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Introductory Notes

By "performers" here we primarily mean vocalists and musicians who perform as part of a band, though it is quite likely that other kinds of users of PA systems will find the information on this page useful. We hope that the information on this site will help to remove some of the mystery surrounding this subject, and help you to get the most out of the system(s) you use.

As a performer, you too have a part to play in making sure that you get the best results from from the sound system you are using; this is a part of your performance art, and excellence can only be achieved through experience. It is hoped that the following brief notes will provide some useful hints for performers, without getting too technical. You might also find it helpful to read the Introduction for Mixing Engineers, to gain some insight into the challenges they face!

System Arrangements

From a PA perspective, there are two distinct arrangements of systems used − though the real difference lies not in the nature of the system itself, but in by whom it is operated. The two arrangements are:

Understanding the Engineer's Perspective

A basic understanding of how your engineer sees (or rather, hears) things is likely to be of considerable help to you in working together effectively to produce the best results for your audience.

One of the main reasons for using a sound engineer is so that you have someone in control who can hear your sound as the audience hears it. This is likely to differ considerably from what each band member is hearing on stage. Unfortunately, even when each band member is hearing what they would consider to be a 'good' sound mix and quality on stage, what members of the audience hear of that 'stage sound' is rarely of adequate quality, does not have the desired mix, and typically varies very considerably in quality and mix across the whole audience area. This is because the band's sound sources on stage are not intended to provide a high quality of sound dispersed across a wide audience area; they are intended to enable the band to perform effectively. For example, since your floor monitors are pointing away from the audience, they hear only a dull muffled version of the (hopefully good quality) sound that you hear from them on stage.

The engineer's main 'tool' for producing sound for the audience is the front-of-house (FOH) speaker system − this will (should!) be able to produce a high quality of sound at the required levels of loudness, located and directed suitably to provide that quality and level to as much of the audience area as is reasonably practicable. But the sound from those speakers isn't the only sound that the audience hears. Ignoring sound reflected back from the room surfaces (which can itself sometimes be an issue), the audience will also be hearing some of the lower-quality sound from the stage, coming direct from instruments, from backline, and from the band's monitor speakers (as relevant in each situation).

How much a problem this is will depend on several factors; in a few performance situations a quality listening experience for the audience might not be considered a priority. But in most cases an important influence affecting sound quality will be the sound level from the stage that is heard by the audience, compared with the sound level heard from the FOH system. For example, in a large venue with a powerful FOH system, the lesser-quality sound from the stage (as heard by the majority of the audience) may be adequately swamped by the FOH system. In medium/smaller venues, however, if the stage sound is reaching the audience at too high a level then the engineer may have difficulty in achieving the desired quality of sound for the audience without raising the FOH system loudness to an unacceptably high level.

For this reason, in medium/smaller venues sound engineers will usually want to keep the sound level of stage sound sources (floor monitors in particular) down to the minimum that you as performers really need. This is especially important where the venue acoustics are not good at absorbing sound entering the audience area from the stage. As explained above, higher than necessary levels on stage are likely to compromise the quality of sound heard by the audience − or at the very least make your engineer's job a whole lot harder.

So (in all but the largest venues) you can assist your engineer to produce good results by co-operating in keeping the on-stage sound levels as low as is comfortably manageable. In practice, this means that backline levels need to be carefully controlled (except where the engineer has arranged for the backline sound to usefully contribute to the overall sound for the audience). It also means that, where monitor speakers (generally floor monitors) are used, their levels need to be kept to the minimum that is really needed by each band member.

You can help your engineer to produce the best quality sound for your audience by telling the engineer during the sound check which sound sources are the ones that it's most important for you to hear well. Let the engineer know if any of the sound sources in your monitor mix are louder than necessary, or if there are any other on-stage sounds (such as other band members' monitors or backline) that are impairing your ability to adequately hear your monitor. Also let him/her know if your mix is good but its overall level is rather louder than what is really necessary for you to perform well.

How much control the engineer has over the mix of sources (instruments, vocals, etc.) in each floor monitor depends on the complexity of the system. In a very simple system there may be only one or two different monitor mixes available (though the level of individual monitors, or of groups of monitors, may nevertheless be separately adjustable). Only in the most sophisticated systems will it be possible for a separate mix to be provided for each one of many individual monitors.

Top Tips for Performers working with an operated PA

Here are some vital tips to help you as performers get the best out of your sound sound system and engineer:

  1. Have full confidence in your engineers. Regardless of whether you have hired them or not, they are there to help you provide the best possible listening experience for your audience, so you should see them as your essential allies.
  2. Good communication is vital. You may be asked to (or feel the need to) explain to the engineer what kind of sound you are hoping for, both on-stage and front-of-house. This will usually be an interactive trial-and-error process, requiring patience and respect by both parties. There is a balance to be reached between asking for what you want and trusting in the engineer's experience and judgement.
  3. It will help a lot in being readily understood if you take the time to learn the correct terminology, e.g. don't say feedback if you mean foldback.
  4. Remember that the engineer is there to help you to produce the best overall sound for the audience. This is a different sound to what you hear on stage, so don't try to assess what the audience is hearing by what you are hearing on stage.
  5. The engineer will try to take your opinions regarding the front-of-house sound into account, but clearly will be unable to meet conflicting requests (e.g. saxophonist and lead guitarist both wanting to be louder than each other) and in such a situation will usually take directions from the person in charge on stage, in combination with his/her own best judgement. In some cases you may need to accept that your ideal sound is not achievable, given the technical limitations of the available PA equipment and of the venue's layout and acoustics.
  6. Guitarists, Bassists and others with hand-held intruments that plug in to on-stage equipment and/or connect to the PA system: To avoid loud crackles and bangs that are very unpleasant to your audience (and potentially damaging to the PA equipment), then unless your instrument cable has a self-shorting jack plug that is proven to be effective, or you have first used a pedal (or other means) to fully turn down or cut off your instrument's signal, never unplug your instrument cable at the instrument end without first being sure that the engineer has muted your channel(s) at the mixing desk. If you are relying on the engineer to do this, then they will have to know when you are about to unplug; this could, for example, be communicated either by pre-arrangement (e.g. after a specific song), or through use of agreed hand-signals. Note, however, that muting at the mixing desk will not usually avoid such sounds from your backline speakers (if applicable), and these may also be damaging and unpleasant.
  7. Vocalists: See also the section below on microphone technique.

    Regarding Sound Checks: (or rehearsals, if PA set-up is done at that time)
  8. Don't try to use the sound check as a rehearsal time unless the understanding you have with the engineer is that it's a shared rehearsal and sound check time. (This arrangement is usually a compromise that would only be adopted when there's insufficient time available for a proper sound check − in such a case be prepared for the engineer to interrupt the rehearsal if necessary to correct technical problems.)
  9. If asked to check a microphone, don't tap it or blow into it − speak or sing into it.
  10. It's in your best interests to assist your engineer fully during this time. If it's a formal sound check then throughout this time take directions from the engineer regarding who should be playing/singing at any particular time. It will help the engineer considerably if that person/people performs continuously, in the same way that you intend to do during the actual performance, until you are asked to stop. This may need to be for several minutes for each instrument or singer individually while the engineer listens and makes adjustments; this may be followed by some combinations of performers. While this is happening, other performers should wait on stage (unless directed otherwise) without 'joining in' at all with the performer(s) who have been asked to play/sing, and taking care not to make any other noise or to distract the performer(s) being sound-checked.
  11. One of the first things the engineer will want to do is to make adjustments to accommodate the highest electrical signal level that will be produced during the actual performance from each microphone and each instrument. So expect to be asked at some point during the soundcheck to play or sing at the maximum you will be using during the performance, so that this adjustment can be properly made for you.
  12. During the sound-check, the engineer sets up your amplification to provide you with the best results based on the settings of your instrument or other on-stage equipment at that time. So be sure to get your equipment adjusted to your satisfaction during this time. Don't make unplanned adjustments to your instruments or equipment after the sound-check, without first discussing this with the sound engineer − otherwise your amplified sound quality, as heard by the audience, may be seriously compromised (even though it might sound better to you on stage).
  13. During the sound check the engineer will make adjustments to the mixes and levels of the on-stage monitoring (sometimes called 'foldback') that is provided solely for your benefit as performers. (In very large systems this job will often be carried out by a separate monitor engineer, usually located close to the stage area.) This is likely to be your only opportunity to have your say regarding what you need from your monitoring. Don't leave it too late to make your comments, as it may be more difficult to make large changes later on. Bear in mind, though, that due to technical limitations or conflicting requirements it may not be possible to get exactly your ideal monitor sound.
  14. If you can't hear yourself (or some other source that you need) well enough, then if your floor monitor is already reasonably loud don't rush to ask for it to simply be made louder, as this may reduce the sound quality heard by the audience and/or make it more difficult for other performers to hear what they need. (They in turn may then ask for their monitor(s) to be turned up, resulting in an unhelpful general escalation of on-stage sound levels.) Before asking for your monitor(s) to be made louder, consider whether the reason might be that one or more other sources you are hearing is louder than what you need and so is partially masking your own sound. Asking the engineer to reduce any masking sound sources in your monitor mix may help you to hear yourself better without making changes that would cause other problems. If the masking sound is coming from another performer's equipment or monitor rather than from your own, it may be useful to consider whether some changes to the stage layout would reduce how much you hear of that source and so help you hear yourself better. Sometimes even a small change, e.g. to the position or angle of a floor monitor, can be very helpful. Any such changes are best done early on in the sound check.
  15. The engineer will probably have carefully positioned and angled the floor monitors and backline equipment for best results, including minimising unwanted pick-up by microphones (which could cause feedback or other problems). If you feel that the positions and/or angles should be different, talk with engineer about this − don't move the equipment yourself without the engineer's agreement. Likewise, don't move microphone stands except by prior agreement.
  16. The engineer may initially set up the stage monitor mixes some time before making the front-of-house speaker system operational. When the front-of-house sound is added at a later point during the sound check, this is likely to have a considerable effect on what you hear on stage, because of the sound that is reflected back to you from the auditorium. You may find that it becomes better for you, or becomes worse − let the engineer know if any adjustments to your monitor mix are needed after the front-of-house system mix has been set up.

Vocal Microphone Technique

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This page last updated 05-Jun-2019.