Guest blogger, Shaun Curran, caught up with freelance sound engineer, Rick James, to discuss his top tips for making the sound as good as possible in a smaller space.
1. Find out about the venue’s PA in advance
As the person putting on the event, you’ll find some places have a dry hire policy and bring in the PA system. Promotors have to provide the PA, so always get some advice from the venue itself on what PAs have been in the venue, engineers who have worked there, and the companies that provide it so you can try and pick out the right system.
2. Check what type of equipment you will be working with
When you are sharing gear for shows always make sure beforehand what is going to be there. Find out what mixing equipment you are working with, as well as what the bands will be using. It can really impact your sound if you’re using other peoples’ amps that might not suit the music you’re making or the sound of your guitar. I always feel that bands sound better when they’ve brought their own gear, that they use day in day out, and are dialled into.
3. Listen to people who know the venue
If you’re travelling on tour with a band, your job is to work with the house engineer. You know the band, but the house engineer knows the venue. Something that happens quite often – and which is detrimental to a show – is that a touring engineer comes who isn’t willing to listen or to ask questions to the engineer who is already there. They could impart so much wisdom – throw away your pride, it’s about the show.
4. Tune the PA before any soundcheck
One of the difficult things in small venues is ensuring the vocals are loud enough over the top of everything else without it feeding back – this can happen because the stage is so small and the main PA is so close. In small venues, it is essential to tune the PA and “ring it out” – this means turning up the vocal mics as loud as you can without feedback, and then adjusting the main master channel to notch out any frequencies that are resonating throughout the room, causing feedback. Make sure to play some music through to test the sound and then you’ve got a good starting point.
5. Test the sound out as soon as possible and work from there
With smaller venues, the challenge you’re faced with when mixing a live band is balancing everything you’re amplifying out from the PA with what’s already coming straight from the stage. In a bigger venue, that’s not a factor because the stage is a bigger space and is further away from the crowd – everything you hear is coming directly from the PA and not from the stage.
With a smaller venue, it’s all about what’s coming out right in front of you and how you’re reinforcing it. When setting up, make sure to get the band to play as soon as they set up on stage – listen to the levels of their amps and how loud the drummer is, and try and balance it all out with nothing coming from the PA. You can work from there – for instance, you might not need the guitars coming from the PA if they are loud enough onstage.
6. When it comes to noise levels, less is more
Most bands play too loud in their practice room, and it’s a real struggle for engineers to mix a band in a small venue if they are too loud. Having a smaller amp on a smaller stage definitely helps, and it also helps when the band are willing to turn it down. When everything is at a more reasonable level, it means you have less sound in the monitor wedges and so are not being blasted from all sides. Less sound in the monitor means less interference with the sound out front – you want quieter stages, generally.
7. Try and position the engineer as centrally as possible
Try and make sure the mix position for the engineer is as good as it can be; this means making it as central and as strategically placed as possible. In a lot of smaller venues, the engineer ends up behind the bar with a wall in front and it cuts out a lot of the high-frequency information which makes it sound a lot quieter. It can be a real struggle for engineers to get a good mix going.
It seems like an obvious thing, but so many venues have a terrible mix position. It can be difficult to plug someone in the middle of the crowd at a small venue with a barrier around them, but it should be a high consideration.
8. The requirements vary from room to room
With small venues, what you need to do to make a show sound good will vary from room to room – even if you are using the same equipment. No two rooms will be identical. Musicians will often say “this is how I always have my amps set up”, and that might be true, but if it isn’t working then you need to find another solution.
Work together and be willing to compromise
Bands and engineers should be working together to make the sound as good as possible. It’s not a fight between the two. Any egos should be thrown out of the window – interact with each other and be willing to listen. Engineers can offer bands a lot of good advice at shows, but similarly, you have to be willing to compromise. In the end, it’s all about making sure it’s a great show for the attendees. For more information on venue management, download our guide.