If it is a Wednesday night, it must be time for band practice. But instead of packing a bunch of gear and heading for a rehearsal or a cold garage, I walk down to the ‘bonus” room in my house, meet the rest of the band and start playing.

There are six of us at these “rhythm section and vocals sessions, and not only have we never had the cops at the door or call from the neighbors but my daughter who is upstairs watching TV does not even tell us to turn it down. The ability to do things this way has meant a band that rehearses every week instead of once a month. It means we are all more confident come gig time. But getting to this point meant getting some new gear and totally rethinking the soundscape.

Stick It In Your Ear
I have had the whole band on personal monitors for several years now but that was about being able to hear each other and not about volume control. We had acoustic drums and a horn section. The fact that we all wore canalphones and controlled our own mix did not mean it was a lot quieter, it just sounded weird to anyone who did not have a speaker stuck in his or her ear.

For these rehearsals we went as “direct’ as possible. What going direct means is getting the audio signal directly into the main sound system without it producing sound that has to be miked and then sent to the system. Acoustic guitar players and keyboard players are used to this as are many bass players (the first question I ask any new bass player is if his or her amp has a direct out and is it any good).

So that left us with the usual problem children—drums and guitar. Drums were pretty straight-forward. I found a used Alesis electronic kit on Craig’s List and spent several hundred dollars on it. (I recently upgraded the kit to the new Alesis DM Pro and a video review of that kit can be found at L2PNet.com in the Issue #54 Extras along with a review of a starter Roland kit.)

It has worked out quite well. The only thing you gear is similar to practice pads (unless you are listening to a mix off the board). This has not been without it’s “pain of adjustment.” My drummer—to be kind—hates them. He loves the way they sound in his headphones, and that it makes rehearsals practical but he HATES the fact that he has to adjust the way he has been playing all his life to fit himself to the kit.

It is not about this particular kit but electronic kits in general. They are highly intolerant of quirks and sloppy playing. For example, for 30 years, my drummer has kept his own personal time by bouncing his heel on the closed hi-hat pedal. This is fine on an acoustic kit because it does not make any audible sound. But on the electronic kit, every time he bounced, the hi-hat triggered. It made us all crazy until he was able to stop.

The funny thing is, it has made him a better player. There are few better gauges of your technique than an electronic kit and he has gotten consistently better having to adjust. And, it did not make a big difference when he plays an acoustic kit.

Even Guitarists Can Do It!
So that left me. I have been playing a Line 6 modeling amp for almost a decade and always used the direct outs which are some of the best built-in to an amp that are available. I recently started playing a Spider Valve that sounds wicked but the fullness of the sound just wasn’t translating so I started looking at other options.

First up was the Hughes & Kettner Red Box which has been around for a long time and lots of players swear by them. The idea is that they plug into the speaker out of the amp and emulate the way a speaker behaves and send a mic-level signal of the result to the P.A. There are a few models out there that work in similar fashion. I have never used the Palmer Speaker Simulator but people from Steve Vai to Joe Satriani to Eddie Van Halen swear by it. It will also set you back nearly a grand.

I happened on a piece from a Canadian company called Radial known for making very good DIs and splitters and such in the course of my day gig with a pro audio mag. The Radial JDX works differently than any other direct box out there. It actually REQUIRES that it sit between the amp and the speaker. In other words you still get sound but I can keep it really low. The idea is that by getting sonic information both from the amp AND from the speaker, the JDX does a better than decent job of recreating the complex feedback loop of how the amp and speaker affect each other. I have mounted one directly into the back of my amp and use it for every rehearsal and gig. Oh yeah, and it’ll set you back about one-fifth of the cost of the Palmer.

Putting It All Together
There is a video on L2PNet.com in the issue #54 extras that goes through the whole system and better explains it but the basic gist is this. Now that everyone has a signal that goes to the mixing console, I set up a mix and take the outputs of the board and, instead of sending it to a power amp and speakers, it goes to a multi channel headphone amp. Everyone plugs headphones (in-ear or not) in and can hear.

For full rehearsals with the horns I use a Hear Technologies system that is part of the video. That system allows everyone significant control over his or her mix. But for “house” sessions, we do one mix and compromise because I don’t want to buy another headphone amp. But if you had two or three and a couple of aux sends on your board, you could set up several mixes and send each one to a separate headphone amp.

What will it cost you to do this? Well, not including the drum kit, I have a few hundred dollars into my system. I am using a 12-year-old EV powered board with built-in effects for a little grease on the vocals. Everything goes to the same headphone amp and everyone get some control over total volume. I already had the board and headphone amp and everyone supplies their own headphones. I have spent some money on extender cables because no matter how many times I ask, someone forgets to bring one and we have to get the signal from the headphone amp to several places around the room. I have a bunch of wireless personal monitor transmitter/receivers for gigs but don’t feel like breaking out that rack for rehearsals.

The bottom line is that you can do the same thing with gear you might already have and, at worst, the investment is minimal. I paid for all of the rehearsal gear that I bought with the check from our first gig in Vegas. Which we got because we were actually rehearsing… Make sense?

Originally posted 2009-08-22 04:51:35.