How many times have you seen that comment as part of an argument online and kinda rolled your eyes at it? Well, if you are anything like me, you stopped counting when you ran out of fingers and toes.
So, to counter that, here is a bold statement. “Who cares if the audience can hear the difference?”
OK, so let me expand on that a little. When I play live (and I’m pretty certain that this applies to everyone I play with and coming to think about it, everyone I’ve spoken too about it), a great guitar tone (or bass tone – or drum tone or whatever) is about one thing and one thing only, giving the person who is behind the instrument the opportunity to feel as comfortable as possible in order to play at their very best. The audience, generally, only cares about two things. “Is the band any good?” and “Do I like the music?”. We can do nothing about the second statement, but the first we have total control over - I doubt very much if the audience is thinking about the composite parts that result in that what they are hearing.
An integral part of any live performance is whether or not the band is any good. It’s extremely rare that a band will sound good to the audience as a whole if they sound simply awful (unless of course, their whole existence is that rough around the edges feel). I’ve seen some amazing bands in the past that have given me a terrible night because they sounded awful – and that could be the FOH mix, the individual instrument tones or anything else. I remember one night were an entire pub emptied within 3 songs because the band sounded awful. And this was the same band that went on to sell out endless world tours and go on to become one of the biggest and influential bands currently performing.
In order for the band to sound great, each person has to be at the top of their game and a lot of the time you can peel that back to ensuring that every person on the stage is comfortable and loving what they are doing and hearing. Have you ever been on stage when for some reason your gear doesn’t react the way you expect it to and it go on to ruin your night? I have, many times. That’s the ‘beauty’ of playing in bars and clubs, some rooms naturally sound amazing and some kill the sound. The key to this, for me anyway, is that in order to feel comfortable I have to be in the right ‘zone’. And that zone is all about my mental state and the relation between me and my gear. If I’m not comfortable, then I don’t play as well. My wife can spot it by the time the first song is halfway through if I’m not comfortable.
Quite often, either during a break or after the gig, people wander over to the stage area and say “You don’t need all that… etc etc” and then go on to say how good it sounds and how much they enjoy/ed my playing. This always strikes me as a little odd, surely the only thing they care about is if it sounds good. It shouldn’t matter if I have one pedal and a £50 guitar into a crappy amp, or if I have boutique level stuff from start to finish… as long as it sounds good as part of the end product. In order for it to sound good, then I have to be stood there and feel 100% comfortable and ready to melt some faces. I think this is key to this debate and a word I've used several times already in this piece – 'comfortable'. Is the player comfortable? and is the gear making them comfortable? I am fully aware that my epic board is somewhat of a comfy blanket for me, I rely on it and most of the effects on it are used once, which is a lot of money to spend on something that is only used in that way – but consider this. I am there for two reasons. Firstly, to satisfy my desire to play live and make music with my buddies, and to see the audience enjoy themselves. The one song that flies into my head at this point is “Runaway” by Del Shannon, latterly covered by Gary Allen – and the version we go is somewhere in the middle of the two. The intro to that is quite a specific tone, and it uses a one time only patch from the Mobius and Timeline (although the TimeLine is used constantly throughout the gig the Mobius only features in 4-5 other songs, 1 for vibe, 1 for tremolo and 3 or so with chorus) - does it make having a £450 pedal worthwhile? My answer is a resounding YES! On that song, as when I hit that big Am riff to start it, people jump up and start dancing. That makes me comfortable, that makes me happy and so I play better.
The main question I have to ask myself is this. Would it sound any worse to the audience if I didn’t use those patches and just got myself a crappy cheap trem pedal. Or not use those sounds at all and just use a normal tone. Well, it may well do… but the fact it’s all midi controlled so the tempo is right makes me a happy boy. There is no tap dancing, there is no tweaking of speed, it’s just there and I know that it’s going to sound killer every night (not taking into consideration if the room is awful). This means I can relax, concentrate on one of the most finger bending solos I have to do later in the song and not worry about anything not sounding the way I expect it to.
