Plugging In A Bluegrass Band in the Age of Unplugged

by Harvey Reid


I recently witnessed an eye-opening event at the annual convention of music merchandisers (NAMM) that underscored the issues of amplifying Bluegrass music. The scene was a rock and roll jam session event with a large sound system, a room that held 1000 people or so, and a concert bill that included Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush in-between rock acts. In 14 years of attending NAMM conventions, it was the 1st time I had ever seen a bluegrass artist on such a bill, and I anxiously watched as the Gibson company presented the 2 people who I thought would be most likely to impress a rock and roll crowd. For reasons unknown to the crowd, they walked on stage without any pickups in their instruments, and were later joined by J.D. Crowe, Ricky Simpkins, and Wyatt Rice, none of whom had anything but a stage mike. Sam and Jerry usually have good wiring in their instruments, and are perhaps the most sound-savvy Bluegrass players, yet even they were cannon fodder. They played well, and almost got a reaction from the crowd, but it was clear that because they were denied proper amplification, they were essentially shooting blanks, and Bluegrass music missed an opportunity to impress the music industry. I have seen them play those same songs on main stage at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, with good amplification, where they brought down the house.

As bluegrass music prepares to enter the 21st century, and as urbanized versions of traditional music face new audiences, the issues of amplifying and plugging in a bluegrass band remain areas of controversy between the progressive and conservative factions of the bluegrass community. At the same time, new tools and technologies are helping musicians bridge the gulf between under-amplification and over-amplification, and the issues and choices are changing every day.

Any bluegrass connoisseur knows that there is no substitute for the pure experience of standing next to a perfectly balanced bluegrass band, with each instrument and voice perfectly matched in timbre, volume and tone. The way the sound waves carry and mix is the thing I remember most fondly about bluegrass jam sessions, especially on a warm and fragrant summer evening. This divine sonic experience cannot be wholly captured on record, film, or through a PA system. What emerges is a lesser-dimensional portrait- not unlike the way a camera captures a 2-dimensional rendering of a three-dimensional world. However, only a few dozen or so people can crowd around the bluegrass band before the sound gets muffled, and once a crowd of onlookers reaches the hundreds, amplification becomes necessary or the essence of the music will certainly not be transmitted to the majority of the listeners. This is the purpose of amplification and recording- not to replace the perfect purity of the natural form of the music-- but to try to ensure that as much of the essence of the music as possible is transmitted to the listeners. And it is the job of the promoters, musicians and sound engineers to try to get the right sound engineers and the right equipment at the event so that the audience feels the proper impact of the music. If the music is amplified with only microphones, then there is an upper limit on sound pressure level, which can mean that if the crowd is very large or noisy or if the acoustics of the venue are unfavorable, then listeners in the audience may not be able to hear enough volume to capture the essence of the music. Likewise, if a bluegrass band plugs in without choosing or operating their amplification equipment what we might say "ideally," then an audience can be subjected to a different type of unsatisfactory experience- where the tone qualities of the sounds that come out of the speakers do not resemble closely enough the real-life sounds that the audience might expect. If faced with the choice between the two evils, true bluegrass fans would probably choose the former, preferring to hear the music more faintly rather than corrupt its sonic integrity. A random listener at a state fair would probably opt for the latter, and could easily lose interest in a bluegrass group that followed a country band that was many times louder.

There is not a simple answer to the question of how to properly amplify a bluegrass band. Sound engineers and musicians have been experimenting constantly throughout the history of the music, and have by no means reached a consensus as to what to do. Because bluegrass music reached its present form in the late 1940's, there have always been microphones on bluegrass stages. Early bands used omni-directional mikes, which created the distinctive sound of the early bands and the choreography of the bands gathering around them. For the last 30 years, the music has been played through dynamic stage microphones, usually cardioid pattern, plugged into a microphone mixing console, then into an amplifier driving some array of speaker cabinets. We have listened to feedback for 50 years, when the sound from the speakers goes back into the microphones, and that threshold level has been the limiting factor, the defining element in what a bluegrass band sounds like to an audience. With improvements in speaker and microphone design, and the addition of increasingly sophisticated signal-processing equipment, skilled engineers have been able to gradually improve the tone quality and volume level of the amplified sounds, but only on the order of magnitude of perhaps making it twice as loud as the old way.

But more and more bluegrass bands are finding that if they try to perform only with "traditional" miking techniques, they encounter performance situations where they are unable to transmit the essence of their sound by simply placing microphones in front of their instruments. The most common place is a big festival stage, where they might be required to follow an electrified cajun, country or even a blues band. The first step toward proper amplification is to realize that though using pickups and plugging in may not sound exactly like an unamplified bluegrass band, it can dramatically improve your chances of being heard by an audience, and possibly getting re-booked at the gig. There are numerous stories circulating of bands being blown off the stage when competing for the audience's attention against electrified bands, and when faced with an arena or civic center gig, a bluegrass band must make the hard choice of 1) not doing the gig 2) not being heard properly, if at all, or 3) plugging in.

