How can I make my band sound good in a small club?

September 5, 2012
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LIVE SOUND MIXING

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Paul Atkins
Paul is an engineer, producer, composer and musician who these days spends a large portion of his working life mixing FOH sound either on tour or in-house at London venues – including the legendary 100 Club.

His studio credits include Lucky Soul, The Hope Rebellion and Nick Evans and he tours with Various Cruelties, Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed & ZZ Ward mixing FOH.  He’s also performed on stages around the world and on many recording sessions over the last 20 something years.

On the surface this article might seem like it’s been written by a grumpy audio engineer having a whinge about musicians who make his work harder than it should be. But it’s not; it’s actually an engineer who also happens to be a musician who’s been on both sides of live performances, on large and small stages, and learnt a few things along the way that he hopes will help both musicians and engineers create better sounding gigs.

Stage volume

Unless you’re fortunate enough to be in a band that only plays through enormous PA systems in arenas to 10,000 + people every night then the volume you perform at on stage can have a dramatic affect on the balance of sounds,or mix, heard by your audience.

Contrary to what some might think, creating a good balanced mix in an arena is easier for a FOH engineer than in a small 200 capacity club. How can it be you ask? Because in an arena the audience hears very little sound, if any, coming directly from the instruments on stage. This is partly down to the power and coverage of the PA system but mainly because the shear size of an arena dictates that even the punters in the front row are a long way from the instruments on stage.

Because, generally speaking, an engineer isn’t competing with the volume of the on stage sound in an arena it’s like mixing on the worlds biggest studio monitors i.e. if the fader isn’t up, no one is going to hear that particular channel. Ultimate control!

The exact opposite is the case in a small club. The PA is more to reinforce the sound that’s being created by the musicians on stage. Meaning, the sounds that are quietest on stage will be amplified more in the PA than louder ones in order to create a balanced mix for the audience.

The sounds that usually need the most amplifying through the PA are; vocals, instruments that are DI’d but aren’t running through a stage amp, bass drums and tom toms. If you’ve ever heard a recording of a mix coming straight off the FOH desk in a small club then you’ll understand what I’m talking about. For those that haven’t, they sound odd because the quiet sounds on stage are uncomfortably loud in the recording while the sounds that are loud on stage are oddly tame. It’s kind of like a ying yang scenario.

How can my band sound good in a small club?

Easy, play quietly. Ok, so that’s only half right. Playing quietly on stage WILL help your band sound good but it’s not necessarily easy. What’s also important is for your band to create a balanced sound on stage. If you can, then your engineer is able to simply amplify that balanced sound  without making compromises. If there’s one or two members of the band that are a lot louder than the others then the engineers hands are a little tied because they can only mix to the loudest instrument. Meaning, the loudest band member sets the standard that an engineer has to make all the other sounds compete with. And sometimes a PA in a small club can’t compete with a very loud stage sound.

The main losers when a band is very loud on stage are the vocalists and the audience. Singers will struggle to hear themselves and the audience will struggle to hear the singers.

Turning down the drummer

As I mentioned at the start of the article I’m a musician as well as an engineer and when I perform on stage most often I’m behind the drum kit. Unfortunately, drummers are one of the main culprits of playing too loud and we have the toughest job of turning down; because our acoustic drums don’t have a volume knob.

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