Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Photo by Platform 3
Most of the time, a performing musician has some kind of foldback or monitor system, so they can hear themselves over the other performers. In a band situation, it's vital to get your own little mix with yourself a little higher than everyone else. What about impro, where you are a solo musician with a bunch of actors/singers?

No foldback?

I suppose a lot depends on where you set up to perform. I am quite frequently facing the stage from across the room, so I get the same mix as the audience does. That works for me on many levels; I can watch the performers, and balance my level against theirs. (Plus the audience doesn't really spend time watching me, which suits me just fine.)

Other times, usually at an unfamiliar venue, I'll end up on stage or just-barely-off-stage, either using my amplifier or plugging in to the house system. When my amp is in place, again I'm getting something like the audience mix. If you're on stage and using the house system though, things get more complicated.

It's tricky to play when you can't quite hear yourself. I think it's a skill that can be practiced; if you ever play air-keyboard or steering-wheel-keyboard while listening to music, you know you can visualise what you're playing. It's sort of the same skill in reverse.

Still, even if you're great at mentally projecting what you're playing without actually hearing it, you can still drop clangers. (It's embarrassing when your left hand is in a different key to your right hand.)

(As an aside - now and again I'll use exactly that technique, playing different keys with different hands. Take a lovely music-box tune; leave your left hand where it is, but transpose your right hand up one semitone. You get this really cool losing-your-mind-psycho feel.)


Recently when working with my friend Ben on guitar, we had a small foldback amplifier. Primarily this was so we could hear each other clearly, and not rely on the front of house for sound reinforcement. As a musician who frequently performs with a group, Ben also is more familiar with working with foldback.

For the typical sound person working the front-of-house desk, improv is very strange indeed. There are no pre-determined cues to fade the music up or down. Sometimes the musician wants to sit well under a scene, and sometimes they want to blow up right over it. Driving that volume is part of the musical performance. I rely on the front-of-house person to adjust my overall level, but generally leave it alone as a show progresses. I'm responsible for setting my relative level during the show.

When I had foldback, I found it very hard to get the levels right for front of house. I could hear myself clearly, and that was nice, but I had no idea if I was audible in the house mix at all. This was brought home later in the show when we realised the guitar level was very low in the front of house mix. It was high enough where we were to hear it, but the audience and performers didn't get much guitar at all. Next time we're going to try it with no foldback. (I am gradually ripping everything comfortable about music and performance away from Ben. Next I'll get him to play the guitar using his knuckles or something.)

The bit where you leave a comment

What do you think? As an improvising musician, can you survive without foldback? Do you always travel with monitors so you aren't in that position? Is it important for you to get a stronger mix of your own stuff over the performers?


Ben said...

I think a two-musician approach presents an interesting foldback problem. Especially if, say, the guitarist doesn't share the keyboardist's extraordinary ability to hear through his hands. But if my two hours of impro music experience have taught me anything, it's that being able to hear the audience mix is king. That way, if the musicians can't hear that they're playing in different keys, there's no way the audience will either.

Not that we were.

Robbie Ellis said...

It's quite seldom that I'm going through the house mix at an improv gig - well, with some exceptions. I remember getting taught in high school to PUT YOUR AMP BEHIND YOU, one of the best pieces of advice I could get. Point it in the rough direction of everybody: the audience, the actors and yourself. Works extraordinarily well if the players aren't miked.

That works for me in:
- Circa Two and Circa One (in both theatres, we're usually working on top of another production's set)
- BATS Theatre
- Upstairs at The Drake
- However in The Fringe Bar I will generally plug in to the house mix, but that's because the stage is so small that I pretty much _have_ to go in front of the house speakers.

For a piano, unamplified: use the traditional orchestral rule of playing concertos: if you can't hear the soloist, you're too loud.

For two musicians: just be close enough to each other and keep your sound sources close to each other so both can hear both.

I've occasionally played with the actors miked, but in those scenarios there's usually been a professional sound tech doing the mix, so I just ask them to tweak my foldback and handle the house mix.

Tom Tollenaere said...

We played a gig for a couple of hundred ppl in a nice theater earlier this week; great theater with excellent acoustics. So no mikes for players, and we had to do the audience mix with my foldback equipment (we use electronic piano, and double bass/guitars - bass has a built-in mike and guitars use an external mike).

We had the luxury of having over an hour for soundcheck, so the audience mix was OK, but it sounded really weird for us. We put the foldback (aka the audience sound) at the back of the stage. But when the double bass was playing next to me, all I heard was his instrument, and then some, from the speaker - I could hardly hear myself. We got video from the show and it sounded great for the audience - but it was hell for us musicians.

I'll post a video frag on our site Royal Improphonic Orchestra & Theatre (RIOT) (but it'll be in Dutch...)

I've recently done a theater tour - 12 big theaters (700 ppl) and great infrastructure... but I've NEVER gotten an audience mix foldback. The technicians are usually too lazy...

Ah well, live & learn...


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