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Big Band sound

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Big Band sound

Postby paul_c » Wed Dec 04, 2019 4:38 pm

Hello

This is my first post here, so please go easy on me. And also, its not so much seeking a specific recommendation, but more of a general "are we going in the right direction" thing.

For my sins, I seem to have ended up being "the technical person" for our big band, as well as playing the bass. Now, we fairly closely follow the format of a big band, that is: rhythm section of drums, bass, guitar, piano/keyboard; then 1st & 2nd tenor, 1st & 2nd also and baritone sax; 4 trumpets, 4 trombones. Because we're a community band, we actually are a little bit flexible on the numbers, and there's a bunch more sax players in the area than brass, so we actually have 7 altos and 5 tenors.

Oh, and a singer (or two).

When we moved from "just" a band to having a singer, we bought a small PA - a Behringer B205, which was barely adequate for the job. Before our first gig with the singer though, we bought an additional 12" active speaker (an Alto TX212) and it worked well - with just the singer going through this.

More recently, a few things happened: the B205 stopped working; the Alto TX212 'blew' (now bass notes are very distorted). We're progressing refunds/replacements etc there. And a new keyboard player joined, but didn't have an amp, so needed to put that through the PA too. Due to the imminent nature of the next gig (which was last weekend), we "moved up" to what one might call a "proper" setup:

a mixing desk (Behringer X1222USB)
a monitor (Alto TX208) shared between singer and keys
another 12" active speaker, it was a cheap "Neo" probably not heard of it

Now, the mixing desk has 6 XLR inputs. One of the reasons I went for a bigger one is to offer future flexibility. But everything is a compromise - we need to be able to store/transport the kit, the singer (not technical) needs to be able to tweak the levels if needs be, etc). And of course it needs to be affordable.

For the most recent gig, we put 5 things into the PA:

vocals
2nd mic (for solo sax; and solo trumpet in separate tunes)
keyboard
a small amount of guitar
a small amount of bass

I wanted to put the guitar through because its very "directional" in the sound and somewhat critical where we sit him and where the amp is pointed. The idea is, if we can put some through the PA too, it eases this aspect and it means we aren't further constrained on the layout. And the bass was a bit of a bonus because we can.

In my mind, we own enough equipment to do rehearsals, and probably enough to "DIY" for smaller venues, say up to 200 seater. But our strength comes from keeping the sound levels a bit lower than eg a pop/rock band, and letting the natural acoustic balance work, similar to how an orchestra would do (except perhaps at a very large venue). And that if we needed to play a larger venue, we'd need external help eg hire in a suitable PA with lots of channels, close mic all the saxes etc (loads of channels!) and amplify the level sympathetically to achieve a nice punchy (but not overwhelming) sound, without the players needing to play massively loud and tiring themselves out.

I've read up extensively on the topic but a big band is something a bit different from the average pop/rock, for a few reasons 1) we have a quite loud "acoustic" sound already, unlike where most of the band would need amplification; 2) we don't need thousands of watts of power in the typical venues we play "less is more".

Now, it would be nice to mix everything up and have ultimate control of the sound FOH but it would be a mix of the acoustic and amplified sound; and it would be a job/skill/channel count many times that of a "normal" band. So we're in a kinda half-way-house with some stuff amplified and others not.

I'm just after reassurance that we're more or less on the right track and that if ever we did do bigger venues, there are firms out there who can come in and do a decent job of mic'ing and putting the band through a PA, decently. It would be nice to have our own sound engineer and kit but pragmatically, it costs a lot and the role would be sporadic, ie they'd only be needed for gigs not the rehearals - yet they'd still need to know in quite some detail, what the band needs, how everything works etc and be able to quickly wire things up and solve problems etc. Or if we should take a different approach etc
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Re: Big Band sound

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Wed Dec 04, 2019 5:10 pm

Welcome to the SOS forums, Paul.

The obvious thing I'd say -- and this will frustrate because you are the bassist -- is that I really wouldn't put the bass through the PA. Your current PA speaker really doesn't have the low end to do the bass any justice, and it will just eat up the headroom and power capacity that would be far better used to bring clarity to the vocals.

