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

Tough Crowd

May 8, 2008

Dear Dude,

My band has played about 20 shows in the last year, performing with groups ranging from Lennon (soloist with only a keyboard and microphone) to Swedish melodic death metal. Winning over crowds usually is never a problem, especially since we have an energetic live show. The exception is at the extreme metal shows. Our most challenging gigs have been as openers for Katatonia and Arsis. Their collective musical ability is almost limitless and their fans know that. We do all the things that a good metal band does (double bass, harmonized riffs, solos, etc), but we’re nowhere near the most technical group out there and do not have the tens of thousands of dollars to buy mind-blowing gear like those bands. What do you recommend we do to not only improve our song writing and musicianship in the long term but also win over the more elitist crowds in the short term?

Tough Crowd

Tough Crowd,

I have played in front of some hostile crowds, and a lot of times the way a band acts can be like blood to sharks. If you antagonize the crowd and give them a reason to turn on you they probably will. I once saw Phil Anselmo turn an entire arena against him in Pittsburgh PA on the 2004 Ozzfest. He came out and the first thing he said was “PANTERA’s DEAD!” No one wanted to hear that and their set was definitely ruined by that vibe. As a Pantera fan I was bummed and put off by it too. If it can happen to one of the best front men in metal then it can happen to your band. There is just no way to totally control how a crowd is going to react but there are definitely ways that you can control the room and hopefully put your band in a position to get the best reaction you can.

First things first: Don’t antagonize the crowd. If there is one dipshit in the front yelling and the rest of the crowd are into the show, then ignore him or her. This is hard advice to follow and I myself am guilty of diving into a crowd with a Les Paul and middle finger in air, but let me tell you from experience, this rarely makes new fans. Now I am all for fucking shit up and not giving a fuck but when you cross the line into antagonizing or aggression you may end up on the angry end of a crowd and crowds can turn into mobs. So be nice and remember you are there to make fans. If someone totally disrespects you you’re going to have to react, but remember no one wants to watch you and a few boners in the audience argue the whole set so keep it positive and you will win people over.

With a metal ass crowd it’s important to be organized and deliberate with everything you do. If you’re playing with some sick ass bands then you better be tight, and you better practice. It doesn’t mean you have to out-shred every band you play, but it just means pay attention to your shit. The number one way to get heckled is to suck, so make sure you are all playing the songs good and tight. Practice is how you will absolutely improve your bands overall song writing and musicianship.

In addition to having the right attitude and putting on a well thought out, interesting show, it’s important to adjust to your surroundings and be able to rock no matter what. If you’re in a punk ass VFW hall with a few bands and 100 kids all having a great time don’t carry yourself like a rock star. VFW halls, punk shows, DIY venues, these are not places to act like a dick rock star (in fact there is never a reason to do that). It will just get you a bad reputation. On the same note if your playing a packed rock club with tons of kids you got to remember you need to reach the kids in the back. So get out there and demand their attention, demand their respect, and most of all demand that they have a good time with you. My band has morphed from DIY shows all the way to OZZFEST and it’s not easy to do. But you can do it with dignity and pride if you are for real and honest.

Bottom line, music shouldn’t be a competition. It shouldn’t be like sporting events where everyone walks away and says so and so band blew everyone away. Unfortunately, some idiots think the opposite, so don’t worry about how other bands sets go or who gets what response. Just focus on putting on a sick show and making friends. Notice I didn’t say, “making fans.” On stage there is a big difference between seeing that crowd in front of you as friends rather than fans. If you can rock with that mindset you will be ready for any audience.

The Dude

Man vs. Stage

April 21, 2008

Dear Dude,

I love your music and have followed you for a long time. My question is related to performing: Any tips on overcoming stage fright?

Man Vs. Stage

Dear Man Vs. Stage,

I get asked about stage fright all the time. It’s not that uncommon, doing anything in front of a lot of people is hard. Now some of us are natural at it and others need to work through it. History has proven that there have been plenty rockers of both types. Of course, I don’t hold the magic cure for stage fright but, I can give you a few good tips based on my many embarrassing experiences.

The biggest step in stage fright prevention, for me, is practice. Before every tour I play along to my own CD to be prepared. I also rehearse with a band (that helps builds collective confidence which is very important). Not to mention you’re going to be jamming live so you want to be tight and all on the same page. But what really helps me, personally, is that alone time before. To know I have spent the time to make sure I know what I am playing and how to play it on stage, is a big confidence builder. It’s through practice that the confidence to know you are able and ready to rock is born.

My second tip is simple, don’t self medicate. A tip, which is as unpopular as it is true. Drinking a beer, taking a shot, smoking a joint… it all sounds like something you might do if you want to calm your nerves but, the truth is rocking is hard, and when your wasted its not any easier. So heed this advice, don’t get wasted to try and keep yourself from not getting nervous. Sure, I know tons of dudes who jam wasted, and to each their own. Everyone is entitled to his or her own thing, but if nerves are your problem error on the side of caution and don’t mix drugs or alcohol with them. Save the party for after the concert.

Lastly, don’t be your own worst enemy. Being on stage in front of people is hard and puts yourself up for both praise and criticism. Be aware of this. Watch videos; listen to recordings of yourself live and face it head on. It’s by really watching what you’re doing or how you appear that you can see how your art is seen and presented to others. Take that fear and learn from it. Use it to grow as an artist and a person. If you soldier on it won’t be long till you feel comfortable up there and you will have the confidence to know you pushed yourself in a way that only a true artist can.

The Dude