So you think that no one wants to go out to see live bands anymore? Maybe it's because you sound like sh*t. But read on! It may not be all your fault.
As both a musician who has played in many different venues for the better part of twenty years, as well as an obsessive music fan, who at one point in time, would drive to Boston, Northampton, Providence and New York city within the same week just to catch any and every band that I liked, I have made many observations about why I enjoy a show or don't. As a recording engineer, I have the added benefit of an understanding of how music gear works.
Now here's the disclaimer. Please don't think because I have an opinion about this or that, that I'm an expert. Please don't assume that I'm more right than anyone else in the world. I struggle as much as anyone could when it comes to trying to get a good sound from my own band when we play in clubs. As much as I struggle, I feel that I at least am aware of what I would think of as common sense practices to give yourself a fighting chance. If you care enough to at least tune your guitars, you should care enough to sound good, whatever good is.
Everybody has their own tastes and their own definitions of what makes live music enjoyable. Some go to see cover bands play songs they already know and love so they can dance and forget about their crappy day at work. Some love the primal release of energy of a great punk rock band. Some just love the blues and will go anywhere, anytime to hear a great harp player. There are many exceptions, but if you fall under the umbrella of "we play some form of music that is intended to make people enjoy themselves" as opposed to the "we are complete massochists and we hate our audience and we want to punish them and make them feel as black and empty inside as we do, and so help me jesus, if my ex-girlfriend shows up with that asshole she's been screwing, I am going to smash my guitar into his head," umbrella, these observations and suggestions might be useful to you.
One thing you should be aware of is that there are people who love music and just don't go out to see live bands very often, if at all. There are many reasons to not go out, but as one of those people, I will say that one of the main reasons that I don't is because I'm sick of crappy sounding bands playing in crappy sounding clubs. I just cannot enjoy myself. Having the handicap of being a recording engineer and a musician myself, I end up feeling like the passenger in a car with a bad driver who is always pressing the invisible brake pedal or grabbing the "oh shit" handle when I see a turn coming up.
TURN IT DOWN!
What an un-rock and roll sentiment! If it's too loud, you're too old. Yeah, whatever. I have news for you. There is a big difference between powerfully loud and painfully loud. A great heavy rock band can be loud as a jet engine yet still have clarity within the mix. I put a lot of the blame on poor sound engineers at small rock clubs. We've all been there for soundcheck where once the mics are up and running, the first thing the engineer says is "kick." Of course this is the place where I'd say 99.9% of FOH (Front of House) mix engineers start getting their balances, and there's nothing wrong with starting there. The problem that I see with many engineers is that once they get this HUGE kickdrum sound making teeth rattle, they leave that fader up where it is. They have just established the level at which every other instrument in the mix has to compete. Start with a monstrously huge kickdrum (which I admit, can sound awesome) and then add an equally HUGE snare drum, and you're already in trouble. You will end up with a FOH mix that is so loud that you're just pushing your power amps to their limits and you've got mushy sound with no clarity. The lead vocal can't cut through the mud so you turn it up and you've got feedback all night. Didn't this happen to you last night and the night before? Learn from your experiences and try to anticipate problems before they start.
Engineers, please at least acknowledge this concept: If you are mixing in a small (200 or less capacity) room, before you start going through your nightly soundcheck routine, stand in the middle of the (granted, empty at this point) room and ask the instrumentalists to play together. Of course this is totally unheard of and every band will be totally thrown off by your suggestion, but hear me out. If you're standing in the middle of the room and you've got two guitars, bass, maybe some keys on stage, each with their own amp, plus a full set of drums, you'll probably notice that they're already "too loud." Of course one person's too loud is another person's not loud enough, but what you might notice within the band's stage mix is that it's out of balance. Most often, the snare drum is cutting through everything like a firecracker, the bass amp is shaking the stage and the lead guitar player keeps turning up because they can't hear themselves. Now notice: this is before you start to bring your mics up. It's already a mess on stage.
If you are the band on stage at this time, please check your ego for a minute. Your sound is in the hands of this sound person who you just met, and don't even know by name, The way I see it, you have one of three options: you can put your trust in this sound person and have faith that their only agenda is to make you sound as good as possible, You can trust that they know the room better than you do because they mix in it five nights a week. OR, you can be a rebel and immediately put up a front that your volcanic rock power cannot be tamed and declare heavy metal jihad against the sound person before you even take your amp off standby. Here's a rarely considered third option that can combine a bit of the two. Suggest to the sound person that you want to get good stage volume first, and that all they really need to do is get the vocals loud and clear, but balanced with the stage mix. This means adjusting all of the amplifier volumes and the un-mic'd drums to blend naturally on stage. Many veteran musicians used to playing in small rooms, and particularly rooms with ONLY a vocal PA, already instinctively do this.
