How to Improve Your Live Shows By Reducing Your Stage Volume

How to Improve Your Live Shows By Reducing Your Stage Volume

July 28, 2017 30 Comments

Let’s face it- a certain degree of loudness is par for the course at a rock and roll show. But louder is not always better. While nothing compares to standing in front of a cranked half stack and letting it rip, the fact of the matter is that most of the time, a band that is too loud onstage often sounds worse than one that makes a conscientious effort to monitor their stage volume! It sounds counterintuitive, but bringing your stage volume down can improve your live show for a variety of reasons.

Why Bands Play Too Loud

Let’s say you’re playing guitar and can’t hear yourself onstage. Your natural reaction would be to turn your amp up, and understandably so! However, that also sets off a chain reaction. Your bassist will have to turn up as well to match your louder volume, your drummer will have to hit harder, and your singer will have to really belt it out. This is what we call a volume war. All the band members are competing to be loud and present in the mix and hear themselves clearly.

To play in tune and in time, and to feel the music, musicians need to be able to hear themselves. If they can’t, despite a dialed-in amp and fully functioning stage monitors, it can seem like a hopeless situation that can only be solved by turning up stage volume, when doing so actually just exacerbates the situation. 

In end you may be taken out of the PA in order to keep show levels inside of the venues maximum volume or the PA’s maximum volume.  When competing stage and house volumes start happening neither one gets a good mix.

To keep your stage volume down, here are some things you can try:

  1. Elevate your amp or tilt it up. Your amp is no good when all the sound is blowing past your legs (and at the poor audience members in the front row).  If your amp is too low, raising it closer to ear level can work wonders and will reduce the overall volume you need to hear yourself. Your amp is your personal onstage monitor!
  2. Practice getting your tone at a lower volume. Many guitarists love the sound of a tube amp cranked wide open, which doesn’t always vibe well in a small venue. Instead of forcing it and playing too loud, try to experiment with ways to get your tone, just at a lower level, such as using a preamp pedal like the Carvin Audio VLD1 Legacy Drive or a lower wattage amp. A guitar amplifier with switchable wattage also comes in very handy.
  3. Practice stage volume at rehearsal. It goes without saying, but if your band practices loudly, you’re probably going to play loudly live as well. Try to rehearse at a lower volume so when the gig night comes around, you’re acclimated to the band sounding a little quieter.
  4. Stand as close to the monitors as possible.  Each band member will not always have his or her own monitor at every venue ( in which case raising your amp is even more important!) But as a rule of thumb, you want to stand in a position where you can hear the monitor mix, even if it brings you uncomfortably close to your bandmates (hey, you’re all friends, right?)
  5. Be on the same axis as the monitor. Simply standing near the monitors is not enough. Speakers disperse sound to an area directly in front of them, so if you’re standing to the side, you won’t hear everything optimally. Stand directly in front of a monitor if possible, and avoid obstructing monitors with amps and other equipment.
  6. Don’t be afraid to ask the sound engineer for more. If you’re following the above tips and still are struggling to hear yourself or your bandmates in the stage mix, tell the sound engineer that you need a little more in your monitor. They’ll certainly like it more than just turning your amp up on stage!
  7. Invest in in-ear monitors. In-ears are a wonderful solution to any monitoring woes, as each musician does not have to be near a monitor, and can hear their desired mix in their own personal ear monitor. While pricey, the investment is worth it and the result is often a reduced need to turn up onstage, since each band member can hear the mix clearly.

EM900 Wireless In-Ear Personal Monitor System

Carvin Audio EM900 Wireless In-Ear Personal Monitor System

Turning down onstage will let the PA do the work and make it easier for the sound guy to do his job, since there will not be excessive volume bleeding from the stage into the house mix. Try it out at your next gig and let us know how it works out!



30 Responses

Douglas Robinson
Douglas Robinson

March 06, 2020

Frustrated at the beginning of yet another volume war, one night I used a pair of those foam “roll ‘em between your fingers and stuff ‘em in your ears” ear plugs. It was an epiphany. They don’t filter out sounds equally. They filter higher frequencies, like the guitar player, more than the lows, like my bass. I could instantly hear myself without having to turn up! Not only could I hear myself, but the overall volume was much more enjoyable. Another trick I’ve picked-up is putting my speaker cabinet on a small fold-up foot stool. Yes, it puts the cab closer to my head so the mids and treble are easier to hear, but it serves another purpose as well. It “decouples” the cab from the floor. WHAAAT? A bass player throwing away free bass response? The problem is, those low frequencies are really boomy out in the house, but not that noticeable when standing 5 feet in front of the cab, so what the audience hears and what the player hears can be very different. Lifting the cabinet off the floor doesn’t change the sound the player hears that much, but it can keep you from seeming “so loud” out in the audience. I haven’t yet figured-out what to do about the drummer (short of asking him to throw a blanket over his snare.)

