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Q: How can I get the 'recorded' sound in my live shows?

A post by David Mellor
Wednesday December 29, 2010
An RP reader asks, "In a crowded place, when we play an audio CD through the PA system, most of the time it sounds great because the audio is probably highly compressed. But when we play live music with our band through the same PA system, it sounds dull, no matter how much we equalize. My question is: Is it possible to find a compressor that will allow us to obtain the same punch in a live concert situation?"
Q: How can I get the 'recorded' sound in my live shows?

I understand this situation very well, and have done for a long time. I was 16 years old when my band played its first gig at the school dance. I thought the first half of the show went well, but then during the interval the DJ put on Roll Over Beethoven from The Beatles' album With The Beatles.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear... it wasn't any louder than the band, and indeed the band had more amplification. But it sounded so much better than we did. OK, it was The Beatles versus a 16-year-old's band's first gig. But so much of the difference was in the sound.

In the 1960s there was a lot of competition among producers and record labels to create an exciting sound. Get that sound onto the record and people would buy it. That was the theory. These days we are more aware of hi-fi, but in the 60s people wanted an exciting sound coming from the tiny speaker of their Dansette portable.

And the exciting sounds that the musicians and producers of the day achieved were a combination of the performance, the instruments, the noise and distortion of the recording and manufacturing processes at the time, and of course compression. George Martin specifically mentioned in his autobiography recording The Beatles onto two tracks so he could compress the tracks together for the final mono version for what he described as a 'harder' sound.

These days we have to work a little harder, indeed, to achieve an exciting sound in a recording. The equipment and software we use is hi-fi as standard, so we have to use all kinds of grunging up techniques to put the excitement back.

But in the end, a finished recording can encapsulate excitement in a way that is a challenge for a live band to match up to, other than visually of course.

Compression

One's first thought, naturally enough, might be to consider compression. It works in the studio, so why shouldn't it work live?

Well the problem is that in live performance, the specter of feedback is forever lurking in the wings. Live sound engineers learn how to spot oncoming feedback before the audience is even aware of it. They know the point on the faders that marks the line in the sand between good sound and horrible howling.

And compression unfortunately reduces the margin of error. For example, if you used 10 dB of compression on peaks, which would be a reasonable amount in the studio, then your safety margin before feedback would be reduced by 10 dB. That is if you had as much as a 10 dB margin to begin with!

So although you can use compression in live sound, you typically can't use as much of it as you would use in the studio. Bigger venues are better in this respect, so at least that is something to aspire to.

What you can do however is take advantage of vacuum tube processors to add a frisson of distortion. So if you have a tube compressor, it will add a certain amount of warmth and excitement to your sound, even on a very low compression setting.

Overall balance

Having mentioned compression first, I might be giving the impression that it is the most important element in achieving an exciting live sound.

It isn't. You have to add excitement at every opportunity. The lead singer needs to have an exciting voice with an exciting performance style. The vocal mic needs to have the 'edge' that sounds good live, but might be a little out of place in the studio. The instruments and backline need to sound good, and settings chosen that sound good on stage, which are not necessarily the same as those that work in the rehearsal room.

And of course the front-of-house engineer needs to create a mix that allows each voice and instrument to come through clearly, but also blend into a tight, punchy overall sound. Having your own engineer helps rather than using different people from gig to gig.

Dirty tricks

It can take days or even weeks to record, mix and master a song. And that's what you are competing with when you play live.

So perhaps you need to consider leveling the playing field.

If there is a DJ who is in control of the pre-show and interval music, and he or she is playing through the same PA as you, then it will be natural for them to play their records in a way that will please and excite the crowd. The word 'loud' comes to mind.

But suppose when you took on the booking, you also offered to provide the DJ, who of course will be a friend of the band?

That way, you can make sure that the recorded music is quieter in level, and perhaps even dulled down a little with EQ, so that when the band comes on, it sounds mega-exciting in comparison.

This might seem a little unfair, but the point of the show is to please the audience, and this in fact will please them more than if the band sounds lackluster compared to the pre-show and interval music.

Does anyone have any other tips for achieving a punchy, exciting sound in live performance? Post them below please...

A post by David Mellor
Wednesday December 29, 2010 ARCHIVE
David Mellor has been creating music and recording in professional and home studios for more than 30 years. This website is all about learning how to improve and have more fun with music and recording. If you enjoy creating music and recording it, then you're definitely in the right place :-)
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