Backstage Class: Developing The Sound Of A Rock Show
My sonic vision should be well in line with the way the artist wishes to be presented...

May 13, 2014, by Dave Rat

live sound

Beauty in art revolves around the realization that there is no “correct” way for something to look, sound or feel. I believe this to be also true about the way audio is presented at a rock show. In fact, there’s a fairly wide range of possible sonic footprints which a sound engineer can offer the music to the audience while still maintaining an impressive auditory presentation.

An even bigger challenge is to find a “sound and mix” that optimally compliments the artist’s vision and management’s expectations while fueling audience immersion. So let’s take a look at some of the various factors in play.

First we have the way the artist wants to sound. Awkwardly, the humans that create and play the music rarely get to hear the way their own show actually sounds, so they must rely upon the opinions and reactions of other people. I smile when chatting with a band after the show and they ask me “how did the show sound?” when ultimately it is them who should be telling me whether my mixing skills and choices rocked or not.

The driving force behind the confidence that stage performers gain in their sound engineer’s skills tends to be based heavily on the opinions of band management, spouses and close friends. Concert reviewers, fan club message boards and real-time audience reactions are also very important aspects of the equation. To reach a level of harmonious success as an engineer, it’s important to also be aware of your own personal preferences, biases and opinions.

I’ve developed a bit of a strategy to balance out the sometimes conflicting pressures in order to end up with a mix that is a solid fit. Though I often do not have the luxury of following the complete process, I’ll share the steps here.

Defining Roles
Meeting the band for the first time is like any personal or business relationship: first impressions are crucial. If possible, I’ve already listened to some of their recordings and asked whoever hired me some basic questions. Early on I really want to determine their expectations. Am I helping a young band get their sound dialed in? Am I temporarily filling in for another engineer? What were the issues and assets of my predecessor? Did he/she leave, get fired, or is it just a logistical choice to use an engineer in this geographic region?

It’s pretty much a fact that every band wants to sound as good as they can - but - are they willing to spend some money to hire in high-quality gear to help achieve this? Or perhaps they want me to squeeze better sound out of whatever gear I happen to encounter?

Persuading artists and management to approve an adequate sound budget can be extremely frustrating. One of the methods I use in order to surround myself with the gear I desire is to say, “if you give me the tools I need to do my job, I will make every show sound great.” This is a very powerful statement because it establishes a self confidence in skill.

Further, it institutes a level of accountability and value in that the expenditure will achieve results. If they do provide the gear you ask for, then you must perform, and they get what they truly desire: a great sounding show. Additionally, the more money they spend on the gear you request, the higher their expectations in results will be.

Focus On Playing
Returning now to meeting the band: “Ooh, that’s cool, how long have you played through that amp?” “What did you play through on the most recent album?” “Is there new gear in your setup?”

By asking them questions along these lines, I want to determine how set they are in their stage sounds. Are they happy and comfortable, or flexible and searching for some new solutions?

I don’t like to change the sound of a band on stage, what I want to do is stabilize it. I want to help them create an acoustic environment that works well for them so they can focus on playing the show instead of messing with the gear.

The next adventure is hanging out at some rehearsals. For me, this is the most important interaction. My mode is watching, listening, and wandering. I will stand near each of the players and hear what they hear when playing. For example, I’m more interested in the tone of the guitar amp where the guitar player stands than what is coming from the amp.

And, how similar are the instrument sounds to the recorded material? I make mental notes of any discrepancies and address them later with the artist. Do you prefer the sound on the album or the rehearsal sound? What about the vocal effects? Some album effects are nearly impossible to do live. How much focus should I put on emulating the backwards guitar solo?

Minimize The Changes
Also in evaluating rehearsals, I start building a mental picture of how I think the show should sound. Factors that are taken into account include: Is there a single person that is the driving force behind the band, or is it balanced between two or more members? Which instrument will reproduce the lowest frequencies? Will the kick sit tonally below or above the bass? Will vocal sibilance create breathy high frequencies above the cymbals?

In addition, there are many ways to overlay two guitars. There is the “wrap around” with one mid-range guitar and the other guitar with lower and higher totality and the mids scooped out a bit. There is the “high low” with a heavy chunky guitar and an edgy bright guitar that sort of combine to form a whole guitar sound. And then there is the “overlap’” with both sounding similar and relying on stereo panning and width to offer spatial differentiation. These also can be combined and altered based on the song or part of a song.

A big goal is trying to minimize the changes I actively need to make during a show so that the primary focus is on distilling several “sonic scenes” that suit particular songs or song tempos. Slow songs work well with extended low frequencies, crisper highs, and longer reverb times. Fast songs light up with a tighter kick and bass, as well as more snare bottom.

About Those Levels
I also pay very close attention to volume levels. Experience has taught me that when a band has a well-balanced stage volume, it makes everything else easy.

By well-balanced. I mean that when I stand center-stage and all of the stage monitors are off, I should hear a well-balanced mix of all amplified instruments meshing well with the acoustic drum sounds.

If things are amiss, I open a discussion about refining stage sound, ideally with each player individually. Since there may be past resentments between band members over volume levels, the last thing I want is to be seen as taking sides.

I stay away from suggesting changes in the volume levels of the amps; instead I discuss physical placement distances and tilting upward, inward or outward of the speaker cabinets. Another thing I avoid is directly broaching the subject of turning down amp volume unless I know the artists well and a strong trust has been developed, and further, that there is no doubt that a distinct improvement will be realized.

Quite often, I’ve found that once the artists realize there is a truly functional and logical stage volume to strive for, they will adjust amp volumes on their own. I also try and get each band member and backline tech to stand stage center at some point and listen.

Speaking of backline techs, I can’t count the number of times that a musician would gladly play at a lower volume, yet the tech, in an effort to please, finds turning the rig up as loud as possible to be irresistible. It’s not uncommon for the amp sounds at rehearsal to be quite good and then at the actual show, everything gets turned up and the sound falls apart.

If all goes as planned, working with the musicians and techs will result in dialing up a desirable stage volume. Whether it’s during rehearsals, sound check or maybe directly after a particularly good show, as soon we reach that happy balance, I take photos of all the rigs and the drum set. They provide a great starting point or somewhere to return to.

Second Nature
If permitted, I will also grab a recording of some rehearsals as well. From this point forward it’s all about complete immersion into the band’s music. in my car, at home, and in my headphones while traveling.

My goal is to commit the music to sub-conscience memory. I want it to be second nature, where my hand automatically moves to push a guitar solo. I also start figuring out which songs have backing vocals, and/or unique effects, and whether I hear any other instruments beyond what I’m aware of on stage.

Notes are jotted in my phone, ready to be asked the next time I see the band. Hopefully, whether this process is a day or two months in duration, by show day, I have a strong mental image of exactly where I want to go with the sound.

My sonic vision should be well in line with the way the artist wishes to be presented. The amount of time I’ve spent with them, in addition to demonstrating a high degree of attention to detail, will ideally establish a confidence in my skills so they can focus on purely playing the show, while I can focus on connecting the music created with the audience that desires to experience it.

Dave Rat ( heads up Rat Sound Systems Inc., based in Southern California, and has also been a mix engineer for more than 25 years.

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Backstage Class: Developing The Sound Of A Rock Show