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Topic: Quick Tips on Sound from a Sound Engineer
Message: Posted by: will lane (Dec 19, 2018 10:52PM)
Some preamble if you'd like:

I am currently reading through Ken Weber's [i]Maxiumum Entertainment[/i] (I highly recommend it so far) and am passing through his chapters on sound and lighting. Magic is a hobby of mine; I work 2 part-time jobs which are separate from studying magic. One job is as the Music Director for a Church, where I both direct music AND oversee/improve/maintain the sound equipment and sound volunteers. I also work as the Sound Engineer/Music Admin for a local college, doing gigs from full bands to just speaking events. I have been learning sound through hard-knocks and a lot of research, for the past 5 or so years. I'm not an expert on sound design, but I hope to share a few world-tested tips to supplement Ken's material.

His advice on sound is 99% spot-on (a few things in the [i]Monitors[/i] section are a bit iffy but that's later), especially considering sound design is such an overlooked part of a performance. I have attended many, many events where the sound was terrible and distracting, from local music gigs to single mic events. And many times, the fixes for bad sound are such simple fixes which can improve the sound quality from distractingly horrible to not even noticed. Sound design is, of course, supposed to NOT be noticed by the average person. Similar to his thinking on hard sleights- not even noticed and not appreciated... :bawl:

If you are performing at a high-quality event, likely there will be professional sound technicians there who know what they are doing. I wouldn't really get in their way. Befriending them is great, and asking about your specific mic selection, or getting a stage monitor for you is fine. But if they know what they are doing, let them do it. Trying to run sound [i]for[/i] an [i]experienced[/i] engineer is likely not in your best interest. If they are professionals, relax and let them do their professional work, so you can do [i]your[/i] professional work and not worry about sound.

HOWEVER, you have the other side of the coin the inexperienced, lazy, non-listening "sound technicians" who do not know what they are doing and will likely make your performance difficult to listen to. Or you'll have no sound engineer at all. OR you are running sound for yourself with your own PA system. In these situations, it would be smart to take Ken Weber's advice and the tips I have below. If you need to be a little "direct" to the "sound technician" for the sake of the show, I'd say do it. I'd rather have one person a little grumpy at me than have the entire audience distracted by bad sound.

I'll try to say things so they are as easy to grasp as possible, but if you are having any problems understanding just let me know. But hey, you're a smart cookie so I'm sure you got it. I'll try to keep things as concise as possible.

Here we go:


1.) Utilize the Low Cut button/knob on your mic channel. If you have an adjustable low-cut control, set it to about 200hz or a little higher and then roll it back (from 200hz to 190hz or so and so on) until you start hearing many pops or thuds when you talk into the mic, then set it back up a tiny bit. If you only have a low cut-button on the sound board (likely set at 100hz or 80hz) push the button in and turn down the "Bass" or "Lows" knob on the EQ for the mic channel. Cutting the lows out of the microphone prevents 99% of low, bassy pops or thuds from coming through the system from hard "P" and "B" syllables and the like. It makes your voice sound much more like it is not being amplified, as if your voice is traveling naturally, acoustically, and clearly.

2.) Flatten the rest of the EQ on your mic (except for the bass/low cut we fixed earlier) and flatten it as well for your music channel, and whatever other channels you are using for sound. Flattening means to have all the EQ knobs point at 0 decibels (dB) added or subtracted. Typically this looks like each EQ knob is pointing upwards as if pointing to 12 o'clock. Unless each channel has been specifically tuned by a professional sound engineer, likely the EQ knob settings are not properly tuned and can negatively affect your voice. For instance, a midrange knob that is boosting 800hz for whatever reason will likely make you sound nasal, like you have a cold. Or if the highs are reduced, your voice will be unclear and muddy. Flattening the EQ controls means that whatever goes into the mic is what comes out of the sound system, for the most part.

3.) If your voice or any other sound source just plain doesn't sound right, you can adjust it with the EQ controls. I would suggest to try to reduce a problem frequency range (a frequency range there is too much of) before you boost a frequency range (that there is too little of).

200hz-300hz is a very woofy, thick range which may need to be adjusted down to keep the voice clear.
500hz-1khz is a honky, nasal range.
2khz-6khz can make the sound abrasive.
6khz-15khz can cause the sound to be very sharp and painfully bright.

