Live Wire

July 7, 2008

Dear Dude,

I’m playing my first live show at the end of August. The one thing I’m worried about is live tone, mainly the low end. Now, I’ve come to learn first hand the size and material a room is made out of can affect your tone. I’m planning to take written diagrams of all my equipment’s settings to dial it all in once at the venue. So due to the dramatic space increase will the house PA help level the playing field or do I have to reset everything to compensate for a larger area?

Live Wire

Dear Live Wire,

Live sound can be a trip, especially dialing in that perfect guitar tone. I have been on a 15-year continuous trip to find that perfect live guitar sound and to be honest I’m real close. Over that course of time I have spent a lot of money on expensive gear, blown up a few amps, and of course embarrassed myself many times. What’s come of all these years of searching? Some funny stories and a little bit of knowledge.

Yes, you will have to adjust everything to compensate for that larger area. You may have it dialed in to sound sick in your basement but taking your rig to the stage is a whole new monster. Your guitar amp is going to have to be turned up (way louder then you proabaly normally play in your house) and when that volume gets loud the whole amps sound shifts.

There are several factors that are just out of your control when rocking a live concert. You already commented that the size, and material a room is made out off, will affect the sound. This is true, however the number of people in the room, the material and size of the stage your playing on, and the quality of the house PA will have have an equally heavy impact on your overall live sound. I like to call them the wicked seven: stage size, stage build, room size, room build, PA build, and PA set up. Have I missed anything, is there one more factor? Yes, there is. Is it something you can control? Well maybe, but you just have to watch how much Jack Daniels it has access to. What could I be talking about? A soundman.

Having a trained and competent soundman is must for any serious band. I see so many touring and nationally recognized bands who miss this detail. They just go on tour with their million dollar rigs and think, “fuck it, it has to sound good.” A soundman is the single best investment you can make in your band’s overall live sound. And a bad soundman can make your show a disaster no mater how stoked the crowd is or how great your band is playing. So, get a soundman. The best way to find one is to talk to the house soundman whenever you play a show that sounds good. Most of the touring soundmen I know started out by doing house sound for national bands and having that one band say, “dude, that shit was sick want to come on tour?” Maybe you can’t afford one now but dude, the minute you find that soundman who can make your band sound good, hire him or her! It will be like buying a million amps that never seem to get paid off, but it will sound better and that is worth the money.

Ok, so your band isn’t Metallica and you can’t afford a soundman (although come on if you can’t afford one either you’re too cheap or you just haven’t looked hard enough). So here are two stepts you might want to follow to get the best out of your live situation:

First, make an input list and introduce yourself to the house soundman. This is going to seem hard but dude just draw or write on a piece of paper what is going to be on the stage (its called a stage plot in the pro world) but you don’t have to do anything fancy. Take this info as well as the info about what exact monitor mix tweaks you will want (For me I always say: “Stage right guitar needs, kick, snare, vocals, and both guitars at equal volume.”) and give it to the house guy. Be nice and be friendly because this soundman holds your whole show in his measly little underpaid hands.

Try to be clear and friendly, if it was Darkest Hour and we were playing a local show without a soundman I would say:

“Hi, my name is Mike and I play guitar with the band Darkest Hour. I just want to let you know what we have on the stage tonight to make it easy on you. We have two guitars one on the left one on the right. Bass is placed stage left and has a DI and Amp signal. Our drummer has a kick, snare, rack tom, and floor tom. And lastly, our singer needs a straight stand and only one mic in the center of the stage.”

Make sure you end by saying thank you, again take it from a man with experience, don’t get into an argument with the house soundman before you play, its like pissing all over a judges robe before getting sentenced!

Second, keep your bands stage sound under control. After you have introduced yourself to the soundman I would just make sure the band all plays at a level and even volume (in other words don’t try to have a volume war with your band or the PA) you have to keep your sound and the entire band’s sound even and simple because the house soundman who doesn’t know your band or music is running the show. Make sure everyone’s tones are clear and that there is no buzz or noise coming from any of the gear.

A good place to start for that live tone is that sick tone you’ve already dialed in. The tone I start with live is always the same and its the tone that I can jam with at home. So start by using those settings you talked about but don’t worry about charting it out. Instead use your ears and hear what it needs. You may have to do this on the fly but the more you practice the better you will get. Just remember you probably only need to adjust your tone knobs a few degrees either way.

