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Two questions in one here. Often when rehearsing or at gigs, I'm asked to turn up my volume "'Cos we can't hear you!" when the band is already quite loud. Very rarely will the others turn down to achieve a re-balance, where we'd be able to hear each other better anyway.

First question: Why does this happen?

Second: What can be done about the volume battle, as when I do turn up, it's not long until someone else goes even louder "'Cos I can't hear myself now!" My only solution so far: wear earplugs or go home...

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4 Answers

This is common for mainly two reasons:

  1. Most musicians are clueless about gain structures, electronics, and acoustics.
  2. It is easier to turn one knob up than every other knob down.

The solution:

Wear ear plugs, use in ears, or just live with it. Chances are you can't change these people. If you feel you can then try to reason when them.

The situation is very difficult though, specially if people share monitors.

About the best you can do is get in ears or at least individual wedges, each with individual mixing controls(See personal monitor mixes).

Personal monitor mixers are the way to go because it allows each person to adjust their own mix.

Most musicians do not have a good enough know that X, Y, and Z are too loud and they should play quieter.

Most of the time the bass player wants more bass, the guitarist more guitarist and the vocalists want more of their own vocals. The drummer is just beating the shit out of the drums as hard as he can anyways, regardless.

What makes a great band is when everyone plays together as one. If they can't hear you THEN it means they must all play quieter assuming you actually have a decent level of volume...

It only takes one person to screw up everything. If he is playing too loud each other person will not be able to hear themselves and play harder or turn up resulting in a cycle until it's just noise.

If your drummer is playing acoustic drums then it is damn near impossible to practice or even do small gigs if he doesn't realize how much he is hurting the music by playing to hard. Not only does it cause the problem you are having but also you lose dynamics.

If you can't talk to these guys about it and reason with them then best I can say is find a better band... cause it won't get any better and you'll probably just end up deaf(which only makes contributes to the problem).

If you like playing at a low volume and they don't then you are not compatible with them... therefore find a group of guys that you are compatible with and you'll have more fun. Not only will you be able to enjoy the music better you'll also progress better(you'll hear more of the music and less of the noise(distortion, room reflections, etc...). Since this happens exponentially, everyone will improve. (i.e., not only will you hear better everyone else will too)

Note that having less volume does lose some energy as obviously there is more energy in loud music. This is were having a proper setup comes into play. You can have some of the energy without the noise and deafening levels. (EQ is a big part of this. e.g., EQ the kick and snare so they don't contribute useless noise to the spectrum which will muddy it up making it harder to hear other instruments.

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Great answer, Archival. It reminded me of a vocalist who insisted his mic was never loud enough in 5/6 part harmonies. I got this sorted by upping HIS foldback mix, which made him pull back off his mic. Of course, the p.a. mix was adjusted so's everyone sounded right ! –  Tim Mar 25 '13 at 15:22
    
@tim good musicians should only have to hear the house mix to work off of. This gives the best overall sound. The soundman can't do it all and ultimately the musicians should know what type of sound they are after. For example, if the backup vocals have too much of their own vocal(because they "need it" to sing in harmony) then how can they ear the main vocals well enough to know they are blending properly? The sound man then has to get the mix right. Now the sound man has to ride the fader(s) all night because there will be no consistency due to everyone changing their volume level. –  Archival Mar 26 '13 at 9:10
    
In some cases, I would think musician may reasonably need to hear something other than the house mix. Suppose, for example, that two people are supposed to be playing in unison, but one of them is a little flat. If each player hears a mix in which his part is louder than the rest, the one who's playing flat would the only one for whom the loudest instrument in the mix would be playing flat, and would thus know that he was the one who needed to adjust. Otherwise, if both musicians hear the same mix, both might think the other was flat and do nothing, or... –  supercat Mar 26 '13 at 15:43
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Some types of audio effects induce an unavoidable delay between when the musician produces a sound and when it comes out the mix. If the audience hears sounds 100ms late, they're not going to notice, but a monitor mix which is delayed by 100ms would for many musicians be at best useless. They may be able to tune it out, but if that's going to be the case why bother with it. Better I'd think to have a zero-delay monitor mix, have a sound guy tell the musicians in rehearsal what they need to do for a good final mix, and have musicians perform so the monitor sounds like it did in rehearsal. –  supercat Mar 27 '13 at 16:13
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@supercat, Archival, please continue this discussion in Chat -- you can make your own room and reference it here. Comments are not for extended discussion. –  NReilingh Mar 27 '13 at 21:36
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Always ensure you have one of two things:

  • personal monitors (either wedges or in-ear)
  • your own amp (effectively a monitor)

And then make sure the house sound is projected from speakers in front of or to the side of you, so you don't hear them.

This also allows you to be as quiet as you want on stage.

I prefer a volume on stage that allows me to talk to the rest of the band without really having to shout, but as our audience will attest, we are a loud band. We just have very precise mixes in our wedges, eg I have 30% drums and synths, 50% my guitar and 20% vocals from my singer. Our lead singer has just drums, synths and a bit of his own vox. The bass player just has drums and bass.

This allows us to adjust our individual preferences without messing up each other's on-stage presence, while letting the sound engineer sort out our house sound.

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This idea takes things to a new level -DOWN - I think it's a great idea that the stage volume is low, and the whole lot gets sent to the audience via the p.a.It's going to take a lot of persuading to get everyone to play down on backline, and EVERYTHING needs to be DI-d, so actually only the vox needs to be in the foldback mix, unless the band is spread out on a wide stage.I don't think this is a practical solution without a great sound engineer (I used to do this job), as it's impossible to sort it out from behind the p.a.Great answer. –  Tim Apr 12 '13 at 18:30
    
In some venues it is impossible, yes, but we tend to work with very good sound engineers. We play most gigs almost entirely DI'ed. My new Line6 HD500 is a pretty good amp sim! –  Dr Mayhem Apr 12 '13 at 23:37
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In most cases the problem is the drummer. If he/she a hard hitter with a massive drum set, there will be little you can do. This problem got aggravated by the fact that most cheap to medium-level drum sets are optimized to be as loud as possible (regardless that they otherwise sound like crxxp). This is based on the myth that "loud sells better". The kid sits down in Guitar Center, bangs on the different sets and the loudest one makes him/her feel most like a rock star so that's what they buy. A few things to try

  1. Talk to the drummer. See if he/she can persuaded into working on technique, using swivel sticks, get a nice sounding but quieter set and just in general acknowledge the problem.
  2. Bring an SPL meter to practice. Agree on a "not to exceed" number and then stop and take a breather when you exceed it.
  3. Check out the guitar players set up: make sure it's not pointed at his/her ankles but his/her ears are the closest to the cone.
  4. Play around with setup. Every player should be closest to his own amp/instrument. During rehearsal circles work quite well since you can see each other and my moving in/out you can adjust a little the volume of the other guys.
  5. More gear is typically not the answer. I you need monitors (except vocals) during rehearsal your doing it wrong. A full fledged 3-piece system (mains PA, multiple monitors, backline amps) is really only required for large gigs (I'd say 500+ people). The added complexity typically does more harm than good.
  6. Try an acoustic rehearsal as a practice exercise. No amps allowed. You just have to figure out how to play together and make it sound good without using knobs.
  7. Have a discussion about ear plugs. Playing with ear plugs is like going to the Louvre in Paris and looking at the Mona Lisa with sun glasses on since some idiot turned up the lights too much. It just doesn't make sense.

It can be done. I'm currently privileged enough to play with a drummer who has a performance degree from Berklee and, yes, he can play VERY quietly and still groove. Being able to control your volume can get you a lot of gigs!!

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A nice experiment: in the rehearsal room, you will likely play in a circle with your amp behind you. Try for a change to place your amp in front of you, at the other end of the circle. That way you receive your own noise like normally your bandmates do, and from the good side of your ears: the front (our ears are designed to pick up most of the sound from the front). This experiment works for amplified instruments only of course. I can almost guarantee that most of the players will be in shock of how loud they actually play.

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