By Tim Kane
Back in the Big Band days, double bass drum innovator Louise Belson regularly set up his two large kicks smack out in stage front of the brass section. He was the main attraction and rightfully so. In today’s age of less is more, with guitar centric compositions and the advent of digital pad triggers, many drummers don’t need an extra kick drum to play 32nd notes with their feet, and they aren’t stage front center either. Last time I saw a drummer set up forward of guitar amps was San Fran’s “Night Ranger”, and that’s only because Kelly Keagy sang some lead vocals set-up sideways.
For most working class drummers – and even practicing ones – we have to compartmentalize our various sized drum kits to fit the intended stage dimensions. Having a 12X12 stage dimension is gravy for bands these days. More often than not, however, we face strange L-shaped stages situated flat against bar walls, no stages at all leaving us to create one around tables and chairs, or an actual elevated stage that a ventriloquist could barely fit on.
So how do we adapt to ever-changing stage sizes? First, Gibraltar Hardware and other drum hardware companies got smart years ago and innovated the use of drum rack systems, which saves tons of space and lessens set-up time and energy. If you don’t own one and play out regularly, you should definitely at least consider purchasing one.
Before anything else, don’t screw yourself over to accommodate guitar amps. What I mean is if you don’t fight for your rights as a musician, you will lose them. Guitarists sometimes forget that drummers also need to hear the music in order to play well. Unless you have a sound man who understands how to mix all the instruments and vocals into a good monitor for you and you alone, then setting your drum kit up behind everyone else is a mistake.
I have yet to meet a sound man who can mix everything together effectively that way.
My point is guitarists rarely stop to adjust control knobs on their amplifiers while playing songs. Most use their effects pedals and guitar dials to control and change sound. So why must guitarists and bassists set up their amps in front of the drums? The audience will still hear everything fine if the amps are placed against the wall to the left and right beside your drum throne.
My advice is for drummers to get to shows and new practice spaces early and own your space first. Your carpet is king. Let the band build their gear around you, and strongly encourage them not to fear placing amps back in alignment with the rear of your drum set. It will help the mix immensely and provide more actual playing space for musicians. If you are unsure of the stage size, call the club or venue earlier in the week to inquire or go check it out ahead of time.
Enough of my drummer discrimination rant, though I’ll conclude by adding that stringed instrument players should leave their cases and back-up guitars back stage or in the cars just like drummers do. Big space saver. And there’s no need to display five guitars on stage unless you intend to play them all.
Then there’s actual stage sound variations to consider. I’m no soundman, but have found better success with my own band setting up our amps somewhat blowing across stage at each other rather than directly pointing out into the audience. You can control the mix better that way. In very small venues, I have even seen a band leader turn all the amps inward toward the stage to control maximum sound output decibels. Obviously, in that case setting up amps behind the drum kit would be a moot point.
Some bands also run everything through the PA system regardless of stage or venue size. I can’t advise you one way or the other on that front; I only add that for most small to mid-sized clubs – unless you are live recording -you can get away with having only three mics on the drums for your kick, snare and an ambient overhead. That will save a lot of on-stage clutter and time. In many cases, you don’t need any mics and neither do guitarists.
The very worst thing you can do as a drummer is to try to cram a 12-piece Gretsch Renown series into a space not made for it. For one, it will take you twice the amount of time as normal to re-configure your cymbal stand spans, and you’ll end up with too tight an area in which to play. Less is more in that case. Leave half the kit in your car and go basic.