Chatter: Nicky Garratt - Applying Dr. Phil Logic to the Epic Struggle of Stage Volume

“SOMETIMES, YOU HAVE TO make the right decision, and, sometimes, you have to make the decision right.”—Dr. Phil
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“SOMETIMES, YOU HAVE TO make the right decision, and, sometimes, you have to make the decision right.”—Dr. Phil

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In your mind, you need that Marshall stack jammed on 11 to get you in the mood to rumble. I know, I have. I actually used to have three half-stacks behind me. When arranged on a smaller stage the half-stack is not directed right at your ears like a full stack, so for the power genres—hard rock, punk, thrash, metal— it’s quite legitimate to crank it up. You want to feel the world around you submit to that power chord. Hell, I had those amps cooking, along with three monitor wedges with just guitar in the mix, plus a sidefill monitor screaming to make me feel like Thor.

And yet, the humble soundperson pinned to the back wall has needs, too. In smaller clubs, there’s often nothing he or she can do to get the rest of the band over that thundering guitar. So they ask you to back off. Sometimes, they’re right—sometimes, not so much. Once the crowd is packing the venue, flesh swallows the thunder, and many a time I have reluctantly complied with the soundperson’s instructions, only to be asked later by fans, “Where was the guitar? I couldn’t hear it.”

So every soundcheck the dance would start…

The soundperson asks, “Can you turn down on stage?”

“Really? It sounds like a banjo,” I reply.

Additionally, you can’t put too much credence in the promise of monitor compensation for lack of onstage guitar volume.

Me: “If I’m playing so quietly, I’ll need loads of guitar in the monitors.”

Monitor engineer pushing up the faders: “No problem.”

Me: “Is it on?”

For the most part, you can’t beat taking your own sound engineer along, but when the budget doesn’t stretch that far, a compromise is necessary.

Back in the day, we had the great Dave Flockton (former soundman for Stray), who would wring every conceivable decibel from the rig, leaving a trail of blown eardrums and speaker cones across Europe. Those were the days! But then came the time of more modest clubs and—gasp—carrying your own guitar into the venue. In those smaller halls—particularly in Holland and Italy— government decibel sensors tripped on the first un-mic’d snare test at the soundcheck. It’s a real problem when the drummer trips the breaker, and the P.A. system isn’t even on!

Sometimes, the best one can do is to set your amp as low as you can bear, and as loud as the soundperson will go. Then, make sure you have someone who knows your sound evaluate it out front at the soundcheck, and again at the start of the set. One trick is to angle the cab slightly so that it is not directed at the mixing desk.

Of course, there are cluedin rock and roll clubs where volume never seems to be a problem. Now CBGBs—that was a sound system! Other clubs may not be able to accommodate your arena-rock stack, and, frankly, it’s not the sound engineer’s fault that you are playing the hole-in-the-wall and not the super megaplex. So unless the engineer is being a complete ass, cut him a break. After all, everyone knows you don’t piss off the guy who’s making your burrito.