Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Observations about the volume of things

One of the things on my mind a lot lately has been the issue of projection- making your performance be heard clearly by the other musicians and by the audience. While performing and hanging at the Ballard Jazz Festival recently, I got the opportunity to play with and hear a number of groups in close proximity, in the same room, often on the same set of drums- mine. The circumstances were a moderate-sized, crowded club, with unmiked drums and horns, and amplified guitars and bass. Here are some of the things I noticed:

Guitars are loud, penetrating, and present. They can make unmiked drums sound very small, and hurt the audience's ears. The veteran guitarists know how to get a big sound without blowing everyone away. The veteran players in general have a big sound and play big dynamics, without being obnoxious.

Saxophones are pretty loud. They need to be monitored on stage- they decidedly do not sound loud to the people playing them, or to people sitting behind them, but they do penetrate.

Basses can be loud. At least on stage. I had one experience where the bass wiped out all the dynamics the rest of the group was trying to create. Getting any definition from the audience's perspective is much trickier.

It is not difficult to play the drums under a club-volume amplified acoustic bass and guitar.

Unmiked drums are moderately soft, and can suffer from poor definition. Even when played strongly, they are not very present- they can sound a little distant, not full. Everyone thinks the drums are loud, but when played to their true dynamic range (that is, not lashing the hell out of them, or always hiding in the background, barely touching them), and heard from a reasonable distance, they sit right in the middle of the audience's natural comfort range.

A younger generation of players is getting used to the idea that the drums are supposed to be quiet. When you play at a venue-appropriate full volume with them, they tend to panic and turn up. Or assume that it's rock & roll time and we are dispensing with dynamics altogether, and turn up.

Inexperienced, not-very-confident musicians will track your every upward dynamic move much too closely, and often blow past your downward moves. Veteran players will not instantly jump in volume when you do something big, and recognize opportunities for dynamic or textural changes when you bring it down.

Thin, dark cymbals sound very weak from the back of the room.  At best- several drummers' performances were mostly wiped out because of their cymbals, which were just not up to the task at hand. You have to play them very strongly, while playing the drums gently to get a good balance within the instrument, and they will still sound weak at the back of the room. The few moderately heavier and brighter cymbals present fared much better- you were able to hear what the drummer was doing with them musically.

China-type cymbals are god. Along with the guitar. They really cut, and the right cymbal played injudiciously can wipe out everything else on stage.

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