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So You Say You Want to Start A Band?

How Loud is Loud Enough?

A Voluminous Study of Volume

Added April 7, 2005

Volume. What exactly is it and how does it work for (and against) us.



Understanding volume is critical to the success of a gig. So few of us realize that volume transcends genre of music, size of room, dramatic intent, sparseness of instrumentation and blend. It transcends because not only does it involve all those variables and considerations, it also includes expectations and the desire of your audience AND the guy cutting the check at the end of the night. Does this make 'VOLUME' sound more complex than just your channel, master and guitar's volume pot? Good. It is.

Let's start with the basics. Two factors will ultimately decide where your ensemble's overall volume will be set.

FIRST: The most important of these two factors is the nature of the gig itself. Is this a dance? Well, your volume will be much higher than it would be if you were to be playing the Neapolitan Hour at a wedding. Dance requires a strong beat for the dancers to follow and most dancers like feeling that the music is engulfing them. Even so, you don't want the majority of your audience to go home with sonic hangovers -- ears ringing, significant short-term hearing loss, headache and heart palpitations -- and never come back to hear you again! Will your sound system be facing directly into the crowd? If so, back off slightly or consider rearranging your system so that it is aimed over the crowd.

The most easy thing for me to do is to describe my own ensemble, our particular and peculiar set of variables and our particular and peculiar audience and gig. I play guitar in a church praise and worship band. No, it isn't a Hammond-B3-and-a-gospel-choir-type band. Think of it as a good old fashioned stomin' three piece rock outfit with a loose group of six singers, some of whom can sing, some of whom try hard. Our room is a hall approximately 90 feet deep by 130 wide. The seating is arranged to accommodate about 200 people. Seating can be added for more, but the congregation is more suited to the current seating pattern as many come up front and dance while we play. The room was well-designed for sound, asymmetrical with sound-deadening baffles and the system consisting of a number of Community mid/hi frequency cabinets flown over the stage and driven by about 6000 watts-worth of QSC power amps for the mains (and the monitors which are installed flush into the stage flooring.) In the sound booth we are running a 48 channel Allen & Heath board with a vast assemblage of de-essing plates, digital reverbs, everyone's wireless receivers, tape decks and CD players as well as the computer systems for the PowerPoint song lyrics (we have a projector for the crowd and on-stage monitors for the vocalists) -- plus we are running ProTools for recording. Yeah, our sound man is a busy guy with eight arms. Onstage, our drummer is seated behind a SynDrum kit that allows our soundman to control his output. We first had him on an acoustic set, but he is aggressive. We went through a lucite drum enclosure and finally opted for the electronic drums. I like acoustic, but our room won't support that much sound. My bass player, who is very thoughtful and professional about his tone and volume, runs through a 4X10 boutique cabinet driven by a Peavey preamp and a QSC power amp. He used to use an in-ear monitor and a shaker platform, but likes the sound of the cab better. Me, I'm old fashioned. I run a Fender DeVille and DeLuxe (depending on whether we are having a regular service or are playing for a larger conference.) These amps are tube powered 65 and 45 watts respectively of honest power and are more than adequate for stage mix. These amps are mic'd through the mains so the soundman has the ultimate control over whether it is perceived that I suck or not. I use a normal/minimal rack of pedals, a chorus, an echoplex, a distortion unit, a tuner and a wah pedal. I run the amp at about 2 -3 range on the volume -- that's all the stage mix needs and is barely enough to get the tubes warm! My amp faces back towards the drummer and bass player and is only present for our edification. The room hears me through the mains. SO what is our stage volume like? Well, until the congregation starts yelling, we can all hear everybody else at a comfortable level, probably in the 75 dB range, maybe a tad louder.

As you can see, we have spared no expense to try to get a good sound for our congregation. Okay, so with all that fire power, how does it sound? Well, we have a soundman par excellence/recording engineer who comes in every so often and rings out our system -- checks the EQ and sets our overall max output to about 95 decibels. That's fairly loud, but our system could punch out way more. We decided early on that our former level of 100 decibels measured at the center of the room was just too much. Some of the older folks were holding their ears (and maybe holding back their tithes!) but the younger guys loved it. At a typical average 85 to 90 dB's, we sound good and the crowd is generally happy. We have that few dB's more of headroom for when the room is rockin' -- which does happen.

Let's tie this back to the room, the system and the crowd expectation. The system is arranged so that no one is directly parked in front of a loud speaker. The soundmen have complete control, for better and sometimes for worse, of the overall volume and blend of the band. Our congregation has come to expect a lively and loud performance. They also do not have to ever hear feed-back (unless part of a shred guitar solo) or have their hair parted by a speaker in their faces -- unless the speaker is a minister! We have found an ideal system and configuration for our room.

