IM again breaks new ground — this time with a discussion about amplification between a guitarist, a soundman and an amp manufacturer.
Amplification is a problem. As it becomes more sophisticated, so do the problems. Finding the answers depends on good communication between artists, sound men and the manufacturers.
International Musician set up and chaired a discussion about the state of amplification between John Verity, guitarist in Argent, Pete Eustace, Thin Lizzy's sound man and road manager, and Ben Mullet of Yamaha amplification. Our aim was to identify some of the more common problems that occur in amplification used on stage and to see how the manufacturers are thinking of improving equipment.
IM. John, do you have any particular amplification problems inside Argent?
JV. We can never really get our monitoring system right. We're quite a loud group on stage and for that reason we get quite a lot of howl out of the monitors.
IM. What sort of source amplification do you use?
JV. Well we use power stuff because we like being a loud band and it all seems to get louder instead of quieter everytime we change equipment. I was using Sound City SMF stuff which I changed and I'm trying out some Yamaha stuff which puts out about 300 watts.
IM. But isn't that very, very heavy source amplification?
JV. Not compared with Rod's, which is 700 watts. He uses bins and horns, a system that most people would use for a P.A. It means that we get a really great keyboard sound out of it but it gives us a great problem with monitors.
IM. So what P.A. do you carry?
JV. We use Martin stuff with a Midas desk. Before that we had an RSD desk.
IM. Is it that you haven't got enough power in the monitors or is it that you can't hear it, no matter how loud it's turned up?
JV. We can't work it out. We gradually got louder and louder monitors but it doesn't seem to help. Our problem was that when I first joined the band I didn't think the instrument sounds were good enough. I started making suggestions for changing equipment because everybody was basically using 4 x 12s, including keyboards. And they weren't handling the sound at all. So we tried this bin system which turned out to be a bit of a disastrous suggestion on my part because we get a great sound now but it's so loud. What happened was that we got a great sound on Rod's stuff.
This system is so efficient he can have the meters hardly moving and still be blasting. He used Phase Linear power amps, the 700s, and he uses a Soundcraft mixer into Martin bins. It's not just the volume, the bins are so efficient they're all you can hear. As a result Jim wasn't loud enough on bass so he got two Acoustic bins and four 4 x 12s and it just goes from there. Bob's a ridiculously loud drummer anyway and it's just all escalated.
IM. So there's a problem for you Ben, as a sound man yourself, as well as selling Yamaha amps, how would you solve this problem?
BM. Well there's one of two routes you can go. One is to try and reduce the new quality. This would start to improve monitoring. I'm well aware that there are psychological results of increased on-stage volume when you get this nice thrust in the rear that is very satisfying.
IM. So there's one answer John: turn down! How would you feel about that?
JV. Well I already have, I've made my contribution by changing back to combos. I used to use Twin Reverbs years ago and before that Fender Showmans.
IM. But you're still turning out hundreds of watts.
JV. Well you've got to get together with the whole band really because you get to the point where you can't hear them and where you can't hear yourself. A guitarist can only turn down so far because he loses sustain. You just get a clang which is O.K. for a lot of bands but not for us.
IM. What would you say to that Ben?
BM. Well it looks as if we're going to have to go the other route then. We'll have to find a way of boosting up the monitors somehow. Do your monitors feed back badly, is this the reason you can't get enough volume out of them?
JV. Well, we've found that if you get a good sound on the monitors you get feedback, if you use a middlely sound that you can hear, about half way through the set your ears have gone because it's so loud. I don't know what the solution is.
IM. Pete, you've got a system which avoids these problems, haven't you? What is the P.A. that you carry with Thin Lizzy?
PE. The basic system we use is 600 watts up front and we use two RSE monitor bins on stage. We skimp a lot there but in a way it pays dividends because the band doesn't get too loud because it can't. So the monitors don't have a problem.
IM. So have you experienced this monitoring problem at all?
PE. Well, monitoring is a general problem. It's not as bad as the problem John has, but it's a volume problem. We can't really get enough out of the monitors for any member of the band. So it's down to the vocalist just hearing his voice coming through the monitors. That just carries the voice and bass drum. The other two vocals come through the monitors but at a very low level.
