During a quest to explore Belize and Mexico with my wife, I came across the last thing I expected to find… A professional guitar player.
He was actually the manager of a small retreat where we spent a few nights. Between admiring crocodiles and enduring Hurricane Earl, I ended up discussing the “sound guy versus the guitar player” conflict with him. (A conflict which obviously also affects sound girls…)
For an incredibly talented player who’s been at it almost as long as I’ve been alive, he was still missing a few pieces of the puzzle to resolve his issues on stage.
“They can never hear me in the audience,” he griped. “We don’t have anyone here who is good with sound.” That pushed a few of my buttons. So when he offered to show me a few things, I quickly saw the issue(s).
If I may be so bold, let me explain the three main problems he was having since I’ve seen them over and over. It seems that these are common to players who have not figured out how to perform with a sound system.
Problem Number One
The reverb and effects that sound so awesome from two feet away, are not helping you in the house mix. Another young player I worked with did the same thing. I called him the electric hairball. His effects included heavy distortion, weird reverbs and random delay. From front of house, I couldn’t tell one chord from another. It was one big, washed out mess.
My Belizean friend was creating a similar issue. His choice of effects had created a tone that was virtually impossible to amplify with any definition. I explained that the room was already creating delay and reverb issues for the guy at front of house. His effects were making it worse.
From there, we tweaked his effects down to a point where the instrument had some usable definition again. It was still “nasty” enough for him to be happy, but clean enough that I felt like I could effectively pull it into a mix.
Problem Number Two
The whole time he was showing off his Satriani-style skills, I couldn’t stop staring at the flashing tap delay on his Fender Champion amp. The song was around 85 beats per minute, but the delay light was flashing closer to 100. He had no idea what the tap delay was for.
After showing him how to follow the song tempo by tapping that little button at quarter, half and whole notes, everything changed. His effects began to blend with the song, instead of working against it. Simple issue, but too many guitar players seem oblivious to it.
Problem Number Three
From there we discussed his choice of placing a microphone in front of the cabinet or using the line output from his amp. He’d been insisting on giving the sound crew a line out instead of letting them mike the cabinet. That might not have been an issue, except for the crazy settings he was force-feeding them.
My suggestion? If there are enough inputs available, use both.
It gives the front of house folks a choice of the better signal or the option of blending the two for a fuller tone. Given the option, I would prefer to set an SM57 on axis, tight to the grill, aimed about halfway from the dust cap to the surround. It just seems to produce a more accurate representation of the overall tone.
I also can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve watched a player move the mic, intentionally or by accident. Hanging mics by wrapping the cable around an amp handle creates side-address issues that changes the tone dramatically. Off-axis positions, distance from the grill, amp setting too loud or too quiet… it all adds up to problems at front of house. Crew and performers have to work together or these problems will keep showing up.
Everyone has their own tricks and techniques for managing electric guitars. My tips were simply based on years of being dropped into one church, club, and festival situation after another where we needed consistent techniques that always worked.
I firmly believe that mixing requires as much diplomacy as skill. The point was proven when my new buddy aggressively shook my hand and thanked me. Advice received with zero resistance.
The battle between the crew and the performers is manageable when we are legitimately concerned about them and helping them to perform their best. Give it a try the next time the electric hairball attacks.