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We have a six person blues band. Our bass player is also our sound person. During a gig, he periodically forgets to turn on mics for soloists or turn on instruments from the board. My husband has asked him why he can't leave all the mics on, as he does when the five of us sing backup to the soloist. He says that "it doesn't work that way; we don't know what the audience hears."

Can anyone explain why all mics can't be left on throughout the gig? We know that we need to turn our mics away from us/our instrument when we're not singing. Isn't that enough?

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    One telling part here is 'we don't know what the audience hears'. If it's that vague, how can the guy get anything like a good mix from where he is - presumably somewhere on the stage? – Tim Jul 5 '17 at 10:25
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    @Tim The only other way to handle it is to cut severely into the bands take for the night by paying for a sound guy. Smaller audiences don't know a good mix from a hole in the ground and if it's just vocals in the PA you can fake it and save a lot of money. – Todd Wilcox Jul 5 '17 at 13:45
  • Nice job, this has to be one of the most heated discussions on Music.SE yet that you've kicked off here... – leftaroundabout Jul 5 '17 at 14:56
  • What kind of microphones are you using that you actually have to turn them when not in use? I'm guessing obviously not all SM 57s. Do you do a sound check or is everything done on the fly? – Mazura Jul 5 '17 at 19:32
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Well, every mic you toss into the mix also adds more ambience, a bit of feedback from PA and monitors, and will pick up sounds that aren't really supposed to be heard at all, like breathing. Now, this isn't necessarily bad – in particular in the studio, I rather like the compact room sensation caused by many mics picking up bleed from different sources.

However, in a live situation you more typically can't avoid hearing too much of the (less than ideal, acoustically) room, you already have plenty enough background noise from the crowd to fight with, and you're close to getting feedback problems. All of these issues are exacerbated by many open mics on stage.
Thus, yes, the fewer open mics on stage the better is a pretty good guideline for live sound.

Nevertheless, I don't agree with Tim and would in fact support your husband's complaint. I used to always turn off unused channels too when mixing bands live, but don't do that anymore now, except for particularly troublesome sources (mostly quiet acoustic instruments).

In most cases, you will need to have all channels on at some point anyway, so you need to somehow make sure the mix sounds good even then. If anything is really close to feedback, then the sound will probably be destroyed by resonances already, so the only fix is to go back to the cause. Make sure the overall sound level is quiet enough, optimise the mic positions, tell the guitarist to turn his bleeding amp down a bit... tell the vocalist to make proper use of the mic, as well...
Such measures tend to have a much stronger effect on the final sound than turning down a few vocal mics, which, if placed cleverly, don't generally pick up that much unwanted sound. Overhead drum mics are more of an inevitable troublemaker in that regard.

As you say, any mic that's turned off is a risk of humilation for both singer and engineer, also a typical cause of overly hectic search for the problem, possibly dabbling with the wrong channel... it's just not worth it. Even if the engineer gets every mute right, that alone will keep them somewhat busy and distract from other things that might be more important to worry about. Better just pull the level of those channels down a couple dB, that usually already lets any interference become a non-issue yet if someone is determined to get through to the audience they'll be able to do it, albeit less than easily until the engineer gets the level right again.

A compromise that's getting ever more popular on these days' digital consoles is to just put noise gates on every channel. That certainly avoids breathing etc. to be heard in pauses, though it doesn't generally work that great for avoiding bleed (nor feedback, as Aaron remarks), because either you need to put the threshold so high that quietly sung or spoken parts get chopped up, or louder passages will have bleed from other instruments (particularly snare and guitars) trigger the gate open. Therefore I prefer to set the gates expansion ratio only to something low like 3:1, which gives a similar compromise to only slightly pulling down unused channels: unwanted noise will vanish in the mix, but important yet not-that-loud contributions will at least be audible at all.

