Those that play in bands spend countless hours honing their sets at the rehearsal space, fine-tuning every nuance of their songs to ensure the perfect performance come gig time. The problem is that the performance is going to sound nothing like what they imagine because they’ve been making some crucial PA mistakes. Whether you’re in a wedding band or playing originals, you want to get the best possible sound when you play live, so let someone with over twenty years of experience gigging guide you.
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Of course, the rehearsal room will never replicate exactly what it feels like when you get up on stage, but there are certain steps you can take to ensure that when you do get there, you’re well prepared. Conversely, if you’re taking your PA to shows, you may think you’ve got everything dialled in, but you can still make some common mistakes. The side effect of correcting these errors? You’ll play better, write better, sound better, and feel more confident when you get onstage.
I’ve been playing live music for over twenty years now, gigging all over the UK in various bands from jazz to djent. I’ve seen these mistakes countless times and made them myself in the early days of playing. Leaning on my experience, I’ve picked out the ten most common blunders I’ve found in rehearsal rooms and at live shows. Whether you’re playing your first gig or your five-hundredth, there’s always something to improve upon in your journey as a musician.
1. Poor room setup
So many bands set up facing each other and we’ll admit that this can be beneficial for a band just getting started. The problem is as soon as you start gigging, everything will sound totally different. Your singer who’s used to having the drums in their face will suddenly have them coming from behind, and the guitarist who used to have the bass cab blasting directly at them suddenly hears nothing from their four-stringed friend.
We recommend setting up your room as if you’re playing live. This will give you the feel of playing a show, so when it does come to the crunch, you’ll feel more at home. It also allows you to position instruments in the room logically, with the drums and amps in the back behind the PA speakers.
If you’ve not got enough speakers to use as monitors, just take your main speakers down off the stands, give one to the drummer and use one at the front for your singer. Guitarists and bass players will be able to hear themselves anyway.
2. Improper gain staging
So many musicians are guilty of this one. Gain staging should be your first port of call when ensuring a great sound through your PA. Gain staging doesn’t just apply to your PA either, it’s necessary when recording through your audio interface, creating tracks in your DAW, and even when setting up your pedalboard. Here’s how you do it properly.
There are two parts to most mixing consoles, the preamp and the fader. What you want to do is start with all your faders at ‘unity’ usually denoted by a ‘0’ or a ‘u’ on the mixer. Next, if anything you’re amplifying needs it, boost the sound of your input with the preamp - usually a knob marked ‘gain’.
Turn up the gain until the channel just starts to peak, then lower it a little bit to give yourself some headroom. Finally, dial in your mix by using the EQ and lowering the level of the faders, not by raising them. By controlling the volume with the gain knob, you’ll get a much better sound, reducing the noise level and preventing any unwanted feedback. Speaking of which…
3. Failure to control feedback
There’s nothing worse than the banshee howl of feedback through your PA speakers, but it’s easy to avoid. First of all, make sure no mics are facing the loudspeakers and point any other microphones well away from your monitors if you’re using them. As per step two, make sure you’re not slamming the gain on the mic channels and use high and low pass EQ cuts to control problem channels.
If you have a full EQ section on your PA mixer, you can use it to ‘ring out’ problem frequencies by increasing the gain on each frequency until you find the offender, then cut this frequency as much as possible to reduce the dreaded feedback. If none of the above works, then treating your room acoustically is another way to tame feedback, as well as just turning your instruments down. This leads us nicely to our next common PA blunder.
4. Not finding the balance
We see this at shows all the time and it’s frankly infuriating. The usual culprits are overhyping of the bass or the kick drum. We all love a kick drum that thumps you in the chest, but the problem is bass frequencies have a longer wavelength, so they travel further with less energy. This makes it incredibly easy to boost them too much and thus drown out the other instruments. Dampen your bass drum with an old blanket, and turn down or cut some of the lows on that ridiculous 8x10 bass cab!
Another neat trick is to mediate the battle between the kick drum and the bass guitar, both of which have loads of overlapping frequencies. You’re not recording a studio mix here, so it’s not necessary to spend ages finding the perfect balance. All you need to do is low-cut the bass guitar to give the kick drum some room. Your audience will still hear plenty of the percussive clank of the bass guitar without having to step back five feet due to the overpowering low end.
Finally, we need to talk about vocals. I said we need to talk about the vocals! So many bands dial up their amps and smash their drums to the point that the tiny portable PA cannot keep up. So help your singer out by turning your 100-watt tube amp down and taping up that 24-inch ride cymbal. You’ll give them more confidence in the room and prepare them properly for when they get on stage, as they’ll actually be able to hear what they’re doing.
