If you make your production fit a small venue, it will fit anywhere.
The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.
A while ago, I was a participant on Harmony Central’s live-sound forums. On those forums, a few people emerged as authoritative, experienced professionals who could be counted on as voices of reason. One of those people was W. M. Hellinger. Besides being the proprietor of audiopile.net (one of my favorite places to shop for audio cable), he was a regular dispenser of plain-old, hard-won, good sense. In my recollection, Mr. Hellinger could almost always be counted on to provide some gem of “in-the-trenches” wisdom, often related as an anecdote or amusing metaphor. One of his most memorable was offered in a thread regarding methods for working with a loud drummer:
“…if you’re having problems trying to stuff an elephant down a gardenhose, then either the elephant is too large or the garden hose is too small or maybe elephants were never meant to be stuffed down garden hoses, and it’s time to re-think the project.” Full context available here.
Poetry. Audio-cowboy poetry, but poetry just the same.
…and, like many other great metaphors, there’s a lot of meaning packed into it.
Elephants Are Hard To Compact
On several occasions, I’ve encountered acts with what I’ve come to call “Warped Tour-itis.” I don’t have anything against Warped Tour, or the bands that play on it, but I swear that the groups I’ve had the most struggles with would fit into the event perfectly. These are the bands that are trying to fit an auditorium or shed show into an enclosed place that seats 200 people or fewer.
Their show was built to be the size of an elephant (in one way or another), and when faced with a “garden hose” of a venue, there’s no way to downscale. They just try to get through by force of will.
Now, sure, their physical setup might fit, but what usually doesn’t fit is the volume.
- The drummer hits as hard as he possibly can. Especially the cymbals. All the time. His snare sounds like a firearm. (I’m not joking. One of these guys once smacked his snare while standing behind me, and I swear that it sounded like he had discharged a pistol.) It’s all about “being intense” and having “great energy” – which would be super fun if it didn’t hurt to be in the room with the guy.
- The guitar players have all-tube heads, which sport big wattage. Those heads are connected to either a half or full-stack of cabs, and the rigs “just don’t sound right” if dialed back to anything less than “crushing.” Of course, if they could dial their amps back, they’d just get run over by the drummer. Even so, they want a lot of their rig in the their monitor wedge. And a lot of the other guitar player. And a lot of kick and snare, because they can’t hear the drums anymore. Plus some bass.
- The bass player has at least one 8×10, powered by a massive head. It’s Ampeg, of course. The head is vintage, vintage being a synonym for “runs hot and weighs as much as the trailer it rides in.” The amount of energy produced by the bass stack is formidable. The bottom octave is felt as much as heard. Whatever subs are available to the PA, they’re overmatched by 6-10 dB.
- The vocalist has to do the “scream” thing. There is literally no other option, except for when the guitarists have switched to their clean channel. At any other time, vocal-chord threatening volume is required.
Anyway, you get the point.
The band would sound great if they were in an open-air venue, and the average listener was a minimum of 50 feet from the barricade. In a small space, though, the results are uncomfortable. Or downright deafening.
…and the thing is, the “elephant” can’t be compacted.
The drummer’s kit is built specifically to be a certain volume. He can’t switch for a quieter snare, for instance, because he only has the “holy grail” snare that he poured all his money into. His muscle-memory is built around playing at full tilt, with sticks of a certain weight. It’s almost impossible for him to “turn down.”
The guitar rigs, in the same way, are built to get a certain tone at a certain level. In all likelihood, the guitarists invested all their setup money into those stacks. They have no alternative but to use them, and even with master volume controls onboard, they have to keep up with the (essentially fixed volume) drummer.
It’s the same for the bass player, because he has to keep up with the guitars, and it’s not as though the vocalist can scream at a “front-parlor appropriate” volume.
The elephant simply can not be scaled down to fit the garden hose – not at a moment’s notice, anyway.
The faulty logic in play is “if we create a show that works at large scale, then we’re ready for anything.” This seems reasonable, but it’s actually incorrect. It’s a forgivable mistake, because I’m fairly sure that all of us in live-music have made it. We assume that the band is the vehicle that carries the show, and a huge vehicle can carry any size of show. The truth is that the show (or, more correctly, the show’s context) is the vehicle for the band, and a band that’s too “large” will overwhelm the vehicle.
So – what to do?
Elephants Are Remarkably Easy To Expand
If the situation really is that you have to fit into a variety of garden hoses, then the solution is simple:
Make the elephant small enough to fit through the smallest hose you’re going to encounter.
If your show can run comfortably in a small club, then a competent crew can scale that show up to auditorium or shed-gig size when it comes time. When you get invited to that big show, the show itself will have the resources necessary to make the act big enough to fll a much larger garden hose.
If you’ve invested your time and money into a drumkit and play style that works nicely in a small club, you can be mic’ed up and reinforced for pretty much any number of people. When it’s time to play in a tiny room again, all you have to do is what you’ve always done.
If you’ve invested in a guitar or bass rig that sounds great at small-venue volume, then you’ll sound just as great when the amp gets sent through a PA sized appropriately for the show. (I’m not kidding. One of the biggest, most raging-awesome “PanterrrrRRRRAAAAAA!” guitar tones I’ve ever heard was the result of micing a Roland cube. I’ve had lunch boxes bigger than that thing.)
If your show is exciting, and yet manageable in a space the size of a postage stamp, then there won’t be any insurmountable issues to be found in making it happen on a huge stage. Sure, you might not take advantage of the whole area all at once, but that’s not what actually makes shows great.
The bottom line is that show production – audio, lighting, staging, logistics, whatever – is primarily an additive activity. Making things larger than life is pretty much what all the technology is built around, because that’s how the laws of physics work. Subtractive techniques are few in number and difficult to implement.
Small elephants fit down small garden hoses, and when you’re just starting out, the small hoses are what you’ll need to fit your show into. Small doesn’t mean “dinky” or “boring.” It just means compact.
So, build the most amazing, travel-sized elephant that you possibly can.