The Problem With Collegiate A Cappella Groups (Part 2)

…continued from previous post, wherein I trash aspiring sound engineers.

It takes a lot of finesse to present a cappella music in the way we expect it to sound.

I know that many collegiate a cappella groups rely on their college’s sound reinforcement services to provide amplification for their events.  Great!  It’s fantastic that this is a resource available to students, and that there’s a vocational employment opportunity for other students who are interested in sound engineering.  Unfortunately, a cappella music is a much more sensitive environment than running speakers for a DJ, or turning up some microphones for an open mic night.  The few hours of tech training that colleges provide isn’t going to cut it.

The students who find themselves in these jobs are trained to use the equipment properly and safely.  But administering proper cabling and crafting a concert experience, though related, are not the same thing.  Some similar scenarios, if you will: I took a wood shop class, but that doesn’t mean I can build great furniture; I bought Photoshop, but that doesn’t mean I can design excellent graphics; I got elected for public office, but that doesn’t mean I know how to serve the people.  It’s a step in the right direction, but doesn’t make someone an artisan of that discipline. Makes sense, right?

Now, even if these students had hundreds of hours of experience, they probably don’t have access to some of the gear necessary to create the ideal musical experience for the audience.  (Again, I’ll refer to our high expectations as listeners, a future post.)  Specifically, I’ve seen these rigs run without equalization for the speakers, and without compression for microphones.  These are the two biggest basic tools (aside from, you know, a basic sound system) that I would really struggle without.

Creating a great a capella experience is too particular for a “plug-and-play” technician, and most universities’ sound support services will not be capable of fully serving this music.

Here are the fundamentals that I have learned to do for every concert:
• Speaker placement in the room that minimizes standing waves, phase cancellation, and stage bleed.
• Equalization of speakers using pink noise to create a linear response in the room that is also consistent with other mixing components.  This maximizes intelligibility, gets the best quality of sound the speakers can produce, and minimizes feedback from the get-go.
• Compressors used on all handheld vocal mics, and adjusted throughout the show as appropriate to each voice and song.
• Extreme finesse with area mics – filtering.

The first 3 are relatively straightforward.  The Area mics need some explanation.

Unless you’re running a handheld microphone for each vocalist, you’ll probably be wanting to use “area” mics to pick up and amplify the ensemble.  The term “gain before feedback,” or in this case more often experienced as “feedback before gain,” quickly becomes your arch nemesis.  Unless you’re in some sort of already extra-ideal stage vs. speaker circumstance, you will struggle like a sucker to get a usable amount of vocal sound from the ensemble area mics though your speakers.  I have a technique for getting significantly more volume out of area mics to which I will dedicate another post.  But in short, you’ll want some good cables, insert points on your mixer (or the patience for a bussing work-around), a 31-band graphic EQ, and a bit of experimentation time.  I get super excited about this, so it might turn into a lengthy post!

Let me finish this off by saying that I could never get the “smooth” results that I do at an a cappella concert without heavily working with: speaker placement, speaker EQ, and channel compressors.  If you’ve experienced similar struggles, you might try to reaching out to your engineers for some consultation before the show, to make sure they know truly what to expect, and have the tools and expertise to manipulate these properties for the audience’s pleasure.

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