There are a lot of players out there who survive beautifully going straight in, or using cheaper pedals and everything else, but as a player I need to know what to expect when I hit that button. When I know what to expect, I relax, when I am relaxed I play better. And the only thing the audience does care about, I’ve found, is that I play to the best of my abilities every time I get up on that stage. It’s not about sounding the best because the £2K Klon has more mojo than the £150 Tumnus, it’s about only having to concentrate on the playing. For me, the Klon is excessive as I feel I don’t need it as the Tumnus does the trick for me every night, but I know many players that only feel comfortable when they have a real vintage Klon in their chain. Now, I can barely tell the difference when I play them side by side, so incorporated into a band mix I’m 100% confident I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, and I would go as far as saying that they can’t either… the audience wouldn’t have a chance – but if the player is happy, and therefore playing their best because they are so happy, then for me – it’s worth every penny spent.
For reference, here is my rig and I’ve taken the liberty of adding up the total cost of it all new.
PRS Brent Mason signature.
’94 Fender MIM Strat with hand wired Seymour Duncan Antiquities
Line6 G30, TC Electronic Polytune 2 into One Control OC-10 looper that contains…. Wampler Mini Ego Compressor, Wampler Mini Tumnus, Wampler Paisley Drive Deluxe, TC Quintessence, Strymon Mobius (split into pre and post), Strymon TimeLine, TC Electronic MiniHOF, Wampler dB+… All wired up with Evidence Audio SIS/Monorail.
Amps and Speakers
Custom made 2x12” speaker cab loaded with WGS Reaper HP and WGS ET65.
Spare amp – Quilter 101 MR
Yep. That’s £7k of gear to play covers in pubs once or twice a week. But, let's face it – I could double that figure EASILY! Yes, I know, that original figure is insane. I really know it is, but it makes me happy and this is my only hobby and I know whenever I go out to make a noise I sound as good as I personally can - so in that regard, it’s worth it. All of it!
A few days ago Brian, Alex and I were talking as Brian was thinking about video ideas for YouTube, and we were discussing guitarists who play live regularly but still get a few things wrong. Not necessarily in terms of their playing, but their approach to the instrument. Once I started to give ideas for subjects it occurred to me that I was just talking about me when I first started playing live, some 27 or so years ago (Man, that makes me sound old).
This conversation made me think about what I would say to myself if I had the opportunity to go back and advise the younger me with the benefit of what I have learned in the thousands of gigs I’ve done since…
- You aren’t as good as they tell you.
When I was 17 I was able to play virtually anything I wanted, I was in a rock covers band playing stuff that was designed purely to impress other guitar players. After a year or so, I thought I was brilliant because people kept telling me I was as I could play fast complicated stuff, but the reality of it was that I was just showing off. Playing for their appreciation and not caring one iota about what really mattered. I should have been more humble and understood that just because I played “It’s a Monster” as an opener, including the solo without warming up (see, still showing off), it didn’t mean I was good, I was just flashy. All style and no substance, or as my dear ol’ cockney Granddad would have said, “all mouth and no trousers”. Which leads me nicely too…
- Take some lessons and learn to read.
My biggest regret in life, thus far, was not sourcing a decent teacher and learning to read properly. I was proud of the fact “I’ve never taken a lesson in my life” and thought it made me a better musician. It didn’t, it just restricted the future me. In the last few years I’ve had the pleasure and honour of becoming good friends with amazing guitar teachers and the things I’ve learned from them, just in passing, have made me 100 times the player I was. Imagine if I’d actually had some proper lessons earlier in life…
- Listen to the rest of the band, ALL of the time.
This was the hardest learning curve of them all, and it’s something I struggle with now. I really wish I had got this into my head much much earlier. After all, being in a band is about creating and playing music with a bunch of like-minded people. Listening to them, bouncing off them, playing WITH them (instead of just playing with yourself – double entendre COMPLETELY intended) is everything. Be in a band, they are not there to back you up, you are an equal part in the end product.
- Gain. GAIN! Turn it the hell down!
