The following comes from Joel Eckels who is the house engineer at the respected Hollywood music venue, The Hotel Cafe. The Hotel Cafe has been a home and incubator for singer/songwriters like Joshua Radin, Ingrid Michaelson, Sara Bareilles, Meiko, Anna Nalick, Katy Perry, Cary Brothers, The Milk Carton Kids, and Adele, to name a few. It is a 175 cap venue (it also recently opened up a smaller, second stage with a capacity of 80). Often, it is a space where superstars feel comfortable organizing impromptu sets and jams. John Mayer, Chris Martin, Ed Sheeran, John Legend, Tori Kelly, Andra Day, Lenny Kravitz and The Roots have all graced the stage in the past couple years.
On a personal note, the Hotel Cafe has become my performance home and where I have played most of my shows in LA over the past 6 years. When I was living in Minneapolis, it was one of those dream venues that all of my favorite artists seemed to always be playing or hanging out at.
Joel Eckels is one of the most talented sound engineers in Los Angeles. His mixes are always pristine. A musician himself, he has the musicality to bring out the best from most bands and understands what it takes to create a great sounding show. Of all the shows I’ve seen around LA, Joel Eckels consistently delivers some of the best sound in town. Part of the reason The Hotel Cafe has such a great reputation is because of the sound. It’s because of Joel Eckels.
Now, I realize these tips are all subjective and are not all relevant to every situation. Trust me, I know that. These are generally comments coming from the perspective of being a house engineer at a club in Los Angeles that hosts 5-6 shows a night in a festival style format and few sound checks. Other clubs with headliner formats and touring acts with their own engineers are obviously going to be a bit different.
All of these, however, are things to be aware of and to consider to help make your life better and more professional.
1) Not Having Your Own Instrument Cable
Always have your own instrument cable. The 1/4″ cables at a venue are often either ones that people left behind and/or are nights away from being stolen. I know a number of venues that stopped buying instrument cables because musicians would keep walking off with them. One day, they may not have any available for you to use. Then what are you gonna do?
Not to mention, what if the cable the venue gives you has a short in it and cuts out in the middle of your set? Be more in control of your success and have your own cable that you know works.
Believe me, the sound person isn’t going to be thrilled to mic your acoustic guitar simply because you aren’t prepared.
Bring a cable and extra batteries for your guitar or pedals.
2) Not Knowing What Your Pedals And Knobs Do
Learn how to use your gear. Especially acoustic guitar players whose guitars have onboard electronics. Those knobs and buttons do stuff that affect the signal that is sent to the engineer. If you don’t know how they work, LEARN. Until they create bypass switches on those damn things, learning the controls is the only way to ensure your guitar won’t sound like shit.
I can’t tell you how many songwriters play acoustic guitars and don’t know what the knobs do. It’s mind boggling. And certain guitar companies (that I won’t name) are only making it worse by not labeling the stupid dials on their guitars.
If anything, just learn to set your EQ controls flat and give about 75%-100% output on your volume.
If you are buying a guitar and have a choice of getting one with onboard electronics or not, I recommend not. Unless you commit to learning how they work, you don’t need them. A simple pickup, like a Fishman, that plugs straight in with no EQ or volume controls is all most acoustic guitar players need. You can get one installed on just about any acoustic guitar. There are lots of options out there. Fishman pickups are consistently great in my opinion.
Lastly, if you use your own DI like the LR Baggs Para DI, it can be great to dial in your sound without onboard electronics. However, you really better know how it works if you’re going to use it. Again, those buttons and dials do stuff that affect your sound. You can’t just plug it in and expect it to sound amazing. It blows my mind when I see people bring one of those in and they don’t know how to use it.
Again, just learn how to use your gear. Find someone you know that can teach you or watch a YouTube video.
3) Vocal Effects Processors
Here’s the thing to understand first and foremost about vocal effects processors (and wireless mics for that matter). You’re potentially compromising the signal of the most important instrument in the band by putting a foreign element in the chain. You better make sure you know the equipment inside and out so you’re sure that it’s not the reason why the lead vocal can’t sound as good as it should.
Sometimes vocal processors have EQs or compressors of their own inside the patches that can squash the signal or change the curve. It’s best to bypass those and allow the truest signal to pass through.
Any processor with a true bypass is best. That way, when it is off, it’s as if it wasn’t even there. Otherwise your signal may still be compromised when it’s in the off position.
If you can help it, leave the reverb and general effects to the sound person. Depending on the engineer and the system, it may sound better using the typical house effects. However, I know that some venues are limited and it’s better to provide the effects you want and stay in control of your sound. That’s a judgement call you’ll have to make, but understand that at a good venue with a good system and engineer, it’s better to give them the control over general effects like reverbs and delays that are not song specific. Even in song specific situations, you can usually give the soundman a setlist with notes about the type of effects you need. A good house engineer will be open to that and appreciative.
In the case where you’re using loops or specific effects to your music and you absolutely have to use your vocal effects processor, just get to know the equipment. Take the time to learn how to make the signal sound as close to a normal mic signal without the effects and, when the effects are added, it is just enhanced in the way you want.
When the processor changes the EQ, it makes the engineer have to potentially waste all of the EQ controls on trying to make it just sound normal and stabilized without feeding back rather than using it to fine-tune the best vocal sound.
Ari Herstand live at the Hotel Cafe, photo by Chris Pan
4) Not Knowing How To Play To The Room
One of the biggest culprits of bad sound is when a musician or band doesn’t know how to play to the room.
Especially in smaller venues, you have to realize that, in order for the engineer to get a good mix, he needs to have control of being able to turn things up or down. If the drums, bass or guitar amp is too loud on stage, the engineer will have to turn everything else up in order to get the right mix. Many times, that would mean that the entire mix will be way too loud for the room to feel comfortable. If the engineer cares about making you sound good, they’ll ask to bring the stage volume down. Don’t act like a rebel and ignore them as if “the man is getting you down”. They’re only trying to make YOU sound good.
