I don't want any venue owners getting mad at me, but if your setup is similar to what I'm describing, and you haven't taken steps to correct it, so as to make the soundscape a usable one, then sadly you are contributing heavily to the problem.
Artists; you're in trouble when...
Well, for starters; you notice that the PA speakers are going to be on the stage with you. Or even better; one is on the stage, the other is on the floor.
As a rule; PA "mains" speakers should sit at least 6 feet in front of where the microphones will sit. Any closer and microphone feedback is a strong possibility when pushing the volume up to get big full rich sound. Not giving them this space really defeats the purpose of having a PA in the first place.
Other craptastic configurations include;
Just off stage to the sides; positioned so that they're even with the singer(s).
Just off stage to the sides;positioned so that they're even with the front of the stage.
Just off stage to the sides; positioned so that they're behind the singer(s)
These configurations usually come from a venue that is not well suited for live music. And it's usually because the lot the venue is occupying is long and skinny. The stage area is either in a corner, or worse; up against a length-wise wall.
These configurations do not allow for the proper placement of PA speakers on the floor without occupying valuable patron space or blocking foot traffic and violating fire codes. So the owners only options are to install a hanging rig so that the speakers can be suspended from the ceiling, or make due with one of the less than optimal configurations mentioned earlier.
Rigging the PA and or monitors to hang from the ceiling will often solve most dive bar sound issues, and most modern PA speakers come equipped with M10 mounts built in that you can buy eye hooks and rigging for, but many venue owners aren't willing to spend the money to do so, as it often requires hiring an OSHA certified specialist to install the rigging for liability insurance purposes and code compliance.
This a pretty awesome setup - 2 "Flown" main speakers, a flown light bar array, 3 stage wedges, another flown light bar behind, and 2 subs under the stage. The curtain on the walls acts as a sound treatment to absorb high frequencies that can cause havok on stage.
Sometimes, not often, but sometimes.... The PA speakers are mounted on the walls, and either pointing at the stage from off to your right and/or left, or even better they're BEHIND YOU.
If the PA speakers are mounted behind where the band will be performing, then the venue is unknowingly sabotaging any hope of great sound. They are trying to take a space that they have available, and force it to work for something that it is ill suited for. (Although, I do know one venue that uses some flat screen TV's at an angle - off axis to the mains as baffles to block direct sound hitting the stage area... which works fairly well.)
Below is the optimal spacial setup for a music club... It's based on several music clubs I've frequented that featured touring acts along with local bands. It's made for music.
Placing the stage at one end of a long space and inset from the lateral walls gives you plenty of travel room before sound coming off the stage "slaps back," and plenty of room to keep the adjacent walls from creating too many "early reflections" which are the usual culprit for uneven and lifeless sound Some wall treatments will help as well to break up those frequencies.
Most pro setups have "flown" speaker arrays that are suspended from the ceiling and angled down so that sound hits the area in front of the stage but angled away from the mic positions just enough to avoid present spill. This gets them up and out of the way of floor space, rowdy patrons, and away from the mics.
Achieving something like this sometimes requires that the venue have a space for the bar, bathrooms, office, and storage that is adjacent to the space being used for music, rather than being located in the same room as the stage itself. But often the venue owner has no control over this. The lot is shaped the way it is shaped, and cannot be altered due to lease agreements, fire codes, building codes, etc, and they just have to make due with what they have.
If the space cannot be modified, then it's a good idea to hire a sound engineer to come in and optimize the space with a speaker setup that fits the given room, along with wall (and or) ceiling treatments to control sound reflections and counter the imbalance of the room.
Sound Console Woes.
Next you might notice that the sound console is one of these antiquated tone suckers -- Which have awful and often noisy preamps, no compressors, no subgroups, a simple 3 band EQ, and dreadful sounding digital fx (if you're lucky)..... maybe a monitor send or two. Yayyy
Your tonal options here are:
muffled boomy vocals with a lot of popped "P"s,
thin and brittle sound, with no bass or fullness
clarity, but with feedback
For fun, when, your singer, or an audience member is complaining about muddy sound, grab that treble knob that will inevitably be set somewhere south of 12 o'clock, and creep it up toward noon. You'll probably start to get a little high frequency feedback hum... take it to 1 o'clock which will finally give you some clarity and punch, and let the fireworks begin... because it'll be feedback city.
Venue owners/promoters; there are a plethora of high quality mixing consoles out there at very affordable prices. The Behringer X18 and XR18 have world class preamps and sound amazing! They can handle everything from simple acoustic acts to full bands, be controlled with a $50 android tablet, and can be had for about what you'd pay for one of those old analog dinosaurs.
Back in the day, parametric and graphic EQs were a lavish luxury for a mixing console. Compressors were a ridiculous ask, and subgroups, high quality reverb, delay, chorus etc, were out of the question. But today Behringer, Soundcraft, Mackie, QSC, and others are making digital boards with high quality analog preamps, and all the bells and whistles of the expensive consoles used by touring bands at price points starting around $350. The Soundcraft Ui24R is creeping up on $1000 but it's an amazing sounding board that does it all! Their lower end Ui16 and Ui12 models are not great... yet (as of late 2017), but that should change next year.
No one is asking you to shell out $1500 and up for a Behringer X32, X32 Producer, or a Midas M32. Yes, they are easier to use and manage due to the actual physical interface, don't require a touch screen or tablet to run, and of course they sound amazing. But you have options available to you that are capable of delivering that same amazing sound at reasonable prices. Getting a better sound console will help. Getting mixers that know how to use them helps even more, tuning your PA to the space is almost a must.
Think seriously about upgrading your mixing console and/or your PA system
back to warning signs....
The sound mixer doesn't offer to mic your drums, amps, or pull a Bass DI.
Now this isn't a slam dunk, cuz, there is a remote possibility that you'll be fine without it, depending on the size of the room, and the subsequent ambient noise (people talking... or trying to anyway.) But as an experienced mixer, I know that complete control over the sound in the hands of your FOH mixer is always going to result in a better mix than leaving it up to the band alone, as they cannot evaluate their own house mix from the stage.
And with most smaller venues this isn't an issue - coffee shops and such, don't mic anything anyway cuz what's the point? Not to mention; at these gigs, it's often the shop owner, or the bartender, or assistant manager running sound. And if your band is booked to play there as anything other than an acoustic act, you were likely doomed from the start anyway.
So, what am I to do?
As a musician, when these things happen there's not much you can do but make the best of it. These places are not designed for warm, welcoming, room-filling sound. You'll have to play quiet so that you won't require much PA to get the vocals up in the mix and the drums to blend with the band -- Yeah, I know. Playing quietly is never fun, and rarely produces a rich sonic experience.
Venue owners; sure, you can put haphazard setups like the ones detailed in this post together and advertise "live music", and serious artists might play there once, but it's not going to land on their list of places they want to keep coming back to. Also, patrons of live music will not flock there. All you're really doing is aggravating what patrons you do have that come there for other reasons. There's no advantage to doing things only halfway.
Sound mixers; you're fucked. These venues are a lose/lose scenario for you. Somebody is going to be unhappy with you; whether it's the band, the venue owner, the promoter, or the clientele.
Bad sound is usually a result of ignorance, and not intent. I think we'd all like to have an awesome experience playing, listening to, and booking live music. But it requires that we all learn as much as we can, and work together. :)