In the last inquirer, I Defined EQ, described its influence over a bass’s timbre, and outlined the types of EQ found on most amps and studio gear. If you’re new to the technology and terminology, have that column handy for this installment’s discussion of live sound and the relevance of EQ in the live environment. The live stage is easily the trickiest acoustic environment we encounter.
The variables that impact sound are innumerable. When you pluck a note, the speaker cone(s) in your rig oscillate and produce air-pressure pulses, but so do the speakers in the PA and monitors. All of this sound is coming from different places and then reflecting off the room’s interior, further muddying the already-complex wave interference. Depending on the room’s interior, the sound waves can also resonate with the walls and other surfaces, altering their frequency profile. No wonder live-sound people always look stressed.
In all this chaos, EQ can do a lot to help, but it’s important to understand the live ecosystem. First, if you’re playing a gig with sound reinforcement (a PA system), you’ll have to abdicate most responsibility for what the audience hears to the front-of-house (FOH) engineer. One tip for verifying the FOH mix, though, is to get a wireless system. It’s a means to untether from the stage and walk into the audience area to hear your tone from that perspective. Given your limited control over the FOH, your focus should be primarily on making the FOH engineer’s life easier and getting the tone you need onstage to perform your best.
Broadly, focus on three areas: volume, bass frequencies, and midrange frequencies. It’s critical not to turn up your amp too loud, both to save the audience’s ears and reduce bleed into stage microphones. The temptation is well justified: bass frequencies have a long wavelength, and since we’re often forced to stand close to our cabinets, the wave’s amplitude is weak relative to its peak a dozen or more feet away. Meanwhile, the folks in the front row are getting annihilated. This is where monitors become crucial. While they don’t usually have the deeply satisfying low-end response of a good bass rig, they allow us to hear ourselves without overwhelming the audience. This is also a good time to use the wireless tip above, in order to get a sense of your rig’s projection into the room.
Once you’ve sorted out your live volume, it’s best to consider your rig’s bass response. My philosophy is to have the minimum amount of low end onstage to effectively communicate your sound and feel good. Depending on the room size, low frequencies (such as 100Hz and below) have an omnidirectional quality that reduces the listener’s perception of directionality. This can be cool to create an immersive experience, but it can diminish a live mix’s perceived tightness. Also, your rig has to work extra hard to effectively amplify low frequencies, some of which aren’t even being faithfully reproduced, due to the cabinets’ limited low-frequency response. I recommend mildly cutting the lows using your head’s shelving bass control, which likely has a cutoff somewhere between 70Hz and 100Hz, until you notice a more coherent and clear mix onstage.
The midrange is where your bass’s soul exists, as it encompasses most of the lower-order harmonics that most strongly influence timbre. It’s also the area of maximum acoustic clutter onstage, given the frequency spectrum of the average guitar, keyboard, or vocal. Your amp’s semi-parametric EQ is an ally in helping to create a refined midrange blend. You want to balance the need to audibly assert your bass’s timbre while making space for the other instruments. This is where it’s useful to have two midrange controls on your amp. While every situation is different, it can often be helpful to make a broad, minimal cut in the 150Hz to 400Hz range, to make space for your bandmates’ fundamental frequencies, while making narrower boosts in the 1kHz to 2kHz range, for assertive definition and attack.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to provide specific guidelines to get good sound, although the tips above should serve as good first steps. The most important insight is to recall the bass’s role in the average ensemble: support. Most often, we’re there to make everyone else sound good. That role isn’t limited to our musicianship; it’s just as crucially applied to our sound. When you play live, know that supporting the song is about more than good time and the right notes.
BASS PLAYER Senior Contributing Editor Jonathan Herrera is the magazine’s former Editor-in-Chief. An accomplished player, Jonathan is now a full-time musician and producer. His latest endeavor is Bay Area recording studio Airship Laboratories. Catch up with him at jonherrera.com and at airshiplaboratories.com.