Being an accomplished and unmissable live act is one of the strongest attributes an independent band can have. Here are 14 actionable tips on how to make your band sound better live:
1. Make Sure You’re Well-Rehearsed
Whilst it might sound obvious, the primary reason I’ve found bands struggle to fulfil their potential in a live setting is because they’re under-rehearsed. Here are some pointers on effective band rehearsal in preparation for a show:
- Be ruthless: If you want to be a great live band, you’ll have to adopt a take-no-prisoners attitude to rehearsing. If the drummer came in a millisecond late, do it again. If the singer didn’t quite hit that top note, do it again.
- Rehearse for the stage: All-too-many bands fail to do this, causing them to crash and burn in a live setting. Make sure you nail your song transitions, stage presence and onstage banter in the rehearsal room instead of trying to wing it at the show. Another trick that a lot of bands miss is rehearsing in stage positions; whilst rehearsing in circle formation allows for easy communication between members, it won’t adequately prepare you for how you’ll be positioned during a show.
- Include breakout groups: Many bands rehearse material by simply running through it as a full band. However, this will often limit your ability to nail each individual component of the arrangement. Include breakout groups for things like backing vocals or dual guitar sections so you can get them right at the source before incorporating it into the full arrangement.
If you’d like more information on how to run an effective rehearsal, check out our article ‘20 Band Practice Tips That Actually Work‘.
2. Gain As Much Live Experience As Possible
If you’re just starting out, it’s likely that your first few shows aren’t going to be your best. Additionally, it’s important to remember that even the most-experienced live acts will have a bad show from time to time.
Live performance really requires first-hand experience to master; no two shows are the same and each show presents a multitude of things that could go wrong. You’ll inevitably make mistakes and endure bad shows, so it’s important to take them on the chin and use them as an opportunity to improve for next time.
3. Make The Most Of Your Soundcheck
A soundcheck is a fantastic opportunity to ensure both a great live sound and monitor mix. Here are a few pointers on making the most of your soundcheck:
- Play at the volume you’ll perform at: Don’t be shy when it comes to your soundcheck. Make sure you play and sing at the volume you intend to perform at so the engineer can set your levels appropriately. Failing to do so will inevitably cause sound issues when it comes to the actual show.
- Make sure you’re happy with your monitor mix: The purpose of a souncheck isn’t just to get a great sound for the audience, but also a great sound for the band. If something is too loud or too quiet in your monitor mix, don’t be afraid to ask the engineer to adjust it for you.
- Play something ‘full on’ During a soundcheck, the engineer will usually ask you to run through a couple of songs as a full band. Try and pick material that uses the full extent of your musical arsenal so you can get a real feel for how everything will sound during the show.
4. Use In-Ear Monitors
If you’re playing live on a regular basis, you’ll know that monitor mixes tend to be hit-or-miss. Sometimes the size and shape of a room will also make it difficult to achieve a good on-stage sound.
It’s well-worth investing in a decent set of in-ear monitors for your live shows. I can almost assure you that after your first few times using them, you’ll never look back. In-ear monitors provide a consistent and clear monitor mix regardless of the size or shape of the room you’re playing in. Sennheiser’s IE 40 PRO Monitors (link to Amazon) are brilliant and the best value monitors I’ve used. If you’ve got a little more budget, it’s well-worth investing in a dedicated set for the entire band, such as the Audio2000’S AWM6306U.
5. Consider Using A Metronome
Something you might not know is that a significant number of current touring bands play to a metronome live. Playing to a metronome can make you significantly tighter and also minimize the impact of nerves. When you’re dealing with the pressure of nerves, it’s all-too-easy to start off a song too quickly or too slowly; using a metronome will effectively prevent this. In some cases, only the drummer will need to have the metronome in their monitor mix. In other cases, the whole band will benefit from playing along to a metronome.
It’s also worth mentioning that you’ll need to be using in-ear monitors if you’d like to take advantage of a metronome as the audience won’t want to hear it.
6. Ensure Your Setlist Is Well-Arranged
The structure of a setlist can truly make or break a live performance. Here are a few tips on constructing an effective setlist:
- Make sure it’s an experience: Think how the order of your songs can take your audience on a proverbial journey, taking into account both the tempo and lyrical content of each song. It’s generally a good idea to group similar songs together (for example, having three fast songs followed by three slow songs).
- Plan song transitions: If you’ve got songs that are in the same key, a cool trick is to merge them into one another. Additionally, plan out when you’d like to engage with the crowd as well as what to say.
