About Those Levels
I also pay very close attention to volume levels. Experience has taught me that when a band has a well-balanced stage volume, it makes everything else easy.
By well-balanced. I mean that when I stand center-stage and all of the stage monitors are off, I should hear a well-balanced mix of all amplified instruments meshing well with the acoustic drum sounds.
If things are amiss, I open a discussion about refining stage sound, ideally with each player individually. Since there may be past resentments between band members over volume levels, the last thing I want is to be seen as taking sides.
I stay away from suggesting changes in the volume levels of the amps; instead I discuss physical placement distances and tilting upward, inward or outward of the speaker cabinets. Another thing I avoid is directly broaching the subject of turning down amp volume unless I know the artists well and a strong trust has been developed, and further, that there is no doubt that a distinct improvement will be realized.
Quite often, I’ve found that once the artists realize there is a truly functional and logical stage volume to strive for, they will adjust amp volumes on their own. I also try and get each band member and backline tech to stand stage center at some point and listen.
Speaking of backline techs, I can’t count the number of times that a musician would gladly play at a lower volume, yet the tech, in an effort to please, finds turning the rig up as loud as possible to be irresistible. It’s not uncommon for the amp sounds at rehearsal to be quite good and then at the actual show, everything gets turned up and the sound falls apart.
If all goes as planned, working with the musicians and techs will result in dialing up a desirable stage volume. Whether it’s during rehearsals, sound check or maybe directly after a particularly good show, as soon we reach that happy balance, I take photos of all the rigs and the drum set. They provide a great starting point or somewhere to return to.
If permitted, I will also grab a recording of some rehearsals as well. From this point forward it’s all about complete immersion into the band’s music. in my car, at home, and in my headphones while traveling.
My goal is to commit the music to sub-conscience memory. I want it to be second nature, where my hand automatically moves to push a guitar solo. I also start figuring out which songs have backing vocals, and/or unique effects, and whether I hear any other instruments beyond what I’m aware of on stage.
Notes are jotted in my phone, ready to be asked the next time I see the band. Hopefully, whether this process is a day or two months in duration, by show day, I have a strong mental image of exactly where I want to go with the sound.
My sonic vision should be well in line with the way the artist wishes to be presented. The amount of time I’ve spent with them, in addition to demonstrating a high degree of attention to detail, will ideally establish a confidence in my skills so they can focus on purely playing the show, while I can focus on connecting the music created with the audience that desires to experience it.
Dave Rat (www.daverat.com) heads up Rat Sound Systems Inc., based in Southern California, and has also been a mix engineer for more than 25 years.