Friday, June 27, 2014

Drums of the Gone South

I don't get it.

Once more, I've got a show in which the drummer is too loud. I have to crank the singers to hear them over the drums, and that is not without problems. I have to crank the rest of the band to hear it over the drums. I even have to mic the drums because even though they are too loud they don't mix with the now artificially-enhanced rest of the band without putting them in the same speaker system. And then I crank the singers even more to get them over the band.

And that only solves it for the back of the house, on the quieter numbers. If you are near the front, all you hear is drums. On the louder numbers, all you hear is drums.

And of course I'm already getting the little notes and comments, the "could you turn up the actors some more because we couldn't hear them." As if I wasn't doing everything technologically possible already.

This is what I don't get. Why are they asking me?

I would think this would be an insult to the musician. "We recognize you can't sing on pitch, so we're going to auto-tune your performance." Or how about "The tone on your violin sucks, so we're going to dub in a MIDI-triggered synthesized one instead."

How is this different? How is the drummer the one musician who can just say, "Aw, shucks, I guess I just can't play these things right," and it is everyone else's job to fix it? How can drummers not be insulted by being in this position?

And how the hell did this evolve? Take your typical violin. Evolved over hundreds of years of work to have a tone that would project over the brass. And to a sound that would blend with the rest of the symphony orchestra. No composer ever said, "Well, violas don't blend with anything, and the sound is grating, but I guess I'll just have to use them in my next symphony anyhow."

And take the violinist. Works for years learning how to control their tone. To understand and use dynamics. To sit in a symphony requires that they learn to subsume their individual expression into a sound that blends. Because the section is more important than their individual voice, and the symphony is more important than their ego.

And a lesser version of this holds for most of the instruments of the band, from the sax to the bass; they play with the other members, with an instrument and a tone that blends into a harmonious whole. Very very few bands are made up of a full set of Highland Pipes and a handful of unhappy dulcimer players who know not a single note they perform will every be heard above the skirling and the drones.

So how the freaking hell do drummers get a free pass? Why do we consider them untrainable? Where are the years of well-developed options that create a more controlled volume (and a better dynamic range) while maintaining good tone and control? How is it when you go into the drum section at a music store you will find a hundred options in heads, more cymbals than you can shake a stick at, and everything else to make more noise, but only in the very back are a couple of dusty packages of half-assed tape-and-felt solutions towards not deafening the rest of the band?

I refuse to accept that the state of the art is (as it is both in high-end recording studios and on Broadway) sticking the drummer in a concrete room with double-glassed windows and a two-way closed-circuit television monitor.

Because it isn't. You only have to visit a jazz club where pre-fusion small-combo jazz is played, to see that the very same equipment, and techniques drawn from that same performance history, produces a sound that blends perfectly with other un-amplified acoustic instruments like string bass and piano (which aren't soft per se, but are a heck of a lot softer than steel strings going through a half-stack of Marshalls)

My personal feeling is, a lot of what drummers say about how their tone will suffer if they try to play softly, well, is at best a half-truth. Sure, they are the victims of a self-fulfilling manufacturing cycle; they play loud, so they need drums that sound good when played loud, and as a result most drums are optimized so they sound best when...surprise...they are loud.

But the simpler truth is they are kids pounding on pots and pans getting off on the sheer noise. Their joy in playing is in the thumping sensation in their chest, and the bleeding sensation in their ears. Soft playing doesn't satisfy them on this primitive emotional level.

So they make the rest of the band, and an entire audience of paying customers, suffer for their personal satisfaction. Rather than subsume their egos to the needs of the production, they are the most narcissistic, selfish creature in the building.

And this is why they continue to be uncontrolled. Because they have too many easy rationalizations for their own self-serving behavior. They won't listen to criticism. Outsiders (like the poor FOH mixer) can't talk to them at all. But even music directors quickly realize all they will get it sulks and half-hearted attempts at control that are quickly forgotten, and they too give up on trying to control their errant musician.

(Plus, so many drummers have never attempted to play at controlled dynamics, they lack the techniques to play accurately at lesser dynamics. It is like the problem a wind player has reaching the upper octaves without putting sufficient pressure behind, but in this case it can be done -- it just is so different from what they are practiced at, there isn't enough time in rehearsal for them to learn.)

And thus the behavior is perpetuated. It becomes pervasive. Worse -- it becomes an established fact, an unspoken elephant in the room, that everyone tiptoes around. They can't even see the elephant any more, they are so used to its presence.

So they blame the sound guy.

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