Burt
Burt

March 06, 2020

I play in a ten piece band … trumpet, trombone, 3 saxophones (alto, tenor, bari) keyboards, drummer, bass player and myself (guitar and vocals) .
I play through a BOSS GT-8 for my sounds. I use perhaps 12 basic sounds during a gig. For the past ten years or so, I’ve gotten by on stage with a small Behringer 30 watt amp with I think an eight inch speaker. Admittedly, the sound man puts some of my guitar in the monitors, not for me, but for the other band members who need to hear at least “some” of me. The little Behringer serves as my monitor. With ten guys and their music stands, instruments and all, there’s not much room for me to bring an amp much bigger than the little Behringer. Oh, I should tell you … the left and right outputs of the BOSS GT-8 go to the mixer and to the Behringer’s Effects Return. The Behringer gets the left channel and the PA system gets the right channel. From where I’m standing, it sounds quite full. Stereo effects are kinda interesting. There HAVE been times when I’ve thought the band was getting loud enough that I wished I had brought a slightly louder amp, but most the time, my amp’s volume control is at around “half” or less, and we’re fine. (My band… www.scottfreemanband.com upstate NY)

chas
chas

March 06, 2020

I learned a long time ago its better if everyone in the band can hear everyone else. I love playing small halls and parties with no drums but the bass is always good. I’m also the only one in a couple towns around me who is allowed to bring a small amp even at acoustic jams because they know I dont play loud, in fact the last gig I was (again) told by everyone, even the sound guy, to turn up a little. Much more enjoyable for the audence too.

Jason
Jason

February 28, 2020

I work at a venue that can hold about 325 to 350 (standing room only). It has tile floors and this wavy wood ceiling. So sound gets bounced around quite a bit when it’s empty. It’s acoustically live, and the owner doesn’t want to put any sound treatment that detracts from the decor, so I have to be a bit of a sound Nazi to keep stage volume lower. Some bands listen, some don’t. Those that don’t, do not sound that great. Sometimes some of them have amps and hit drums so hard they squish the vocals even with my PA bouncing off of the limiter. And usually the sound war erupts on stage and I get asked to add things to monitors just making everything worse. I try to tell bands if they are asking me for things like their guitars, or bass in the monitors, it’s usually because the drummer is hitting way harder than needed, specially since I will mic drums so they don’t need to worry about being heard. Learning to ‘play to a room’, seems to be a skill lacking in a lot of bands and it would be massively beneficial, not only to themselves, but also for their FoH engineer trying to balance all that excess and un-needed volume. Ultimately, they will get a cleaner sounding show with clarity and balance.

Robin S.
Robin S.

February 28, 2020

No mention of throwing amps on road cases? Get the amps off the ground. Either on a riser or road cases. Get the mix right, then turn everyone down a notch. Because as every show goes on, they all start to creep higher and higher anyways.

Oasischris
Oasischris

February 28, 2020

When in doubt, it never hurts to ask the audience, “How do we sound?”.

John SPLNTR
John SPLNTR

February 28, 2020

Huh? I can’t hear you…

Mark Fornwald
Mark Fornwald

February 28, 2020

I have delt with this for decades as both soundperson and performer. The best shows were always at lesser volume. To this day players I jam/sit in with tell me to turn up. I look these idiots straight in the eye and tell them to turn it down. Read this article, use the advice, your booking calendar will show the result and you won’t lose hearing as you grow older.

