic guitars.

Doing this meant that when the band showed up they could simply plug in and rock out.

Another thing was memorizing the go-to settings for certain instruments in my venue. The venue had a backline of instruments so the sound was always pretty similar. This meant that I didn’t need much time to get a good stage sound going.

Finally, the monitors were always a constant hassle. Since it was a small venue it was loud and there was plenty of bleed from the floor to the stage. And vice versa.

The vocals were always the most important thing in the monitors anyway so I always had my AUX sends set up for a good vocal mix. Then, if anybody needed something else, I could add a bit extra without masking the vocals.

Plan Ahead

Having this plan made every soundcheck, and subsequent concert, a smooth and easy process. It didn’t matter that the band was late, I only needed 15 minutes to get things to where I wanted them.

I had most of my soundcheck done before the band even arrived. After I changed the way I approached the soundcheck schedule I turned every concert into a win-win situation where the band felt comfortable, the audience enjoyed the sound, and more bands wanted to play there.

I talk about soundchecks and other aspects of live sound a LOT in Live Sound Survival. I might have made it look frustrating here above, but with the right mindset, it’s actually quite easy.

Live Sound Basics – Your Crash Course in Live Sound

If you like this in-depth guide and want to take your training to the next level, check out our course Live Sound Basics.

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Stop Tearing Your Hair Out and Get Your Setup Right

When preparing for an on-location live sound gig, you need to plan for success.

Some gigs are obviously smaller or larger than others so you need to be sure you have the live sound setup you need to make the gig run smoothly.

When you have the rider and are more or less sure of the lineup, you can easily gauge what type of equipment you will need.

At every live gig, there are different requirements. You may need more of some things and less of others, but I’ll take a moment here to point out the things that are necessary at every concert.

What’s in a live sound setup?

1. Mixer

Obvious, right? Still, you should be aware of how many channels the band(s) will need and the size of the mixer required for the gig.

The size of the mixer varies if you’re mixing a 16-track rock group or a 24-track special show with different lineups. Also be aware of extra tracks for FX returns or playbacks for example. If you’re using a digital mixer, you won’t have to worry about lugging a bunch of extra effect racks around.

2. Enough Monitors

The band needs to hear themselves onstage so bring enough monitors.

It will be a pain both for you and the band if there are monitoring problems. Having a great stage sound will let the gig run smoothly and the band will appear more confident, resulting in a better live sound.

3. Decent P.A.

You won’t need a huge JBL Vertec line-array for a small club so plan accordingly. When talking to an equipment rental company make sure you specify the size of the venue and type of the concert.

The professionals who work there will usually be able to gauge how big your system needs to be.

Sure, they might make it a little bit bigger than they really have to in order to charge more, but it’s safe to say that they’re (usually) trustworthy.

4. Outboard Equipment (if applicable)

In addition to the mixer, the FOH engineer must have a decent selection of outboard equipment to help him mix. When working with analog mixers, this means having huge effects rack with compressors, gates, and multi-effects.

But when working with digital mixers, all the compressors and effects are built-in, making the process of inserting them a breeze.

For example, working with a rock group and an analog mixer you will need at least:

  • Compressor/Gate for the kick drum.
  • Compressor/Gate for the snare. You can often get dual gate/compressors that you can use and save space in your effects rack.
  • Gates for the toms.
  • Compressor for the bass.
  • Compressors for the vocal if possible.
  • 3-4 different types of effects. Drum reverb, plate reverb for vocals, and tap-tempo delay are my favorites and the ones I used the most.

5. Extra Cables

Lastly, because with Murphy’s law watching closely everything that goes on in the live sound field, make sure you have backups of everything.

More often than not, that means cables. Bring more cables than you think you will ever need because you will need them.

What Else is in your Live Sound Setup?

When you’re packing for your next live sound gig, prepare yourself and make notes of what you will need.

  • Do you have a big enough mixer?
  • Enough monitors?
  • Will your P.A. be enough?
  • Do you have enough spare microphones, DIs, or other components in case more musicians show up or something breaks?
  • Is all of your stuff organized and ready to go without you having to dig through a bunch of duffel bags trying to find stuff.

Keep all these questions in mind and follow these guidelines and you’ll do great.

Now, let’s talk about the importance of signal flow.

A Crash Course in Signal Flow & Gain

In order for your sound system to work properly and sound good, you’ll need to have a basic understanding of signal flow.

This is all about matching up your Ins and Outs.

  • Microphones and instruments go into the mixer inputs
  • The input feeds the gain setting and then the rest of the mixing console
  • The output of the board goes into an EQ, Crossover, or other processing gear
  • The output of the processing gear goes to amplifiers
  • And finally, the signal from the amplifiers goes to the loudspeakers.