Be conscious of the audience experience. That guitar amp at your feet might be ripping someone’s head off in the front row, especially when you insisted on using your Marshall half stack that is designed to throw a pretty powerful punch and is really meant for bigger stages. I love rock n’ roll as much as anyone, but you have to know how to rock in a way that is appropriate for the room so it sounds good and not just loud. Learning to play with the same intensity at controlled volumes is one of the biggest lessons any musician ever learns.
The pros are easy to mix and sound better than everyone else because they understand how to play with dynamics, nuance and tone. They learn how to leave space in the music and when not to play at all. Ultimately, they know how to play to the room. Be conscious of what the band would sound like if there was no PA. How would you have to play to create the same intensity and hear everything even with no PA at all? Start there at least. Which leads me to my next point…
John Legend with The Roots at The Hotel Cafe, 2/11/16
5) Loud Band, Quiet Singer
The biggest complaint people have when they go to live shows is that they can’t hear the vocals. When you think about it and realize how crazy that is, it’s easy to blame the one person that appears to be in control of the mix, the sound engineer.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Believe me, I’ve played plenty of shows where the soundman couldn’t care less if the audience heard the vocals. It’s easy for the engineer to make it your problem because your band is too loud. It would require him to tell you that the band or someone in the band needs to turn down – and he’s dealt with enough asshole musicians that won’t listen to him, so, (fairly or not) it is now your problem.
One of the biggest faux pas I see is the loud band/quiet singer. Here’s the thing. If you have Aretha Franklin as your singer, you can be about as loud as you want and she’ll sing over the band. However, if your singer has a quieter voice (and, by the way, that’s the instrument delivering the song lyrics – kind of important), the band needs to know how to play so the singer can give their best performance. Otherwise, it loses personality and is, sometimes, just yelling. The band needs to support the singer and the song at all costs. When it’s your time to shine, great. Otherwise, just play the song.
It’s easy to say, well that’s what the PA and the engineer is for, but I guarantee that anyone who thinks that way has probably had shows where people complain that they can’t hear the singer. Think about it. Why not just lower the possibility of it sounding bad and just play in a way that mixes itself with tone, space, dynamics and focus on the singer’s delivery so that any dumbass can make you sound good.
Again, that’s what the pros do.
The most important thing to realize here is that an engineer needs to push the gain and make the mic ‘hot’ in order to pick up quiet singers or instruments. The hotter the mic gain, the more stuff it picks up. You’ll hear kick, cymbals and bass guitar loud and clear in a ‘hot’ vocal channel when you solo it in headphones. Guess what, that affects the mix and makes it even harder to get the vocal over the mix. Plus, they end up using the EQ to cut out the stuff causing problems rather than using it to make it sound good.
A photo posted by Hotel Cafe (@thehotelcafe) on
6) Asking The Audience “Does Everything Sound OK Out There?”
A good way to accidentally insult the sound engineer, ask the audience “How does it sound out there?”
Although it usually comes from an innocent place, it comes across like you don’t trust the engineer and can be taken as offensive.
Sometimes, this question is completely warranted. We all know the soundguys/girls that don’t care and ruin shows. However, you will still lose points with the engineer in most cases when asking the question. It’s generally not a good idea to put the sound person on your bad side, regardless of whether you like them or not. Remember, they’re the ones in control.
Have someone off stage that you trust who can give a thumbs up/down or relay a couple notes to help get it like it should sound. It’s smarter and more professional to do it on the DL and not throw your most important ally under the bus.
7) Using Tracks / Laptops
I get it and have accepted that tracks are a part of a lot of music now. Sure. Not my preference, but I get it and have seen them used in very cool ways.
However, just ask yourself how necessary it is for certain gigs (or any of your gigs) before you commit to it. Is it really that necessary to “sound just like the album” or is it just in your head? Sometimes it cheapens the live experience. The idea is to enhance the show, so make sure it actually does and make sure it fits the vibe of the room you’re playing in.
When you’re doing a big club gig, by all means use your tracks to help make it larger than life if that’s what the music calls for. However, in some smaller venues, it might sound out of context and weird. That’s when you consider that maybe it’s time to do the rootsy stripped-down version or the straight up rock set. Let the music have a different experience that’s appropriate for the room you’re playing in.
I’ll never forget the time I mixed a band that used tracks and, suddenly, there was a big guitar solo moment, but no lead guitar player on the stage. The rest of the band just jammed along and it came off pretty awkward. Be careful of your tracks including instruments that are focal points in the music like a lead guitar, especially in a moment like a guitar solo. It’s just not the best idea. Trust me on this.
If all that checks out and you still need to use tracks, then, PLEASE, just make sure that you have it down to a science. Learn how to get it set up quickly and suss out all technical problems in advance. There’s nothing more annoying than a crashed laptop holding up the show or when the laptop “isn’t recognizing the drive”.
Whatever you do, know how to play the show without the tracks. I can’t tell you how important that is. I also can’t tell you how embarrassing it is to call off a show because the tracks weren’t working or someone forgot the hard drive and didn’t have a backup. The show must go on or you’re gonna look like a real phony.
That being said, I’ve had bands that have had to abandon their tracks and wind up having the best show of their tour as a result. Remember, people often prefer to see music being made in the moment by actual human beings when they go out to live shows. Let the album version be the album version and let it just live and breathe on stage if you can help it.
Ari Herstand is the author of How To Make It in the New Music Business, a Los Angeles based singer/songwriter and the creator of the music biz advice blog, Ari’s Take. Follow him on Twitter: @aristake