Small-club live sound, revisited
OK, there are some good arguments for - and good experiences with - having the entire band mic'd and having someone run sound. But... It seems like everyone that's in favor of that approach has a person that does sound for the band all the time. (Or is a sound guy... Hey, nothing wrong with promoting your own self-interest... ;) In essence, the sound guy is a member of the band.
Read that again: In the best of all worlds, the sound guy is a member of the band.
Well, that's not the situation I'm concerned about.
What bugs me is bringing my band into a small club, meeting the sound guy - often for the first and last time, and then having this guy "balance" the band's mix using... what?
- His knowledge of the band's material?
- Nope. The sound guy has never seen the band before. He didn't listen to the CD the band gave to the club's booker.
- His musical instincts?
- Maybe. Some genres of music are formulaic enough that anyone familiar with the genre can "sit in" with the band, whether on sound or an instrument, and do a competent job within the limits of their abilties. Works well for blues, cover tunes, metal, ... just about any recognizable genre.
- His golden ears?
- Gimme a break. Most of the time the sound guy knows just enough about the room and the gear to keep it from getting out of control. What's he gonna do with an unknown, multi-channel program source that he gets exactly one shot at? He's gonna try to make sure every instrument can be heard, and is is gonna try to make sure that the right instrument (see above: musical instincts) is forward in the mix.
Here's the thing. The venues I play at don't book bills having yet another band that sounds just like some other band. Most of the new bands playing in these venues are looking to break new ground and find an audience. The patrons of these venues are looking for something different - something fresh. But in the hands of a sound engineer who's never heard the band before, the mix is almost always wrong.
Think about it from another viewpoint. You take your band into a club. You're trying to invent some arty new genre with a particular expressive quirk. As a band, you've got it all down - the dynamics, the nuances, the arrangements. You've been working on the material for six months to a year to get everything just so. The time comes for your set at this club, and a guy walks up and says "Hi, I'm the house guitarist. I'll be sitting in with you tonight. OK if I set up my rig right here? Oh, and don't worry... I catch on very quickly."
For these bands, working with a sound guy for the first time is pretty much the same as having the hypothetical "house guitarist" foisted on you. Small errors in instrument balance can destroy the effect of a song. Most sound guys in this situation lack subtlety, going instead for the sound in their head with no clue as to what the band needs.
Case in point: My band put together a show for last night. The opener was a laptop band. Ambient electronica. We went on second (the sweet spot of the evening). Imagine us as a mix of Metallica, Jefferson Airplane, and Godspeed You Black Emperor. The third band, I can't even begin to describe. The most eclectic thing I've heard in a long time. Every player played at least two instruments, often at the same time.
The laptop band was fine, sound-wise. I mean, how much can you screw up with two DIs?
I have no idea how our set went. The audience loved it, but the sound on-stage was ... allow me to be charitable ... difficult to sort out.
The real casualty of the evening was the third band. I heard one of their very first shows in a small club that didn't go overboard on sound reinforcement, instead micing just the vocals. In that venue, their set was delightful - full of nuance and subtlety - with a beautiful interplay among the instruments. The volume was reasonable - no need for earplugs - and conversation was possible without shouting. That's what you get when a band has control over their own sound.
Last night, the same band was mixed as-if they were a power-pop band. Bass, kick and snare were prominent to the detriment of the other instruments. Heavily-effected guitar that should have been in the background got brought to the front. Why? Probably because the guitarist looked busy - must've been a solo. Vocals got pushed way out front - totally inappropriate for this band. The result: The band's material was practically unreconizable. The house volume was high enough that earplugs would have been nice. Forget conversation - lean and shout if you want to say something.
Now, this was not a "bad" sound guy. I know this guy, and have heard him do sound as a member of a local band. He knows what he's doing. He didn't even get caught off-guard by unfamiliar gear - the house system is his. What was bad about last night is that the house system was overkill. We're talking about a few kilowatts of power in a club of about a thousand square feet with maybe sixty to eighty patrons. There's no reason that the entire band had to be mic'd. We're not talking about a dance club where people go to drink, party and pick up someone to take home for the night. People come to this club to listen to the bands. If the room volume isn't deafening, the patrons don't shout. They're polite and respectful.
Neither is it a problem with the band communicating their needs to the sound guy. Every band that goes into one of these venues tells the sound-guy du jour "Just set us up so what we do on stage is what people hear in the house. Put a bit of reverb on the vocals. Don't put the vocals too far out front. We'll take care of the rest." I do have some sympathy for the sound guy given this kind of request. He can't hear what's happening on stage, because all he can hear is the house mix. He has no time to do any kind of calibration. So he has to guess. And usually gets it wrong. So yah, I have sympathy for the sound guy. On the other hand, if he can't do what the band needs, maybe he shouldn't do anything.
My point is that some kinds of clubs don't need, and shouldn't use, "giant killer" PAs and house sound guys. For this kind of club, given the nature of the bands and their audience, a vocals-only PA is appropriate. I think it's either arrogant or myopic to suggest that a "good" sound guy can always make things better for either the band or the audience. There are some situations where a sound guy can't help but get in the way of the music and of the audience's enjoyment.