In 1969, humans landed on the moon for the first time. It is very difficult to understand the sheer amount of computing power and size needed at that time when computers the size of a car and costing millions of dollars were required to monitor technical data for this kind of a mission.
Today, your average Rs 10,000 smartphone is millions of times more powerful than any of the computers from that time.
This is just to put into perspective the exponential human technological progress over the years and how much computing power we as consumers hold in our hands.
Yet, when it comes to audio in live sound, we are still stuck in the ’60s-‘70s era of sound reinforcement when the big speaker companies of today were trying to develop speakers to solve the problem of how they could deliver uniform audio to the majority of the audience at a venue. Since then, there have been different speaker technologies and variations of the same designs but ultimately speaker designers have been successful to create speakers that can cater to any kind of venue and deliver a pleasurable listening experience to the audience.
When it comes to sound reinforcement of performing bands (commonly with some form of drums and/or percussion, guitar, bass, keyboard and vocals amongst other instruments) in small pubs and other such indoor venues with an audience capacity of not more than 500 people, the auditory experience is unpleasant and uncomfortable for most of the gigs with very small segments when it sounds acceptable. It is either unbearably loud, or too soft to hear the lyrics, or too muddy to comprehend what the bassist or the guitarist or the keyboard player is trying to add to the song. And before you come to the conclusion that this is just one person’s opinion (mine in this case), you can ask anyone who has been to a pub gig or any gig inside a small space, and they will tell you the same. Heck, if you yourself have been in that position, you should be able to relate.
As an avid music listener, I have been going to such gigs since the early 2000s and initially I thought that is how a band is supposed to sound in a live gig. But as my listening tastes and habits evolved over the years, I started to look for answers as to why it can’t sound like a bigger and more intimate version of the recorded music of the band when they are playing live, even in a small space. I started pursuing audio as a hobby in the late 2000s, and since 2010, I have been a full-time audio engineer touring with artists who play live, working for a sound rental company and also doing studio work. So this is not a layman’s opinion or rant. It is more of an attempt to break down the components that contribute to the overall sound when a band or an artist is playing live and possible solutions to the issue we are discussing—how small indoor venue gigs can be made to sound much better than we are currently providing as artists, and consuming as audience.
Most pubs are designed with the decor and ambience in mind—glasses, bare walls, reflective ceilings—the perfect ingredients to make sure the sound coming out of anything in there is reflected a 1000 times across all the surfaces and is ultimately turned into a mess. Now, you can obviously expect pubs to be built with some sort of acoustic treatment blended intelligently into the decor that will absorb the sound. But that is a long shot and in all practicality, I don’t see that happening anytime in the near future. After all, the whole confusion with audio is that it is invisible and open to very different interpretations by each individual. So I don’t see money being spent on fixing something which is invisible to start with.
In that case, we have to come to the second line of defence—what we are bringing into the venue. This is where the band or the artist has complete control.
Firstly, acoustic drums. I know musicians are not going to like this sentence but unless you hear it, you won’t consider it. Pubs are not places where we can or should be playing acoustic drum kits. The natural sound of an acoustic drum is way too loud for such a small space. Especially the cymbal section. I can get into technical details by describing which offending frequencies are at play when an acoustic drum kit is used that makes it take over every other instrument in the mix and makes it uncomfortable at 100db-plus in small venues, but that would be a topic on its own.
Most of the drum sound that you hear in a pub is coming directly from the drum kit. And that sound is so loud that it just completely drowns out vocals, guitars, keyboards and other mid frequency instruments. Now if you have even softer instruments like Tabla, Saarangi, Violin, Cello, you can now understand why they are almost impossible to amplify in such venues. To make everything and everyone else audible over the unmic-ed drum sound, they have to be turned up even louder than the drum kit and, already, you see where this is going. In 90% of the venues, the speaker system is not adequate enough for the vocal levels to be increased up and above the natural sound coming out of the drum kit and cymbals and even if it is, it is barely audible and always on the verge of feedback. And we cannot blame the venues for not being adequate enough to accommodate the volume of a drum kit. You don’t use a chainsaw to cut vegetables inside a kitchen.
The solution to this is to use plexiglass drum shields which reduce the sound coming out of the kit by 20-30% (even more in case of better quality shields). For even more control on the sound coming out of the source, use an electronic drum kit.
I understand it can be a mental challenge to accept not playing an acoustic drum or to be playing behind a glass shield feeling separated from the band. Even as band mates, it is not glamorous enough for your band to play an electronic drum kit but ultimately you, as an artist, have to ask the question, do I care enough about my audience to compromise a little in order to provide them a much better show in terms of audio? Today the electronic drum kits are so good that even the smallest of playing nuances are captured pretty decently. If you don’t like the sound of it, try using a Drum VSTi, something like Superior Drummer or Steven Slate Drums (which also has a free version) on a laptop and triggering the sound through it. Any modern laptop with a soundcard which costs less than your smartphone is good enough to do the job. The samples in these modern drum softwares are good enough to play a gig with the most demanding drum touches and if you think you are going to lose out on the ghost notes of your acoustic snare… well, they are not audible in any case (and I think most of you already know this). Unless it is a medium-sized auditorium (or open air) where the sound from the drum kit and cymbals can diffuse into the extra space around, playing an acoustic drum is an uncomfortable experience for the audience, especially in pubs, and unless you fix this, no other change is going to make as big of a difference in terms of how good your band sounds in a pub.
