Thursday, 28 June 2012

Tightness 101

Tightness is a term that is often used to describe how well a band plays together.
Its a word that is often bandied about a lot without a lot of thought for what it actually means let alone how a band that is not tight could strive to achieve it.

I've listened to a lot of live bands over the years, some who I would call incredibly tight and others... well not so much. I think I have the answer and an 'easy' way to make your band sound 'tighter'.
Tightness is usually restricted to a few specific generes. You don't call a big jazz band 'Tight' because actually looseness is part of what makes a big band so awesome.
Tightness is usually associated with RnB, all forms of Rock, Funk and to a lesser extent blues.

But what makes a band tight?
After listening to a few old live recordings of tight bands and then some not so tight bands, it all points to one place, the rhythm section.
Drums and Bass are the key to tightness, guitars and keyboards can be all over the place (in terms of timing) but the band can still be classed as tight.
More specifically, it comes down to one part of the band, drums and the bass guitar.
Tight bands have the following thing in common, the bass guitar and the kick drum are almost indestinguishable. In fact, they sound like one instrument playing together. The kick drum providing the punch and the bass guitar providing the tone. All you need to do to make your band sound tight is get your drummer to kick his kick perfectly in sync with the notes of the bass guitar (apart from any frilly bits).
The drummer can play anything they like over the top of this, the Snare and Hi Hats can be way in front or behind the beat, but so long as the kick is in sync with the bass, the band will sound tight.
This can be harder than it sounds. The drummer and the bass player need to listen to each other very carefully and anticipate what the other is going to do. Good rhythm sections can do this without any thought at all. An average rhythm section can also do it, it just takes loads and loads of practice.

Here is an example of what I'd class as a tight band (listen to the kick and the bass interact):

Conversely, here is a band that is not tight (its not hard to be better than these guys).

Next time your band is practicing or doing a gig, listen to how the kick interacts with the bass guitar.
Are they playing the same thing, or are they each kind of doing their own thing?
Try making some simple changes and really focus on the kick and bass guitar and see what happens to the overall feel.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Getting rid of Noise

Last week I got asked to explain the difference between a balanced and unbalanced audio connection. It's surprising how few musicians understand how a balanced connection works and therefore what the pros and cons of balanced vs unbalanced connections are. Most people think it has to do with the quality of the cable, which is completely wrong.

The knowledge can save you a world of pain when it comes to resolving unwanted hum and noise in both your instrument and PA system. 

An unbalanced signal is the most simple and commonly encountered audio connection as it is found on most electronic instruments including guitars. Guitar leads are un-balanced cables and have two wires in them. The black wire is called ground and it has absolutely nothing on it. It is simply connected to the earth (yes the actual dirt) and acts as a reference point of zero volts. 

The red wire has the actual signal on it represented by a positive and negative voltage relative to the ground wire.

Think of ground as being "sea level" and the signal as being the height of a mountain we are trying to measure. We can compare the heights of any two mountains in the world because they are all measured relative to their height above the sea. 

Audio works the same way, but one big problem is that our sea level isn't exactly the same everywhere you go. In some rural areas power companies transmit power through the ground using one wire above the ground and using the ground itself as the other wire. This (along with a whole host of other reasons) causes the voltage measured between two points in the earth to be different. It can even vary from one side of a venue to the other which for a musician is a real pain in the butt.

If you have two power points in a venue and half your gear is plugged into one and the other half plugged into the other and those power points have a different earth point then you get a different ground voltage (sea level) for different equipment in the same PA system. This comes through the PA as an 'Earth Hum' and is literally the sound of the earth humming. It is like putting a stethoscope on the planet. 

To compound the problem, humans are addicted to wireless things. TV, Radio, Microwave Ovens, Satellites, and Cellphones all emit radio and electromagnetic radiation. When these waves hit metal, they generate a tiny voltage. If the metal is long and thin then it acts like an antenna and guess what we musicians like to use a lot of that is made of metal and is long and thin?  

Ok, insert your 'long and thin' jokes here, but the actual answer is, guitar leads. 

Guitar leads are basically perfect antennas. All that electromagnetic radiation that is flying around the place crashes into your guitar leads and induces a tiny voltage on both the red and the black wire which you hear as noise in your amp. The net result is that the longer and poorer quality your un-balanced cables are, the more noise they will pick up and the worse the noise will get. When you use lots of un-balanced cables together in your PA system then the noise all adds together and you end up with a bit of a mess of hums, hiss, buzzes and in the worst possible scenario - Breeze FM coming through your equipment.

So what is the alternative?
The answer is to used balanced cables wherever you can and here is why.
Balanced audio cables have 3 wires instead of two.
The shield wire is a special braided mesh that surrounds the enclosed wires, it also is connected to the ground so acts as our "Sea Level".
The red wire carries the signal, just like in our unbalanced cable.
The white wire carries an exact copy of the signal but 'flipped'. If the red wire has a positive 5 volt signal on it, then the white wire has a negative 5 volts on it (referenced to sea level). Its like digging a  hole in the ground that perfectly matches the contours of the mountain that we are measuring. 