The most powerful gain tones are not the ones with loads of gain, just the ones with the right amount properly EQ’d. You will probably need two distinct gain tones, one for rhythm and one for lead. How this is achieved is variable, either volume control on the guitar or via a boost pedal, but you know, your lead tone is gonna sound utterly horrible for rhythm. Usually. Also worth remembering the louder you play, the less gain you are likely to need. I expect there is a technical explaination for this, but I don’t know it!
- Practice the subtle stuff, it’s what will define you to your peers.
Especially vibrato and bends. Make sure your intonation is on point, make sure your vibrato isn’t crap. Because when you don’t work on either, you will sound bloody awful and to the guys in the know that are listening, you will be severely lacking.
- Don’t be afraid of new music.
When grunge hit I was terrified, my dazzling technique meant nothing to anyone, I got completely lost so I decided I hated it and refused to play it. What an idiot. Roll with it youngling, roll with it.
- Learn the neck properly
This is something I’ve been working on recently after a long discussion with Mr Tom Quayle on a very long flight. As usual, he was trying to help me and I was arguing for the fun of it, but he won in the end. He calls it fretboard visualisation. This is knowing what all the notes are on the neck, and how the relate to each other… this way, when improvising, you can move around the neck easier as you know where the sweet spots are. And not the complicated ones, ending a passage on a third, fifth or seventh of the chord you are currently over sounds so much better than landing on the root… so, this is directly related to breaking out the boxes I suppose, something else I was stuck in when I was trying to be me back in the day.
- If it’s being played properly, there’s no such thing as crap music
Kinda guessing that I wasn’t alone in thinking that the music I liked was great and the rest was crap when I was young. I don’t particularly like certain styles/genres of music still, but I listen to it often, because you absorb stuff when you listen to it and it will increase your vocabulary considerably when you are in full flow without realising it.
- If the crowd aren’t being responsive, it ain’t their fault
If the band is boring, make up to you to make it more interesting. Well, this is going to be a contentious one I think... As a lead guitar player, or even the rhythm guitar player, it’s kinda up to you to bring the colour to the songs. If you are working with a great bass player, they will do their bit, but if you are still banging out boring chords and predictable solos, then look at yourself before you judge your audience.
- Protect your hearing
Pretty certain I don't need to explain this any further...
- Carry spares. Of everything
I know, kinda obvious isn’t it. However, there was a time when I didn’t… turned out to be the worst gig of my life!
That’s my ‘have a word with yourself’ moment... For your amusement, the header picture of me is from 1992, and this is the 2018 version - and yes, I do miss my hair!
I’m pretty old – currently staring down the barrel of being 45… So, I groan when I get up from the sofa and my idea of a great concert (as someone attending) is whether it is seated and how easy the access is to the ‘facilities’. Whereas this may sound terrible to some (especially me to be honest), it does mean one thing – I’ve been playing live since I was 17 so I’ve been thinking about this kind of stuff for a long time. Along the way, having done over a thousand gigs, I’ve picked up some knowledge about some things that I might not have thought about before.
This week I want to talk about speaker placement when you perform… When I was a nipper, before the gig time, I had to keep my sound levels down low at home, because – you know, parents. I quickly found out the best way to do this was to lean my amp back (up against the wall) so the centre part of the cone was pointing at my ears. During this time, I wanted to be Jannick Gers before I knew that Jannick existed… basically, I wanted to stand between Smith and Murray on your bog standard Iron Maiden world tour. My bedroom came complete with a full-length mirror so quite often I was stood with my foot on the bed in that classic “on the monitors” way and other various poses the band are known for admiring my potential for being in the band... It was during this time I realised that where the speaker was pointing made an enormous difference to how I heard my guitar. It was either muffled if I wasn’t dead on, or bright and clear when I was. Based on this experience when I started with my first band I used to put my amp on stuff to make sure it was at head level as much as possible – I found that not only was it the best way to keep my stage level down but also the very best way to know that the people out front only heard what I was hearing. From there I went on to live mix large bands around the circuit which taught me also that in regards to upper mids and high end, speaker placement is absolutely everything. The lower the frequency goes, the more omnidirectional they become (this varies with speakers size) so you can put them anywhere and they’ll be heard, but those high ends have to be facing the right direction and high enough to literally go over the head of people, otherwise anything further than 10 feet from them with people in front of you, they are just gone.
