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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:

  • When the person operating the system for an event is at the same time an on-stage performer at that event.

    In this arrangement, typically adopted by bands of up to 4 members when performing in very small venues, the mixer (or mixer-amplifer) is located on-stage and the responsible person will set up the system prior to the rehearsal, probably making small adjustments during the rehearsal and also maybe during the performance. This is something of an "economy" arrangement, as although it has the advantage of avoiding the costs associated with another person, it suffers from the problem that even if a reasonable mix can be achieved initially, the responsible person is unable to give their full attention to properly managing the sound throughout the performance − e.g. to take account of dynamic factors such as a growing or increasingly noisy audience. (Even the initial entry of the audience can significantly affect room acoustics from those which existed when the system was set up.)

    The band member concerned may well have the appropriate skills or experience to mix sound. However, as far as that task is concerned, a person who is located on stage behind the front-of-house speakers and who is primarily focussed on delivering a good performance is at a significant disadvantage in comparison with someone who is hearing the same sound as the audience and who is concentrating only on delivering the best possible sound to them. You need to consider whether, considering the expectations of your audience, you are willing to make this compromise on the sound quality delivered to them.

  • When the person operating the system is not an on-stage performer at the same time.

    In this arrangement, typically adopted in all but the smallest venues and by larger bands, the mixer is located at a suitable listening point (usually roughly central to the audience) and is set up and operated throughout the performance by one or more people dedicated to this task. Whilst this arrangement has the potential to provide a technically superior sound (which means, at the end of the day, more pleasing to the audience), it has its own problems in that it inevitably creates something of a divide between the performers and the sound engineer(s) − both in terms of a different physical location and differing responsibilities and perspectives. To minimise any potential problems of this kind, it is essential that the two parties do all they can to work together co-operatively. (The two sections below should help you to play your part in this.)

    The importance of a good working relationship between a band and their engineer(s) is highlighted by the fact that it is a vital part of the engineer's role to ensure that each member of the band is able to hear themselves and other members well enough to be able to perform at their best. To achieve this, monitoring facilities are usually provided as part of the PA system. There are two main types of monitoring in common use: floor monitors ('wedges') and in-ear monitoring (IEM) − sometimes both of these systems may be in use. In-ear monitoring has several important advantages, both for performers and in enabling the best quality sound to be produced for your audience. But as it is more expensive and more involved to set up (personalised ear-pieces are required for the very best results), floor monitors remain a very popular choice as a simple and reliable system. Sometimes the task of producing the band's monitor mixes is performed by a separate monitor engineer; in this case a separate monitor mixer is usually used, generally located on or close to the stage. However, an unfortunate complication is that sound produced on stage for the benefit of performers may, if excessive, have an adverse effect on the overall amplified sound heard by the audience − this is explained in more detail below.

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

  • Maintain a reasonably constant distance from the microphone (except when deliberately varying the distance for effect); if in doubt your engineer will be happy to advise on a suitable range of distances for your particular circumstances.
  • When you are holding the mic in your hand:
    • You should hold it at the centre of the mic's 'stalk', trying not to cover up any identifying coloured bands of tape that have been put around it (especially while you are moving around on the stage); this will help the engineer to keep track of which mic is which.
    • Don't wrap your fingers around the basket of the mic, as this is likely to decrease the mic's in-built immunity to feedback − it may also have a detrimental effect on the amplified sound quality.
    • If it's a radio mic with an aerial that projects at the back end, don't hold the mic around that part. If you do, you are likely to reduce the strength of the radio signal transmitted and this may cause problems in picking up your signal.
    • You can help to avoid feedback by not pointing your mic at the monitors and by not walking with it to any position in front of the front-of-house speakers.
  • If feedback occurs, the natural reaction is to increase your distance from the microphone. But whether this is the right thing to do depends upon how close you were to it at the time. If you were more than about 4 inches (10 cm) away, then by moving further away you are actually increasing the chance of feedback, because the engineer must provide even more amplification to achieve the desired sound level for the audience, and this would make the feedback worse. So decrease the distance, so that the amplification required can be reduced. If however you were very close (less than 1.5 inches (4 cm)), then moving slightly further away may be helpful because, with some types of microphone, being very close can decrease the microphone's in-built immunity to feedback. If feedback occurs during a soundcheck, ask the engineer if there is anything you should do differently.
  • The following illustrations show some possible positions for a vocal microphone, with associated comments, listed according to the angle of the mic. They apply regardless of whether the mic is on a stand or you are holding it. The references to bass boost, which is due to the proximity effect, apply predominantly to male vocalists. The illustrations assume the type of mic most commonly used for live performances (as opposed to studio recording), i.e. an end-firing type with a cardioid or super-cardioid pick-up pattern.

    vocal position 1 1. A rarely-used position, generally employed only for situations such as a stand-mounted mic used by a drummer. (In such a situation, the mouth-to-mic distance must be kept fairly small, to avoid excessive pick-up of the drum kit.)
    vocal position 2 2. A hand-held position sometimes briefly used during a performance, for visual effect. Good pick-up, with a considerable amount of bass boost.
    vocal position 3 3. A position commonly used by some rock and pop artists. As this position gives a very large amount of bass boost, it requires a type of microphone that is intended for such close-up use (such as the Shure SM58). Even quite small changes in the distance to the mic will have a marked effect on the amount of bass boost, and also on the amount of pick-up (unless heavy compression is in use). Not suitable for applications where facial expression is important, or when close-zoom camera work is in use, as the performer's mouth is completely obscured (except for profile camera angles).
    vocal position 4 4. Similar to 3, but with less bass boost and less sensitivity to changes in distance. Slightly better visibility of the performer's mouth, giving an improvement for semi-profile and profile viewing angles.
    vocal position 5 5. Even less bass boost and less sensitivity to changes in distance. However, reduced pick-up of the performer (especially with cardioid mics) versus other sound sources may be a problem when stage sound levels are high, or when the performer is in close proximity to loud instruments. (This is more of a problem when the performer has a quiet voice.) Better visibility of the performer's mouth for profile and semi-profile camera angles.
    vocal position 6 6. Often a good mic position, but the performer's mouth is still largely obscured for frontal views.
    vocal position 7 7. Often an ideal mic position when a certain amount of bass boost is desirable. Much improved mouth visibility from all angles.
    vocal position 8 8. An ideal mic position for strong voices, when bass boost is not required and on-stage sound levels nearby are not too high. Quiet voices may be difficult to amplify sufficiently, without feedback and/or unwanted pick-up of other sounds. The low sensitivity to changes in distance make this position very suitable for stand-mounted mics. Excellent mouth visibility from most angles.
    vocal position 9 9. & 10. Useful positions when some bass boost is not a problem and good immunity to other stage sounds is required. They also provide reasonably good visibility of the mouth (especially 10.).
    vocal position 10
    vocal position 11 11. An incorrect technique, giving rather poor pick-up of the vocals (particularly when using super-cardioid or hyper-cardioid mics). The sound engineer may be able to compensate to some degree.
    vocal position 12 12. The performer seems to think that this is a side-addressed microphone. As it isn't, the pick-up of the vocals will be extremely poor. The sound engineer will not be able to compensate for this; attempts to do so are likely to result in feedback and/or excessive pick-up of other sound sources and room reverberation.
  • For a slightly more technical discussion on the effect of microphone technique on the pick-up behaviour of microphones, see Use of Microphones on the Microphones page.

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This page last updated 03-Feb-2016.