- Plan for a ‘cut or extend’ situation: Occasionally, something will go wrong and you’ll be asked to either cut or extend your set. Make sure you’ve decided beforehand what songs to either cut or add if you’re asked to do so.
7. Skip The Alcohol
Whilst you might think a drink or two will calm your nerves, it’ll also slow down your reaction times. If you’re serious about your craft, you’ll want to give the best representation of yourself possible whilst playing live. Instead of drinking, try some breathing exercises or positive thinking to calm your nerves.
8. Don’t Dwell On Mistakes
No matter how well-rehearsed you are, mistakes are an inevitable part of live performance and you’re bound to make them. If you make a mistake, it’s important to not let it impact the rest of your set. No one is going to notice that you missed that one snare hit, but they’ll notice the chain reaction of mistakes that it led to once you started dwelling on it.
9. Watch Your Tuning
Guitars are often subject to sweat, heat and humidity on stage, which can cause them to slip out of tune. It’s vital that you check your tuning at every opportunity as you won’t be able to do it mid-song. If you’d like additional practical advice on how to fix common tuning issues, check out our article ‘12 Reasons Your Guitar Won’t Stay In Tune (And How To Fix It)‘.
10. Ensure Your Guitar/Bass Tones Are Well-Balanced
Whilst you might be able to get a killer-sounding tone by yourself, it’s important to adjust your tone to the requirements of the show. In general, you’ll want to aim for a full-bodied tone that sits nicely in the overall mix. It’s also important to take the venue into consideration when dialling in your tone. If the room is reflective, consider turning down the reverb. If it’s shrill-sounding, consider turning down the treble and boosting the bass.
11. Watch Your Amplifier Volume
Whilst I can completely understand the temptation to turn your amplifiers up as loud as they’ll go, you’ll run the risk of drowning out the vocals and drums. if you do so. This is especially important if you’re playing in a small or boxy-sounding room. Additionally, allowing some headroom will give the sound engineer a chance to properly adjust your levels.
12. Use Good Microphone Technique
The vocals are arguably the most important part of the entire mix as it’s what most people will be paying the closest attention to. However, poor microphone technique can really let your set down. Here’s a couple of pointers on proper microphone technique:
- Take the proximity effect into consideration: In general, you’ll want to keep the microphone around an inch away from your mouth in order to achieve a full tone. During louder sections, be sure to move back from the microphone a couple of inches to avoid overpowering the audience. Conversely, make sure you lean in slightly closer during quieter sections so that you can still be heard.
- Don’t drift: Whilst you should be aware of the proximity effect, it’s important to keep your positioning relatively consistent. Pulling away from the microphone too early early or constantly changing position can make it incredibly difficult to hear your vocals clearly.
13. Use Effects Pedals
If you’re serious about taking your live sound to the next level, it’s worth considering the use of both guitar and bass effects pedals. Effects pedals give you full control over your tone and can add a great sense of variety to your set. Here are a few recommendations to get started with:
- Chromatic tuner: All-too-many guitarists try to get away with a cheap headstock tuner, which will more-than-likely be wildly inaccurate and susceptible to noise from the venue. It’s well worth investing in a decent chromatic tuning pedal so that you can tune up directly through a cable. Additionally, your tuning pedal will double as a silencer for when you’re not playing. The best value tuning pedal I’ve found is the Korg PB01MINI (link to Amazon), which takes up minimal room whilst allowing for a good-sized display.
- Overdrive/Distortion: Depending on your genre, a distortion or overdrive pedal is essential for switching your tone from clean to dirty. My favourite overdrive pedal is the Boss SD-1 Super Overdrive (link to Amazon), whilst my favourite distortion pedal is the Boss DS-1 (link to Amazon).
- Boost: If you’re playing any form of lead, a boost pedal will allow your parts to cut through the mix without adding any additional harmonic distortion to your tone. The best value boost pedal I’ve found is the MXR M133 (link to Amazon).
- Reverb: Reverb can add a real sense of depth and definition to your sound. My all-time favourite reverb pedal is the TC Electronic Hall Of Fame 2 (link to Amazon).
If you’d like more information on the pros and cons of effects pedals, check out our article ‘Do You Need Guitar Pedals?‘.
14. Have A Strong Dynamic Range
A strong dynamic range can inject a real sense of life and variety into your set. When rehearsing your material, make sure the ‘quiet’ parts are truly quiet and the ‘loud’ parts are as hard-hitting as you can get them. Additionally, keep in mind that your ‘loud’ parts won’t be as prominent if they aren’t strongly contrasted by your ‘quiet’ parts.