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Some friends formed a group. They sound really good at rehearsals, and they all are solid musicians.

The problem is that when they play for an audience, the live conditions change every time, sometimes suboptimal everything is what they are forced to work with. No monitoring, terrible acoustics, bad lighting, all that stuff.

This is reflected on their performance. They don't sound as good, they make mistakes. Most mistakes can be attributed to not being able to hear each other.

What can they do? How to prepare for bad monitoring conditions?

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"I think that's their weakness, they depend too much on each other for timing and cues." I disagree with this analysis. Independance in timing and cues is indicative of an inexperienced band. Expect every gig to be suboptimal. Many problems can be mitigated in some way, but listening to the rest of the band will always be crucial. – Marcks Thomas Jun 19 '14 at 14:20
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My argument is that you're tackling the problem from the wrong end. I'd argue not relying on other band members is a flaw rather than a skill. If communication is difficult, for instance due to a lack of monitors, the 'fix' (other than installing monitors) is to communicate better, not to communicate less. – Marcks Thomas Jun 19 '14 at 21:00
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Sounds like the practice space is too good. Rehearsal should partly be to prepare for gigs. If their gigs have bad PAs and/or monitors, the rehearsal space should be set up with bad monitoring also to replicate a live scenario. Also, the band should learn where the good PAs are and aren't and where the good sound engineers are and aren't and book shows accordingly. – Todd Wilcox Feb 18 at 13:39
    
@MarcksThomas Just want them to perform well under suboptimal monitoring conditions. Sometimes you can't communicate at all (no lighting, bad lighting, bad monitors, whatever), and the gig preparation is all you have to fall on. It's more about what to do when you can't communicate than it is about not communicating. – Archundia Feb 18 at 16:23

As part answer ( the rest later), the 'can't hear you' syndrome makes everyone turn up, and the listening is even more difficult. It should be possible - often is - for a band, just about any band, to be able to play without monitors. I've done without for a couple of years, at gigs up to 300 people, by keeping volumes down so everyone can actually hear. This tends to be drummer dependent, and some only last a couple of gigs !!Placement of speakers is paramount, so higher in the air is good. Not needed for bass, as it's not really directional, but not just behind the band between their legs.At rehearsals, it's worth setting up as they would on a gig, rather than the preferred 'in the round'. This will get them used to the difference in sound. Let's face it, some stages/ auditoria are not that good for bands, so you're not going to win every time.

Being able to see each other is an obvious solution, but on stage proper, it really looks naff if they keep looking at each other. A small nod should be enough, as in a jazz situation 'take over here'.Guitar necks work well as batons, as do vocalists hands. The drummer has perhaps the worst job, as everyone should have their back to him. It looks bad to keep turning round to look at him. Perhaps, if each number is prescribed and learnt properly from top to toe, there shouldn't be a problem anyway.

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Lots of eye contact and body language is essential to an improv band and also creates a stronger bond

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This. Body language and metacommunication. – András Hummer Jan 16 '15 at 16:54

Everyone play to the drummer.

This might sound obvious but it's a serious answer. I've played the worst venues all over europe and bad sound onstage is any touring musicians worst nightmare. What is true almost 100% of the time is that everyone can hear the drummer.

So, everyone tune to the drummer and trust that everyone else is doing the same and you'll be solid. This may require the drummer to audibly keep time with rimshots or hi-hat hits during non-drum parts, but this is a small price to pay.

Remember that what you hear onstage is nothing like what is FOH. So if you're all in time with the drummer, it'll sound good out there even if its horrific onstage.

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To add to Tim's excellent advice:

If you can, find time to make time for a soundcheck. Don't practice during that soundcheck, don't bitch about late arrivals or whatever, all that is for some other time.

Focus on who can hear what. Don't play whole songs, just a verse will do, then stop. Talk. Change what needs changing, then do it all again, until it's as good as it's going to get.

Whether you get five minutes or fifty, use every second to get the sound right. It makes a big difference.

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The live music industry is increasingly moving towards IEMs (in-ear monitors). With a bit of work, a good setup can be as cheap as having your own wedges, and it ensures that, as long as the mix is good, you have perfectly reproducable results no matter what the stage acoustics are like.

You may balk at the cost of some higher-end systems ($1000 for custom IEMs + $800 for a bodypack, and maybe $1500 more for a transmitter or base unit), but when I started experimenting with them, I was able to get a wired setup going for under $200 all said and done. This is a small investment for the kind of consistency and reliability they provide you.

