http://lamkins-guitar.com/music/article/small-club-sound
David Lamkins picked up his first guitar a long time ago. As best he can recall the year was 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. Four decades later David has conjured up an amalgam of folk, rock and jazz solo guitar music for the occasional intimate Portland audience.
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location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: loudness, opinion, performance, sound engineering, @musings info
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Small-club live sound

Most of the small clubs that host live bands around here have a house PA and a resident sound guy (or even a roster of sound guys that they rotate through, depending upon who's available).

I usually try to talk the sound guy into letting us drive the room from the backline. Just vocals through the PA. Easier for him, better for us. Nope. They do things a certain way, and that's it. House rules. Sometimes I get the argument that our backline would be far too loud. Our amps push about 100 to 105dB, tops. And that's on the stage. It's quieter on the floor. Yet when I hear other bands on the same night, in the same room, the volume through the mains is way higher than we'd be able to achieve using the backline alone.

So, we're stuck with going along with the sound guy's routine. You probably know the drill... he mics everything. Multiple mics on the drum kit, a mic on every guitar amp, and a mic or DI for the bass and keyboards. One place we played put two mics on every guitar amp. I asked why, and was told the 'house engineer' (pretentious, aren't we?) wanted to have a choice. That, by the way, was our worst sound ever.

So, why the huge PAs and complex mic setups? I mean, these are not huge venues. We're talking about a capacity of 50 to a few hundred people. Plenty small to let the backline fill the room and use the PA just for vocals. I mean, c'mon... the Beatles played Shea Stadium with less firepower than most of these clubs have at their disposal.

So once everything is mic'd, there's a cursory soundcheck. Typically, the board jockey spends his time trying to EQ the drum kit to be as loud as possible in the room. Next, he makes sure that the guitars are quiet enough that he can "mix" the band - 9 times out of ten a band he's never heard before - without interference from stage volume. This puts the stage volume of the guitar amps down around 85 to 90dB - too quiet for a non-master volume amp to really get cooking.

So... you've got low stage volumes and a loud room. How do the band members hear each other? The monitor mix, right? Wrong. These clubs cheap out on the monitors... Half the time the monitors are too wimpy to be trusted with anything but vocals, and the other half the sound guy doesn't want to be bothered with doing a real sound check. I mean, we're talking five minutes start to finish, and three of that is on the drums. So the only way you can hear the guitarist on the other side of the stage is to listen to the room reflections, which are of course delayed and often effected by whatever 'verb or echo strikes the sound guy's fancy at any given moment. Heck, half the time I can't hear my own amp, because the stage volume is drowned out by the back-wall reflection from the mains.

My band is really good with dynamics and balancing our own sound. We know what we're doing - when we record ourselves, it doesn't take a lot of fiddling with the mix to get a clean track. But when we play live, the sound guy is out there trying to decide which guitar should be heard above the others, and getting it wrong all the time. I've heard house recordings (camcorders) of our performances at clubs like this, and am totally baffled by what we sound like from the floor. Critical parts disappear entirely, and parts that should be in the background jump out at you.

So, I was really excited last night to play at a club where the house PA carries only vocals and the kick drum. No frustration with monitor mixes or stage volume. The amps sounded like they're supposed to. Our dynamics and interplay didn't get "remixed". We were not too loud in the room. It was the best performance experience I've had in a long time. Once the "sound guy" set a level for the singer's mic, he was done. Walked away from the board and went back to tending bar. Nice.

I'm gonna start a campaign to get small clubs to ditch "stadium" micing. Who wants to join me?

Think about it... The bands get their own sound back, the club owners save about a hundred bucks a night by not paying a sound guy, and the patrons get a break from the extreme volume of the house sound. Who knows, maybe the patrons would even hang around longer and buy a drink or three if the volume in the room was reasonable. The money that's no longer paying for the sound guy could be going to the bands, or promotion, or facilities maintenance, or into the owner's pocket.

June 20 2004 05:14:18 GMT