(The original version of this article was first published on the Mp3 Backing Trax website circa 2006 – 2012)
A common question I am often asked by singers who are out there singing in live music venues at night is whether it’s best to use backing tracks in stereo or mono?
The question arises because many singers have found that at particular venues, their backing tracks have sounded woolly, bassy or tinny etc, yet the night before, the same backing tracks, same sound system (and same singer) sounded totally different.
So, why is this, and what can be done about it?
There are a couple of reasons why this happens and you’ll be pleased to know that these problems can be easily rectified.
Many venues have strange shaped rooms which cause serious problems for sound (especially L-shaped rooms). Even in what you would call a “good shape room”, it’s a problem if the audience at one side of the room are only hearing the left side of the track while the audience sitting at another part of the room are only hearing the right hand side of the track.
The answer is to play your backing tracks in MONO, not stereo – this way, everybody in the venue can hear everything perfectly.
So, does that mean you should re-record all your backing tracks to mono I hear you ask?
Backing tracks will always sound best if they are left in their original mastered state (which is stereo). But although you should set everything up on your mixing desk in stereo, this doesn’t mean you have to put out a stereo sound through your speakers.
What I mean by this is that the “stereo” Left and Right out of your mixing desk can go in to a bridged stereo amp, so the amp gives out a mono output (all the music will still be there because you have routed L and R from the mixer to the amp but the amp has “combined” both channels by “bridging” them).
If you use a combined mixer/amp and can’t “bridge” the signal, then don’t worry – you can still force out a mono signal by “panning” the left and right stereo positioners on your mixing desk to the “centre” (the 12 O’Clock position on most desks).
It has to be said that musicians and sound engineers have argued for years over whether the audience should hear a mono sound or stereo sound and all I can do is toss my hat in to the ring and tell you why I have come to my “Mono instead of stereo” conclusion for most rooms I sing in.
I have gigged for years, all over the world and in venues big and small. I’ve worked in both stereo and mono. I prefer mono most times. While the venue shape is usually the decider for most singers on whether they should use mono or stereo, to be honest, I’ve rarely ever worked in a venue where ALL the audience sit absolutely right at the centre of the room facing the stage.
And, the centre of the room is is the ONLY place an audience can truly benefit from stereo sound (because they need to hear the Left and Right speakers equally well).
I remember a few years ago working with sound engineers who were mixing the sound for a large stadium gig. There were a few musicians there that day and some were shocked to find out that a gig of this magnitude wasn’t going out in stereo…and they asked why?
The sound man’s reply was short and straight to the point – he said “…we output the sound in mono so that the fans who have paid money to see the gig will all be able to hear it perfectly, no matter where they are sitting in the stadium“. I couldn’t have put it better myself!
Another major factor of why backing tracks can sound different in different venues is the acoustics of the room. Every room has different acoustics. Rooms with lots of carpet and wall coverings tend to deaden the sound (which is actually quite good because it gives you the opportunity to add in exactly the type of acoustics you want via your reverb and eq controls).
Other rooms with stone or tiled floors, ceilings and brick or plastered walls are often boomy and make bass response much more difficult to get right.
No matter what type of room you are singing in, you will still need to eq (equalize) to compensate for the rooms natural acoustics.
Here’s a tip. 90% of poor sound problems can be attributed to the bass response of a room so can usually be fixed relatively simply by just adjusting the bass on your equalizer. Some rooms are more bassy than others so usually a boost or a cut to the bass is enough to give you that good sound you’re after.
Of course, there are other eq settings you may need to fiddle with, but generally, the bass eq level is the first place you should look when troubleshooting sound, and if this doesn’t fix your poor sound, then feel free to move on to other controls such as treble, mid, echo, reverb etc.
Also remember, just as you probably change the volume and eq of your microphone at each venue (and probably make a few tweaks during the nights performance), you should be doing the same with your backing tracks.
I’m sure by now that if you’ve performed a few gigs, you will have discovered that the sound in a venue is very different towards the end of the night from what it was at the start of the night.
As the gig progresses, the venue usually gets busier and the audience get louder. You’re probably familiar with increasing your master volume by increments throughout the night, but the noise of the audience is only one factor that affects your sound. The other factor is that people absorb sound (especially high frequencies) so as the venue gets busier, your high frequencies are getting absorbed by the crowd so onstage you will probably be hearing more bass.
The reason for this is that although both high frequencies and low frequencies go out to your audience at the same rate, both are not bouncing back to you onstage in the same proportion.
The high frequencies are absorbed more by the audiences bodies out front, so you’re not hearing those highs getting back to you as much as you are hearing the bass getting back to you.
Of course, as you raise the volume during the nights peformance, it will probably sound like the bass is getting louder (because more people means the highs are being lost to your ears in a greater proportion).
It’s only you onstage who hears this “uneven sound”, so don’t worry – the sound will still sound well balanced to the audience out front. However, it can be very off-putting when, as the gig progresses, you start to hear more and more of a dull, wooly sound onstage.
So, for this reason, I ALWAYS use a monitor on stage, even in small venues where you would think I’d be able to hear the PA relatively well and you’d think a monitor wasn’t necessary.
I have a powered monitor with it’s own eq so I can change the eq as the night goes on, so I always hear a perfectly eq’d sound onstage. The only thing I have to change to my main PA during the evenings performance is the master volume (which goes up as the venue gets busier and the people get noisier).
My powered monitor helps me maintain a sound onstage that I’m comfortable with.
If you haven’t tried this before, then I strongly recommend getting a small powered monitor for playing in even small to medium sized venues.