Most every musician at some point of their career has tried to hold a rehearsal somewhere less than ideal: an apartment, a suburban neighborhood, the warehouse at work.  With all of our spare change going into personal and band gear, paying cash out of pocket for a rehearsal studio seems like a waste of money.  After all, you already have everything you need: P.A., amps, mics, etc….set up and rock on!  

Unfortunately, these rehearsals are usually short by nature.  When the cops come knocking at the door politely asking you to stop playing (punctuated with a threat to confiscate all your gear if you start up again), the hard-on you once had for rehearing most likely has gone soft at the thought of parting with your hard earned.

Enter the silent rehearsal.

The idea of a silent rehearsal has been around for sometime.  Sacrifices where made and everyone plugged in direct and donned a pair of cans (old school name for headphones). Those instruments that couldn’t be plugged in (i.e. drums) were either played acoustically counting on the “bleed”, the sound seeping through the seals of the headphones to provide enough volume, or microphones were used to capture a more natural, un-muffled sound.

The problem was that just drums being played in an apartment or house alone would be enough for some less-than-sympathetic-and-not-so-much-a-patron-of-the-arts neighbor to drop a dime.  (Back in the day before cell phones there use to be phones in booths on nearly every corner and it only cost 10 cents to make a call.  People would use these phones rather than their home phones in order to remain anonymous to the police.  The modern day equivalent is using the internet at the library.)

That was the tip of the proverbial ice cube.  Tone was another problem.  Guitarists running direct from their effects were rewarded (not really) with mosquito tone.  The drums sounded muffled without being mic’d.  But when mics were used, the signal had to be louder than the bleed (which was already loud enough that the drums didn’t need to be mic’d in the first place – except for tone) resulting in a pretty darn loud drum mix.  Then everybody else needed to be louder, too.

Technology has finally caught up.

Guitarists were able to successfully bypass the amp with the advent of the amp modeler.  Tones so close to the sound of the world’s most popular amps that pros can’t tell the difference are now a affordable reality.  There are similar modelers for keyboardists to get the sound of their coveted leslie rotating speakers.  There’s digital reverbs modeled from the greatest acoustically designed halls to make vocalists (and everyone else in the band) feel (sonically) like they are playing in a world-class venue, when in reality it’s a pretty crappy sounding garage.  But still something was missing.

I recently receive a set of Roland’s HD-1 V-drums lite for review, and these electronic drums and their ilk were the missing link to a successful silent rehearsal.

Now, the drums could run direct, and the sound produced through the headphones is full and studio quality.  Without the headphones, the drums sound about as loud as slapping on your leg.  So now with the entire band playing, the loudest thing heard in the room are the singers’ voices…and when was the last time that happened?

Now, this is all much easier if you have a dedicated monitor board, or one of the newer digital mixing boards that allows everyone to create their own mix.  And if this is you, you already know what to do.  But the silent rehearsal is still possible with more humble gear, as long as you have enough inputs.  Remember, while a conventional drum set might require as many as eight inputs (or more) an electronic drum set only requires two for stereo or one for mono.

So, if you have a fairly typical rock band line up: two guitarists, bass, drums, and keyboards with three singers you can get by using as few as eight channels if everyone is willing to run mono.  Of course, if you have a bigger board with more channels, that’s good too.  But starting using a mono mix might help at first, especially if you don’t have the facilities to give everyone their own mix.

Create a mix just as if you were on stage, regardless of your positioning in rehearsal.  Typically, this would be the drummer and guitarist/lead vocalist in the center, with everyone else either panned to the right or left of that.  This way, just as you can direct your eyes to a certain place to focus, each member of the band can direct their ears to focus on themselves.

If your board has a monitor mix (and most do) this can be used to give the singers more vocals in the mix that the rest of the band may not require.  Obviously, if there’s more than one monitor mix the band and singers can arm wrestle to see who gets it.  Everyone wants more “me”.

If “more me” is an issue (and we’ll get to this in a minute) and even if it isn’t; your band should consider buying a headphone amplifier and perhaps matching headphones (so everyone is hears the same thing).  There are some headphone amp/headphone packages out there that are very moderately priced and extremely functional.

Most mixers do have a headphone output and some even have two, but the use of these with Y-cables can be troublesome.  If the headphones are rated with different impedance, it will affect the level and sound quality of the other.  More than one y-cable will definitely cause trouble.  For about fifty bucks you can buy a palm-sized 4 channel headphone amp that eliminates these woes.

If you’re reluctant to entertain the thought of purchasing a headphone amp, remember that this is your profession and you deserve good tools to help you achieve the desired results.  And if that doesn’t do it, know that some of the headphone amps out there will allow you to be the loudest musician in the mix (or, at least, in your mix).

Some headphone amps have an auxiliary input with a blend control for each headphone channel.  Some even have stereo auxiliary inputs.  So, now the benefits should be fairly obvious…every one can have “more me” in their mix.  Vocalist can use the channel send from the mixer to input into their headphone channel for more of their mic.  And everyone can control how loud or soft their own mix is.

The ability to rehearse nearly anywhere and nearly any hour of the day is fairly cool.  And the money that you save from having to rent a rehearsal studio will more than likely exceed what you spend on a headphone amp.

The end result is you’ll feel as if you’re in a recording studio with a tight, concise sound.  This will help you concentrate on the music, and perhaps you’ll hear things that you might not have noticed in a conventional out-loud rehearsal.  And there’s things you won’t hear:  microphone feedback, band members telling you you’re too loud, and the police knocking on your door. – Jake Kelly

Originally posted 2009-04-08 01:47:07.