lessons learned

i find it mildly amusing (and not-so-mildly troubling) that someone whos’ been in this business as long as i have can still have a major epiphany over something so elementary as what i’m about to pass along…

i deal with sound engineers (both live and in the studio) on a perpetual basis, and i’ve always made an effort to be the easy guy – the “plug and play” guy who requires the least amount of effort to get up and running.

that was especially true of me during my singer/songwriter days, when all i had was a guitar and my voice…i mean, how easy could that be?  i had a preamp and a direct box that comprised my whole rig (which i still use for acoustic guitar to this day, and i still get rave reviews for my acoustic guitar sound), and my vocal was as easy as putting a mic in front of my face.

as such, i used to watch other acts who’d put up these diva-esque fusses about getting-this-just-right and turn-that-down and turn-this-up and more-of-me-in-the-monitorsjust shut the hell up and play, i’d think.  if you’re that friggin’ good, all your whining will be irrelevant.

i would pride myself at turning in my performance in spite of whatever conditions might have existed to its detriment…and i think that i managed to kid myself into thinking that this stuff didn’t matter for a long time.  i would go out and i’d play, whether the factors that might affect my performance were within the realm of my control or not, and if the monitors sucked, i’d try a little harder and pay a little extra attention to what was going on around me – as if i were butting heads in some kind of invented adversarial relationship.  no little slacker bitch part-time soundman is gonna throw me off my game.  screw that, dude. i’ll just play a little harder and get through this and get outta here with as few scratches as possible.

i don’t know that i ever consciously gave any thought to the possibility that i’ve been deluding myself all these years.  i mean, i’ve definitely noticed that there’s a difference in the way i play and sing when everything’s right – when the monitors are good and the amp is up and i can hear all the vocals (not just mine…ALL the vocals)…when everything is right and good, i play beyond my actual ability.  when the conditions are favorable (as your meteorologist might say), i’m a lot more willing (outwardly or otherwise) to take chances, and conversesly a lot more likely to hit on something great.

when everything is right, you create the scenario that allows for those moments that raise the hair on the back of your neck to full-on attention and send tingles down your spine….and after all, isn’t that what we do this for?

pic-1320saturday night, i had a triple-duty gig – i played with all three of the acts on the bill at the barnstormers theatre singer-songwriter festival…jeff twardzik, skip denenberg, and craig bickhardt.  i got there early, hauled all my stuff inside, and started setting up my rig – it was lap steel, dobro, mandolin, and baritone guitar through one of my princeton reverb amps, a couple of pedals…not terribly elaborate by any stretch.

my usual deal is to come out of my ernie ball volume pedal into one of two scenarios – one would be into my voodoo labs amp selector, which has four outputs and allows for a lot of flexibility in routing and the like…it’s what i use for larger shows.  or, i go into a morley A/B/Y box, which i split two ways – one is the acoustic signal path, which goes through a fishman aura for the dobro (switchable) and on to the house..the other is into a fulldrive2, a voodoo labs tremolo and on to the amp.  either way, i get the ability to split up the signal path that my acoustic instruments take and segregate it from the path that the electric instruments use.

what i’ve allowed myself to get into the habit of doing, though, in some instances where circumstances seem to demand it, is to just run everything into the guitar amp and hope for the best.  it would be kind to call it a compromise…perhaps a lot more accurate to call it a lazy mans’ means to an end.  i’ve never gotten a good result from this.  a couple of times, i’ve gotten a passable result from it, but most of the time i get honky low mids, feedback, and a generally crappy representation of what the instruments are supposed to sound like.

but hey…i can make it work, because i’m a professional, and i can rise above crappy sound and turn in an outstanding performance, no matter what!

or….not.

when did this come to me?  saturday night.

that’s right.  saturday night, some 28 years after my first gig, a basic, fundamental rule of live performance actually managed to sink in.

in my own words, it would be this:


if, for any reason, you are unable to properly perceive your work and value it in context, your confidence will dwindle..and with it, the quality of whatever else you may contribute subsequent to that perception.  your confidence informs your ability, and as such it is just as important to maintain it as it is to maintain your skills and talents.

in other words, if i can’t hear myself or my partners properly, the “i suck” synapses start firing and they pummel my “ability” or “talent” synapses until they’re not up to their usual standards…perhaps a harsh way to put it, but that’s how it feels, ultimately.  if conditions aren’t optimal, then i can solider through and turn in a good show.  there’s a lot of wiggle room for me between optimal and adequate.  but once that “adequate” line is crossed, then it gets radically worse as i slide down the totem pole.

saturday night, i was in the position of having to run everything through my guitar amp, yet again.  now, i’m not entirely certain why saturday night was that much worse than other nights when i’ve done the same thing.  i personally think it was a combination of a few things….

