In your wildest dreams, you picture yourself on tour with your band and a top-notch technical crew. You fly a private jet while your gear hits the road in dozens of 18-wheeler trucks. You travel from one city to another. You are a regular at the Bell Centre in Montreal, the Wembley Stadium in London, and you perform in all the major venues in the world. You can count on the best sound engineers around; they know your show inside and out and have been following you for over ten years. They make sure you get the best sound night after night after night.
But like I said, this is in your wildest dreams.
In the meantime, you cram your instruments and your band in an old truck and play in many different places: bars, cultural centers, festivals, concert halls. Each time, a very dedicated local team gives you a warm welcome. These people are involved because of their love for music and support their community's artistic activity. Therefore, you must constantly adapt to the situation.
Remember what I said in a previous article: sound techs are your best allies.
So, may the tech be with you.
Here are some technical tips to ensure you always get the best sound.
1- Send a complete technical rider
Sending a complete technical rider will allow the team on-site to set up the gear and the stage properly. It's incredible how much time you save when the monitors, mics, D.I.'s and XLR wires are already set up and plugged in upon your arrival. In some cases, the technical team even had time to create a custom lighting design for your show. The more accurate your rider is, the better are the odds you get an outstanding sound.
2- Set your E.Q. (and ego) to zero
You've been tweaking your sound for years, and you know exactly how to adjust the E.Q. on your amp. You could set every knob with your eyes closed. But remember, you developed your sound at home and in your rehearsal space, not in the room you're in right now. Is it a large or a tiny place? With high or low ceilings? And a floor made of wood, ceramic, carpet, or concrete? Is there a stage curtain? These elements will impact how the sound waves travel through space, and therefore on how you sound. So set your ego and E.Q. to zero and work with the tech to find the sound you like. You can keep your eyes closed if you want, but above all, keep your ears wide open. You'll hear your sound and the tech's advice much better.
3 - Everything goes through the board
Control your volume depending on where you are. Very often, techs ask musicians to turn down the output of the amps, which frustrates many. They do not ask this to annoy you. But instead, because they need headroom to create a good mix. With too much volume on stage, you can't work from the board, which guarantees a bad sound in the room.
Notice to performers who like to use effects on their voice: it is strongly advised to send the voice signal to the board before the effects pedals, autotune, etc. The reason for that is these tools, unfortunately, do not mix well with stage monitors. By allowing the tech to control your effects, you get a better chance to avoid trouble. Vocal effects pedals are notorious for creating feedback.
4 - Turn down the volume, not the intensity
Many musicians believe turning down the volume will reduce the intensity of the performance. Here's how to get around that:
Drums: A few pieces of duct tape placed over the snare drum, toms and cymbals will muffle the sound slightly. You can also put cushions or clothes in the bass drum to reduce the reverberation. You'll hit your kit just as hard, but you'll create fewer unwanted frequencies. Then, because the tech will have placed mics on your drums, the sound in the room will be perfectly mixed from the board.
Guitar: Do you really need a 100-watt amp when you play in small venues? Do you think you need to set your gain to 9 to get some crunch in your sound?
By choosing a much less powerful amp, you will set the volume to 9 and get the desired crunch without going overboard with decibels.
You can also use distortion or overdrive pedals to get that much-beloved crunch. I know; it's not like getting the authentic sound from an overheating tube amp. But like in so many other areas of life, it's all about compromise.
I once saw a tech in a small bar ask a guitarist to turn his amp towards a backdrop curtain to absorb some sound. A microphone would pick up the sound from the amp and send it to the board. The guitarist played at full intensity a big, loud, dirty, thoroughly distorted, mean rock & roll. But in the venue, you could hear a perfect mix. We were only getting what was coming from the P.A.
Bass: Low frequencies often set the tone for the overall volume of a band. I know about this; I am a bass player. I like low frequencies, but over time I've learned not to overuse them. On stage, I now leave a little more room for the midrange. As a result, the other players don't have to turn up their volume to get a good balance on stage.
Ultimately, singers must be able to easily hear themselves. So, if the band is too loud, they will ask to crank up their voices on their stage monitor. This is an upward spiral that invariably leads to feedback, which you obviously want to avoid at all costs.
5 - Talk to the techs and trust them
Be prepared to adapt to all types of venues and technical equipment—good communication with the venue where you will be playing helps. Techs who know their equipment and venues well are your best partners on the path to an incredible sound.