Let's say that you are not as fortunate as we are -- you have a system that has to do service in a number of different size venues with different system requirements and positioning options. Once again, a good soundman (and I'm not being sexist, I can't stand the term soundperson -- no one knows what I'm talking about if I use that term) yes, a good soundman, will make all the difference. Your drums, guitar or bass may sound a little lifeless on stage, but if your soundman says all is well, don't second-guess him. He hears a blend from his vantage point that you will not ever get to hear. Chances are, you are using acoustic drums -- which is a very good thing, though your drummer will need good volume control. Most drummers will lighten up if they just can't bloody hear the rest of the group. Most.

The best situation is like the one I enjoy -- everything is going through the mains. None of the stage volume is used to directly drive the room. Of course, the soundman realizes that our stage volume does bleed into the room blend as a midrangey kind of slop and our system is EQ'd to compensate/compliment this fact. In a club, you must do the same. Make sure that in as much as much of your sound is coming from the mains, any stage volume will be reflected from walls and ceiling and floor to color your sound. Of course, a full dancefloor will absorb much of this and the soundman will need to ride the board not just for overall volume and individual blend, but for EQ as well. People soak up sound -- highs first. This must be accommodated for -- that's why I run a slightly bigger amp during a conference where our congregation can often double in size. I need the extra clean headroom.

Don't aim a large main speaker cab directly into a crowd. Never aim it directly at a flat wall. Make sure the cabs are angled so that they cover the area that needs to be covered taking into account my first statement. High School gymnasiums are the worst places to set up in. Large caves, they are completely reflective with perfectly parallel walls. Don't use reverb in a gym! Some sound techs use extra volume to mask the slap back echoes from the walls, hardwood floors, steel ceilings, etc. A large crowd helps absorb, but you can't anticipate this in soundcheck! Rely on your soundman. Suffice to say that a gym will always sound like a bathroom -- and I mean that in the bad sense.


SECOND: Style and blend. You will remember that in the article on BLENDING we talked about how each instrument relates to the others and the vocalist(s) in different styles and genres of music. Let's not dwell on the fact that you probably won't be playing that aforementioned Neapolitan Hour or even the Cocktail Hour with your Death Metal band. Let's say that you are playing that same Cocktail Hour with a small dare-I-say-it? cocktail jazz ensemble. Located in the same room as a big reception and including a medium sized -- and empty -- dance floor, you will be facing the double edged sword of keeping your sound from muddying up from reflected sound emanating from that hardwood floor, being soaked up by the crowd of soon-to-be drunks milling by the rolling bar. First off, realize that these people came to gossip, flirt and vomit -- NOT to hear you. That's not to say that they won't enjoy what you're doing -- as background sound. They just won't appreciate your masking the sounds of their inane conversation and violent retching. Take this as a life lesson. People will come to a gig with something other than hearing you play as the prime motivation. It took me quite a while to learn this when I was young. Oddly enough, in church, I am always hoping that people definitely come NOT to hear me play. I am not what is important, my band is definitely NOT what is important, they should be coming to hear from God, not us. So, in both church and cocktail hour, blending with the band is important -- and maintaining a volume in conjunction with the intent of the gathering. Is your singer cranking up? Want your singer to back off? Turn your guitar down! No decent singer is going to risk going sour, either sharp or flat, and will pipe down a bit to hear the accompaniment! My singer does something interesting and disconcerting. As soon as I start a solo, she gets everyone in the room to start yelling at he tops of their lungs! One of our soundmen adjusts. The others don't. I have a secret weapon. If the song is a good rocker that can stand it, I switch over to my neck pickup and use that little red Q-boost button on my Dunlop wah pedal to add 15dB of gain. I ride the wah like a tone control, not stomping it in rhythm, but finding that trebly, snarly spot where I can cut through. And cut it does!. I can hear myself again and hopeful not too much ear wax has melted. Anyway, control of volume is really a good indicator of how professional your ensemble appears -- and sounds.

Volume, much like good EQ'ing should be subtractive rather than additive. If the bass player is not loud enough, turn down the vocalists and guitar player! Then if the sound is too thin or not up to crowd expectation, then get the blend right and bring it ALL up. And remember, bass needs less volume boost as it is not as directional as a vocalist or another instrument such as guitar.

Your Death Metal crowd, even in small club or even a little bar, will want to have their fillings rattled. I like a good loud band in a small room, but I am a bit of a masochist. Once again, as discussed in BLENDING, in certain genres, the vocals will be most prominent. In other styles guitar is god. In dance music, the bass and drums will be leading the mix. Get the most important aspect of your genre up to the correct volume for the room and crowd expectation, then finish the blend design with the rest of the ensemble always keeping in mind that subtraction is better than addition.

Hopefully this helps, and I just know I'll be writing more on this page soon!


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Classic Guitar Method  Composed, written, transcribed, edited and arranged by Harry G. Pellegrin: Now in one volume, much of what the novice classical guitarist will need to know to lead him or her to the recital stage. From proper instrument care and maintenance to the necessary technical skills, musical mind-set, and the standard repertoire—all exposed and explored with enough detail and insight that the student will wish to keep this book handy years to come as a ready reference source.
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