I walked out of a gig last week. The bands were well-rehearsed and the front of house engineers were doing a good job. The venue was great and I was amongst friends, colleagues and students. But I walked out because I couldn’t stand the physical pain of being an audience member in that room any longer.
The gig in question was a showcase of songwriting talent (of which, say it ourselves, there is quite a lot at the University). For most of the performers, it was the first time these particular songs had been played in public. New lyrics, new melodies, new arrangements and new ideas for an audience to experience – and for the performers to reflect on and refine. Creativity in action. Exciting stuff.
Except that it wasn’t. There was no opportunity to experience the lovingly crafted lyric metaphors, exquisite keyboard melodies, subtle drum grooves and carefully programmed laptop soundscapes that the bands had worked so hard on in their writing and rehearsal sessions. Because a Fender guitar amp was one metre out of place.
The scenario unfolds like this. The guitarist arrives at soundcheck and sets up the amp and floor pedals. The amp is placed on the floor, or sometimes on an amp case, and the FOH engineer puts a mic in front of it. This means that the amp only has to be loud enough for the guitarist to hear it on stage. The front of house PA system can do the rest – the guitar can be as loud as it needs to be for the song.
But the stage is not very deep, so our guitarist is standing a metre or so in front of the amp and all of its sound is coming out at waist height. In physics, treble and upper mid frequencies (around 2kHz-5kHz) are more directional than bass and lower mids, so this means that these all important upper frequency areas literally go straight past the guitarist, bypassing the ears. The audience are standing further back, and the amp is pointing directly at them, and (due to height of the stage) roughly at head height. So they get the ‘proper’ guitar sound as it is meant to be heard, with all those lovely Fender Strat twangy guitar tones cutting effortlessly through the mix. Add a bit of distortion from a good quality tube amp (in this case, a beautiful Fender Hot Rod Deville) to performance skills, great songwriting and well-rehearsed material, and you have a recipe for a wonderful evening for lovers of guitar-based music.
Except that the guitarist isn’t hearing any of this great tone because the amp isn’t pointing at his or her ears. In fact, the guitarist can’t hear very much at all, what with the drummer going for it with the (head height) crash cymbals and the singer doing all that loud high-in-the-mix emoting coming back through the stage monitors. But wait, thinks our guitarist (and here is the point at which the seeds of destruction are sown, condemning all those musicians’ artistic endeavours to immediate and certain doom). If I can’t hear myself, I’ll just turn up the amp.
So the amp gets louder. The singer (who, from the audience’s PoV, is always the most important person) immediately has a problem, because the guitar sound is now drowning out the vocal on stage (the electric guitar sits in approximately the same frequency range as the human voice, and its harsh upper midrange can obscure the harmonics of vowels that support singers’ diction and pitching). From a vocalist’s perspective ‘in the moment’, the problem isn’t that the guitar is too loud – it’s that the voice is too quiet. So the singer employs a universally understood combination of mime, pointing, head gestures, frowning and over-the-PA instructions to get the mix engineer to turn up the voice in the onstage monitors.
The FOH engineer does his or her best, but is constrained by the need to control feedback – you can’t turn up a stage monitor indefinitely because the mic will eventually squeal, which will be equally unpleasant for audience and band alike. And the root cause of the original problem (the on-stage guitar amp being not loud enough for the player and too loud for the audience) can’t be solved by the front of house mix; the guitar, by this point, is at zero on the desk, because too much guitar sound is already coming from the stage. The engineer has no room for manouvre – and is being unfairly blamed by audience and band alike for the terrible mix in the room.
Meanwhile, the keyboard player, who operates in roughly the same pitch and harmonic spectrum as the guitarist and vocalist, can’t hear the keyboard, which is coming back through the monitors, and sometimes, at small gigs, on the same monitor mix that’s carrying the vocals. Cue a separate set of (slightly less flamboyant, less well-lit and less sweary) mimes and gestures to the FOH engineer. So the engineer has to turn up the keyboards in the monitors. We now have three people who are supposed to be playing music together making war on each other through an arms race of sonic attrition.
Sound is about air molecules bouncing off each other, causing a chain reaction that travels from the sound source through the venue, and eventually reaching your eardrums, which resonate in sympathy with the vibrations of the air. Which is why in space no-one can hear you scream (and the foley budget for Star Wars could have been a lot less). And the more air is bouncing around on stage, the more difficult it is for the sound engineer to control the mix, especially at small pub and club gigs where the backline amplifiers can be heard by the audience.
Due to the FOH engineer’s lack of control, the audience is hearing a downer of a mix. The vocal is obscured by the guitar so the front person’s stage presence and character isn’t communicating properly. The lyricist’s craft is lost on everyone. The singer is out of tune because the vocal isn’t clearly isolated in the monitors. The drummer and bassist are surrounded by a cluttered midrange of noise, meaning they’re not hearing the pulse of the music (or the sound of their own instruments) as clearly as they would like. So they play louder. Which clutters the mix more.
Our guitarist, meanwhile, who had a perfectly usable on-stage mix at the soundcheck, can’t understand which he or she now can’t hear the (already too loud) upper midrange that defines the guitar’s rhythmic attack and tonal quality. Probably best to turn the amp up, then.
Not everyone is as middle-aged and grumpy as I am, of course, so not everyone will walk out. But when the mix sucks, everyone in the venue has a terrible time, and the band’s artistic intentions will fail.
Rewind. The guitarist can fix this. An amp stand that angles the speaker towards the guitarist’s ears is all that is needed. Even if you’re on a tight budget (as I was in my gigging days in the early 1990s) it’s possible to balance the amp on a few beer crates to get it at head height. The problems I experienced last week (and have seen at literally hundreds of small gigs over the years) can be solved just with a few seconds of care during the soundcheck.
Guitarists. Make a better world for us all. Buy an amp stand.