If you want to go this route, look for something sold as a "personal monitor amplifier" rather than an IEM system - I got one along with a belt pack for just over $100 that sits under my pedalboard and takes a monitor signal from a 1/4" or XLR jack. Then all you need is to add a decent pair of universal fit IEM earbuds.

The main drawback is that you don't hear the room sound as well - a good sound engineer can compensate for this, and it's actually even common to set up mics specifically to get the room sound back in performers' ears.

Other advantages:

  • Less gear to lug (if you bring in your own wedges)
  • IEMs block out sound, so your monitors don't have to compete with your PA and you can keep lower, hearing-friendly levels
  • In many venues, each performer can have an entirely different mix without requiring a wedge per musician
  • You're not tied to a cone-shaped area in front of your wedge (of course this won't address any other tethering you've got going on, but it does give you more flexibility at least)

All that said, nothing, and I mean nothing, replaces a sound check. You still want them with IEMs.

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They MUST hear each other. If the sound system doesn't enable this, sort it out. Everyone playing quieter is often a good starting point. You know what you're playing. Listen to everyone else!

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You have to. Otherwise you can't function as a band. Two hints. (1) Your personal amps don't HAVE to be behind you, playing into the back of your knees. (2) The drummer doesn't HAVE to play that loud. – Laurence Payne Feb 18 at 15:25
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You can't change the venue's architecture. The venue and equipment have inherent, unavoidable limits. In small low budget venues (the conditions where most bands play) there's a lot of spill from the PA to the stage, where the "not playing loud" tip would not help. Suboptimal scenarios are not limited to low budget though, monitoring systems fail all the time even in the most expensive of events. The band should be able to clearly hear each other, but sometimes that's not possible, and "sorting it out" is out of the question. Sometimes you have to play under those conditions. – Archundia Feb 18 at 16:16
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All bands play in suboptimal monitoring conditions at some point, so evidently it is not impossible to play music in those conditions and there are ways to compensate. If your answer is "it's not possible", you are completely ignoring reality. – Archundia Feb 18 at 17:14
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Thankfully, haven't done that many bad sound gigs, but all you can do is NOT turn up louder to try to compensate, but just play as you did in rehearsal, smile, and wait to get paid! – Tim Feb 18 at 20:42
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Hi Laurence I don't know if you have a classical background, or perhaps just haven't played live a lot. However, having toured extensively for years playing everywhere from backwater dives to stadiums, i can tell you that the vast - vast - majority of the time, hearing all of your other band mates is a luxury. You are quite simply wrong with your insistence that you can't play if you can't hear each other. What makes a great band is going up every night and being awesome no matter what the onstage sound is like. You all should know your parts, you just gotta play them and trust your bandmates – Lyrical.me Feb 20 at 21:06

Include in your regular rehearsal schedule the practice of all songs without the vocals.

Seems that one of the most common and important issues is a little too much dependence in the vocalist(s). Instead of counting, some people build a dependence on the vocals as the cue to everything. This can lead to complete lack of counting, and the dependence gets stronger with each rehearsal.

This doesn't need to be intentional. Sometimes it's only until you have lost that reference that you notice how dependent you were. "I can't hear the vocals, I don't know which part of the song we are supposed to be playing". It's too late by then.

Including practice without vocals gets you back to the basics. It's important to pay the most attention to the counting, rather than building new cue references with other instruments. Knowing other instrument cues is very helpful, so don't ignore that new information, just don't go back to that dependence and give the priority to counting instead.

"Counting" doesn't need to be the literal acknowledgement of every beat and bar; it can be "play two times this, then three times that". Count with the abstraction level you feel comfortable with.

The intention is to build references around everything and nothing. Know the cues of every instrument (if any), and also be able to play without any reference at all. The goal is to be 100% certain of where you are in the song, regardless of the monitoring conditions.

I found that some people go beyond that and also practice every song by themselves, having counting as the only reference. This might come as a "you don't say" advice for some of us that commonly implement time in our practice and playing, but there are countless solid musicians out there that have never played with a metronome, or that never count in their heads. They just play, and it all comes out naturally. This advice is particularly useful for them.

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Most bands know where they are without hearing the vocals as most bands don't have good practice set-ups or PA's in some cases. – Dom Jun 19 '14 at 17:32
    
Interesting concept. Could that also apply to instrumentals, and lead breaks? The drummer SHOULD be helping by putting a significant break in at the end of , say a verse, or to move onto a middle eight. – Tim Jun 19 '14 at 17:33

Short answer: They are probably turning up too loud, or hitting drums too loud. Find the worst offender in the band, and call them out on it. Continue until the band is under control. If they don't have monitors, they all need to be quiet enough for the vocalist to hear him/herself. If there is no vocal monitor, rent one and use a y-split cable to feed it.

