This weekend, I was on a show at the Fraternal Order of Eagles Club in Somerset, PA (Made it!) with Derek Knopsnyder, Chris Kemp and Vinny Fasline. I looked around the large room before the show and was a little nervous. A small PA system was tucked into the corner with two speakers resting on chairs. This was not an ideal sound set up, but oh well. I’ve had worse. I thought all I needed was a good microphone setup for a great show.
Vinny started the show off and hit a punchline that caused a major squeal. However, the sound didn’t come from the audience laughing at his joke. It was audio feedback, the most overlooked saboteur of shows in comedy history. Vinny tried to plow through the set, constantly interrupted by the hurricane of squeaks and squawks. He left the stage after 15 minutes, apologizing for the audio situation that he had no control over. Luckily, the bar had a wireless microphone that connected over the PA system in the room. We switched to that and we had a smooth show afterwards.
Feedback is the phantom show killer. An audience can’t laugh when they’re wincing in pain from a high-pitched speaker shriek. Feedback is worse than a heckler in many respects: you can’t verbally slam feedback. You can’t go down to where feedback works and heckle it. But I realized that I knew nothing about the ear drum-bursting enemy. Knowing is half the battle.
Feedback occurs when the sound from the speakers is projected back into the microphone, re-amplified and sent through the speakers again.
Well that’s great, Jeff. I’m right in the middle of a joke about a dog winning the Power Ball. What can I do to fix this awful noise NOW?
Sound Check – An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A proper show should have a short sound check beforehand. That way you can identify problems and address them without having to do your set. Trying to improv jokes while lugging speaker cases around a room is awkward.
Drop Back – Most feedback can be solved by correct placement of the microphone. The microphone should be behind the speakers. This will prevent the loop from ever starting. Just take a few steps back and get out of the loop.
Move the Speakers – In addition to being in front of the microphone, speakers need to be placed up high. Low speakers (like ones on the ground or propped up on chairs) cause sound waves to become absorbed by all the tables, chairs, warm-up pants of your audience members. This means you need to crank the speakers to 11 just so people in the back of the room can hear your opinions about Viagra Commercials. Higher Amplifier volumes are more likely to create a feedback scenario. Speakers should also not be tucked into corners or right up against a wall. Give the speakers a little bit of space. Walls and corners can act as natural amplifiers and may contribute to feedback.
Reduce the Treble on the Mixer – The most annoying type of feedback (squealing) tends to occur more commonly in the upper/treble frequencies. Turn the treble down a little bit.
That’s about the best advice I can give. Feedback is the not-so-silent show killer. Beware.