On the flip side...
200hz-300hz when boosted can add some thickness to the voice if the voice sounds thin.
500hz-1khz can add some realistic "body" to the voice when boosting that range.
2khz-6khz alongside 6khz-15khz can be boosted to increase clarity and "air" in the voice.

4.) Utilize compression. Compression basically takes the loudest parts of your voice or sound and brings it down in volume so it is more similar to the lowest volume parts of your voice or sound. This doesn't necessarily limit dynamic range, as the audience can still understand when you are whispering or when you are enthusiastic. Compression prevents the sound from being way too loud or way too soft. If you accidentally jump up a bit too loud in volume, compression will bring the volume down before the amplified sound even comes out the speakers, preventing speaker distortion and preventing hurt ears. Because of this, you can turn the mic up so that the whispers are more likely to be heard.

If you have a single control for compression, roll it up so that your loudest parts of your talking (try to be loud) do not overload the system and your talking doesn't overload the ears. If you have multiple controls for compression, try these:

Ratio: 1:100
Knee: Soft
Attack: 10ms
Release: 150ms
Threshold: Dependent upon the overall volume of the mic. Try to set the threshold so that it compresses fairly hard when you talk loud and compresses barely at all (but a little) when you talk normally.

[b]NOTE:[/b] With all that said, for a voice (singing or not), these are the typical settings that work well 90% of the time.

Low cut at 200hz.

200hz-300hz dipped some.

2k-6khz dipped very slightly.

6khz-15khz boosted slightly.

A lot of compression when speaking my loudest, a little compression when talking normally.

5.) If your music sounds like its a poorly recorded copy (loss of certain instruments, voices, sounds digital) but you know it is a fine recording, check the cable and its location on the sound board. Sometimes, canned audio cables get plugged into "balanced" ports on the sound board. Long story short, the music can cancel itself out in those kinds of locations. Think of two people trying to push the same block, but from opposite sides. Try pulling the cable out just a bit or plugging it in a different strip of inputs (NOT OUTPUTS) on the board. Always listen and think, "does it sound like that in my car?" Also be sure to check anything else the music channel/sound source has, like compression, effects, etc..

6.) Avoiding feedback. Stepping off the stage and around the stage is extremely important in making sure feedback will not occur during performance. In Ken's section on monitors, he suggests to have monitors placed behind the performer and pointed inwards. This may work dependent upon the situation. But if you are not working with a professional sound crew, you likely will not have high-end PA gear and you will not have professional sound engineers who have tuned the system to prevent feedback. It is indeed possible that you can walk up to a speaker pointed at you, with an SM58 pointed to your mouth, talk, and possibly avoid feedback. But, only to an extent.

If you tip the mic towards the speaker one centimeter, you could end up in squeal city. If the speaker is putting out enough volume, squeal city. If hearing yourself and your music clearly is important to you, sure- get a stage monitor. But, what you hear in there is likely NOT what the audience hears exactly. You will likely be able to hear things well enough just from the audience speakers alone. If not, monitors are fine, but it heightens the potential for feedback. Keep in mind what feedback is; it is the mic hearing the sound from the speakers that it just helped to amplify, enough so that it amplifies itself over and over again, continually getting louder until- squeal city.

Reducing feedback is possible but you may have to make sacrifices. Put the fader of your mic channel at +/- 0, and when you turn up the input volume on your mic (labeled as "gain", likely at the top of the channel) and you start squealing, back it off a bit so it stops squealing and walk around and talk/yell. If there is no feedback whatsoever, great! If there is feedback, try reducing the gain a little more and be sure you still have enough volume to be heard.

If you still encounter feedback, you can try reducing the gain some more, but be sure you never have to drop low enough to where you can't hear the voice. If this is the case, likely there are speakers pointed at the mic at the right angle/volume, causing the mic to hear itself. If you have to reduce the volume, you can boost the highs some (6k and up) to gain back clarity, at the cost of your voice possibly sounding thin. This is also presuming the highs are not the frequencies which are feeding back. Midrange often feeds back before highs.

