Author: Campbell, Bruce

Not of Sound Mind

One of the appeals of bluegrass, when I first got into it, was the organic nature of it. After years of playing electric music, it just seemed so pure to play music that only emanated from wires and wood. Not only that, the simplicity of it – no more hauling around massive amplifiers and microphones and speakers, and dealing with miles of tangled cords.

It didn’t take long to realize that, to project this wonder organic music beyond the first few rows of listeners required some sound reinforcement. So I bought mics and stands and speakers and miles of cords and came full circle. And so, my back hurts just as much as it always did.

Any bluegrass musician who’s had to deal with providing their own sound reinforcement knows the nightmare of a gig with the seemingly impossible combinations of persistent feedback and the audience being unable to hear the music. You get everything set to the very edge of feeding back, and you see folks a few rows back cupping their ears, indicating they can’t hear you.

It can be such a distraction having to split your attention between maintaining your sound reinforcement and playing music, you feel like chucking it all. PA systems are a wonderful money pit. Perfect sound is always just a few hundred dollars around the corner – a better mic, better cords, better speakers, better EQ – does it ever end?

Well, yes, it does. The technology today is advanced enough so that a decent quality PA and good quality mics should enable a band to consistently put on a show in a small venue without too much trouble. Someone in the band needs to take the trouble to learn how to set up the equipment, of course, but after some experimentation, a band should be able to deliver their show in a way that everyone in a small club or café should be able to hear. I won’t go into the vagaries of proper mic techniques here – once everybody learns where to stand, things tend to stabilize.

Of course, if the band progresses a little further, they break into The Promised Land – they play venues that provide sound. A top notch sound company can be like an extra musician in a band – they enable the band to sound as good as they can on their best day. Play on a stage where Paul Knight or George Relles is doing sound, and all you have to do is play good – they make sure your tone is right and heard throughout the venue. It’s very liberating. They make it look easy – and therein lies the danger.

Sometimes, you encounter a not-so-good sound company, and it can wreck your show. Stuff sounds tinny, ringing feedback or resonant notes ruin your sound, and it can be very disheartening. Invariably, the bad sound guys have the rock solid egos of test pilots or brain surgeons – it’s never their fault when stuff feeds back. And if you’ve never worked with good sound reinforcement, you might just believe them.

Keith Little told me “Play good bass and own a PA and you’ll always have work.” It was good advice, but twice now, I have agreed to “do sound” in some small venues, and while they went OK (no embarrassing disasters), the overall stress of the situation gave me renewed respect to those who make sound reinforcement their avocation.

Last year, I agreed to “do sound” for a show with Moondi Klein and Jimmy Gaudreau at a small music store in San Francisco. I was very nervous, but they were very nice, and it went OK, I guess. They were not plagued by feedback at all, for which I breathed a sigh of relief, but during the first set, I heard some distortion during louder passages, and I did fix it for the second set, but I know folks in the audience noticed. When it was over, they gave me one of their CDs, and signed it “To Bruce – thanks for the good sound”, which sounded like damnation by faint praise to me.

Earlier this year, I was asked to provide sound for a San Francisco Bluegrass and Old Time festival show at a pub in Alameda. I agreed, because it was a venue I had played numerous times and used my PA , with good results. Plus, I was in one of the bands in the triple bill show, and I knew one of the other bands really well. But the headliner was from LA and they sent me a stage plot indicating all the fancy mics they’d be using. I feared an ocean of squealing feedback, trying to get loud enough with monitors in that small room, and I sent them an e-mail warning them of my seriously amateur status, hoping to properly lower their expectations.

To make a long story short, it all worked out, I think the bands sounded good, and it seems the audience and band members thought so too. But it was really nerve wracking. I was conscious of how important good sound reinforcement is, and was anxious to not hold the performers back in any way. It’s a madhouse behind the board – everyone’s got suggestions it seems. The musicians, of course - they want the tone and balance just right, and sitting amidst the audience, I got all their suggestions as well (mainly turn this up or turn that up).

It’s fun to play with sound gear – who doesn’t like knobs and little lights and faders? But during a live performance, it’s not a game – everything happens real fast, and everyone’s listening. I’d rather just play music – frankly, it’s easier!
Posted:  2/17/2010

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