It hit me the other day; I played an outdoor gig with one amp at 30 watts un-mic’d and people 100 yards away said they could hear me with perfect clarity. (And I’ll leave it up to them as to whether ‘hearing me with perfect clarity’ was a good thing, or a very terrible thing. hehe) And 100 square yards of people sounds impressive, until you realize that there were very few people standing in between the stage and those sitting 100 yards away because that was the only place to sit. (What I mean is that there weren’t that many people there, even though it was a large area and I was wishing it were filled with Coldplay fans and that I was Coldplay.) But what hit me was that hearing yourself and being heard by others is not about loudness. I used to play with three amps, one at 100 watts, one at 30 watts, and one at 22 watts (never mind what in the world I was thinking), and I remember having trouble hearing myself. And I remember at the time thinking, ‘How in the world can I not hear 152 watts?’ And if you’re thinking, ‘Well, it’s probably just that the stupid sound guy had you turn your 152 watts down so much, they were probably only at 5 watts!’ Ya. No……that unfortunately wasn’t the case. They were all cranked. Because it’s a theological fact that people will not worship unless the guitar amp is cranked. (This is a joke……but if you not did read it as a joke, and were instead nodding your head in agreement, then……well, let’s just hope you weren’t.)
(Ya. As much as this makes me have to gasp a little for breath, and ‘The Hills were Alive with the Sound of Music’ just started playing within my heart, let’s not do this. And I’m not sure why Keith Urban is selling the two amps marked as ‘for sale’, but I am definitely buying them. He does have great tone…and he’s also one of the prettiest men I have ever seen. I mean that in an envious way, not a ‘longing for’ way. I’m really not sure why I say the things that I say.)
So let’s be absolutely honest here. It’s impossible not to hear 152 cranked guitar amp watts. You just can’t. So the only possible explanation if you can’t hear that, is that it must be psychological. See, the second most difficult thing in the world is to be objective about oneself. And the first most difficult thing in the world is to be objective about something one has created. Namely, in our case, our guitar sound. So whether you like it or not, there is an expectation of how our guitar will sound a split second before we hit each string. This expectation is in direct proportion to how much time, money, and effort has been spent on said guitar sound…as well as to how much we like ourselves. (So for me, that expectation is pretty high. No, not the effort thing; I like myself a lot.) In essence, our first impulse is to hear what we want to hear. Seriously, how hard is to admit that your new $3500 amp that you saved for four years for, sold your first guitar and 6 delay pedals to get, and drove 4 hours with petrol (you gotta forgive me…I have this perpetual desire to be British) you didn’t have, to go pick it up, actually sounds bad. Especially if you know you cannot resell it for the $3500 you’re into it for. We have an expectation of the sound that’s going to happen before we ever play it.
And it’s this expectation that causes us not to be able to hear ourselves. Why? Well, very simply, ‘hearing’ is your ear drums reacting to air moving at certain frequencies. And there are no frequencies an electric guitar puts out that the human ear cannot hear. So the only possible explanation for not being able to hear 152 watts is that we cannot psychologically bring our brains to realize that the distorted mush dying in the sound of the rest of the band, is in fact, our tone. See the point is not volume. It’s the volume of the frequencies that will both be pleasing to the ears and that will cut properly through a band mix, the strength and weight of those frequencies, and making sure that actual air is moving.
The guitar is a mids-heavy instrument. EQ it as such. You need to have a strong presence in both the high mids and the low mids, and not a ton of bass. And for the love of everything that’s good in this world, roll your treble back. That’s usually the first thing people do when they start to think about how they fit in the mix, is to think, ‘Okay, then I’ll be higher than everybody else.’ And yes, this is a sure-fire way to make sure you are heard. It’s also a sure-fire way to make people wish they couldn’t. Now, I’m not talking about rolling up your mids…that gets to be too much, as the guitar is mid heavy already. I’m talking about finding gear that is voiced well…with good presence in the mids. Then you can roll down on bass a bit, up on mids a bit, and slightly up on treble a bit. Usually this is the best homebase starting point towards keeping a presence in the mids on most guitar amps. Every piece of gear is different, so you’ll have to do a lot of on the spot eq’ing when you’re in a band situation.
The low mids thing is to make sure the guitar keeps its warmth, and its ability to sit in the mix. Another tendency of guitarists is to do so well at making their guitar stand out in the mix, that it 1) no longer blends with the band in the times when they’re not solo’ing and actually want it to blend, and 2) loses warmth when drive pedals are turned on. The low mids allow the guitar to once again be warm when you’re stacking drive pedals for solos, and to be able to sit back in the mix when necessary, but still be heard. No low mids and too many high mids are the reason sometimes for going, ‘I can’t hear the guitar until it solos.’ You want to hear the guitar blended with the rest of the band, and then you want it to maintain warmth, even when it’s searing in a solo. Your solo boosting pedals are to add gain and volume, not necessarily treble.
Secondly, make sure your pedal chain and cables are not killing all your mids. Lots of pedals and cable length tend to add flabby bass. And too many buffers tend to add harsh treble. If you go the buffer route, make sure there’s either one at the beginning of your chain, or two…with one also at the end of your chain. I highly suggest going the bypass looper route, as to my ears it keeps the tone as natural (untouched) as possible.
