Tag Archives: rehearsal

The Curious World of In-Ear Monitors

Stevie Wonder was one of the very first developers/users of IEMs. Photo Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

My band is taking the plunge into using in-ear monitors (IEMs) and without a doubt, the plunge metaphor is apt. It’s like teaching kids to swim. IEMs are both loved and less-than-loved by performing musicians. On the plus side, they can deliver a perfectly balanced sound mix, tailored to each player, while removing floor wedges and the ever-present threat of feedback. They also provide excellent hearing protection. On the minus side, they remove the three-dimensional feel that you get from walking around the amps on stage. Some performers say they lose the direct connection to the audience. Hence the swimming metaphor. For many musicians, the experience is like trying to hear underwater. It’s alien and isolating.

I Can’t Hear You

This is one of the most common complaints I hear from musicians not wearing IEMs in a rehearsal or live situation. It can be extremely difficult to focus in on different soundstreams from different amps and speakers, since sound tends to travel in straight lines. It can be doubly difficult when rehearsing or playing in a small space with hard walls, since sound also tends to reflect off those walls creating intersecting straight lines.

It’s a wonder anything gets done at all. And the reason why it does, more often than not, is everyone inches their volume outputs up, progressively over time, resulting in a huge wash of sound leading to temporary or even permanent hearing loss.

IEMs put an end to this by delivering a mix directly into your ears. With a decent mixer/soundboard, and all  instruments mic’d or DI’d, there is no longer a need to play amps loud. Singers do not have to strain to make themselves heard. Lead guitarists do not have to boost their volume for the solo and then…er….forget to turn back down again.

Don’t Forget the Ambience

To remove that feeling of isolation from the physical space around you, simply include a couple of ambient mics in the mix. These will pick up some of the room sound, including audience comments, and will add that sense of three dimensional space. This is just like adding reverb to a guitar signal. The human ear is accustomed to processing secondary audio signals such as room echo. It’s the normal way of hearing. So of course it’s vital to mix that in.

Make Sure They’re Comfortable and Correct

Me rehearsing with IEMs in.

IEMs are specially shaped to fit in the average person’s ear, and should also include a soft rubber cap that seals off the ear canal from external noise. You cannot – or should not – use earbud style headphones, because they do not seal out the external sound.

They should also be physically easy to wear and should stay in place. The wires should go around the back of your head and down the back of your shirt to avoid getting snagged on guitar straps or clothing. If you generally stand still to play, then the wire should basically run all the way back to the mixing board. If you like to move like Jagger, then you’ll definitely need a wireless pack. These can be expensive ($600-$1000), but if you’re not gigging every second night, consider renting one from your local music store.

The App: The Magic Touch

Another complaint musicians have about IEMs is the time it takes to get a personal mix from the sound tech. The tech has lots to do, and setting up individual balances for every musician, along with the house sound, recording and everything else can be time consuming and frustrating for everyone involved. Double so each time you want to tweak your personal mix because it’s not quite right.

This is the QSC Touchmix app. This stock photo does not show it, but each can can be labeled.

But hey, there’s an app for that. Many newer boards now come with a phone/iPad app that allows each musician the freedom to adjust her/his IEM balance as much and as often as needed. This to me is the magic sauce that makes it all so worth it. All the faders are labeled, and the settings will stay in place even when you turn off, pack up, and then set up for the next gig.

If You’re Pushing Back an Ear, Your Mix is Off

IEMs still take some getting used to. They are a different experience. But you can say the same thing about a lot of things. Multi-effects pedals in place of stompboxes, voice sweeteners and harmonizers, loopers, MIDI, shooting your performance with Periscope. These are all new things that once didn’t exist, and now they do. Once upon a time Bob Dylan switched from acoustic to electric. The Beatles got weirdy-beardy. Lady Gaga stopped showing up in an egg. Things change and most often for the better.

