The Party-Band Setup To Rule Lots Of Them

I was originally going to title this article “The Ultimate Party-Band Setup,” but I figured that being so superlative would invite unnecessary arguments. There’s always somebody who’s done a killer job with a setup that ISN’T what you think is the best, and so it’s plenty easy to get dragged into a vortex where “but this worked for me!” is being shouted by about 20 people.

Anyway.

Why would you care about the setup for a party-band? Simple: Party-bands are another avenue for you to make money by playing music. In fact, party-bands are one of the avenues for you to actually be paid to be a musician. (Most bands that play original material, especially in the pop and rock genres, are paid to be a crowd-drawing attraction that just happens to involve music. The lack of understanding of this has led to a lot of consternation in the music biz, in my opinion.)

“Hold on!” You’re saying. “What in the blue-blazes is a party-band?”

Fair question. In my mind, a “party-band” is a group that primarily plays covers, and that makes the majority of its income playing for events where people would have attended without the band having been booked. These events can take the form of corporate parties and other private functions, fundraisers, community festivals, grand openings, weddings (ESPECIALLY WEDDINGS), and other such goings-on. Many jazz groups are party-bands – musicians hired to bring a classy feel to a gathering that’s being held for a purpose other than purely listening to the band. It’s worth noting that some party-bands are good enough and lucky enough to gain followings, followings that can sometimes eclipse the fandoms of local acts that play originals.

The complete care, feeding, and economics of a party-band are a topic area that’s far too wide to tackle in this article. Suffice it to say that “event acts” can make good money, bad money, or no money depending on the local market and how the group is run. That’s not the point of this article. This piece of writing is about the technical side of things…

…and for a party-band, the technical side of audio production is driven by a simply stated yet befuddingly vague reality:

There are no hard and fast rules. In some cases, the band must be an inoffensive background element. In other cases, they must be front and center. The case that applies may even shift in the middle of the show.

Now, I don’t want to overstate things, but I once had the pleasure of working with a band that had the handling of the above COMPLETELY figured out. They were called Puddlestone, and I had lots of fun at FOH during their shows. I miss the crap out of those guys.

So – how did they have the whole bit of “background, foreground, and everything in between, even at a moment’s notice” completely figured out? Simple. Puddlestone could, for all intents and purposes, choose any arbitrary SPL (Sound Pressure Level) to play at. If we needed to be quiet, we could be quiet. If people wanted something more “in your face,” we could do that as well. (Even so, when asked to turn up the band I wouldn’t go as far as some people thought they wanted. I had the option of not running the PA any louder than what I thought was necessary, and so I was pretty conservative.)

How do you get a band to be able to play at almost any arbitrary sound level? Well, the first thing to do is to recognize one very important “natural law” of live audio:

The Loudest Player Is As Quiet As You Can Be

Makes sense, right? Whoever is making the most noise on deck is the human that sets the minimum volume. Furthermore, the person making the most noise with the least flexibility in regulating that noise is “the muso to beat.”

What I mean is that some musicians have more ability to regulate their volume than others. For example, I have largely given up on trying to get drummers to play more quietly. The reason is because a drumkit’s volume is so intimately tied with the drummer’s muscle memory as a player. How the drums feel, and how the drummer hits them are not at all trivial to the drummer’s ability to play properly. Really accomplished percussionists do have the chops to vary their volume wildly as a situation demands, but not everybody is at that level (or even cares to cultivate that skill).

On the other hand are the folks who play amplified instruments, like electric guitar and electric bass. In general, these musicians have a lot more flexibility with their volume – at a functional level anyway. They might hate being asked to turn down. They might lose some of their “mojo” when the volume is reduced. Even so, the instrument feels basically the same at high and low volume. Yes, there are nuances to how a guitar or bass reacts when the amp is really “talking” to the instrument. Even so, the player’s fretting and picking hands don’t have to move at different rates or exert less force when the amp’s master volume is rolled to a different position.

Anyhow, the issue with all of this is that if the loudest player, playing as quietly as they can, is too loud for the event, then the party-band’s client is going to be displeased. Displeased clients are unlikely to hire you back. Not being hired back means not making as much money. Your volume problem can quickly become an economic problem.

There are all kinds of things that contribute to your “mandatory minimum” level. The Party-Band Setup To Rule Lots Of Them is basically constructed around getting your mandatory minimum SPL to be as tiny as possible.

Electronic Drums

“Boo!” You shout. “Boo! Hiss! Edrums don’t sound right and the cymbals have no nuance and you don’t look cool playing them and they just SUCK.”

I can actually sympathize, but I need to be clear and direct:

In all likelihood, nobody really cares but you.

Especially when you’re playing events where the band is a background element, the nuances and subtleties of an acoustic kit are basically worthless. The majority of the folks in the room just plain don’t care if the kit doesn’t sound 100% lifelike, and that one dude who’s “got a band” and is judging you for not being “rock enough” probably isn’t the guy writing your check. Even if there’s a point in the night where you become foreground, the majority STILL won’t care. They just want to dance to some tunes that they know at a volume that’s just enough to feel a bit of “thump” and “snap.”

