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Why do you guys sound so good? (When we sound so bad?)

This is an article I wrote for an online magazine back in 2001. When Second Story was gigging regularly, I used to get asked a lot, “How come you guys seem to get better mixes and sound from the soundman than we do?” Here’s at least some of the answers.

Getting Great Sound from a House Soundman

It always amazes me how many local artists tell me that they don’t play a certain club anymore because the “sound man is so bad there.” With rare exception, I tell them that whenever we play that same club, our front of house sound is just fine. Granted, there are clubs that have people behind the boards that shouldn’t touch the tone controls on their home stereo — much less a fader on a mixing board — but those clubs are so few and far between that it usually isn’t the issue.

Getting good sound in your local club can be a matter of following a few simple rules, most of which I’ve seen broken by most of the bands we’ve played with over the years. Whether it be ego or ignorance, not doing your part to get good sound is probably doing far more damage to your front-of-house mix than the soundman’s inability (or indifference.) Here are a few things that I’ve learned over the years; many of these were tips from soundmen, many just revelations and discoveries after lots and lots of gigs over the years.

Above all – BE NICE.
The soundman is just doing a job. To him, it’s often no different than your weekend gig behind the register at the corner drug store. It’s a paycheck. He obviously has to do a good enough job to keep the gig, but if you’re not pleasant and friendly, he’s not going to invest more than a minimum of effort to get you guys on stage. If he’s thinking, “these are cool guys,” he’s usually going to sit behind the board and bring the fader up when the guitar player starts his solo, instead of wandering off to get another beer.

As an addendum to the above, be considerate.
We’ve got an amazing amount of gear for our live show. Between MIDI and “regular” bass, two guitar preamps and midi guitar, keyboards, a sampler, drums, percussion… we could be a soundman’s nightmare. But we’ve carefully designed the way our equipment works so that it is simple for the engineer — one mic (on one speaker) covers all three guitar preamps, a high-quality DI (with a three-foot XLR extension cord that hangs off the side of the bass rig) covers all the bass, and the sampler runs through the keyboard player’s rig, which is also handled by a single DI. Voila! Even with all our complex gear, we’re as simple to mix as a standard 5-piece group. Also included in being considerate – get your gear onstage and set up quickly and efficiently, and when the show’s over, don’t waste time breaking down, especially if there’s another band after you.

Have decent gear.
This may sound like a no-brainer, but I’ve heard bands whining because they didn’t get a good sound out front; meanwhile, the guitarist is using a stomp-box through a Peavey Audition 20, the bassist has 40 year-old strings on his $110 bass, and the drummer hasn’t changed his heads (or tuned his drums) since he bought the kit for $200 in 5th grade. While not everyone can afford top-notch gear, you’ve got to have decent tools to build a good show. Even if you polish a turd – you’ve still got a turd.

Stage volume is key
So many times I’ve seen bands with a guitar player whose rig is so mind-bogglingly loud that the soundman actually turns off the mic in front of his cabinets; there’s so much volume coming from the stage that he can only try to even up the level of the other instruments to compensate. At this point, the soundman has lost control. If you have a bad mix now (and you most certainly will) it is your fault. Need that full-blown distortion sound? Get a Marshall Powerbrake or something. Though this seems like common sense, I see it all the time. Usually, for these bands, I leave the room – it makes my ears hurt.

Set up “Side-stage”
In clubs that amplify all the gear (drums, bass, guitar – not just vocals) your amps become redundant if they’re facing the audience. What’s the point of facing the amp at the crowd if all they hear is the mains? Turn that amp sideways to face the band – not only will it allow you (and your bandmates) to hear yourself better, but you can also turn it down a bit and get a little clarity on stage. Also recommended: tilt that baby up towards your head. If your amp is hitting your pantlegs, you won’t hear it as well as the poor bassist on the other side of the stage (and vice-versa) and you’ll both turn up, negating each other’s efforts.