MFLK
MFLK

February 28, 2020

I find it interesting in this article, they never once mention the drums. The loudest instrument in the room pounding away crashing cymbals in your ears and trying to sing in front of them is deafening at times. This is why they are put in a Plexiglas glass cage. I keep trying to explain to band members. When you are playing drums and singing you are behind the lit so you monitor does not have to compete with higher frequencies. Same goes for the bass player, lower frequencies to deal with easier to hear your vocal monitors. But everyone tries to blame the guitarist, Guitar frequencies are hard to sing in front of, because guitarist need a certain amount of bite from their rig. Sometimes it is very hard to get that at a low volume as the drums will drown it out. Playing with dynamics is really the key, knowing when to drop the feel of the song and raise it at points. But let’s not mention cymbals completely drowning everything out but its the guitarists fault! In Rock Bands, Drummers are the biggest issue with stage volume in my opinion

Luke
Luke

February 28, 2020

Just an opinion… but In a small room Amps that are tubed are loud … and don’t need to be played into a PA system to be heard in the room and on stage. A singe mic on a kick drum will let everyone feel a groove. That’s why I feel vocals are seldom heard in small clubs and venues as well. To much mud in the PA. Doesn’t apply to all rooms… but many

Frank
Frank

February 28, 2020

It drives me crazy sometimes when you ask other musicians to turn down, and they look at you as if you just asked then for a ride to the airport.
Refusing a request to turn down is not only inconsiderate, but unprofessional.

Mike
Mike

February 28, 2020

Hadn’t been to a local Blues jam for several months. Thought I’d drop in and see if maybe I might get a chance to sit in for a few blues tunes. Got there shortly after the 8:00 PM launch of the first set by the house band. Plenty of available seating but golly gee was it LOUD! Just my opinion of course, but way LOUD. I will freely admit to being prejudiced – I have hearing loss and wear hearing aids. I was there maybe 5 minutes before my ears started hurting and I could feel a headache coming on. I had to leave.
Yes, I have “musicians” ear plugs – carry them with me at all times. A friend of mine acquainted me with the phrase; “People vote with their feet.” So I expressed my opinion of too loud music by “voting with me feet” and leaving. Blues music is best played, and enjoyed, at an appropriate volume level, but again, IMHO, when played at levels knows to cause hearing damage….. that’s not appropriate! Buying stock in hearing aid companies might not be a bad investment decision!

Don Thompson
Don Thompson

February 28, 2020

It’s about balance. However you get it figured out. The thing to do is get the band to think inverted from the norm. If you can’t hear the other players, turn down until you can. That way the band settles down to the least volume rather than up til the max. I agree that vocals need to be at ear level and instruments below the waist. Players who also sing tend to play with a tone that’s conducive to singing over monitors. Yes people, your guitar sounds bigger and fuller over the PA. let your sound tech do their jobs and give them the tools and levels to succeed.

Michelle Rose
Michelle Rose

February 28, 2020

A partial solution might be to use a smaller amp in FRONT of the lead player, tilted back at the same angle as the vocal monitors. Run a line out from the primary amp along the back line to the secondary amp in front. This will help a lot in terms of volume and also add quite a lot of sustain to the lead player’s sound.

I’ve done this many times. I used a 50 watt Marshall half-stack in the back (4X12" Celestions) and you’d think that would be more than enough, right?. Unfortunately, in an outdoor gig, such is not the case. All my sustain seemed to vanish and I kept messing with the tone controls, trying to find a nice mid that would carry. So I plugged in my itty bitty Fender Princeton, put it in front of me and presto! I could hear everything and the sustain was awesome. I made sure than it was aimed at me only so that the rest of the band—primary lead player, bass, and the drums—didn’t have to listen to the roar. When I switched to a Fender Twin later on—really, that Marshall was like driving a Lamborghini to the corner bodega for a bag of chips and a six-pack—I did the same thing for club work and it still sounded terrific. The Twin had a master volume—as most of them do—and I just told the sound man to set it wherever he liked because I could hear plenty of content from that Princeton. It sure ended the complaints from the other guys that I was too freakin loud!

When we rehearsed, I did use an amp stand with the Princeton tilted back and it worked just fine. Eventually we started using in-ear monitors for the vocals, but I DON’T like hearing the guitars in the monitor mix. It messes up my harmonies. Vocals only in the monitors, please. Yes, I’m aware that the big kids run everything through the onstage monitors and often through the in-ear rigs, but I think it would take me a long time to adjust to that. Plus, I’m losing a bit of my hearing in the left ear and some of the high mid frequencies (around 1.2-1.8 kHz) are beginning to disappear. Too much content in those in-ear monitors is kind of annoying. (And the bass content SUCKS!)

Joseph Orians
Joseph Orians

February 19, 2020

The band I play in,(bass), decided three years ago to use amp sim pedals and in ear monitors. It took a little time to really dial in the pedals and the in ear system was pricey. But, it has really paid off. We rarely get the can you turn it down question. The downsides are you really have to trust your sound guy, and I will admit there are times I miss the feel of amps.

