Now, why in blue-blazes would a live-sound engineer talk about auditioning people for your band?
I deal with the fallout if you louse it up.
There have been many instances in my time where I’ve had to struggle with a band containing at least one member who was a terrible fit for actually playing shows. It usually makes for a frustrating and bad-sounding gig, in which a large amount (maybe all) of the available electro-acoustical headroom for the show is DEVOURED in trying to fix the problems. Nothing is left over to otherwise translate the show to the audience in a cool way. It’s all been spent on mere survival.
If that sounds like a bad scene – even a career-threatening scene – you’re getting the point.
Thankfully, you have the power to prevent this mess from being a part of your concerts. You just have to have the right members, and that means getting your auditions right. Getting your auditions right can mean challenging your pre-conceived notions, and one of those in particular is probably the most troublesome.
Technical Ability Is The Minimum Requirement, Not The Prime Factor
Playing is a technical enterprise. Playing live is even more so: You have to execute under pressure, in front of an audience, without the ability to invisibly stop and try again. Technical ability is 100% necessary. I’m not saying that it isn’t.
What I am saying, though, is that musicians have an alarming tendency to use technical ability as the sole measure of whether someone should be a part of the act. A bunch of drummers are auditioned, and the one that can do the most insane rhythm work gets the nod. A whole pile of guitarists are listened to, and the one who makes Joe Satriani seem like an amateur is hired. A herd of vocalists is lined up, and the one who can sing the highest/ lowest/ with the most beautiful tone is recruited.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, except that there are lots of cases where the person with the highest technical ability is a terrible fit for the ensemble. Getting the most proficient drummer, keyboardist, guitarists, bass player, and vocalists all together in one band does NOT guarantee that you’ve created the best band. It merely guarantees that you’ve created a band containing the most technically proficient people you could find.
The ensemble. The whole. The gestalt entity…that’s what matters.
The Wreckage Of An Arrangement
I harp on the importance of your band’s “natural arrangement” quite a bit. I keep returning to the idea as a theme because of how important it is to constructing killer shows. One of the problems with “technical ability is the main factor,” is that folks who don’t (or won’t) fit your natural arrangement are brought on board. The results are not pretty:
“Dude, the drummer’s really good but they’re all I can hear.”
“The guitar player is AMAZING by themselves, but their tone is so scooped that they get obliterated when anyone else is playing.”
“The bassist is totally locked up with everyone else, but why do they have to be so loud?”
“She has the most gorgeous voice. You need to magically add 30 dB more gain to her mic. Without feedback. And without picking up any of the other stuff on stage.”
After you’ve discovered whether or not a prospective member can actually manage the notes, the next thing to chew on is whether they truly fit. To do this, have an actual rehearsal with your potential bandmate. Don’t do anything special at a technical level. Do what you’ve always done (assuming that what you’ve always done has worked).
- If the auditionee is suddenly drowning everything else, you have a problem.
- If the applicant is being drowned by everyone else, you have a problem.
- If the new recruit can’t “wait their turn”, you have a problem.
- If the potential player can’t naturally create a tone which complements other tones and produces the necessary, audible distinction between parts, you have a problem.
If you have a problem, the next step is to decide what to do.
The Three Choices
If the person you’re auditioning has caused you to have a problem, there are only a few general ways you can go:
1) Make the band fit the new person.
Do NOT do this if it involves making the rest of the band louder, or buying new equipment, or doing something to your songs that you fundamentally dislike. It’s not worth it.
Consider doing this if it will make your arrangements better, or bring the band’s volume down, or encourage playing that’s more sensitive to others. Be careful, though, that you’re all equally on board with the idea.
2) Make the new person fit the band.
Similarly to the above, do NOT do this if it requires more volume or a gear investment by the musician you’re auditioning. If the musician you’re auditioning seems reluctant to fit themselves in, don’t fight that battle. It will likely be a Sisyphean task where you can never…quite…make it…work…
However, there are some folks who just need a little direction to slot in with the rest of the team. If they can take that direction and really internalize it, they’ve got a chance.
3) Say, “Thank you, but no deal.”
The easiest situation is when there are no problems, and so you don’t have to even consider #1 or #2. Notice that I said “easiest,” instead of “best.” Option 1 is hard, but it may be the best option if the band will benefit greatly from molding itself around a new addition. At the same time, for an established band with seasoned (and sane) members, finding someone who fits without any significant reworking is probably what you want.
In general, I agree with the advice that Bob Rock gave to Metallica when they were auditioning Jason Newsted’s replacement: “I don’t think you should settle. If you don’t knock it out of the park, you’re just going to end up doing this again in five years.”
If option 1 is settling, don’t do it. If option 2 is settling, don’t do it. If at all possible, hold out for the right person. (It may not be possible.)
The personality and “culture” aspects that figure into all this are beyond the scope of this article.
However, I will say that there have been times in my career where I really liked everybody in a band, except for one of them. In those cases, I really did not want to work with that whole band.
Consider the implications of this carefully.