I came of age in the late ‘70s so I have been to my share of big rock shows and seen my fair share of the “wall of guitar amps” that were practically a requirement for guitar heroes of the time. And I saw some great shows. Incredible playing, unstoppable showmanship and overall, pretty sucky sound…

Thirty years have passed and the science of sound has changed dramatically. The average bar band carries a better P.A. than the Beatles used at Shea Stadium. But even with the advances in the gear, live concert sound really started to clean up about the same time performers started to really embrace the use of personal monitors. (Universally referred to as ‘ears’ or ‘in-ears’ but both of those terms are trademarked and can only be used when referring to a specific brand. Hence we use the terms “personal monitors” or “canalphones.” We tried “speakers in your head,’ but it was a little unwieldy).

We have another piece in this issue addressing the pros and cons of stage wedges vs. personal monitors so we’ll stay away from that topic except to say that when singers stopped having to fight with screaming guitar amps and drums in order to hear themselves onstage, the wedges were turned down or eliminated and—just as everyone onstage turns up when one person first crosses that line—players started using less volume and depending more on the PA.

Even the lousiest bar P.A.s these days sound a lot better than a band trying to self-balance multiple sound sources. So turn down that damn amp, listen to the people onstage with you and let the sound guy do his job. Here are some tips for doing just that…

I Just Wanna Bang On De Drum All Day
Drums get the only partially deserved rap for being the root of all volume issues. I have worked with drummers whose volume control was impeccable and fired one drummer who was so loud that–even setting him up across the room and having the entire band using personal monitors—so much drum signal came through the vocal mics that we could literally not hear anything else. Then the jerk took my Shure E-5 canalphones with him when he left. (And drummers wonder why they get such a bad rap…)

Anyway, getting things like vocals above the drums is an issue. But you have to understand that most drummers have no idea how loud they are. Think of how a drum is constructed. They project outward, away from the player so most drummers have no idea how loud they actually are. And, unlike a guitar amp, there is no volume knob. So your choices are either to control the projected acoustic sound or give the kit a volume knob.

Controlling the projection means putting something in between the drums and the open vocal mics. In most cases that means a plexi-glass “drum cage.” You have no doubt seen these on concert stages and TV. They work great but the are not cheap (figure on a grand minimum and probably more like $1500) and they can be a pain to transport.

If a drum cage (also called a portable drum booth) isn’t to your liking, the next bet is to go to an electronic kit. I can hear drummers screaming around the world as they read this because a lot of our stick-wielding brothers and sisters are morally opposed to the very idea of a non-acoustic kit. But they work. I’m not even a drummer and have bought two different electronic kits which have made band rehearsals in the house not only possible, but easy (See Going Direct for more.)

Before we totally leave the world of plexiglass, a quick word about horns. I play with a horn section and in a small room that can be a problem. But for a very reasonable price you can get a clear shield that mounts to a mic stand and reflects the sound back at the player instead of into the vocal mics.

All Hail the Guitar Hero
I am a guitar player, so I am allowed to say it: Most of us are just too damn loud! Yes, a good tube amp starts to “breathe” only at a certain output level. I love great tone as much as the next guy so I DO get it. But it doesn’t matter how great your tone is if no one can hear the vocal. Sorry, but most of the crowd wants to hear the singer sing, we are but backing players.

Solutions? Try one of the very good guitar-specific direct boxes that allow you to keep amp volume down and send a direct signal to the sound guy. Or move your amp. If it is a closed back cabinet, just turn it around. If it is an open back, that won’t help any but there are other options. Move it offstage or at least raise or tilt it so the sound it’s producing hits your ears instead of your knees. Again, a lot of players have no idea how loud they are in the house because the majority of the sound pressure never hits their ears.

Lots of big pro bands do this stuff because it makes the entire band sound better. John Cooper, who mixes Bruce Springsteen, has the guitar cabinets tilted so far back that they are firing almost straight up. I have been seeing The Boss since before a lot of L2P readers were born and the shows that Coop mixes have been hands-down the best sounding. Hands down.

Oh, and remember that wall of amps? You still see them, but here is the dirty little secret. Most of them are just props. They are either dummy boxes or even just false painted fronts. Out of those 20 speaker cabinets only one is producing sound. The rest are there as kind of a “mine is bigger than yours” exercise.

Vocalist Can Help, Too
You can’t blame all of the problems on everyone else. What can a singer do? Pick a mic with a very tight pickup pattern and then gate it. A gate “closes” the audio path when the sound drops below a preset level so if you move away from the mic it is not sitting there open to pick up whatever was behind you. For a good expanation of mic patterns and types go to the Tech section and the series of articles called Live Sound 101.

The biggest advantage of turning down (besides saving your own hearing) is that a quiet stage gives the sound operator a canvas on which to work. Instead of a half finished piece and trying to fill in the blanks, he or she can create a sonic picture using the elements you provide. Or you can take a big bucket of bright red paint and dump it all over the canvas and tell Mr. or Ms, soundperson to just work around it as best they can. Guess which approach is gonna work best?

Originally posted 2009-08-22 04:32:45.