On a dreary evening that was cold by our standards, the Boston band Little War Twins brought a refreshingly warm and cheerful vibe with them. They are a soulful mixed gender two piece. I want to call the style new age gospel punk – a combination of quick, precise drumming and indie rock guitar, with the wailing intimacy of an acoustic act. They also employed a computer that provided bass and other background elements in an unobtrusive way that filled out the bottom end of the sound, but wasn’t in your face.
Their performance was sexy, wholesome, creative, inspirational, and disruptive. The singer, Gaetana, isn’t afraid to get personal, as is evident in the video above and in her lyrics – particularly when singing about her failed relationship with tequila. Having given up the drink, Little War Twins were fueled by their positive attitudes
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alone for the last 9 month of tour and looked so much less road-worn than your typical troubadours.
During their check, Gaetana sang a fairly soft song, and I had no impression that her vocals would need any processing. Her voice sometimes popped above the drums and guitar, but it always added depth to the song, so I didn’t want to chop the excitement off with a compressor. When the set actually began and the room filled with people, the density of the air changed drastically and my mix was lost. The first song featured a whisper that occasionally erupted into powerful wails. During the first verse, I couldn’t hear her! I ran up and exchanged the beat up 58 for a Beta 58a, which still required a notch or two in the monitor EQ, but gave me much more clarity. I superstitiously switched console channels, turned up the gain, and fought to make her audible without feeding back.
After the first song, I got her whispers sounding good and she started screaming, so I had to plan out a compressor insert on the fly. I set the machine up to be transparent during the whispered parts, and to gently attenuate the volume of the screamed parts while retaining the perceived intensity. I had until the next quiet part to set the threshold and ratio both to react gently to the screams but ignore the whispers. If I set the threshold too low, the insert will be audible and the audience will be taken out of the song. I set the makeup gain to 0db, set the threshold pretty high, and tailored the rest of my settings based on my experience of her loud chorus. Usually, I’d say listen to your compressor, don’t look at it, but when adding one in live, you have to read the machine’s meters while it is in bypass mode and set up a ratio and threshold that will serve the song during the loud part, and be transparent during the soft part.
I was using a 6:1 compression ratio, with a medium-long attack and medium-short release. For those in doubt, most consumer level mixers have an auto-detect feature, which will set the attack and release parameters based on the program material. With a little thought about the kinds of dynamic material one is expecting to encounter, an engineer can achieve much better results with well chosen parameters than the auto feature. The medium-long attack time caused the compressor to only start attenuating the excess signal after the early breathy whispery “wh” parts of her whoas. A faster attack setting would have chopped these relatively loud, but essential parts of her unique voice. The compressor’s job was to save the audience and the mix from being drowned in vocals once the whisper developed into a full blown wail.. Because her delivery style was so dynamic and quick, I needed a short release time to allow the attenuation to reset before her next word
I really prefer to not use much compression in a room as small as Burro Bar because there is so much potential bleed from other instruments. When peaks are attenuated, and make up gain is used to bring the output volume back up to line level, the unwanted noises get brought up with the noise floor. If compression or limiting is applied to the signal, the possibility of feedback increases as the makeup gain is turned up. Compressors can cause as much harm as good. Dynamics processing is one of the tools that can be used so unnaturally that it can take the audience ‘s attention away from the band and focus it on the mix. That a no-no unless you’re a DJ. The mix should be transparent. The audience came to hear the band, they don’t want your unique interpretation of the band.
When Winter Wave told me their input list and I was stoked because I wouldn’t need to bring out any additional equipment. I was even more stoked when the guitarist, Josh Cobb asked me if the volume coming out of his Fender Deluxe was good. It was perfect! I later learned that Josh owns and operates owns Rockbot Studio, one of the many recording facilities in the urban core. Looking at their setup I could tell the tones were going to be great. The drummer has a super custom kit made by some artisan whose name I couldn’t pronounce, and the bassist was using a Hartke Ha-200, a punchy, clean, and powerful old amp that doesn’t have a DI, but sounds great through a cabinet. I got my earplugs
out because of my preconceived notions, but during sound check, I realized that I would have no trouble keeping this band’s volume at a reasonable level. I was initially worried that the kit would be really loud, but the drummer is a pro and played with expert precision and deference to the songs. I used a really conservative compressor on the kick drum, out of habit, and used almost no other processing to bring out the naturally great tone of his kit.
The main vocalist’s style has a good amount of yell-singing, and to help control the volume and beef up the softer parts, I compressed his vocals pretty heavily. The meters definitely showed a lot of drum bleed on his channel whenever he wasn’t singing. I try not to compress background vocals because that can bring up the drum bleed to an uncontrollable level. Luckily, this bassist/backup singer did a great job of projecting during the important parts. Because they kept the stage volume low, had control over their instruments, and communicated effectively, we got the sound dialed in quickly. It was fat and present without being too loud, staying safely 20db away from any output limiting on the mains. Their fans that waited until the end of the show to see this band are the whole reason we’re here. They came to see a band present their vision. They definitely didn’t come to hear a soundcheck, feedback, excessive reverb on the snare, overused compression on the vocals, or to listen to music at an unsafe volume. Excellence in this job requires empathy for your customers, and in practice amounts to little more than service of the band’s vision.
Chris Williams owns Burro Bags, the messenger bag company for which Burro Bar is named. He’s been running the sound program here since we opened our doors in 2011. He is a true audiophile and occasionally records demos for local bands in his spare time. He loves to nerd about the physics and philosophy of sound so we indulge him.