This is part two of a series on improving your sound in the new year. Last time, we talked about testing and repairing bad speaker components, and tuning the system up. Those two things may (and probably should) require the services of a professional. Today, we’ll look at a few things that you can easily do yourself that will pay big dividends.
Upgrade Mic Package
Microphones are mechanical, and like all things mechanical, they can wear out. They are also dropped and abused in other ways over time. If you are using really old, beat up mic's every week, changing them out is a cost-effective way to improve sound. Sometimes, it’s a matter of matching a mic to the source; a better fit for a vocal is a great example. Other times, you may be using a mic on a source because you had it, not because it was the best choice. Finding the right kick drum mic for your drum kit, PA, room and sound can make a big difference.
Outfitting your stage with all-new mic's might be cost prohibitive to do in a single year, but perhaps you can start down the road. Pick up a few new vocal mic's that will help your singers sound better. Then move on to drum mic’s, and finally other instruments. Get recommendations from people you trust and try them first if possible.
Optimize System Gain Structure
Gain structure is one of those things that we don’t talk about enough in audio. I’ve seen all manner of sins in this area; consoles that are way overdriven with amps turned way down, and others with the amps all the way up and the faders all running at -40. Optimizing your gain structure is critical to getting the best sound possible from your system.
Start with the source, and make sure your input channels are running at good levels with your faders around unity. Then move onto your mix busses (either groups or main L&R bus). The main output should be running somewhere close to where the green lights start to turn yellow (the exact, optimum point will vary from console to console, so this may take some experimentation). You will hear it if your console is running too high or too low; it will either be noisy or distorted. Avoid both.
Next, move on to the system processor (or EQ) and the amps. You want healthy levels coming into and leaving the processor, then adjust the amps to achieve the level in the house that you want. If you have to turn the amps way, way down, you may want to drop the level coming out of the processor a little bit and leave the amps up.
Again, if you’re not quite sure how to do all of this, there is no shame in bringing in someone who is. This is another area where big improvements can be made by making some small changes.
We typically expect that the worship leader, vocalists and musicians are practicing their parts throughout the week. But when does the sound guy or gal get to practice? Practice is the only real way to get better, so how do we do that? Unless you have a band that really enjoys playing for hours on end, the best answer is virtual soundcheck.
There are many systems available now that make it fairly easy to record each input on the board and play it back in place as if the band were still there. With a virtual soundcheck system, you can mix a song over and over, trying out new things, adjusting EQ, compression, FX and other techniques until you get it just right. And the only person you need in the room is you.
Or, try this one. How about recording the rehearsal, then coming in the next day with the worship leader and work on the mixes? Find out what he wants to hear, and work toward getting there. Sometimes, it will be clear that the problem is not a mix issue, but an arrangement one; in that case, everyone wins when the band gets better. Virtual sound check might be the most expensive item on this list, but it’s still less than a new PA and will often have greater benefits.
I’ve written several posts on Virtual Soundcheck if you need some help on how to get started.
As I said, this is not an exhaustive list, nor did I try to go into great detail on each topic. Do some research and find out how to implement these steps and you will have better sound at the end of the year than you do now. And you may even have budget left over!