…and the thing with Edrums that they allow you to stick a volume knob on your drummer. The drumkit becomes like an electric guitar: The feel of the instrument becomes essentially divorced from the volume produced.

Yes, Edrums have a different feel than actual heads on actual shells. Yes, the cymbals feel different. The thing to keep in mind is that having the drummer get used to an electronic kit is something that happens in rehearsal, where it’s actually possible to get settled into the various quirks of the instrument. As such, the drummer can take the time to develop some muscle memory on the quiet kit, and that muscle memory can be used on the quiet kit every time – which removes the necessity of figuring out how to play the same groove as last week, only with 10 dB less force. The drummer just plays the same way every night, with the drums coming through the PA at an event-appropriate level.

Go Direct (And Silent) With Everything

“No way! No way! An amp modeler just doesn’t capture the mojo of my specially-selected, all-tube Fender/ Marshall/ Mesa/ Orange/ Bogner/ Egnater/ Ampeg/ Whatever…and modelers just sound crappy and you don’t look cool playing them and they just SUCK.”

Notice how I wrapped that up in the same way as I did for the Edrums? Now I’m going to say the same thing as a follow-on.

I can actually sympathize, but I need to be clear and direct:

In all likelihood, nobody really cares but you.

What this all comes down to – and this expands on the issues with the drums, by the way – is that you, as a musician, very probably are interested in things that your audience is disinterested, or even anti-interested in. Again, when the band’s purpose is to be background, the folks that you’re playing to (or just around) don’t even want any of those sonic events that you think are so magical. They want to hear their favorite songs, played live, except at a level that’s similar to what they would get with an iPod or phone plugged into a half-decent stereo set at “inoffensive.”

The other thing is that “too loud for the event” is too loud, regardless of where a prized amp’s volume control is set. Telling a displeased event coordinator that “gee, I’ve only got the amp at two” is meaningless. They don’t care about how the knobs on your amp’s faceplate interact with the circuitry inside the case. They just know that you aren’t doing what THEY want, and consciously or unconsciously, they are regretting having hired you. That’s a very bad thing for a party-band, especially if you want the good paying jobs.

As a final note for this section, I will tell you that I’ve heard modelers sound both bad and great. I’ve also heard all-tube rigs sound gorgeous and atrocious. A player that knows how to dial up a basically pleasing, ensemble-appropriate tone is much more important to the endeavor than how the guitar rig generates signals.

In-Ears

It is, of course, entirely possible to quickly wreck all your effort at creating a silent stage. You’ve gotten Edrums that you can live with. You’ve found guitar and bass modelers that don’t torment you. The keys player is elated at not having to lug around that amp that feels as though it were lined with lead.

And then all that effort comes to naught because you break out a set of conventional wedges at the gig. Before you know it, you’re turning everything up to “rock” volume anyway. Here comes that event coordinator, looking mighty irritated…

The thing with a minimum-SPL setup is that the endeavor goes “all or nothing” in a hurry. Getting your monitoring to be as silent as everything else is pretty important for “presentation,” but it’s also great from a functionality standpoint. Create a rig with separate mixes for everybody, and everybody can go hog wild without bugging anyone else. If the bass player wants the level to be earth-shattering in his head, it’s no problem. The audience doesn’t know, and nobody else on deck needs to care.

Because party-bands aren’t always the featured part of an event, you do need to have flexibility with your in-ear setup. Having an option to go wired (in case of problematic wireless traffic) is really important, because you just don’t know if anybody will care enough to do frequency coordination with you – and on a silent stage, not having your in-ears is just not an option.

Some Final Thoughts

“Running silent” is an investment, both of time and money. It’s also not as easy to pull off as a straight-up rock band setup. It requires a fair bit of “homework,” because you have to get used to making it work correctly all the time, every time – you can’t fudge your setup and just get by. This also means that it’s very helpful for you to be as self-contained as possible. Ideally, you should be able to get your in-ear rig doing exactly what you need it to do without the help of an audio human that’s unknown to you. Further, some audio humans may not know quite what to do with a band that runs everything (including the drums) direct. Even if you don’t want to have an entire FOH PA for yourself, you might want to have a band engineer and console along for your shows. A person you trust who can tie into whatever sound system is provided can be a tremendous help.

Having a silent stage isn’t strictly necessary to being a party-band, but it can be a big help in getting you the widest variety of gigs possible. Event work can get you into some very swanky places – places that I think Puddlestone could have gone if the band had stayed together. (The bass player ended up moving, and the other guys just didn’t have the heart to continue without him.)

To keep this article at a manageable size, I didn’t dig deep into all the issues surrounding direct guitars and in ear monitors. If you’d like some more detail on these topics, pay my site (The Small Venue Survivalist) a visit:

Electric Guitar: Mic Or DI And Why?
Personal Monitoring Is Just That…Personal
In-Ear Success – A Basic Guide