Not Suck

Experiments in noise trauma aside, the point of a band is to sound great. It starts with great songs, of course, but if you don’t have it down, the greatest song ever written could end up like the sound of one toilet flushing. Young bands in particular often fall prey to the theory that playing as loudly as possible will win over the audience, as long as it’s done with plenty of rock posturing. But will audience members remember anything else about the gig, apart from their ears bleeding?

Once you’ve written a pile of great songs, your sole task is to make them sound good, by coming up with dynamic arrangements, working to the strengths of the songs, the musicians, and the venue — in rehearsal, playing live and recording in a studio.

It starts with your jam space. Keep a regular schedule so that everyone acknowledges the element of "work.” Work makes the difference between playing for kicks and being a real band with a shot at a career. Put a little effort into soundproofing the room and organising it in a way that makes sense for the players and the acoustics. Former Halifax, currently Toronto-based producer/engineer Laurence Currie (, has worked with Sloan, Holy Fuck, Wintersleep, the Gandharvas and every kind of music from folk to metal. He advises, "Don’t turn up your instruments so loud that you can’t hear the other players well. Also, try to get a decent PA system in your space so you can hear your vocals. Otherwise, you will end up developing some very bad habits, which may hurt your throat and voice.”

In the same way that guitar players need to establish their sound through their choice of amps, pedals and tones, choosing the right vocal mic for your jam space is important. "Microphones are a personal choice,” says Currie. "Find one that makes you feel good about your voice, that suits your voice. No two microphones are alike. Usually you will end up with a dynamic microphone like a Shure SM58.”

In addition to using your jam time to work out new material, gigging bands should work out a set list and practise running through it for maximum dynamics, drama and crowd captivation. The most killer live bands you’ll ever see, like the late, great Change of Heart, can run through a heart-stopping 45 minute set without a single moment of silence. Remember that the audience didn’t pay to watch you tune up, so in addition to smoothing transitions between songs, practice speed-tuning and string-changing.

When you’re ready to gig, learn to make the most of your sound check. First and foremost, be on time for load-in and sound check. Don’t come in with half-finished songs. "It’s a sound check, not a rehearsal or time to practice your licks and poses on stage,” says veteran front-of-house soundman Carl Gosine (see Meet & Greet, page 92). "Use your time to get comfortable on stage. Some artists take one song, some take ten, but be conscious of how much time you are given and use it wisely.”

Don’t book studio time until you’re truly ready. As Currie says, "The studio should be a fun learning experience. That being said, you should do everything in your power to make it go as smoothly and quickly as possible, if not for your own morale, then for your pocketbook. There is a bit of a myth surrounding modern recording gear that you can fix anything [in the mix]. The fact of the matter is, you can fix a lot of things afterwards, but it takes a lot more time to fix it later than to just do it right the first time.”

Recording is as much a talent and skill as songwriting or playing live are, and again, practise makes perfect. First, Currie says, bands should record some rehearsals. "It can be with a computer, multi-track machine, or just a portable stereo with a microphone on it — something that will let them listen back to their songs and allow them to critique themselves. Then they should make changes and do it again until they are comfortable with the songs and the arrangements.”

To really nail the arrangements, Currie says, "[Band members] should all practice. Not just as a band, but individually. The better prepared they are, the less money they will end up spending in a studio. You’d be surprised at the number of band members who don’t know how to play their own parts or how their parts relate to the other players in the band. It makes for a lot of headaches and wasted time in the studio. If you can’t play through your song in the privacy of your bedroom without a mistake, how do you expect to be able to do that in the studio when the pressure is on?”

Before you hit the studio, make sure all your gear is up to snuff. "If you love the sound of your amp, but it’s in rough shape, Murphy’s Law says it will die in the studio. That goes for drums, bass, everything. Make sure your instruments are intonated. Get a professional to check them, and not your buddy down the street. Very few people really know the science behind a good set-up on a guitar or bass. And, a bad set-up can waste a lot of time.”

Finding the right collaborator is essential to making the most of your studio time. Before you bring someone in, Currie says, "Get to know your producer. Do you share a common view of what you want to accomplish? Is the person knowledgeable of your type of music? Do you trust them? Not every producer is for everybody. Also, be open to new ideas. If you aren’t open to change in your songs, why have you hired someone to produce your music? The role of a producer will vary with every session and band. Sometimes they will help with song selection, arrangements, and engineering. Other times they will be there just to hire the right studio, engineer, session players, mix engineer etc. and make it all happen.”

Whether live or on recording, sounding great means being serious about what you sound like and what you hope to sound like. Many bands resist the idea of actively trying to sound like something or someone they think is worthy, preferring instead to just let the music happen. Currie disagrees with this strategy. "The better idea the band has of what they want to sound like, the better they will be able to communicate their ideas to others. It’s not very inspiring when the band doesn’t know or care what they want to sound like.”

The answer is to strive for what is your own sound, by way of influences you are passionate about. Whether you’re a quiet solo songwriter or the next big thing in rock opera, being able to communicate this passion to your live and at-home audience is, ultimately, how to sound great.

Frequently Asked Questions

Our guitar player is really fussy about his tone. How can he get consistency out of his rig?
He should make sure all his gear is working properly and either fix it or replace it if it’s not. You might also encourage him to experiment with new gear. With about a zillion guitars, amps, pedals and effects boxes on the market, there’s bound to be something that can reliably achieve the sound he wants. The more important point is to sound good rather than look cool, and there’s nothing less cool than having to ditch half the set because your amp cacks out.

Our drummer has no clue how to tune or maintain her kit. Every time we go into the studio we end up spending way too long trying to get good drum sounds. Any advice?
Hundreds of bad jokes notwithstanding, drummers are musicians too, and yours needs to take her craft seriously. She should find a pro drummer to help her out with tuning and maintenance. Larger music stores often sponsor drum workshops featuring session pros. Even if their style of music is not to your drummer’s taste, these people know their instruments and will teach her something she didn’t know. Having said that, skins and sticks are expensive and the band might consider helping out with those costs.

We play in a club where no matter what, I get an electrical shock. What’s up with that?
The problem is likely an improper ground in the electrical circuits. It’s common with vintage, two-prong amps, so if that’s yours, try rotating the plug 180 degrees. If your amp has a ground switch, try reversing it. Or get a surge-protected power bar and try plugging your amp through that. If that doesn’t work, the problem may be that this particular venue runs the house lights through the same circuits as the PA, which can weaken or divert the ground current. Ask the sound guy if that’s the case, and if it is, see if there’s an outlet somewhere that’s not in the same loop. When all else fails, put a sock on the mic. In fact, it’s a good idea to always gig with a power bar, a long extension cord, and your own personal mic sock at the ready.

We want to bring our own sound guy on tour. What’s the protocol?
First, as far as possible in advance, make sure it’s cool with the club and with the house sound staff. The club probably won’t care, but the house person may not appreciate the night off. He will want to make sure your guy knows what he’s doing — in fact, odds are he’ll stick around for the night, because that’s how he gets paid. Don’t expect the club to pay your travelling sound guy. And make sure the club and the house guy know what extra sound gear you’re bringing, to make sure it’s compatible with the house systems.