Every now and then I do a gig and come away from it with sore or blistered fingers for, what seems like, no reason at all. I generally have calluses ranging from tough to very tough so it comes as a shock when this happens. I noticed that this usually occurs after a loud, thrash of a gig and just assumed that the energy was causing me to overplay. However, I soon realised what the problem was: Volume.
Soundcheck. Yeah, Right. Check again.
It’s all too easy to assume that your volume is set correctly during a gig. The soundcheck levels might seem fine but by showtime things can seem very different. The drummer might be playing harder for one of any number of reasons and this can force the volume up from other members of the band and by the middle of the first set you’re bathed in a swirling mass of sonic turd.
During this battle for sound space most players tend to poke at the amp little by little in attempt to find a volume that works. There’s no exact science to this phenomena and it’s all too easy to think that you’re at a comfortable level when you’re actually overplaying to compensate for being slightly too quiet.
The Gary Willis Approach
I like to dig in with my fingerplaying on heavier pop and rock gigs so I’m very susceptible to this problem of picking too hard. I know big name guys like Gary Willis and Jeff Berlin tend to set the bass and amp for minimum exertion and maximum tone. This seemed a great idea to me in principle but I’ve never found it works for me in a live setting. I tried setting my pickups higher, the action lower and the volume louder so I could pick lighter (mainly because I wanted to try my hand at 4 finger picking) but I always wanted to resort back to my style of playing harder on heavier styles of music. It just seems a natural response to the music for me. Plus, I always like to get hard accents out of higher notes on the D and G string when playing funkier lines and I find to get that attack I really need the strings a little higher and the pickups a little lower. I know Gary Willis would probably correct me on this, technical genius that he is, but it’s just a personal, ingrained style thing and I guess you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
So how do you go about correctly setting the volume on stage? Well, there’s no definite answer to that question. It really is a case of experimenting on the gig. However, it is possible to pay more attention to your own body and senses. Try to be aware of how hard you are playing and experiment with bringing up the volume a touch more than you think is necessary. Your playing will instinctively soften slightly to compensate. That is unless the volume is still too low, in which case you could try raising the volume even more. It is worth checking your fingers for soreness in a break between sets. If you’re covered in sores and blood blisters then maybe your body is telling you to ease up.
I know some rock or metal players may be reading this thinking “This guys a pussy! I hit my bass like I hit my bitches! I want road scars on my hands man!” But ripping your hands to pieces at the start of a 90 day tour won’t impress a road manager and certainly won’t make for an enjoyable week of playing on multiple blisters.
It’s All Just A Big Mushy Noise
Of course, there can be many psychological and aural aspects to these on stage volume issues. I’ve noticed that after about an hour of subjection to moderately loud on stage sound, the ears tend to undergo a kind of nausea and the overall mix can become very confusing and more a wall of noise. Individual instruments are still heard but the frequencies all blend into a narrow spectrum and it can be hard to distinguish lower frequencies. As this happens, other members of the band start to raise their volume as they struggle to isolate themselves in this giant sonic mush. This increases the mush factor and creates a cycle of ever diminishing audibility.
Ear plugs and in ear monitoring are obvious solutions to this ‘mush’ problem. I tend not to use ear plugs on stage for my usual gigs but I have gone through phases of using them in particularly loud bands. It does certainly help with lessening the ear strain and will stop the onset of tinnitus but I always get slightly annoyed at hearing a muffled version of the mix.
Mid’s To The Rescue
Another invaluable piece of advice is to pay attention to your tone and the mids in particular. I’ve seen many bass players set the tone controls with a simple mindset of cranking the bass frequencies. The next most common EQ setting is the big ‘U’ in which the bass and treble are boosted while the mids are scooped out. This gives a pleasant bass tone outside of the band setting and can seem like a lovely round bass tone while everything is under control. But it’s the kiss of death for cutting through a busy mix. The mid frequencies are the key to cutting through and carving out your place in the music.
The bass controls of an amp or instrument generally occupy a very small area of bandwidth in the overall range of the bass guitar and result in a boost of the low end feel in the floor. This creates the warmth of tone that all bass players love and crave. The treble controls also occupy a small bandwidth and provide a bright sparkle to the sound that can add a certain amount of definition and attack. The mids make up the bulk of the frequencies available to the bass player and it’s within this range that we find all those nasty sounds that mess with our lovely round sound. However, these ugly frequencies are vital in developing a character in our tone and the key to hearing our instrument in a band setting.
Where’s My Bass Gone
One of the reasons we often mistreat the mid range of the bass guitar is because of the aural illusion of bass loss we find when boosting the mid frequencies. This is simply because EQ works by boosting volume. We decide which frequencies are being boosted in volume, but it is volume nevertheless. Therefore, if we boost any amount of mids to the same level as the bass, the low end will appear to decrease because it is relatively similar to the ear. Only the overall level will have increased to some extent. However, the bass frequencies are still present and are just blended with all the rest of the tone. EQ serves to isolate various areas of the tone inherent in the instrument. It doesn’t create frequencies from nothing. When we scoop out our mids, we are actually removing critical areas of the natural tone of the bass.
Back to the loud gig scenario, if our tone controls have been used to boost the bass and treble then the overall volume control will seem less effective since the bulk of the tone will be pushed back while both the bass and treble appear progressively more boosted. By boosting the mids, the overall volume will appear to rise since the bulk of the tone will be more apparent. The instrument is also more likely to find a sonic niche in the mix as the wider bandwidth can compete with the other harmonically rich and varied instruments.
Experimentation Is The Key
So, depending on your setup, try experimenting with the mids. If you only have a basic mid contol on your bass or amp try pushing it up just a touch when you next feel a little quiet on stage. You may be surprised at how you suddenly cut through. If you have a graphic, parametric or variable EQ of any sort, try boosting the different frequencies available to you and take note of the differences in tone quality you gain from them. Don’t worry about the solo tone of the bass. Instead, listen to how the tone changes in the mix and find the frequencies that help you cut through the most. I often find the low mids between 100hz and 200hz to be useful in this regard and I have a mid control on my bass permanently set at around 100hz just in case I need a little push.
Bear in mind that every band and venue is different. What tone works well for a rock/pop 4 piece might be useless in a 10 Piece Salsa band and every venue brings another set of problems to the table. Different stages, room shapes and sizes, seating and audience numbers can all have a drastic effect on the sound of every instrument and the band as a whole. Don’t assume that because you had the perfect amp settings at the last gig you’ll be fine tonight.
Overall, if your amp/speaker setup is of sufficient power for the gig and you have access to basic 3 band tone controls there is no reason to be having problems hearing your bass on stage which in turn should mean less blisters, which leads to a happier player, which leads to a better gig, which leads to better music, which leads to a happier audience, which contributes to a happier society, which leads to world peace, an end to world hunger, diseases and twerking.
Congratulations Earthling. Splundig Vur Thrigg.