The Room, Your Band Mate For Life
Dana Jae

   By Guest Blogger   Categories: Career AdviceGeneralLive Audio Show

Acoustics. You’ve maybe heard the word a few times in your life and if you’re an audio professional, then you hear it every day in every step you take.   How many musicians playing in bands in venues know what it means?

Most rehearsal studios and many small clubs (450 or less capacity) are some of the worst acoustic spaces imaginable.  Cube-like boxes such as these have horrible acoustic anomalies including hard surfaces and low ceilings coupled by a mix position for the sound engineer that is far away from the best place to do one’s job properly. Most amplified musicians simply “turn it up” to compensate. This only makes matters much, much worse.

Photo by Neff Conner

I’ll start with a brief chat about acoustics, and then offer some advice to those of you in bands, or have friends in bands, to show how one can work best with less-than-ideal acoustic situations. First, I’ll focus on generalized assessments of spaces, and explain how you can attune your hearing to a space to figure out how to make it better for yourself and your audience.

(very)Basic Intro to Acoustics

The science of acoustics deals with how sound waves physically behave in an enclosed space (a room). Enclosures trap the energy of sound. Just as your speakers are enclosures, so are rehearsal studios, nightclubs, concert halls, and even your car! The main thing that distinguishes them from one another is shape, size, and the design of the space with regard to absorptive or reflective materials (and combinations of each) found within them.

There are three components to the way sound behaves in a room:  direct sound, early reflections, and reverberant sound.  Direct sound reaches the listener’s ear first. Early reflections are sound waves that have interacted with a particular type of hard surface (walls, ceilings, floors) and bounce back to the listener’s ear adding to the direct sound.  Reverberation is a blending of multiple reflections that combine together bouncing off of the surfaces multiple times and become smaller while their timing diminishes making the sound waves indistinguishable from one another. Reverberant sound gives our brains information as to an approximation of the size of a given space the sound occurs in.  Add all of these factors together, and you can see how the room in which we hear sound has a direct influence on what we actually hear.

Raise your hand if you’ve gone into a large, cavernous space and clapped your hands a few times to hear the sound as it travels around the space reflecting back at you.  Who hasn’t hooted/honked their car horn while driving through a tunnel to hear the effect of the sound in that space.  Good times, right?  (Perhaps this is a uniquely American thing?)

So, we have some experience with acoustics, usually beginning at a fairly young age. Now it’s time to put these acoustics to work to make your music sound better in a given space!

Why are the rooms so bad? 

A square room is the worst shape for sound. The sound waves become trapped, ping-ponging back and forth between parallel walls, and there are additional problems associated with 90-degree angles.   Have you ever stood in a bare hallway and heard the “flutter-echoes” that occur when you speak?  (It’s a cool sound effect to record, by the way.) You can hear the repetitions of the sound waves pinging to and fro between the tightly enclosed space.

Now imagine the same phenomenon in a much larger square space. You don’t hear those flutter echoes anymore, but you do hear a “muddiness” of the sound due to the sound waves bouncing off of the surfaces and clashing into one another. This can cause resonant frequencies in the space.

What is a resonant frequency?

Put simply, a room resonates just like an organ pipe in a big church. In the full spectrum of audible frequencies, resonant frequencies are usually in the low end to lower midrange. High frequencies are shorter, disperse more quickly, and do not play a part in this room resonance. The term “muddying the sound” refers to the low-end room hum that your audience hears over your music unless it’s kept under proper control.

The room: Your new band mate

Think of the room as an extra unnecessary instrument in your band that takes up more space than all of you combined. (I have a brother that fits into that category in the family…but I digress.) Unfortunately, the room is the leader of the band and you can’t kick it out of the band, so you’re stuck having to work with it.  Many musicians who play acoustic-based music already understand the need to play better with that “third thumb” band mate.  Their instrumentation relies on using the acoustics of a space to their best advantage.

Photo by Steve Bowbrick

Here are some tips to make amplified music sound better in small clubs and similar spaces:

  • Note the size of the room and the stage area where you’ll play. Keep in mind that if the room is small, your overall volume should come down to better suit the space.
  • Notice what the walls are made of and whether there is any absorptive material on the walls, ceiling, or floor like curtains, baffles, or carpet. Take special note of what is covering the back wall behind you (on the stage). Has the club installed an absorptive curtain that cuts down on the reflections of the stage monitors and the backs of your amplifiers that also emit quite a bit of sound? If these surfaces are hard and reflective (glass, sheetrock, brick, tile, etc.), then you really need to maintain a lower volume level to sound your best both onstage and to your audience. (Perhaps now you’re beginning to understand why people closest to the stage complain that they can’t hear your vocals…)
  • Move your instrument amplifiers away from the back wall and if you can, put some type of baffling a foot or two behind them to diffuse the horrible reflections that will muddy up your sound.
  • This may sound crazy, but an excellent band investment is in a set of stage curtains (at least 15-feet wide and about 10-feet high) along with some stands to hold them up that you can place behind your band. You can use them in your rehearsal studio as well as bring them to clubs that haven’t properly attuned their live sound space for amplified music. This will make you sound SO MUCH better. These drapes can be expensive – so look for a used set from theaters that are going out of business or being renovated.
  • Here’s a good one to add to your next show flyer: “Hey, everyone! We’re playing at Club XY on Saturday night. Bring a friend – we’ll sound better!” Indeed, a room sounds exponentially better if more people show up to hear you. Why? A human body can be an excellent acoustic baffle as it soaks up the reflections of sound waves that are bouncing around. So, the more bodies you have at the show, the better the room “plays” with your band!
  • One theme you’ll notice woven throughout my audio blog posts concern loudness. If people are not yet turning out in the numbers you anticipated by the time you have to begin your set, don’t turn up. Do the opposite and turn down. Play a bit quieter so that the room plays better with you. The room plays worse when you turn up and the space is somewhat empty, so keep that in mind before you begin.
  • One last reminder about using a graphic equalizer, as this can help tremendously with room resonance (see my next post titled: PA for Pubs: EQ and Speaker Tips). You can notch out some of the frequencies that are causing trouble for your monitors and the house mix. I usually find that cutting some of the midrange between 400Hz and 630Hz by 3-6dBu helps clear up the muddy sound. So use that EQ to assist!

In short, remember that with amplified sound, the louder you play on stage, the louder your room will play. Don’t get drowned out by your least appealing band mate: the room!

Focal Press Books that include information on Acoustics:

Adapted from a blog post written by Dana Jae on RightRound.com Feb 2007; Blogged in Mavens of Media titled “The Room, Your Band Mate For Life” 2013

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