February 4th, 2016 in Athens, GA:
A guitarist spends a whole afternoon locked in their room, tweaking settings on all of their gear in preparation for an upcoming gig.
February 7th, 2016 in Athens, GA:
The same guitarist sets up their gear at the venue, only to find that the same sounds that worked so well in their bedroom sound far less effective on stage.
Coincidence? Or is it an Enigma of the Mystical?
Whether or not you’re a fan of How I Met Your Mother, most of us can relate to the frustration of finding amp and effect settings that are equally effective in both a low-volume, isolated bedroom setting, and a higher-volume stage setting within a full band mix. The truth is, those magical settings don’t exist, and learning how to adapt your sound to different rooms and volume levels is an essential skill, especially for players that perform in a variety of musical contexts.
Here’s how changes in volume and context can affect your tone in several basic categories:
When we’re alone in our bedrooms, our tendency is to crank the gain until we feel sufficiently heavy, even if were not trying to be Djentlemen. However, the same amount of gain rarely works on stage, where increased clipping often results in an indistinct mix where your instrument swallows itself and the others in your band like a sonic black hole.
By turning down the gain, you’ll regain (got ‘em!) some of the attack transient that allows you to be present, and you’ll allow heaviness or thickness to come from the way the band works together and the way your parts are played, which is where it should come from in the first place.
Unwilling to practice our diminished sweeps with some weedy, icepick tone, we’re often guilty of setting the EQ controls on our amps and pedals like the biggest bro-rock tools in the biz. That means we crank the bass, scoop the mids, and back the treble off until we think we sound “smooth,” or “fat.”
The problem with this is similar to surplus gain, in that a bass-heavy tone with no treble and even less mids will be about as present in a full band mix as Shaq would be on the free-throw percentage leaderboard. Dialing back the bass (especially at higher volumes) and increasing the mids lets your instrument sit where it should in the frequency spectrum, and will actually make you sound punchy and present instead of tinny and small.
In contrast to the “less is more” attitude that often leads to better guitar sounds, it’s likely that you aren’t running your delays hot enough to be heard on stage. Here’s the truth: unless you’re playing in a power trio with an inactive bass player, you actually don’t need that low-mix delay you keep on all the time to “fill space.” If you’re going to use echo, you should actually be able to hear the echoes, and that often means mixing them a little louder than our bedroom comfort level. If you can barely hear yourself on stage (which is the case for most of us) you probably wont hear that delay that’s at 50% of the dry signal level at all. Bring that mix up.
We bathe our bedroom tones in reverb because we feel extra naked in the spaces between notes. That’s understandable, but the same amount of reverb on stage only serves to wash us (and the rest of the band) out like that folding chair we left out at low tide. Dialing back the reverb allows for a more distinct full band mix, and allows a sense of space to come from the arrangement and interaction between instruments.
The story here is similar to delay, in that a subtle use of modulation or pitch effects in an isolated bedroom setting will translate into an unnoticeable use of the same effect on stage. If you’re too afraid to set the mix of a certain effect high enough to be noticed by your audience, you might want to think twice about using it at all.
Now, let me be clear. The take-away here is not that you should set your rig one way for your bedroom and one way for the stage, though you could if you’re that obsessive. It’s probably far more practical to just acknowledge how your tone will sound at higher volumes and within a full band mix, remembering that your bedroom tone only seems thin, dry, and too delay heavy, when its really just where it needs to be for the stage, where things actually count.