Part of what makes playing electric guitar so special is that moment of standing in front of your amp, playing a chord, and just listening to all the nuance and color that comes out of the speakers. That isn’t about technical prowess or ability; it’s simply about letting the sound wash over your ears in pleasant undulations. But there can be such a chasm between that moment of bliss in your basement or bedroom and playing that same setup on your church’s platform that weekend! In this column, I’m going to offer some suggestions for bridging that gap, so let’s dive in!
First, let’s take a look at the physics when it comes to amps and how we hear them. This is primary, first-level stuff here, but a good reminder all the same. When you’re standing in front of your amp, you are hearing a complete picture of the amp; the sum of the speaker, from the center of the cone all the way out to the edge, resonance from the cabinet, plus reflections from the room you’re in. When you put a mic in front of it, and especially when you pipe that into in-ear monitors, that mic is hearing a very select, fairly isolated 1-inch square of the speaker. So, that single mic will rarely give you the same sound as standing in front of the amp. With that in mind, how can we fill in some of the missing sonic information?
GIVE IT SPACE
One way to re-create that sense of being in front of your amp is to create some space. This works especially well when amps are in an isolation cabinet, away from the stage, but it can work on an amp onstage as well. Instead of placing your mic directly on the grill cloth of your amp, pull it back a bit. This will let the mic “see” and “hear” more of the speaker. Hint: It’s a good idea to measure this placement if you find something you like, so that you can repeat it next time. I personally like to put about two fingers worth of space between the grillcloth and the front of a Shure SM57.
If you have the resources, an extra mic can go a long way. It’s a well-known studio practice to place more than one mic on a speaker to help capture more of the picture of the amp, and given the channels to work with we can appropriate the same technique for the platform. It can work with two of the same mics, but two different mics works especially well. Placing a Shure SM57 and a Sennheiser e609 on the same speaker will give you two different characters to mix and match. Play with the balance between the two to come up with something you like. If you’re fortunate enough to be using a digital console for mixing monitors, you may have the option of putting delay on a channel. In a stereo monitoring setup, with the main mic panned center and the secondary mic panned to one side, delaying the second channel can offer a wide stereo image of your guitar tone, which helps approximate room reflections.
Because I’ve spent a lot of time in the amp/tone modeling world, I’m a fan of it. I know many people who are not. However… it’s consistent, it’s recallable, and there’s very little that will change over time (like tubes). The band is giving you compliments on your tone today? You can save it and come back to it! I wouldn’t call it “easy” to get a really great tone, you do have to spend time dialing things in, but it can pay off well in a lot of environments. Depending on your particular church’s situation, you could end up with a beautiful, stereo-image amp tone that is blissful!
Because I’ve spent a lot of time in the amp/tone modeling world, I’m a fan of it. I know many people who are not. However… it’s consistent, it’s recallable, and there’s very little that will change over time (like tubes).
Yes, sometimes you have to improvise… When I first started working with my church, I knew we wanted to be able to use tracks, so we pushed for in-ear monitoring right out of the gate. Which was great. Except my normally-awesome-sounding amp sounded terrible. Like, really, really bad. Since we didn’t have the resources or space, we couldn’t build isolation cabinets, so I decided to try a both/and approach. I knew my Line 6 HD500 would sound good in the ears, but when I had tried using only that, the feedback I got from attendees was that they couldn’t hear my guitar. (As the guitarist in a 3-piece band, that was a pretty big deal!) So I found a way to split my output from the pedalboard and ran both my amp at a comfortable level and the HD500. In my monitor mix, I pan each one a little outside of center, and then mix to taste. The HD500 tones give me a solid, inspiring tone to work with in the IEM’s and the amp is able to push a little air for the house mix without being overpowering.
I hope this helps you in your search for good tone, but most importantly, I hope it helps you serve the Church and Jesus in the best way you can!