Hip hop shows are notoriously boring. Due to the way the music is made and the fact that many emcees produce their own stuff, the shows can often be little more than one guy (or girl) standing in the middle of a stage rapping over a CD. That’s hardly exciting (though the heads don’t really mind as most of them appreciate the backstory to what their hearing).
So how do you make a good show? And, more importantly, how do you ensure your beats sound nice?
Let’s start with the second question.
Question Number Two: Nice beats/Nice show.
To make sure your beats sound as good in the club as they do at home you need to understand a little bit about what happens in a club’s front of house system.
1. Clubs compress the hell out of your sounds.
The front of house (FOH) set-up is the array of audio gear that your sounds run through before being sent to the club’s main speakers and, thus, heard by the (hopefully huge) crowd. There are generally at least two stages of compression in a club’s FOH set-up. Firstly, individual instruments will be compressed to make them more managable in the mix. Secondly, the entire mix will be compressed and limited to make it louder and to prevent the speakers from being destroyed.
If you’re playing a stereo mix from a CDJ or something along those lines, your engineer should only be compressing and limiting (the second stage) since the stereo mix is already (duh!) mixed. Don’t take this for granted. Live music engineers come in two shapes and sizes: a) genius-class music maestros who care deeply about the subtle nuances of your sound and b) lazy, untrained people that the club owner just called up to ensure the mics are turned on at the right time. If you’re dealing with the latter, make sure they aren’t triple compressing your mix.
Assuming you have a type (a) engineer, there is one simple thing you can do to ensure they are able to produce the best sound from your stereo mix that they can. And that simple thing is: don’t compress your mix before you burn it to CD. Give the engineer the full dynamic range to work with and the sound will be better (louder, harder, fuller). Sure, at home, when you slap an adaptive limiter, exciter and stereo widener on your mix buss it sounds super-awesome. But when you take it to a club you simply can’t undo those effects and others to make it fit the room that it’s in.
Also, it’s a good idea to go easy on the reverb for a mix that you will use in a live situation. Remember, when the mix is compressed the perfect balance of reverb will suddenly be made much louder. Add to that the ambient reverb of the venue itself and suddenly all of the subtle little sounds you’ve spend so long crafting will be drowned out by the booming kick and wash of ride cymbals.
2. Avoid using a stereo mix.
This is not always an option, obviously. If a promoter calls you up and asks you to do a show in two hours, it’s going to be difficult to find someone else to man your MPC or play drums for you or whatever it is you need to add to your mix.
However, if you know you have a show coming up, why not put together a proper show? Find a DJ who can do your cuts live, find someone to bang away on your MPC or live drums.
Not only will this make your show more visually interesting, it will also allow the engineer to take individual instrument sends or mics and mix them fully to fit the venue. This also helps you as a performer since they can create a different mix for your foldback. If you’re using a stereo mix, you have little choice but to hear what the crowd hears no matter how distracting that little vocal snippet you threw into the song is when you’re rapping.
Question Numero Uno: Nice sound/Nice show.
1. Make sure your foldback is working for you a.k.a DO A SOUNDCHECK!
Everyone has different balance of sounds that they want when performing whether in the studio or on the stage. If you have followed the advice in point 2, then make sure you also turn up for a soundcheck. In the absence of any advice to the contrary, you’re mix engineer will simply set all the foldback levels to either the same level or approximately the same levels as the front of house mix. The result is a set where you and your fellow performers are forever saying “Can I have more snare in the foldback?” or the ubiquitous point-at-my-mic-point-at-the-ceiling move. These are distractions and they also appear unprofessional (though “hardcore” and “underground”).
A sound check will also give you the opportunity to stand where the crowd stands and listen to the mix of your songs. You won’t be able to do this while you’re performing, so take advantage of the opportunity.
Probably one of the most overlooked elements of live performance for hip hoppers. Rehearsing rarely amounts to more than standing around in your studio chanting your verses into an SM58.
Effective rehearsal should include some performance aspect as well as consideration of the transitions between tracks. Believe it or not, no one cares who produced the track you’re about to do nor the fact that it was written on a rainy Thursday while you caught the 470 from the busport. It’s much better to move quickly between tracks and keep people engaged and interested. Lastly, you’ll want to figure out things like overdubs – who does them and when.
Follow the suggestions above and hopefully your live set will kick arse.