I can’t hear!
Go to any live music venue where beginning bands frequently grace the stage, and I’ll bet that you will hear some variation of the above sentiment. In this feature, we will examine ways to improve what you, the drummer, as well as what your bandmates hear when performing in a live environment. Providing valuable insight on the subject are two notable authorities on live sound and live-sound technology: Bob Durkee, technology accessories buyer for California-based Guitar Center and avid musician for over two decades; and Ron Parker, front-of-house engineer for Ziggy’s, a thriving live-performance venue that regularly hosts hip national acts and rising local and regional stars (ziggyrock.com).
As always, a superior solution involves squelching a problem before it ever exists. So when preparing for a string of live dates, do as much self-mixing in rehearsals as possible. “In my experience of playing,” offers Durkee, who cut his live-performance teeth while playing guitar, “monitors were either bad or virtually nonexistent in a lot of the smaller places I played. I found that the best way to make sure that a performance was good was to learn to play without monitors. Lots of rehearsal and experimentation in setting up made that possible.”
Self-mixing often involves strategic configuration of instruments and amplifiers as well as realistic evaluations regarding the very least you need to hear in order to perform sufficiently. In setting up to self-mix, try as many reasonable variations on a traditional stage plot as possible and settle on the one where everyone is most comfortable and can hear the best — not necessarily the one that is the most visually impressive. After all, looking cool doesn’t actually make you sound better.
“The most important thing that local and even experienced bands can do is experiment with different lineups on stage,” explains Parker. “If you don’t have a great monitoring system at a show, then your own setup will at least cover you the best it can. Plus, everyone in the band should know what they need to hear. Usually, for example, engineers know that bands need to hear vocals and the singer needs to hear himself. Guitar players will want to hear themselves, and drummers usually want to hear some kind of a mix. But if you come in with an idea of what is important to you — maybe a bare minimum list and an ideal list — and present that to the soundman when you get there, it’s a great way to improve the performance and experience.”
A list of what each bandmember needs to hear — or better yet, what each member “doesn’t need to hear,” insists Parker — will always improve a monitor mix, as will providing the house engineer with a detailed stage plot with all sound sources to be amplified clearly labeled. “It is key, though, to talk to the soundman early in the evening, not right before your set is supposed to start. By then, it’s often too late.”
It’s a simple fact, offers Parker: Most live performance neophytes simply play too loudly, which exacerbates the problem of a band hearing themselves in the first place. “It’s the age-old question,” he chuckles. “Ask any front-of-house engineer what’s their biggest problem with new bands, and it’s always, ’They’re too loud.’”
Simply lowering volume levels of individual amplifiers can go a long way to getting a better monitor mix. The best place to start performing at lower volumes is, obviously, during rehearsals. Once a band gets to the venue, the louder a band is inherently, the louder everything else has to be, which usually just worsens the band’s and the audience’s mixes.
“In a club setting, you have the band and the band’s back line,” Durkee explains. “Now you add the P.A. Then everything else has to adjust to the P.A. Then you add the monitors, which is really a negative proposition because you’re taking the sound you’ve already created and you feed it right back into the band. As a result, everything else has to be that much louder to overcome the sound you’ve just shot back at yourself. You’re just adding layer of volume that you must overcome.”
For drummers, playing with less volume is often a challenge and — insists Parker — just impossible for many. “The biggest problem with drums is that they’re usually the only acoustic instruments on stage,” he says. “And often they’re the loudest. Everyone else has a volume control except for drummers, and I’ve never been successful in asking them to not hit as hard!”
While using products such as plexiglass drum shields may help isolate loud drums a bit, they can provide more problems than solutions if a drummer isn’t used to playing with them. “Besides being a little unwieldy,” notes Durkee, “if you don’t practice with a drum shield, certainly don’t perform with one. Most importantly, you should always perform as you practice. A lot of bands don’t do that and are surprised when they get to a gig.”
To help with improving live monitoring situations via lower audible levels, Durkee also recommends purchasing a good set of custom earplugs. The $3 foam plugs just don’t provide the same benefits. “Go to an audiologist and get a set of custom earplugs, which are available for under $200,” Durkee says in an endorsing voice. “It’s a great investment. If you take care of them, they’ll last for many years. Plus, once you get on stage and are done with sound check — having already mixed competing volumes and everything's set — as soon as you put in those earplugs the volume goes down and it cleans things up. Good earplugs cut out a lot of the sound bouncing around in a club and just make everything that more intelligible.”