Part 1: Getting Started
Part 2: Strings
Part 3: Compression
Part 4: Pickups
Part 5: EQing, at last!
So at the end of this laundry list, the only variables left should be ones you can’t control: the room, the background noise, the club or festival sound system–and some of that can be controlled if you know ahead of time what you’re getting into. If you are playing in a neighborhood bar, don’t take your $10,000 handmade Brazilian dreadnaught with phosphor-bronze strings and an internal mic, unless you can guarantee that nobody’s gonna be playing pool or pinball, celebrating their twenty-first birthday or confronting their soon-to-be-ex-wife’s new boyfriend after a few shots of Wild Turkey. This is common sense stuff, and admittedly guitar players are not often overly blessed with that. We tend to plan for gigs as we want them to be, not for what they are. Bottom line, if you’re not playing in Fantasy Land, you may need to EQ your guitar once in a while.
The Room is a Tomb
Sometimes the shape of a room or the way it is decorated can kill ya. My trio once played in a long narrow room with a tile floor, floor-to-ceiling windows on one wall, two standard plasterboard walls at either end, and more glass on the side where the doors were. The icing on the cake? A ceiling that sloped up from the outer glass wall to the inner wall with the doors in it, probably a twenty-foot run at about a 12:12 pitch. Talk about natural reverb. There was not one thing in that room that would absorb sound, until the people came in. We were trying to get acoustic guitar, bass and drums not only to balance, but not to sound horrible together in the room. There was no winning that battle. That’s when your EQ tools become weapons of feedback destruction and nothing more. There was a persistent howl around my low-A string, and there was no tweaking–I had to pummel it into submission, which made my guitar sound obnoxiously nasal, so I had to pull back at around 1kHz to wipe the snot off the tone. Then of course all you could hear were the highs, and they sounded like teeth grinding glass, so we pulled back at 5kHz, and again at 10kHz, in order to keep from inducing migraines in the audience members. And what are you left with then? Really thin sounding mud.
But that’s an extreme example. I have also played rooms where I could just plug in and with everything flat the sound was perfect. That’s not as rare as you might think, because I thought long and hard about what I wanted to sound like, and sculpted my rig to give me that.
Help me! I’m drowning!
Other times the room can be acoustically great, but the situation a social one so you’re competing with lots of other voices, clinking table wear, laughter, drunken laughter, and the occasional sporting event on the television. I remember a night, way back when I was a young dinosaur, when a bar had BeJae Fleming and me set up right next to the big-screen TV during March Madness. That was a night that continues to live in infamy. When you’re competing with noise that’s right in the middle of your frequency range, a lot of people just keep turning up, turning up, turning up, and that’s one way to handle it. Recently, there have been some acoustic amps that have come close to solving the problem altogether. AER, from Germany, was the first to change the way the sound waves came out of the speaker so you literally were not competing with the noise; you could just be like the oxygen in the room—everywhere all at once and perfectly audible (don’t ask me how they did it, because I have no idea—I just know it works and that is a great happiness). In fact, using an AER AcoustCube, I have had kitchen staff come out to find out why they were hearing gorgeous acoustic guitar in the kitchen over the usual restaurant clatter and kitchen noise, and I wasn’t even turned up to 4. Any of AER’s options, or Schertler’s Unico, the Bose L1, the L.R. Baggs Core 1 and the Fishman SA220, are all proving remarkably effective with these kinds of issues, and with all those options, you can probably find a solution in your price range.
If you don’t have access to one of the above-mentioned acoustic amps, then you’re going to have to tweak the high-mids and highs up little by little until you’re cutting through the noise like a knife, or you’re going to have to turn the volume up until your ears bleed.
Frankenstein’s PA System
Sometimes your nemesis is the sound gear, and forgive me, folks, but I’m gonna do a little bitchin’ here on behalf of my acoustic brethren. At almost every festival that I have played with multiple stages for multiple acts (the Country Stage, the Rock Stage, the Folk Stage), not only have they put the acoustic music next to the latrines, they have also given us the oldest, nastiest, most cobbled together sound systems imaginable. WTF? If you’re going to force people to listen to folk music while they’re standing in line to pee, the least you could do is let them hear it through a decent PA system. Sheesh.
So how do you get good sound then? Sometimes it’s just a matter of making it through the set. Here’s a laundry list of possible issues to be prepared for.
Issue 1: Your pickup’s fantastically high-tech onboard preamp is overdriving the antiquated mixing board. Oh, I hate it when that happens. Travel with a good DI that has a multi-band EQ. Turn down your pickup to about 5 at the onboard pre, and the XLR out on your DI should give the board a signal it can live with, but your guitar may sound a little lifeless. You can try to boost 400Hz to warm things up just a touch, and boost the highs around 5-10kHz, but go easy and in teeny increments because the warmth can turn to mush or incite feedback (especially with a system of questionable parentage), and too much 5kHz can make your guitar sound brassy, brittle or worse—like a cheap POS.
Issue 2: Piezo quack bouncing off the porta-johns. Ah, the dreaded piezo quack. Cut between .8 and 1.6kHz, to get rid of the nasal tone, and at 5kHz to cut some harsh and brassy tones. Another option is to have a good magnetic soundhole pickup that you can temporarily install in a crunch. Otherwise, surgical cuts in the mids and delicate shavings from the treble range can reduce the quack, and hopefully leave enough brilliance and sparkle in your tone to keep you mostly satisfied.
Issue 3: The speakers are blown and every time I play an A or G chord it sounds like the speaker is... farting. Been there, played that gig. Cut the very low bass by 3 to 6db, and then work gently on the lows and into the mids, from around 240Hz to 400Hz to find the exact location of the offending frequency. Take out only what you need. This is one of the most frustrating PA nightmares of all, because in addition to sucking your tone, it forces you to contain your dynamic range to prevent more distortion, which sucks the energy out of your performance.
Issue 4: The rock band headline act on another stage is coming through my monitor louder than me, and I can’t hear what I’m playing. Yeah, I played with Cheap Trick once. Well, they were on the other side of the river, but they were louder in my monitor (and in the mains) than I was, so that counts, right? Solution: pray for a reasonable stage manager, accept the paycheck with a smile, pack up and go watch Cheap Trick.
The 400Hz range is sort of like Viagra for guitars. More makes them woodier, but if it sustains for more than four hours, consult a recording engineer...
The .8-1.6kHz range is where you get that nasal, reedy, unpleasant tone that makes you screw up your face and say, “Eww.” If it troubles you, dial it back by 3db but stop short of 6, just until you no longer feel an uncontrollable urge to sneeze.
When you start approaching 5kHz you’re getting into the “breath” sounds that a guitar makes. If you cut too much here, the guitar sounds a little asthmatic and constricted. Too much here can cause you to have brassy, whiny tone.
At 10kHz and beyond you’re talking about sparkle, glitter, a coating of silver frost on a brilliant winter morning. In a very bright room you’ll hear that as brittleness, and you’ll want to pull that down a little, but in a dull room, you’ll find it brings your tone to life.
The best way to learn about how these frequencies affect your guitar is—you guessed it—to listen. Get a good EQ or DI with at least a 5-band EQ, set everything flat, and then start dialing things in and out and listen to how the tone changes. Eventually you will get a feel for it, and you’ll remember what makes your baby sound as good as it can. Then when you encounter a bad room or the worst sound system ever, you’ll be ready to sound as good as you can.