Live Sound 101 with Kris Jackson
Photo Above By Tom Yamarone
Playing a live show can be a daunting task. Just getting in front of a group of friends in your own backyard can be nerve racking. Sometimes things feed back and no matter what you do, it won't stop. Or no one can hear your vocalist. Now, factor in the unknowns of playing in a place you've never been for people you've never met, and things can get pretty gnar, pretty fast. So many factors go into making a live show a success, and most of those lessons are learned the hard way. Well, that is where our dear friend and Audio Engineer Kris Jackson comes in to help us all out. Kris has been mixing live shows at some of the best venues in Long Beach for over 15 years and engineered studio records for The Ziggens, Zen Robbi, The Fiction, and Josh Fischel, to name a few.
His expertise extends beyond the mixing console, as Kris has played in countless bands, projects, and shows. Kris runs his own record label called ForknSpoon Music and regularly releases under the moniker NatureBoy RD. Kris even hosts his own nights at Di Piazza's on the 3rd Thursday of each month, Dub Night with the Dub Night Players Ft.Dub PassenJah. So to say Kris has an understanding in and around the stage and the music business in general is a bit of an understatement!
Kris has been kind enough to answer some common questions about playing live shows so hopefully your first/next/100th show goes even smoother.
Does a band ever need to hit you up before the night of an event? Is there anything that they’ll inform you anytime before the day of that will change what will happen the night of?
KJ: Many bands do make contact in advance. This is sometimes a good idea, especially if the band has unique needs for their setup(like tons of DI boxes or vocalists, or an 8 piece horn and string section). If a band has a unique setup it might be best to be sure the venue can handle your needs before even booking the show, this is often before I am even involved and requires good communication between the band, promoter, and venue, possibly the sound tech. Personally I have no problem bringing in an extra mic or DI box if needed, but that shouldn’t be expected from all sound engineers. I know a guy who’s toured the world with some of the biggest bands and he doesn’t even own a single mic of his own! When contacting a sound person ahead of the event,
I’d say first ask yourself if the call is necessary. If your band involves drums, bass, guitar, and one vocal mic, it’s pretty safe to assume the venue can handle that, and shouldn’t require a conversation in advance. If you decide that a call or text is necessary, I recommend to write down your questions in advance and also write down the answers you are given as well. One of my hugest pet peeves is bands that call me ahead of a show, sometimes multiple times, then keep me on the phone for 20+ minutes while they figure out what they’re trying to ask, and then after all that, when it’s show time, they’re still completely unprepared and have obviously ignored the answers and info I gave them.
Huge waste of everyone’s time, this is common enough that I can often see it coming just based on the type of questions they ask. But there are also shows that require huge amounts customization and a conversation before hand to make it happen.
One last thing to keep in mind, it is rare that a venue will pay their house sound tech for consultations with bands during off hours. So if a sound tech is willing to help out and answer questions on off hours, they are most likely volunteering their time on their day off! Always good to keep in mind when deciding if it’s a good idea to contact in advance.
Photo by Melinda Geraldez
What Is the best way for a band to prepare for a live show?
KJ: Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, and be as prepared as possible! But there are some things that will only be learned through experience. For example, most newbie musicians don’t really know what they need to hear in their monitor on stage. Some people try to get a full studio quality mix in their monitor with all instruments which just isn’t going to happen in many local situations. A lot of times if the drums and amps are right behind you, you may just need some vocals in your wedge and be good to go. Every situation is different though, for example if the drums are all digital the band will definitely want to hear them loud on stage in order to keep time!
What are some important terms bands and artists should be familiar with when playing their first few shows with a live sound engineer?
KJ: Stage right and stage left means to the right or left of the musicians on stage facing the audience.
Know what a 1/4" cable is and what an XLR cable is. If you are using a DAW or your own effects or anything that you’ve customized, know what kind of outputs are on your gear. An XLR Cable or Cannon Connector as they get called by old guys, is a 3 prong cable in a barrel that is typically used to connect microphones to the mixer.
A DI box is what you plug into when you don’t have an amp. It takes your instruments signal and converts it to mic level, which does a number of useful things, including extending the distance you can run the signal and reducing or eliminating ground buzz.
Whats the biggest mistake a musician can make playing live?
KJ: I’ve seen a lot of bands that sound great except when they get drunk, then they think they sound great but are like 75% sloppier and off key lol. Just the other day I saw a drunk singer slap the stand up bass out the bass players hand while he was spinning it around. That giant thing went flying right into to front row, luckily no one was hurt.
Another big mistake is bringing gear that simply doesn’t work, and not being prepared for issues like broken strings, etc. Many of us have learned this the hard way by trial and error. If you break your instrument, it’s unlikely the venue can do anything to fix it.
Any last tips you'd like to share with us today?
KJ: If the sound engineer already has cables run on the stage when you are setting up, don't put your amps and drums on top of the cables and try not to tangle your cables up with theirs. This definitely depends much on the tidiness of the engineers' cable runs, but it's a pet peeve of mine having to dig all of my neatly run cables out from under amps when the musician could have just pushed them slightly to the side.
*This is part one of a three part series about live sound. Come Back next week as we discuss how to deal with Monitor mixes and all the intricacies that come with it!*