(The original version of this article was first published on the Mp3 Backing Trax website circa 2006 – 2012)
There’s more to getting a good sound than just tweaking the volume, treble, and bass controls…
If you think that all you need to do is simply plug in your mic and backing tracks and set the volumes, think again!
Your sound will be different in every venue you perform because each “room” will have different acoustics. Most gigging singers don’t have the luxury of doing a sound check in the afternoon before a performance so most probably you are used to having to turn up to the venue, set up your gear and do the gig there and then.
However, here’s some clever tips and tricks you can use to get that great sound at every gig, every night, with the minimum of effort.
Use a powerful PA
You should ensure that your PA is big enough for the venue. If your PA is even slightly underpowered, your amplifier can “clip” causing distortion and wreck your sound.
A ‘POWERFUL’ PA system doesn’t have to mean a ‘LOUD’ PA system. You will get far better quality from a large amplifier working at half it’s capacity than a smaller one working at it’s full capacity, so always buy the most powerful amplifier and speakers you can afford.
Remember, a big amplifier can be turned down but a small amplifier can never be turned up.
It’s also worth noting that it’s a complete myth that your speakers should always be more powerful than your amplifier so that you “can’t blow them”. Actually, the opposite is true! If your amplifier is underpowered, the harmonic distortion it creates when working at it’s full capacity can blow your speakers.
Buy a big amplifier, run it at up to about 75% of it’s capacity and you’ll get a great quality sound, and as long as your speakers are rated to handle that amount of power, they’ll be safe.
By the way, when it comes to buying bass speakers – bigger is always best. Don’t be fooled by music shop assistants who try to tell you that they have lovely little bass speakers which can emit big, booming bass – they might sound great in the shop but get them to a venue and you’ll find they’re pretty useless.
If you’re playing a small venue, you should be using bass speakers with 10″ or 12″ drivers, and if you’re playing a medium to large venues, you really should be looking to use 15″, 18″ bass subs.
Setting the sound
Usually, you will have been using the same PA system at all your gigs for some time now so the volume balances between your microphone and your backing tracks (and their individual treble & bass settings and mic reverb/echo etc) should already be pretty well set.
So here’s the trick…
When performing, keep those individual channel settings the exact same. After all, you use these settings night after night and you’ve honed them to give you pretty much a good balanced sound that you like.
What you should change at every gig is the MASTER volume and MASTER treble & bass (EQ).
It’s that simple!
You see, if, for example, you are working in a venue which has an odd shaped room which makes the room very boomy or bass heavy, then that means that everything will be too boomy in that room – your mic, the backing tracks and your guitar etc (if you play an instrument).
So…it makes sense that making a global change to your sound (ie the MASTER volume, eq and reverb/echo) rather than making individual channel adjustments will make the necessary adjustments to ALL your channels with one simple action rather than going through every channel on your mixing desk one by one.
And, there’s another benefit… the next night, when you’re working at a different venue, with different acoustics, you can easily adjust your sound yet again by only changing the master settings as before.
Using good cables
It’s not just a bigger amplifier or better mixing desk that can improve your sound. The type of cables you use and their connections are equally important.
Whenever possible (and appropriate) you should always try to use balanced cables. Balanced cables reduce potential noise in the signal path.
No doubt, if you are a singer who is serious about your show, you will be using a considerable amount of musical equipment (microphone, PA, mp3 player/mini-disc, lighting rig etc). Noise from the various power cables and radio frequency interference is often introduced into your audio cables and you’re probably not even aware of it (although, believe me, you will certainly notice how much quieter and cleaner your sound is when it’s NOT there)!
Using balanced cables where appropriate can eliminate this interference because balanced cables are designed to eliminate noise using the basic principal that two signals that are exactly 180 degrees out of phase will cancel each other out.
Here’s how it works in a bit more technical detail…
Unbalanced leads use connectors with two terminals. Most mono jack-plugs are connected by single core screened cable. This provides two signal paths, hot and earth. The hot line carries the main signal, while the screen carries the earth signal.
Balanced cables (e.g. XLR’s), on the other hand, use connectors with three terminals and are connected by core screen cable. This still provides a mono signal, but has three lines: a hot, (+ positive), a cold (- negative) and an earth. The audio is transmitted on both the hot and cold lines but the voltage on the cold line is inverted so it is negative when the hot signal is positive, making the two signals 180 degrees out of phase of each other.
Any noise picked up along the cable is identical on both lines.
The audio signal has an opposite voltage on each line, so when you plug a balanced cable into a piece of equipment, the hot and cold signals are combined and the voltage of the inverted audio signal is re-inverted.
Thus the wanted audio signal can be heard, but the inversion puts the unwanted noise out of phase so that it is cancelled out and cannot be heard.