Tune Any Sound System So You Sound like a Rock God
You’ve got a great gig coming up in a big room with a guaranteed audience and, as icing, the fee you’re being paid includes the money to rent a righteous sound system. The best way to ensure that this dream-come-true for most working musicians doesn’t become a nightmare of squeals, hums, rumbles and arm-race-style onstage volume wars is to tune the sound system to the room.
Many working players who run their own sound have never heard of this concept. Why would they? Most musicians want to be musicians, not sound engineers, and run sound themselves purely out of necessity. And there’s plenty of misinformation people are willing to share, like the notion that all speaker cabinets of certain brands require the same EQ curve regardless of where they’re being used, and that the “smiley face” EQ curve rules all roosts. Not true. Every time a sound system is brought into a room it should be tuned specifically to that room.
Unlike rocket science or brain surgery, tuning a sound system to a room doesn’t necessarily require a lot of training — unless if the room is an outdoor shed or an arena, but that’s the province of pro audio engineers. For most of us, a little basic know-how and the right gear is all that’s required to fill a club, bar, restaurant or hall with luxuriously rockin’ sound.
Most rental houses or music shops will have a pro audio department that can set you up with the gear you need. Describe the size of the room you need to fill with sound and the size of your band and its required audio inputs, and a reputable dealer will come up with the right suggestions, including adequately sized speakers, a reliable soundboard, a power amp with headroom to handle peaks and spikes in volume, and a good equalizer.
The latter two pieces of gear don’t get the glory that’s typically shone on great speakers and a cool board, but they are the essential workhorses for your gig — the most important gear involved in getting the sound right. A too-low-powered amp will create distortion as it struggles to drive the system and handle the signal it’s sending out. To keep the sound clean, plan on using a power amp that has a higher output rating than the speakers you’re using, and running it low power, leaving plenty of headroom. For example, if you’ll be powering two speakers with a continuous power rating of 400-watts, get an amp with a combined rating of 1,000-watts rather than the 800-needed to satisfy the job. As long as you don’t turn that sucker all the way up you should have great, clean sound and plenty of headroom for spikes with a properly maintain sound system. And any rental system should be properly maintained. That’s one of the charms of rentals — no direct maintenance costs or issues for you.
Once you get your gear to the venue, set it up paying special attention to placing the speakers in a manner that allows the mixing engineer to hear clearly and the sound to disburse about the room thoroughly. If at all possible, place the soundboard in a space where whoever is operating it can hear the audio without reflection — in a direct line to the point where the speakers’ sound waves overlap. Now, here’s the hitch. Often this can’t be done. Plenty of soundboards need to stay wedged at the side of the stage to save space and protect the gear. And for many bands there’s no audio engineer, anyway.
The practical truth is that unless you’ve got a budget for a soundman you’re likely going to be running the sound system yourself and playing guitar. If that’s the case, be sure to bring a long guitar cable so you can get off stage while the band is playing and listen. If you sing, have your bandmate with the most comparable voice warble into your microphone while you’re doing this. Then return to the board, adjust the faders appropriately, and repeat the process until you’re happy.
However, that’s getting a bit ahead of things. By that point, you should have begun to use your graphic EQ unit to bring the system into some kind of tuning that’s appropriate for the room. And this is the oft-neglected magical ingredient in really making a sound system work optimally for you.
Here’s what to do:
Be sure to bring a CD that sounds great and a CD player you can jack into the board to every gig where you’re bringing a sound system. Steely Dan’s Aja, the Eagles’ Hotel California, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors and Peter Gabriel’s Security all make great reference discs because they are rock recordings of epic audio quality, but feel free to find your own reference CD. Now, set your graphic EQ unit’s master fader to zero and keep the board’s EQs zeroed — and play the CD. Tweak the EQ so the music sounds familiar and correct. Be sure you’ve listened to your reference disc many times so you have perspective.
Next work on the live microphones. Have each musician play individually and use the board EQ to get each performance sounding its best. Have the band play together and make another level of EQ adjustments accordingly. Once that’s done, have the band leave the stage and slide up each frequency’s slider on the graphic EQ toward the 100-percent mark, while listening for hints of feedback. At the first sign on feedback, roll that frequency back. If there’s no feedback, leave the frequency slider at its sweet spot — or at zero, which is ideal. Feedback is the biggest nemesis of live sound.
Next, play your reference CD. If it sounds horrible go to the EQ on your soundboard and tweak it until it’s sweet across the spectrum again. If your instruments sound good on stage, the board’s EQ doesn’t need to be used much anyway, except to enhance vocals. Now fire up the live band again and go back to the graphic EQ for another round of tweaking if needed. Ideally, you ends up with a curve on your graphic EQ that looks subtle — honoring the highs and lows of your music – rather than the frequency robbing smiley face too many bands assume is the instant model for great sound. The overall rule is to be patient — allow enough time to get room tuning right — and let your ears, and not your eyes, determine your band’s live sound.