June 26, 2020

It’s no secret house sound engineers fight with guitarists about the volume of amps on stage, especially in small venues. It may even be a bit of a cliché to mention it. “Turn it down!” often becomes “I’ll turn it down for you!” and “I need it louder!” turns into “I’ll just sneak over here and turn this up…”

Whichever side you fall on, it turns out both sides have valid concerns, and everybody just wants to achieve the best sound possible. So, let’s look at how and why you might achieve a good balance with house sound, while still achieving the great tone you’re after.

The Can’t Hear Myself War

Here’s the crux of the situation on a stage, especially where a loud rock band and a small venue are concerned: Everyone has a need to hear themselves (and each other), but no one can!

This actually usually starts with the drums, which are almost always too loud for a room. We’ll tackle how to start at the bottom with this problem in another article, but suffice it to say, if you can tame your kit, the sound engineer/guitar feud will be easier to manage.

Focusing on the guitars, the major problem the sound engineer faces is guitars tend to overwhelm vocals, keys, and other similar elements very quickly. Since the P.A. is the only amplification these elements have, if the guitar amps defeat that, there’s no way to hear anything else in the room.

But The Tone!

The best way to handle that from a purely house audio standpoint is to eliminate the guitar amps, and put the guitars directly into the P.A. This means everyone on stage can get what they need in their monitors, and the house mix can be controlled.

Unfortunately, that can all but ruin the tone many guitarists seek, and that can destroy a band’s signature sound.

To make matters harder, most guitarists achieve their tone by “opening up” the tubes in their amps – by turning them up to eleven. In this scenario, when the engineer asks you to turn your amp down, it means changing the tone.

But in almost every venue outside of a big stage, this volume level will fill the room, blast the audience’s ears, and make a good mix impossible to achieve. Even amps that are completely absent from the P.A. mix can be overwhelming in many cases, which means if you turn up to eleven, you’ve just defined your sound as “guitars only, with a guy lip syncing to nothing at the front of the stage.”

If that’s not enough reason of why you might want to consider lowering your stage volume, consider a few other factors:

  • Your ears – Hearing loss can occur after only 2 hours of exposure to 80-85 dBs. A typical guitar cabinet can measure up to 115dB one meter from the speaker.
  • The singer – Maybe vocals aren’t your concern, but if your singer can’t hear, they’ll scream. If they scream, they’ll lose their voice, and your next gig may be cancelled.
  • The audience­ – In a small venue, guitar amps can overwhelm and hurt audience’s ears quickly, which may cause them to disengage.
  • Your band – If the guitars are too loud, the bass will turn up. The drums will play louder. The keyboardist will crank the volume. Eventually everything will sound distorted and no one will know who’s who.

Achieving The Balance

So, what’s the solution? You may not want to hear this – but turn it down. Fortunately, there are a number of ways you can reduce your overall volume without ruining your tone.

  • Elevate your amp – If your number one problem is hearing yourself, start by elevating your amp closer to ear level, or pointing it toward you.
  • Use a smaller or lower power cabinet or a preamp pedal– In many smaller venues, you can opt for a smaller cab such as our V112E extension cabinet, or use a preamp pedal like the Steve Vai VLD1 Legacy Drive.
  • Use an attenuator – Patching a power attenuator between the amp and speaker cabinet can also help reduce volume while maintaining tone.
  • Use an amp shield or baffle – If you’re not having problems hearing yourself, you can use a shield to reduce overall stage volume while maintaining your tone.
  • Point it back (or to the side) – Known as “backwashing” or “sidewashing”, pointing your cabinet toward the back or side wall may work to reduce in-your-face volume and help tame the sound engineer’s mix.
VLD1 Legacy Drive Preamp Pedal

It’s Possible

The encouraging thing is, it’s more than possible to achieve a best-of-both worlds, opened up, high quality guitar sound on stage, while still leaving room for the rest of the band and the sound engineer to help you put your best foot forward. For more discussion on the subject, check out How To Improve Your Live Shows By Reducing Your Stage Volume on this blog.

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