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    Another point about noise gates: Don't be tempted to use them to kill feedback. It seems like it should work, and it almost does...until a stray drum hit or stage stomp or whatever opens it up when there's no one handy to stop the howl. Been there, done that, never again. – AaronD Jul 5 '17 at 4:37
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    I would tend to agree with this answer over Tims but I'd also add that much can be done to avoid bleed (or at least nasty-sounding bleed) with well-thought through placement of mics, instruments and monitors. As a sound engineer I'd recommend experimenting with making bleed "sound good" if you can't eliminate it altogether, it can become your friend! You should really get a proper FOH sound engineer to do it rather than doing it from the stage though, that would be the best solution. – Ralphonz Jul 5 '17 at 9:00
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    I've run my own live sound business and this is the answer. Muting vocal mikes is a cardinal error of inexperienced engineers. Dropping the fader about 6 dB is the most you ever want to do until the show is over and no one needs a mic. You never know what's going to happen and the expectation of the audience and the band is that all mikes are live all the time, so they will try to sing in them and you just can't unmute fast enough. It ends up feeling really unprofessional to have dead mikes on stage. – Todd Wilcox Jul 5 '17 at 13:49
  • @ToddWilcox Unprofessional is not necessarily a bad thing. At least in some genres like punk. I saw a GG Allin live recording and he picked up dead mics several times, and once even sang an entire song into dead mic, but everyone were okay with that – Sarge Borsch Jul 7 '17 at 6:05
  • @SargeBorsch: well, unprofessional is a bad thing; only, some musical styles make this badness an element of their artistic style. But even by that (rather backwards) logic it can't really be an argument for turning off mics, because feedback or background noises make just as “effective” imperfections. – leftaroundabout Jul 7 '17 at 7:45
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Never understood why any mic needs to be live when not in use. Every mic I use on a gig will be equipped with an on/off switch, and it's expected to be used. My own vox mic is only ever on when I sing. (I don't want the audience hearing my asides!)

As a former soundman, I would always pull a mic down if it wasn't being used - it saves any possibility of feedback, someone knocking the stand with the resulting clunk, etc.Especially if I knew there was no switch, or the person using it couldn't/wouldn't use its switch. BUT - I needed to be aware that a certain mic was about to be used, so to fade it up.

'That's not how it works' is a pretty lame reasoning - explanations please, we're not idiots.Get used to being in charge of your own mic, which can be left faded up, but turned off till needed. And don't come up with 'my sm58 doesn't have a switch'. Get a switched XLR soldered onto the lead, so it does! Try Neutrik.

Lead question answered - feedback potential, noises from stage floor, messing up sound balance with bleed from sources close to open mics. Close them!

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    @jdjazz - Certainly not when using the XLR connections mentioned, and there shouldn't be when using a good quality mic with a switch - which, in a live gig situation, unless we're talking stadia, should be available. I can't believe the number of gigs I've done where the supplied mics weren't switched - with or without a sound guy. Although if he's good, they shouldn't be necessary. – Tim Jul 4 '17 at 19:13
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    I dread mics with switch, my first impetus when I find one is always to tape it down in ON position. Yes, in principle switched mics could be the perfect solution, however in practice what will usually happen is that the switches are forgotten (either the singer leaving a mic one after use, forgetting the need to turn it on before use and then loudly complaining to the poor engineer, or indeed turning a (wrongly) turned-on mic off just before use!), inadvertently switched while adjusting the mic position, or mic released and dropped from the stand while grabbling for the switch. – leftaroundabout Jul 4 '17 at 20:02
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    @leftaroundabout - maybe there should be a short course available for those vocalists less endowed than average. It really is basic and not difficult. Just like every vocalist is expected (by me at least) to understand and know which keys they need, they should be able to control a simple mic. there's a 50:50, o.k., but it ain't difficult... is it? – Tim Jul 4 '17 at 20:20
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    "Never understood why any mic needs to be live when not in use. Every mic I use on a gig will be equipped with an on/off switch, and it's expected to be used. " You sir, have spent almost zero time as a live sound engineer. No on/off switches are ever allowed on a stage that I'm mixing. They break often and the last thing you want is a dead mic at the beginning of the second chorus when the harmony vocals come in, so never mute vocal mics during a show, and even worse is when you can't unmute because some joker turned the mic off! No on/off switches ever! -1 – Todd Wilcox Jul 5 '17 at 13:39
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    @ToddWilcox - which is why I suggest using leads (cables!) with switched sockets at the mic end. I have several leads that go to gigs, so I can use SM58s, 57s, and any mics with cannon fittings - which is 99% of the quality stuff. I did a two year stint as soundman covering jazz acts from all over the world, so I have a bit of a clue. Quality switches don't break often. Never had jokers at the gigs! Ity would appear we're at opposite ends of the same spectrum - I'm happy at mine, you at yours, others will have to believe one or the other...or something inbetween. – Tim Jul 5 '17 at 14:07
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In principle, I agree with him. If you don't need a channel, mute it.

In practise though, I would disagree here. It sounds very much like he's heard that principle but hasn't yet got the experience to know when to ignore it. This sounds like one of those instances. When you don't have a soundman out front and one of the players has to set up the mix, the main thing is to get the sound right at soundcheck and don't touch it. You make sure it sounds OK out front, and you make sure the foldback is good enough to hear everything you need, and then you know that you're OK so long as nothing changes.

