We are starting a new series today, sitting down with the industry experts here at HARMAN Professional Solutions and talking about common live sound technology problems people face and how to solve them. The first person up is Mario Schwartz out of our Vienna, Austria office. Mario is not only an audio engineer and acoustician, but also a live sound tech with 10 years of mixing experience. Before working at HARMAN, Mario spent five years doing intensive touring with artists, mixing sound in a variety of venues, from small 200 seat clubs to large 10,000 seat venues. He currently works in HARMAN’s Connected Car division as an engineer responsible for “everything concerning acoustics.”
I spoke with Mario on the subject of live sound in small venues. When dealing with a small space and a tight budget, it is difficult to know how to use the equipment you have effectively. Given Mario’s expertise in acoustics and experience running sound in small clubs, I asked him for a few tips.
[WR]: Getting a good sound system setup can be tricky in small locations. What would you consider the absolute minimum PA setup in order to have enjoyable sound?
[MS]: It depends on the band and genre as well as on the location. For example, let’s look at a typical 5-person pop/rock band in a small club. For that situation, I would say one “top” (main loudspeaker) per side and a center subwoofer will do it. A system like that should play full range at an appropriate level without distortion.
It can be tricky though. Let me explain with one of my experiences. I remember some years ago when touring with a professional reggae band we arrived at a small club (~150-200 people). The sound system existed of two mid class tops and one subwoofer. During sound check, one of the tops broke down. Since we were under contract, we could have demanded our money and drove home. However, this band I was with felt the main reason they did what they did was to play music and enjoy entertaining the audience. The band wanted to perform anyway, so I had to decide if the sound was acceptable.
[WR]: How did you go about doing that? What things did you look at to see if the club’s system was acceptable?
[MS]: I started with some basic tests. I asked, “Do the vocals cut through without being harsh?” I tested to see if the vibe of the music could be transported – which in my opinion mainly depends on having a good bass foundation. I also made sure all the instruments were audible without masking the vocals too much. In the end, since these criteria were fulfilled, there was no reason not to perform. The gig was great and both the band and the audience were excited.
So, it depends. Every situation is different. As long as you can hear the vocals clearly, there is a good vibe with a strong bass as a foundation, and all the instruments can be heard, you have a good system. There is no one way to do a sound system.
[WR]: You mention good bass. Anything in particular one should consider when subs are installed?
[MS]: Most of the time you find subwoofers placed in a classical arrangement left and right below the tops. This can cause serious lobes in the centre between the subs. That’s why I always position the subwoofer arrays centered, but I never judge without listening because in some small clubs where room modes dominate the low end, the situation can be very different.
[WR]: What about monitoring? You can’t have everything if you are in a small space and on a budget, so how do you choose how to handle monitoring?
[MS]: Monitor mixing in a small venue is always a compromise. First, the musicians hear the direct sound mainly from the drums, followed by the bass amp and the guitar amp. Then of course, you hear the sound from the monitors.
The most important monitor is normally the one for the vocals. Standing in front of a full drum kit could require the vocal monitor to be quite loud. If you have keys/synthesizer, you need an extra monitor for that. I would say this is the minimal setup… although most of the time for the drummer it is hard to hear the vocals. When communication between the drummer and the vocalist is required during the gig, a drums monitor is also a must-have.
[WR]: Any tips on the best way to mix the monitors once they are installed?
[MS]: Your goal should be to keep the level on the stage as low as possible. People on stage tend to demand the instruments they cannot hear to be louder in their monitors. But the first question should be if there is something in the monitors which is too loud. A good advice for the engineer is to go on stage once during sound check—be sure that there can be no feedback while you are not at the mixing desk!—to get an impression how the monitor mix sounds. Communication with the band is much easier then. And of course, the ability to use an iPad and an app like the Soundcraft ViSi Remote to adjust the monitors from the stage is a blessing for doing this!
I asked Mario if he still ran sound, and he said he does occasionally, including sound at his local church and running Front of House for Woodstock der Blasmusik (Woodstock of Brass Music), one of the biggest music festivals in Austria. However, because Mario is the proud father of a 19 month old, he doesn’t “mix all night” the way he once did. He also records his own trumpet music, as well as enjoys hiking, biking, and other outdoor sports.
I am grateful to Mario for taking the time to talk with us about live sound in small venues. Getting a big sound out of a small number of devices on a small budget clearly takes some work. However, I know the audience and the band appreciate the effort.