Can you do what you do quieter without losing quality?
One of the most annoying things to have to deal with when we moved from playing in clubs to playing more events was the request to turn down. I say it’s annoying because in almost every case, we had already gone to (what we thought were) great lengths to lower the volume level of our performance only to be ask to go even quieter.
In 2005, The Invincible Czars played our first guaranteed-pay gig for an holiday event at the Austin Boys and Girls Club in conjunction with a local dance troupe. It was the troupe’s show, we were just the music. When we went into sound check, we knew we’d need to be quieter than usual. As we set up and ran through the songs, the director of the troupe kept telling us that we were “way to loud”. We kept turning down. We reached the point that I could hear my strings resonating on my guitar louder than through my amp! I could hear Bill’s keys clicking louder than his actual notes! Tommy wound up playing that show with as many blankets and pillows as we could stuff in his kick drum as well as 3 socks on the beater of the pedal. He also pretty much didn’t hit any cymbals. I don’t know how we got through that show. The rumble of kids dancing and talking was louder than us. We were elevator-music quiet to ourselves.
That was a pretty extreme case. It wasn’t a great show in our opinions but… we were paid more for that one show than for any show prior and for just about any show for the following 3-5 years. We learned the value of being flexible that day.
Being told to turn down is a bummer. Regardless of how loudly you play, your music is meant to be heard a certain volume. Just as someone could argue against music that’s too loud, I think there’s a very valid argument against music that’s too quiet.
But how often to you ever get complaints about being too quiet?
I’m interested to hear more from others on this matter but it seems like the following are thoughts that go through everyone’s minds when requested to turn down complete with my commentary on each.
1. If it’s too loud, you’re too old!
Think about this for a second. As we age, we LOSE our hearing. When I’ve done shows where people over 65 years of age are present, they don’t complain about anything being too loud. If anything, young ears are more susceptible to high volume levels. Also, some ears just like loud music while others don’t and everyone’s definition of “loud” is different. We recently played a show that everyone told us sounded fantastic – but I know one person and her child left in a huff saying we were way too loud.
Regardless of your perspective from the stage, if your audience thinks you’re too loud and want to leave, you’ll soon be up there playing to no one… but at least you have your principles, right?
If it hurts my ears, I don’t care if it doesn’t hurt yours – I’m putting in the plugs and I’m not even that old! (wait… did I just write that?!)
2. We don’t sound good at low volumes.
If you make the kind of music that simply must be presented at high volume, that’s cool, and I certainly agree that volume level can create energy and tonal qualities not present at lower levels. However, if you’re so loud that people are leaving the room, you’re really shooting yourself in the foot because they’re not really experiencing your art.
Unless you’re volume is your art. That SEEMS to be the case with Jucifer if you see them live. We opened for them years ago in Ft. Worth. They were so loud, I had to leave the room. I had ear plugs in and knew what to expect. It wasn’t my ears that hurt, it was my stomach and chest that felt like I’d just been tackled! Their whole set just sounded like an exercise in loudness with no real focus on melody or songwriting. I was shocked later upon listening to their recordings, though. They do have actual songs with melodies and changes. I’m guessing they played those songs the night we listened to them from outside the club but I couldn’t tell. The vocals were inaudible underneath that wall of amps and though I could see what the drummer was doing, I couldn’t really hear his drums.
This is not to dis Jucifer. Hell, they know something I don’t – I don’t have any releases on Alternative Tentacles or Relapse and it was an awesome spectacle that night… but standing right in front of it literally hurt. And that’s their show – sheer volume is a big part of what they do and people who know/like them go into it knowing so.
Back to the point – most of us aren’t Jucifer. Sheer volume isn’t as much a part of the show for most bands as it is for them and no matter how loudly you play live, most of the time, people are going to experience your music in a recorded medium at a volume level of their choosing. Even in live situations, people can use earplugs that usually muffle everything they hear (so much for your amazing tone) or they can choose to experience your music from a more palatable distance – like the next room or county. If you can figure out how to make yourself sound good when loud AND when quiet, you’ll be way ahead of the game.
3. If they needed something quiet, why did they hire us in the first place?
This is an excellent and valid point, but saying this to someone who hired you to perform at their event won’t endear you to them. As I said in the last point — most people listen to music on recorded media (rather than live) at a volume of their choosing.
Many event coordinators have very little idea of the difference in volume made by a metal band, a hip hop act, a jazz band or by an acoustic singer songwriter. To them, it’s all the same volume on the radio and it doesn’t occur to them that it might be different live. When you’re too loud, they think that turning everything down is as simple as turning their stereo volume knob counter clockwise. They don’t understand that the sound man or a band performing with no PA system has no such magical knob. In many cases, talent buyers actually are knowledgeable but don’t have all the information on the event or space until the day of… “I didn’t know we were going to be in a concrete room with glass windows when we booked you guys.”
You can choose to throw a fit and not deal with these people or claim that your art will be ruined by having to turn down, but remember – they like what you do. They want to pay you money to do what you do, they just need it to fit into the constraints of their event. Again, this is a very valid point. I do think event coordinators need to know what they’re getting into. When they don’t, you can score points by making what you do work for their event – even if it means the drummer has 5 pillows in his kick drum, three socks on the beater of the pedal and no cymbals.
It’s not fun, though. Sometimes, it’s not possible to get quiet enough for them.
I experienced this a couple years ago at a HAAM Benefit Day. Invincible Czars/Sweetmeat played and provided a PA for a showcase at Phil’s Ice House A then unknown Not in the Face was on the bill. They rocked and I remembered enjoying their Mudhoney-esque tunes… but it took about half a song for the owners of the venue to come out and tell me (the defacto sound guy since I’d brought the PA) to turn it down or the whole night was over.
I didn’t have much control. The only thing going through the PA was a single vocal mic. I had to be the jerk to tell Not In The Face to turn down… and turn down more… and it’s still too loud… and could you drop the guitar just a little more? The drummer of the band seemed offended by the idea of hitting less hard when I suggested that. I was standing in the outdoor dining area sweating as the manager of Phil’s stood next to me telling me it had to be quieter – and I wasn’t even getting paid! Of course, I was receiving benefits from HAAM at the time and certainly didn’t (and still wouldn’t) want them to be poorly represented. Fortunately, for me, the whole thing ended within 20 minutes – and not because the cops showed up.
When Sweetmeat and the Czars got up to play, I could see why Not In the Face was so annoyed. The performance area was right by the street and the roar of traffic was tremendous. Only a guard rail separated the bands from the traffic on Burnet Road. Our speakers, however, were pointed AWAY from the street to an audience that didn’t hear quite the roar of traffic we did. So we were turning up just to hear ourselves. Pretty soon, we were nearly as loud as Not In The Face had been!
The owners of the place nor the folks at HAAM had any idea why this was happening. They probably still don’t. They’re not musicians. They’re not sound techs or architects. My job (and all the bands’ jobs) that day was to simply play some music that fit the very difficult requirements.
I think we all did okay.