Thursday, 31 May 2012

How to make your band sound clear, tight and not 'muddy'.

One of the most important things about playing in a band is understanding how your instrument fits in the mix.
As a sound engineer, one of the most common problems I hear in live bands is unclear vocals and either a muddy sound or a piercing sound that makes you want to put your fingers in your ears even when its not that loud..
This is actually a really easy problem to fix, but first you need to understand why it happens.
Take a look at this great chart...
Musical Frequency Chart

It shows all the instruments and what frequencies the instrument generates.
A band that sounds tight and 'phat' will make sure that the instruments have as little as possible overlap in terms of the frequencies they generate. This means that the bass guitar is not making the same frequencies as the rhythm guitar, and the lead guitarist isn't overpowering the vocalist.

That leads me onto the number 1 cause of unclear vocals....
If you look at the chart the first thing you notice is the electric guitars operate in almost exactly the same frequency range as vocals. This is both good and bad. Its bad if your guitars are too loud when your vocalist is singing because the guitar will make the words sound unclear.
However, its really good when the vocalist stops singing and its time to rip out a mammoth guitar solo because you can get away with turning the guitar WAY up, and I mean WAY up.

If you are playing lead guitar, make sure you always have a boost footswitch for your solos, and you really can get away with having quite a big difference between normal and solo volumes.
Think of it like this... when you are playing during the verses, keep your guitar level right down and just fill in the gaps around the vocalist, during this part you need to be complementing the vocals not competing with them.
Stick to one string stuff and play in a different register to the vocals. If the vocals are singing high, then play low notes and if the vocals are low play high notes.

Then when the vocals stop and its time to solo, think of the guitar as the vocalist during the solo. Make the guitar sing, play it loud and strong then pull way back again when the vocals kick in.

While we are on the subject of guitars, keep an eye on your bass and treble, make sure the bass notes on your guitar don't interfere with the highest bass guitar notes, and make sure your treble notes stay well clear of the range where humans are most sensitive (2k to 3k). A guitar is a mid range instrument, don't try and generate all the frequencies of the spectrum just because you can.

On to vocals, and its important to remember that humans can generate quite low frequencies even when singing higher notes. Percussive sounds like 'P' and 'T' words can also interfere with the bass guitar and make your whole band sound muddy. Turn down the bass control on the vocal channels to improve the clarity of the whole bands sound.
If your mixing desk has a High Pass Filter (button or a knob on more expensive desks), this is the greatest invention in this history of sound and you should use it. Turn on the high pass filter on every single channel except the bass guitar and kick drum and you will see an amazing improvement in clarity.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Why cupping a mic looks cool but thats about it..

Cupping is for musical dicks
You see it on hundreds of music videos (mostly in Hip Hop) and as a result you see it occuring more and more on live stages of all genres. The lead vocalist with their hand wrapped around the base of the microphone ball. Wow they look so cool!!.
But mic cupping, is bad for you and here is why...

Despite what most people think, there are two sides to a microphone. Most think that it just the front part where you stick your mouth or point at the instrument that is the important part. However the back of the mic plays just as much a role in both the way the mic sounds and also how the mic responds to its environment.

Most vocal mics have what is called a 'cardoid' pattern, that means they mostly respond to sound from the front of the mic and 'reject' sound from the back of the mic. Thats why you can turn a mic up loud and point the bottom of it straight into a speaker and you won't get feedback. However flip it around and point the mic directly at the speaker and you will get a load of feedback.

When you cup a mic, you change the response pattern of the mic from cardoid (only from the front) to Omni-directional.
That means the mic picks up sound relatively equally from all directions, not just where you point it. The immediate thing you will notice is that a cupped mic feeds back much more easily than an open mic.

You can try this for yourself, just turn on a mic and turn it up fairly loud, then cup it by putting your whole hand around the ball of the mic and watch the feedback go crazy.

Cupping is also going to destroy the sound because the microphone is going to pickup sound from everything else around the stage as well as the vocalist this is what makes it sound 'muffled'. Basically, if you like the sound of a cupped mic, you may as well just ask your sound engineer to turn up the 'Shit' knob on the mixing desk.

A cupped mic will sound quieter than an un-cupped mic but of course you will not be able to turn it up because it will feedback at between 1/2 to 3/4 the volume of an un-cupped mic (depends on the mic model).
One other thing to watch out for is tape or anything else that might get stuck to a mic at some point, if you tape up a broken mic, it will also cause the same effect. Sometimes you can use this to your advantage, for example if you are mic'ing up a percussion instrument where there is sound coming from all around, I will sometimes use an SM57 with tape over the bottom grill to get a more full sound from inside a drum.

You can also use this phenomenon as a good visual indicator of how a mic's response pattern will be. Generally microphones with big rear grills will be highly directional, while microphones with no or a very tiny rear grill will be more omni-directional. Watch out because this is counter intuitive to what you would expect to happen.

So there you go, next time you see some rockstar prancing around the stage with their hands wrapped around the ball of the mic, tell them why it might look cool but is actually seriously uncool for their sound.

Friday, 18 May 2012

The importance of cable to your sound

The cables between your instrument, pedals and amp are part of your instrument. A good guitar lead costs $40 to $80. Most music shops stock rubbish leads that will colour your tone. Here is a good way of testing the quality of your cables.... Plug one end of the cable into an amp then turn the volume way up. Now rattle the cable on a hard floor. A good cable will be totally silent when you do that, the more rubbish the cable is the more noise you will hear in your amp. This is called cable microphonics and means a rubbish cable is basically acting as a microphone. This is bad if you want the best sound possible.

Also, for guitarists, avoid wireless guitars wherever possible. Some of the best tone comes from the electrical interaction between your instruments pickups and your amplifiers preamp. If you use wireless then there is no interaction between the two so the tone will often sound quite 'flat'.

Use the highest quality cables you can afford, put your name on them and guard them with your life.

The same goes for your PA system. Cables are your PA.

A good mic lead costs $30 or more and good speaker leads well over a hundred bucks each. Your system will only sound as good as the poorest quality cable in your whole system so all your cables have to be good quality in order to reap the benefits. Good quality cables and microphones are more important to the overall sound quality than the speakers, amplifiers and mixing desk you choose.

Cables usually comprise 20% or more of the cost of a good PA system. Throw away the cables that come as part of a PA package, they are usually the cheapest quality the manufacturer can possibly find.
Also, coiling cables properly maintains the sound quality. If you wrap them around your elbow then the braid inside will quickly start to disintegrate which will destroy the cables shielding and cause your cable to become microphonic. Ask anyone who works in the sound or lighting industry how to coil your cables to make them last forever.