(This has absolutely nothing to do with anything. Except to keep the people happy that come here just for the pictures. This is for you guys! The coolest thing about this picture is that you know it wasn’t doctored, because anyone with the same computer skills that wrote the wording ‘Balcony Fail’ in this picture, quite obviously does not have the skills to have photoshop’d it. And no, it wasn’t me who wrote that. Although, to be fair, it definitely does look like something I would do…and then subsequently be very proud of.)
And thirdly, you want to get pedals that let your now wonderfully middy, cutting through the mix, blended tone, through. So many times I hear guitarists with this beautiful clean tone, and then one delay pedal or drive pedal or trem pedal gets turned on, and they’re gone in the mix. Make sure each pedal keeps your tone intact first, and then adds the effect as an aside, so to speak. Doesn’t mean the effect can’t be pronounced, but there’s nothing worse than spending countless time, money, and effort and getting the perfect tone, and then ruining it with one little pedal.
Your tone must have weight. Absolutely must. If you’ve got 15 different instruments in the band (I’m listing all the cymbals and drums as one intsrument each) all pushing for their place in the harmonic spectrum, the weaker sounds, although eq’d properly to their portion of the harmonic spectrum, are not going to be heard. And turning them up only makes a louder weak sound, if that makes any sense. Sound is moving air. And it needs to move it strongly. With weight. All I can describe it as is sounding ‘real.’ Put it this way. Play a note on a grand piano, fully open. Then play the same note, at the same volume, in the same octave, on a keyboard through an amp. When you listen to them separately, you can set them to the same volume. Maybe even turn the keyboard up louder than the piano. But play them at the same time, and you’re going to ‘hear’ the piano more. Its weight and presence in the harmonic spectrum, is going to make the keyboard fall flat. Same with guitar tone. You have to process the sound in a way that lets it maintain its weight, and then you have to actually move the air.
The best way to process your sound is to process it as little as possible. Meaning, first create the integrity of your guitar signal acoustically, and then maintain that integrity. So good wood, good picks, good strings. Get a good acoustic sound. Then get hot and open sounding pickups that have great dynamic range and responsiveness to pick up and reproduce that acoustic sound as accurately as possible. And then……this is important……more important to me than most people are (and that’s bad…but hopefully it conveys the gravity of the situation…man, I’m a tone jerk), then…tubes. You’ve got to use tubes to keep the integrity you just created. As it matters to the weight of the sound, it can all be explained in a simple experiment. Bring a 100 watt solid state amp and a 5 watt tube amp to your next rehearsal. Run them both out of an ab box and switch between the two. I guarantee that the tube amp will be ‘heard’ more. It might not be louder, but in the band mix, it will fill the room more. More weight. I used to pull my hair out because the other guitarist at my church would always cut me completely out of the mix with his 40 watt Fender Bandmaster at 3, even though I had my 120 watt Crate at 8. Technically, mine was louder. But through this incredibly loud guitar noise, came this beautiful, weighty, real air moving at real frequencies, that just made my noise pale.
And of course, again, don’t let your pedals take away that weight and presence in your tone. Don’t get ones that digitize our dry signal too much, or ones where the effect takes over and thins out your overall sound. I see so many guitarists with spectacular rigs and pedals that kill them.
And after your guitar and tubes…you have got to push those speakers. The speakers are what’s bringing your signal back to the real acoustic realm of moving air. I think I mentioned in my last post (I tend to confess way too much on this blog…honesty bordering on stupidity) that I once ran 30 watts into 6, 75-watt speakers. And the tone was so incredibly weak. The speakers are what’s pushing the air; if they’re not working hard enough, air is not getting pushed properly. You have to make those speakers work for you! Get speakers that are as close to your amp’s wattage rating as possible. They have to push the air; and to do that, they need to be pushed. Also, get ones that when pushed, give off a full tonal spectrum, and get good wood in the cab so it will resonate those speakers well. I can’t tell how many soundguys have mentioned how tripped out they are that they can get such a range from my guitar and get it to fill the room, since I put in a Celestion Blue, and got a well-designed cab with good wood. And I guess that can sound prideful…but in reality, I’d like for the soundguys to be telling me that the riff I just played was the most dream-like and melodic one they’d ever heard and they were brought to instant girl-tears. But all they are saying is, ‘Hey, good job on buying that cab.’ Yep. Humbling. But good tone is very important.
(I didn’t mean this to be funny. I was searching for pictures of rigs with ‘fat tone’ and this came up–‘Fat Tone’ professing that he is, in fact, the streets. And I think…that this is really an album cover. It’s sad enough that we even have to wonder whether something like this is real…but then to find out that it actually is…seriously, what is ‘Rapbay’?)
That is tonal efficiency. Being able to be heard more, be heard better, sound fuller, sit in the mix better, punch through the mix at those certain spots with more warmth, all done better with 10 watts than most players can do with 50. Or, in my case, with 15 or 30 watts than 152. Oh, those were dark days. Remember, next time you can’t hear yourself in the band mix, to seriously listen for that gross wall of mush that you think is just the soundguy’s poor mixing skills, and see if it’s actually your guitar sound. We hear what we want to hear. I’m not sure that can be fixed. (Especially for people like me who like themselves so very much. And I liked myself a lot at 152 watts. I thought my three amps at 152 flabby watts were so unique and original, and that if only Edge could hear me, he’d immediately sell his Vox’s and buy any number of amps that would add up to the magic of 152. I was wrong.) So let’s make our guitar tone, in reality, what we want to hear.