I probably wouldn't mic up the brass soloists either -- unless the players can't 'play up' when they solo. My reasoning is that it's because their tonality will inevitably change dramatically when they are being boosted on-mic, compared to their natural sound, as well as appear to come from a different place. Personally, I find that really distracting and unhelpful when the rest of the band are playing purely acoustically. Get the soloists to move to the front of the stage and blow harder! :-)

The keys you have no choice with, for now, although that speaker really doesn't have the low-end range to do the keys any favours. I'd encourage the keyboard player to get their own amp or speaker system if you can...

The guitar is a less clear-cut one. It all depends on the amp, I guess. Raising the amp up off the floor with a stand will probably help a lot as far as balancing levels is concerned. I'm a bit surprised you have a 'directionality' problem, but again, it's all down to the nature of the amp being used.

But overall, I'd say yes, you're on the right track.
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Re: Big Band sound

Postby Eddy Deegan » Wed Dec 04, 2019 5:20 pm

Nothing to add to what Hugh said, but it's nice to see so much relevant detail in a post when asking a question. You might find that checking the forums once in a while is a useful thing to do on an ongoing basis as there is a huge amount of relevant and useful info in here and things rarely stay the same over time in a big line-up so hopefully we'll see you around for a while yet.

Sharing the results of your choices going forward will probably help others too!

Welcome :thumbup:
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Re: Big Band sound

Postby paul_c » Wed Dec 04, 2019 5:29 pm

For clarity, "brass solo" meant a player who has a prominent part in an entire tune. They would go to the front of the stage, stand next to the singer and play throughout. (ie not just "taking a solo" for 8 or 16 bars etc).

In fact it would help if I mentioned the tune! Its "Big Bad Handsome Man" by Imelda May. I transcribed the trumpet part and rearranged it for big band (the sheet music isn't out there for big band, so it needed arranging). The other 3 trumpet players do the normal "pad" stuff and the soloist/1st trumpet is markedly different/more interesting.

Point taken re: bass thru PA, it was the first time I'd tried it, since I wasn't out front and we ran out of time to do a thorough soundcheck, I can't be sure if it added anything. I am a big fan of letting the on-stage sound level be as low as possible, not blasting out 500W or so backline and letting the PA "do the heavy lifting" if needs be. Maybe its for later/bigger venues etc though.
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Re: Big Band sound

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Wed Dec 04, 2019 5:44 pm

paul_c wrote:I am a big fan of letting the on-stage sound level be as low as possible, not blasting out 500W or so backline and letting the PA "do the heavy lifting" if needs be.

I think it's a good policy to keep stage levels as low as practical, but for a PA to do the 'heavy lifting' you'd need a rather more capable PA than you currently have,... Moreover, a big band is reasonably loud acoustically, anyway, you've already said, and you'd need to be playing in pretty big venues before an overall PA really adds something worthwhile to the overall sound... In smaller venues trying to put everything through the PA is likely to do more harm than good.

But it is obviously important to use a PA to help the weakest instruments and especially the vocalist who will probably tend to be lost and will need some help in most venues. In regards to the bass, even a relatively modest bass amp will usually do a much better job balancing the low end with the band, than relying on a too-small PA.

There are several regulars around here who play in, work with, and record big bands, as well as a lot of experienced PA operators, so I'm sure much more constructive advice will be along soon...
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Re: Big Band sound

Postby Bob Bickerton » Wed Dec 04, 2019 7:37 pm

I’ve worked with a few big bands and whilst you are on the right track to some degree, I think the most important concept to understand is that big bands are acoustically loud and (most would say) are supposed to be that way. Whilst I have worked with an engineer who miked everything (though I’m not saying everything was switched on) the main point of the exercise is to achieve balance and the problem here is that, because big bands are, well BIG, you need quality and suitably powered gear to achieve this.

Obviously singers need a good mike and system, as does keys. Bass and guitar should be fine provided the players have invested in appropriately powered amps. I’ve often miked the entire sax section, sometimes they prefer clip-on mics, but you could just have a solo mic on a stand in front of the section. Less important, but next step would be to have a solo mic positioned for each section so that the trumpet and trombone soloists can access them.