Slide04

This is pretty basic, but it’s important to understand how this works so you can set up your gear quickly. And when something goes wrong you can know where to look to fix it fast.

Once you get the gear connected properly and start to turn things on, you need to pay special attention to your Gain setting.

Here’s a process that I use:

Slide22

(This is a short excerpt from my “Signal Flow in 10 Easy Steps” chapter in the Live Sound Survival guide.)

“Use a microphone cable to connect your vocal microphone to the mixing board. Plug it into channel one. Make sure the master volume is up. Then turn up the gain setting on the channel until it is loud enough.

This is a very simple technique, but I’ve actually had a lot of questions about it because it seems kind of confusing at first.

Here’s one question I received about this simple method:

“Is this a common way to do this…other people they all say that the master volume should be down until all equipment is connected and the input gain is set just using the level-meters???”

That’s actually a great point. Let me explain.

What I mean is that you need to have the master fader up if you want to hear anything through your P.A. The channel gain for the microphone needs to be all the way down so that you don’t overload the system as soon as you plug in your microphone. By leaving the master fader up and slowly increasing the gain of the channel, you can set the volume of the microphone more easily with your ears.

(Just remember to also turn up the individual channel fader so the signal is routed to the main output fader.)

You need to set your levels with a combination of your ears as well as your meters. Slowly dial in the channel gain of the instrument until it has reached an adequate level and isn’t overloading the mixing board.

That’s all there is to it.”

My tips inside Live Sound Survival are geared more towards feel than technical know-how.

Yes, you need to watch the meters so you don’t overload the board, but it all comes down to the sound.

I got my “formal” audio education after I’d been doing live sound for a few years so I guess I probably learned these things without knowing the underlying technical jargon of why I did what I did.

But I say doing things by feel is much better than robotically doing things by watching the meters. So what if the kick drum was a little red in the meters.

Didn’t care. Sounded great.

Moral of the story?

Don’t overload your brain with too much technical jibber-jabber. It’s more fun to break the rules, as long as you don’t blow up the mixer while you’re at it!

Get the Right Sound From Your System

Depending on your live sound situation, you need to adjust your P.A. system correctly. It’s one of the most crucial things to do when setting up your system, however big the event is.

So how do you go about knowing how every speaker should sound?

Use Your Favorite Music

The best way to test PA speakers is by playing songs that you are very familiar with. It’s more likely to hear odd frequency differences and gauge whether something sounds weird if you know how the mix is supposed to sound.

Different Speakers React Differently in Different Rooms

Testing the speakers is important to make sure the PA system reproduces music or sound correctly.

In addition, the room is a major factor in how the P.A. speakers end up sounding, so you need to take that into account. Every time you move a speaker to a new location the variables change. The room changes, the placement of the stage changes, and so does the sound.

Therefore, make sure you know the reference tracks well. Because if you don’t then you won’t notice, and it’ll be a pointless endeavor.

What music should you choose?

It’s entirely up to you, but try to use something that you’re very familiar with and has a balanced frequency response. Use music that’s well mixed and mastered and has clear highs, deep lows, and well-balanced mids.

Your favorite music is your best bet in accurately testing a speaker system. If you know the music well enough, you will detect the difference between what you KNOW you’re supposed to hear and what you’re ACTUALLY hearing.

Things to Keep in Mind

  • Are the highs cutting through? Is the system dull and needs a little boost in the highs to add air?
  • Maybe you feel the highs are cutting through too much. Try cutting with a master graphic equalizer.
  • Maybe you are working with less than ideal PA speakers that sound muddy in the lower mid range. By listening to music you know, you instinctively hear that you might need to cut out a bit in the 200 Hz low-mid range.
  • Is the bass too dominant? Check the subwoofers and see if they are too loud. Check to see if the crossover is set to the correct frequency. Sometimes subwoofers are set to frequencies up to 200Hz. I feel this can create a sound that’s too thick and boomy.

Check out my post, All the EQ Information You’ll Ever Need, to get a run down of the various frequency ranges you’ll want to keep in mind. Use it as a checklist when you’re checking your system.

Good Music to Use

I used to carry some of my favorite CDs around when I did live sound. It’s good to have some of your favorites that you can grab instead of relying on someone else’s idea of a good mix.

If you’re using music off your phone that’s plugged in with an AUX cord, make sure it’s high-quality audio.

Don’t use mp3s or low quality compressed audio. The typical downloadable mp3 format has a bit rate of 128 – 192 kbps while a CD has the quality of 1411kbps.

That means that the CD sounds ELEVEN times better than a low quality mp3.

And if you don’t believe me, please use your big P.A. system to check them back to back. I guarantee that your world will never be the same.