So try using V-drums or even some form of plexiglass shield (if giving up acoustic drums is too difficult) for your next few pub/small venue shows. Try implementing it even if you are the gig organiser and hear the difference for yourself. If you don’t own one as a drummer, beg, borrow, rent. If you are concerned about the subpar cosmetic presence a v-kit has on stage compared to an acoustic kit, try asking around for a Roland VAD series kit, which looks just like a real drum kit. If the demands keep coming, I am sure the drum vendors in the city are going to buy one to rent out just like other top level kits.
Once the loud drum kit issue is sorted, the next loudest instruments in the room are the guitar and bass amps. They have to be cranked up loud to be heard above the drum kit but with V-drums, the stage volume goes down considerably, so you might not have to crank them up as much.
From a technical point of view though, if drummers are able to give up their beloved acoustic drum kit, a guitar and a bass player should be considerate enough to give up their amps and go direct to the PA and monitor through wedges (I understand in-ears are not feasible budget wise for pub gigs and a lot of musicians are not comfortable with them). Even if you drop the stage volume to just wedges—instead of super loud acoustic drum, loud guitar amp, loud bass amp—it should add huge clarity to the overall PA sound and ultimately your audience will get a much better sounding gig.
Giving up guitar and bass amps is again a mental challenge, more than anything else, for musicians who are used to having them behind their back for years. The feeling of the amp pushing out air from the back adds to the performance of a lot of guitarsits who are used to playing that way for years. But again, it is a minor adjustment that you can get used to if you really care about providing an overall better sound of your band for your audience. Any digital guitar and bass modelling device is realistic enough for any genre and any kind of playing. Even if you cannot afford to buy a new hardware digital modeller, any modern day laptop with a basic sound card (which every musician owns now), a software amp modeller, any cheap midi foot controller and a bit of programming on the software should provide a great guitar/bass tone that is absolutely clean of any kind of stage bleed. You can of course use your beloved analog pedals without an amp too if you have some kind of power amp and cab modelling in your signal chain.
If you are skeptical of not being able to hear yourself properly with the full band without an amp, remember, if the acoustic drum kit is replaced by an electronic drum kit, the stage volume is reduced by more than 70%. Plexiglass shield on the other hand can only do 20-30%. So the guitar/bass on the wedge will not be drowned by the drum kit as much. My suggestion is try it and see.
And at the end of all this, the vocalist is able to hear herself/himself through the monitors without having to strain their voice. The audio guy will have much more headroom to make the vocals stand out for the audience with much more control on feedback.
But the biggest challenge in all this is a complete mental rethinking, and, as a drummer, guitarist and bassist, to give up the image of on-stage ‘Rock n Roll’—as has been seen for decades with the acoustic drum kit and amps on stage—at the expense of a better listening experience for the audience. It doesn’t matter if you are a band from the East or the West, physics is the same for everyone and sound behaves the same way regardless of which pub in the world such a gig is being hosted or how big an act you are. Yes, rock music is supposed to be loud but loud does not mean blasting the audience’s ear off with harsh cymbals. Loud does not mean pushing up your amps so loud in the name of Rock and Roll, that the vocalist is not able to portray the words through her/his voice. Loud is when the music and performance of the band is amplified in a way that everything is clear as it can be and yet the band takes up a slightly larger than life image on stage with the help of audio and visual. You might argue that pub gigs have been taking place in that manner for a long time now. Yes, it has been, but again, more often than not, it has sounded harsh, abrasive and uncomfortable for most of the audience and even for band members on stage. Now, if you are okay with how it has been done for ages and do not think it is an issue or maybe you think that the audience has gotten used to that kind of experience, then by all means, keep doing it how it has been done.
But as an audience, you should be demanding such an auditory experience because the fact is you guys deserve better when you are paying out of your pockets to go support your favourite acts live at a pub. And, since pubs are the only place that can provide a platform for artists to perform live on a regular, and often weekly basis, if we musicians can all just think beyond our egos and make small compromises for ultimately a better show for our own audience, I think it is a win for both.
Just to make it clear, none of the radical changes I have suggested apply for any kind of open air gigs or even medium-sized auditoriums. Remember, horses for courses.
Ultimately, any kind of solution to any problem can only be possible when there is acceptance that the issue exists, and then, a desire to step out of the comfort zone to make the change. Otherwise humanity would have never progressed from being cavemen to where we are today. The only reason we humans as species have become the most dominant is because of our unique ability to cooperate to solve problems and compared to major world issues we are facing, audio for live gigs is a fairly easy one to solve.
I hope we are all on the same page on this because, you know, we are not discussing climate change here ;).