In the relentless pursuit of tone, it’s important to hear your rig as clearly and naturally as your audience does. Over the years, I’ve found that every squawk, squeal and pick slide I’ve ever done has not only been inspired by the way I heard my rig, but rated for quality based on that, too. If it sounds to me as tone-heavy and full as I intended, then I had a good night. If my reference is off, and I can’t hear it as well as I should have, then I feel like I stank up the stage and embarrassed the other players, who had to endure my vibeless racket all night!
Often, it’s not the playing or the tone that is deficient, but my reference that is skewed. For over twelve years now I’ve been using ear molds as a monitor reference, with my amp pointing into the dressing room hallway, instead of monitor wedges with my amp tipped at me where it can move the hair on my legs. I’ve gotten used to the fact that what I’m hearing in those ear molds, with a speaker smaller than my pinky nail, is no way to judge my tone. A lot of guitarists over the years have asked me about my sound: how I get it, what equipment I use… and I always tell them that tone is a very personal thing. Eddie Van Halen said in an interview years ago that anyone could plug into his rig and use his guitar and not sound like him. So everyone has their own “brown sound” or, as I’ve often heard coming from amplifiers in local clubs across the country, more of a “silver sound.” Blah!
One tip I can give is whether you’re recording or playing live, using amp modelers (Line 6 POD Pro, Behringer V-Amp Pro, Waves GTR3, etc.) or actual analog amps, I find that it’s not a good idea to try to “get it to sound good” in the headphones or ear molds with the expectation that it will also sound good out front. As I mentioned earlier, those small speakers are no way to judge the wall of sound you want to get out of your rig. When using real amps, I always set tone based on what is coming out of the cabinet.
When using amp modeling I’ll try to ball-park my tone in the headphones, then fine-tune it by listening through the PA, so I know what it will actually sound like to the audience. Sadly, your personal in-ear reference during your show will probably suffer. In the many years of hearing my guitars through ear molds, I’ve learned that what I hear in those tiny little speakers is not an adequate representation of what my rig really sounds like. However, in that time I’ve also learned to know when my rig sounds right or wrong using the same miniature point of reference.
As guitarists, we’re the fortunate ones when using molds. They are particularly unpleasant for bassists and drummers. There is a noticeable lack of low end, and it does hinder the “feel factor.” On the Toby tour we supplement with subs on stage that are crossed over at 80Hz. They have only kick drum and bass in them, which gives the whole stage some otherwise absent low-end feel and fullness. It works best on wood stages, not as well on concrete. Our drummer, Dave McAfee, also use a “butt buzzer,” as do most drummers using inear monitors. These are basically speakers attached to the bottom of the drum throne that come off the same feed as the subs. It makes his drums feel massive where he sits, and the in-ears give him clarity.
Unfortunately, bassists suffer a little more from the in-ear application. The band guys who stand behind us on the set are in heaven because the subs are under their feet and they have the perfect combination of brilliant in-ear mixes and low-end subs. Unfortunately for our bassist, Chuck Goff, he’s down front with me, where it’s hard to get the low-end vibrations on many stages. On those nights he says his bass sounds like a gnat buzzing around his head. Naturally, that makes it very hard to perform with confidence.
There is something about having the band blowing back at you through a monitor wedge at 120dB that is enticing, but still I highly recommend ear monitors, no matter what type of music or what type of venues you’re playing. Once you get adjusted to them, you’ll find it a better way to go than monitor wedges. For a reasonably priced, great-quality custom mold, check out livewiresforyou.com and Keep Jammin’!
Rich Eckhardt is one of the most sought after guitarists in Nashville. His ability to cover multiple styles has put him on stage with singers ranging from Steven Tyler of Aerosmith to Shania Twain. Rich is currently playing lead guitar with Toby Keith. His album Soundcheck is available now, with another due this summer. richeckhardt.com