A Few Music Recommendations:

The Future – Leonard Cohen

I really like the combination of Leonard’s low pitched voice with his airy female backup singers. This combination in conjunction with the great production and mixing work makes The Future a great sound system tester.

God Shuffled his Feet – Crash Test Dummies

There’s something about the openness of this album that gives a sort of transparency to a sound system. If this album doesn’t sound clean and pristine, the speakers are in need of some modifications.

Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me – U2

A fellow sound engineer uses this song when he is testing out speakers, and swears by how amazing sounding it is. Which is hard to argue with, since it’s engineered by Flood and mixed by Mark Stent, both amazing audio engineers.

10,000 Days – Tool

I like having a varied mix when I test sound systems. I don’t want to bust out Leonard Cohen when I’m doing sound for a metal band. I’d rather put the amazing mix of 10,000 Days through the system, checking for any weird differences I might find in my PA speakers while hopefully getting a thumbs up from the rock and roll crowd.

I hope that helps you tweak your speaker systems better to get the most optimal EQ curve for the venue you’re working in.

How to EQ While Doing Live Sound

You might be thinking,

“Do I Use the Same EQ Techniques for Recording and Live Sound?”

Short answer? Yes, you Use the same techniques.

However, let me give you a slightly more elaborate explanation.

In live sound, you have the same type of EQ as you would in a recording studio for the most part. If you have an analog mixer, you might have fewer bands to choose from. In a digital mixer, you might have almost the exact same type of EQ.

Slide28

One of the main EQ differences you’ll see in live sound is the addition of the graphic equalizers. You use them to flatten a monitor’s frequency response in order to get a better stage sound. The same is done for the front of house speakers. They’re EQ’d so they sound good in the venue you place them in.

But overall you use the same techniques as in the studio. You do very similar types of cuts and boosts depending on what you’re hearing from the speakers.

  • You cut the muddiness.
  • You filter the lows.
  • You reduce the boxiness of the kick drum.
  • Etc…

Basically, you still use your EQ for general problem solving when you’re cutting frequencies, and for general enhancement when you’re boosting.

The Key Difference is Subtlety

The thing about live sound is that you will instantly affect what the audience hears. So you don’t want to make crazy modifications to the EQ all the time that changes the sound drastically.

Usually, the big changes and drastic EQ’ing happens before the audience gets there during the soundcheck. That’s when you make the major decisions, especially if you have the same backline of instruments. Drums don’t need to be re-EQ’d that many times if you’ve got a good sound during soundcheck.

However, minor EQ adjustments here and there during the show are normal. You just have to be subtle about it.

When I needed to change things back when I did live sound I usually did so gradually. I would slowly boost the frequencies I needed until the instrument I was EQ’ing didn’t so much pop out of the mix as it just gradually appeared louder to the audience. It’s all about the subtlety.

You needn’t worry as much about cuts because they are less noticeable to the general audience. Your ears react much more quickly to big boosts than big cuts. A big cut usually just cleans up the mix, and if the audience notices they won’t care because (in theory) it will sound better.

The Frequencies are the Same

Doing live sound is much more subtle, but the frequencies are the same as what you would be working with in the studio. So scanning frequencies shouldn’t be necessary if you recognize how certain frequencies sound and where to find them.

You don’t need to boost and scan the whole spectrum (and ruin the show) when you need to get rid of the boominess from the bass. Just start by cutting slightly in 200 Hz which is usually where the boominess frequency resides.

The same goes for boxiness in your kick drum. Start by cutting around 400 Hz. If that doesn’t work make your EQ flat again and move to 300 Hz or up to 600 Hz and try again. By keeping your sweeps less noticeable the audience won’t hear what you’re doing.

It all starts by knowing where the frequencies are so you don’t go ruining the audience’s experience with their favorite band.

You don’t want dirty looks from some random asshole just because you want to make the singer sound a little less nasally do you?

Fixing Problems – FAST

If you’re going to run live sound, you’re going to run into a few problems from time to time. And you need to know how to fix them fast.

This wouldn’t be much of a survival guide to live sound if I didn’t share a few tips to help you save the day. There are a couple important things you can do to prepare for some common problems like feedback and bad cables. And then I’ll tell you a story about my struggle with ground hum.

Feedback: How To Fix & Prevent It

Feedback is the arch nemesis of every live sound tech.

It will kill the vibe of a gig and make everyone stare at you until it goes away.

Here are the two most important things you need to know to prevent feedback.

#1 – Keep all of your microphones behind the main loudspeakers. This lowers the chances of a feedback loop starting from the main speakers back to the microphone.

#2 – Use close miking techniques to get a strong signal at the microphone. Placing the microphone too far away causes you to turn up the gain and makes the mic more likely to feedback.

