Your live sound reinforcement system – or the sum of your microphones, amplifiers, signal processors, and speakers – is critical to achieving the sound you want your audience to hear. It can make or break a musical act, so we’ve turned to a seasoned veteran for some insight into the process.
Great live sound comes from a combination of technical understanding and general life on the road. James Garcia, lead singer and bassist of the popular New Jersey cover band, The Nerds, was kind enough to sit with us and give us the breakdown of his live sound preferences.
A-T: You’ve certainly played out many times. What is the best way for you to angle your amps onstage to produce a quality sound experience from anywhere in the room?
JG: We’ve been playing for 28 years. With an average of 200 shows per year, that’s over 5600 shows that we’ve let our sound engineer determine the best amp configuration, which has always been facing straight out, and maintaining a reasonable volume. Of course “reasonable” for a guitarist, is very different from “reasonable’ for a bass player or vocalist. The room is filled by the PA, and now with digital boards, mixed from a variety of points in the venue wirelessly.
A-T: What single show was the worst sound you’ve ever gotten from your band in a live setting, and what did you take from it? What went wrong?
JG: We played over a house system at one of the Atlantic City casinos, with all house backline. The drum kit was set to far stage left and enclosed in Plexiglass. The rest of the band was set up laterally, and this guaranteed that no one could hear each other playing. Form over function does not always work.
A-T: When do you think The Nerds sounded their absolute best, and what about the onstage configuration contributed to that sound?
JG: The best we ever sounded was at NBC Studios “Saturday Night Live” set where we played for several corporate events, as well as the Carson Daly show. It was like being in a recording studio, fidelity-wise, without the restriction of isolation, plus the added bonus of a full audience. It was all about the time-tested acoustics of that studio and their engineer.
A-T: What is your favorite venue to play, strictly in terms of sound?
JG: My favorite venue is the Hard Rock in Times Square. Great staging, acoustics, sound reinforcement and crew.
A-T: What does your bass rig look like today? Why have you chosen the equipment you currently use, what aspects of the instrument are really highlighted by your setup?
JG: I’ve tried every bass rig there is, and I have found my favorite to be the Hartke system. Two 4-10 cabs and a 1000 watt head…4 tone knobs make the magic happen and you’re good to go. I’ve never had a more road-worthy rig. I’ve done over 1400 shows on my current speakers alone with only ever having to replace one input jack. The amp is simple, clean and powerful. The Spector bass I’ve been playing exclusively since 1989 looks like I play street hockey with it…on 14th street in Manhattan. Cobblestones.
A-T: Do you ever distort your bass or add other effects to it, or do you prefer a clean bass sound? If you do apply effects, what pedals do you like, what exactly do they do for your sound, and why do you use them?
JG: I’ve always gone with a pure bass sound, doing all compression effects with my own fingers and the dynamics the instrument allows. You can never really trust 9-volt batteries. The only pedal I use liberally is the brake.
A-T: You guys play a diverse range of genres. Do you have to adjust your levels and effects frequently, or swap out equipment as you toggle between styles across your song catalogue, or have you found a comfortable place where the same gear will get you through each set?
JG: Both myself on bass and my guitarist of 28 years rely solely on pickup selection and in his case clean, dirty, lead switching from his Marshall TSL.
A-T: What microphones/configuration does your guitarist use to mic his amp live, if he does use one? If not, what is your live vocal mic configuration?
JG: The guitarist uses a red-box only. No mic on the cab. Besides, he’s so loud already…As far as vocal mics, that has been quite a learning curve. So many club bands have come to rely on Shure SM 58’s that they’ve sacrificed fidelity for the dependability of a roofing hammer. Once we had the opportunity to experiment with other mics such as Audio-Technica’s AE4100, we realized how much the role of the mic should be more than just that of a pickup and more of an instrument.
Once the vocals were more isolated by its near-field advantage, the quality of the monitor and FOH mix improved greatly, making the soundman’s job much easier and the mix much cleaner. There was a slight learning curve for the vocalist to stay on the mic and really work it, but a significant improvement on sonic quality and the simple enjoyment of singing. Just like getting a fret-job on your larynx…it feels like a new instrument. Obviously, that is a staple of our out-of-town rider.
A-T: What’s your go-to showstopper, meaning which cover song gives you the craziest crowd feedback?
JG: Our showstopper has always been our cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” although our “Dancing Queen/LA Woman” mash up has always run a close second.
Just like that, we’d run out of time, but we hope you’ve gotten something out of our interview with a man who’s played live gigs for over 28 years. What did we take from this? In Mr. Garcia’s implicit opinion, it’s better to find the amps, instruments, and microphones with the sound you truly love than to develop that sound with effects and processing.
Check out our selection of microphone types to get started, and keep checking in for more sound tips from professionals!