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Who Messed With My Tone Controls?

"Who Messed With My Tone Controls?" by Kevin Michael Gault 

Have you ever been frustrated because you worked very hard to get a certain sound perfectly dialed in, but then something changed and it seemed like you were playing through a different amplifier? Maybe you took your cool new amp to a show and it didn’t sound the same live as it did in rehearsal, or perhaps you sound-checked for a gig but when the show started your channel levels seemed out of balance? It can even happen in the middle of your set for no apparent reason (and you’re 20 feet from your amplifier)!

There are lots of reasons this can happen, and some might even be a little obvious, but spending some time thinking about what your amplifier really does might make it easier to get it to do what you really want. Amplifiers don't have a sound, they reproduce a sound. Because of their design, musical instrument amplifiers usually give you the ability to emphasize and color the sound as well. This helps you adapt the sound to compensate for a lot of different sonic environments.

If it isn’t loud enough and you’ve turned all the way up, then you must need a bigger amplifier, right?

But what if your amp has plenty of power and you still can’t hear clearly? You checked; in fact, everyone in the band stopped playing (and your tone was incredible) and the sound tech verified that the guitar really is way too loud. If the guitar is that loud why can’t the guitar player (and maybe even the fans) hear the guitar? Or worse yet, you can hear it but that magic tone is… gone!

Enter the concept of sonic real-estate: Remember when The Beatles sang, “Now we know how many holes it takes to fill The Albert Hall?” Imagine that every venue is filled with holes that sound can “live in.” There are different holes for each and every frequency since low frequency sounds need more “space” than high frequencies, so try to visualize that the room you are playing in has a limited number of “seats” for each frequency of your music. If you boost a certain frequency on an instrument, it takes up extra seats in that frequency. Once you fill all the high frequency seats, you’ll have to turn some of those frequencies away, which is why the bass player and guitar player are always complaining their edge goes away- they’re wrestling over the same midrange frequencies that make both instruments “pop” in the mix. When you go over capacity in any range, it also starts competing with all the other frequencies, effectively destroying the mix as well. Trying to force too much bass into a space makes the mix seem muddy and distorted, while boosting the high frequencies over capacity causes feedback and a “harsh” or “shrill” sounding mix. Either way, you lose the ability to distinguish the nuances that made each instrument sound so nice on its own.

Now we understand that there is only so much space for sound in each frequency range, which means we need to share each frequency between all the instruments in the band. But to make things worse, each venue has a different number of seats for each range and they aren’t necessarily balanced. If you’re playing a room with only a little space for bass you can’t get away with cranking everything else or the bass will run out of headroom. Understanding this is important because sometimes you’ll get a much bigger improvement in the mix by changing your tone to emphasize a different frequency than by turning up the volume. Keep in mind that even if you like the way it sounds on stage, if your instrument is competing for frequencies with another instrument in the band, the sound tech certainly will be forced to compromise between them in the main mix!

A good exercise is to listen to different bands and notice which tone combinations sound great to your ear. I always liked how John Paul Jones’ warm, full bass tone sounded together with Jimmy Page’s bright guitars. It is also interesting to listen to modern alternative rock styles where the bass has more upper midrange (and a more aggressive style) while the guitars have “scooped mids” (reduced midrange) to accommodate. Go back and listen to all your favorite songs and consider the way the engineer juggled all the tones and instruments to make them nestle together in the mix. Pretty soon you'll realize that it all starts with the musicians themselves not only playing parts that fit well together but also finding sounds that blend well and compliment one another in the sonic landscape.

By now it should be clear that you should expect your sound to change any time you set up in a different room, whenever that room itself changes (people in a room not only change the area of the space but also the absorption of various frequencies and they make a lot of noise that competes for sonic “seats” too), each time there is a change in the level or frequencies occupied by another instrument (yep, every time the bass player turns up your tone changes), when the other guitarist switches to a different channel, etc.

Instead of thinking of your amp producing a certain sound think of it as a tool to help you reproduce your preferred sound in a wide range of situations. Always consider how your amplifier tone sounds in the context of the overall mix and the current venue. Use your ears to recreate the tone you want under these new situations and stay alert for those times when too many instruments are wrestling for the same space. 

Once you master these concepts you’ll find it is much easier to get your guitar or bass to sound great with the equipment you have available. You'll be able to work with the tools of sound in much the same way that a great artist understands hues and colors regardless of the medium they are using. Teach these concepts to the other musicians in your band because sound is a team effort and having a great sound is just as important as writing great music, isn’t it?

Oh, and could somebody please get the bass player and the guitar player to flip a coin over that frequency slot in the upper midrange? Please???

Techie note, yes I know frequencies don't actually live in holes or sit in seats, but just imagine how much easier your job would be if bands seemed to believe they did?  -KG


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