Now, when all that electromagnetic noise hits our cable, it induces the same voltage in both the red and the white wires at the same time.

At the other end of the wire, our mixing desk cleverly flips the signal on the white wire back the other way and then adds it to the red wire. Think of it as pouring clay into the hole we have dug and then superimposing the clay mould on our original mountain.

Now the original red and white signals match each other and add together to make a stronger copy of the original signal, however, the noise on the white wire is flipped the opposite way to the noise on the red wire and perfectly cancels it out resulting in absolutely nothing but a perfect copy of the original signal.
Using this method, I have transmitted audio over several kilometres without any noise, hums or buzzes.

Its pretty clever, and also the reason why you should use balanced cables and equipment wherever possible to minimise noise.

This is why, on stage we use DI (Direct Injection) boxes on anything that has an unbalanced connection. Keyboards, Acoustic Guitars, Samplers, CD players or even iPods etc are the usual suspects. If you want the best sound possible then you need to convert an un-balanced signal into a balanced signal as quickly as possible and using the shortest possible un-balanced cables you can.
Get rid of those long guitar leads and if you use powered speakers, then connect them to your mixing desk using XLR cables not jack cables.

Whenever possible, look for equipment with balanced audio outputs as opposed to unbalanced outputs. Professional equipment usually comes with balanced connectors while cheaper equipment may not offer that option. Also note that sometimes professional equipment (most often keyboards), may offer both balanced and unbalanced connections on the same jack. This is called a TRS output and is a jack cable with 3 rings instead of 2. You can then use a cheap TRS to XLR converter to convert the jack into a mic lead and therefore avoid using DI boxes on this equipment but you may need to look at your equipment user manual to find out if it has balanced connectors.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

To Hear or not to Hear, that is the question?

Every musician at some point in their lives will perform on a stage where they either can't hear themselves or the rest of the band. When this happens it immediately sucks the life out of your enthusiasm to play, what should be something that is incredibly fun and rewarding immediately becomes frustrating and irritating.

A musicians monitors can make the difference between a good performance or an amazing performance. If there is a separate sound engineer mixing monitors, their job is more important to the integrity of your performance than the front of house sound engineer. They have the hardest job on the stage as they have to keep the stage volume as low as possible, while also trying to make sure the artists can hear.  

There are two common types of artist monitors, each has advantages and compromises, neither is perfect.

Foldback, Wedges, Monitors or to some just foot-rests, are the most common solution to the problem of hearing on stage. They are easy to deploy and are fairly flexible. 

The primary problem with foldback wedges is noise. Wedges add an enormous amount of noise to an already noisy stage. By the time your drummer pounds their cymbals, bass player thrashes their 1000 watt amp and the guitarists point their 200 watt quads at their knees, the noise levels bouncing around on stage can be insane. Far louder than the front row of the mosh pit. When you add a row of monitors along the front, it often turns into a noise war with each wanting more volume from something to compensate for the 'more me' everyone else wants. 

While this scenario usually generates a lot of on stage energy it is very bad for two important reasons. 

The most obvious is ear damage. Usually not discovered until you crawl into bed at 4am with the all too familiar and distinctive rinnnnnnnnnng in your ears. Ears are a musicians most important asset and its ironic few musicians pay the real consideration to ear health they should. Often the level of deafness a musician achieves is joked about or indicates some sort of right of passage. Personally I find that blatant stupidity.

The second problem that is less often thought about is quality. 

All that noise bouncing around the stage gets into vocal and drum mics and results in a muddy background din through the PA. This makes you sound like a school band rehearsing in a garage. The sound engineer is going to have no control because if they need more vocals in the mix what they really get when they turn up the vocals is more noise. 

So in summary, wedges usually make for great energy but average sound unless you are very careful about controlling the onstage volume level.

The more modern solution to the problem of noise is In Ear Monitors or IEMs. 

IEMs consist of high quality earphones that go in your ears and provide your own personal mix via a wired or wireless signal from the mixing desk. 

The advantages of IEMs are fairly obvious, you can run the overall level at a much quieter volume while hearing everything crystal clear. 
Often IEMs are so good that it feels like your are in a recording studio. The stage noise can be so low that the quality of the mix you and your audience hear can be like listening to a CD. Herein lies the problem with IEMs. When you plug those earbuds in, it's easy to feel like you are in your own little bubble and go into dreamland, completely forgetting the audience is there and completely forgetting you are on stage to perform, not to self indulge in your own awesomeness. 

This can sometimes result in a disconnected performance where the audience does not feel like you are really all there. 
There are some solutions to these problems, the most common and damaging to your ears is to use one IEM and one wedge. This is supposed to give you the clarity of IEMs with the energy of wedges but it has one serious drawback. It is likely to damage your IEM ear significantly more than if you were to just use wedges set to 11. 

