Anybody ever have this before? No? Just me? Let me explain a bit and I think by the end, most vocalists will agree with that statement, and hopefully others will understand a bit more.
We vocalists generally work in a band setting. If not, there are playbacks in place and we are nearly never unaccompanied.
Imagine you’re in a band and each band member has an amp. Amp generally meaning amplifier, this means their instruments are being amplified by a multitude of what the actual sound is. Now imagine five very massively amplified instruments. Sounds loud, right?
You might be thinking ‘How is anybody supposed to hear anything over that?’. You might be thinking back to the last time you were at a concert or a bar with live music and remembering shouting at your friend so that you could tell them which guy you thought was cute (or, you know, what you thought of the music in a highly intellectual way). Either way: you had to shout, not only to be heard, but to hear yourself.
‘But wait! Vocalists are amplified, too! They sing into their mics!’ Yes, we do, but while you can probably (hopefully) hear what we’re singing, we often have the problem of not hearing ourselves.
Imagine if your friend could hear you over all of that noise if you spoke at a normal level, but you couldn’t hear yourself. You’d still shout, right?
The same applies with vocalists. Generally, we have so called ‘wedges’ to be able to hear ourselves in a live setting. And no, I don’t mean the type of heels, being 5cm taller won’t make you ‘hear above the din’ 😉 I mean small monitors, or ‘speakers’, that have a wedge shape, that we can put in front of ourselves at gigs.
We then ask the sound technician to give us specific levels of the different instruments into these wedges. Generally, you’ll want a bit of drums and bass in there, maybe a bit of the other instruments, but stick to the essentials you need to keep in tune and on time. Mainly, however, vocalists want to have themselves in their wedges, so that they can hear themselves.
I haven’t heard one vocalist say ‘oh yes, I can always hear myself perfectly at gigs’. Everyone I know has had issues. And these issues stem from a variety of problems. Let me tell you about the most common ones, ones I have faced already while on stage.
- You have too much of the other instruments in your wedge. If you’re playing a small venue, fact is you’ll probably hear the other instruments through proximity alone. You don’t need them coming out of your wedge as well.At these types of gigs, I like to wear ear protection, as otherwise I have way too much going on. You also probably want way less, if any at all, of the other instruments coming through your wedge! You don’t need that additional sound, that is impeding you from hearing yourself.P.S.: If you wear ear protection, there is a difference to how you hear yourself and it takes some time to get used to, so I often do one ear with and one ear without and change those ears throughout the gig.
- Your sound technician can’t put more of you (or anything at that point) into your wedge, because it causes feedback with the microphones. This one sucks. Royally.Again this is more of an issue with smaller venues, but it can happen anywhere. Feedback generally occurs when a microphone is angled in the direction of a speaker and the sound that comes into the microphone from the speaker gets put back out of the speaker and back into the mic. Essentially, it’s an indefinite sound loop that creates jarring frequencies, that result in the high pitched sound of ‘feedback’.If the speaker is far enough away, the likelihood of this happening is minimised. However, the same can happen with wedges, if they are places weirdly etc. While a small amount of volume may work without causing feedback, the larger volume you need to hear yourself causes feedback.P.S.: At this point, there is only so much you can do. Try angling the wedges differently or if you’re very close to them, prop them up so that the sound is directed more linearly at you.
- Your sound technician is feeding you crap. There are a lot of great sound technicians out there, but any sound technician who tells me my voice is simply ‘too quiet’ for me to hear myself properly, is just plain wrong.There are some cases, where you could say ‘you need more frequencies to cut through the other instruments’ which would be achieved with more twang, for instance, but in most cases it will simply be the case of a bad microphone.At one of my gigs we were three vocalists, one of which had a much lighter and ‘quieter’ voice than me, but she could hear herself better. At one point for a song we switched mics and voila! I could hear myself (well, I could hear myself better than before. but then before I couldn’t hear myself at all).Overall, the sound at that gig was terrible, because the audience couldn’t hear us vocalists over the other instruments either. Now that is just plain horrific. How are you ever going to build up a reputation, if people can’t even hear you?P.S.: Always bring your own microphone and microphone-lead. If you have in-ear monitors, bring those. Only if you know and trust your gear (and know the settings that work best for you) can you work with a lot of different sound technicians, without having much of a deficit for yourself and the audience. Don’t leave it up to them, you need to know what works best for you!
- Lastly, there is the option of telling your bandmates to turn themselves the fuck down. Nicely. If you’re in a small venue, you don’t need that super loud bass, or those crashing guitar sounds.Obviously, you need as much volume as is good for the genre in question, and you need to have a drummer who can also play well at lower decibels, but mainly you’ll find that asking your bandmates to turn themselves down a bit is ok.Sometimes the only reason they’re turned so far up, is that they can’t hear themselves either. Figure that, ey?Now this one is not one to overdo. If you’re working with professionals, often they’ll know exactly how much to turn themselves up or down, so if they’re at a specific level, it might be because that’s exactly where they have to be. Nevertheless, if asked nicely wether it would be an option to have them turn themselves down slightly because you really can’t hear yourself and all the other options have been depleted, they normally comply.P.S.: The main fact of the matter is, that if they turn themselves up, they don’t injure themselves or their instruments. If we vocalists can’t hear ourselves, we tend to shout, in a vain attempt to hear ourselves. Without noticing it. So our health comes first.
This is what sound checks are for! Check that you can hear yourself before starting the gig, or you’re in for a world of trouble!
Every vocalist I have met so far can attest to the fact that this is the WORST way to do a gig, or even a rehearsal (!), because you are hurting your instrument and your body. Your voice is your instrument. Imagine not being able to talk properly at some point because you just couldn’t hear yourself singing.
At this point, imagine yourself never being able to sing again. Yeah, not a pleasant thought. But that is what will happen if you can’t hear yourself at gigs.
There is a solution. Gasp! I mentioned above, that you can use in-ear monitors. Basically, in-ear monitors are a mix between earplugs and headphones. Through a transmitter (this can be wireless or not), your sound-technician can then put the mix of instruments and levels of your voice directly into your ears. That way you are guaranteed to hear yourself and the others.
It does take some getting used to singing with these in, but it is pretty much the same sensation as singing with bog standard earplugs, except…. the clarity of sound. Amazing. I highly recommend getting in-ear monitors and I have written another post about them here.
So for the love of all that is holy to you, FOLLOW THIS GUIDE, make your friends read it, help out fellow vocalists, because you wouldn’t want to be in their shoes if they lost their voice.