Paul is an engineer, producer, composer and musician who these days spends a large portion of his working life mixing FOH sound either on tour or in-house at London venues – including the legendary 100 Club.
His studio credits include Lucky Soul, The Hope Rebellion and Nick Evans and he tours with Various Cruelties, Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed & ZZ Ward mixing FOH. He’s also performed on stages around the world and on many recording sessions over the last 20 something years.
On the surface this article might seem like it’s been written by a grumpy audio engineer having a whinge about musicians who make his work harder than it should be. But it’s not; it’s actually an engineer who also happens to be a musician who’s been on both sides of live performances, on large and small stages, and learnt a few things along the way that he hopes will help both musicians and engineers create better sounding gigs.
Unless you’re fortunate enough to be in a band that only plays through enormous PA systems in arenas to 10,000 + people every night then the volume you perform at on stage can have a dramatic affect on the balance of sounds,or mix, heard by your audience.
Contrary to what some might think, creating a good balanced mix in an arena is easier for a FOH engineer than in a small 200 capacity club. How can it be you ask? Because in an arena the audience hears very little sound, if any, coming directly from the instruments on stage. This is partly down to the power and coverage of the PA system but mainly because the shear size of an arena dictates that even the punters in the front row are a long way from the instruments on stage.
Because, generally speaking, an engineer isn’t competing with the volume of the on stage sound in an arena it’s like mixing on the worlds biggest studio monitors i.e. if the fader isn’t up, no one is going to hear that particular channel. Ultimate control!
The exact opposite is the case in a small club. The PA is more to reinforce the sound that’s being created by the musicians on stage. Meaning, the sounds that are quietest on stage will be amplified more in the PA than louder ones in order to create a balanced mix for the audience.
The sounds that usually need the most amplifying through the PA are; vocals, instruments that are DI’d but aren’t running through a stage amp, bass drums and tom toms. If you’ve ever heard a recording of a mix coming straight off the FOH desk in a small club then you’ll understand what I’m talking about. For those that haven’t, they sound odd because the quiet sounds on stage are uncomfortably loud in the recording while the sounds that are loud on stage are oddly tame. It’s kind of like a ying yang scenario.
Easy, play quietly. Ok, so that’s only half right. Playing quietly on stage WILL help your band sound good but it’s not necessarily easy. What’s also important is for your band to create a balanced sound on stage. If you can, then your engineer is able to simply amplify that balanced sound without making compromises. If there’s one or two members of the band that are a lot louder than the others then the engineers hands are a little tied because they can only mix to the loudest instrument. Meaning, the loudest band member sets the standard that an engineer has to make all the other sounds compete with. And sometimes a PA in a small club can’t compete with a very loud stage sound.
The main losers when a band is very loud on stage are the vocalists and the audience. Singers will struggle to hear themselves and the audience will struggle to hear the singers.
Turning down the drummer
As I mentioned at the start of the article I’m a musician as well as an engineer and when I perform on stage most often I’m behind the drum kit. Unfortunately, drummers are one of the main culprits of playing too loud and we have the toughest job of turning down; because our acoustic drums don’t have a volume knob.
Whenever I ask a drummer to make less noise I usually receive some interesting looks, sometimes threatening ones. It is possible to play the drums quietly but I understand that it doesn’t feel as satisfying as whacking them like they’ve said nasty things about your mother. So, what can be done to make heavy handed drummers (who can’t or won’t ‘play to the room’) more sociable in small clubs?
Cymbal choice and snare drum tuning
One of the two noisiest parts of a typical drum kit is the cymbals, the snare drum being the other. Heavy cymbals make lots of noise so using lighter ones will make it easier to play quietly. Using cymbals that have a lower fundamental pitch or ‘darker’ tone will also help as they’re not as harsh or offensive.
Some of my favorite hi-hat cymbals are actually old ‘no name’ 18” crash cymbals. They have a very dark sound and because they’re lightweight you don’t need to play them very hard to reach their maximum volume. This means I can get a sound from them that has lots of energy but isn’t all that loud.
What musicians need to remember when playing on a small stage is that there are lots of microphones in a very small space and they can’t distinguish between a vocal, cymbal or guitar sound. Any sound that makes it into the front of a microphone is going to find it’s way magically out of the speakers. Unfortunately for drummers, lead singers are often positioned in front of the drum kit with their microphones pointing directly at it. This essentially makes the lead vocal microphone an ambient drum mic. What compounds this problem is vocal mics typically get amplified a lot through the PA which means the loud parts of a kit get unnecessarily amplified EVEN MORE!
A drummer’s snare drum sound is a very personal thing, probably more so than any other part of their kit and much like cymbals, the brighter higher pitched snare drums tend to be a problem in small clubs. So the suggestion is much the same as before. Try tuning your snare drum lower. You’ll find you can still dig into the drum but it’s not going to be as much of a problem.
Along with drummers, guitarists are often too loud on small stages. Again, simply turning down so the band has a balanced onstage sound is the first thing to try but when that’s not an option there’s a few other things that might help.
When a guitar amp is being mic’ed up the amp serves purely as a guitarists on stage monitor, so why not position it accordingly? Musicians are creatures of habit, and guitarists are no exception. It often strikes me as odd that guitarists set their amplifier up directly behind them, because that’s where their ears will hear it the least. And with their back to their amplifier the sound they hear is lacking top end which gives a false impression of their tone and actual volume.
What’s even odder is when the guitar amp is sat on the floor directly behind them so it’s pointing at the back of their calve muscles. The only people at the gig who’ll get the full force of a guitar amp set up like that is the front row of the audience, and it’s probably not going to be a pleasant experience.
Putting a guitarist’s amp to their side often kills two birds with one stone. The guitarist can hear themselves clearer and the harsher frequencies are focused on stage instead of at the audience or the sound engineer. As this drastically reduces the amount of sound the audience hear directly from the amp some of the mic’d up sound can then be added to FOH to help create a balanced mix. This is also means the guitarists don’t have to sacrifice their golden tone by turning down the amp.
If the guitar amp is a closed back design then placing the speaker in front of and angled up at the guitarist would be even better. Unfortunately this isn’t usually an option because of the size of the amp or the space available on stage and doesn’t work well with hollow or semi hollow body guitars because of their tendency to feed back.
Much like with cymbals and snare drums, loud guitar amps leak into vocal mics and cause problems. However, this problem isn’t exclusively for small stages. Even guitarists on large stages cause this problem too so positioning cabinets is a big issue at any level of the music biz.
Check out these photos of the Boss’ Marshall quads angled way back so his guitar sound doesn’t blast into his vocal microphone.
An extravagant solution to the loud guitar amps issue is housing them in ‘live in’ cases which have microphones inside them, as done by rock Gods Metallica. This way the speaker is in it’s one little isolation booth and won’t bother anyone, even if it’s turned up to 11.
A more cost effective solution are perspex screens. These are widely available and do a great job of containing the sound of loud amps and isolating microphones giving a more direct guitar sound.
Another suggestion is turning an offending amp 180 degrees away from the audience. Obviously this only works with closed back cabinets and works especially well when the back wall of the stage is covered by a thick curtain.
I hope that some of these suggestions might come in handy at some point for both musicians and engineers alike. Unfortunately venues are often not the best sounding environments for bands to perform in so anything that can help improve the on stage sound can go along way towards making the best of a bad situation.