The following thoughts on using sound reinforcement for a big band don’t really go into the equipment itself, but rather just summarize my personal philosophy about how to effectively use sound reinforcement with a big band. I will be speaking generally here for both a new jazz ensemble director as well as offering my thoughts to those of you running the sound from behind the board.
I don’t recall exactly where I saw this, but there is a video of Wynton Marsalis discussing how the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra uses microphones when performing along with a symphony orchestra. In this video performance Marsalis mentions that each of the players in the SJMO get their own mic – not to make their sound louder (the symphony orchestra didn’t get miced in this way for the performance), but to bring out the nuances that each musician put into their playing that would otherwise get lost in the large room.
This brings up my first point – know the room. If you’re performing in a large concert hall and have the luxury of having enough mics and channels where you can mic every individual player, then by all means go ahead and give it a shot. This is fairly impractical, however, and not usually necessary for most situations. In fact, I believe that using mics to reinforce section sound to be less desirable than using an acoustic approach to ensemble playing.
I’m reminded of a couple of concerts I played a few years ago backing up Bobby Shew with the Asheville Jazz Orchestra. Bobby was brought in to be one of the featured performers at the Western Carolina University Trumpet Festival and the AJO was invited to be his backup band. The day after that performance we had asked Bobby to stick around for one more day and repeat that performance in Asheville. While the concert at WCU was in the concert hall and had sound reinforcement for us, the performance in Asheville took place in a historic church and the only microphone we used was used strictly for announcements, everything else was run acoustically. The band was responsible for handling the dynamics accordingly to ensure that soloists didn’t need to blast to be heard. Of the two performances, the concert without sound reinforcement ended up sounding better. This was partly due to us having just performed the music the night before and feeling more comfortable on it, but having to focus intensely on the dynamics and make everything work acoustically made for a more unified band sound throughout each chart. The AJO has done a number of other performances like this without sound reinforcement and as long as everyone pays attention and does their job it can work very well.
That said, contemporary big band arrangements are written with solo reinforcement in mind and so I prefer to have some mics for soloists. Here is the stage plot I send out for AJO shows that shows the microphone positions. The actual placement of the mics isn’t so important (for example, in most situations I would position the trombone solo mic between the 2nd and 1st player since most of the trombone solos happen in those parts), but the key point is that there is at least one solo mic in each section. You’ll probably want two for the saxophones (one for lead tenor, one for lead alto), three if your bari player or 2nd tenor is going to blow solos too. Mics will either need to be moved to different places in the section for different soloists or the players will need to switch positions for the chart.
It’s important for the sound technician to understand that these mics are for solo reinforcement only. Often times the sound guy will feel that unless he has something to work with at all times that he isn’t doing his job. Frequently the tech will set up the mics like this for us and then leave them on to pick up the section sound like this. This sounds awfully strange when you get a mix of the band blending acoustically (which we work so hard to be able to do) and then have the sound of 2nd trumpet blaring through the mains. The goal is for us to be able to mix our balance as we normally play (acoustically) and then give our soloists a little extra volume so that when background figures happen the soloist doesn’t have to blast over the band and the rest of the band doesn’t have to hold back too much. This doesn’t eliminate the band’s responsibility to play sensitively with dynamics and the sound reinforcement should work in conjunction with the band’s dynamics. Savy horn players can “work the mic” a bit to help get dynamics going while soloing, provided the monitors are giving a somewhat accurate depiction of what’s coming out of the mains.
As far as rhythm section sound reinforcement goes it depends a bit more on the acoustics of the room, but in general I like to have some mics on the piano for a couple of reasons. First, the pianist won’t need to pound to be heard over the band, particularly when soloing, and second it helps the soloists when we get a little piano in the monitors. Guitar and bass (or keyboard, if you’re not using an acoustic piano) tend to work best when you simply use the amp on stage and balance accordingly, but sometimes having a direct line to the board can help if the sound of the room makes those instruments disappear in the house. When playing a new room it’s helpful to start with just the amps on stage, balance them for the band to hear them, and then step out into the house to hear the mix out there and adjust as needed. Sometimes you can fix problems by moving the position of the amp, turning it slightly in one direction or raising it up, rather than feeding a line into the sound board.
As far as micing the drum set I’m against it in almost all situations. Most sound technicians I’ve worked with are much more experienced running sound for a rock band than for a jazz band and they expect a big band to be similar. Again, my goal is to make everything seem like it’s purely acoustically balanced, even when a little micing is used. Out of all the instruments in the big band, the drum set has the widest range of dynamic possibilities and my favorite drummers to play with are very accomplished at balancing their sound with the horns. There’s usually no need to mic anything on the drum set and putting drums into the mains sounds unstylistic and just makes the horns have to work harder to get their sound balanced up to the louder drum sound. There are exceptions, depending on the room. One venue the AJO plays in fairly regularly has a stage setup where our drummer will end up being off in a corner and the acoustics end up muffling the sound of the drums to the point where we do end up micing the drumset, but this situation is pretty rare. Again, when you get into a new venue take some time during the sound check to have someone step out into the house and listen to the mix.
The “mains” are the speakers that are directed out to the audience. Usually you want to have them positioned at the front of the stage on either side of the band and raised up on stands. Once the general volume of the mains are set the sound tech will usually only adjust the individual channels as needed.
How you use monitors will also depend on the acoustics of the stage you’re performing on and the equipment you have access to. Different players will want to have different mixes in the monitors as well, and so this gets pretty quickly into a matter of personal preference. My basic request for the AJO is to have 3 monitors in front. One monitor goes by the piano and is mainly to allow the pianist to hear himself or herself clearly enough when the band is playing forte as well as help the pianist hear the soloists clearly. Position this monitor mainly for the pianist, but this monitor should also help the rest of the rhythm section. The other two monitors go on either side of the horn section and are there for the band to hear piano more clearly and so that soloists will be able to hear themselves without needing to blast.
I always try to remember to thank the sound technician and ask the audience to give him or her a round of applause, but I tell the tech that if I forget that this is means that they did the best job possible. When the sound is running well for a big band the effect is that there is no sound reinforcement and you can forget completely that it’s even there. The sound technicians who understand this and who actually achieve this are rare, but when you get to work with them it’s a real pleasure. Perhaps one of the best things you can do if you find yourself in a situation where you’re involved with sound reinforcement for a big band is to become familiar with the sound of a big band on excellent recordings and to imitate the mix you hear. By far the most common complaint I have with sound technicians on my big band gigs are that they tend to mix the sound like a rock band and put too much drums and the rest of the rhythm section in the mix and the horns end up having to work harder than we need to in order to get the balance correct. As the horns play louder, the sound technician pumps up the rhythm section even more and a vicious cycle begins. Listen closely to the different levels you’ll hear in a big band recording compared to a rock band with horns and you’ll learn exactly the balance you want to achieve.
I know there are some people with slightly or even wildly differing philosophies about the sound reinforcement they want for a big band, but I think my thoughts here are fairly typical and certainly stylistic regarding the overall mix. If you’ve got something to add or want to object to something I’ve written here please feel free to leave your comments below.