Every instrument volume knob should be at max during soundcheck, so there's no possibility for one player to turn themselves up during the gig and spoil the balance. (If they want to turn down and vanish out of the mix, that's their choice, but at least they're not crapping on everyone else.) Once the amps are balanced for levels, no player should touch the volume or gain controls for the duration of the gig. Balance of amps should be checked on clean/dirty/hi-gain/FX settings as needed. Acoustic instruments with pickups are the same situation.

The main caveat here is that if a player changes instruments (or just aren't playing on a song), they have to take ownership of making their instrument silent. That could be changing the volume control from fully-on to fully-off, or it could be a volume pedal that can go from fully-on to fully-off, or it could be a mute switch somewhere. Doesn't matter how - if you don't want your bassist/soundman to control muting, then you each individually need to control it.

For vocal mics, do not "move them away from you". Vocal mics should be positioned as far as possible so that foldback speakers are in the mic's "null" area. Usually this means having the mic cable pointing directly at the foldback speaker. This isn't always possible though, and the more it's away from that "null" area, the more your mic is prone to feeding back. So don't move your vocal mics once they're set up, because you will most likely make things worse. A mute switch is a reasonable option though, so long as each vocalist can take responsibility for that.

Acoustic instrument mics are the one place where I'd say the soundman does need to get involved, because generally you need a lot of gain on them, and you really don't want to leave those live during the rest of your set. Most instrument mics (SM57 etc) don't have switches either, although you can get mic mute footswitches. So for these, I'd go with the soundman controlling them as a necessary evil. You should consider asking those musicians to invest in pickups for those instruments though.

And really do invest in a 31-band EQ on the monitors, and preferably on front of house too. Your soundman needs to learn how to use it to ring out the system to kill off the most troublesome bits of feedback at soundcheck. If the mics don't move and the gains don't change, you can reasonably rely on this staying OK all night.

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    A couple of disagreements for you! A sound check can only be accurate if it's done with the audience in the auditorium. Which never happens. Volume balance is hand in hand with tone and instrument frequency, so it's never going to be good enough to leave alone afterwards. I say this after thousands of gigs, both as sound guy and performer. The part about every instrument being on max to get a balance was one cause of me leaving a band.On keys, every sound will come out differently - piano, organ, horns, strings, so it's down to the player to balance in the absence of an off-stage sound guy.. – Tim Jul 5 '17 at 12:45
  • ..If the mics feed back, one main reason is they're too loud - particularly in foldback. Sound pressure on stage needs to be enough so players van still talk to each other.It's volume out front that maybe needs to be up, but not on stage.And - electric guitars are often used in such a way that their volume control becomes an overdrive control, so checking with full volume isn't the best way. And - will the drummer play his loudest in a sound check?Somehow doubt it!My muting for SM57s in front of my gtr amp when the soundman wasn't doing his job properly involved kicking it gently out the way! – Tim Jul 5 '17 at 12:53
  • @Tim Of course the soundcheck isn't totally accurate - it's just the best you can do with what you have, and you develop those listening skills to figure out how it'll sound with the audience in. :) I agree that stage volume levels are usually the biggest problem, and that unreliable drummers can screw your balance up too! That's a matter of training your fellow band members. Re guitar volume controls, yes it can control overdrive too, but that makes it more forward in the mix as well so it still works. An overdrive FX pedal is more repeatable level-wise though, which is more gig-friendly. – Graham Jul 5 '17 at 14:50
  • @Tim Re the keys though - if your patches are all different levels, then surely you'd spend some time at practises or between practises to get them evened out? I say this as someone who used to play guitar and guitar synth in a covers band, with something like 20 guitar multi-FX patches and 10 guitar synth patches. We practised in a village hall, so I got levels and tones fine-tuned during practises. When it came to the gig, all I had to do was hit the footswitch. – Graham Jul 5 '17 at 14:54
  • My keyboard of choice doesn't do that, I'm afraid. With patches like you use, it's different, and also the thing is touch sensitive - but with a volume pedal in line, I get round it fine, except when someone says turn up your ludest. Funny, it's the same with vocal mics... – Tim Jul 5 '17 at 15:38
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In your band's case, I'd say you want to balance how much the bass player has to do to run sound vs. how complicated you want your sound to be. Having been in this position - being both a professional engineer & guitarist - I can tell you that it is really not possible to do both without compromising either (or both) jobs. That said, here's my 2 cents worth:

