Last night my band, StoneFish, did a free gig at a bar. Everyone loved us, but in reality we sorta sucked. Why did we suck? Because no one in the band could hear the other players very well. And why couldn't we hear each other? Because the sound sucked. And why did the sound suck? Because we didn't have a big enough PA (maybe); but the real reason is that it's hard to make acoustic music in an environment where the average background noise level is around 85 to 90 dB.
Let me backtrack a bit. This "gig" was at a place called "The Attic" which in many ways is your typical college-town bar. It's on the second floor (no elevator - great fun during load in and load out) with two rooms - a front bar area and second game room area with pool tables, Foosball and a small, elevated, (about 6 inches) area near where the two rooms meet (and the band would set up).
This gig came about because one of our band-member's fellow workers was having a going-away party at the Attic and she asked if one of our singers, Michelle would perform. She asked us if we wanted to do a set with her on Friday evening. After polling the group we found that out that our bass player would be out of town. Michelle suggested that we could do the gig with her son, Jason, on bass. Since we'd played with Jason before we all signed on for the gig.
Usually we prefer to play with as little augmentation as possible. For house concerts we bring two small acoustic guitar amps for the guitars and vocals and that's it. But for this bar gig we knew we'd need more sound reinforcement than that. The bar had a pair of powered monitors, but we needed to bring everything else.
For the gig we brought four microphones. Two were AKG Blue Line 451s with cardioid capsules, and two were ADK Hamburg large diaphragm cardioids. We also brought an AccuSound acoustic guitar amplifier, couple of Baggs DI boxes, Mackie 1202 VLZ mixer, four mic stands, and a large bag of cables and, of course, our instruments. Set-up took about 45 minutes.
After the initial set-up we knew we had a problem - feedback. Even when we had repositioned the microphones and pair of speakers so that the speakers were well in front of the mics we had some howls from the acoustic bass feeding back, not into one of the microphones, but into one of the DI'd acoustic guitars. The quick and dirty solution was to take the acoustic bass' DI out of the PA and instead have it purely acoustic. That worked, sort of.
Once we were set up it became obvious as we sound-checked (no designated FOH engineer, just me making adjustments and then trotting off to hear if they worked,) that no matter what the settings, we were going to have a hard time hearing ourselves without at least one more monitor speaker, which we did not have. The solution, using 20/20 hindsight, would have been to go out and bring back a third powered speaker, but that would have taken too much time (the speaker was at least ½ hour away.) The other solution would have been to use one of the bar's two speakers as a monitor and only one for the audience. We SHOULD have done that, but we didn't as I didn't think of it at the time.
During my first solo I knew it was going to be an interesting show - I could barely hear myself although I had a dedicated microphone for my mandolin. I could tell that the audience was hearing the mando just fine, but I could barely make out the pitch of the notes I was playing, making my solos more of a play by brail and habit than anything approaching playing by ear. Fortunately I could hear the rhythm guitar and bass fine so that we could stay in time, and I could hear the other two vocalists for harmonies, but my mando for solos? Not so much...
The audience still loved us despite what I consider not very good sound. But we were free and worth every penny of it. If we play at The Attic again I'll be better prepared to deal with its sonic problems, but given the ambient noise levels and physical restrictions of the space I'm not sure that any amount of sound reinforcement gear will ever deliver "good" sound. The best we can hope for is tolerable sound, but as of last night we still have a long way to go...