Acoustic Sound Advice

Basic information for beginners on setting up various acoustic instruments and tips on balancing the sound for live performance. This does not cover all the technical factors of doing sound which can be found in some of the many articles that are provided in the Electric Blues Club Sound Engineering Articles.

Acoustic music is usually performed without any amplification (that’s why it’s called acoustic!), however, if you intend to amplify acoustic instruments and voice, here are some suggestions on how to place the microphone and get a decent live sound mix.

Presuming you have set up the P.A. system and taken the time to learn about your systems capabilities, the next step is learning how to position the microphones for acoustic instruments and voice.

All the microphones you need should be plugged in and placed in stands. Singers who also play an instrument should use a ‘Boom Mike’ which can be adjusted to allow freedom of movement for the instrument to be played.

The main volume level should be set about 1/4 way up the dial. It is important that the vocals are well up in the mix, so start with a vocal level, set the individual volume control to a level where the voice can be clearly heard without distortion or feedback, for a 100 – 300w system this would be about 1/2 to 1/4 way up the dial respectively although systems differ. These settings are purely for the purposes of starting the soundcheck – not the final settings.

There are several ways to mic up for acoustic performance depending on the size of the venue and how much you want to separate the overall sound.

A Cappella

The number of microphones you need may be dictated by the size of your group. If there are 6 – 10 singers you can get away with 2 or 3 mikes positioned at the front of the stage. One at each side should be slightly directed towards the group with the third positioned to the center. (Two mics can be used but need to be placed further to the centre of the stage). Be careful not to place/point the microphones towards the speakers or any monitors as this can cause a high pitched sound called ‘Feedback’. If this occurs turn down the main volume and move the microphones into a better position. (You may have to re-adjust the individual mic’s volumes from scratch and keep the main volume at a lower level if this keeps occurring).

The singers need to place themselves for optimum effect, crowding round the microphones will not allow for the overall sound to be projected effectively. Stand back from the mic’s, aligning in a U shape or tiered like a choir. How this sounds will depend on where the strongest singers are placed and the sound you are aiming for, play around with different positionings until you get the right effect.

Alternatively, each singer can use a separate microphone, this is fine for one – five singers, but an engineer who can keep a track of the volumes and adjust each mic for you throughout the performance should be employed. Yes you could set up the sound beforehand and hope it’s O.K. but it can be a nightmare trying to do your own engineering and performing at the same time. You have no way to monitor the sound from the speakers effectively unless you intend to use a radio mic and wander round the audience then make any ongoing adjustments that may be required (Not for the faint-hearted or inexperienced performer/engineer!).


In larger sized venues the instruments to be used will need to be provided with separate microphones (unless they are fitted with their own ‘pick ups’). Stringed instruments like acoustic guitars tend to work well when a microphone is directed towards the soundhole of the instrument. Percussion instruments like Bongo’s, Congo’s etc., require the microphone to be above the area of the skins and angled so that it does not hamper the musicians playing. Microphones for wind and brass instruments are set at a height that allows the musician to utilise the instruments natural projective bell or sound holes.

Set up the volumes to each individual channel and keep the mains volume down. This will allow the full range of each instrument to be present in the mix. Acoustic instruments tend to be very prevalent in the midrange. Keep the mid and treble frequencies low and vary the bass frequencies on stringed instruments of similar register value like guitar and violin. This helps to separate the instruments.

In most cases compression and effects are unnecessary, but if required use sparingly and adjust the controls using the minimum settings. Effects if overused causes loss of dynamics and separation which can ruin the overall sound. Always make small adjustments to any EQ and volumes – it’s easier to turn them up again than it is to lower them and retain the right mix. This includes the use of reverb or delay for solo instruments and voices.

It is essential that the vocals are heard above the played instruments, the volume of the vocal microphone should be set up to allow clarity without feedback, which should be avoided at all times. Microphones should be left on between songs to allow interaction between performers and audience, but any effects will need to be muted when a performer is speaking. If you are a solo artist there are ‘foot pedals’ and ‘switcher boxes’ that allow the performer to turn any effects ‘on’ or ‘off’ remotely without resorting to fiddling with the mixer’s dials between songs.

If monitors are being used, their set-up should be left until the mains have been taken care of. This can help to reduce the effects of the delay in the house bounceback but care needs to be taken to place them in a manner that allows the performers to hear themselves whilst avoiding feedback.

During the soundcheck it is important to walk away from the desk and listen to the overall sound from an audience’s perspective. It is unlikely that you will get it right first time and in venues that have unusual shapes or pillars scattered around the room, there is bound to be some loss of clarity or ‘dead’ areas. Adjusting the treble or midrange slightly can compensate somewhat but care should be taken to avoid the overall mix from sounding tinny or muddy.

Take time to get the sound right, arrive at the venue early and if possible set up and sound check when you are unlikely to be disturbed by the audience.