Every performer who has been on a stage with a sound system knows that it adds a dimension that can be either a pleasure or a challenge. Sound systems are supposed to enhance your performance, but sometimes they do just the opposite. Here are some hints to make the sound system experience as successful as possible.
Usually there will be a “sound tech” – the person in charge of running the equipment and making sure you sound your best. The tech can make or break your performance, so how you relate to that person and their equipment is important. The majority of sound techs are sincere about doing a good job. They often have challenges to overcome, though, such as temperamental or unfamiliar equipment, strange acoustics in the room, limitations in their own scope of knowledge, and/or performers they may experience as demanding. They may not realize that we performers have challenges, too, such as grumpy instruments, bad lighting, stage fright… you name it. It can be an exercise in personal fortitude to be nice to your sound tech, and they to you, if past experiences have been disasters. But remember, each tech is a different person. Many are skilled and can be a pleasure to work with.
A few things to keep in mind: the sound tech can’t make you sound better than you do. They have a hard time if you don’t know how to use a microphone properly. They may not be familiar with your particular instrument. They cringe when their equipment is mis-handled. And they hate being taken for granted. You need to do your homework before you get on a stage with a sound system; knowing what they are dealing with will go a long way.
Before any performance you should be given an opportunity for a “sound check” to make sure everything is working right. This is your one chance to see in advance that your performance won’t be plagued by technical difficulties. If something doesn’t sound or feel right to you, speak up!
Let’s talk about how sound equipment works. (I won’t get terribly technical here – just enough so you can function well.)
The system usually consists of a “mixing board”, microphones, speakers, and cords (wires) that connect them all. You should only have to deal with using the microphones.
The mixing board should be at the opposite end of the room from the stage; this is where the tech sits during your performance to keep sound levels and tone quality adjusted (that’s called the ”mix”). The mixing board should never be on the stage, because the tech needs to hear how you sound in the room.
The speakers should be in front of you, facing the audience. If instead you are in front of or too close to the speakers, there will be ”feedback” – a terrible screeching sound that gets louder and louder.
In large halls, you may need “monitor” speakers so you can hear yourself. These sit on the floor of the stage, facing you. Controlling feedback is an art when monitors are used, so do what the tech tells you! But do let him or her know if you cannot hear yourself.
Be careful not to stand on or trip over cords that will seem to be everywhere on the floor of the stage. Tripping on one can bring down a lot of equipment with you.
There will be microphones placed to pick up the sound of your voice and/or instrument. There are many kinds of microphones; each type works differently. Some will pick up your voice from a distance, and some only when you are very close. Some pick up sound from the tip of the mic; some from the side. Some are better held or placed just under the chin; some must be spoken into directly. Some are uni-directional and some are omni-directional. Which type is used will depend on the room you’re in, and whether you’re playing solo or in a group. Once in a while the sound tech only has one kind of microphone and therefore no choice, which can present a challenge if it’s not suited to the situation. That may or may not be his or her fault.
A lapel mic may sometimes be used. It is very small and is clipped onto your clothing, and has a wire that runs to a little box that is clipped onto your belt, waistband, or pocket. When you turn your head, the mic doesn’t turn with you, so your voice can fade in and out accordingly. Some people forget about the mic and touch it while gesturing, making a thunderous sound. Some people forget to turn the box on. Some forget to turn it off when they are not on stage, creating extraneous noises through the speakers. Beware of this phenomenon, especially if you’re carrying on private conversations or using the bathroom – you wouldn’t want to be remembered in perpetuity in sound-tech lore.
Additionally, some lapel mics have antenna wires that hang from the box, and will react by making strange sounds whenever you come close to large metal objects. If you have such an antenna on a lapel mic, be careful – even metal heater vents and metal chairs can cause problems. Sitting on the wire doesn’t help either.
Conventional mics are usually on adjustable stands, of which there are several kinds. “Gooseneck” stands are fully adjustable, depending on the length. They tend to creak when you adjust them, so check that out before performance time. “Boom” stands are common and practical – they have an adjustable angled arm attached to an adjustable upright pole.
Why anyone would want to use a stand other than the above types is a mystery, but occasionally you’ll run into a stand that is just a pole that adjusts for height only. Instead of bringing the mic close to you or your instrument, you must bring your voice or instrument close to it.
Whatever the stand, treat it carefully. Don’t try to adjust the angle or height without loosening the appropriate gizmo, and don’t expect it to stay in position without tightening the same gizmo. Have the tech show you.
Likewise, it’s not a good idea to try to adjust the angle of the microphone itself, unless you know for sure it’s firmly attached to its holder. If it’s in a pressure-fit holder, it can fall out from its own weight if turned the wrong way. Have the tech do the adjusting if you’re not sure. Otherwise you could ruin an expensive microphone.
Speak or sing into the mic at a normal volume. Don’t shout; don’t whisper. Don’t play louder or softer than normal. When speaking or singing, if popping sounds occur when you say a P or a T, speak over the top of the mic rather than directly into it.
For fretted instruments, usually you want the mic to point at the sound hole or soundboard but not be in the way of your hands while playing. For pianos, it should point to the inside, not the keyboard. For a harp, I find it best to have the mic low on the left side, angled upward toward where the strings enter the soundboard. It has to be low enough to not get in the way of your left hand while playing. If the tech places a mic in a position that is not optimal, ask him or her to move it to where you want it.
If at first you are uncomfortable about using a sound system, remember it’s like any learning experience. In time it will become second nature.