LIVE AT BUDOKAN OR BUD'S BAR AND GRILLE?
Most musicians don't have the luxury to have multiple sets of gear to play different kinds of venues, but by the same token, many musicians don't even consider the option. For instance, the guitar player who walks into the local 75-person capacity bar with their prized 1967 100 watt Marshall non-master volume Plexi double stack is just plain retarded. Yes, it sounds awesome. Yes every guitar player in the audience will be drooling. Yes, it will clear the entire club and piss off the owner who will never book you again. As a guitar player, I struggle with this all the time. While I do have a couple of options for different size venues, my holy grail of tone is what happens when my Jazzmaster is plugged into my Vox AC-30 and I turn the volume up to about "6". The AC-30 has no master volume or "drive" channel. If you want overdrive, you turn it up. I love the tone and the response from this amp when it's at it's sweet spot and I play better. The fact is, that volume is WAY too loud for a small rock club. That bums me out like it would any guitar player, but I make concessions. I use many different pedals to alter the sound and get the amp to at least approximate the overdrive tones I get when it's turned up. No, it's not the same, but it's not bad. If I'm playing a smaller club, I will typically use a smaller amp along the lines of a Fender Deluxe. These amps can still be too loud, but a good overdrive tone can be gotten at a lower level. I'll sacrifice a bit of my personal guitar tone for the sake of a better overall band mix any day.
Many guitar players who like a heavy distortion will use modern hi-gain amps like Marshall or Mesa half-stacks. These amps get killer sounding distortion because they have the ability to crank the preamp gain and set the master volume to an appropriate level. That said, I've seen many guitar players who blow everyone off the stage because the master is set too high. Yes, power tube distortion is beautiful. Yes, speaker breakup is divine. Yes, the heavy thump of a closed-back 4X12 cabinet will make you crap yourself silly. But you have a hi-gain amp with a master volume. The whole purpose of this is that you can get the super saturated distortion sound at any level. Cut the audience (and the rest of your band) some slack and set the master at a level that blends well with the band and works for the size venue you're playing in.
Drummers don't have the benefit of a "volume knob" but they also have more ability than any other instrument in a rock band to play dynamically. Again, think about the venue and what the audience is going to hear. If you're playing a tiny basement show with an underpowered PA and you're the loudest thing in the room, at least consider that you could use lighter sticks or rods, if you can't control your own volume by playing lighter. One of the biggest culprits here are cymbals. I'm not sure that everyone understands how loud cymbals are when you're ten feet away from the drumkit. Again, dynamics are key here. If you bash your crash cymbal for a wall of white noise, that's a great effect, but make sure you're not making your audience deaf in the process.
Bass is a problem from the get-go because the sheer size of the waveform of low frequencies makes bass tones bloom way out in front of the actual speaker. This seems like it's a misunderstood concept, as I often see bass players standing right next to their amp, which is extremely loud, and they still complain that they can't hear themselves. Here's a tip: stand across the stage where your guitar player is and you'll hear nothing BUT your amp. It's nice when the bass amp is loud and full enough that you can feel the stage rumble when you play. As a guitar player, I like to "feel" the bass on stage this way, but as an audience member, twenty feet in front of the stage, it drives me nuts when ALL I can hear is the bass.
ARE YOU LISTENING WITH YOUR EARS, OR YOUR ANKLES?
This brings up another concept that seems completely lost on most bands I've seen in small clubs. When you put your combo amp on the stage and face it front, it might work well for your audience, but if you are counting on hearing yourself, you're aiming for the wrong body part. You might not even realize that you're tearing your audience's head off with the shrill high end because you can't hear your own amp. Then you ask if you can get some guitar in the monitor? Stop and think for a minute. If you are playing a club where your amp is mic'd and going through the FOH, you could make everyone's life easier if you treat your amp as your own monitor. Tilt-back legs on Fender amps are ingenious things. There are affordable amp stands that can tilt your amp up at you so you can hear it better. Milk crates may not be pretty, but they get the job done. Personally, I have a protective flight case which my amp travels in and since I'm never actually flying anywhere, the real reason I use it is because I like to put my amp up a few feet off the stage so it is aimed at my ears, and hopefully just a little above the audience's heads (assuming you're on a stage that's 3' or so off the dance floor.)
GOOD LOUD AND BAD LOUD.