5. Not getting the size right
If you’re in a wedding band or you bring your own PA to shows, does your system have enough ‘oomph’ to meet demand? Do you have room to grow by expanding the system with more monitors or a sub-woofer, and will your mixer be able to handle additional channels as your band gets bigger? Starting small is fine, of course, but you need to make sure that when the time does come to expand, you’ve got the ability to do so.
Going the other way from our previous point, having a huge PA system in a tiny room is a recipe for disaster and, more than likely, hearing damage - more on which later. So before you pull the trigger on that fancy line array for your 10m2 practice room, take a moment to consider some other options before blasting the rest of the band with a high-frequency sonic onslaught. That money could be better spent on acoustically treating your practice room or investing in a set of in-ear monitors.
6. Forgetting to practice setting up and tearing down
You’ve practised your set, set up your gear to your liking, and got your outfit sorted. That’s everything, right? So many function bands forget that they’ve got to take down and set up their PA when they get to a show, whether you’re putting on your own gig or playing an event. Not knowing your system inside and out will show a lack of professionalism and can cause you to run into unforeseen problems.
By practising setting up and stripping down, you’ll not only look more professional, but you’ll understand ahead of time where the potential pitfalls are in your PA system. In much the same way rehearsing the actual set helps you find, encounter, and deal with problems, so too does this often overlooked part of your practice regimen.
7. Not bringing a backup
So you’ve got your PA sorted, rocked up to the show and you’re ready to go, except all of a sudden, that floor wedge isn’t working. You brought a spare cable for it, though, right? Bringing spares for every part of your setup is a must for any musician, whether that’s a PA or a pedalboard. As with our previous point centred around professionalism, it’s the mark of a well-organised band that the moment a piece of equipment fails, you’ve got a spare at hand and ready to rock.
If you’re a band playing events, then this should extend further than just consumables like strings and cables. You should consider extra monitors and even a second mixer in the unlikely event that goes down. These don’t have to be as fully featured as those in your primary system but should be good enough to do the job you need them to. Having extra monitors offers another benefit, in that you’ll be ready to adjust your system accordingly to bigger shows.
8. Not tilting the guitar amp
We already addressed drummers and bassists earlier, so this one’s for all the guitarists out there. If you’re finding yourself constantly reaching for the volume knob, we’ll ask you to just hold it there for a second. You’re not doing anyone any favours by adding more volume to your rig, and here’s why.
A guitar amp has a very linear sound direction. Essentially you’ll hear the bulk and best of the sound directly in front of the speaker cone and much less at either side of it. Also, your amp sounds way better from further back than it does close up. So how do we get around raising the volume to a level where you can hear yourself, but you’re not drowning out the rest of your band?
If your amp is sitting on the floor, all that sound is being driven at your feet, not your ears. There’s a reason Fender made the Twin Reverb with tilt-back legs - it’s how you get the best sound for the guitarist on stage and in the rehearsal room. By tilting your amp back or using a dedicated amp stand, you’ll hear yourself better, which means no need to turn that amp up to ear-splitting levels.
9. Incorrect microphone technique
Next up, vocalists. If I had a penny for every time I’ve seen a singer utilising this poor mic technique, I could probably afford another boutique overdrive pedal. So our plea is a simple one to the singers out there - please stop cupping the mic.
Arguably you do look cooler doing this, but you’re definitely not sounding any better. Not only are you decreasing the sound quality of your vocals, but you’ll introduce feedback into the system as a result - turning your dynamic microphone into an omnidirectional one.
When you cup the mic you increase the gain, which means that the finely dialled-in level the engineer sorted in sound check goes completely out of the window. Sound engineers absolutely hate it when singers do this live, so get into the swing of it by practising proper technique in your practice space. You’ll sound much better for it.
10. Not wearing ear protection
Do you know what your most valuable asset as a musician is? Here’s a hint, it isn’t that full-fat Gibson Les Paul. Protecting your hearing is something that’s become far more mainstream since we first wandered onto the grimy stages of our local venue. Yet, we still see plenty of bands rehearsing at ear-splitting volumes without adequate protection.
Even worse, at live shows where levels can hit 100 to 120dB, we often see bands standing at the front with nothing between their ears and a massive PA system right before they’re about to go play their own set. Inducing acoustic trauma tinnitus is going to seriously curb your progress as a musician, so protect that most valuable asset of yours.
A set of cheap foam earplugs is better than nothing, but we’d always recommend moulded earplugs for musicians as a worthwhile investment for any music maker. Not only do they protect your hearing, but they also allow you to focus better during your performance, taming the energy of a band in full flow and making it easier to both hear different aspects of the music and concentrate on your own parts.
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