When a band decides to try plugging in and is having problems, it is not necessarily their fault or the fault of their equipment. Suppose you perform many gigs throughout the year through your own PA system, and then get a big festival gig. What you hear and are used to will now be unfamiliar, and if you have problems there, the maximum number of people will see you having problems. You may want to use different techniques for different gigs. You would need to plug in to play Madison Square Garden, but if you are invited to do a showcase alongside several other unamplified bands, you might want to consider being heard without pickups, or using them very sparingly. If you are playing on TNN television, you might want to mike your instruments to go to the recording, while using pickups for the on-stage sound so the studio audience and you can hear the music and not risk feedback that could ruin the TV show. The music business is a high-pressure testing grounds, and you often don't get a second chance. When you have problems, they always happen in full view of the audience. The fear of embarrassing yourself in front of a crowd is the motivation to learn about all this. You the musician are ultimately the only one who can solve all the problems, because it is your sound and your reputation at stake, and if you don't make the tough decisions and agonize over the compromises, those compromises and agony will be given to you by others, and the end result might be a nightmare when you get the big gig your career has been waiting for.

The decision to plug in is made during these disaster situations, and the knowledge, skills and equipment needed to do a proper job of it must be accompanied by the urgent sense of need, like the hand feeling burned from the hot stove. Learning how to plug in is difficult and time-consuming. It requires specialized gear, constant attention, time, money and awareness. Sounding good on stage is a state of mind, it is an attitude, it is not just owning some equipment. The ground loops, phase inconsistencies, odd-shaped stages of the world, endless variety of brands, condition and features of the sound systems you perform through, the constant menace of dead batteries and bad cords- all create a maze you must learn to walk through. There are all kinds of pickups that can be installed with varying degrees of success on all different sorts of instruments played by players with all different styles and sounds. You can think your fiddle pickup sounds good, but when placed along side a better pickup installed in a better way, and perhaps processed differently, you and your audience could hear the deficiencies. More richness. More bass. More volume. So the end result- what the listener hears, will be more musical. That is the goal. Comparing is the only way to learn. Try a 10 foot cable and try a 20 foot or 30 foot cable. If you listen carefully, you will hear that a lot of the signal gets lost when you plug a guitar pickup into a long cord. If you just listened to the long cord, you might have thought it was fine. It requires an almost insurmountable amount of work and money to install three different pickups in your guitar to compare them, yet there is no other way to really be sure which sounds best. The same pickup in 2 different guitars can even sound very different, due to the installation or properties of the instruments.

Each step that the signal goes through is a link in a chain, and you can buy the right pickup, the right cord, install it perfectly, but make the mistake of plugging a piezo-type guitar pickup into the mixing board without first properly buffering and pre-amping the signal. Piezo pickups speak a different electronic language, and will sound quite harsh and un-musical if you plug them straight into a mixing board, yet dramatically richer and more musical when first properly pre-amped. It's almost like a video game, where you face an endless series of challenges and problems. You might unwittingly and innocently plug your piezo-electric pickup into a tuner first before it goes to your pre-amp, which loads the signal and will corrupt your signal's overall musicalness by 30% or more. A magnetic style pickup will be unaffected by the same situation. Sounding good involves thinking, and paying attention to each step of the signal path. Many players have discovered that mini-microphones attached to an acoustic instrument allow you more convenience, plus a 20-30% gain in volume on stage. But they have their limitations and special problems, too. They require windscreens in many outdoor gigs, and the cords they come with are usually flimsy and not easy to fix with a soldering iron. Their signals are a little unusual, and too strong for the inputs of some mixing boards. A sound man might think you are sending a direct line from a pickup when in truth you are sending a mike level signal, activate a pad on the mixing console (that drops your volume 20 db), making your end result noisy and far more unmusical, even though you have the right gear plugged in correctly. If you have a mini-mike installed on your guitar, and get past that hurdle, you might encounter a club or a PA where the phase of the speakers is the opposite of what your mike is, and your guitar top is fighting the speaker cone instead of synchronized with it. It will sound OK, but if you had a way to flip phase it could sound a lot better. Buying the right gear does not automatically solve your problems. You must look at each situation, set up as best you can, and listen or have someone with you who can listen for you. Until an experienced listener can pronounce the sound OK, you will never be sure what might go wrong.

The point is that if you pay no attention to the issues of amplifying yourself on stage, you risk having your audience pay no attention to you. Similarly, you may not think that dressing up is important, but you are wearing a costume even when you choose not to, and you are judged by others. There are artistic decisions to be made in the realm of amplifying acoustic instruments, and if you the artist do not make them, they will be made for you, and most likely you will suffer as a consequence. The tools and equipment you need depend on your style, instruments, budget, the types of gigs you play, and how loud you need to get, and you will need to do a lot of experimenting and research. Because of some recent advances in amplification technology, it is finally possible for an acoustic musician to perform on most stages with a thoroughly acceptable amplified sound, something that simple was nearly impossible 10 years ago.

It's time for the Bluegrass community to learn about these new choices; to learn to make the hard decisions of how and when to plug in, and how to do it properly. Sending Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas onto a rock stage totally unplugged is like sending the finest swordsman in the land against machine gun fire. We have to learn when to sacrifice some of the acoustic purity of our music for the chance to be heard by a new audience, just as we sometimes need to look at a photograph of a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh painting rather than seeing the real thing. We should be grateful when we get the real thing, but we must accept the need to make some sacrifices in perfection of the art itself in exchange for the perfection of actually reaching the audience. If you want to communicate with new people, you might have to meet them on their own turf, and possibly learn some of their language. Bluegrass music needs to expand its audience, and it doesn't do anybody any good when, by being unprepared, a band forfeits a chance to impress a crowd in a situation where proper amplification is required.


© 1996 by Harvey Reid

Harvey Reid has been a full-time acoustic guitar player, songwriter, traditional musician, and free-lance minstrel since 1974. He has recently released his 11th solo recording on Woodpecker Records. He lives in Southern Maine.

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