Our experts reveal their strategies for achieving pristine live sound

Sounding great live is every act’s goal—and it’s a challenge nearly all musicians face, from coffeehouse singer-songwriters to touring arena bands. Achieving perfect live sound can be complex, taking into account everything from room acoustics to microphone selection and placement, as well as the limitations of the house PA system. But with so many variables at play, what’s an act to do?

Getting vocals to soar and solos to sear off the stage isn’t an impossible mission. And it doesn’t require advanced training or degrees—just practice, knowledge and a willingness to learn. The more you understand how live sound works and how to eliminate potential problems upfront, the more successful your live shows will be.

We tapped two renowned front-of-house engineers, Robert “VOiD” Caprio and Sean “Sully” Sullivan for their insights and expertise. Sully has worked with an array of artists including Beck, the Beastie Boys, Sheryl Crow, Thom Yorke and Norah Jones. VOiD is on tour with Cee Lo Green and has also worked with Vanessa Carlton, the Fray, Eve 6, and Nas, among others.

What’s the sound engineer’s goal?

SULLY: To reproduce what the band is playing accurately—to every seat in the building—as if you were standing there listening to them play.

VOiD: The ultimate goal is always to make the audience happy. When people have paid money to see you, they’re buying your product. So you want to give them a good product for what they paid.

How about mic selection?

VOiD: Mic selection is a very personal thing. The best thing to do is to experiment. Try everything you can and settle on what you like the best. That said, you can’t go wrong with the SM58 and SM57 from Shure. If you’re a singer, it makes sense to bring your own mic, in the same way guitar players bring their own guitars.

SULLY: Picking mics that reject the outside stuff is crucial. I typically use cardioid dynamic mics onstage. They have a ton of rejection at the back and the sides. I pretty much use all Heil—they’re good, natural-sounding mics. People often ask, “How do you get detail and air with a dynamic mic?’ My response is that the detail you get from a dynamic is far more usable than a condenser that lets sound in from all the other instruments.

How do you work around bad room acoustics?

SULLY: Start with mics that minimize picking up the room. You’ll also find that you get better intelligibility in your vocal. Also, the level the band plays at has to be appropriate for the room size. If you’re playing a small club there’s no point turning up amps to arena volume levels.

VOiD: You can do some things with high-frequency shading on the PA so you’re not shooting high frequencies into the ceiling, which will bounce. Modern technology offers a lot more resources with digital processing. You have more available than your old 15- or 31-band graphic equalizer.


What’s vital to know about mixing?

VOiD: It always starts with the vocals. If possible, make sure the entire band is onstage for the soundcheck. Everything needs to work together, and vocals get the most emphasis. I push the faders, check the meters, make sure I have decent gain, and have the band start playing. Seven times out of 10, you’re in the ballpark.

SULLY: There’s a lot of trial and error involved. The gear and technology we have makes it easy to add dynamics and effects. You can put a gate, a compressor or a de-esser on every channel. But that adds a lot of confusion. I’d start with a high-pass filter and EQ, a fader, and a bit of panning—and don’t even think about the advanced parts of the technology at first.

Which mixers do you prefer?

SULLY: For clubs or smaller venues, I like the Yamaha 01V—it’s kind of a Swiss Army knife mixer. It takes the place of a big analog mixer and a rack of effects. Sound quality is more than good enough for what they’re used for.

VOiD: For the money, you can’t beat the Behringer X32 digital mixer. You’re not going to get that many channels, output flexibility or recall-ability from others in that price range. You can recall the settings for the headliner or the opening act at the touch of a button, and it’s got a good EQ and good reverb and effects.

How do you get the best out of the house PA?

VOiD: To maximize any PA, I start with the lead vocal and make sure it’s as loud as I can get it before feedback. If I started soundcheck with every instrument separately, I might get halfway through before soundcheck’s over, and I’d never get to the vocal. In that case, I don’t know if I’ve got room to put that vocal out in front of that band.

How to get a good monitor mix?

SULLY: Know what you need in your mix. If you’re standing next to the bass or keyboard player and you can hear those amps, then keep those sources out of your monitor mix. Also, know how to communicate with your sound guy. Most vocalists want to sound like themselves. Nobody wants a big, overblown sound with tons of bottom end. For instance, Beck wants to sound like himself up there. Atoms for Peace like to hear all the effects in the monitor rig. They’re doing some of the effects themselves with pedalboards, but I send any effects that I do on the board to the monitors so they can hear those as well.

What are some common mistakes?

VOiD: Too many young bands just play too loud. If they have a screaming loud guitar amp behind them, then they’re more likely going to need a louder monitor in front of them. That just creates havoc for everybody. And you don’t play as well at that volume since you can’t hear everything.

SULLY: Singers need to be conscious of their surroundings. If you’re moving around in front of a loud monitor, be aware of the fact that the FOH guy or monitor mixer may have to take drastic measures to combat feedback. Your sound quality can suffer because of that. Don’t get too far off the mic. Don’t wrap your hand around the mic capsule. Listen to what’s going on around you.

Keys to an effective soundcheck?

SULLY: Try to play and sing during soundcheck the way you’ll be performing. The FOH guy is trying to get your sound ready in a brief window of time, and if the way you play doesn’t relate to what you’re going to do when the audience shows up you might as well not even soundcheck.

VOiD: Develop a routine and get organized, and you can turn what would have been a half-hour soundcheck or more into 15 minutes—and you can get a slice of pizza.

–Mark Hutchins


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