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RE: [boston-acappella] Harmony Sweepstakes March 8 - Boston

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  • Joel A. Foner
    ... I guess it s my time to pipe up here... If the monitor mix wasn t right, here s the place to point, as I did sound for that show (I d better duck now!).
    Message 1 of 6 , Mar 10, 2003
      > One of the most common problems in a cappella - getting the
      > balance right. If the singers aren't experienced or paying
      > attention, it's because they're... not paying attention. If
      > the singers are good but the monitor mix isn't right, they
      > may not know what the balance should be... or maybe they
      > can't hear themselves at the volume they "should" be singing.

      I guess it's my time to pipe up here... If the monitor mix wasn't right,
      here's the place to point, as I did sound for that show (I'd better duck
      now!). Also, in terms of the house mix, there is a big difference between
      changing the volume (something a sound engineer can do) and changing the
      intensity (something only the performers can do). I've noticed a strange
      effect related to singing intensity. If the backing vocals are being sung
      with high intensity, lowering the backing vocals seems to not have much
      effect on getting them "out of the way" of the lead, until all of a sudden
      they "disappear" from the mix. Sometimes this makes if a very hard call to
      decide on a mix strategy - leave the harmonic balance full, or push for
      "best" lead vocal clarity?

      The original question seemed to be principally "why don't people use more
      dynamics in these shows, to let the leads come through more easily", I'm
      guessing that this is actually more of a performance and arranging question,
      and less of a stage monitor issue. I have now mixed something like 40
      a-cappella groups "out East", and have noticed some consistent trends. Some
      of you will say "right on" or "you're nuts", but here goes anyway!

      There seem to be three areas that are directly connected to this issue of
      lead vocal clarity and intelligibility:

      1) Learning to take advantage of the range possible with "large systems"
      It does seem that groups, in general, are not used to taking advantage of
      the dynamics possible with sound systems. Rather than knowing that you can
      be heard at lower volumes (whereas with pure acoustic performance, you stop
      being heard unless you project strongly), there seems to be something about
      being amplified that causes people to go the other direction. "I'm hearing
      so much sound that I had better stay loud to keep from being drowned out" is
      my guess on the psychology of this. What you hear from stage monitors, AND
      back from the room in a large venue with a large system, is VERY different
      than what you hear singing acoustic in a stairwell, or even acoustically in
      a concert hall. You hear far more volume coming back at you than your mind
      would expect, and in most halls, the return from the room is delayed due to
      the time it takes for the sound to get to the far wall and bounce back.
      Learning to ignore this delayed "short echo" back from the room takes some

      On the more generic dynamics issue, it is really good practice to record
      rehearsals on a regular basis. If you are going to do this on a limited
      budget, find a larger space once in a while to rehearse in (bigger than a
      typical living room). Set out a simple recorder of some sort about 20 feet
      from the group. Record with its single little microphone, and see if you
      hear the lead vocals clearly. If not, you'll immediate know what to do. It
      is really heard to have the faith and trust to back down when doing the
      backing vocals for this type of tune, and especially hard with the
      adrenaline of a show. Even in a rehearsal setting you might be surprised
      how often dynamics get left on the table to deal with "later" ;)

      2) Learning to hear "through" stage monitors
      Hearing "through" stage monitors is also a very different experience than
      hearing an acoustic balance. One thing that people end up adjusting to is
      that with stage monitors you hear everyone in the group. Although most
      folks -think- they hear everyone in an acoustic setting, the reality is that
      each singer hears predominantly the people right next to them, with far less
      volume of everyone else. This also leads to the comment "we sound tighter
      acoustic" - where from my vantage point I think that's because if you mostly
      hear the two people next to you it will always sound tighter - fewer voices!
      With a single-mix stage monitor system (i.e. not a separate stage mix for
      each singer!), everyone hears everyone. This takes real practice for most
      folks, since now you have to learn to pick yourself out of the mix as the
      audience does.

      From talking with folks who have made the jump to regularly performing with
      individual mics and stage monitors, it is a sort of Star Wars "use the
      force" kind of thing. At some point, you have to know how it feels to be
      singing correctly, and to be able to pick out the key elements from the
      stage mix without the expectation that you will hear yourself all the time
      as you would in a studio or acoustic setting. Practicing once in a while
      with stage monitors that are turned up "way too loud" can be useful in
      learning this skill. This way, you can't "cheat" and use the acoustic sound
      in the room, a sound that basically isn't there in a large hall setting.

      3) Learning to arrange with "space" for the lead vocals
      Some arrangements place the backing vocals in the same register as the lead,
      or harmonically in places that can "step on" the lead vocal line, or
      rhythmically so jam-packed that there is just very little space left for the
      lead vocal to fit into. There is a concept of leaving open space in an
      arrangement that can dramatically influence how well the parts are heard.
      If everyone is clustered around one spot (harmonically or temporally) it is
      hard to pick out the details of what is going on. If this is intentional,
      all the better, but if the lead vocal is to be clearly heard, it is
      sometimes better to purposefully leave space, thin out or spread the chords,
      so that even if the dynamics don't work in the heat of the moment, the leads
      are still "there".

      I hope some of this is useful!

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