Phallic-Atomic Wall Art
That’s what I used to think, anyway. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate things like volume & tone… and dialing in a bit of control to the chaos. Recently the following open letter/plea to local & touring musicians was posted in a semi-private Facebook group for the bands that rock out at the Fallout Shelter. I asked permission to re-post, as it seems like a cool discussion starter. As a dude in a band, I’m always up for talking about such things. Permission was granted, and so we’ve arrived at:
PLEASE READ – An open letter to the bands in our musical community from Rick at the Fallout Shelter –
July 27, 2011:
The Fallout Shelter in Aliquippa is well into its fourth year of providing local bands in Beaver County with a venue where they can hone their skills, develop a following, and join a sincere and optimistic musical community. We are very proud of that. We also are committed to bringing excellent quality sound and professionalism to the music patrons who attend our shows. And we strive to help the bands that perform become more professional and polished as they gain experience in front of the crowds. With all of that in mind, I feel compelled to write this letter to everyone who has contributed so much to our journey.
Rock music is traditionally expected to be performed at loud volumes. Although we welcome all musical genres at the Shelter, we have tended to present rock, punk and metal acts more regularly. As such, volume frequently reaches levels that would severely damage the sensitive ears of small animals. So, the question becomes, can “loud” be too loud? Despite your inner rock god’s rabid denials, the truth is that, yes, it can be too loud. On more than a few occasions, I have witnessed young rock fans leave the Shelter shaking their heads and declaring that “it is too loud down there!” How can loud be too loud?
The Fallout Shelter ☢
As an old rock musician and former fine arts major who grew up in the 70’s listening to bands such as Zeppelin and the Who, let me offer my view on the matter: When the individual sounds of the instruments become too loud, they tend to meld together into what can essentially be described as a “mush” of sound emanating from the stage. As the on-stage musician, you no longer are providing the sustenance of musical nectar to the fans, but are instead dumping the digested excrement of the combined sounds upon them. Individual sounds are completely lost and thus, so are individual expression and critical accents of each musician which can significantly enhance the musical presentation. Some of you might argue that certain genres are intended to be presented as musical mush – and I cannot disagree because musical taste is indeed individual. But musical mush is not what we desire to showcase. The occasional unusual act that uses noise or volume for musical or artistic effect is welcome, but we do not wish to bombard our patrons with unnecessary volume. By beginning your performance at maximum volume, you lose nuance and dynamics, which eliminates your flexibility in making your performance so much more powerful. Being able to increase volume for that soaring lead, or for that key phrase, and using those skills, will make you better musicians and more polished performers. Dynamics is a natural emotional expression of the music, and its importance cannot be over-emphasized.
As a young bassist, I recall performing many times and falling into the same bad habit of turning up during performances – or leaning over to place my ear near my speaker so I can hear my bass. The sound was essentially blowing past my legs so I could not hear myself well enough. The temptation to turn up in such a case is inescapable. This problem can be solved by either asking the sound man to increase your instrument volume through the monitors, or by raising the speaker to be closer to your ear level. We provide one amp stand that leans back to direct the amp speaker to the performer for this purpose. We also intend to build crates to keep on stage which all amp speakers must be placed on to raise them up. Hopefully, this will solve some of the volume problems. We also provide a drum shield for those drummers who play very loudly. When our sound man asks you to use it, it is because he is trying to make you all, as a band, sound the best that you can. Please do not refuse to use it. Trust our sound man – he is working in a very small venue with a powerful sound system. If you maintain the volume that he requests, he will make you sound spectacular. Doing a sound check to establish an excellent level, and then turning up, just creates a cascade of each musician turning up, one after another, and destroys the effort that went into doing the sound check. When you turn up, he has to fight the instrument and drum volumes to bring vocals up to be heard and the result is often feedback and “mush” coming from the stage.
Please help us present the best local performances to your fans and experiment with volume for maximum effect, not just maximum levels. We will not continue to book bands at the Shelter who cannot realize that learning to use volume properly is as important as learning to master their instruments. Personally, I feel that such bands are either incapable of learning what it takes to perform meaningfully, or are simply fulfilling some narcissistic rock star fantasy.
Once again, thank you to all of the fine musicians and people who make the Shelter such a special venue. Let’s continue to work together to make it, and our bands, the best that they can be.
Ernie and one of the Berts...
You can pick up on the frustration in Rick’s message. I get it. There’s a good discussion already going if you’re part of the group. Rick, Randy, & everyone at the Fallout Shelter have always been really cool to us. The sound guys have been great… I’m absolutely terrible with names or I’d mention them here.
My focus/attention span has been crazy lately, so I think the best way to organize my thoughts on this is a completely random bulleted list.
- I used to want a wall of Marshall cabinets… I don’t anymore. In a stadium? Sure! But, the reality is that I play mostly bars… Bars that are small, and sometimes too small to host bands but do it anyway. Lately I have been digging using Erin’s little Fender Hot Rod Deluxe amp or Dave’s killer Egnater Rebel head with my 4×12 Mesa Boogie cabinet. (My Crate Power Block is oddly “OK” live, but absolutely terrible when being recorded.) Not only do we have to provide entertainment, but we have to carry our own crap in & out. An amp that’s a quarter of the size & has twice the balls of most other amps? It’s a win every time in my book. Try it out! (Especially if you’re playing a place downstairs like the Fallout Shelter or upstairs at the Smiling Moose.)
- Let the sound guy do his job. The sound guy at any given venue has been hired to make you sound good. Don’t piss him (or her) off. Don’t insist on turning your stage volume up until you hear the mix from the monitors, or go sit in the house yourself to hear the mix. Want to have the most rock n’ roll attitude in the room? Just play, and don’t give a crap what it sounds like.
- Suck it up. Shit happens. Monitors screech, cut out, blow up, sound like mud, or are entirely non-exsitant at times. There are still people sitting there waiting for you to play. Play! Don’t ask the sound guy to adjust a different level after every song. Once one or two songs in? No problem. All night long? Just deal with it.
- Use the drum shield. I think I’ve only ever played at one place where the drummer sits behind a shield. They asked, so we did it. I even put a sign on it that says something like “don’t tap on glass” that I think is still there. It gives the sound guy further control over the room… and the monitors. As long as you have a monitor in there for the drummer, it shouldn’t be a huge issue. It might feel & look weird, but if Dave Grohl can do it, you can do it.
Please don't feed the drummer.
That’s all that comes to mind right now. I’m sure there will be more. For their part, it looks like the Fallout Shelter is open to suggestions in improving their monitoring system & the overall sound for the room. I’d suggest some kind of acoustic wall tiles to keep already loud noises from reverberating, but that’s just me.
I’d like this to start a discussion about sound at smaller venues all around Pittsburgh, & well… everywhere. In the comments section below, post your thoughts!
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