By TJ Cornish, March 2015
Occasionally we technical folks get focused on the knobs and dials under our control and can suffer from a bit of tunnel vision. Sometimes the most effective improvements aren’t technical. Let’s review the big picture. Nearly universally, sound quality is affected in this order (from greatest influence to least):
- Quality of musicianship on stage
- Stage volume
- Room acoustics
- Skill of the sound operator
- Speaker placement
- Speaker quality
- Microphone quality
- Everything else
Direct vs Indirect Sound
Audio has a number of unique challenges, and the principal reason for this is the very slow speed of sound. Unlike light, where shining more light sources on an object makes it brighter, multiple audio sources interfere with each other, causing what we call reverb or echo, intelligibility problems, and different sound in different parts of the room. We address these issues by seeking to maximize direct sound, and minimize destructive indirect sound.
The next time you have a music rehearsal, take the main fader of the sound board down to zero and listen to the amount of sound that comes from stage with the main speakers off. It’s not unusual for the level to hardly change at all. This is a big issue - we cannot control the sound that does not go through the main sound system.
Stage volume tends to be a vicious cycle. When one loud source is added, all of the other sources turn up so they can hear themselves, which makes the problem worse. The good news is that we can reverse the cycle - if we can remove one loud thing, other loud sources will be more willing to turn down. The method you address this will depend on your relationship to the musicians and other circumstances, but nearly always it is possible to make some progress.
In many cases, the issue is largely one of ignorance on the part of the band. Try to pull the band members off stage one at a time to hear the effect of stage volume in the room. Even this simple awareness can go a long way to either fixing the problem directly, or at least creating allies who are more willing to work with you now that they understand how their sound is compromised by a loud stage.
A recurring theme of this page is to “Maximize the direct sound and minimize the indirect sound”. Frequently guitar amps are seen on the ground aimed at the back of the guitar player’s knees. Reorienting the amp to the side and tilting it back so the amp is pointed at the guitar player’s head can make a big difference in the level the guitar player needs to hear himself, and pointing the guitar amp somewhere other than into the audience is usually beneficial as well.
Some guitar players may say “It needs to be this loud for my tone”. This attitude puts the band and you in an awkward position trying to balance the values of the guitar player being happy against the audience having a good experience. Your approach will depend on your relationship to the band and who is in charge, but hopefully a compromise can be found. There are more tools today than ever before for guitar players to get good tone without doing it in the power stage of their amp. All of the best guitarists I work with regularly either run 100% direct via a modeling system, or use amps 15 watts or smaller. Great tone really can be accomplished at less than 110dB.
Monitor wedges can have some of the same challenges of guitar amps - they are usually on the floor, and in some cases may be shared by more than one person. Moving the monitor off the floor or positioning it so the user can hear it better is helpful.
The other way that monitor wedges can be improved is to weed out what is in the monitor mix. Work with the user to figure out what the minimum instrumentation they need is, and eliminate anything extra. Vocalists probably don’t need to hear much of the bass line or the toms. Most instrumentalists don’t need to hear harmony vocals. If the snare drum is already too loud on stage, it shouldn’t be in the monitor. The purpose of a monitor wedge is not to create a studio-quality mix - though it’s great if you are able to pull it off - but rather for the musician to hear herself and enough musical clues to be able to do her job. When the musician says “I can’t hear myself”, instead of automatically turning her channel up, ask “Is there something that is making it difficult for you to hear yourself?” You may be able to give her what she wants - more of herself, while also reducing stage volume.
The drum kit can be a significant challenge, as many drummers find it difficult to play quietly, and electronic drum kits rarely have the same feel or expressiveness of an acoustic kit. A drum shield can be helpful as it directs some of the sound backward. If the wall behind the drum kit is very reflective, this may not be terribly helpful - all the sound reflected by the shield now gets reflected back off the wall towards the audience. If at all possible, try to orient the drum shield so sound is reflected into absorptive material - curtains, acoustical panels, or something that can actually reduce the drum energy rather than just reflect it around.
This may seem obvious, but if something is too loud - for example the cymbals, don’t put them through the sound system. In all but the largest venues, stage volume contributes significantly to the mix. It’s perfectly normal to not have much of the kit through the PA if a good balance can be made with stage volume, and especially if the acoustic source is too loud anyway.
I love in-ear monitors. They cost about the same per user as a reasonable monitor wedge, greatly reduce stage volume, save the musicians’ hearing, and help the musicians perform better since they can hear themselves better. If this can be made to work in your situation, this is a wonderful way to improve the audience’s experience as well as the musicians’.
In-ear monitoring systems take some getting used to. If you’re doing one-off events with different people every time, you may not have sufficient time to get your users trained and sound checked, as it takes longer to get an acceptable monitor mix for in-ears than wedges. If you have a more permanent situation such as a weekly church service, in-ears are very manageable, especially with the ability to do scene recall on a digital mixing board.
Reducing stage volume should be a goal for every show. The clarity of the mix will improve, the audience will be able to hear better, and the fruit of the band’s many hours of practice will be heard much more clearly. Accomplishing this goal may require educating and aligning the band and some equipment purchases, and in some cases may require someone in authority to make difficult personnel decisions. This labor is worth it. Of the top three factors that affect sound quality - musical talent, stage volume, and room acoustics, addressing stage volume is likely the most attainable. Hopefully the band can be helped to understand the big picture and will work with you to achieve this.