Check out this guest post from Nic Wallace who is an artist manager, promoter, and sound engineer at Aeternity Management. I met Nic in a Facebook group for musicians and am impressed with his raw honesty.
Nic has some great tips for making your band sound better live! If we apply his advice our sound will be outstanding.
Christian music ministers need to make our music and our message as excellent as possible because we want to be excellent representatives of Jesus.
So let’s jump right in and see how Nic can help us out today…
So your band sucks.
Let me clarify: I’ve been doing music for 11 years and I’ve so far only ever seen one band that was so truly awful that I think they should quit and get day jobs. But I’ve seen a lot of bands that were subpar and failed to stand out. A LOT.
When it comes to performance – both live and studio – bands seem to be under the impression that all problems can be “fixed in the mix,” meaning “we’re fine, we’ll just let the sound guy work his voodoo and fix any small mistakes for us.”
As a veteran sound tech, I can promise you that’s not how it works. Sound engineering is like a fashion outfit: it doesn’t magically change you, it only enhances what’s already there. A good outfit can make you look slimmer or accentuate your features, but it can’t make you look 120 lbs if you’re actually 250. A good engineer can make your band sound clearer or punchier, etc, but if your band isn’t good raw, you won’t be good coming through a $10,000 sound system.
The good news is that very few things in life are permanent. If your band isn’t very good, there’s a possibility that your songwriting is bad, but in my experience it’s more likely that you’re just not preparing for the stage properly. There’s a lot of things you can do to be better, but here’s a few things I’ve seen work in the past (and personally done) that you might consider.
So let’s start at the beginning: how you practice is possibly the most important part of your sound. My drill instructor in the Marines hated the phrase “practice makes perfect.” He preferred the modified version “perfect practice makes perfect.” If you practice something wrong, you’re going to learn it wrong. You need to make sure you’re practicing right. There’s a ton of ways to practice but the important method is to ensure that you’ve got a plan and you’re sticking to it. “Let’s just get together and jam” isn’t a good practice schedule.
You should be practicing at least once a week, if not more, and your goal should be to spend more than ¾ of that time actually playing. Not screwing around, not listening to the guitarist play the new song he learned at home, not letting the drummer just groove on the drums. You should be playing your set. Equally important: HOW will you practice the set? Some bands do the entire set from start to finish and then repeat it until practice is over. My personal favorite method is to pick one song, play it repeatedly until we’re perfect at it, then move on to the next one, then start practicing the whole set once we’ve got them all down perfect. If we mess up, we start over. Perfect practice makes perfect, and it really impresses people.
2. A Click Track
So I was going to roll this one into the “Practice” point, but it’s so important I think it deserves it’s own note. You should be practicing with a metronome. Even if you don’t play with one live, you should practice with one, because it keeps you all on the same page and helps you get that tempo programmed into your heads. And if you can find a way to play with one live too, you should. You can buy a one-channel wireless headphone kit with four receivers (meaning four band members can use it) for $500 and then ask the sound tech if they’d be willing to use that at the show. I’d be more than willing to accommodate such a request. No monitors means less stage noise means way easier for me to mix. You can make your own simple in-ear system for under $1,000 that doesn’t even involve the sound guy. At very least bring your own headphones with an extension and a 1/4” adapter and put the drummer on a metronome. Having a consistent tempo will impress people, even if they don’t consciously recognize it. I promise you that every big band you see is playing to a click track.
3. The Leader
An important conversation to have before you hit the stage is “who’s the leader?” If you guys fall out of tempo, who’s the tempo setter that we need to match back up with? If someone forgets the chorus or goes for an extra measure (God forbid) or skips a part, do we fast forward with them or do they fix themselves and adjust to someone else? This is something that needs to be addressed and decided beforehand. Who is leading the song? It’s usually either the drummer or lead guitarist (or singer/guitarist if the singer also plays guitar). It doesn’t honestly matter who it is unless someone else in the band has a click track and the leader doesn’t. If you only have one click track available, the leader gets it no matter who that is.
