Words by Neil Boland
There’s a lot to consider when playing music live. From stage to stage, room to room, a player needs to consider many factors to strike the balance between being able to hear themselves and being heard by others.
Instrument or amplifier placement are the big ones for rock and pop bands. With guitar amps, placement can be a make or break aspect for a good-feeling stage sound. Elevated, an amp can tear your head off, but on the floor, you might be giving your legs the best foldback sound possible.
Acoustic instruments are a bit more tricky again, especially when placed alongside the more louder electric instruments.
Mark Barry from B S Sound in Glen Iris knows the ins and outs of instrument placement and separation, having worked in the industry since around 1981.
After the years of experience Barry has had mixing live sound, he relishes the challenge of mixing instruments that might otherwise be fighting each other for sonic attention. Barry started to really hone this skill during the late 90s and early 2000s, when Melbourne was experiencing a healthy live Latin and salsa scene. Anyone remember the Bullring in Johnston Street? Yeah, it’s a Coles now.
“I like a challenge and I like variety. But one sort of band I do enjoy working for are Latin percussion bands. They’re not as active as they used to be, but maybe ten years ago, I was doing a heap of these gigs. It was the whole Smith Street/Salsa thing. And what I really enjoyed about those bands was the challenge of mixing a decent sound out of them, which is really, really difficult.”
This comes down to what part of the EQ picture these instruments occupy. Have a look at any professional equaliser unit at any gig and you’ll see that any engineer worth their salt doesn’t always have the sliders set at the home-stereo-approved ‘smiley face’ that makes your metal albums sound mid-less and chunky. With large bands that have more orchestral ‘non-rock’ instruments added, Barry works hard on a small part of the whole EQ picture, channel by channel.
“They’re all in the 2k region, which is also the frequency that gives the voice clarity.”
In a band where the vocalists are the focus, nobody needs the other instruments pushing them around, right?
“You’ve got brass, hand-held percussion, everybody sings, so everybody’s got a microphone as well. All the instruments are in that high mid area. And the bands are big so you’ve got ten, eleven or twelve people on stage and it’s very difficult to get separation between them. They’re mostly all in the 2k area.”
Live, the less experienced engineer would be reaching for each channel’s gain and volume knobs, but an engineer like Barry is more likely to reach for the EQ.
“It’s about EQ-ing each instrument,’ Barry says. “It’s not so one instrument sounds better than the other, but so it fits in like a hand in a glove.’
Between around 2004 and 2011, there had been a lull in ensembles of the larger type, so B S Sound has flexed with the changing times, by being a convenient, suburban audio hire service.
This doesn’t mean there has been a lack of interesting developments in the Melbourne live music scene in the last few years to keep Barry on his EQ-tweaking toes, in fact live engineering has kept him so busy over the years that – unlike many other engineers – he has never been tempted to moonlight as a studio engineer on the side.
“I don’t do recording, I don’t do DJ sound. But in terms of live sound there are lots of different things that people need a PA for. What is surprising is that…heaps of people are still getting…married (laughs all-round) and these days you might have more non-church weddings. It’s a portable PA, someone comes and gets it and it’s do-it-yourself stuff.”
So if you’re hoping to get any more than a basic, great recording of your gig on a USB stick, Barry advises to select other avenues, especially if the recording is intended for sale.
In recent years, bands are once again adding horn sections and string sections to their contemporary core for live gigs, creating the need for knowledgeable engineers who know how to both mix and separate.
Head into Fitzroy’s iconic Night Cat or Bar Open on a Friday or Saturday night for example and you’ll hear great bands like the Mondo Freaks, Deep Street Soul, Bombay Royale and Saskwatch kicking it live with horns and sometimes strings, mixing Fender Twins with flutes.
“I’ve been working for Soul Contention and Melbourne Hit Parade recently and there are a few other bands as well. Again, you’ve got a big band, a live brass section and ten or eleven people on stage.”
If there are mix clarity issues, Barry offers a really simple tip to a band of younger funksters: “Think about having more space.”
For the bands who don’t always have the luxury of playing on a huge stage, this could be as simple as standing not further away from another player, but in a different direction from them.
When space becomes an issue, EQ becomes an essential and B S Sound are the best guys to talk to.
To check out services and rates, head to www.bssound.com.au