I like rock music. I prefer to see bands with drums and guitars and amplifiers, etc. There are certain venues that I will go to that I know will put on a great show. For example there is an established rock club in Boston that I will see touring bands when they come through town. This club is bigger than your average bar, but still small enough that you're probably never more than 40 feet from the stage. This club always sounds great. In twenty years of going to this club, I don't think I've ever seen a show that didn't sound awesome. Why is that? Is it because their PA is better than everyone else's? Their PA is great with good dispersion of the main house speakers, and lots of headroom in their power amps, but it's I don't think it's much different from many other clubs of their size that I've been to. Is it because the room is acoustically designed to sound good? I doubt it. I've seen the room change shape and size a few times over the years and it has always sounded good. After speaking with a mixing engineer that worked there for many years, I realized that this club prides itself in how it sounds. They have built a reputation that people can count on. You know you are going to get a great show there, so the audience keeps coming back, and the touring bands keep making it their Boston stop on the tour. They feel that these things are important and therefore they insist that the engineers that work there know what they're doing, and they probably realize that this might cost a little extra money. In the long run, it's an investment in the club's reputation. I would assume that local bands that get to play there are already respectful of the club and its soundcrew because they've seen shows there. They realize that it's a big deal to play there. If the sound person suggests you aim your amp a certain way, they are more apt to listen. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if the sound person even suggests that some people turn their amps UP to get a better sound.
Good tone is good tone. If your amp sounds great, it probably will sound great when it's loud. That might seem to go against what I've been saying, but there is a big difference between good loud and bad loud. Good loud is when a heavy band sounds like a Mack truck barreling at you at 90 mph. Bad loud is when it sounds like a fire drill in your elementary school. I recently saw a band whose single guitar player was running through two amps on stage. They were a pretty standard rock band-a little bit heavy, a little bit soft and everywhere in between. The guitar player wasn't exactly quiet on stage, but it never sounded bad loud. This guitar player wasn't using two amps for the sheer volume, but instead because they were trying to get specific tones that the blend of these amps gave him. So while it might have been loud coming off stage, the tone was warm, full and clear. The top end was like crystal and never ice-picky. This guitar player obviously put a lot of attention into his whole package. He played dynamically, used effects colorfully, and sought out two amps that complimented his technique, the band's style and his overall sound. If something sounded off, he was the first person to notice it. The whole band had a foundation of professionalism and confidence in their gear and their ability to play that let them break loose and put on an exciting show. They weren't exactly reckless, but each musician was able to put their passion into the performance without worrying that something wasn't sounding right. It was one less thing to worry about so they could just put on a great show.
This is an extreme. This is not the norm at all. I'm not even suggesting that this is the way every guitar player should be. On the other hand, there was another band on the same bill who had a different vibe with a little more of a rough edge, but still shared a lot in common with the other band on the bill. The guitar player even used the same model as one of the amps the aforementioned player was using. This band, on the other hand, had a hard time on stage. They asked for more monitors, which caused feedback. They complained they couldn't hear enough guitar on stage, so they asked for guitar in the monitor. Meanwhile their amp (which was a great amp, that had a master volume as well) was shrill and ear-piercing to the audience. This band put on a good performance and was very exciting to see, but you could tell that they were never quite confident in their sound on stage. The sound person started them off way too loud, compounding the fact that they were already too loud on stage. They went on early in the night, so their audience started small and grew as their set progressed, yet the mains were loud enough for a 1500 person crowd. The result was the thirty or so people who were there to see their set stayed at the back of the room and kept a twenty-foot no man's land between themselves and the stage. Sound familiar? The funny thing is that when I mentioned to the guitar player, who is a friend of mine, that while he was asking for more guitar in the monitor, his amp was actually blinding people who dared to walk past the front of the stage on their way to the rest room. He laughed and said, "what do you want? I'm deaf!" That may have been a funny way to say "oh well," but the fact is he probably is deaf. Hell, I would be too if I rehearsed three nights a week and gigged on the weekend with such a shrill and loud guitar tone.
Now, this band in question is a raucous, high-intensity garagey rock band. They can get away with being a little frayed on the edges and it probably only works if it's loud. On the other hand, I've seen shows where the band in question was a four-piece consisting of drums, bass, electric guitar, and an acoustic guitar playing female singer. They weren't exactly a folk group, but more of a dynamic singer/songwriter kind of thing. Just hearing their soundcheck song, you could tell what they were about, and it should have been obvious how they should sound. Instead, when their slot came up, the mix consisted of super loud drums (with the mega huge kick drum, totally inappropriate for a band like this), a dreadfully thin and loud DI acoustic guitar, and a muddy mess of electric guitar and bass. Notice I didn't say anything about the vocals. Lost in the mush was the whole reason for any of these instruments to be on stage in the first place. I could hear her straining to hit her pitch as the stage mix was so loud, and what you could hear of it in the FOH mix was muddy and unintelligible. Having heard their CD, I can't imagine anyone becoming a new fan of this band from what they heard at the show, while I knew that the songs, and her voice were fantastic, or at least could have been.
