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Stage Volume: Turn Up and Play Light (and Other Considerations)

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Q: In hard rock and metal music, many players – including me – resort to playing with a heavy right hand to cut through the mix of distortion. As time goes by my right wrist starts to experience some pain and I’m thinking I should be playing lighter. Jeff Berlin and Gary Willis have been advocating “turn up and play light”, but it seems to be more of a tone issue rather than volume. What would you do in a rock gig to make sure you’re heard?

A: I’d like to kick off this response by saying, “wear ear plugs!”

I have some pretty bad tinnitus and I attribute a lot of it to my high-school and college days playing metal (I was a drummer back then). Enough with the PSA, but protect your ears!

While Jeff Berlin and Gary Willis have never played in a metal band that I know of, neither are strangers to loud bands and drummers that hit pretty damn hard (I would not want to be Kirk Covington’s snare drum).

Playing hard with your right hand does not actually gain you that much volume but rather changes the tone and attack of your note. While I’m not sure of the actual db range of your right hand attack, I can say that you can likely get what you need on stage via a combination of:

  • Proper EQ to cut through the mix
  • Amount of air moved on stage (aka: the right rig)
  • Monitors!

Truth be told, if you had a good monitor mix (or even better, in-ear monitors), you could have a low wattage head on a single 12˝ speaker on stage and hear what you want. Of course, the front of house guy would have to blast you through the mains.

If the stage volume is really cranking, you may even try two monitors pointed right at your head. Again, you can destroy your hearing this way. Be careful.

EQ can go a long way in being heard.

Playing with a pick is another way to adding a point to your notes which will help them to cut through but, either way, the boomier the bass, the more it is felt rather than heard.

You might try playing with your treble and upper mids, and reducing your bass a bit. If your notes sound a little harsh (and they will), give it a try in the context of a tune before you discount your tone. Quite often, the tone that you find when playing alone is not the tone that actually works best with the band. That’s especially true if you are getting drowned out. A bit of “point” to your notes can go a long way to cutting through.

Also remember that the bass is often actually not heard the best directly in front of the amp. The frequency takes more distance before it’s presence is fully realized. Setting your amps further behind you may actually aid in your really hearing them properly.

Speaking of your rig, you will hear two 410 cabs at 500watts better than you will one 410 cab at 1000watts. Moving more air means more bass in the room.

We are at a disadvantage when it comes to cutting through the mix by virtue of our frequency (especially if you guys are rocking a drop tuning and you tend to stay low on the neck. A low C on the B string can cause a lot of vibration but doesn’t really ‘cut’ through per se. It’s a note that is very much felt more than heard).

Given that you are potentially causing injury to your hand by trying to hit harder than a Marshall stack, you really need to be careful and re-consider your approach.

Here’s what I’d suggest:

  1. A good, powerful rig. A 410 cab or more with a minimum of 500watts, but 1,000 would be even better because you don’t want to have to posh your head to it’s limit. Leaving some headroom goes a long way with regard to tone. I use to use an 1,800 watts QSC power amp with a tube preamp, for example.
  2. Experiment with your EQ at a rehearsal. Try adjusting your treble and upper mids for attack and use the low mids to add bass, instead of the actual “bass” knob. The bass knob tends to muddy the sound a bit while the low miss add more punch to the lower frequencies
  3. Use monitors! If you or the band can afford it, use good monitors. In-ear rigs are the best because you can get a great mix in your ears without having to make it loud. Also, an ambient room mic in the in-ear mix can really help keep the music feeling live and not sound like you’re playing along with a CD. Or just crack one ear a little bit to let the sound of the room in.

Above all, don’t destroy your hands, tendons or ears trying to do what the right technology can do better.

Readers, what’s your approach for being heard and staying fit? Tell us about it in the comments.

Photo by Adrian Keith

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