One of the most common complaints I get when mixing is that the band is too loud on stage. You all know the drill… every musician keeps turning up his or her stage amp and hitting the drums even louder trying to hear their own instruments. Of course, you now have to turn the floor wedges up in an attempt to allow the singers to hear themselves. So there’s this constant battle to the top volume on stage, which then spills into the audience. You pull the vocals and instruments out of the main speakers to get the room level down to an acceptable level, but now you’re only hearing the monitors bouncing off the wall behind the band, and it ain’t pretty. In fact, it’s probably STILL too loud. I’ve measured the SPL of the stage wash many times in rooms with the main PA system turned off, and it often exceeds 100 dB SPL out in the audience. To actually “mix” properly you need to get at least 5 to 10 dB ABOVE the noise coming from the stage, which forces you into making 105 to 110 dB SPL mixes for the room. While this might be fine for a club, it’s very problematic for a worship service or wedding reception where the band isn’t supposed to be the center of attention. Plus a steady diet of 100+ dB sound is a sure way to wreck your hearing. And nobody really wants that…
From the Beginning…
Now first let me confess that I’m a musician of over 50 years who used to play in REALLY LOUD bands during the 60’s and 70’s. Yes, we did the Marshall and SVT amp thing with very loud drummers and practiced at 110 to 115 dB SPL. Everyone in every band I knew was doing it, and there seemed to be no way out of the situation. However, I had the advantage of being a Mechanical Engineer studying for my Electrical Engineering degree. That, and I had a few engineering buddies who were home audio fanatics. So I took everything I knew about live performance sound and started inventing ways to turn down the volume on stage so it could be controlled in the room. Was is easy? No! Did the musicians in my band like it at first? No they did not, and I lost of number of them until I figured out how to make it all work. But after a few years of designing, building, and experimenting, the Semi-Silent-Stage was born. And this was in the late 70’s when you were dubbed a wimp if you didn’t turn up the volume until the paint peeled off the walls.
I discovered that by keeping the sound level spilling from the stage down to around 85 dB SPL, we could now mix the room at between 90 and 95 dB SPL (A-weighted/Slow) and still feel what we were playing on stage. Plus I soon found that we could hear EVERYTHING we were playing. That eventually led to better musicianship, better singing, and a generally better performance. It had now become a performers dream stage that a sound engineer could easily turn into a great room mix at any level desired. If they wanted 90 dB SPL in the room, it was 90. If they wanted 100 or 110 dB in the room, we could do that as well. But we still maintained our 85-dB level on the Semi-Silent-Stage since it was really comfortable to play on, and easy to hear our instruments.
Back to the Future
Fast forward to the present and you’ll find that many stages, both club and worship, have resorted to IEMs (In Ear Monitors) to turn down the stage volume. While this works, it really requires a perfect monitor mix to make it playable by musicians. That’s why you’ll often see a musician with one IEM popped out of an ear. I’ve talked to hundreds of players about this, and unless you’re in an A-list band with dedicated monitor consoles and personnel it’s just not that fun to play with IEM’s. Yes, it may be required and you may even get used to it, but it’s hard to beat the freedom and musicality of playing on a live stage with reasonable monitoring levels where you can hear EVERYTHING. Again, I know this can be made to work because my rock band Draco did exactly that back in 1978.
This 12-part (or more) series will explore the various technologies and techniques that will allow you to create a Semi-Silent-Stage in your own venue or worship service at nearly any SPL stage level you want. I picked an 85 dB sound level back then, but you can use it to create a 75 dB, 80 dB or even a 90 dB stage. It’s all up to you and how much volume you can tolerate spilling from the stage. Back in the 70’s I had to design and build my own DI boxes, power soaks and mini-monitor wedges to achieve this because they didn’t exist at the time. That took a few years and many hundreds of hours of experimenting to make happen back then. But now you can buy everything off the self from some great manufacturers and make your own Semi-Silent-Stage happen in a matter of a few weeks. It’s just a matter of putting it all together in the right ways that will make musicians happy while performing on stage, and keep your audience happy while listening in the room.
So I’m recreating my rock band from the 70’s but with modern sound gear. My original guitar player Karl Shrader and I will demonstrate how to make an extremely playable 85 dB Semi-Silent-Stage that you can pick parts of for your own band. And we’re planning on integrating a variety of other musicians and their “loud” instruments into the mix as well. That will allow us to figure out possible solutions to help turn down the stage volume of your OWN band or praise team. Fun will be had by all as we experiment and demonstrate how to turn down the stage volume while turning up the musician’s enjoyment. See you there…
Join me next time when we’ll explore the following topics.
- Why do we want to play loud?
- Why do musicians get upset when asked to turn down?
- How can we get musicians to try new things such as smaller amps, speakers, monitors, etc…?
- How to pick what goes in the monitor mixes.
- Why does turning down monitors make musicians turn up their stage amps?
Copyright Mike Sokol 2016
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