Now, any self-respecting guitar player will be able to tell you that the best tone you get from your amp (providing you aren’t on a weak hollow stage) is to have your amp on the floor, but this is a nightmare for the people out front – you can’t hear your top end if you have your tone going into your calves, and also, if you are anywhere near the drummer you have to be literally twice as loud to hear yourself. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve seen a band where the guitar amps are on the floor and the first few rows have been slaughtered by sheer volume and gnarly top ends while the player thinks he sounds incredible.
With all that in mind, where do you put your speakers when you play live? Are they on the deck, or are they elevated? The current band I’m ruining is set up like this, my cab sits on top of a flight case, it’s a 2x12” (and I have it vertically) with the head on top. This means that because I am stood anywhere between 1 and 10 feet from my cab (usually about 2 or 3 tbh), at all times the top speaker is sitting close enough to head height for me to hear it properly. I have to have my cab a certain way ‘up’ as one of the speakers is truer on the higher end and the other is more about warm mids and lows. The top speaker has to be looking at my head, so I can keep the high end under control. As I play in a band that borders on country music, I have my cleans set on very clean with some sparkly high ends going on, so I sit on that verge of being shrill if I am not careful. I am so paranoid about this that I often hold my nose and blow down it to pop my ears out to ensure I am hearing all the highs properly… Something Mrs Wilding finds most amusing!
My current live speaker set up... vertically aligned so I can hear what I am doing... I don't play shoegaze, I promise...
Well, that’s the story part of the piece out of the way – what about the facts that support it, because we all like the sciencey facts part, right?
Speakers, and the frequencies that they protect vary in directionality. The higher the note, the more directional your sound will be projected. Here’s a little test… play a low E note and then one as high as you can straight after. Do that stood to the side of your amp, then at a 45 degree angle, and then right in front (also do this crouched down if your amp is on the floor). You’ll notice that the low-end notes sound pretty identical in all three but the higher notes will sound much duller when you are at the side.
Most guitar amp speakers are 12” and they demonstrate ‘beaming’ at about 1335hz – that is the frequency they become immensely directional. So, everything below that will feel a lot more omnidirectional. To put this in real guitary terms, a tubescreamer has a hump that is most prominent at 732hz and that’s considered to be a mid-range bump - upper mids is generally thought to be between 1khz and 2khz so everything above the midpoint of your upper mids is being protected in a strict direction. Now, think about standing on a stage with your amp on the floor about 5’ behind you. There is an enormous chance you are not actually hearing the high end of your amp properly, so your tone will be brighter than you think.. chances are you compensate for this by increasing the treble control on your amp/pedals. Now think about all those people who are standing on the floor about 15’ in front of you. Yep, it’s your high end that’s actually hurting them and ruining their night!
There are several companies that try to put a stop to this happening, most noticeably the Deefleex, it provides a deflection panel that sends your upper frequencies up to your ears - this is great - but in order to work properly they stick out quite a bit from your amp, so unless you are playing on a bigger stage, you just can’t use it as it will get in the way... if you don’t have that problem though, this simple solution could make a world of difference to your understanding of how you, and your audience, hears your tone.
While we are talking of speaker cabs, here’s another thing to consider… how you have your cab laying. If you are using a 1x12” cab, the sound will spread out evenly in all directions (this isn’t strictly true, but for the sake of this piece let’s keep it simple), but if you are using a 2x12” cab it will react quite differently. If you have the speakers in your cab aligned horizontally, you will get a bigger spread ‘up and down’ than if you put them vertically which will spread the sound wider. This is why I have my cab elevated off the ground and vertical, so the cab will spread more to the sides that it does up. If I had to put my cab any lower I would put it so the speakers are horizontally aligned, so the sound goes up more. For me, in a band that plays smaller venues, the dispersal of the sound to the sides is WAY more important because there won’t be enough room for a horizontally aligned cab to fill the room with sound. And there’s no point in taking all this gear to a gig if only a few people directly in front of me can hear it, right?