Usually, musicians seem to be at the mercy of the sound guy, and whether they sound good or not can sometimes be decided by whether the person behind the board is a well-meaning dude who knows nothing more than how to work the volume faders, or someone who can set gain, eq, compression, and external effects like a boss. But then there's the room, or the unforgiving lack of early reflections in an outdoor environment that can make even an amplified drummer sound like he's just whacking cardboard. Let's be honest.
Sometimes, things like this don't matter. As a musician that has played many types of music, almost none of this matters if you are playing in a jazz combo, or in something like a 70's style, earthy jam band. But a lot of problems arise when it comes to aspiring artists that want to make something more akin to modern, radio-esque music, especially those in the rock area whose albums are all about coming across like a wall of sound. I've heard professional touring band's live guitar tone sound like like a buzz-saw on a tin can. But the question is, why?
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve played heavy music in some pretty simplistic situations. Tiny sound board with no eq, tiny PA with no dedicated subs, outdoors. And you know what you do? You just give it all you’ve got. But I think that if you can do better, it’s good to know how.
First of all, there are the reasons I mentioned above. Truth is, finding a sound person who knows how how to set input gain, fill out the whole EQ spectrum (without things sounding harsh and painful), and use compression to make things punchier (and safer for the listeners and equipment) is not always easy for performance venues. Even someone who can do this to a certain point may be a bit stuck on mixing for one certain genre, and not another.
So this lands things on the shoulders of the band. And for rock especially, there's some things I wish heavier bands would consider.
1-Just because you want to sound "raw" and "unprocessed" live (whatever that means, considering you're already plugging a genetically modified classical instrument into a big loud box full of transistors or vacuum tubes and oversaturating it's sound to kingdom come), doesn't mean you shouldn't consider more than just your guitar and your amp. In fact, modern heavy/hard rock IS a very processed type of music. It just is. Whether you think it is, or whether you think your favorite artist sounds "produced" or not, trust me, they are. The musicians who sound worst live though, are the ones who refuse to understand this. I'm not saying you need to use autotune live or put all your guitars on track and just sync. What I am saying is that that, a lot of rock players seem to want to forget the fact that after they set their 3-band EQ and mic their cab, or set up their drum kit, there are usually a lot of drastic things that happen afterward that makes them sound the way they do. In a lot of cases, it can sound pretty barbaric when two guitarists and a bassist plug straight into their amps, a drummer just sets up his kit, and a with no mic technique gets thrown into a channel strip with practically nothing on it but a gain control. I've been at SO MANY concerts where to me, the music didn't seem like music at all. I knew the song, I heard the parts, but it just sounded like a bunch of people that happened to be playing loudly at the same time, and not music. Bassists, if you play hard music, different uses for compression! Guitarists and Bassists, learn that your tone is NOT ALL ABOUT YOU! One of the biggest mistakes guitarists and bassists make is setting their tone separately in their respective homes at super-loud volume (fatiguing their ears anyway) and then assuming that that it will sound just as good when everyone else is playing. What you need to know is that there are frequencies that PILE UP QUICKLY, especially when you're playing with a drummer. I’ve head a lot of guitar tones that sounded awesome on their own, but the moment the drummer started playing and using cymbals, it turned to brackish noise. And and bassists, good bass tone compliments good guitar tone! Guitarists need to know that their amp sound different from various angles too. I almost always try to jump off the stage and listen to what my amp sound like to the front row audience. The irony is, that while my tone sound great to me when I’m standing listening to the speaker cone from an angle, being directly in front of the amp (where the most die-hard fans are likely to be), it has often sounded the worst! So I want to create a tone that is going to sound best to the audience, not to me.
I think it’s a great idea when bass and guitar players get their hands on things like 32 band eqs and compressors, and start learning a bit about how to sound good wherever they go. And vocalists, it wouldn’t hurt you to learn about EQ, Compression, Reverb, and Delay. Because most hard music vocals usually sound pretty less-than live without at least some compression. Don’t believe me? How many scream vocalists do you know that would do an acoustic set?
2-Digital is not the enemy. About 10 years ago, there were some people with some really compelling arguments as to why analogue was so much better than digital. And maybe in some cases, this is still true. A lot of guys love the sound of their vintage fender twin in the studio. Ok, I get that. But things like amp and cab emulation, digital synthesis, backing tracks, and Impulse Responses have come a long way (especially for harder music). So far in fact, that bands like Periphery put down their tube-driven monsters and picked up the Fractal Axe FX for studio and live. And, as a producer, you’d be amazed how much sampling I see being used in places where listeners most-likely don’t want to believe it. The term “drum replacement” is pretty much ubiquitous, whether a producer likes to use it or not. Because the truth is that a lot of drums sound better in the studio or in a room built to make drums sound good, and not out in the middle of an open field (despite what the average performance video would have you believe). Drums are a harder philosophical situation for me too, because I believe in the versatility and reliability of real acoustic drums, as a drummer myself. However, they work best when they are mic’d up properly in large venues. In small to medium venues, they are just so loud that they either drown everything out, or the sound guy doesn’t put them in the PA mix to try to compensate, and they lose all their punch. Not to mention, in a lot of instances you end up with a snare and kick that sound relatively good, but cymbals just get neglected all together. Some of the most effective sets I have seen have incorporated acoustic and electric/sampled percussion. As I said, this situation is almost exclusive to heavier music, since the drummers are playing loud most of the time. But more often then not, while harder rock music is one of the types of music that requires the most production attention, it is often one of the types that is given the least production on the local to regional level. “Plug and play” seems to be the name of the game, and it often makes even very skilled bands just sound like cavemen. And backing tracks aren’t the devil. Look, I believe that a good band should be able to play without backing tracks if need be, or crank out an improvised jam. I was a college musician that played jazz and with a jam band from time to time. But the reality is that a band with one guitarist can easily have two to five guitar tracks going on simultaneously on an album. And a band with one vocalist probably has so many harmonies and octave doubles on recording that short of hiring a bunch of backup singers (which, of course, is awesome and preferable in many cases), backing tracks make the most sense. The same applies to string arrangements, special effects, etc. OF COURSE it would be ideal to tour with an orchestra (and if you don't think so, in my opinion, you aren't thinking big enough), but what irks me is when a band has a song that relies heavily on something like a string arrangement, then they just play the dirty, bare bones version of it live because they haven't put any effort into production value. Some people don't have the technical capabilities, and that;s totally understandable, but still.
What prompted this blog is that I’ve seen some cover bands lately that have their gear setups way more involved (and better sounding) than tons of “professional” full-time touring bands. Because they aren’t afraid to use different effects, to mix analogue and digital, and even use electric drums if they need to (which, have often sounded abundantly better in an outdoor stage situation than an acoustic kit, as long as the PA is decent). It’s funny, because I’ve seen “pro” bands essentially doing the “plug and play” thing live, sounding like a really skilled garageband playing ok covers of their own material. Then I’ve heard cover bands full of semi-pro regional musicians who will roll onto a stage with racks of fine-tuned equipment, because they’ve done their best to create what they heard on the ALBUM, and they have sounded FANTASTIC (despite their weird stage antics). They’ve got their effects and tones and patch banks all dialed in.
So, something to think about.
I could go a lot deeper than this, but I think this about covers it. What do you think?