Another option is to reduce the frequencies that are feeding back. You can do this through a process called "ringing out". Basically, you cause the feedback to occur and then your reduce the frequency range that the feedback is occurring in. Find the parametric EQ on the channel. On an analog or "old-school" board, the parametric EQ will be two knobs in the EQ section with some sort of decal connecting them. One knob will be labeled with frequencies, the other will labeled with +/- 15dB or similar range. Boost the +/- 15dB knob up, then sweep through the range of the frequency knob. The frequency that is prone to feed back will likely show itself. Then, cut the the frequency by reducing the +/- 15dB knob back so that it reduces the volume of that frequency.

If you have a digital console in use, you may be able to see a frequency display on the mic channel. Through this, you can cause the feedback to occur by just volume alone and visibly see exactly which frequency is causing the feedback, and then you can reduce it.


I really meant for this to be a quick tips thing but I ended up writing a book. I apologize. :lol: If one was to apply just tip #1 and nothing else, if they were not before, they'd likely have a better sounding mic 10-fold.

If you want a tl;dr version:

1. Use the low cut on your mic to prevent thuds and pops.
2. Flatten the EQ on your mic/music channels to make things sound natural.
3. Utlize the EQ if necessary to make things sound right.
4. Utilize compression to even out the volume (not dynamics) of your voice.
5. Check your music to be sure it comes through the sound system correctly.
6. Be proactive in preventing feedback.

If you have a problem with your sound system or have any general questions about sound, I'd be happy to read them and offer any assistance I could. :nod:
Message: Posted by: Ray Pierce (Dec 20, 2018 01:33AM)
Thanks Will!

As someone who has been both a music director and sound designer/engineer for the past 45 years or so, these are all good notes as a base to start from. It's a hard balance as you noted because most magicians are either working in a room with board guy mixing the show or they're trying to do it themselves using their own gear in
which case they need a lot more experience in setting up a system and ringing out a room then can be taught on here. Every little bit of knowledge is useful if you understand it inside and out. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!
Message: Posted by: will lane (Dec 20, 2018 12:28PM)
^Thanks for the positive feedback friend! It's nice to meet other fellow musicians and sound techs who are also magicians. I was wondering if I might be the only one who fits under those 3 brackets. :lol:
Message: Posted by: tophatevents (Dec 31, 2018 07:31AM)
Also be very carefull with phantom power...
i have some friends who are not interested in sound but had a mp3 type player connected to their P.A. with xlr
they just thougt power on, phantom power and start...
mp3 went pooof and broken

if you do not know what it's for... look it up ;)
Message: Posted by: will lane (Dec 31, 2018 10:18AM)
[quote]On Dec 31, 2018, tophatevents wrote:
Also be very carefull with phantom power...
i have some friends who are not interested in sound but had a mp3 type player connected to their P.A. with xlr
they just thougt power on, phantom power and start...
mp3 went pooof and broken

if you do not know what it's for... look it up ;) [/quote]Oh yes, thank you for adding that! Very important. I've found a lot of "sound techs" don't even know what phantom power is, and it is left on for no reason. I've heard many vocalists complain about mics shocking them over the years; sometimes due in part to weak system grounding, but also due in part to 48 volts needlessly running through the system.

I don't really see any situation where a magician would need board-powered phantom power. A wireless belt-pack mic, clip-on or lavalier, might use phantom power to power the mic, but it is contained within the belt pack system from the batteries. A [i]sound board[/i] sending phantom power to a wired SM58 does nothing but possibly shock your lips and fry your mp3 devices.

If it phantom power is "on" on the board, turn it off unless you are confident that you need it. Some sound boards (particularly cheaper/older ones) have universal phantom power buttons, find it and turn it off. Newer/more expensive boards have a phantom power button for each individual channel.
Message: Posted by: Ray Pierce (Jan 1, 2019 10:15PM)
[quote]On Dec 20, 2018, will lane wrote:
I was wondering if I might be the only one who fits under those 3 brackets. :lol: [/quote]

lol... I'm guessing it's a small group.

Good notes on phantom power. I do frequently use condensers in recording and sometimes in zone micing a stage for live shows but I can't think of too many examples where working magicians would be using a condenser in a live show that needs phantom power.
Message: Posted by: MrPrestoHypno (Jan 10, 2019 07:10AM)
Great information! Thanks for sharing!
Message: Posted by: Josepher (Jul 12, 2019 10:28AM)
Excellent info. Thanks Will!