BM. John made a very good point. When we asked him what the problem was, he said that a middlely biting sound comes through and he can hear it but his ears are ringing. This is the message that his ears are trying to tell him, that there is too much on stage.
IM. Would it make any difference to alter the mix in the monitoring system?
JV. We've always had a problem and I've had one for years and years, ever since I've been in a band — hearing yourself is always a problem. We've got four separate monitor mixers now, we've taken it about as far as we can go. Our old RSD desk is now our monitor desk. It's very strange. I'll be getting a really good monitor sound and then near the end of the set I move my mike stand and I blow it completely because it starts feeding back. It's far too critical.
I've got two monitor cabinets facing up at me, Rod's got about five because he moves about a lot and we've had to hire a special sound mixer just to mix the monitors, plus the guy who mixes our P.A. sound.
IM. Pete, do you ever get to the point of wishing the band would turn down to make your job of mixing easier?
PE. Only when we play small halls. I don't mind when we play big halls because I'm using a bigger P.A. system. I come out with my ears ringing in small places, I get a headache.
IM. To what extent can you turn the P.A. down without the band getting unhappy?
PE. I can't. I just go for the mix. I get the sound levels as right as I can. We do a soundcheck before very gig and they blast and I say, 'Right, that's got to go down and that's got to go down,' and so on.
IM. So it's actually getting on stage and getting the source amps turned down?
PE. Oh yeah. They're using very efficient Gauss drivers and Marshalls and they're working pretty well flat out and it just cuts, throws right down into the hall.
JV. Yes, that is a problem. Equipment is so much more efficient now. But from right in front of it, from where the player is standing, it doesn't sound that much different, it just carries so much more now than it used to do.
PE. It is the fact that you're using large drivers with metal or aluminium cones, whereas the old 4 x 12 won't go further than the third row. But if you use a JBL then the treble goes for miles.
JV. The bins are more efficient as well, like Rod's Martin bin. It's difficult to go backwards as well. It's easy to say things weren't as difficult when I was using my old 4x12, but I'm getting a great sound out of a bin now. But it's making monitoring more difficult.
IM. So you stand on stage today and the volume you're hearing now is much the same as it was 10 years ago, but the penetration is greater, you're slaughtering people who are midway down the hall. What's going to happen?
BM. We've had this problem for sometime now because our equipment has always thrown as much as anyone else's and this has been a problem. I've done some experiments and although it's early days yet, the most promising solution seems to be not to point the speakers at the audience, but to point them up at the instrument and get them a little closer to the instrument. If the instrument can hear the amplifier and get the near feed-back loop that it needs to sustain, then you might get over the problem.
JV. We create our own problems in a way. For visuals the best way to set the thing up is to have everything quite a way back whereas in the old days you used to stand right in front of the gear.
IM. So you're talking about a theatrical set really?
PE. Yes it's a prime thing when you set up, you consider sound and looks. I'd like to have the gear right back, but the band likes to have it a reasonable distance away. Most stages kind of trap the sound and hold it to a certain extent and by the time the sound has reached the front of the stage the actual beam is very narrow.
IM. Do you get into arguments with the band because you can hear one thing and they can hear another and you want to change something?
PE. We used to run up against that sort of thing very frequently. The bass player used to use a 371 Acoustic set-up and there is no way you can hear that on stage, you'll feel it more than you'll hear it, yet down the end of the hall it will be booming. Eventually we solved it by getting a 271 guitar amp and we're losing the bass amp because the bass amp just reproduced the bottom of the frequencies so much around 50 cycles you just can't hear it. He uses a Rickenbacker guitar, a 4001, and that's got a bass pick-up on it and he's got a stereo pick-up on it and he used an Acoustic for the bass pick-up and a Hi-Watt for the treble and I had to try and balance it on the graphic equaliser. We got hold of a 271 by accident and although it only goes as low as 80 cycles, it's got a beautiful mid-range control and you can really lift it and get a nice bass sound without it putting mud in your ear and you get good separation.
