Photo by Jessica Spengler
“Um, hey guys… excuse me… guys?!… Can you turn it down a little?”
I glance behind me at the drummer and our eyes meet with the same surprised expression. He can’t be serious, right?
We’re not playing rock and roll here… the drummer has yet to play with sticks instead of brushes, the keyboard player is running through a small guitar amp, and there’s no one doing sound. Lucky us—nothing through the PA, nothing through the monitors, and no way of knowing how things sound off stage. Sure, this is a restaurant and people (our fans, in fact) are here eating, but we’re still trying to play a show. If we had large amps and wailing guitars, that’d be one thing, but we’re just three mild-mannered players performing some instrumentals.
And so it goes. We turn down and attempt to play quietly, though it seems as if the air has been let out of our balloon. Our freedom has been stifled, our musicality subdued, our communicative and improvisatory nature inhibited by the fact that we simply cannot hear one another. The feeling of liberation that comes from taking the stage was replaced by uncertainty, caution, and fear of another warning. We’ve received a slap on the wrist that was hard enough to take the wind out of our sails.
I can’t say that this was the first time I’ve been told to turn down, but this particular occasion seemed quite unjust. We weren’t fighting with feedback and monitors, nor were we trying to “one up” each other with the volume of our solos. We simply needed an appropriate amount of volume to feel comfortable on our instruments. And yet, I was forced to turn the master down to the level of “bedroom.”
When it comes to playing live, I find that the single most important thing is being able to hear. Knowing the music is one thing… sure, you need to remember how the bridge of a song goes, but there’s nothing more jeopardizing to a performance than not hearing yourself and the other players. Having done my fair share of gigs, I’ve played in all kinds of rooms with all kinds of sound equipment. Corners of bars, flimsy outdoor stages, medium sized local clubs, and stages bigger than most New York apartments. Floor monitors, in-ear monitors, no monitors, only the mains. And, no matter what the situation is, it’s difficult to have a good performance when you don’t have good sound.
In some situations, being too loud can be detrimental. If you’re working with a soundman that has you too high in the monitors, you’ll lose control over dynamics. You’ll be afraid to dig in, be unhappy when you move up the neck and hear accentuated finger noise, and be holding back creatively. If you’re too soft, you’ll have the opposite problem. You’ll play too hard, straining your muscles and potentially creating too much noise over the pickups. You’ll be annoyed by the fact that you can’t hear yourself and, if you play mostly by ear, will be thrown off by the fact that you can’t hear when you’re playing a wrong (or right) note. All the work you put into having good tone and playing with good technique will suddenly go out the window, not to mention your ability to improvise and interact.
Sometimes the sound comes down to your rig and how you go about achieving the right tone at the right volume. These are “controlled variables.” The makers of basses and amps have cleverly designed things with knobs that give us at least some control over our sound. They’ve also made things that make lots of noise, or just a little noise, and it’s your job to recognize how much (or how little) power you need for a gig.
And then, there are the things that can’t be controlled… like the nights when everyone in the band gets a monitor except for you, because why would the bass player need to hear kick drum or vocals? Or when a club owner decides that you’re just way too loud, even though you can hear people talking over you. These external forces, such as the lack of proper sound equipment and personnel, make things a bit more difficult.
Every now and then you get lucky. Perhaps your amp sounds great and you’ve found just the right place in the mix and on the stage. Or maybe you have a soundman that does their best to make you comfortable; they are sympathetic to your needs, willing to problem solve, and are able to dial things in correctly. Those are the nights when your mental headspace aligns with the headspace of your rig in the most positive of ways, giving you the freedom to perform your best.
Unfortunately, there’s no clear-cut way to ensure good sound, but there are many ways to troubleshoot. The more experience you have playing live, the more you get used to dealing with your gear, learning how to work in different spaces, knowing how to interact with the band, and understanding how to communicate with a soundman. Will you have bad nights? Of course. Will you write them off as unsuccessful performances resulting in frustration, apathy, or musical mediocrity? Definitely. Will you give up and decide never to play out again? Hopefully not. Because who knows… the stars may align at the next gig; you’ll be able to choose whether or not your amp should go to 11, and you may get the opportunity to be your best musical self.