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In Focus: Taming The Beast

Strategies for working -- and succeeding -- in acoustically difficult spaces

We’ve all been there. The room is highly reflective or the PA can’t be placed in a preferred location for whatever reason. Or both.

Ideally, you’ve noted the challenges during a walk-through and can put some thought into an overall approach and a system design that will produce success despite the obstacles.

My most recent “nightmare room” serves as an example of what can be done.

The space was square with two glass walls of full-length windows, two more walls covered with mirrors, a marble floor and a flat plaster ceiling. (I told you it was a nightmare!) Of course, the corporate client for the awards banquet my company was supporting expected great sound from both the presenters and the band.

The first thing I noticed during the walk-through was that the two walls of windows had drapes, so I asked the client if we could close the drapes.

She allowed one wall to have the drapes drawn, but the other, opposite the stage (of course), was to be left unobstructed so that attendees could enjoy the view. Still, the drawn drapes on the on wall helped (quite a bit, actually).

Next, I asked if we could run some pipe and velour drape (provided by my company) behind the portable stage, which resided in front of one of the mirrored walls. She liked the idea, so we got a double bonus: improved acoustics and a fee for the pipe and drape.

I was then informed that a large video screen would be placed along the other mirrored wall. Checking in with the video company later, I was informed that a dress kit (velour drapes that frame a screen) would be provided, and while the kit’s main function is to make a bare screen look better, it also would provide some damping.

Still, the PA and stage were facing the uncovered wall of windows, so even with the modest improvements elsewhere, there was still the potential for major refection and slap-back issues. Our solution was to place the main loudspeakers high up on my custom stands and point them down toward the audience, enhancing direct coverage while also helping to keep energy off the glass. In addition, the subwoofers were placed at stage left only – at stage right they were too near a reflective wall.

Well prior to the event, I contacted the band for some advance information. Significantly, I learned that the drummer has a big kit with large tom sizes and the guitar player uses a half-stack with a 4 x 12 cabinet.

We mitigated the drum sound with a plexiglass shield around the drummer, and with the guitarist, we spoke with him about turning down his amp and also pointing it sideways. But at sound check he insisted on having his amp face the audience, so with the mix, I brought the rest of the band up around him, and pretty much left him out of the PA. And, the bass player was kept in check by having him turn his amp down to a reasonable volume level, and to compensate, we put more bass in his monitor.

The space was still highly reflective but would have been unusable for an amplified system if we’d not been proactive. The client was happy and a couple members of the venue staff told us that it sounded better than any other event held in that room.

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With that anecdote in mind, here are some tips and tricks that I’ve picked over the years that can come in handy facing acoustic challenges.

Keeping It Contained
Start by working with the band. Control the stage volume so you don’t have to fight against it. Packing blankets can be placed in front of loud instruments or amplifiers, as well as behind loud items onstage to absorb some sound and limit it from reflecting off a back wall. A mic boom stand with a horizontal boom (T shape) provides a quick and easy place to drape a blanket.

Plexiglass shields are another way to contain sounds onstage. They work well for isolating instruments from bleeding into different stage areas and also from bleeding into the audience, while still allowing the performer to be seen. Most often seen in front of drum sets, shields can also work well in front of any instrument onstage. We often employ them to contain stray (and/or too loud) percussion sound, and they also help keep other sounds on stage from getting into the percussion mics, which are usually left on as the musician may switch between several instruments and “toys” during a song. 

Stage amplifiers can be loud. Turning a closed-back cabinet around to face away from the audience can reduce the bleed from the stage, especially if it plays into a blanket. Amplifiers placed at the side of the stage and aimed at the musicians still allows them to hear while limiting the “blare” into the audience. Angling the cabinet upward to point at a musician’s head can mean turning it down, thereby cutting stage volume.

Simply rearranging the performers onstage can also help. At one show I convinced the two guitar players to stand next to each other instead of at opposite sides of the stage. The result was they lowered their stage volume because now they could clearly hear each other. 

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