Electric Sound Advice: Achieving a Good Sound from a PA System

Basic information for beginners 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.

Many live music venues are fitted with in-house P.A. systems which are operated by a dedicated engineer, discussing your requirements with them prior to the sound check is advisable. If you are using your own system without the benefit of an engineer or friend who can oversee the sound for you it is important to set and monitor the sound throughout your performance.

There are several short courses in sound engineering available throughout the UK, if you can afford the fee it’s worth the money to learn and if not, ask a hire company or local in-house engineer if they will give you some basic training in return for you carrying equipment and running errands (that means getting the beers in!).

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 mix the sound.

A solo performer will find it easier to achieve a balanced sound mix than a band. Once the solo mix is set up it can usually be left alone with only occassional adjustments of volume or E.Q. to allow the performer to cut through audience and bar noise as the venue fills up. Bands have a harder job as each instrument and voice has to be mixed so that they can be heard without losing clarity.

It is rarely necessary to mic up the drum kit for small or medium sized venues and certainly should not be attempted by a beginner, the drums natural pitch and volume are capable of cutting through all other sounds and should not be miked up without an expert who is capable of positioning the mics effectively and balancing the mix.

Drummers who sing will require a ‘boom mic stand’ angled in a way that does not hinder playing but is easy for them to sing into. Place the stand to one side of the kit and angle the mid section of the stand downwards until the microphone is level with the drummers chin, then angle the microphone so that it picks up the vocals clearly. (Use a directional mic or if possible a headset radio mic – allows more freedom of movement and picks up less spillover from the drums).

The majority of bands will only need to use their P.A. system to control the vocals. Bass, Rhythm, Lead Guitars and Keyboards can use their own amplification. All players should raise their amps so that they can also act as monitors for the band. Each will find it easier to hear themselves without resorting to constantly ‘turning up’ the volume and ruining the balance.

The quickest and most efficient way of doing a sound check without the aid of an engineer, roadie or mate, is to nominate the member of the group who has the best ‘ear’ for a good overall sound, to listen to the rest of the band and advise them of required adjustments. So long as this isn’t the drummer or keyboard player who need to be static! The singer or one of the guitarists should have a longer lead than normally required (or use a radio mic). This will allow the designated ‘sound guy/gal’ to monitor the band from the audiences perspective. All volume levels should be balanced, no instrument should overpower the rest (leave that for when your playing a solo or lead break!). The aim is to achieve a nicely seperated sound where all the instruments and vocals can be heard. Although this is likely to change several times during the course of the set, it helps if you start with a good overall sound and try and maintain the balance of dynamics throughout, i.e., solo instruments should turn the volume back to its original position after a lead break!

A ‘muddy’ or ‘bassy’ sound can be eliminated by turning the bass control down and adjusting the mid and treble so that they cut through the bar and audience noise. The opposite applies if the sound is too ‘tinny’ or high pitched, i.e., treble control down, adjust mid range, bring up the bass control. Wether your tweaking the EQ or Gain always make a tiny adjustment then listen to the overall effect before making another adjustment. Once you have the correct settings for an instrument, use a piece of chalk to mark it’s place beside the dial/slider. This process will become easier (and quicker) as you gain experience.

Where the band members and their amplifiers are placed also makes a difference to the overall sound. One of the most common line ups is for the bass guitar to be at one side of the drum kit with the guitarist placed on the opposite side. The singer would stand in front and/or slightly to one side of the drums. The line up would need to be adjusted for each extra instrument but if possible aim for a U shape with the backline angled slightly inwards to allow the band members to hear each other. The average venue may not have the facilities for you to spread out or situate yourselves in a manner that allows for optimum sound clarity. This is a bugbear you’ll just have to put up with, but at least a decent soundcheck gives you the opportunity to get the levels sounding halfway decent.

Placing all the instruments through a mixing desk does allow greater control over the sound, but is difficult to achieve without some training or a dedicated sound engineer. Employing a ‘Roadie/Sound Engineer’ will save you tons of hassle, although it is important that each band member is capable of operating the p.a. in the case of illness, holidays, emergencies etc,.