Lowering your stage volume can do wonders for your performance
By Mike Levine
Ol’ Cheeky Bastards deal with a funky stage setup at the Red Devil Lounge in San Francisco.
Acoustic issues are constant gremlins for performing musicians, but they’re especially bad on the club level, where you often play in venues that have woefully inadequate or nonexistent acoustical design.
It’s not unusual to find a stage situated in a corner or by a window, or in a place with hard surfaces all around. In those situations, the stage sound is often extremely reflective; everything sounds indistinct and louder than normal, and that makes it tough to hear properly, much less to relax and play your best.
To make matters worse, there are many gigs where you have little or no chance for a soundcheck, so you have no opportunity to even partially adjust to the subpar acoustics. How many gigs have you played where your first song—which is a very important one in terms of the audience deciding whether to pay attention or tune you out—had to function as your de facto soundcheck?
The acoustical gods are already lined up against you in many gigging situations. Unfortunately, many bands exacerbate this problem by playing way too loud. No matter where you are, but especially in acoustically challenged venues, the more you keep your stage sound under control, the better your performance will be. Why? Because you’ll be able to hear each other, which is crucial to laying down any kind of groove.
Keep it Down Everyone in the band wants to hear themselves, and when they can’t, their understandable inclination is to turn up. You’ve heard the term “loudness wars” applied to the ever-increasing levels of mastered albums, but this also describes the issues often taking place onstage among band members. The result of SPL escalation is that as the total stage sound gets louder and louder, the sound in the club gets worse, it gets harder for the FOH engineer to mix the band with so much sound coming off the stage, and it becomes uncomfortably loud for the audience.
If you were to take a sound-level meter onstage, you’d be shocked by the high decibel readings. Although the issue of hearing protection is a separate one from what’s being covered here, it’s certainly closely related. And be assured that if your band is way loud every night, you’re increasing the chances of damaging your hearing over time.
The Usual Suspects Although anyone in the band can be a participant in the ever-escalating volume wars, in my experience, there are a few band members, generically speaking, who are most culpable when it comes to causing stage volume to go up.
Vocalists: I can’t tell you how many bands I’ve been in where the lead singer keeps asking the sound person to crank his or her monitor send to the point where the monitors are both on the verge of feedback, and are louder than the mains in the house (which is a nightmare for the FOH mixer). I understand that singers need to hear themselves (I sing myself ), but for the good of the group, you need to learn to do with less, monitorwise. Experiment with your vocal technique; for instance, opening your jaw wider when you sing makes your voice resonate in your head more, which can help with pitch recognition. You could also try wearing one earplug, and even visualizing pitches before singing them. The point is that you should be able to get by without your voice being ear-splittingly loud in the wedges. Of course, singers wouldn’t need as much monitor level if the rest of the band wasn’t so darn loud.
Drummers: The drummer has a huge impact on stage sound. Mediocre drummers frequently have little dynamic control, and have to bash their kits to feel the groove. Of course, drums are loud by nature, but drummers need to make an effort to play with power while keeping the volume under control.
Guitarists: As a guitar player, your ability to keep your stage sound at a reasonable level is impacted greatly if someone is running sound out front. If so, and if your amp is miked, you only need to be loud enough onstage to hear yourself—let the sound person take care of your sound in the house. Think of your amp as your personal guitar monitor. As a guitarist myself, I always try to be conscious of my stage sound. I know a lot of other players, however, who feel the need to cover the room from their stage amp. What’s more, if you feel you can’t get a good sound without cranking your amp way loud, it might be time to get a new amp.
Avoid the Ripple Naturally, other instruments can impact the stage sound, too. The bottom line for everyone is, remember that you’re an ensemble, not a group of individuals, and that each time you turn up, play louder, or ask for more in the monitors, you’re causing a ripple effect that will impact everyone’s sound and make them want to turn up as well. It requires a group-wide effort to keep things from spiraling out of control.