Bob
Bob

February 19, 2020

Does it matter when the sound guy thinks the only thing the audience needs to hear is the kick and some sub-bass sludge?

Mariann
Mariann

February 19, 2020

Well written. Thank you. I’ll send this article to all the bands that play at our small room. It’s difficult to get the bands to come down on their volume. The patrons aren’t happy with it loud. The best sound techs balance it out and let the bands know it’s too loud. Yet the bands always state they’ve been doing it for … many years and know what they’re doing. Only to find people leaving. I even shut a band down mid song, apologized to the audience and readjusted the sound. Not fun but the audience loved me for it. They buy the ticket, they deserve to get a good sounding concert. I’m guessing the longer the musician is in the game the worse their hearing is.

Mary
Mary

February 19, 2020

I’m in my 60’s and have been to so very many shows. Lately, I’ve noted how bad the sound is. Instruments drowning out the vocals. Or simply way too loud, to the point you cannot make out anything. I honestly don’t know if it’s lack of training for soundboard, or various members wanting to be highlighted, or improper judgment of the room.

Steve Krall
Steve Krall

October 28, 2019

The other Steve is spot on (Bundy too!); standing too close to your amp. You are blasting the sound right past your knees. Can’t always tilt an amp especially a 1/2 stack cab. Put it as far back as is reasonable…..and also point it sideways, if possible. Like a side stage monitor…if necessary.

Kirk Smith
Kirk Smith

October 28, 2019

About the best sounding show I ever saw was Alice Cooper back in the ‘70s. The sound man had a vertical rack with 5 or 6 Altec 1567 4-channel tube-type mixers and two of those old fashion Sound Craftsman equalizers. When I asked him why his rig was so simple compared to what most other people were traveling with, he said, "Because Alice’s songs all tell a story of some sort and Alice absolutely demands that every word be intelligible. So, we keep the volume down and the signal path short." It was loud, but not excruciatingly so and you COULD hear every word.

Also,I played club once that had a riser all the way across the stage. The drums went in the middle of the riser, but the guitar amps had to go up there too because there wasn’t room otherwise. This put the top JBL 15" speaker of my 100 watt Kustom Amp at ear level with me. I started out playing with my normal settings and found my own sound deafening and totally annoying. I thought, “Dear Lord, is this what it sounds like in the first three rows when we don’t have a riser and my amp is in their face rather than mine?” You should definitely get a long chord and check your own sound out once in a while.

Bernie Hynson Jr.
Bernie Hynson Jr.

July 30, 2017

Come ON BAND MATES!!!!! Lead guitar amps through a vocal monitor?
Wedge “VOCAL” monitors ARE FOR THE LEAD VOCALS WITH HARMONIZING BACK UP VOCALS." Guitar and bass players….DO NOT BURY YOUR AMP/AMPS IN THE REAR OF THE STAGE EXPECTING TO HEAR YOURSELF THROUGH A 12" wedge monitor. Evaluate the SIZE OF YOUR PERFORMANCE AREA!!!! Keep your guitar/bass rigs closer to the front along WITH YOUR DRUMMERS KIT!!!! Sound will project from a open back speaker cabinet…..Keys, guitars, bass…..angle SLIGHTLY to the center…keep the band TIGHTER…stage left and stage right. The wider the stage THE MORE TEMPTATION THERE IS TO SPREAD OUT THE BAND. Keep yourselves closer together, “like rehearsal time”, and NOT TOO SPREAD OUT!!!!
LET YOU PROFESSIONAL “Out Front Sound Techs” DO THEIR JOB THE WAY THEY ARE CAPABLE of doing it. Stay tighter on stage….stay forward to the stage……USUALLY YOU PRO SOUND FOLKS WILL have their monitors somewhat positioned on the stage for you. USUALLY THEY WILL ASK: How many vocal mics do you need, Any KEYS?…Bass…how many GUITAR PLAYERS??? (That includes your keyboard player strumming chords on a guitar for 1 or 2 SONGS!!!!!!) A mic’ed Leslie Tone Cabinet for a side fill is WONDERFUL!!!
If those folks could DO IT IN THE RAIN for three days……in the 60’s……I think today"s sound engineers “Got a Handle on it” using their/our Professional Carvin Sound products!!!!
(Bernie)

George Brian Ferrell
George Brian Ferrell

July 29, 2017

One point that Step #1 is missing is if you are a lead singer who also plays guitar. I’ve found that if the guitar speaker is angled toward me while I’m playing/singing, it makes it harder to monitor my vocals and can be a distraction. Pointing the guitar speaker at my feet allows me to play at a needed higher volume without preventing me from monitoring my vocals. Even with that arrangement, people often complain they can’t hear my guitar and that evidence is backed up with recordings that show the guitar is still too low. FYI, we usually don’t mic our instruments. Obviously, that would help- IF we could afford to pay a sound man.

