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The Lightbulb Moment: Setting The Stage

Bassist on stage
Photo by Patrick Wright

I’m standing in front of my amp. I’m sure of it. It’s two feet behind me, the light is on, and there’s definitely sound coming out of it – well, at least I’m pretty sure that there’s sound coming out of it.

There comes a time in every musician’s life when you realize that a sound check can be an overwhelmingly frantic troubleshooting session. Rather than an informal gathering to make noise and perhaps rehearse a song or two, they turn into desperate attempts to establish sonic familiarity in an unfamiliar environment. Perhaps the room is incredibly small and the overall stage volume is too loud; perhaps the space is huge, dead sounding, and you feel physically far away and isolated from your peers. Either way, it’s important to understand a space and realize how you can improve your own sonic environment. For the sake of argument, we’ll assume that all of the major variables are the same – you’re using your own instrument and rig – and that the purpose of a sound check comes down to dialing in your tone, finding a comfortable stage volume, and most importantly, creating a monitor mix.

First things first, when you’re trying to dial in a sound, I suggest setting your amp to your own “normal” settings. If you haven’t spent time at home turning knobs and determining what your go-to settings are, then you certainly should. When you get on stage, set your amp before you play your first note and be prepared to make adjustments accordingly. If you tend to keep your treble control at 2 o’clock and realize that it’s just not speaking well enough, go ahead and turn it up. If the room is particularly boomy and there are subs under the stage, try rolling off the bass. When your tone is drastically different from what you’re used to and the cabinet has a tweeter, take a look at where it’s set… gremlins, stagehands, or overly ambitious knob-turners may have indulged their curiosities.

Finding a good stage volume goes hand-in-hand with your tone. It’s important to find the proper balance of hearing yourself within the context of others. Turn up loud enough to hear yourself, but don’t blast your neighbor… it is both unnecessary and inconsiderate. If you get used to performing with a particular group, you’ll learn how hard the drummer plays, how the guitar player prefers to point his amp, and how you can hear yourself within the context of your bandmates. At times, you’ll even have to conform to the volume restraints of a particular venue or soundman, and in the event that you simply can’t get what you want from the stage, your best option is to dial in your monitor.

Before jumping in to monitor world, I would like to point out that having a monitor (and a monitor engineer) is more often a luxury than an essential, especially when it comes to the bass player. Unless you’re the lead vocalist, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll be given the shaft. If there are five people in the band and only four monitors… you guessed it… you’re the one to go without. Ah, the joys of being the bass player. However, if you are lucky enough to get a monitor, it’s incredibly important to figure out how to use it.

While it may seem like a good idea to get everything in your monitor, it’s usually unnecessary and will do more harm than good…too many cooks in the kitchen will spoil the soup. Determine what you need so that you can hear the proper cues from your fellow musicians and don’t worry about everything else. If you aren’t singing and you don’t need to hear background vocals, then don’t get them in your monitor. If the drummer usually counts off a tune by giving time on the hi-hat, then make sure you can hear it. It’s important to strike the right balance between hearing yourself, hearing what is necessary for you to do your job well, and working within the context of the stage.

Unfortunately, developing a monitor mix is a difficult thing to practice, especially if you don’t perform on a regular basis. It’s done in real time, and usually in extremely limited real time. Patience and knowing how to courteously communicate with the soundman will get you pretty far… especially because everyone else in the band is trying to build a mix at the same time. What you can do, however, is prepare yourself to play the music to the best of your ability. In addition to knowing the bass lines and chords to the songs, think about how you need to hear the band as you’re rehearsing or working on material at home. The better you know the music and the way your peers play, the more successful you’ll be in knowing what to include or omit when you create your mix.

And lastly, remember that no stage is created equal. There will be venues that sound and feel great and others that don’t vibe. You may feel right at home at a hole-in-the-wall dive bar or out of place in a state of the art concert hall. Although it can be hard to predict what a stage will sound like, it’s important to realize that you can create your own sonic space and establish a level of comfort. In the event that you’re standing two feet away from your rig and you still can’t hear it, turn up a little bit, throw a tiny amount of bass in your monitor, and don’t be afraid to do some troubleshooting.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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