Welcome to our latest Tech Talk, where we discuss issues concerning audio, visual and lighting (AVL) technology with industry experts. Today, we’re speaking with Noel Larson, Senior Manager, Music Solutions at HARMAN Professional Solutions. In the six years that Noel has been at HARMAN, he has been primarily focused on something near and dear to his heart—making life easier for musicians. Noel comes from a musical family and started playing in bands when he was 15 years old. He attended Musician’s Institute in Los Angeles and worked in music industry retail for many years, starting his career at Musician’s Friend as one of their earliest employees.
I wanted to talk to Noel about the difficulties some artists have setting up their PA systems and find out what the music industry is doing to help them.
[MM] Musicians often feel overwhelmed by setting up the PA systems they use for rehearsal and performance. Is there a reason why it’s so challenging?
[NL] The real problem seems to be a kind of left brain/right brain thing. One of the thoughts we keep coming back to when we look at any pro audio gear is that musicians simply want to get together with other musicians and quickly get to playing music. They’re not signing up to be sound engineers, and traditionally, that is what PA equipment has required. When we talk about playing music, the word “play” is right in there. It’s supposed to be fun. My goal has always been to help people get to playing their music faster and have a better experience when they do.
[MM] What part of the process makes it complicated? Is it setting up the microphones and EQ process or is it mixing?
[NL] You nailed just about all of them. For example, if you plug a microphone into a mixer, which is about the easiest thing you can do with pro gear, it takes one standard cable. It’s easy to plug in, but once you look at the mixer and all the knobs and buttons, there can be more than 70 different parameters to set up on a console. That’s just one mic! So, if you take a band that is using 16, 24 or 32 channels, there can be over 2200 parameters to set up, just to play!
That’s analogous to handing someone a coding book and telling them to go write the videogame before they play it. No other hobby industry would ask a customer to perform that professional level of adjustment and setup. There are so many things that can happen, so many things that can go wrong. If you set something up “wrong,” you can end up with the wrong sound. Without an intuitive understanding of what to correct, it becomes a problem.
Another thing that makes pro audio gear frustrating for musicians is the use of industry terms. For example, for a compressor, we’ll refer to a threshold. I know what that means, because I’ve been working at dbx for a long time, but somebody looking at the word for the first time would probably think threshold is an indie band out of Kansas City!
That’s the sort of thing that gets in the way of some musicians. If they like digging deep into the intricacies of a sound system and tweaking it, that’s great. We should make it a good experience for them. But, we should also realize that most people aren’t at that level and probably don’t want to be.
[MM] What kinds of situations do artists typically need their own sound systems for? Don’t most venues have their own PAs?
[NL] Before musicians think about going out and playing shows, the first thing they want to do is rehearse or maybe have friends over and jam. Generally, each musician will bring their own instrument and then one will own the PA system. Typically, it’s something really basic, like a powered system with powered speakers and a little mixer. Or, it could be as involved as a full-on mixing console with powered amps and speakers. Everybody except the drummer plugs into it, because they’re usually loud enough in a garage sort of situation, where they don’t need the drums to be miked.
When it comes to playing gigs, you have to realize that these days a lot of shows aren’t in clubs. All kinds of places are now used for performances—corporate environments, private parties, coffee houses—and having your own a PA is often part of the deal. Also, a lot of places that have house PAs don’t necessarily have monitors, or they have a front of house system that doesn’t include side fills. Not owning a PA system can really limit an artist’s options
[MM] How do musicians learn to set levels for vocal mics? There seems to be a lot of fine lines in dealing with volume, EQ and feedback?
[NL] Those are great examples of where a lot of people have problems in what is called gain structure, which is balancing the levels of the mics. The natural inclination of all musicians is to go to 11 as quickly as possible, to just turn all the way up. But, what happens is you don’t have any headroom whatsoever to do what you want to balance the mix.
The best thing is to try to get to zero balance on the fader and then balance all the trim pots along those lines. For a novice, it’s not super intuitive. So, what they need to do is plug in all the gear, match up the levels so the band mix is set and then set the trim for each individual channel. Again, it can be a challenge for musicians who don’t have that background.
[MM] When putting together a live mix, is there an order to approaching vocals and instruments that works best?
[NL] If I’m going to mic a guitar amp, I’ll get that going as my first layer and then get all of my other instrument layers laid in. Then, I’ll start putting vocals over the top and balance them. If you start with vocals and put instruments over them, you’re going to have to pull the vocals over it again, because that’s usually what you want to emphasize.
The hardest part of coming up with a mix is the infighting between the band members, because everybody wants to be louder than the other person. It’s a funny truism that everyone wants “more me” in the overall mix. One of the really nice things about having an outside sound person who you trust—a friend of the band or, if you’re lucky enough, someone who actually knows how to run sound—is having a third party who can balance it all out. It’s especially true if you’re doing shows and have a system you need to set up night after night
[MM] Once you have your mix figured out, can’t you just use bits of masking tape to mark your settings?
[NL] People used to do that a lot, some still do, but you have to make sure of a couple things when you use tape. First, you need to make sure the tape stays on. With all the moving of equipment, it’s easy for pieces to fall off.
The other problem is that people plug their long cables into the wrong channels, which means the EQ and everything is set up for another instrument or vocals. Without tracing each cable back to the source, it might not be obvious what happened, but the sound won’t seem right.
[MM] We’ve discussed a few key PA system challenges for musicians; how has recent technology tried to provide solutions?
[NL] The biggest thing, especially over the past five years, has been the integration of equipment into fewer and fewer units. Portable PA systems have helped a lot of musicians pare down their equipment. Before, a band would have their microphones, their mixers, probably outboard signal processing, power amps and speakers. They might a have a lot of different gear along with that—different crossovers and things they need.
Today, it’s all much more compact, and you get a lot more from the gear you’re using. A mixer today will have a least some basic effects that will get you up and going and, for most people, all the way there. When you have powered speakers, you don’t have to worry about power amps, crossovers or those sorts of things, so you can get up and running much faster.
The other thing is that electronics have gotten a lot better. You don’t have the issues you had in the 70s and 80s, when the gear was very susceptible to damage. If you dropped it, you had real issues. Also, it was much heavier. In recent years, electronics have gotten lighter and smaller. The portability side of the business has gotten so much better, and what musicians get is so much better, but there is still a level of expertise that is needed to dig through it all.
As I said earlier, at HARMAN Professional Solutions, we’re totally focused on helping musicians to do what they do best—play music and have a good experience. I love being part of a team that comes up with solutions I would have really appreciated when I was still gigging a lot.
For example, our new Connected PA brings together Soundcraft mixers, AKG microphones, dbx stage boxes and JBL speakers, using HARMAN’s ioSYS technology to dramatically simplify live sound. When you plug in a microphone direct box or speaker, the mixer recognizes it and remembers its settings, so bits of tape are no longer necessary, and there’s no risk of using an incorrect channel.
New technologies like Connected PA also enable performers to quickly go from using speakers as part of a full PA at a large gig to plugging into auxiliary outputs, hitting discover and having them work as monitors. It’s a completely different way to streamline live sound and get to gigging faster!
Many thanks to Noel for sharing his insights on helping musicians achieve better sound more easily! Are you a performer or live sound mixer who has found ways to simplify your system? Share your insights in the comments.