Steve
Steve

July 29, 2017

Hard to believe this article didn’t mention stranding too close to your amp, especially with a closed-back cab. The sound is blasting your knees, and eveyrone on stage but you think you’re not loud enough. You can’t always tilt your amp rig. So put it as far back as possible.

Miles In Trail Music LLC
Miles In Trail Music LLC

July 29, 2017

I always enjoy the articles you guys do to enhance / improve performances. I find them to be insightful, and I appreciate them. Same with the other articles you’ve posted that pertain to the business end of performances, bookings etc.

Good Stuff!

Gospel Music and more
Gospel Music and more

July 29, 2017

Agree with the above. Too many times, not because I believe I am an expert because I am not, I’ve asked others to lower the volume in practices and jams. Just yesterday evening at a jam, I brought this up indicating that when one turns up another follows. I’ve suggested placing amps on tables or tilting them. Some have and have since lowered their volumes which has helped clean up the sound. It is a work in progress, but a clean sound at a comfortable volume level adds so much to the music.

Buster Daniels
Buster Daniels

July 28, 2017

Besides tilting & elevating the guitar amps, I have the musicians either turn them around backwards but in front of them (useless if it’s an open back amp) or turn them sideways – away from the audience. This will also help the lead guitar get a little feedback when he wants it.
.
On-axis and close to the mic is as important as on-axis and close to the monitors. This is a problem with newer singers.
.
In small venues (where I usually mix) I generally (but not always) find the drums to be the loudest thing on stage, which I then have to mix up to. I try to work with the drummer first to limit his/her volume.
.
At church (one of my sound-guy jobs) we have a digital mixer and have just gone to IEM’s – what a difference. However, the drummer cannot hear how loud he is hitting (remember we’re new at this). The drums are now the WAY BIGGEST THING on the stage, by far. BTW we put the guitar amps with mics in a room just off stage.
.
Thanks for this article – good stuff.
Buster
.

howie miller
howie miller

July 28, 2017

we have 3 guitars in our band , 2 electrics and one acoustic , ..our goal is to allow the acoustic to be heard ( most ) of the time , ..we do that by backing off the electrics , but when solo time comes , we wail , ..then back off for the acoustic to breath again…makes a difference .

Louie Bond
Louie Bond

July 28, 2017

Great article. I would add that there are physiological, psychological, acoustic, and just mathematical aspects of the physics of sound. The highs from guitar amps are more directional than the lows, and, as you said, that part, the treble, just blows past the guitarist if the amp isn’t tilted to his ear. A bassist may not hear the longer low freq waves right in front of his amp, as much as a bandmate on the other side of the stage. The resonant freq of the average human ear canal makes 2.5k to 3k kill, and that’s where most musicians first lose their hearing. And you can find the perfect tone on your amp while alone in a bedroom, but that same EQ won’t work in a mix, either recording or live, as the instrument’s tone is blending with others and creating overtones. So some will try to turn up to hear “their” tone with disregard to how they’re blending with other tones. And then there’s the psychological perception, how the brain hears. So much to consider, but you’ve brought out the discussion and raised some great points. Thanks.

Doobie Wilson
Doobie Wilson

July 28, 2017

I think it often starts with the drums since it is hard to adjust their volume. On a small stage it can force everyone to turn up. Having one of those plexiglass sound barriers can help but it seems very isolating for the drummer. Ideas?

Bundy
Bundy

July 28, 2017

I’ve actually smoked the house PA with a Legacy halfstack; had females dancing onstage who said that amp was “moving” their clothes. Temporarily damaged my hearing with the same amp. I’m using a V3 halfstack these days but you get the idea. Halfstacks aren’t much good when on smaller stages and that sound is hitting you behind the knees. Best to use another 4×12 for an amp stand (whether it’s plugged in or not). These days I’m much more merciful on crowds but I manage to get the job done anyway. Great article!

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