When I see someone who is new to the IEM experience playing with one earpiece hanging out so they can hear their own amp or voice better, I have to tell them, “Your mix isn’t right. You shouldn’t need to do that.” That’s like getting a car, putting it in gear, and then getting out and walking alongside it, because it’s the only way you can really feel the road. If you can’t hear yourself in your mix, then fix your mix. Don’t forget also that using IEMs in only one ear risks hearing damage as your brain starts sending its own confused signals as it tries to balance out a very uneven sound pattern.

The Proof is in Who Uses Them

My band is still getting used to them. Half the band (myself included) love them and want to stick with them. The other half still needs convincing. Ultimately I will ask any hesitant musician to take a look at their musical heroes. The odds are they are using them. Why? They have access to anything they need, yet they still choose to perform with IEMs. Though most of us don’t travel with a 6-person sound crew, the wireless, digital sophistication of soundboards and apps make IEMs accessible to all of us, which, I believe, benefits performers and audiences alike.

P.S. If you want to read a more detailed summary about IEMs, check out this article from Sound On Sound.

 

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The Physical Aspect of Rehearsal: Recognition versus Recall

This is my pedalboard. It’s not that complicated, but it’s complicated enough for me.

Fellow band members often ask me why I lug my pedal board and guitars to each band rehearsal. After all we’re just going through the tunes – we’re not playing a show. My answer is that rehearsal is not just about knowing a tune. It is also about knowing how to play it, and playing it demands full body muscle memory. More than once when playing live I have hit the wrong pedal and ended up with a fuzz tone when I meant for clean. Or I have mistimed my return to the mic for that next harmony.

Musicians of any age and stage must remember there are levels to the practice regimen. First, there’s practicing at home. Next, there’s rehearsing with a band. Then there’s actually playing a show. Then there’s playing a bigger show. Then there’s playing a big show with many other acts.

Every one of these demands something more and teaches you as much as it pulls from you. Here are just a few examples:

The Difference Between Recognition and Recall

If you have ever studied a second language, have you noticed it is easier to understand someone speak it than it is to speak it yourself, even if you’ve taken years of language classes? That’s because when you hear someone, your brain recognizes the sounds it has heard before and can deduce meaning from them. But when you try to speak it, you have to reach back into the vaults and pull words out manually. That’s an act of recall and it’s much harder.

The same thing applies when learning a tune. You play along with a song on Spotify no problem. It seems easy to learn because your mind is being cued along, even in microseconds. “Here’s where verse 2 starts.” “Here are the words to verse 3.” “Here’s the bridge.” It’s all there. Even a tune you haven’t heard in 20 years, you will likely be able to sing along with because the playback cues your memory and you recognize the pattern of words and notes in something just approaching real time.

You take that song to your rehearsal space and start practicing it with your people, and it’s easy to forget everything. I call it bandnesia. The total lostness of the song. “Wait,” you say, “is the solo after the second verse or the third one?” “How many times do we repeat that line?” You get frustrated, knowing you’ve practiced this tunes dozens of times with your headphones on. But the problem is, you’ve practiced recognizing it all those times. Now, with your bandmates, you now have to recall that tune, and so do your fellow musicians. And you must all recall it the same way. That’s what rehearsal is.

Then you get onstage. This is a different world. There’s the excitement of the crowd. There’s adrenalin rushing through your system. There are the distractions of lights, bigger sound, and the sheer awareness of being looked at. That’s a wonderful sensation, but it can really mess with your memory. I have seen musicians completely forget what note or fret to start a tune on when they’re up there under the lights. Total blank. It happens, and it’s nothing to be afraid of, but it is something to be aware of. Maybe write out the starting chord on your floor sheet, for example.

Each of these levels – practicing at home, practicing with the band, playing on stage, is 10 or even a 100 times more challenging than its predecessor. There are things that rehearsals just cannot prepare you for.

