“The Compliment” as a sound tool

In a Church environment you may come across instances where performers want to rely on the acoustics of the building to amplify a voice or an instrument, rather than have this natural sound amplified or modified in any way.  And while this naturally pure sound is indeed wonderful, you should still keep in mind the benefits of what amplification can bring in instances where the natural blend of multiple instruments are not as well balanced as one might hope for.  But how can you make this happen when it is needed if the performers might not want it?

As an example, if a singer wishes to sing unplugged then by all means let them try and see what if sounds like.  If they are singing with some form of unplugged instrumental accompany (piano, quartet, guitar), is the singer’s voice of sufficient strength to lead the arrangement?  If not, can it be suggested (from a sound perspective) that the instrumentalists change their dynamics to allow the vocalist to be heard above the instruments? Alternatively is the singer’s voice actually strong enough to fill the space. If the voice is just not strong enough would in fact some sort of amplification (even at very low levels) allow for a more balanced/appropriate blend of musical voices?  It could be worth a discussion during practice, but tread lightly as a performer’s ego is a delicate thing.  One way around this is to try using a few well placed compliments to develop trust with a performer or group, as you make suggestions about changes that might be necessary. You need to make sure that the performers know that all you are concerned with is making them sound as good as they can be.

In an actual example, I did sound for a two night performance of Piano, Saxophone, and Vocal Trio (where the vocalist provided spoken word dialogue in the performance, but who also provided some quiet vocals throughout the evening in conjunction with the Piano and Sax instrumentals).  I am happy to say that these were three very talented and experienced performers. In setting up for the event, I mic’d both the sax player and the vocalist.  However the Piano player indicated that he did want the piano mic’d that he preferred the sound of a the “unplugged” baby grand piano in the Church Sanctuary. So against my better judgement I did not mic the piano. At the same time we did not have a chance for a proper rehearsal with the trio as they were running late, so the performance went forward without a chance for a full run through.

Well the performances by all three were wonderful. However the lack of control on the piano volume meant that while there were time that the piano should have been louder in the mix so I could mix it above the volume of the sax.  But my hands were tied from being able to balance the piano in the mix (even slightly to account for minor balance issues) as the piano was not mic’d.  So where I could have helped ensure that all three performances shinned, the evening was filled with instances where I could not get the mix as good as it could have been because I did not have control over all sound sources. At the same time the vocalist had times where they whispered their lines, but it was so quiet that they could not be heard above the instruments, even when I pushed their gain as much as I dared.

Don’t misunderstand, my intent in wanting to amplify the grand piano was not to turn the volume up very much (if really much at all), but rather to ensure when needed that the mix of Piano, Sax and Vocal was as good as it could be for the audience and the performers.  If you have ever performed or mixed live sound you will know that it is easier for a sound person to understand how the audience is hearing a performance ,than it is for the performers on stage to know how it sounds for the audience.  But you do need to establish trust with your performers to be able to let them do this for them.

I was able to speak with the performers after the first night’s performance and complemented them all on how very much I enjoyed their performance (note the use of the compliment in this situation). However I then used that opportunity to let the pianist know I would have loved to have been able to adjust the level of the piano at times, as it seemed to get lost in the mix a few times throughout the evening and I wanted to hear more of what he was doing in a few instances. The same was true of the volume of the vocalist, however as he was already mic’d I instead talked with the vocalist about seeing if he could give me a little more volume from him in the quiet whispered sections of his “wonderful performance”, and trust me to balance the levels as well as I could between the three of them.

Long story short, the Trio allowed me to provide them with feedback and suggestions for the second performance, but only after I was able to gain their trust by way of a few well placed compliments and suggestions.  So where there were some issues with balancing their mix on opening night, the changes I was able to get consensus from the Trio on for the second night, made their performance so much better for all.  It just took a few well placed compliments and suggestions.

An Important Note: If you are going to use “The “Compliment” to gain trust when working with performers, you do have to sound authentic and true.

Coincidentally the Trio was was very complimentary about the help I was able to give them.  (at least they sounded authentic and true……. hmm??)

“The Compliment” as a sound tool

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