4. The Gear
This might seem obvious but what kind of gear is your band using? Is it appropriate gear? Not all gear is made equal, nor is all of it made for the same purpose. I play heavy metal. You won’t catch me using a Fender Telecaster for my genre. Tele’s are great guitars, as any guitarist can tell you. But they’re just not made for metal. Likewise, I wouldn’t use a $200 Schecter either. Schecters are great, and they’re made for metal, but cheap gear sounds cheap. That doesn’t mean go out and buy the most expensive guitar you can. A $3,000 Gibson Les Paul and a $1,000 S101 Les Paul are literally the same guitar. No need to break your wallet when you can get the same quality for less. Who cares if it isn’t brand name? You think they can tell out in the audience? All they know is it sounds good. Do your research, demo some models if you can, and buy quality gear.
Additionally, set it up right. This one is hard to explain because it’s going to vary from gear to gear and genre to genre, but basically you need to EQ your equipment right. One thing that always surprises me when I use pre-set amp tones from professionals is how trebly the guitars are. There’s almost no low end at all! That’s because they’re guitars. They don’t need any low end. Adding in a lot of low end might sound cool when the guitar is by itself and it might sound real beefy for metal, but it’s just going to make a lot of excess clutter and noise when the bass player actually starts playing. Don’t try to play in the bass’s frequencies. Make adjustments to your gear during practice so that your amp sounds like it fits and sounds professional. Make sure the drums are tuned. Make sure you change strings and drumheads regularly. Those things lose their tones pretty fast. At least once a month, if not more (you can probably get away with six months for bass, those strings tend to last longer).
There is a possibility that you may need backtracks. Maybe you only have one guitarist but the recordings call for a rhythm guitar. Maybe you have a string section. Maybe you just want to include some vocal harmonies or samples. Backtracking is a very common technique these days, and it’s not something you need to be scared of. It doesn’t make you Milli Vanilli if you decide that you don’t want to spend six months looking for a rhythm guitarist and backtrack that on stage. There’s a billion ways to do this one. Some people use a laptop, some use an iPad or a phone (on airplane mode, needless to say), some run it straight to the house (which I recommend) while others use another guitar amp. Again, this is all advanced stuff. The reason I bring it up is that maybe you need it. It is inevitably going to sound like crap if both of your guitarists start soloing and the bass is left holding rhythm guitar. I don’t care how much distortion it has on it, that’s not what bass is meant to do. If you’re a symphonic rock band and your keyboardist quits, it’s going to sound weird without the symphonics that were written into the song. Don’t be afraid to backtrack if you have to, and don’t be afraid to use it to your advantage if you do. Don’t stop at rhythm guitar or keys, backtrack some vocal harmonies while you’re at it. Backtrack a lead guitar harmony to make those solos sound sick. Just keep in mind that if you do this it’s almost guaranteed you’ll need a click track now to ensure that you stay on time with the backtrack.
Yeah, I already said it, but I want to say it again. Practice, practice, and practice some more. There is absolutely no substitute for practice. Even with the best gear, in-ear monitors, a click track, and backtracks, an unpracticed band will sound amateur. Even with crap gear and floor monitors with no click track, a practiced and tight band will blow people away. Practicing is the one thing on this list that requires absolutely no extra time or money than you’re already spending on the band. If you’re reading this article, you’re wrong. You need to call your bandmates and schedule a practice. At least once a week, if not more. And play the whole time. “Okay guys, we’re gonna play that new song over and over for the next hour until we’re positive we’ve got it done. Four times in a row, then a ten minute break, then four more times, then break.” You know how professional bands get ready for tour? No joke, major label pro bands (like the kind you see in stadiums) get together about three days before the tour and they practice 8 hours a day for two or three days straight. Then they hit the road. By the time they get on that tour bus, they know every single part of the set inside and out backwards and forwards in their sleep. You’ll be sick of the songs. You really honestly will. Personal experience talking here. But you’ll never sound better. Personal experience talking.
Nicolae Wallace is a co-owner and artist manager with Aeternity Artist Development, a concert promoter with Aeternity Booking, and an audio engineer with Aeternity Studios. He has been doing live sound since 2005 and continues to work actively in both live and studio sound for bands of all genres and levels. You can get more info about Aeternity at www.AeternityManagement.com or contact Nic with any questions at email@example.com.
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