Could I get just a little more monitor?

This article is a contribution from Tom Feller. In addition to performing with Feller & Hill, Tom is an experienced studio engineer and live audio reinforcement specialist. He was inspired to write following this past week running sound at Bean Blossom. Touring bands may be wise to heed his advice.

Tom Feller at Bean Blossom 2014 - photo by Steve Jackson“Could I get just a little more monitor?” is a phrase I’ve probably heard tens-of-thousands of times over the past 29 years. I started traveling as a professional sound man at age twelve in 1985 (yes I was twelve), alongside my grandfather, Tony Holt. He taught me valuable lessons about music and sound at a young age.

In 2008, I was asked to take over sound duties for the main stage at Bean Blossom, the oldest continuous and longest-running bluegrass festival in the world. I came in as Eddie Adcock was stepping down from the position. I had met Eddie and Martha on several occasions and still have nothing but respect for the years of hard work they have dedicated to Bean Blossom and bluegrass music. It was exciting for me to think of being a part of such a phenomena in the bluegrass world as Bean Blossom. I found out very quickly, putting in thirteen or fourteen hour days around Bean Blossom is not unusual. I have brought in many crew members over the years who decided it was too much for them and did not return. It takes a special kind of person to put in those hours, day in and day out.

The annual June show has been extended to ten days for 2014 and beyond. This means roughly one-hundred twenty plus hours of music, and nearly eighty bands, over the course of the ten day show. By now, you should be starting to see what I’m up against. No matter how much you love bluegrass, you become more like a zombie by the last few days of the show. With a packed schedule and an average of twelve hours a day, a sound engineer needs a minimal amount of curve balls and the cooperation of all the bands, in order to keep the show on time and running smoothly.

With a growing number of bands beginning to carry their own equipment and even sound engineers, I would like to make some unbiased points and observations about what I experienced at this years Bean Blossom. My intent is not to single any artist out, but to simply provide a service by pointing out a few simple things artists can do when they come to any show that will make things run more smoothly, and help to keep the show on time. Here are some points for all artists, amateur all the way up to the top touring acts to consider:

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Artists generally carry their own gear for a reason… consistency. I understand that. Some artists have great gear, but the greatest gear in the world is only as good as the person running it, and the amount of time they have to get it ready.

At Bean Blossom, we get five minutes in between sets. This is where an artist must determine, upon arrival, if it’s worth setting up all new microphones, cables, in-ear monitors – and yes, even a new sound board – for a forty-five minute show.

When I worked with Rhonda Vincent, we carried all of that gear. Many times Rhonda would, upon arrival at a venue, walk around, listen to the PA system and ask my advice on whether or not it warranted setting up the gear. Taking fifteen to twenty minutes to set up gear and sound check, when only five minutes are provided, may not be the best option, when you consider the other bands who are scheduled and waiting to play, the audience who paid to get in, or the sound crew, who have been there all day (with their supper break now cut short from setting up extra gear), and will likely not get done until 1:00 am, at this rate. Take a minute and listen. If the system is working well and the sound is good, maybe it makes sense to leave the gear in the bus and just play a good set and have fun.

If you bring and expect to use your own gear, bring EVERYTHING you need

Many times during the weekend, I was asked for cables, direct boxes, AC power cords, batteries, etc. It’s not that I mind providing these things, but it all affects keeping the show on time. If I have to stop the show and find these items for the artist, it can put the show behind.

I had a few groups bring their own microphones to use, but no stands. My stands were being used by the band before them. So, instead of preparing the new microphones on the stands ahead of time, we had to prepare them during the five minute break and still try to fit a sound check in. You guessed it, their set was late getting started, which put everyone after them behind. This is just not good planning. One of the groups who closed the show that night finished up at nearly 1:00 a.m., and were not a happy campers.

