Road notes: stage interaction and the pitfalls of live sound

October 24, 2017
Road notes: stage interaction and the pitfalls of live sound

Today’s post is a new category, Road Notes…thoughts, stories, and lessons for the performing musician.

We’ve just had the first three performances of our first extended tour with Renfree Isaacs, the acoustic trio I perform most steadily with. We are three vocalists, all sharing leads, two of us playing guitar and one playing hand percussion. You would think this would be a simple setup on stage, and it ought to be except for one important factor. An acoustic ensemble needs clear sound onstage, and every performer needs to be able to hear the others clearly.

Wooden boxes.

We rehearse in my living room, a nicely reverberant space with a wooden floor. The ambience of the room makes it very satisfying to sing in, and we sit in a semicircle with the guitars more or less facing each other. If you’ve ever seen a bluegrass band or a classical string quartet perform, this setup should be familiar to you. It allows all the players to hear each other and maintain a level of both direct and peripheral eye contact.

One of the greatest lessons I learned from my years studying classical music was the level of fine musical interaction within a good acoustic ensemble. Playing strictly acoustic instruments changes your dynamics compared to an electric group, but it allows you to extend your dynamic range DOWN. In other words, if you can’t make loud louder, you can make soft softer. The semicircle setup allows everyone to hear everything clearly, and react to each other accordingly.

You would think that this would require amplification for these dynamic subtleties to come across to an audience in a room of any size, and that’s often true. But amplification can create its own set of issues.

The challenges of amplification

With this particular lineup there are three balance factors to consider:

1. Balance of the three voices with each other
2. Balance of the guitars with each other
3. Balance of the guitars with the voices.

In a group focused on vocal harmony, the blend between the voices is essential. Every singer needs to be aware of the overall sound as well as whether their part is primary or supporting. In our case, the three voices are sometimes equal while sometimes two support a primary lead. This can change within the course of a song. So we need to be as reactive to each other as any fine jazz group, and that depends upon all three of us being able to hear the same thing. Unfortunately, adding a sound system can make this more difficult.

First, consider your stage layout. Can you make eye contact? Does your performance rely upon it? Of course, so much of your reactivity depends on what you hear and not what you see. But until you’re so well-rehearsed that it’s all automatic, the visual contact is really helpful. It adds to the level of interaction onstage for both you and the audience. No matter how well you know your parts, there will always be variables the group needs to respond to as a whole.

What you hear vs what the audience hears

Consider the placement and balance of stage monitors. Most small venues will have a separate monitor speaker for each vocalist, or place them in between the mics. If the system allows for separate monitor mixes, each performer can hear different things in their own speaker. Some people prefer this, but I don’t. I want the sound on stage to be just like the sound we hear in rehearsal, just bigger. Most importantly, I want the blend I hear to be the blend the audience hears! As a reactive ensemble, we are going to be adjusting our vocal and instrumental dynamics as we sing and play. For example, if I’m singing a supporting part I will either sing more softly, back off the mic, or both. When I switch between strumming and lead I’m going to alter my attack and approach to either blend or stand out. (There are specific techniques I use for this that are worth a post in itself, and I’ll follow up with that down the road).

It’s essential for any performing group to be able to react to each other onstage the same way you would in rehearsal. If the placement of the monitor speakers or the monitor mix interferes with this, your performance will suffer. If your sound tech insists on raising and lowering faders while you’re making your own adjustments onstage, what the audience hears will suffer.

For groups performing in top professional venues, these often aren’t issues. For the vast majority of musicians, it’s a crapshoot. Some conditions are perfect and some are tremendously challenging. Here are a few tips to help you through the challenges.

What about soundcheck?

First of all, you won’t always get a soundcheck. If you do, try to play segments of different songs with different dynamics so the sound tech understands your range. If you have multiple vocalists, make sure the tech knows that. If possible, set the monitor levels as close to equal as possible unless the performance dictates otherwise.  For instruments, make sure the sound tech hears both your softest and loudest dynamic. If you use a boost of some kind, they need to know it’s coming. I prefer to rely on my hands and attack as much as possible, but again that depends on the sound onstage being as close to the sound in the house as possible.

If you don’t get a soundcheck, be prepared to fly blind. The best strategy is to do what you do and let the sound tech hear and see it. They’ll generally catch on. After your first or second song you can ask for adjustments, but be aware that every adjustment affects every other dynamic onstage. And most of all, remember that sometimes making something louder won’t let you hear better. It’s better to ask for the louder things to come down than to just start cranking individual channels.

When possible, chuck it all.

As an acoustic group we sometimes have the opportunity to perform in venues with wonderfully intimate sound. We’ve played two house concerts this week with no amplification at all, and it was a joy. Try this if and when you can…completely unplugged or minimally amplified. You might be amazed at how much it opens your ears. Don’t rely too much on the equipment to get your sound, even if your sound relies on electronic or digital processing. After all, everything returns to pure analog when it comes down to just sound waves moving through the air. Hone your sound in rehearsal at low volumes. Focus on interaction and reactivity! Then if you can, practice with a sound system, with the goal of simply amplifying what you’re already used to hearing. Know your needs and be able to communicate them to the sound tech in the venue. If you find a certain stage layout serves you best, insist on it unless you absolutely can’t. Provide a stage plot and equipment list whenever possible. And when things just can’t go the way you want them, grin and bear it. I’ll repeat the very important idea that it’s often better to adjust onstage levels down than up, and that everyone onstage needs to be equally reactive.

What does this mean to the beginner?

If you’re not a performer or not at the level yet where you’re comfortable getting out in front of people, this is still important information for you. There’s a level of comfort in playing that’s very hard to reach when you haven’t been tested in front of an audience or with a group. Both of these things should be goals for you, at least as a part of your musical journey. For me as a player, there are few things more satisfying. As a teacher, I see the difference between those who have and those who haven’t. That difference is in your ability to be a fully reactive musician, completely connected to what’s going on around you. And THAT is a goal everyone should be striving to attain.


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