5 Ways to Improve Your Live Sound on the Cheap

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How to Win More Fans with Unexpectedly Professional Audio

In this day and age, being a small or solo act doesn’t mean your live sound has to suffer. A smart, professional rig will delight your listeners with big sound and bring them deeper into your music. And you don’t have to break the bank to build one.

Let’s explore some key gear upgrades for building ‘big time’ live sound and wowing the hell out of an audience.

START WITH A PORTABLE, POWERFUL PA

As the centerpiece of your live rig, you’ll want a PA that strikes a balance between sound quality and portability. Keep it as simple as you can to reduce setup and teardown time. Do you really need a 12-channel mixer?

A popular option is the Fishman Loudbox Mini, an acoustic amp that also offers a balanced XLR microphone input. Eliminate excess gear and save tons of money with this smaller PA at less than $400.

 

Fishman Loudbox Mini

Fishman Loudbox Mini

On the higher end, the Bose L1 offers incredible sound with amazing portability. It’s a bit pricier at $900, but has glowing reviews.

Traditional PAs like the Behringer Europort series are bulkier but offer more volume at half the price of the Bose. Once you’ve got a great PA system, let’s move to the next most important part of your rig.

[RELATED: Read our pro review of the JBL EON 615 Two-Way Speakers.]

PRO VOCALS: A KILLER MIC CHANGES THE GAME

There’s no faster way to let a crowd know that you care than with warm, full-bodied vocals that sound expensive. If you only have the budget to upgrade one piece of your rig, let it be the vocal microphone.

Shure SM58

Shure SM58

For less than $100 you can get professional caliber mic that will last your entire music career. The ole standard on the low end of the price spectrum is the Shure SM58, but if you’re looking for a step up, Sennheiser e835 is a dynamic performance mic with fantastic sound. The e935 is also worth a look, but honestly – under $200 is all you need.

PROCESS VOCALS LIKE A BOSS

A great voice, PA system, and mic can get you pretty far – but a vocal processor will really tie the whole room together (without a lot of work). These are especially valuable if you don’t have a backup singer or particularly great acoustic environment to round out your sound, and they’ve come way down in price in the last few years.

Let’s explore the key features.

  • Reverb is a standard and foundational effect to utilize—without it, vocals sound sharp, empty, hollow, and unnatural. Sometimes less is more, though.
  • Compression allows you to limit the peak volume while enhancing the subtleties of your voice, breathe, and expression. Pro Tip: don’t overdo it or you’ll kill all your dynamics.
  • Harmonizers have come a long way from sounding like Alvin and the Chipmunks! What better way to impress a crowd than thickening up your vocals with tasteful and subtle harmonies. It can make you sound big for cheap.

My pick is the BOSS VE-20, both for sound quality and ease of use. It’s one of the most popular and effective units on the market for processing live vocals. There are many great choices for less than $200, however. The BOSS PS-6 and TC Helicon VoiceTone Harmony are also top performers in this price range.

Boss VE20

Boss VE20

RETHINK YOUR GUITAR

Now that you’re singing and sounding good, let’s see if there’s any opportunity to improve on the guitar front.

If you’re an acoustic performer looking to sturdy up your sound, an acoustic/electric is the only way to go. It just makes everything easier. A regular acoustic is fine for impromptu living room gigs, but if there’s amplification involved, cut the nonsense and line-in to the system.

For electric players, there’s a great upgrade you can make: stop tuning forever. Yes, you read that right. You can forget entirely about the tuning part of your setup by installing an EverTune Bridge—a magically simple device that keeps your guitar in perfect tune until it’s time to change a string.

EverTune Bridge

EverTune Bridge

Truth is, nobody in the crowd but your mom enjoys watching you tune-up, nor do they care that you can. Why not just save that time and focus on rocking people’s socks off?

TAP INTO MOBILE TECH

OK, now we can have some fun. The 21st Century has made the life of a gigging musician easier and more fun. If you’ve got some extra cash around, buy a used iPad from Gazelle (an older one is fine), mount it to your mic stand with an iKlip from IK Multimedia and go app hunting. Set lists, tour schedules, lyrics, tabs, tuners, samples, beats, synths – and anything else you could possibly need will be at your fingertips whenever you need it, onstage and off. Plus, it’s just fun and the audience loves it.

At a basic level, you can use a tablet on-stage to stay organized and focus on your performance. Remember your song order, lyrics, and keep the show moving smoothly. If you want to get next level, read on.

BRING ON THE BEATS

Don’t expect fans to rock out to your acoustic jam without a kick and snare showing them how. The people want a beat!

If you have a drummer already, congrats. But if you’re on your own or rocking a skeleton crew, there are some great options for adding a backbone to your rhythm section without much fuss.

The BeatBuddy: It’s a stompbox that lets you control pre-programmed rhythms with your foot. It’s a popular option for small acts. At $299 it’s a bit pricey, there’s a learning curve, and constant tapping is required. But it’s still pretty cool.

Drum Beats+ App: If you decide to bring the iPad (or any mobile device) on stage, I actually created a $5 alternative that you should check out. It’s called Drum Beats+ Metronome App for iPhone, iPad, and Android. Originally created as a stockpile of beats for my songwriting needs, it turned into a nice little metronome and live drummer replacement for small acts. I recently got an email from a one-man-band using it on his cruise ship gig! People love it (and you can’t beat the price).

Drum Beats+ Metronome app

Drum Beats+ Metronome app

Farmer Foot Drums: If mobile isn’t your thing, check out the elegant Foot Drums by Farmer. These are a simple but quick way to add character to your performance. Warning: they aren’t cheap! But they are excellent.

IN CLOSING

As a live solo performer or as part of a small act, you have an opportunity to delight fans without breaking the bank on gear. Leverage efficient and high-quality tech to put together a performance that gives your fans way more than they expected (and gives your music its best chance to succeed). Good luck!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rick Belluso is the Co-Founder and CEO of Ninebuzz, a boutique music software and education company based in Rhode Island, USA. For more, visit ninebuzz.com.

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