IM. Ben, do you get into arguments with the people you're mixing for?
BM. I take great pains not to get into arguments but in the talent contest sphere that I do it does get a little difficult. They're not usually arguments as much as differences of opinion and I always bow to the musician. He knows what he wants, I don't, and the problem is he can't hear it. For that reason he may fail in what he's trying to do but that's his problem. I'm really there to give him what he wants.
JV. I think anybody who's in a band would be lying if they said they didn't have words with their sound crew. Quite often the monitors will have been feeding back all night and you obviously get highly strung on stage so when you come off it's very easy to lose your temper. That's one of the things about being in a road crew, you've got to be able to take it and accept an apology for it later.
PE. That's very true!
JV. We don't mean it any way, it's just that state you get into on stage. You don't want to blame yourself and it's perhaps been your own fault — it's a whole subject in itself really.
IM. To return to the problem of monitoring — we haven't really found any solution, have we?
PE. Do you use a graphic equaliser on your monitors?
PE. How many bands is it?
JV. About five, that's all.
PE. I think you actually need 19 or 27 bands and really get into those frequencies that cause problems. We did a tour with Bachman Turner Overdrive and they were using Marshall Equipment Hire P.A. They had a Klark Teknik and a Uri equaliser and they were using wedges with 12" Gauss and JBL's and the sound from those was absolutely unbelievable. Led Zeppelin fly them wherever they go, Bad Company do the same, as do Deep Purple.
JV. I have had a satisfactory monitor system on stage. It was at the Electric Ballroom in Atlanta. We were using a Nick Cohn system and that was amazing. We had to use their P.A. there as it is a strange place and the first thing we said to the guy in the afternoon was 'Can you make sure the monitors are loud enough?' He said, 'Don't worry they'll be loud enough' and we didn't really believe him.
When we tested it through speech during the day we tested it to point of feedback and then turned down a bit as we usually do. We were a little late so we couldn't do as thorough a check as we would have liked. When we got on stage the monitors were so loud it was incredible! I went to the mike and I just couldn't believe it. The guy was placed in a great position just about eight feet away where he could see everybody and I had to get him to turn them down.
I don't know why they were so good, we didn't have a chance to get into it but I think he had a graphic on it and he'd got the feedback situation so well under control that at the point of feedback everything was almost flat out.
IM. So how's that for an answer Ben — Eq on the monitors?
BM. Yes, I think that's an obvious step. Another solution might be to use a frequency shifter. This can get another six to 12 decibels extra and that's a hell of a lot. It's the difference between running your 1,000 watt monitor system at 250 watts before it feeds and getting somewhere near full power. The problem is that you get sudden death feedback when it does feed. One can learn to live with that. I have experimented with frequency shifters on the road and I've found the main problem is that it's far too loud on stage.
IM. So what units would you suggest?
BM. Well, to be honest I used a Wireless World circuit. I'm sure that there are commercial units around but I haven't cased the market yet.
PE. There's one made by Surrey Electronics. It was developed by some scientists up in Cambridge.
IM. What's the theory of the thing?
PE. It shifts the sound spectrum by five Hz so the signal coming — the original source - is a different signal to the signal going out through the speakers.
BM. I would recommend that you used compressors and limiters in a system like this because when feedback does occur, it doesn't sort of ring and give you a warning of the onset. It just happens and you get a tremendous surge that could blow all the drivers. Or you could limit hard with a couple of clipping diodes back to back and hope for the best.
IM. Do you get any feedback problems on the main P.A.?
JV. We did but we've cured it now. We had a Fender-Rhodes and the only place we could put it was next to the P.A., we solved it by putting it somewhere else. The P.A. doesn't present the same problem as monitors because you can usually find out what it is that's causing the feedback.
IM. Do you get any problems with feedback on the main rig, Pete?
PE. No, it's only 600 watts and it's a very flat response P.A. We use Quad amps driving JBLs inside the actual power packs there are limiters and compressors. There's not much you can do wrong with that.
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