Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A musician should also be a "tech"

Last Saturday night I was setting up to play with my buddies at a coffeehouse in a church in Mesquite, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. Church-sponsored coffeehouses are a time-honored tradition in Dallas, the oldest of which is the famous Uncle Calvin's. Church or no church, things can get pretty raucous at these events, so you still hear some pretty edgy stuff, albeit usually on acoustic instruments.

In the middle of set-up we ran into a problem with the direct boxes, or so we thought. Direct boxes or "DIs" are boxes that let you plug your guitar-style quarter-inch plug into a three-pronged low-impedance input called an XLR or Cannon connector (like a microphone cable ), which is what all the snake inputs are. Our sound technician couldn't get the DI-fed acoustic guitar channels--10 and 11--to make a sound, either in the mains or the monitors. He switched the direct boxes out three times with no change in result. I took one of the guitars and plugged it into a guitar amp just to make sure it wasn't the instrument, but the guitar worked perfectly in the onstage amp. Meanwhile the two channels were still dead. Not a sound when we plugged the guitar back into the direct boxes.

I said, "Guys, it has to be at the board." The sound engineer protested, saying that the board was set up right. I asked if I could look it over.

"Go ahead," he said, as if to say, "You won't find anything."

I checked the channels for muting. I compared the cannels to the channels around them. I checked the bussing switches to the mains and the sub-mixes. I checked the faders. I glanced in the back where there was no light, but saw something disturbing.

"Would it cause a problem if the snake wasn't plugged into channels 10 and 11?" I asked.

"Oh, sh*t," was the response.

Problem solved. Next.

While my friend, C. Aaron Moore and his band "The Issues," performed the first set, I got into a "discussion" with a fellow band-member about problems with the mix. He was hearing one of the vocalists louder than the others. Now, I'd been all over the room and the mix was pretty good, but my friend just couldn't stand what he was hearing.

I worked to get the sound right, which was complicated by the fact that the PA board was in the back of the room in the corner, in a box with an open window to the performance hall. The sound in the hall was fully twice of what it was in the booth, but the booth sound was surprisingly pretty mixable. After I got the "vocal in question" to sit in the mix a little better, I realized at least part of the problem. My fellow band-member was sitting 10 feet from the back wall of the hall. He was in the worst seat in the house, with the sound waves reflecting from the back wall and cancelling a lot of the frequencies--possibly even reinforcing others. Once I walked into the sweet spot in the middle of the room, the vocals were actually now a bit low in the mix.

What else helps vocals sit in the mix? Well, vocals are one of the most dynamic "instruments," meaning the can be very loud, very soft, somewhere in between, and can change on a dime. Great for emotional delivery, but it drives the person at the mixer crazy trying to get the vocal to mix well with the rest of the music. The answer is a compressor. The compressor will turn the loud sound down (in a fraction of a second) and the soft sound up. This more even sound lets you pretty much set and forget the vocals, because where you mix them is where they tend to remain in the mix with the other instruments.

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Ryan Michael Galloway IS the Alpha Gigster of Gigster Clinics. Performer, mentor, author, and songwriter. See his videos on YouTube. Be his friend at MySpace.