If feedback does happen, try to quickly identify the source, and then follow one of these quick tips:

  1. Mute it. If you have to stop feedback fast, mute the channel. It’s better to have no sound than to have a high pitched scream kill the vibe (and your loudspeakers).
  2. Turn it down. Sometimes all you need to do to keep a mic from feeding back is turn it down a small amount. It might not even affect the mix that much, but a small volume reduction in the mains or monitors can keep a feedback loop from happening.
  3. EQ it. Use the channel EQ on the board to notch out the feedback frequency. You can use a parametric EQ on a digital board or a sweepable mid (semi-parametric) EQ on an analog board. Turn down the EQ filter level, then sweep the frequency spectrum until the feedback goes away.

The average listener thinks of feedback as being a really high frequency, but feedback is often a lower frequency than you might suspect at first.

Start your search for feedback frequencies in the mids and work your way up or down from there. Simply cutting the “treble” to control feedback is a big mistake a lot of new sound techs make.

In addition to feedback, there’s one more thing that really kills a show.

Ground Hum

That’s right. Hum is one of the things that really destroys the feel of a performance.

Just try sustaining the word hum for a while.

Hummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

Annoying isn’t it?

Anyway, I was working on my own as a sound-tech one night. The band had called me at 2 pm and the soundcheck was at 5. I also had to put the sound system up. No problem, I can do that.

What I didn’t realize was that these bands each had around 24 tracks and every band had a different line-up.

  • Synths
  • Computers
  • Glockenspiels
  • Pianos

You name it. Everything that drives a sound tech crazy when he’s trying to soundcheck.

Finally, I had the sound system up and running and we were going through the soundchecks as normal. Everything seemed fine and we were able to get a good mix going. I had no experience in running their sound before and their peculiar lineup made them it all the harder.

When the show started things began to go wrong quickly.

DI boxes stopped working, feedback joined the party way too often, and although the bands sounded all right and I could more or less fix what went wrong, there was one thing that reared its ugly head and would not go away.

Hum. Or more specifically, ground hum.

While frantically changing DI boxes and re-miking instruments on stage (all this while the show was going on, I’m fast….and invisible) something I did made the PA hum. And when you are mixing a concert with 24+ tracks, it’s hard to pinpoint the problem immediately. Luckily this happened before the third band went on so I could give a quick mute-run through the tracks to see which one it was.

Of course, it was one of the DI boxes.

You see, in this case, I was suffering from a particularly bad case of ground hum. Ground loop hum is usually generated by a 50 Hz wave (60 Hz if you live in the U.S.). In my case one of my DI boxes was somehow receiving its ground from somewhere else causing a difference in voltage, resulting in the hum I heard.

“Oh, please that’s always happening to me! Tell me the Solution!”

Oh, it is quite simple. When I finally figured out which DI box was generating said ground hum, I just went and flicked its ground lift switch. That way I disconnected its connection to the ground and thus eliminated the hum.

gndlift-image

So next time you are frantically running around the stage trying figure out where that hum is coming from, simply check if one of your DI boxes is causing it and flip the switch.

It may save your reputation.

Conclusion

Running live sound should be fun and exciting, not stressful and frustrating.

Like I said at the beginning, you need to stay calm and be professional if you want to be successful in live sound.

On top of that, you don’t need to have a bunch of fancy gear to sound good. It’s way more important to know how to use the gear you already have.

Getting good at live sound isn’t about learning a bunch of fancy words and technical terms. It’s about serving the musicians (and your client) and committing to doing the best you can at each gig.

To help you be prepared to mix the best sound possible, I’d like to give you a complete Soundcheck Checklist that you can use for every gig.

This checklist will help you remember all of the important steps you need to take before the show starts. And you’ll have quick reference to some tips that will help you build a mix as you run a soundcheck.

If there’s one thing you can do to get better sound, it’s setting up and running a better sound check.

How to Make Your Gig a Success Before it Even Starts

Soundcheck_Checklist_02Get the Soundcheck Checklist and make all your future gigs run smoothly.

  • Step By Step Instructions to Run a Great Soundcheck, Even if You’re Doing it for the First Time
  • How to Soundcheck Specific Instruments and the All-Important Vocal
  • How to Build Your Mix During Soundcheck So You Can Sit Back and Enjoy the Show
  • The Easy Way to Look Like a Pro During Soundcheck, Even If You Have No Idea What You’re Doing

Get the Soundcheck Checklist right 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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LEAVE A COMMENT

  • Sempa Micheal

    Hi Buddy
    Just read the article and found it helpful thanks

    However I want to invest in live band music (Gigs) but I need advise on what equipment to buy to have the best sound around town

    What extra sound gears do I need
    I will be glad to hear from you

    Thanks