By: Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato
Some members have asked what lessons we’ve learned over the years. Here are a few things I’ve assimilated during my time as FOH Engineer.
Great sound starts with great musicians and great sounding gear. The old adage ‘Garbage in Garbage out’ holds true. If the band doesn’t play well or their gear sounds bad there is only so much you can do.
Start with the source. Work with the musicians to get their rigs as dialed in as possible. Start with a well tuned drum kit, great sounding guitar and bass rigs, consistent levels on all of the keyboard patches. Work with the programmer to make sure the tracks have consistent levels and EQ as well. You want the source coming to you to be the best it can, then you shouldn’t have to do much more than mic it and do some minimal EQ.
Use the right tool for the job. Once you’ve got everything on stage sounding great from the source, a well chosen microphone makes your job that much easier. Consider what you are trying to achieve and the characteristics of the microphones available.
That being said, the singer needs to be comfortable with their microphone. If your singer is terribly attached to a vocal microphone, for whatever reason- the way it feels in their hand, the way it sounds in their IEMs, the weight or shape of it, it can sometimes be difficult to make them switch to another mic even if the current isn’t the best one for them. Unless I am having major problems with the mic- ie; can’t get enough gain before feedback, or it just sounds bad, I have found it’s much better to let the singer use a microphone they like rather than something they aren’t comfortable with. If they can’t get the sound that they need from the mic you want to use in their monitors, they will have a much harder time giving you their best performance and that is what we are after. Whatever helps the band/artist to perform their best. Sometimes making the switch to a new mic is easy and sometimes it might take 5 or 6 shows until they adjust to it and forget it’s changed. Sometimes no matter what you do the singer will just not get used to it and struggle with it. At that point you’ll get better results with something they like.
The same goes for mic technique, no microphone will compensate for bad mic technique, train your singer in proper mic technique.
Pay attention during the show. You need to be alert to what’s going on on the stage, especially if you have an artist that does not perform the same exact set every night or who likes to throw a few surprises in there. When I worked for the Indigo Girls they were prone to having surprise guest artists show up to play at random shows on the tour. After the third time this happened, mid show without giving myself or the monitor engineer any warning-( they just announced mid way through the set that ‘so and so is here and going to play cello on this song’, and the monitor tech would run out and throw a DI box into an open channel and we’d wing it), we decided to permanently add a guest DI and guest mic on each side of the stage to the input list. That way we were prepared for almost anything. It happened so often that random people would show up with all sorts of instruments (from accordions, to upright bass, to didgeridoos), and play with the girls but we were ready for it and never surprised by anything. This helped me tremendously on later tours, I was always prepared for anything and everything.
If there is a piece of gear that you absolutely cannot do the show without then you need to bring it with you. If your artist must have a specific reverb, plug in, microphone, whatever…. it needs to be part of your touring package. If you are doing fly dates, using local production, one offs, any gig where you are relying on someone else to provide the audio gear, it doesn’t matter how many times you go over your rider or tech spec, it is rare that you will get exactly what has been promised. So if your singer absolutely cannot sing out of anything other than the Shure KSM 9, you better bring it with you. If your band absolutely requires the Scarlett Plug in Suite, you better bring an ilok with the licenses. It doesn’t matter how many times you advance your audio needs with the local production contact, or how much you stress how crucial this piece is to your show, the way information filters down or doesn’t filter down to the people actually bringing the gear is beyond your control and more often than not, what you get is not exactly what you were promised. So it will just save you a lot of time and headaches to make sure the gear that you absolutely cannot do without, is part of your touring package.
Less is more. The fewer things in the signal path the fewer things to cause problems. If you’ve got 4 or 5 things inserted on an input whether plug ins or outboard gear, there are that many more places for problems to arise, not to mention noise or signal degradation. If you do have a problem it will also take that much longer to track it down. Also, if you need more than 1 or 2 things inserted on any one input either you are not using the right tool for the job or the problem is with your source- see above.
Finally, mix with your ears not your eyes. I can’t stress this enough. If it sounds good then leave it alone and don’t keep tweaking it because you don’t like the way it looks on your EQ or Smaart or any other piece of gear. When I first started mixing on digital I was horrified at the EQ curve on some of my input channels, especially on kick drum and vocals. When you’ve been mixing on analog for decades you aren’t used to seeing a visual representation of what you are doing with your parametric EQ. So at first, thoughts of diminishing returns, gain reduction, this can’t be right…race through your head. I had to force myself to ignore what I was seeing and trust my ears. Until I did that I was never happy with my kick drum sound or my vocals.
These are just a few of the things I’ve learned over the years, hopefully you can apply some of these ideas and find that they make your job a little easier.