Rule of thumb: if you can't hear the words, you're playing too loud.

Long answer:

Professional touring bands eliminate this problem by hiring a skilled sound engineer, and including adequate monitoring equipment in their technical rider. I cannot stress enough how much you learn by hiring a competent tech staff and considering them members of your team. I strongly recommend this, but you may not be in a financial position to choose this option.

Small venues may not have technical staff, however, the stages are small, and you can manage monitoring easily my simply choosing good stage volumes, performing with an awareness of the environment, and aiming your amplifiers according to who needs to hear what. On any small stage, it is possible to attain a good balance of sound for all members by communicating with each other and remembering that you have not only volume and tone, but also aim at your disposal.

Any large concert venue will provide technical staff and while they are not familiar with your specific band, they are capable of providing what you need.

Learn your engineer's name and then:

  1. Communicate well with your engineer
  2. Ask for the correct things

You do not have a lot of time to sort this out, so make sure you have done all your prep work before you get on stage for line-check. Unpack and tune your instruments. Set up your amps. Place them off-stage, ready to use so they can be quickly moved onto stage and only need to be plugged in to AC power.

Everybody get on stage and stay on stage until line check is done. This is not the time to run to the bathroom or get refreshments. Do that during the previous band's set.

Each person in the band should take turns communicating with the sound engineer (through a microphone) what they need to hear more, or less of. Musicians without microphones should have a dedicated band member (say the lead singer) communicate on their behalf. The engineer will turn the sound up or down accordingly. As a general rule, only have the engineer include in the monitors things which you cannot hear. Including more will impede the band's ability to hear once things really get going.

When you think the monitors are balanced, everyone in the band should play a few notes together to ensure that everyone can hear when the band is in full swing. Typically, the singer will say a few words into the mic while this is happening, in case vocal monitoring is deficient.

Finally, start your performance! You will find that you may have over or underestimated how much of each thing is needed in monitors before you got warmed up and played a song.

After the first song, if there are serious issues with monitoring, simply ask the sound tech to assist by saying something like "Richard" ... you did learn his name, right?

"Richard, can you turn down the stage-right guitar in the drum monitor please? Thank you!"

If you're smart, you'll follow up by complimenting the sound-man on mic. "Give it up for Richard, who's doing an awesome job on sound."

Your mix always sounds better when that overworked tech feels appreciated, and your fans will love that even though you're superstars, you really appreciate the little people.

Most of all, relax. Play like you play at home. Don't get too caught up in the excitement. You know how to play the songs. Now play just like you do at rehearsal.

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The problem is that when they play for an audience, the live conditions change every time, sometimes sub-optimal everything is what they are forced to work with. No monitoring, terrible acoustics, all that stuff. [...]
This is reflected on their performance. They don't sound as good, they make mistakes. Most mistakes can be attributed to not being able to hear each other. I think that's their weakness, they depend too much on each other for timing and cues.

Are you sure you are looking for a band rather than a DJ? Without being able to work on a common sound, there is no "band".

There is a reason that popular music TV shows with single "live performances" of various groups are almost never actually "live" but playback: there is just not the time to do a soundcheck for every group and get their sound technician and PA in place and replaced between sets. If you have a folksy dressed group of 20 accordionists rushed to stage and back out again, more likely than not those accordions have been cleaned of their reed blocks in order to put less weight on the backs of the players. The good groups at least create their own playback tapes (and records) without reverting to studio players. Sitting down, of course.

At any rate, even if the band might rely on a venue PA, they need their own monitoring and mixing, under their own control (namely the same sound engineer). That's basic equipment and has a large impact on the sound identity of the band.

You would not expect a painter to work blindfolded, so you don't expect a musician to work deaf. If they don't have anything but instrument amplifiers, then you need a basic clue about arranging those and working the room acoustics into the setup, possibly putting up acoustic screens and other stuff.

However, doing that kind of stuff is not something you do 5 minutes before the gig. You need to work on that, with the whole band, a day in advance and plan for at least an hour of work (combined with final rehearsals) when you have all the possibly useful equipment there.

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Just want them to perform well under non-optimal monitoring conditions, that's all. – Archundia Feb 18 at 15:10

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