There are groups who do come prepared and things run much more smoothly. So… have a game-plan. If you wish to use your gear, arrive with plenty of time and get everything you can ready, and let the sound man know what’s going on before it’s time for you to go on stage, so he can prepare on his end. I found myself tracking bands down to find out what kind of setup they intended to use. This is very important when you have eight to ten bands per day.

If you carry your own digital sound board, use it to its potential

This applies to a couple of the bigger acts I witnessed at Bean Blossom. In this day and age of computers, a digital sound board is really a rugged device designed to process, mix, and pass sound. On a digital sound board, there exist many features of convenience. I know this because I use one at Bean Blossom. I can get it all dialed in, hit save, and it’s there, nearly perfect, every time I start a new band. I can then save the new band’s settings for later, so when they play their second set, everything is ready to go as soon as they hit the stage. It saves me so much time.

So, why would a band carry the same digital console everywhere they go, and still have to do a 15 minute sound check? I’m not sure. The only thing I can figure is that they’ve never taken the time to set up for a full-rehearsal/performance and save the settings. It provides at least a good starting point, because the input gain levels shouldn’t change that much, if any, from place to place. All the rest can be done on-the-fly. It just seems a bit redundant to me that anyone would want to take all that time and go through all that work, when it isn’t necessary. Work smarter, not harder, is what my Grandpa always told me when he was training me.

If you want 110 decibel (excessively loud) monitor levels, maybe you should consider in-ear monitors or carrying your own soundman

This is something I see all too often. At Bean Blossom, the main (house) speakers sit very close to the stage. This is by design and cannot efficiently be changed. This often fools artists into thinking that the monitors (speakers on stage) are not very loud. It is because the “house” speakers are very loud and they are hearing them very well. Some artists understand this, but it is often a battle for me to convince artists that the monitors are already very loud. Turning them up even louder causes numerous issues.

The biggest thing that most artists don’t seem to understand is that when the monitors are that loud, it affects the way the house speakers sound. The quality of the house speakers and mix is severely compromised with overtones and just plain bad quality. I once stood on stage with a decibel meter at Bean Blossom and recorded the monitors at 110 decibels, during a monitor-hungry group’s performance. I generally run the house speakers between 75 and 85, depending on the dynamics of the song/group. You can imagine the sound quality when the monitors are louder than the house. It’s not good. The same theory applies to an excessively loud bass amp on stage.

I can not recommend trying to get these kinds of volumes on stage, as it can cause permanent damage to your hearing. I can only recommend carrying in-ear monitors, as they will allow artists to hear better at lower volumes. The other alternative might be to carry your own soundman who is willing to run everything as loud as you want to hear it and will have no problem taking heat from the audience and the promotor. My secret to successful sound is knowing the capabilities of my system, and knowing what the promoter and the audience expects of me. So I must work within those parameters. This theory has worked well for me for the past 29 years as a bluegrass sound engineer.

Another example from the weekend was a headlining artist who sent his band out ahead of time for sound check. The band all wanted extremely loud monitors for themselves and even (somehow) louder monitors for their boss. Generally, it’s not a problem to get multiple levels up in the monitors (within reason). But when everyone wants to be the loudest, the sound quality, and in turn, the show is generally compromised. You would think that with me being a sound engineer and a musician, I would be really picky about sound and having it really loud when I’m on stage. This could be no further from the truth. Chris (Hill) and I have learned to work off the house speakers and use the minimal amount of stage volume, so that we can retain good quality in the house speakers for the audience who has paid to see us.

These are all just points I wanted to share, from my observation of all the groups at this years Bean Blossom. Many were brought to my attention as questions from audience members wondering why the groups were doing these things. So you see, it is not just me pointing these things out as an opinion. Other people, including paying audience members, are noticing them too.

I feel like up and coming groups, as well as seasoned artists can learn from this. Let me also add that Dwight Dillman and the Dillman family have a wonderful show, and that I cherish the time I spend at Bean Blossom as a trusted part a show with such strong tradition and musical heritage.