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To mic or not to mic the backline? That is an interesting question raising fascinating further possibilities

A post by David Mellor
Thursday May 02, 2013
An RP reader fears losing cabinet resonances if the backline of his band is miked up through the PA. But perhaps it is innovation in live sound that has been lost over the years.
To mic or not to mic the backline? That is an interesting question raising fascinating further possibilities

An interesting question from an Audio Masterclass reader...

Hey David,

Is it always necessary to mic the band through to the the sound system or can you just use your backline as your instrument source and only use the system for vocals? I'm having this discussion with my band right now. One of the guys say don't mic the guitars since it takes away from the resonance of the speaker cabinet and think you should mic everything no matter what the size of the venue you play. Can you give me your opinion on that?

Regards, Vinny Androsiglio

This question raises interesting possibilities about...

  • How things are done
  • How things should be done
  • How things could be done!

If you're in a band playing in bars and working men's clubs (of which I have hundreds of gigs of experience) then it is possible and practical to put only the vocals through the PA, amplify everything else individually, and leave the drums unamplified. Since you don't want to blast the audience out of the room (or away from the bar, where the money is made) with sheer volume of sound, then the levels will be OK as long as the band members can work together on the balance, like a band consisting of purely acoustic instruments would do.

But if you're playing a venue where the customers have come to listen to the music (you should be so lucky!), then there is an expectation that the volume of sound should be greater, and that the drums should have the extra presence that will require miking up through the PA to achieve.

If the venue is still fairly small, say under 300 capacity or so, then it will be possible for the guitars to play through their own amps and cabs, without miking up through the PA. Indeed, in small venues the engineer often has the problem that he can't turn the guitars down sufficiently because he has no control over the levels of the backline.

Once you get into bigger venues however, it will be necessary to mic up everything because the backline simply isn't loud enough to fill the room with sound. It's something of a secret in the PA industry that large venues are easier to engineer than small rooms, because the engineer has more control. Just don't tell whoever is paying!

So as a band progresses from small venues to large, there will come a point where it is necessary to mic up the backline. Even if it doesn't capture the cabinet resonances, as mentioned in the question, it just has to be done.

But what if...

But what if the backline could be very much more powerful? Instead of a 100-watt Fender Twin Reverb, how about a 1000-watt Fender 20x Reverb? There is no reason why this should not be possible.

The benefit would be that ultra-powerful backline could be designed with the same huge range of sound textures that is today available at normal power levels, with all the cabinet resonances you could possibly require. The guitarist, for instance, could create the sound he wanted from the amp and cab, and that is what the audience would hear directly.

One problem however would be that the front-of-house engineer wouldn't have control over the level of the backline (which is precisely their current complaint when working in small venues). But if the band members can work together as a musical unit and balance their own levels, is there a need for anyone else to be in control? The London Symphony Orchestra doesn't have a front-of-house engineer balancing levels, they have a conductor to do that (although it is known for an orchestral conductor to listen from the back of the room for a while during rehearsals.)

Perhaps the biggest problem in this scenario is that the backline will now be massively louder than it was previously, and the musicians will be directly in the firing line. Hearing damage will be the first concern, but at such high sound levels might there be other health concerns? Loose teeth perhaps (last paragraph)?

My point is that the methods we use for PA have developed since the 1960s for a combination of practicality and the quality of the musical experience. But perhaps now we have become a little 'stuck in the mud' and are doing things the same old way because that's how they have always been done since time immemorial. Perhaps there is scope for improvements in the way PA is done, to achieve a new range of musical and sonic experiences.

By the way, here is an interesting PA. Note where it says that each string of the bass guitar had its own channel, amps and speakers! I wish I could have heard it...

A post by David Mellor
Thursday May 02, 2013
David Mellor has been creating music and recording in professional and home studios for more than 30 years. This website is all about learning how to improve and have more fun with music and recording. If you enjoy creating music and recording it, then you're definitely in the right place :-)
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