By Tim Kane
STURBRIDGE, MA – I played a recent outdoor gig where the sound engineer placed the drum riser behind a pop-up shade tent and positioned all the amps and monitors out in front of my kit. I also had the distinct honor of playing without any floor or in-ear monitors.
What resulted from this poor stage sound arrangement was audio quality I can only describe as mush, and an inability for me to relate musically to any other musician.
I usually set-up before any other band mate and leave plenty of room on stage for other amplifiers. Unfortunately, a muffled stage sound is more the norm for me than the exception. Let us assume for a moment that you are like most drummers reading this blog: you are the weekend warrior-type musician playing live gigs at smaller indoor and outdoor venues with low pay and free beer (maybe). These types of gigs are not always conducive to running direct feed or line-in with all instruments going through a PA system. You often neither have the time, money, personnel, nor equipment for that integrated of a stage sound investment.
If I am lucky, the sound engineer will mic my kick drum and perhaps the snare at gigs. Because most venues I play at are space limited, guitar and keyboard amps are rarely sent direct through the portable sound system, and thus do not create a nice balanced on-stage sound by using EQ’d monitors in the overall mix. More often than not, I do not even have a monitor of my own. And even if I did, the most I can hear through it is vocals as I don’t need my own drums in the monitor. I need bass and guitar, which is only possible to achieve with a direct line-in amplifier send through the PA system.
So I have decided to take stage sound control into my own hands and ears. There are some simple strategies you can advocate for as a drummer to ensure you enjoy listening to the music you help produce as much as the fellow musicians in front of you.
What I advise is for drummers to encourage your bandmates to not stack their amps directly in front of your kick drum, snare, or floor toms. Be courteous to them as well. Arrive early and do not arrange your drum set in a way where there is no room beside your kit for amps and guitar stands to be comfortably placed. Talk to the sound person before he or she sets-up.
Moreover, try to have the “gig set-up” discussion at your next rehearsal. Express your inner feelings. In fact, use your next practice session as a true dress rehearsal. Set up exactly how you would live with an audience out front. Know how large your upcoming gig’s stage playing area will be. Garages work fine for this test, minus your car and lawnmower, of course – and a very forgiving spouse or roommate.
Another “back wall” stage set-up involves bassists and guitarists tilting their amps up towards the sky or roof and pivoting amps at a 45-degree angle toward center stage and you. That way, you catch some of their playing volume, but not all of it.
Running all instruments through the PA system and mixed into monitors is obviously the best option. With the overall stage volume down, the sound engineer can give you what you want to hear without killing the audience’s ears.
My own experimental solution at the next “monitor-less” gig will involve separately sending all amps and vocals through my laptop’s 8-channel audio interface device and wearing ear buds. That way, I can record the music and hear everyone at the same time.
The key is to take the necessary time before a gig to strategize stage set-up, run a few tunes as sound check, and be willing to readjust the position of certain speakers.
– Tim Kane is a professional writer, editor and drummer for 30-plus years living in Massachusetts. http://www.kaneschoolofdrums.com