The problem you face in not have a sound engineer each time you play out is that, within the band, it’s impossible to know how it’s sounding out front (assuming you have a leader within the band and not a conductor).

So here’s a question....... How many players in the band? 17 or 18? Why compromise all their work by NOT engaging a sound engineer for your gigs?

I’d forget no-name systems - they’ll just blow out like the Alto. I’d be thinking QSC K12s or Yamaha equivalents - maybe 15” speakers to do justice to the keys, or maybe a full range system.

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Re: Big Band sound

Postby Mike Monte » Thu Dec 05, 2019 1:16 am

My brother and I led a big band in the 80's/90's so we had all of the gear; songs, music stands, and PA.

That band is long-gone but I still do a fair share of big band playing (gigging with one on NYE :P ) and providing sound for others.

Assuming that the big band gig is indoors, all that really needs to go into the PA is the vocalist (she/he'll need a monitor) plus a couple of switched mics for the soloists (sax/tbn/trpt).

If you have an extra monitor put it on the other side of the band and put some bass in it. (Your soloists will thank you!)

The rig that I used with our big band was 3 mics (vocalist & 2 soloists), a Crate PCM8-DP powered mixer, and a pair of Bose 402's for mains plus a Yamaha MS202 stand-mounted monitor for the vocalist.

btw: I still have the above gear...they still work!

That was it. It sounded excellent and was very portable.

It has been my experience that big band "mix themselves" for the most part on indoor gigs.
For outdoor gigs I have found it best to mic all 5 saxes for a bit more presence as the trumpets/trombones tend to cut more. (Just tell the sax soloists to "eat the mic" while soloing.)

As far as gear goes you'd be best to stick with name-brand gear: QSC K10's/ Yorkville E10p's, Yamaha etc. for mains, etc. Beh/Alto gear doesn't seem to hold up IME. Name brand gear usually has an extended warranty period.

Hiring a sound man / tech can work but I have gigged several times (played in the band) where a tech's concept of balance has ruined the sound....

A good big band can mix themselves (such as a concert band/orchestra does) thus mic'ing everything up and leaving the mix to someone with limited experience in that genre may be more of a detriment than an advantage.
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Re: Big Band sound

Postby shufflebeat » Thu Dec 05, 2019 2:41 am

Hugh Robjohns wrote:Get the soloists to move to the front of the stage and blow harder!

And try to get the rest of the band to avoid playing over them inappropriately. The arrangement is your friend.

Sometimes not everyone will listen, unfortunately.
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Re: Big Band sound

Postby The Red Bladder » Thu Dec 05, 2019 9:56 am

OK, I've actually PA'ed big bands on several occasions and I recorded one here at Bladder Towers last year.

Your first problem here when getting advice is that nearly everybody here is 'tainted' (if that is the right word!) by concentrating on rock bands where everything has to be OTT LOUD. There is only one instrument I would PA in that lot and that is the vocals. Add some reverb and leave it at that. Bass and guitars should use their own combos and the horns are plenty loud enough. The musicians should be balancing themselves by just playing louder and quieter and as Sufflebeat so rightly points out, the arrangements are what makes the sound.

How does that work? Easy - but first a very short history lesson -

The use of the letters PA for a sound amplification system comes from big bands. If there had been no big bands and later their close cousins, jazz bands, sound systems would have a different name and would have evolved differently.

Theatres across the US (where big bands originated) as well as in most other countries, had one microphone and above the proscenium arch there was one small speaker. On the side of the stage, there was one valve amp and one volume control labelled Public Address (PA) because the main job of that mic and speaker was to tell the public such things as to vacate the building if a fire broke out. That was the sum total of the sound reinforcement in the 30s and 40s. When a big band played the one microphone was taken out onto the stage and the singer got to use it. (The early big bands didn't have a singer, so they didn't even need that one mic!)

When guitars became amplified, they too joined the big bands, but the guitarists used their own combo-amps. Not every venue had a decent upright, so all sorts of attempts were made to make pianos portable but the Hammond organ was (despite its' massive weight) the winner and the combination of the slightly lighter B3 and a Leslie was the standard keyboard for jazz combos.

