Pedal boards, power supplies, geekiness and needing a van just to transport the gear. Why?
Well, the aim of us acoustic musicians is to create the same quality of sound live, as we do when practicing, but louder… This should be simple, but isn’t. Once vocals are amplified and instruments plugged in, the way they sound is unexpectedly different.
Let me explain why it is that despite an overarching passion for music, left to their own devices, musicians will often jabber on at each other about the merits and downfalls of little metal boxes, with knobs and buttons that light up. To everyone else, these conversations are both mysterious and dull in equal measures.
We musicians are obsessed, because these little metal boxes we put by our feet on stage can make all the difference between us sounding good, and us sounding embarrassingly bad. There’s nothing worse than standing up on stage, and making a tit’s-arse of a set you can play perfectly well, purely because of bad monitoring, a poor sound, faulty gear, or feedback.
Large venues, with ample time to sound check, are usually not a problem. However, most small pub like venues may not even sound check an acoustic act.
Whilst many sound engineers are very good (and we value you greatly you know), there are those who are not, or who have only just met you and may not understand your set. A sound engineer might get the volume balance wrong between guitar and vocals. They also might roll off a lot of the bass from the acoustic guitar which means that when I hit the guitar for a bass drum sound, nothing much happens.
A big issue is monitoring. It’s hard to sing comfortably when you can’t here your own voice, or if it’s way too loud and you can’t hear the guitar to pitch to. Getting monitoring right is just a tricky job, especially when the person controlling what you hear through an on-stage monitor is situated at the back of the room. Other times I’ve arrived at a venue to find that there is no monitor – bad news.
To counter these problems, here are some of the things an acoustic singer songwriter might bring to a gig in which they have a 20-45min set in a small venue.
• Vocal mic – why? For many people this is standard practice. It ensures, both that they will have a good mic to use that suits their voice, and that they won’t catch a cold from the previous vocalist’s spit.
• Soundhole mute – a piece of rubber that covers the guitar soundhole, preventing feedback.
• Floor tuner – a guitar tuner pedal
• EQ – a little box that allows you to control how your guitar sounds in terms of bass, mid, and treble
• Feedback blocker – in case there’s still feedback, some EQ units have a function that will allow you to trace the source of feedback and block it. This can only be done during sound check however.
• Monitor – many people bring a small amp as their own monitor. This allows them to control what they hear on stage, and is often far superior in sound quality than the wedge monitor that smaller venues might supply.
• 4 way extended plug and extension cable – by now, you’ve got a load of electrical boxes that need power, and batteries aren’t that reliable. Some venues have plugs sockets on stage, but most don’t unless there’s an electrified band on later. Some will even agree to provide them, and then forget. In the event that the nearest wall plug is 20ft from the stage, extension cables are necessary.
Now that I’ve told you all this, let me tell you what kit I myself bring to gigs.
So having told you how important all those magic-make-it-sound-better-electric boxes are, I don’t use any.
Why do I avoid using more kit? I used to have an acoustic DI box (feedback blocker and EQ in 1), and a pedal board with a loop pedal, bass simulator, distortion etc, but I gave it all up. For acoustic showcase gigs I can make it interesting enough without all that stuff and I’m probably not going to get ample time to soundcheck anyway, if I get a soundcheck at all.
So here’s the thing: having that extra kit only really makes a significant difference to sound if you get the chance to soundcheck with it. If you’re setting up for a 2hr show where you’ve brought your own PA then you can do that. But, for music nights with multiple acts and an in house sound engineer, this is what I’ve experienced:
- Some venues just get it right, so I don’t need the extra kit. They put in the extra time and care required to get the best sound possible from their PA.
- Others venues won’t get it right, and they are the ones that probably won’t give me the time to set up my own kit either.
Ultimately the expense and hassle of owning and bringing extra gear that I might not use, or might not make much difference without time to set it up, seems pointless.
But if I’m honest, part of me wants to be talked out of this cynical minimalist approach. I’d like to show up to gigs with everything under the sun – from every instrument I can play, to loop pedals and fx boxes, and do the wildest most spectacularly diverse set ever witnessed in Devon. Why not? It’ll be like bringing a band, but without having to bring 4 extra people along with me (which is a shame, because they could carry the gear).
What do you think? Should I get off my pony and pull more tricks out of the pedal board?
Write in and tell me about your setup. What do you use live and why?