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

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. I use two separate bass amps/speakers, having 2 separate amp sources allows you to blend your signal and have one signal to hear yourself and the other for the audience….
    “Quite often, the tone that you find when playing alone is not the tone that actually works best with the band” that is so true….

  2. Go Bi-amped! I run 2-15’s for low end and 2-10’s for high end. As you can see in my picture the 210 is at ear level it really helps the bass cut through so I can hear it!

  3. Hmmm,… I actually tend to go the other way, that is, turn down and play hard. Maybe it’s just me, but my right hand never gets particularly tired or sore, and as was pointed out, RH aggressiveness is more a tone than volume thing. I just love the sound when I try to drive the strings right through the body. I’m still using my old Peavey Databass [450W into 1×15] and I never turn it past 3 on the master.

  4. I play a detuned 5 string.(low A to F) and play mostly death/ thrash. I play with quite a boost on my high end and mids with the lows dialed to a point where they sound earthy and with some grit.
    I also add a little distortion to my tone and play quite heavy as I like the tone of the strings when they rattle a bit. Most of the time I only really hear the highs and the grit where as I feel the note its self.
    Monitor wise I like a single wedge in front with kick and bass with just enough guitar and vocal to keep me on track with my 300 watt 2×10 behind giving me some growl from behind.

  5. It’s all in the hands people. The Jeff Berlin and Gary Willis method works for metal too. Just ask Steve Harris.

  6. I just started playing in a hard rock band for the first time ever (at almost 50!) and I agree with the EQ suggestions here. I also switched from a 3 way 15 cab to a 2×12 to get more of a low mid bump and faster attack, which helped quite a bit. For my funk band I go for more boom and snap but rock is all about the mids.

    • I just realized that my actual philosophy is turn down, use in ears, and play light. Best of all worlds. My rig is just for the other suckers on stage that don’t use in ears.

  7. Sound men, in general, if you have one put so much low end on the drums that the bass often gets buried. Go out into the room and listen to the balance between the drums and bass. Make sure you are not crowded out of the mix.

  8. For me, I find that bumping the mids a bit at my amp helps me cut through quite a bit. its a fine line though…I always think the mids can make my bass sound like talking with your hand over your mouth (if that makes sence)….
    But def for me, tuning up and playing softer give me WAY better tone and a TON of control over my dynamics.. I can really make things pop out If I want, really make a line “bubble”.
    Playing in the bars I have to be extra aware though because after a adult beverage or 2 it can be easy to “get into it” a little much and just be loud..
    I also have a 2×10 aimed pretty much at my head……

  9. Damian brings up a great point in EQing “in the context.” So many times we’ll try to create “our” sound while in the bedroom, or by ourselves and listen to it all become moot as soon as we’re playing in a group setting. Personally for me, I usually push the mids on the bass and favor the bridge pickup, which gives me a focused sound that’s a little brighter on its own but then sits right in the mix in most of my performance settings.

  10. I’m used in playing in punk rock , stoner and grundge bands in places that the P.A nor stage sound helps me cut through the mix. I tried adding some type of fuzz or overdrive and with the right Eq settings it helps me cut through without adding excessive force with my right hand to be heard!

  11. Personally, I don’t like to stand out that much. I like to hear myself as part of the whole. I can’t get into it if I hear myself over everyone else. With that being said, I think it’s more important to occupy a space that’s under everyone else. There’s already a ton of action in the midrange in my main band, New Groove City. There’s cowbell, congas, violin, sax, piano and vocals. If I’m boosting highs and mids, I’m lost in the shuffle. As long as the piano player doesn’t play too low, I’ve got my own space in the over all sound. I think that’s more effective and the dancers appreciate it.

  12. I found some success with having the guitarists doing a mild mid cut or scoop (2-3db) and in turn, boosting my mids a small amount. That and making sure I had the horn fully dialed up translated into an attack that cut through and sat well in the overall mix.

  13. Neat discussion. Granted I don’t play all the time: I’m a part-time part-timer. But, I have a certain tone that I like for certain songs and that’s what I shoot for. That where the RH comes in for me. Yeah, I go a bit harder for louder parts and get up on the tips for lighter, quicker. But for me, I don’t run a lot of pre-amp volume and let the master take it. Why? Tone and because I’m not a clean proficient player. Call it a crutch if you want, but it works. Have a Tubeworks 7200 with a 1×15 and go direct from amp to board.

  14. First: Have a chat with your guitar player to cut the bass in his sound. If they play metal amps like engl, they tend to boost the bass and treble and cut the mids. Sounds well alone but not in the context. God bless Marshall, they have basically no low end and a lod of mids.
    In this context there is place for the bass;) I also reduced the low ends and boost a bit the low mids and add presence for the attack. I am a physical player and love to hit my strings really hard and like the sound when they hit the frets (we were allready talking about Steve Harris;) I add a bit distortion for the grit and dirt and for me it gives the whole sound some extra boost. On the other hand it gives you a bigger spectrum of sound only with your style of playing, if I play softer I don’t loose much volume but get a warmer and cleaner tone.
    Like mentioned in the article, headroom is the key. I use an old crown 1400 watt power amp, gives you a lot more definition in the low ends.
    Sans Amp RBI & RPM -> Crown CSL 1400 -> SAD Sieben Audio Design Custom 6 x 10 (the upper two speakers are flipped lke in a wedge that you can hear yourself even on small stages when you are close to the cab).

  15. In my 30+ years of experience playing in a live environment, it’s all about headroom. Lots and lots of power turned down to a lower volume level. It completely opens up your tone if the amp has to work less and has lots of room to go. I also am a firm believer in getting my cabs (either a 4X10 or and 8X10 depending on the size of the venue) as far back behind me as possible. It seems like the more distance the sound has to “bloom” between me and the rig, the better I can hear it. I currently use a 1500 watt Crown power amp in my rig but my actual volume setting is seldom above 3 on my preamp.