This constellation stayed pretty much standard will into the 60s - even for most rock bands. The Rhodes got a suitcase, the Pianette got a Fender Twin, the vocals got two or more of those Bose 800 boxes. L, R & B guitars each had their own combos. It was only when things got really loud and venues were so large that drums had to have amplification and then over a period of about ten years the type of systems with FoH desks (aka 'flight control') and monitor wedges, etc., etc., became the standard.

Even today acts that require a particularly clean sound (e.g. Cliff Richard) will separate out the parts of the system.

If you are only playing to 200 people, I would use the PA for the vocals and have bass and rhythm guitars each use their own boxes. Keys again should use something clean and more hifi. In a big band, it's all about the horns and they don't need any help!

Too many of today's sound guys think that their job is only done when every goddam thing has some outrageously expensive mic placed in front of it and he (and only he) has control over the balance of the sound. They have become equipment obsessive as a result of extremely good marketing by people who manufacture equipment. The more mics you have on stage, the worse the sound can become! Here too less can mean more!

RECORDING

Recording a big band is different and I can expand on that if you want me to. Busy day and work to do in the studio!
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Re: Big Band sound

Postby Bob Bickerton » Thu Dec 05, 2019 10:13 am

Interesting the range of views here. I was system tech for New Zealand’s leading Big Band which also tours internationally. They travelled with their own sound guy and played an acoustically ‘live’ concert venue seating 300 people.

Their sound guy turned up with an old leather suitcase inside of which was a mouth watering range of microphones. This guy, whose name I can’t remember, was in his late seventies and really knew his stuff.

He calmly put up a U47 for the vocalist. Each instrument had its own microphone including four fairly ancient looking AKG C414 B-ULS on trombones. I remember he had an interesting technique for miking the Steinway which involved two mics (either Neumann km84s or km184s) each mounted in a hole in the frame within a rubber bung. This helped with feedback rejection.

It was a great show - excellent sound - but very loud. But that was exactly what the musical director wanted.

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Re: Big Band sound

Postby paul_c » Thu Dec 05, 2019 11:00 am

Many thanks for the replies so far. It kinda reaffirms what I always thought (but wasn't 100% sure on) - we should concentrate on getting the balanced acoustic sound just right, and not worry about amplification (except vocals) for a while yet.

I shall hold short of actually returning the mixer for a smaller one.....I have had a number of amps fail on me over the years, so I always take a spare these days. Instead, I shall take a DI box, connect it up (before the amp) but leave the fader at 0.
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Re: Big Band sound

Postby Mike Monte » Thu Dec 05, 2019 11:54 am

The Red Bladder wrote:OK, I've actually PA'ed big bands on several occasions

Too many of today's sound guys think that their job is only done when every goddam thing has some outrageously expensive mic placed in front of it and he (and only he) has control over the balance of the sound. They have become equipment obsessive as a result of extremely good marketing by people who manufacture equipment. The more mics you have on stage, the worse the sound can become! Here too less can mean more!

My sentiments exactly.
I have performed in situations where the soundman truly feels that his gear is his instrument and that he-knows-what-it-should-sound-like.

Not all music is rock'n roll.
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Re: Big Band sound

Postby paul_c » Thu Dec 05, 2019 3:41 pm

That's one of my fears - getting a sound engineer who is overwhelmed by, or simply doesn't have any experience of, such a large band/big band. Assuming that barrier can be overcome, what's the going rate for a PA hire with (say) 8-10 mics and the drum kit and rest of rhythm section put through it, for a 600 seater venue. Although I think possibly, for my own peace of mind its still within the range of just going it acoustically (with mic for singer and solo instrument(s).) and it actually makes sense to NOT use a PA even for that size venue, just tell everyone to play a bit louder and the audience to not cough etc!
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Re: Big Band sound

Postby Martin Walker » Thu Dec 05, 2019 3:57 pm

What an absolutely fascinating thread, containing a rich mix of history, advice, plus plenty of anecdotes.

Bravo everybody, and welcome to the SOS Forums paul_c ! 8-)


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Re: Big Band sound

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Thu Dec 05, 2019 4:08 pm

paul_c wrote:That's one of my fears - getting a sound engineer who is overwhelmed by, or simply doesn't have any experience of, such a large band/big band.

