In my world, you tend to see three types of soundpeople:
1. Those who set it and forget it, leaving the band to create their own art while thrashing it out onstage.
2. Those who set it and ride a few levels on the mixer when the band gets carried away. When necessary, they’ll raise the levels of lead vocals and instruments.
3. And finally, those who take what comes off of the stage and turn it into something much greater than it would be by itself.
These people are every bit as much an artist as the musicians onstage, and from watching them over the years, I’ve picked up a few tips that I would like to share with you.
Spend time perfecting the tonal balance.
The first thing a good soundperson does with an unfamiliar PA is check the tonal balance. They play several music selections that they are extremely familiar with and listen to make sure all of the instrumental tones are there. Some even run a test track with a swept audio wave to check the PA for frequency dropouts and phase cancellations caused by speaker cables. They then make equalizer adjustments to get everything sounding good, achieve tonal balance and reduce any feedback or correct room problems.
Get everything to sit in the mix.
When the soundperson knows his band and the sound the band is going for, their job is getting everything into the mix so all of the instruments can be heard properly. They may make the kick snappy, or turn it into a heavy thud; the bass may be bright or dark and meaty; the guitars may sit right in front to grab you or fill the mix behind the lead vocal. A good soundperson takes what comes off of the stage and tweaks it to achieve the best tonal balance between all the instruments and vocals. This turns the PA into a new and powerful instrument, which the sound artist uses to help project the artist’s vision of what they should sound like.
Get the effects right.
This is one of the most important jobs done by the soundperson. Knowing what effect to use on which instrument or vocal, when it should be applied and how much to use can take a lot of experimenting and I’ve learned a lot by simply watching other soundpeople in action. My best advice is that your time in rehearsal is just as important as the band’s. Really cool things have come about, either as accidents or jokes, when it comes to the addition of special effects – the infinite delay on the end of a song, the vocal doubler on a grunge song, or the insertion of a distortion box into the effects loop on the board into the vocal channel. Cool stuff can happen when it’s done right!
Make it more than it is.
This is where a great soundperson can really shine when given permission from a band or artist. The best way to explain this is to provide a few examples, and it ties into our effects discussion. You can make that drum solo sound thunderous by adding reverb. That guitar can sound absolutely wild with the addition of a doubled note, usually a third or a fifth up or down from what is being played – octaves are good, too. How about flanging the main vocal, in addition to adding some delay or reverb? You can put the background harmonies into a harmonizer, or bring out the lead lines so they really cut through the mix. Try panning special effects or adding tracks into the mix. And finally, my favorite: you can add some ‘80s rock delay – start gently and add more as you get confident if the band approves. The possibilities are really endless.
Remember, the primary job of a soundperson is to get your band or artist onstage and to help with all of the technical aspects of putting on a great show. The rest is the art of projecting more of the artist and their vision, usually with nothing but little black boxes and the manipulation of a sound console.
So go out there and expand your art, and have some fun already!