You know what sucks? Nickelback? Yep, but not what I'm talking about:
Playing your heart out and no one hearing it.
I don't think there's anything more disheartening in life than coming off stage after having played and asking someone, "How was it?" (careful with that question...) and they say, "Yeah...it was awesome..." and you hear the hesitation in their voice and impending gloom floods over you. You press them and they admit that they didn't hear a lick you played. (u) (for you classic MSNers...or a broken heart for those of you less cool).
There's usually a few reasons why this can happen:
1. Your sound tech sucks. I'm putting this one first just to get it out of the way. Lots of people rag on the sound tech, but have no idea how much work it is. Try it! It's a real artform - especially when you're working with crappy gear in crappy venues (or bands who don't get what I'm saying below). Nonetheless, sometimes you really can have a sound tech who just doesn't get it. If that's the case, your options can be really limited. Getting a new one isn't always so easy, but if you have that option, do it! Having a good sound tech is the best thing that could ever happen to your band. Lots of times, though, they just come with the territory whether that be a club, bar, church, or other venue. If you're feeling like your sound tech is sub-par, here's a great tip to make him better without having to embarrass or offend anyone (actually, it's a great tip for any sound tech including the good ones. We've started doing this at our church and it's made a big difference. Shout out to Steve and his team who did an awesome job this past Sunday!):
Production Notes. This is such a great tool that people don't use. Have music and/or words for your songs that the sound tech can follow along and spell out what is going on in the song. It can be simple like, "Lead instrument for this song is Bass" (which you should all have at least one song where this is the case) to a bit more detailed "Intro is Dude #2's electric guitar. Bridge needs keys and drums. Dude #4 is leading the second verse." to getting really detailed in laying out how you want each verse, chorus, bridge.
I don't really recommend the third option as you might stomp on the ego of the sound tech, but some might actually want that. Either way, some sound techs think they can set the levels then "play" on their Blackberry (unless they are a cool sound dude with an iPhone) for the remainder of the time. Pointing out changes for songs will help keep them on their feet and listening. However, all of this being said, in a perfect world, a sound tech could just set the levels and walk away. See my next point.
2. Your not mixing yourself. Some people just don't get that they make make the biggest difference to their own sound just based on how they arrange their songs.
Back in the old days before big sound systems, groups of musicians had to regulate all of the volume themselves (imagine that). Go to a symphony and you won't find too many mics. The greatest groups of musicians or bands basically mix themselves. They know who is supposed to be leading what parts and create space for those parts. The next time you want to be sure that a great guitar solo is heard, why doesn't everyone else pull back just a touch to make some space for them? The problem is that everyone usually wants to be heard and so they are playing at the loudest level that they can get away with. That leaves no room for going anywhere. It takes a non-selfish approach, but start communicating about leaving space in your music. You will not only sound better, but you'll actually become a better band.
Drummers, I'm not picking on you (intentionally), but the best drummers can sound almost as awesome playing at quiet volumes as they can when they are playing loud. Being loud doesn't equate to sounding "huge". Learn how to sound big while playing quiet. That can make a MASSIVE difference for bands who are playing in smaller spaces. If you're having to go all-out all the time, your band is NOT going to sound good.
3. Your getting in each other's musical way. If any of you are bass player's out there and you have a keyboardist in the band, you probably know exactly what I'm talking about. If there's one thing I hate in life, it's a keyboard player's left hand. Why? They are in my bass space.
When I'm playing bass, I want to carry the low-end. Keyboard players not only are playing slightly different notes on the low-end, but they have keyboard player rhythm (you church players will especially know what I'm talking about). Both of those things can make the low-end sloppy and eat up all of the space for the bass to cut through.
The same goes for other instruments. Decide in your music who is going to play in what space. If you find you're not being heard, try playing a higher or lower part or find the person playing your part and ask them to move. Again, let's pick on keyboard players, but it's super easy for them to move up or down an octave to get out of the way. Playing guitar? Learn how to use a capo - especially if there is more than one of you. You'll create sonic space that will make a huge difference in every part being heard. If you have 5 instruments playing in the same range, it's just going to sound like a wall of mud...which is cool if that's what you're going for...
Here's an older video by a guy named Paul Baloche. He's a staple in the church community which may or may not be your thing, but you can learn a ton from this 9 minutes on how to mesh better as a band.
Hope that helps you. If you have any questions, leave a comment or email me at justin(at)justinreves.com.