Muscle Memory is Different Than Mental Memory

That’s why I bring my full gear to rehearsal. Every single action, like hitting the right pedal, tuning up between songs, knowing that mysterious place in the universe that picks vanish into and most importantly, being fully aware of your physical self – how you move, how you smile, how you connect with your bandmates and your audience, how to smoothly switch guitars or change up settings – how to look up at the audience even during the difficult solos – all of these need to be memorized just as much as the words and the notes.

It’s a hassle bringing all that gear to rehearsal and spending valuable time setting it up and taking it down. But you watch a great live show and you can see just how well planned and practices every move, every line of banter, every spontaneous huddle and chat between the guitarist and the bass player in the middle of a song. And most importantly, the sharp start and impressive end to each tune.

If You Want to Be Spontaneous in Life, Plan to Be Spontaneous

Keith spits out his cig under a perfect keylight in Scorcese’s shine a light. He always knows what he looks like. See it on YouTube here.

Yes it’s a joke, but it’s not. Even Keith Richards, the loosest, shaggiest guitarist of all time, knows exactly where the best camera angles are, he knows how to coordinate his layered clothing style and how to sling that guitar really low. Spontaneous does not mean unrehearsed. It means it appears spontaneous to the audience, and that requires practice. It’s theater. Even Kurt Cobain did it. It just didn’t look like he did. Which is the whole point.

One can never over-rehearse, in my opinion, because the wild unpredictability of live performance will always deliver new challenges. But I have worked with many musicians who say, “We got this tune, let’s move on,” to which I always reply, “No you don’t.” Let’s do it again.

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Forming a Band? – Read a Business Book

This is a post about becoming successful as a band. It’s about music, so don’t let this next paragraph turn you off. In fact if it does turn you off, that’s likely part of your problem. So here goes.

There is a great book that you can find in the business section of any bookseller, online or otherwise. It’s called the E-Myth Revisited, and it’s by Michael Gerber. I recommend it constantly to clients and to my professional speaking audiences because of its simple premise: just because you are good at something doesn’t mean you’ll make a good entrepreneur. That’s the myth. That’s what the letter “E” stands for in the title: Entrepreneur.  To succeed in business, you have to have a triangle of talents: 1.) your subject matter expertise; 2.) your marketing ability; and 3.) your management ability.

In terms of being a musical act, your subject matter expertise means your ability to perform live, which is very different from simply being able to play your instrument. Marketing ability helps you locate new business, and management ability helps the business run. Most businesses fail because the entrepreneur only wants to focus on what he/she does best, leaving the other two sides of triangle unattended, at which point the business collapses.

It’s the same with bands. Many people form bands with the idea of jamming once per week and then hopefully getting a gig somewhere. There are a lot of talented, passionate musicians out there. But for the band to make it out of the basement, they must fit themselves inside the place where talent, chemistry and schedules overlaps. People have to be able to play, but they also have to get along in some form – be on the same mental page. And they need to be able to get together no less than once per week, in order to keep up the  momentum.

  • If you have talent and chemistry, you will likely have a great time jamming and experimenting in the basement, and for many that is certainly enough. It’s the sheer joy of playing music with kindred spirits. Nothing wrong with that, but it won’t get you many gigs.
  • If you have talent and a schedule for regular rehearsal, you will likely have a band for a while, but once new members pass through the honeymoon stage of “Wow! this is cool,” their true personalities will emerge. Just as with any team that is formed in the corporate world, the danger of things falling apart is high if the chemistry and sense of team is not omnipresent.
  • If you have interpersonal chemistry and an schedule that allows regular rehearsals, but the talent is not quite there, well, lots of practice is in order. Playing live onstage is a lot harder than jamming in the basement. Some musicians are indeed lucky to learn this by playing hundreds of gigs a year on the road, hardening up their skills under the lights. But for basement bands, it’s vital to use that valuable rehearsal time to rehearse as a band, rather than noodle around.

