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Overcome the Sound System from Hell

760SystemHellGuarantee that your gigs will go according to your plans, not someone else’s –says Michael Ferraiuolo

It’s 10 PM on a Thursday night in New York City.

My band hits the stage in a small bar on the lower East side and begins to set up their gear for our set.

Tonight’s venue is old, small, and cramped – with an aging sound system.

We do a quick sound check. “Can I get the lead vocal a little wetter”? I ask the sound engineer.

Don't try to compensate by pushing too hard

“We don’t have any reverb” he replies.
Hmmm. This is going to be a long set.

Now don’t get me wrong: there is no substitute for good singing, but even the most skilled singer is hard-pressed when faced with a terrible sound system or even worse, an ambivalent sound engineer.

Five tips for overcoming a bad sound system:

1. Don’t push. A singer’s natural instinct is to push a little harder to get more volume. The bottom line is this. Singers can’t compete with the guitar amps and drum kits. Let your microphone do the heavy lifting. Communicate with the sound engineer however you can. Whether it’s hand signals from the stage or simply asking the engineer in between songs to turn the lead vocal up, don’t try to compensate by pushing your voice too hard.

2. Talk to your band. Honest and constructive communication between band members is key to success. If the lead singer is struggling to be heard it’s important for everybody to recognize that and adjust accordingly. There’s nothing wrong with asking your band mates to turn down a little bit to have a good show or rehearsal.

3. Bring your own gear. Invest in a good quality dynamic microphone and look into picking up a vocal effects pedal. Not having to worry about the quality of your vocal channel relieves a lot of pressure going into a gig. Reverb, adaptive EQ, delay, compression, and independent volume control are all at your fingertips onstage with your own effects pedal.

Do you want a friendly teammate or not?

4. Make a friend out of your engineer. I have had too many engineers tell me that no one has ever taken the time to say thank you to them after set. This might sound simple but I can’t tell you how far a good attitude can get you. Having a quick, polite conversation with the engineer before your set and offering a genuine thank you afterward can make all the difference. After all, the engineer is part of your team while you’re on stage. Do you want a friendly teammate or not?

5. Plan ahead. If you booked a gig at a venue you’ve never been to, scout ahead! See some performances and if you notice a band having trouble getting a good mix then you can plan ahead. A little extra footwork will make your performance so much the better.

Solid practice, a piece of gear, and a little planning head can guarantee that your gigs will go according to your plan, not someone else’s.



Michael Ferraiuolo is a graduate of Berklee College of Music and the Owner of Iron Works Studios in New York City. As a vocal coach Michael teaches and advocates for artists worldwide. His music has appeared on film, radio, and television and at #1 on the Billboard charts.


  • “Doctor B”

    As both a sound engineer and a singer, I can tell you that you got it right. Another rule, try out new gear at rehearsal, not at a gig.

  • Don Lobacz

    Nice tips! However, need a little guidance regarding tip 3, including suggested specific gear types, cabling, how it hooks up to a typical sound system, etc. Not all sound engineers I’ve work with are top notch; some get thrown when I just ask them to hook up my wireless mic and in-ears and then ask for a specific in-ear monitor mix……so the more detailed info, the better. Any resources on the net for this that you can recommend?

  • Poppa Madison

    I thought this was going to be an article about how to handle my inconsiderate noisy neighbours forever intent on aggressive audio bombardment of others and quick to forget that others would like to listen to what they want to….in the same way the perpetrators of the menace that it is, claim they do what they do because they want to!

    Darn it! Short of doing what they do I cannot think of a way to bring them to seriously think about how they annoy other people with their “NOISE”!

    It is my thinking that we need effective laws everywhere to ensure that those who act “Audio antisocially” face punishments for “disturbing the peace” that each of us is surely entitled to. Whether that be in the home, on the highway, or in such places as shopping mall car-parks.

    But that I guess is outside the realm of this forum where Amplified Audio forms an essential part of the job role of Performers.

    Even so…..they too should be expected to consider others who are not audience, but within earshot of sound they create and who may well be disturbed by their activity if living in a residential area.


    © ♯♪♫ ♂PM


  • AwkwardTurtle

    No, in fact, this article had nothing to do with the topic you wanted to rant about, so we’ve all wasted time!