  • Don't turn your mic away when not in use, you're only asking for trouble doing that. Getting a sound system up to an appropriate level is a balancing act, and moving the mics throws off that balance - rather than focusing on your mouth, it's now focusing on the ceiling, or the stage, or something else. If it stays in position, at least it's focusing on the band.
  • If you really want to have mics turning on & off (there's an argument to be made either way) then what you want is to set up the sound with ALL mics open (so there are no surprises when they come on) and rely on individual switches, be they foot controls or using mics with built-in switches. Then, it's on the person singing to turn on their mic rather than the bass player. I'd also suggest only switching mics that are rarely used - if one person sings 50% of the time then it's probably better to leave their mic up, but if you have a member who only sings on one or two songs then give them a switch.
  • I agree with the bass player having a wireless or a really l-o-n-g cable. The only way you're going to know how it sounds in the room is to get out in front.
  • One tip, for the bass player: try to leave a little room for increased energy at showtime. Most players don't put out 100% during a check, but when the adrenaline gets going they'll push harder - so if you set up during check to be right at the brink of feedback, you'll probably find that the band pushes it over when things get cooking.
  • Gates, Graphic EQs, etc are useful tools but they really increase the complexity of your setup (see my original statement about balance!).
  • If you guys play mostly the same venues, it might be good for you to invest in a digital system where you can dial in a particular venue and save it as a preset. Then, you can refine the setting over time, adding gates, EQs, etc. as appropriate but it doesn't end up being a bunch of gear that you have to constantly monitor.
  • "when the five of us sing backup" ??? Every sound engineer I've ever met would look at you funny and ask if you really need 6 freaking vocal microphones. And they want the bassist to do it? – Mazura Jul 10 '17 at 6:34
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Advantages of turning mics off when not in use:

  • Less chance of feedback. Turning the mic away to avoid being heard is a huge feedback risk, particularly when the pa is 'hot' (basically, nearly too loud for the room).
  • Less noise from footfalls on stage, kicking stands etc.
  • Less chance of hearing the bassist chat to the drummer during solos (yes, really)
  • Stage invasions by audience members are less disruptive.

Disadvantages

  • If your sound tech is in the band, they might forget to switch them on, oops!

Basically, if you have a dedicated sound tech (i.e. someone who's taking care of your sound and nothing else), you should always close the channel for mics that aren't being used. Be aware that leaving all the mics up does carry a lot of risks.

Being mixed by a member of the band isn't ideal anyway, but sometimes it's the only pracitcal way.Hhere's a few strategies for getting a better sound in that situation:

  • If you know an audience member, or bring along friends/family, ask them, particularly in the sound check, if it sounds okay to them, and if they can hear everything.
  • Get your bassist a radio pack, or a very long lead. They should be able to step off stage and hear the 'front of house' sound, again, more so in sound checks.
  • Get a digital recorder, ideally record directly from the PA, and play back through the PA, so you can listen to the gig later on a similar system and find out what you do or don't like about the sound.
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    If you have a dedicated engineer, make sure they always have an accurate set list and then let them do their job and don't tell them whether to mute or unmute channels. Only judge them on the results they get. I never mute channels because then I have to unmute in time and in rock, you never know what's going to happen. – Todd Wilcox Jul 5 '17 at 13:42
  • Frankly, I don't think any of your points carry much weight. Sure, turning away mics is a no-no... but this isn't really among the stupid things that musicians commonly do, I've only seen it very seldom. Kicking-sounds etc. aren't much of an issue for SM58 or other decent live vocal mics, unless you needed to crank the gain for some reason... in which case the sound would be ruined anyway. If the drummer literally chats with the bassist during a solo then, let's face it, the band only deserves to perish. And in case of a stage invasion, the engineer can still mute mics as needed. – leftaroundabout Jul 5 '17 at 14:44
  • @leftaroundabout I'm so glad you feel able to be completely frank with me. I'm sure you'd want to leave no stones unturned with your scathing criticism and that your answer is in every conceivable respect better than mine. In other news, please think before you post. Take care now. – AJFaraday Jul 5 '17 at 14:49
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"We don't know what the audience hears" ⇒ "our stage monitoring doesn't work". Why are you even playing live when your own acoustic impression does not correspond in a meaningful manner with that of the audience? And to add insult to injury, your "sound man" plays bass on the stage and has no chance to notice missing mics once the sound has been set up?

You need to stock up on your monitoring equipment and/or personnel. It's nice blaming the bass player, but this is an accident waiting to happen. Repeatedly.

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    Often the sound balance and tone of the foldback is very different from what the audience hears. Imagine a big band - the horns want to hear themselves, while the vocalists want to hear little horns, but mostly themselves. We've already got two different mixes, and hardly started! The audience wouldn't want either, in particular! – Tim Jul 5 '17 at 12:56
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    Only an engineer at FOH knows what part of the audience is hearing. No monitor system can make the stage sound like FOH. – Todd Wilcox Jul 5 '17 at 13:43

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