Cut to a different band, different venue. This time, it's a five-piece amphetamine-fueled power-pop band with two guitars, bass, drums and three vocals. While this band had the ability to tear the roof off of the Nassau Coliseum if they were opening for The Raspberries and The Who in 1973, tonight they were playing a small neighborhood bar with about 75 person capacity. The room was long and narrow, with the sound booth tucked away at the back of the room. The sound person didn't have much to work with, but they made the best of what they had, and this band sounded stellar! You heard brilliant 3-part harmonies. You heard brushes on the snare for the token old-school country tune. You heard beautiful and dynamic tones from the lead guitar player. You heard it all. You heard it clearly, and you heard it loud. The secret was that the sound person put the vocals at the top of the mix, and then blended other things in when they needed reinforcement. You didn't hear the snare popping the tweeters all night, but you sure heard it when they got dynamic and played with brushes. The vocals were amazing. I would say that the fact that their mix was so good was due to the singers themselves having good mic technique (and good voices) and the engineer knowing when the blend sounded right.
The key is that there was good communication between the band and the sound person. The soundman knew what the band wanted, and the band knew what to give the soundman so he could work with them. It made for an enjoyable show. Everyone in the room was watching the band, and it felt GOOD to be standing three feet in front of the stage. The band was loud, but good loud.
A friend of mine brought up a good point. When you're the band that's getting ready to play your set, particularly in a middle set, where you are lucky if you get a linecheck (testing each instrument's feed to the PA) before your set, let alone a real soundcheck, there is a lot of anxiety. You're in a rush to get up and play, and you might have fifteen minutes to changeover from the last band. You're trying to set up your drums, and the last band still has half of their gear on stage. It can be a really anxious place to be. Nerves can really mess with you, and if you start off on a bad foot, it's hard to straighten yourself out. While a band might have the best intentions of playing and sounding great, and the sound person has every intention on making the house sound good, it often takes a few songs to get the balance right. "Around the fourth or fifth song, you guys started to sound really good." I hear that all the time at shows. Unfortunately, it's often after playing an 8-song set. This is par for the course when a club is booking four or five band bills. It's no one's fault that the set starts off rough. The only solution would have been to start bands soundchecking at 5PM, so everyone got a full check. That's not going to happen on a Thursday night when you're a local band with day jobs.
Another excuse is drunkenness. I'm not going to go off on whether it's good or bad to drink while you're playing, but I will say that I've seen some bands have some terrible nights which they themselves will blame it on being drunk. At the same time, the absolute DRUNKEST band I have ever seen, Guided By Voices, also put on one of the best shows that sounded phenomenal. (Maybe the last third of the set was a little, er.... loose, but their soberish drummer really kept the band sounding tight all night.) Be realistic. You probably don't sound as good as you think you do when you're sober. Imagine when you're so wasted that you don't even notice that you're playing a half-step flat all night.
DOES ANYONE REALLY CARE?
I have to wonder when I go to see a band play at a local rock club if I'm the only person who notices these things, or at least, is bothered by them. Does the sound person know how bad it sounds? Does the bass player realize they're so loud that the paint is peeling in the bathroom? Does the bartender know that their audience has their fingers in their ears because it sounds so shrill? Does the club-owner know that people don't like to hear crappy sounding bands? Pardon the bad pun, but maybe this is all falling on deaf ears. However, I'm sure that if you surveyed your target audience about what they don't like about going to see live bands, you'll hear a lot of complaints that it just doesn't sound good. Most people can't analyze it to the level of "I can't hear the vocals," or "there's no bottom end in the PA system so it all sounds harsh," and they'll just say, "it's too loud."
I may not be an expert, and I am speaking solely from my own perspective, but I feel that I've learned a lot by paying attention to others. I've learned to be better at what I do by noticing when others seem to be doing it "right." I think that if bands, sound engineers and club owners put at least a little bit of thought into what is going to make the patron/fan have the best time at a show, a lot more people might be tempted to go out and see live shows. Just a thought. Until then, at least I know that they sell earplugs for a buck a package at the bar.
copyright 2007 Roger Lavallee Not to be used, quoted or reprinted without permission of the author.