Due to an unfortunate trick your brain plays on you with one earphone in and one off, you think it is much quieter than it really is and turn up the volume on your IEMs to damaging levels without even knowing you are doing damage. 

Try this for yourself by plugging in your iPod with only one earphone. Then turn it up to the loudest volume you think is safe to listen at long term. Now put in the other earbud. You will be shocked how loud it is. In fact I would be surprised if you can bare it for more than 2 or 3 seconds. Remember the volume hasn't changed, its simply a trick in your brain. If you only take one thing away from this article it should be to never, ever, ever just use one earphone.


The better and easier alternative is to use an audience microphone. 

Put up a high quality consensor mic and point it out to the audience, then add it to the mix in your IEMs but not to the PA mix. This will allow you to get all the benefits of IEMs while still being able to hear the enery of the audience. 

The latest trend and more expensive option is to purchase IEM systems that include built in ambience microphones. These allow you to adjust the ambient noise level right from your belt pack. These systems are amazing but are also very spendy as they are targeted at the high end. 

I personally recommend IEMs and also recommend investing in some high quality custom moulded earbuds. I'll talk about that more another day but when using IEMs I always recommend keeping in mind that you that as amazing as it sounds in your ears, there is still an audience out there in the dark that need to be entertained.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

The difference between Loud and Good.

Loud is good right?

Not really, there is Good and there is Loud and here is why.

I first noticed the difference between Loud and Good about 10 years ago when I was mixing sound for a country music show that was mostly comprised of older audience members.
The first band was really good (not that I'm a huge country fan) and I happened to glance down at the dB meter (measures volume), it was touching on 95dB (thats pretty damn loud) and here were a group of blue rinse oldies sitting in the front row happy as can be.

Latter the same night another band did a country rock number and the guitars were awful. Even though I pulled the volume right down to not much more than 80dB, I still got several complaints from a couple of oldies that it was too 'loud' and several people at the front had their fingers in their ears.

So how is it that people perceive loudness then?
Here we have a situation where somone finds music as loud as a jackhammer perfectly ok while the same person finds music no louder than the road noise inside a car to be so loud they need to put their fingers in their ears.

My conclusion after all these years is that it all comes down to quality, and I'm not just talking about quality of musicianship. The quality of the PA system, musicians and venue acoustics all play their part in determining what volume sounds good to people.
The higher the quality of all these factors, the greater volume your audience will tollerate.

It is therefore my belief that if someone tells you to turn it down, they are not really asking you to turn it down, what that really means is one of these things..
  • They don't like your music.
  • The PA is not big enough for the gig (and is distorting)
  • The venue accostics are rubbish
  • You aren't that good.
Death metal is a great and probably slightly more extreme example.
I've heard some amazing metal bands in my time, and some of them at what would normally be excessive volumes, but if the band is tight and the guitars have good tone, then you can tollerate high volume (SPL is the technical term - Sound Pressure Level) before your ears start to fatigue and tell your brain that it is too loud.
I have also heard some very bad metal bands. Sometimes they are tight as hell and have a great stage show, but are let down by the guitars having a horrible tone. Here is a tip for death metal bands, if your guitars sound like a swarm of buzzing bees inside a tumble drier, turn down your treble knob. It will make the world of difference to your bands sound and you will be able to play much louder before your audience's ears start to bleed.

Guitarists and drummers should also be aware that if you have been playing hard rock or metal for a number of years, your ears have probably lost a good deal of their high frequency response. Usually the first frequencies to go are 2Khz to 4Khz which just happen to be the frequencies that normal humans are most sensitive to. If you are constantly asking people to repeat themselves, but can otherwise hear fine, its a good indicator your ears are damaged in this range. It is the frequency range where consonants are generated and if you can't hear consonants then you can sometimes struggle to hear what people are saying, while still being able to hear the sound of a pin hitting the floor perfectly fine (a much higher frequency).
What this means is that while your guitar sounds more awesome than an awesome thing to you, the sound is cutting through the eardrums of your audience like a knife through butter. If in doubt, ask someone with normal hearing for an honest opinion of how your instrument sounds, even better, ask a sound engineer (they tend to look after their ears a bit better than musicians and will give you an honest opinion).

Ear fatigue can be a major problem at gigs for musicians.
Your ears are pretty clever things, and if something is too loud your brain starts to block out that frequency. If you have your guitar set too loud while you play, then your ears will progressively start to shut down during the gig. The next thing you know you are nudging the volume up a bit more after every song. Thats when the stage starts to turn into a battle zone as your bass player then turns up his amp because he can't hear any more. Then the vocalists asks for more monitors and it turns into a vicious circle. By the end of the gig, its so loud on stage your ears are just about bleeding and your sound is... well... shit.

To avoid this, set your volume on your amp at sound check and mark it on your amp with tape or a white marker. Then, don't touch it. If you can't hear yourself, then ask the things that are causing you to not hear to turn down instead of you turning up. This will avoid ear fatigue and result in a far superior sound out in the audience, where it really matters.