1.  the better the artist i’m playing for, the better i feel i have to be.

the bill on saturday night was first rate, and it culminated with craig bickhardt, who i love playing and singing with, and yet i always feel as though craig gets shortchanged when we play together.  the only rehearsals we’ve ever had have been idlewheel rehearsals, and there’ve only been two of them – so everything i’ve learned with and for craig has been on-the-fly, in live situations.  for one thing, he deserves better than that…and for another thing, i need to be working harder to give it to him.

2.  amp proximity is of the utmost importance.

i’m much happier playing with my amp facing in a direction other than pointed at my head.  when i have to do so, it changes my delivery radically, because i hear all of the high midrange and none of the lows.  saturday night, my amp was in the worst of all positions – over my shoulder, pointed right at the back of my head.  when playing without a monitor of any sort, this is bad enough.  but when you’re relying on your ears to create some sort of balance between the house sound and your (unmiked) guitar amp, there’s just no way you can make that call.  as such, i end up playing much more quietly than i should, and predictably enough, was told at the end of the night that “it was kinda hard to hear what you were doing up there…”.

3.  the tuning gremlins

this happens every now and then, but it’s always at its worst in these situations…no matter how dead-on the needle on your tuner might be, there’s still something – something – that’s just not right.  was it the high mando string?  nope…maybe the A string in the middle?  well, it rings out on the tuner, but – man, that just can’t be right…

when you’re playing through an amp right behind your head and the only feedback you’re getting from the house is from a wedge at the front of the stage 14 feet away from you, perception is the enemy.  and yet, if you rely on the needle, then your ears play tricks on you and you’re back to fighting off the “i suck” synapses.

4.  feedback.

acoustic instruments are the natural enemy of tube guitar amps.  those wonderful old amplifiers personify the sound of the golden age of rock and roll, but they’re a tough choice for amplifying mandolin and/or – heaven forbid – dobro.  dobro amplification is something of a science in and of itself, although i have to say that the addition of the fishman aura and the new pickup has gone a long way towards alleviating many of the old headaches.  still, a fender deluxe reverb is a long way from the top of the list of first choices for amplifying a resonator instrument.

as such, that ghost hovers over your head and informs every move you make.  you have your foot tentatively on the volume pedal, your palm is ready to fall on the strings every second of every song, and you never, ever relax and just play the damn song…you’re always waiting for the howling barrage from the mains when you pick up the instrument.

does this all sound like a lot of long-winded whining?  damn straight it does.  and that’s one of the reasons why i’ve frowned on it for so long.  and yet, last night, as i sat there trying to get my dobro up to a proper volume level to be heard past the edge of the stage, i realized that if i’d only stood up for myself during soundcheck and insisted on having some form of reinforcement – whether it be mic’ing the amp (which jd malone does religiously) or giving up another input on the board for the acoustic instruments (which shouldn’t have been much of a problem, either), it would’ve been a night and day difference in my performance – i would’ve responded better to what i heard, and i would’ve played better as a result.  and isn’t that why i’m there in the first place?

as anyone that i work with would tell you, i’ve been very passive about all this in the past…i travel very heavy, and there’s a lot of work involved in getting me set up on stage to accompany someone, and if i have to browbeat a soundman…well, that’s just that much more that i have to turn my attention to.  but – at this point, the stakes are higher, and i simply must pay more attentione to all this.

the first thing i said to craig after we finished the show was that “i have to start being more assertive about my soundchecks.”  if i’m not able to relax and play my best, then i’m not at the top of my game, and if i’m not able to do my best for the person i’m supporting, then what’s the benefit of having me there at all?

so…there might be a bit more nitpicking on my part at soundchecks from here on out.  it’s not as if i don’t have enough to do prior to showtime.  likewise, it won’t be that often, because i have great relationships with almost every soundman in every venue that i work with on a regular basis.  so it won’t be every gig.

but just remember – if it comes to the whining, it’s not all about me.

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