Your Live Guitar Sound

Sound quality for a live setting

Ever play a gig and afterwards someone tells you, "I couldn't really hear the guitar solos." Or, how about, "The bass was too loud." Sometimes you'll hear, "Everything just sounded muddy." Even worse, when it comes to your last gig, people may say, "Yeah, it was all right," but something in the way they said it, tells you it was not all right. They don't know why it wasn't good, they just know it wasn't. Quite often, this is a problem of sound quality. Here are some suggestions on how to get a better live sound.

Your Personal Sound

Equalizer/ Tone settings (EQ) - With EQ settings, I find that most guitarists scoop out too much mid-range tones for the sound to travel good during a live setting. Add more mid-range and you'll sound better with other instruments because guitar is actually a mid-range instrument.

When you set your EQ, it should not be a deep valley that reduces all the mid-range tones - it should be almost (but not exactly) straight across with slightly raised high-end tones and slightly raised low-end tones depending on what music style you like to play.

Too much bass and the guitar sound will get overpowered by the bass guitar. Too much treble/high EQ and the guitar sound merges with the cymbals of the drum kit. Too much of a valley, in your EQ settings, will leave no clear tonal space for the guitar to come through.

Distortion Levels - Whatever level distortion you usually play at, you should try to cut it back a notch and play with a cleaner sound. You would be surprised at how much cleaner sounds most famous guitarists play, but with all the other instruments around it and the amount of volume and energy - it makes you think that it is heavily distorted. Aside from his version of "The Star-Spangled Banner", Hendrix played fairly clean by today's standards. Randy Rhoads had a sound that was a lot less distortion than most would think but added a lot of chorus and delay, which was common in the 1980's.

Compression - The guitar's natural harmonic overtones are what truly make the instrument stand out as its own unique entity. In the high end peaks and valleys of the sound wave, is where those overtones ring out. Too much compression will cut all the top ends of your sound off, leaving no valleys. This will make your guitar sound fake and overly processed, muddied in the mix of a live setting.

Effects Units - Every effect you put your sound through actually cuts the full range of the natural guitar tonality. Effects are made to enhance the sound not BE the sound. Use in moderation.

Play Well With Others - Just remember, your live sound settings will not always be the same as the sound you play with when practicing at home by yourself. Playing with other instruments necessitates molding a sound as a band unit.

Your Band's Sound

The PA System - Ideally, every instrument should be mic-d up or fed directly (DI) and ran through the PA system. The soundman can then balance the whole mix from a vantage point where the audience would be hearing the band. This can create another set of problems depending upon the capabilities and power of the PA system. We'll call these problems...

Stage Volume -vs- PA Capabilities - If the amplifiers onstage, also referred to as the backline, are too loud, smaller PA's may not be able to handle the wattage and power input. Any overpowering instrument (be it Bass, Keys, or Guitar) will have to be pulled completely out of the PA mix. This gives less control over the mix and can often result in a bad overall sound. In general, keeping a lower stage volume will help the overall sound of the band.

The problem is, quite often, a guitar amplifier has to be pushed to a certain volume level to get a great sound - to get the proper distortion, gain, sustain, and fullness of tone. The balance of these two elements - stage volume and PA mix - is something that will have to be dealt with during sound-check and you should work it out with the soundman /engineer.

For Guitar Instrumental Bands - It is very important that the soundman running the PA understands guitar instrumental music. Your guitar melodies, themes and solos are the main communication and expression of the songs. The guitar replaces the vocals in that communication role and should be treated as if it were vocals. That means that the guitar should be louder and more out-in-front in the mix, as compared to a mix that would be applied to a band with vocals. All of your melodies, themes and solos must be boosted through the PA and stand out from the rest of the band. Many in-house sound engineers in clubs, especially those accustomed to working with pop and Top-40 bands have a very hard time understanding this concept.

Pick an artist that the soundman would have heard to compare your music with. If your music is similar to Vinnie Moore, what are the chances that a soundman who mainly engineers pop music even knows of Vinnie Moore? If you said you were similar to Satriani or Vai, he would probably have a better understanding of the sound you wanted - even though neither guitarist is neo-classical.

When I first started doing live shows as an instrumental artist (late '80's and early '90's), there weren't many instrumental artists that engineers knew. I would tell them "I'm like Kenny-G, only a lot louder and much more aggressive!"

The Silent Member of the Band - It could be quite beneficial if you were to have your own soundman that did all of your gigs with you. He would know the songs, the set-lists and the nuances of your music. He would be able to provide the best possible representation of your music in a live setting.

A better live sound could be achieved by incorporating one or more of the ideas which I have presented. Have someone with a good musical ear come in and listen to your rehearsals. Ask them which guitar amp settings sound better to them while playing with the whole band. Record your rehearsals and listen to the overall sound. Make changes and mark those changes on the recordings to have a comparison of different sound set-ups.

Just some ideas for you to consider, be sure to email me with your thoughts and comments.

Michael Knight is a composer and guitar player from Floral Park, NY, who has released several independent CDs on his own label, Knight Music Productions.

His latest CD is entitled "Electric Horrorland", another musical descent into the darkest depths of the abyss.

Michael Knight