It's a valid concern, but there are ways around it. For example, you could develop a working relationship with one specific engineer/company to do all your larger gigs. That way, they get to know your requirements and you their working style and capabilities.

But the larger professional companies have such a vast experience of covering so many different types of band and venue that most will know what a big band is supposed to sound like and how to cover it effectively. And to be honest, it's not rocket science. You listen to the raw sound. Recognise what needs support, and support those elements appropriately...

...what's the going rate for a PA hire with (say) 8-10 mics and the drum kit and rest of rhythm section put through it, for a 600 seater venue.

That's a piece of string question. An amateur with a van and some low end kit will obviously be massively less expensive than than a professional team with really good gear and very capable, experienced engineers... it will also vary with location and time of year.

...it actually makes sense to NOT use a PA even for that size venue, just tell everyone to play a bit louder and the audience to not cough etc!

:-) It will depend on the acoustics of the venue, and what the gig is for. If it's a sit-down, 'lovers-of-big-band' gig, they'd almost certainly prefer minimal PA support. But if it's a huge Wedding gig with dancing, a chunky PA might be more appropriate.
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Re: Big Band sound

Postby shufflebeat » Thu Dec 05, 2019 4:17 pm

Mike Monte wrote:.
I have performed in situations where the soundman truly feels that his gear is his instrument and that he-knows-what-it-should-sound-like.

Not all music is rock'n roll.

I'd have a slight quibble with this in that a good tech should know what the aim is ( in the his case, the acoustic sound but balanced and appropriate to the venue/occasion) and then it's a very good thing that the tech "knows-what-it-should-sound-like", etc.

But I do take your point 100% and am being pedantic.

I tend to work with folky stuff and observe that some people, including musicians who mix themselves, sometimes go for a very unnatural parody of their acoustic sound which is invariably more difficult to mix.

I'm looking mostly at you, fiddle players.
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Re: Big Band sound

Postby Wonks » Thu Dec 05, 2019 5:10 pm

What sort of material do you cover? There's going to be a different emphasis if you're doing classic soul numbers compared to doing say, Glen Miller style songs.
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Re: Big Band sound

Postby paul_c » Thu Dec 05, 2019 5:58 pm

Wonks wrote:What sort of material do you cover? There's going to be a different emphasis if you're doing classic soul numbers compared to doing say, Glen Miller style songs.

Here's the setlist from the most recent gig (just over an hour):

Rock Around the Clock
In the Mood
Santa Baby
A Little Blues Please
Fever
Blue Moon
Big Bad Handsome Man
The Christmas Song
I loves you Porgy
Birdland
Valerie
Ain't No Other Man
Tequila
Little Brown Jug
Blue Suede Shoes

So, a mix of big band standards and some more modern stuff.
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Re: Big Band sound

Postby Mike Monte » Wed Jan 01, 2020 8:37 pm

Last night (NYE) I subbed (playing sax) with a bigband.
The band was full instrumentation plus vocalist (she was good) and the band had its own PA with no sound engineer.

Before I comment about the PA, I will say that the ballroom was hard to mix in: approx 150'x150' LW, 25-30' ceiling height, and all glass walls (floor to ceiling) on three sides.....

The PA; two 15" speakers on sticks (one on either side of the band) and two 15" monitors for the vocalist. All of the speakers were active. one vocalist mic (out front), two (unswitched) saxophone solo mics plus another one for trombone solos/announcements.

Keyboard was run though the monitors and was disturbingly loud....'drove me nuts....plus we could have used some bass in the monitors.

There seemed to be some reverb/effects on all mics. The announcements were illegible (according to my wife who was in the audience).
The unswitched solo mics also created an unbalanced sound in the band.

I own a small/local sound company and could have made suggestions and adjusted things a bit better but this was the first time that I have played with them thus I didn't want to step on any toes...

The bandleader and members are nice people who seem to love what they do.
Once we get into the warmer weather I'll probably "volunteer" to tech one of their gigs to get the levels set, bring a DI for the bass (plus bring some "switched mic cables").
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Re: Big Band sound

Postby Sam Spoons » Wed Jan 01, 2020 9:05 pm

I've done exactly that in the past Mike and would do it again. Hope it works out and god for you to offer :clap:
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