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Dealing with Stage Volume

John McJunkin • February 2020Sound Sanctuary • February 9, 2020

During the epoch of The Beatles, bands took guitar amps on stage, found a balance with the drummer, and the “P.A. system” sent vocals to the audience. For the first time, it was necessary to employ someone to turn knobs so vocal levels were in alignment with the instrumental blend created by the musicians. This essentially amounted to “mixing by committee,” as the overall sound blend was determined by several musicians and a mix engineer. Very rarely is there complete agreement, and disagreements in this situation lead to escalations in levels and poorly balanced mixes, partially due to ego, and partially due to the fact that the information guiding the committee members is incomplete and incorrect. Musicians on stage cannot hear the blend the way the audience does, as they don’t have the right information to make proper decisions and create a great mix.

Eventually, guitar/bass amps started getting so loud that even drums could not compete in terms of SPL, so the drums began appearing in the P.A., along with the vocals. But alas, the mix was still determined by a committee, and it was not great. The brightest among us saw that the best sound achievable is within the controlled environment of the recording studio, where a single party — the mix engineer — has complete control over the blend. No more mixing-by-a-committee-of-the-ill-informed. There are still disagreements in this scenario, with guitarists swatting away the hands of bassists reaching to turn themselves up in the mix. But at least everyone hears the same thing and the “whom should be loudest” disagreements are all the result of ego.

‡‡         Gaining Some Control

Smart people realized that to a certain degree, the idyllic paradise of the recording studio could be largely replicated in the realm of live performance if all stage volume could be eliminated. If you can banish musicians’ ability to throw off the balance by turning their amps up, you can achieve excellent mixes at levels appropriate for your space. This is challenging, and in fact, it’s impossible to completely eliminate stage volume. But getting it under as much control as possible can really improve the quality of music in the house of worship.

‡‡         Drums

In terms of stage volume, drums are the most challenging. There are three ways to address the issue. First, engage good drummers who don’t just bang at max volume at all times. This isn’t a complete or reliably successful solution. Even if your drummer is capable of playing at low, subtle levels, there are moments in most songs that require much more power, and the drums must become loud in order to blend appropriately. The second potential solution is to acoustically isolate the drums with shields or even an isolation chamber that completely surrounds the drummer. This is also imperfect, as the isolation of the kit creates reflections and resonances that negatively impact the quality of the drum sound — sometimes in very audible ways. A third potential answer is using an electronic drum kit. This is also an imperfect solution: many drummers don’t like the feel of drum pads, and sometimes shy away, claiming that electronic kits don’t sound as good as acoustic drums. Honestly, today’s sampled drums are largely indistinguishable from the genuine article, particularly if the drums are mixed well and the drummer is triggering computer software instead of the stock sounds from the kit. Also, mesh-head drums can create a more natural feel for drummers; alternatively, muffled acoustic drums can be set up to trigger samples. Additionally, the use of samples offer drummers access to hundreds of drum sounds at the push of a button, broadening their options.

‡‡         Guitars & Bass

Guitar (and bass) amps are a source of unnecessary and harmful stage volume. Among the simplest solutions to this would be to turn an amp around — facing away from the congregation — and to potentially point the amp into acoustically absorptive material to help control it. Also, and hopefully obviously, turn the amp down. The gain of the mic capturing the amp can be increased so as to present a loud, clear guitar tone through the P.A. without high SPLs emanating from the amp itself. A less simple, but elegant and appealing solution here is to isolate amps away from stage in amp lockers. Stage volume can be all but eliminated, and guitarists can still turn up to moderately high levels to achieve the kinds of distortion that can only be accomplished with speaker break-up, for instance. An increasingly popular solution is the use of modeling technology. There are several popular brands of modeling processors offering the sound of multiple effects pedals, amps, cabinets, mics and acoustic spaces from one high-tech box. Tone snobs will claim that they don’t sound precisely like the genuine article, but these days, they’re so close that only seasoned experts can distinguish them, and no one in the congregation is going to claim they weren’t moved by the Spirit because the guitarist’s amp sim presented a tone with a 1 dB bump at 1.2k Hz. For the same reason electronic drums are appealing, amp modeling is tempting, vastly expanding the tones available to the player.

‡‡         Stage Monitors

Stage monitor sounds coming from the platform does not positively impact the front of house mix, making it desirable to reduce or eliminate that altogether. A common solution is to commence the use of in-ear monitors (IEMs). This may or may not be plausible, and it may become necessary to use monitor speakers and improve the practice. One potential solution (which may seem counter-intuitive) is to use more speakers. If each person on stage has their own monitor speaker, it can be placed closer to them and reduced to lower SPLs. The fewer monitor speakers, the louder they must be to be heard by everyone. Also, reassessing what’s presented in the monitors may help. Musicians can sometimes struggle to communicate what they need to hear, and working with them to minimize their monitor mixes can help.

‡‡         Come Together

Musicians must understand the worship team is not a pack of lone wolves, each pursuing individual goals. The goal is for the team to lead the congregation in worship, and this is no place for big egos and “more me” attitudes. Each person must trust the other team members to do their part, and that includes trusting that the FOH mixer will strike a tonal balance that sounds great and compels the congregation. And here, diplomacy and grace are as important as any other means of accomplishing the result.

John McJunkin is the chief engineer and staff producer in the studio at Grand Canyon University.

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