Expert Music Career Advice For DIY Musicians

Understanding Acoustics: How to Sound Your Best at Your Next Gig

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As the sound guy, it’s my job to understand the acoustic properties of the venue and make sure you sound your best. But as you know, not every gig you play is going to have a dedicated sound person – and even if there is one, it’s still very important to know what you should do on your end to ensure a great-sounding performance.

Before you play your next gig, check out how each of these venues will affect the way you sound -- and what you can do about it:

The Bar

People come here to drink, party, and hear loud music. Typically a bar built for live music has a wide variety of sound dampening items (curtains, tiling, etc.) installed, and may even be designed around the stage. This not only prevents internal echoing, but it also prevents sound from leaking out of the building and violating local noise ordinances. When you do your soundcheck, it’s extremely important to get the mix correct – so spend a little extra time here, especially on your ballads. When the venue gets rocking to your big hit, it’s significantly easier for the sound guy to just up the mains than to try to adjust something subtle that is difficult to hear past a crowd of revelers. Unless the crowd is actively listening to you and not just treating you as background noise, subtleties in your music are likely to be lost. If a sound guy is present, don’t change anything based on what you hear – ask him to make the necessary adjustments. Most importantly, be sure to have everything prepared and thoroughly tested before you start your performance.

The Coffee Shop

In many cases, coffee shop acoustics are the total opposite of bars. There are typically a lot of flat walls with products, books, or art for sale, and people tend to be quiet. Your biggest enemy here is not crowd noise – it’s your own echo. Rule #1: you can’t outplay your echo. You’ll only sound more distorted and unprofessional. If there’s not a sound guy on staff, get help with adjusting your levels by asking someone who knows how you should sound to sit in several places around the shop and tell you if you’re too loud or quiet. Remember to play full songs as you do this.

The Hotel Ballroom

This could be a wedding, corporate event, or prom, and can also include other event spaces like country clubs. Even though the room was designed for sound projection, most hotels don’t have a dedicated sound person who can do more than plug in a microphone to a lectern and connect a laptop to a projector. Get there early and scout the location if you can, or talk to the event planner about having a capable sound person brought in. You will typically be playing to four flat walls, but the ceilings are designed to catch and dampen the sound appropriately. The mix for these kinds of rooms must take into account the size of the space, the sound dampening features, and the number of guests, so as not to deafen those closest to the band while still projecting to the entire room. For this venue type, be sure to specifically check any soft instruments (for example, an acoustic guitar with an external mic instead of being plugged in) in relation to the rest of the band, because they can get easily lost in the mix.

The Community Center/School Gym

Unless you’re playing in an auditorium, treat this just like the coffee shop – but without the art and books to help dampen sound. The biggest thing to check here is your peaks, because they risk actually being painful to audience members.

Outdoors

Whether it’s an amphitheater, clamshell, or just a flat space with a roof, playing outside has a lot of extra challenges. First, you have almost no echo, because the sound has little off of which to bounce. You’ll need to communicate your monitor needs very specifically. This also means that soft instruments need to be mixed into the full sound properly, or as in the ballroom situation, they will be lost in the general sound mix. Also, it’s important to be aware that you’ll potentially have to lay your cords across places where small children may trip or pull on them, so make sure your cords are secured properly. No one wants a kid to get hurt, and you certainly wouldn’t want your guitar being unplugged or jerked out of your hands in the middle of your awesome solo.

 

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