So the other day I went to church and there in the worship band was a drummer wailing away like it was his last gig on earth. I cringed. I twitched and cringed. He wasn’t a bad drummer, in fact he was pretty good, but what he didn’t realize was his joyous flailing was probably the reason the band has been forced into an awkward and uncomfortable playing situation.
The entire team –which consists for the most part of a guitarist/ singer , bass, lead guitar, keys, drums and the occasional drop-in novelty instrumentalist (flute, harmonica, violin etc.), is using an in-ear system. Why? Because reportedly, the stage volume just gets too loud.
So the ‘remedy’ to this ‘problem’ is to give everyone in-ear monitors so there are no onstage monitors getting cranked up to the point of sending all the front row attendees back to the land of sin and death.
Not to mention muffling the drums to the point where they are sure to die a cardboard death.
Now the thing is, this is a new church and it’s quite large so theoretically there shouldn’t be a problem with the volume –the ceilings are giant. And there are sound baffles everywhere –walls, ceilings, stage- not to mention the fact when 1500 people file in they are all walking sound baffles.
So what up?
Well, besides church soundmen usually being the epitome of ‘knowing just enough to be dangerous’- I think the biggest problem is most of the drummers frequenting the stage in this church do not know this important rule-
A good drummer needs to know how to play to the room.
Yes, that’s right. In fact, the room is almost like another player in the band, and a player that effects what everybody is doing. The room is also like an instrument that must be played well –mainly by the drummer who gets to interact with it most prominently since he possesses the power to send the decibel readings into orbit.
So how does a drummer play to a room?
- If possible scope the room out before the gig. Usually the issue is too much volume so the answer is fairly obvious –bring lighter sticks, thinner cymbals and worst case change heads. Changing heads is a pain yes, so often just a little (more) dampening will be fine. But if seeing the room first is not an option just being prepared to use lighter sticks will usually help a lot. And oh yes –play a little lighter. Not Grandma lighter but just, you know, a little lighter.
Sometimes, not often, but sometimes there is an issue of not being loud enough (believe it or not) if the drums are not going to get run through the sound system. When that is the case you have to be ready to crank ‘em up (usually not a problem for drummers but I have seen some drummers afraid to dig in for some strange reason).
I recently did a gig where the only thing they ran through the PA was the vocals. Usually if there is a limited PA set up they will run a kick mic but they didn’t even have that. I was stoked because I really got to lay into the kick but if I had known before hand, I probably would have changed the front head to go for that serious Bonham no hole in the front rock bonanza. So what happened when I laid into the kick was the makeup of the room (concrete) accentuated the slap of the beater to the head –leaving the low end no where to be heard. I imagine if one were to walk around the room there would be sweet spots where the lows would jump out, but if I had known I would have went total Bonham style, which is usually the bane of soundmen who are marvelously perplexed when they see a kick with no hole. You’d swear they’d just seen a drummer with no arms. Or legs.
- Be prepared to pull WAY back during the vocals.
In a crap room with a crap sound system, usually the first thing to go is the vocals. And most vocalists don’t like the fact they can’t be heard so they will get cranky when that happens. So if that happens, set them on your knee, stroke their hair and say, “It’s OK widdle singer baby I promise to play weal weal light when you sing”. That will usually stop their whining. For about five minutes.
- Chill out on the rim shots.
I once had a sound guy put a decibel reader thingy up to my snare for a rock gig I was doing. That puppy was putting out 120db. Ouch. No wonder my ears hurt. You can knock off a huge amount of volume if you just tilt or drop the snare a little more so you’re not popping that thing on every 2 and 4.
Now for some caveats- I realize that if you are in a speed metal band you are not about to switch to playing with brushes because the room is bad and the soudman is a goon. When your music demands that you play at a certain intensity level sometimes there is not much you can do. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about when you DO have a choice in how you approach the music and there is some flexibility there. As a musician who plays drums, consider how what you will play and how you will play it affects the music overall.
Like in the case of this worship team. The entire makeup of the sound system and stage setup was altered to accommodate this horrible beast named volume (gasp!). But from what I have seen, this beast could easily be tamed if the drummer(s) would take control of their dynamics, realize they don’t have to play LOUD to communicate intensity, and consider the room in their playing –and play it wisely.