Once a band finds itself in the perfect center of this Venn diagram, it must then have a read of – or listen to – Mr. Gerber’s book to understand fully that industry they are operating in is called show-business, not show-play. A band is a business. It needs management and marketing just like any other entrepreneurial undertaking. That means boring stuff like budgets, contracts, bank accounts, insurance, punctuality, advertising, competitive analysis, pricing strategies and a business plan. That’s not so much fun, but there’s the rub. Without all of these items backing you up, the band will just fall back in on itself.

Have a look at these guys. Read up on them. From their earliest days back in NYC as Wicked Lester, Gene and Paul had a business plan to create a product. Not just play music, but create a product filled with marketing and branding excellence. Remember the KISS Army? This was a major step up from the fan clubs created for the Beatles and people like that.

You might not want to look and sound like KISS, but have a look at how they put on a show. It’s an experience. There are many other acts you could choose to study in place of KISS if you want. Alice Cooper and Meatloaf were part of the first rockers to put choreography into their acts, paving the way for people like Madonna and Lady Gaga. Garth Brooks, the Foo Fighters, and Taylor Swift are role models of a hugely satisfying, yet largely unadorned spectacle. They don’t wear kabuki makeup, but their energy and sheer strength of performance surpasses the songs’ own impact. Of course Mariah Cary, J-Lo and a host of others now fully understand the importance of visual amazingness in their concerts.

The point is, regardless of the ultimate goals of a band, whether it’s to play professional festivals like SXSW or simply a local pub, the odds of getting there increase when a business approach is used. Although most musicians say they play music in part to get away from the trappings of the business world, it cannot be denied that music is a business and performing it is a product. So alongside the biographies of your favorite music heroes, it might be a good idea to also have a copy of the E-Myth Revisited.

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God Made Me Funky: A Mighty, Singularly Excellent Sound

Publicity shot of God Made Me Funky from their website. Photo credit: Arthur Mola

Publicity shot of God Made Me Funky from their website. Photo credit: Arthur Mola

Walking through the crowded closed-off stretch of Toronto’s Queen Street East during the middle of the Beaches Jazz Festival tonight (July 26 2013), a few questions came to mind.

  1. Why do they call it the “Beaches Jazz Festival” when Toronto’s fine citizens voted just a couple of years ago to name this area of town “The Beach” and not “The Beaches,” even though the latter sounds better to me?
  2. Why also do they call it the “Beaches Jazz Festival” when so little jazz is actually played? Maybe I arrived on “Funk and Disco” night, because most of the dozen or more bands I saw were playing material that was definitely not jazz. It was good, it was energetic and the crowds were loving it, but it was not jazz.
  3. Who decided to post a band every half-a-block? Obviously someone not familiar with outdoor acoustics. Every street corner had a band pumping out high-energy music, not only to stir the relaxed crowd into movement – (even nodding heads in time with the music would do, people!), but also to drown  each other out, or risk being drowned out themselves.
  4. Who brings small dogs to a crowded street festival? They are way too small to be seen by people who are looking through the crowd for their next source of entertainment or food, and the poor little things must be frightened to death by the din of the music and so many legs.

Regardless, the festival was great, and the weather was perfect. The bands themselves were tight. As per usual, many of the musicians were busy reading their charts rather than making eye contact with their audience, so I must assume they were having fun, inside their cones of concentration.

As we headed back through the throng after having traversed the length of the festival’s six (or more?) blocks, we stopped at a crowded Starbucks for a coffee, and that’s when the magic happened. Because that’s where God Made Me Funky was playing.  GMMF is a Toronto-area band that does funk right, because they actually look like they are having fun. Here’s what amazed me about them:

