The Lightbulb Moment: It’s All in Your Head(space)

Old bass amp

“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.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

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  1. Only last night i played my first ‘plugged-in’ gig on DB. DI’d into the desk (against better judgement) and was told by the sound guy that my pick-up was knackered hence no me through the monitors. Nightmare as far as intonation is concerned! Went home and plugged into my little GK combo….. the pick-up was fine. Lesson – always take your own amp!

  2. Hey Ryan…Looks like you covered a lot of ground as to what one may be faced with during a live show.Experience is definitely a key factor, knowing your gear,and maybe most importantly,adapt and survive with a smile on your face and a positive attitude.It can only get worse if you are stressed and moaning about how awful it is.Once you know what you are dealing with,you make the best of a bad situation and carry on.BASS ON ??

  3. C-Note

    On stage the bass player usually gets whatever space is remaining after everyone else sets up as an afterthought. We usually end up sitting on top of our amp as a monitor even though the true sound is actually out a few feet in front of the amp because of the long wavelength. We’re not actually hearing what everyone else hears.

    The same can be said about studio playing. The mix in the headphones can throw off your senses the same way. Just check out any of those isolated bass mixes and compare it to what you thought that you heard on the full recording. It can be pretty enlightening.

  4. I had a gig where the soundman was such a caveman he had me turn down so much in practice I couldn’t hear my bass at all. He said it was because of the cellar reverbing bass but all I know is that I couldn’t hear a thing that night and suffered with tinnitus for months afterward because of it.

  5. Ed

    CNote, so how far in front of my (200 watt combo) amp should I be ideally? Not going through PA, rock covers band, amp on the floor.

  6. Ed

    And why can’t I reply to the thread in line with the comment I’m replying to? :)

  7. Themeansoundguy

    the six p’s Prior Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance. There is no magic sound man wand folks.

  8. low E is a 27′ wavelength. sound is always an issue for Bass player, compared with other elsewhere in a room. Wireless is the way to go so you can walk around the room and here loud spots, as well as cancellation spots.

  9. Just posting logged in with Facebook to see if it ends up as a reply to my own post.

  10. Louis

    Well to live entertainment. Every gig is a learning experience.

  11. Wazza

    Hey Ed
    I find if there’s enough room, if I plant myself 6-8ft in front of my rig, that’s the sweet spot mate, (for me).You can play at a good volume and balance your sound with the rest of the band. I know that’s not always possible for that distance, if you’re right on top of your Amp, get it off the ground. Carry a couple of milk crates with you or bung it on a chair. Adjust your tone to suit and volume, and away you go…. Rock on bro

  12. Thanks Wazza, rehearsal last night, amp on a beer crate, and I spent some time wandering around as there was plenty of space. It’s amazing how much the sound changes from place to place. The crate made a big difference!

    Gig tonight but in a very very restricted space unfortunately, hopefully the crate will make a big difference.

    I wonder if this will come up as a reply, I’m FB logged in, and created a WordPress account as well, who knows … yes, I clicked the reply button …