Compared to acoustic instruments, getting a decent sound out of electric instruments is relatively easy. It’s something you can work on, refine, and tweak on your own. Then, when you bring your rig to the venue, you can be reasonably confident that when you strum the strings, it will sound the way you want it to. And if something is amiss, there are an abundance of knobs and switches at your disposal to make the necessary tweaks.
But if you’re the guy in the band who would rather plug in his beautiful Gretsch acoustic while his bandmates flip on their Marshall stacks, then you’re already aware of the problems that can arise, from feedback to low volume levels. Learning how to deal with the problems that can crop up are essential for all the acoustic players out there. We sat down with a live sound engineer to get some answers.
Ryan Cox is part owner of D.A.R.C. Productions in Toronto. He’s been a boom operator on numerous films, television shows, and commercials, and was the senior engineer at some of the city’s most renowned venues, including Sneeky Dees and Hard Luck Bar, for half a decade.
According to Cox, there are a few things that musicians can do to make sure they get the best sound out of their acoustic instruments.
1. Know your tone
"Make sure your volume is about half way," he says. "Don’t have it cranked or turned all the way down! And make sure you have a fresh battery if applicable."
Getting the right tone is always up to the artist, but Cox says you shouldn’t be afraid to ask the person behind the soundboard for help. "Tone is up to the musician. If there is a problem with tone, the engineer will let you know if they're good and friendly. It doesn't hurt to ask their opinion. It could work out to your advantage, as they know what works in their venue."
2. Know your tech
So, how do you go about getting the proper tone? There are a number of approaches, but according to Cox, the first step is to have a great-sounding instrument. "After that, it depends," he says. "If a high-quality mic is available, then it usually sounds much better than a DI. However, mic'ing is susceptible to feedback, often more so than a DI."
I wrote recently about how to find the best gear for your acoustic instrument, from pickups to DI boxes. Cox agrees that it’s almost always in the best interest of your instrument to invest in decent gear and bring it to every show.
"[Musicians] typically have higher quality and more reliable DIs than what's available at the venue. Not always, of course," he says. "Also, [musicians] can sometimes have a DI that's suited to their instrument – like banjo, mandolin, etc. – more than the general purpose and often cheap DIs kept by the venue."
3. Deal with feedback
Another reason why it’s a good idea to have a decent DI box is that it can sometimes be difficult to isolate your instrument. That can result in feedback or other other problems. In some cases, the sound engineer can mic the instrument, but Cox says you shouldn’t rely on that, especially if there are louder instruments involved.
"Sometimes it's impossible to get a good sound without feedback, particularly when being used in conjunction with other loud sound sources like drums or guitar amps," he explains. "Usually, in this situation, a DI is much more practical. If possible, a mix of a mic and a DI can sound fantastic."
4. Be proactive and nice
If you have an unusual setup, it’s best to let everyone know ahead of time. That will make the show run smoothly and everyone happier in the long run. "Don't leave info to the last minute!" says Cox. "Don't ignore me until you get onstage and then ask for things that are not already set up!"
Fostering a positive relationship with the sound guy will help you in the long run. Don’t be afraid to talk to them and tell them what you need. It’s in everyone’s best interest to make the show sound as good as possible. "Introduce yourself early when it looks like the engineer is not too busy, and tell them your tech requirements," Cox recommends. "You will always have a better relationship with the engineer, and thus they will be more inclined to help make you sound as good as possible."
Ty Trumbull is a Canadian musician and writer living in Mexico City. He's played banjo and guitar with a bunch of bands you've probably never heard of.