Live sound is tricky and it’s an art. It takes a lot of hard work, time, and most of all experience to really get those tones dialed in the way you’re used to hearing them at home. But don’t be discouraged I have played millions of live shows with soundmen I didn’t know and they were fine (were they as good as when I had engineers I have known run sound, no, but did we survive and have a good time, yes). In the end live sound or really playing guitar live is about the audience. So make sure you put on a good show and have a good time regardless. In the end its not really about whether your sound was as killer as the one time I saw Van Halen. It’s about whether or not you and the audience had a good time, so dial that guitar sound in, buy that soundman a shot, and have a good time because your first live show only leads to your next!


The Dude

Mr. Clean

June 16, 2008

Dear Dude,

I play in a death, thrash, speed metal band from Denver, CO. We mix both distorted and clean sounds live but have had many problems doing so. Do you have any tips for creating a good clean tone live? It seems like it is always louder then my distorted tone and just makes everything sound lame when the distortion is quiet and weaker then the clean sound. Both myself and the other guitarist use Krank Revolution guitar heads with Marshall cabs. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

Mr. Clean

Dear Mr. Clean,

Getting that perfect balance between your distorted and clean tones live can be a real pain in the ass. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen bands play live who have that great clean or acoustic part come in, and all of the sudden the guitars get real loud (the clean tone just cuts through) making the distorted guitars seem weak and washed out in comparison. So, what is the best way to get a nice clean sound and still get that killer distorted tone?

I’ll put it right out there on the table; this problem is so hard to deal with sometimes I try my hardest not to have to deal with it at all. In other words, I can honestly say that my constant frustration from getting that good clean tone has affected the way I write songs. So, is there no hope? Of course not, here are the 3 time tested ways I get around this problem when I, indeed, have to face it.

1. Duel Action: This is actually the professional solution and to me the best sounding, but unfortunately, for you and your boy, it means getting another guitar amp. Yep, the best way to get both that killer clean tone and crushing distortion is to use two amps. Just like the way I suggest running two heads together (using the whirlwind A/B box), the same concept follows for your perfect clean/distorted set up. Your best bet is to get a nice combo, I really like my Vox AC 15 but any fender, Marshall (pref. JCM 800, 900, or JMP combo) or Orange will sound killer. In theory you can use any amp that has a good clean sound. A combo works well because you don’t need volume or tubes to break up and usually you don’t want to have to set up an entire half stack just to get that clean tone live. Running two amps lets you set the distorted volume way louder then the clean. It also allows your soundman to dial in two different levels with two different mics. Using this system is really the only way that I have seen the dynamics of clean to distortion tones really pay off live. It allows you to get two distinctly different tones and blend the volume and kick of both so that you can switch appropriately between the two.

2. Pull out the pedal: The second solution is one that I actually currently employ live. It involves one piece of gear, the Ernie Ball Volume Pedal. I like the volume pedal because, it not only backs off on the gain when you sit back on it, but it also backs up on the volume. Using a volume pedal to get your clean tone gives you a way to make sure the dynamics between clean and distortion are very clear. It makes sure that when you slam that volume pedal down live that all the power and volume of your amp comes back too and that gives your overall sound that push you want it to have when switching from a clean to distorted tone. (Be warned if your running a noise gate this could cause problems. You may need to back off the gate or even turn it off before you decide to roll back on the volume pedal).

3. Better have a good knob turner: The last solution is one that I have seen bands at many levels try to use. But, it only works if you have your own trained and professional soundman. This third solution involves sampling the clean tracks from your record and using those samples live. This gives the overall sound of your live show a nice produced feeling and when done right can sound amazing. It does however have its limitations: it leaves a lot of room for mistakes, it means the drummer must play with either a click or the sample live if the part involves any other instrumentation, and It gives you the unfun ability to never change anything. It also relies solely on the competence of your live soundman so don’t try this with a guy who doesn’t know your songs or doesn’t know what he or she is doing because this option done wrong can leave you standing on the middle of a stage looking at a crowd with no sample playing.

Remember when you’re playing live and switching between distortions and clean it’s really all about one thing, dynamics. I mean that’s the reason you wrote the clean part in your song anyway, so it can have dynamics against all the distorted rock! So make sure you nail that component live. When done right there is nothing more sick then the dynamics that come from songs that weave in and out of distorted and clean guitars.

The Dude