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The Sound Out There

The following is a guest post by New York City bass player Chris Tarry.

If you put me in a room, say 14 x 10, give me an amp, a bass, and few minutes alone, I can come up with a pretty good bass sound. There’s control to be found in small places. It’s how we usually test our gear, in a confined space; studios, bedrooms, garages, and music stores. We’re in control and as bass players, that’s a good thing. The problems begin when we step onstage.

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced over my career as a professional bass player is the struggle between my bass sound onstage, and the bass sound often rumpling from a house P.A. I play all kinds of music, but often I find myself on a quiet gig in a large venue, strapped to the misguided intentions of a rock & roll soundman; the kick drum and bass rattling the venue’s rafters in a kind of subterranean frenzy, my on-stage amp fighting to be heard and losing horribly.

It’s not just quiet gigs where this becomes a problem. Loud gigs that require accuracy of tone, precision of fingers, funkiness of line, are also at risk from an overzealous bottom-end-loving soundman. It can affect the way we touch our bass, infringe on our confidence, and make us second-guess our musical choices in a given moment. When I hear more bass coming from the audience that from behind me, I’m easily confused.

There’s a few ways I’ve tried to remedy this over the years. I’ve tied turning my amp up, which, inevitably results in a call from the soundman to turn down my stage volume. I’ve been immature and unplugged my line to the soundboard—I don’t recommend this, soundmen aren’t fun when they’re angry. I’ve tried turning down my amp in hopes of someone else in the band noticing, because there’s power in numbers. Alas, it is hard to compete with boom-shaking rafters. Shaking rafters feel good to anyone not holding a bass.

What has worked is to be direct. I often talk to the soundman beforehand, tell him how I enjoy hearing more bass on stage than from the front-of-the-house. They’re usually very receptive and often talk at length on the acoustic properties of bass in their venue. I sit, listen patiently, and try not to let my eyes glass over. Sometimes soundmen like to put bass in the onstage monitors. This is a no-no (unless you’re playing in an airline hanger), I often check to make sure this hasn’t happened.

When all else fails I cut the low end on my amp and try to blend what I hear coming from the audience with my amp and where I’m standing onstage. Another trick I’ll use is preparatory. At home in my studio I’ll practice playing with an unsatisfactory bass sound (either two bass-heavy or two much high-end), in order to train myself to play through the sound, to be confident in a stage mix I’m not happy with. In the end, I can’t stand in the audience and play (oh how I miss my eighties wireless setup), so I have to default to the soundman and hope they have everything sounding good.

One of the most effective ways to combat the Boomies can be to raise your amp off the stage, though this can sometimes cause a “too-much-information-moment”, pointing out inadequacies in our playing; when an amp is pointed at the back of my legs, I somehow sound better. Short of all of it, in-ear monitors, if your band uses them, can be an excellent investment. But even in-ear monitors lack that kind of ass-shaking-awesomeness that comes from an amp and me alone together in a room.

It’s a shame. We spend all this money and time picking out the perfect amp, the right bass and strings. We buy pedal boards, and cabinets that stack to the size of refrigerators, and in the end, the bass sound is often out of our control. But as professionals we must look past all of it. Our job is to make the artist we’re supporting feel supported regardless of our own issues. I find when I can do that, when I can put the Boomies at bay and keep smiling, that’s when the music really shines.

Chris Tarry is one of the busiest bass players in New York City, and the owner of christarrylessons.com, an interactive video bass learning site. Connect with Chris on Google+, Facebook, and Twitter.

2 thoughts on “The Sound Out There

  1. Years of touring have taught me that crew members are band members as well. Everyone is part of the team that makes the show happen. I make it my business to cultivate friendships with the guys doing FOH, monitors, stage tech, everybody. A group effort that is built on mutual respect for each other’s needs will result in everyone being happy, and thus better shows. Now: obviously we don’t always have this luxury, and we’ve all done “one-offs” in clubs where the sound is being handled by strangers who seem to almost be working against you. But even then, I’ll ask FOH what he needs and allow him sort it out to the best of his ability. I know that my gear sounds good and I’m playing my ass off; anything beyond that is ultimately out of my control, and I’ve learned that it’s best to let go for the sake of the music (and my own mental health).

  2. John, absolutely, FOH are part of the band, especially when on tour. I was referring more to the on-offs you mention, those times when FOH seems to be working against you in every possible way. I see it a lot at jazz festivals where the promoter has hired the local sound company to cover FOH at the main venue (see: usually huge tent in a field). All excellent points and stuff to keep in mind on any gig, I think.

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