We’ve talked at length about why you might want to turn down on stage, and how that can improve your stage sound overall. This conversation usually centers around guitar cabinets. There is ample justification for that, as an out of control guitar can be problematic, especially in a small room.
But the ongoing volume war doesn’t always start with the guitarist. After all, there is another instrument that gets pretty loud, and at almost every frequency.
No doubt you guessed it’s the drum kit. Drums are by nature loud, explosive, transient beasts, and that’s without adding in the cymbals. Add in the wildness of a typical rock-n-roll drummer, and things can get out of hand fast.
It’s no wonder then that guitar, bass, and vocal P.A. usually end up cranked up to eleventy twelve.
So, one of the best ways you can create a clean, solid stage sound that is audible, tolerable, balanced, artful – and still powerful – is to start from the ground up with the drums.
It’s probably obvious, but the first thing you want to do is talk to your drummer about volume control. The best of the best can keep a solid beat and get a good tone at a variety of volumes. If your drummer has this skill, great! If not, try working on it in rehearsal. Try practicing fully acoustic with no vocal amplification and task the drummer with finding a way to groove so you can still hear.
If a room is particularly small and it proves difficult to cut enough volume with playing technique, try changing sticks. Softer, lighter sticks or even bundle sticks may do the trick. Brushes may even work depending on your genre, but that will obviously change your sound quite a bit.
Then again, adjusting your vibe to a space might be the perfect way to get it right. Experiment with different set ups – an all acoustic setup with hand drums, cajon, or any number of alternate rhythm sections might work, for example.
In many cases, you may just want to bring smaller drums. Opt for the 16” kick instead of the 22”, the lighter snare, and one small tom, as opposed to the full monster rig you might bring to a big stage.
Raw volume is just the beginning, and you can go a long way with simply adjusting the pure loudness of your drummer. But just as in studio mixing, it’s not all about fader levels. You can get a lot more bang for your buck in a space if you look at competing frequencies and raw noise.
First, consider the cymbals. A little bit of high frequency sizzle can go a long way in a small room, so think about reducing the size and number of cymbals, and again, help the drummer practice various ways of playing them.
Next consider the ring of the drums. Left unchecked, many drumheads resonate and ring out for a long time, and while that may be desirable at times, you can tighten up your sound by dampening them.
Judicious use of moon gels, wash cloths, foam rubber dampers, and other accoutrement can help tremendously.
With drums hitting and dying back, you not only leave room for other instruments to cut through, you also stand a better chance of being tight rhythmically, as room reflections won’t make such a soup of the beat.
During set up, spend time tuning the drums to the room so that resonances are in check, windows aren’t buzzing, chairs aren’t traveling, and so on. And finally, manage creaks and pops and wiggles with proper floor covering, kick pedal lubrication, and so on. The more you can remove excess noise, the more room you have for musical elements.
It’s not a lot of bands who take the extra time to address how drums work in a room, but when it's done, everything else tends to fall in place. Guitars can sit in the mix, bass can thump, and vocals can cut through without over-compressing.
In the end it may take some extra thought, planning, and effort, but starting with drums to clean up your stage sound will definitely be worth it – even for the drummer.
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