Think ahead
Does your band have a sound that is unusual? Do you have specific mix requests? Don’t expect the soundman to know these things, you’ve got to tell him. Obviously, don’t overdo it (“in the second chorus of the third song, we NEED you to put a huge slapback delay on the background vocals”), but if you’re a keyboard heavy band playing in a guitar-rock dominated scene, you should let him know. And if you’re planning on whipping out a Sousaphone in the third number, he should probably know that as well. As an example, I often use heavily distorted bass sounds; I let the soundman know ahead of time so that he doesn’t think something’s wrong with the bass when it gets all “fuzzy.” I also use a subharmonic synthesizer module occasionally – I make sure I warn him about it so I don’t blow his subs. (Note: one soundman didn’t believe me and brushed me off – I actually DID blow two of his subs because he had them cranked. That was HIS fault.)

Finally: Be appreciative
When the show’s done, ALWAYS thank the soundman, even if you may not think it was his best effort. They like to hear that they did a good job just as much as you like to hear it from the audience. If he did an amazing job, it’s not unheard of to slip him a tip and/or buy him a beer. Even if just a thank you and a handshake, he’ll remember you next time you play there – and it will be a pleasant memory, not a “oh no, not these uncivilized rock star wannabes again.”

All in all, I’d say that the vast majority of sound problems can be solved with some effort, forethought, and common courtesy. Remember that your ultimate goal is to have great sound out front – a soundman can make a great band sound horrible if he wants to (or doesn’t care.) But all that even the best soundman can do for a under-prepared, ill-equipped band is to make them suck a lot louder.

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My "Rickenfaker"

Here’s my 1976 Ibanez “lawsuit” copy of a Rickenbacker® 4001. I picked her up on eBay a while back. She was in rough condition; the pickups had been spray-painted flat black – without being removed from the bass! In addition, a thumb rest had been screwed into the face of the body! Of course, she had the usual dents and dings that you’d expect on a bass over 30 years old, and she was grungy from having been neglected.

I took her apart, cleaned her up, removed the pickguard and electronics, replaced the pickups, electronics and knobs with genuine Ric parts, and put a set of RotoSounds on her. Once I was satisfied that she was back up to speed, the crowning touch: I fashioned a replacement headstock logo, in the style of Rickenbacker’s type, that says “Rickenfaker.” I figure, it’s not the real thing – so I might as well play up to that fact. It’s a poseur, but it does a good job! We’ve recorded it on a number of the Din Within songs with great success so far.

I also equipped her with a “stereo” output jack (with a switch) to allow me to send the pickups to separate amps (a la “Rick-O-SoundTM”) or both to a single output for normal use.

Here’s a closeup of the “Rickenfaker” overlay. When I first created it, I thought it was such a swell idea that I’d put them on eBay for other owners of copies to apply to their basses – alas, that didn’t last long. Once the Rickenbacker brass caught wind of it, they strong-armed eBay into cancelling the auctions, and subsequently threatened me with eBay banishment. They are EXTREMELY protective, which I understand – but it’s not like I was passing off the bass as a real Ric (or making a kit for others to do so). Legally speaking, my humorous log is a parody, which constitutes fair use (look it up). But I wasn’t about to get into a verbal fistfight with them (and risk my eBay history and account) for a measly $10 apiece.

So, nyah nyah, I’ve got a RickenFaker logo and you don’t.

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Our Music Video for "Wake"

Back in the day, our band Second Story had a song called “Wake” which was a fan favorite. Dark and a little spooky, it featured samples by Dr. Jack Kevorkian and told a story of a person who was “trapped in their own body” by illness or injury. The song’s lyrics are a study in duality – the first verse asks for release from her prison by being “woken up”, while the second verse asks to be “woken up” by being released…

Sometime around 2000, we shot a music video for the song – a co-worker of myself and John was studying film in college, and she needed a good project for a class. She conceived and edited the entire video, as well as secured a location and brought all the props and other needs. We basically showed up, and that was it! We wanted to eventually edit in some performance footage to make it more like a traditional music video, but never made that happen. But it’s pretty cool to watch!


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