  1. Their act was tight: the tunes they played were flawless. Like, Prince-level flawless. Pauses, time changes, call-and-answers, every note, every beat, every hand gesture and eye contact was spot on. These guys were not introspectively grooving to the tunes inside their heads; they were painting the audience with big fat brushes full of music. Just lathering it on.
  2. Their act was fun. Like Barenaked Ladies fun; Like Black Eyed Peas fun. They enjoyed playing and they enjoyed charging the audience with their power. Although they have probably played this show a thousand times, they looked like it was a thrill to be playing with each other, and that there was a real party going on.
  3. The whole band was in on it. Like Frank Zappa. Like Louis Prima’s band. Like Great Big Sea. It wasn’t just the front line singers making the moves. The rhythm section didn’t just stand back and drive the bus. They all worked the line. The musicians played wireless. They hopped to the foreground and rolled back again. They wove in and out. They played!
  4. Their sound was singular. Like Beatles singular. Most bands I hear, including my own, tend to sound like four or five musicians playing along to the same tune. But GMMF does what the Beatles and Prince do: they do not sound like “so many performers;” they play so tightly that it becomes one big, clearly beautiful sound. Perfectly balled up as a solid chunk of funk, everything clear – the vocals, the drums, everything where it should be, but all part of a bigger sound rather than just a band. Like the vocals of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison never sounded like three guys – they sounded like one really big unique thing.

Am I gushing? Well. just a little. I have been trying to get performers to understand this concept for years. A live band plays for its audience. It must deliver a package. Rehearsals are where the tightness comes from. It sucks in all the energy, so that it can be blown back into the crowd come performance time. People need to see a band having fun, and performers need to know how to perform, not just play.

I can understand now why GMMF plays so many dates. They are a live act that just keeps giving to its audience through well-honed professionalism combined with true Canadian charm. Check them out wherever you can. This is a link to their website. They might even make you funky.

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The Ancient Art of Weaving and Band Telepathy

Keith and Ron and the "Ancient Art of Weaving."

Keith and Ron and the “Ancient Art of Weaving.”

Whether you are a fan of the Rolling Stones or not, one of the most fascinating things about them is their guitar musicianship. When people talk about great guitarists in the worlds of rock, blues and R&B they often highlight virtuosos like Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughan, who admittedly can play clean and fast like no-one else; but Rolling Stones, as staffed by Keith Richards and Ron Wood (not the Mick Taylor or Brian Jones chapters), draws attention to another sort of expertise, that they themselves call the “fine art of weaving.” These two long-in-the-tooth players roll around the necks of their guitars like two figure skaters on a rink, each doing their own thing, but somehow fitting perfectly. If Keith goes up the neck, Ronnie goes to the far end, and the licks intertwine, as can be heard so well in tunes such as “Beast of Burden.”

It might seem relatively straightforward to do this, with blues-based rock lending itself so easily to lazy lengths of twelve-bars, but most bands do not do this. There is the rhythm guy and there is the lead guy.

The fine art of weaving is a craft that comes from years and years of endless live performance – something most musicians can only dream of, but it highlights the essential element of any successful live band, which is a form of telepathy, in which every member of the band knows what each other will do, and can, as a result, perform confidently. This confidence reflects in everyone’s performance, and then projects out into the audience.

Many bands perform in a woefully under-rehearsed state, having practiced the tunes a few times, but not having perfected the show. Each member is still just a musician, and the five or six of them have not yet fused as a group, and this shows.

On-stage telepathy comes from hours of rehearsal and live play. It comes from an attitude that a performance is more than just knowing the set list. Mick can hand off to Keith and Ron. Phil Collins handed off to Mike Rutherford. Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson both had absolute faith in their musician and dancers to never have to look over their shoulders once to know if all was unfolding as it should.

For the 99.9% of us musicians who aren’t in the full-time professional league, rehearsal time is scarce, and gig opportunities usually hard to come by. But it is essential to recognize that the ability to play one’s own piece of the tune is only a small fraction of the end product. If you are in a five-piece band, ten you are not one-fifth of that band. You are more like one-tenth. Because no matter how hard you practice at home, it is the “act” that counts equally if not more than the actual tune.

In my humble opinion, a rehearsal should run through at least one set from start to end exactly as it would be played on stage, including the prepared announcements and banter (if any). Only then will true telepathy start to develop.

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