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We are an independent touring band that has been having issues with the vocals being lost in the mix. Our singer is constantly told that she's being drowned out by the band. The band consists of a female lead vocalist, 1 guitarist (using a 25 watt tube 1x10 combo that is never pushed to more than 25% of it's capable volume) 1 bassist (using a 4x10 cab with a 300 watt head) and a drummer (using a 3 piece jazz size kit)

The band definitely gets loud but isn't HEAVY METAL loud. Most of the PA systems we wind up using are small powered mixers with 2 mains, most places won't even have monitors when we're on the road.

We've wondered if using compression on the vocals would help keep her on top of the mix, or if there are any tricks we can employ in running our own sound that might help out.

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  • As discussed, this is now on topic with the new and improved version of Sound.SE. It is all about designing the soundscape, and creating room for particular frequency range to fit. It doesn't belong on Music, which is about performance and practice. – Rory Alsop Feb 15 '14 at 8:49
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Ah, the old question: How do I make the vocals heard over a band with a tiny PA? It's not always easy.

Compression won't help you; it may actually make things worse by making feedback more likely. It sounds like you're using underpowered PAs, and if you want the vocals to be loud enough you'll need the band to play more quietly. But the band has to want to turn down for this to work. Small PA sets can not make a vocal loud without feeding back; it's the nature of the beast.

Getting the band on-board

Many bands will tend to play louder as they go along, people turning up their amps all the time as they go. Make sure everyone is on the same page about keeping the volume down. Appoint a band member to be the "gain police": When (person) says "turn down" or gives you a sign to turn down, you do it. Whoever's doing the mixing would be a good person to do this. If people won't turn down as needed, you may have a problem. Have a talk with them.

On-stage amps take control away from whoever's mixing the band, and are considered A Bad Thing by most live engineers. And, in general, you'll want to get the vocalist loud enough to be heard over the drums. I'd consider doing that first during sound check, only then bringing in the rest of the band. It'll illustrate the problem to everyone.

Sound check

Good sound starts with learning the room. When you get to a room, walk around, listen for trouble spots likely to cause feedback like walls of marble or lots of glass windows. If you set up your stage area in a carpeted area, do so.

An empty room (i.e., no audience) has different acoustics than a full room. You can learn to compensate for that over time.

Before you even set up the stage, strategize. How can you set up the mains to minimize feedback? (See the "Mics" section for more on that.) Will the band be able to hear themselves? Can the amps be turned away from the singer so she can hear herself better?

Mics

Placing a mic carefully can help a lot. Make sure the vocal mic isn't pointed at the mains. Where possible, put the mains in front of the band, facing the audience. Get used to playing without hearing yourself well. Some singers can't do this, and your vocalist may want to invest in an in-ear monitor if she needs to hear herself well to stay on-pitch.

When you set up, intentionally try to find what frequencies make the mic feed back so you can avoid them later.

What kind of mic is the singer using? A more directional mic left on a stand, an SM57, will make it easier to turn the singer up without it feeding back.

Amps

Many tube amps present a challenge: It's tough to get a good tone unless they're turned up VERY LOUDLY. I'd spend some time with the amp, trying to find that sweet spot of low gain and good tone. The same applies to the bass amp. On the guitar amp in particular, try removing any effects or turning them down. You may have to sacrifice some yummy tonal goodness to make this work.

If you can't turn an amp down, you may want to get another, smaller amp. If you have monitors, the bass can even use a DI box feeding into the PA, forgoing the amp entirely.

Drums

If you can, I'd do as little as possible with the drums.

Getting a drum kit to be quiet is difficult. It's easy to say to a drummer, "play quietly", but that can be tough to do. Some drummers are capable of playing very quietly indeed, some aren't. You can try damping the drums, but be careful: It'll make them sound different.

Conclusion

All good sound is a compromise, and you need to make a few decisions and trade-offs. Do a little reading on sound reinforcement, which is amplifying a band to be as loud as the amps and drums. Good luck!

locked by Community Feb 14 '14 at 5:39
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Neil Fein wrote a great post about what you can do, but another thing to consider is to make sure you talk with the sound guy about how you want it to sound. If there is a dedicated engineer there and it is a smaller venue, chances are good that they aren't very good and may be used to the "living room experience" ie, crank the bass and the guitars and ignore the fact that they can't hear the vocals anymore.

If you are trying to pull the vocals out and it isn't working, the first thing is to check is to solo the vocal mic and see what the ratio of signal (vocals) to noise (other instruments) coming through the mic. If the voice is fairly drowned out in the mic channel, then micing and/or stage noise needs to come down.

A good second test after that is fixed is to figure out what the dynamic range of the PA system is. Try turning off the PA and see how much the volume changes in comparison to what is coming from the stage (monitors and amps). If there isn't much of a change, then stage volume HAS to come down. Without dynamic range to work with, no amount of mixing or PA system is going to compensate for the problem within the desired volume levels.

Finally, if there is a good amount of head room left over for the PA system to work in, then it might be an EQ issue. It's important that EQs be set properly to bring out both the tone and enunciation (or crispness) of the vocalist's voice. Without the higher frequency band associated with their enunciation, they are going to sound muddy and blend in to either the rest of the instruments.

locked by Community Feb 14 '14 at 5:39
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A non-technical suggestion: consider revising your song arrangements and playing style so that the instrumentalists interplay with the vocalist — be quiet when she is singing, be loud when she isn't.

Create interlocking patterns, moving the accented notes you play to occur when the vocalist takes a breath or pauses between phrases.

Make sure every instrumentalist is focusing on listening to the vocalist — if the instrumentalists can hear and understand the vocalist, chances are the audience will be able to, too.

locked by Community Feb 14 '14 at 5:39
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I met a singer that whispered. I have met backround singers that want their monitors louder than everyone elses. A good P.A. will only amplify whatever input you give it. There is also the fact that you can destroy your singers voice. if you dont have an understanding about what the singer is able to hear. if you give them too much monitor, they sing too soft and are scared to lay into a scream because the monitor is so freaking loud. You can tell he's singing unusally soft so you go to the stage and his monitor is way too loud. So now you turn it way down so its not biting his head off. So he starts pushing it, and you notice right away he's putting too much into it and his voice will fail by the end of the song. You start to increase his monitor and watch his vocal smooth out. There are many things a soundman should be doing. Most venues already know optimum levels through experience. You should try and make him your friend. Then maybe he'll care to add some real mixing to your act.

My main point being, you either surround yourself with qualified engineers, or you have to learn and convey your concerns and make sure you get an answer you understand and can use. Telling a soundman what to do will get you the minimum. Asking him how he does it, you will learn something.

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