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Old King Log
Staff member
We saw a show here in Pensacola FL the other night, a traveling affair called In The Mood, that was a "big band" operation. (Well, it really was a "little big band" (four saxes, three trumpets, three trombones, no guitar, with the harmony suffering accordingly) combined with a pile of vocalists/dancers (six total), but let's not quibble.)

It was a stage show, presented in a moderately large theater, so some amplification was in order regardless. However, for the most part the brass just blew their parts at substantial volume through the shout choruses while the saxes were always on the amplification for every minute of the production. (They (and the vocalists, and the stupid electronic grand piano) were also over-amped all of the time - very distracting, particularly when the sound was projected in a poorly designed mono format - I blame the sound people for that, though.)

In any event, the saxes, even when they were overdone, were easily over-shadowed by the brass. Hard to get around that, and the only realistic solution is to control the brass to keep them at an equal volume and not act like they are playing in a marching band.

I know that keeping the brass toned down in my group was a never-ending struggle. I always made sure to let them shine in a few numbers, where trumpets and trombones (and tubas) were to the fore, but the rest of the time kept them in sync with the remainder of the group.

Incidentally, this group (which featured a number of UNT and Julliard folks on the horns, although you would not have known it from their playing) featured an upright bass player that was the best that I have ever heard. During the two hour show, featuring all of the classic big band tunes we have all heard over the years, I only heard him flub or miss three notes. While bass playing isn't the most complicated task in the world, it's hard to fault an effort like that.

Through the entire performance, he was paying attention to both the MD (seated beneath him on the stage, playing his hybrid piano/synth (in order to fill in some lush string backgrounds for some of the romantic vocal numbers), and to his charts. A real trooper.

I'd also have hired the bass bone player in a heartbeat. Great presence where it counted, good blending in the rest of the time.

I still think that the solution to presenting a solid sound picture of your group is to do the following:

1) Control the brass. Control the brass. Control the brass. CONTROL THE BRASS!!!

2) Amplify the piano (when you can't use a electronic equivalent), bass and guitar. Control the volume

3) Amplify the vocalists. Equalize their volume so that it projects (ever so slightly) above that of the music normally.

4) Mike the soloists so that they can stand out a half dynamic level above everything else when they are playing a solo. You can do this through a sound man (the fancy approach), or through properly directed microphones that come into full play when a player stands up, or pivots ever so slightly to face the highly directional microphone.

5) Supervise the sound board, either yourself (very difficult - trust me on this one) or through a sound person to both deal with unplanned disruptions and ham-handed individuals who think that they know better.

An anecdote:

One of the greatest sound disasters that I ever faced was at a charity benefit, where we went to supper during the "long break", the one where the auctioneer takes the stage to sell all of the items not including in the silent auction, stuff like the cruise, Superbowl trip, and the BMW/Mercedes. We got a nice enough meal, and invariably a longer break (which meant less playing later on), but it usually meant that we were removed from the area and stuffed into a back meeting room during the process.

I always had an extra item written into the contract that provided for use of our sound system by the client at a wedding/benefit/whatever, as long as we got a $50.00 to $100.00 spiff for allowing same, this to cover the extra balancing for the room filling requirement (over our normal levels) that an auctioneer would need.

However, on this occasion the client told me that the auctioneer would be bringing their own system (probably to save the spiff), so we wouldn't need to bother with the extra setup time. No problem...

...except that the auctioneer didn't bring their own equipment. (No explanation was given by the auctioneer, at least none that I ever heard.) The actual chairwoman of the benefit (not the honorary one, a hot local socialite who did squat to enable the whole thing) came to me in a panic as we were setting up, tearfully explaining the problem, and I responded by agreeing (verbally) to their use of our equipment. (She did come through with the additional payment, probably by reaching into the small change purse in her clutch.) No problems, other than a little un-budgeted setup time, coming out of the setup team's pre-show lunch.

Comes the auction break that evening, I hurriedly reset the sound to provide the "auction sound picture" and then went to dinner with the rest of the group, in a meeting room off in another part of the hotel. After the usual much longer than budgeted auction break, we returned to the bandstand, only to be presented (during a vocalist's "crowd warm up" pre-singing monolog) with a completely screwed up sound system.

It seemed that (during the auction) someone from the auction firm had decided to "enhance" the sound output by screwing with the compression and the highs and the lows, all of this on our unattended sound system (my new "black box" on wheels, currently in our massive storage unit here in the Sunshine State, and quite possibly never to be used again).

Moreover, although each channel was clearly identified by color, and as the auctioneer only had use of the one mike ("Red", in our color scheme of "Red, Yellow, Green, Brown, Orange, Purple" (or "Stoplight - BOP" in the catch-phrase used within the group)), the unidentified meddler messed with virtually every setting on both the amp (a Peavey box amp, set into the lower portion of the cabinet) and the mixer board at the top (a nice Yamaha unit), throwing the whole thing into discord.

The start of the next set found me and one of the vocalists, bringing it back into an approximation of the careful pre-performance setup. Fortunately, the hall was pretty much a standard one, with few obstructions and protrusions likely to set up feedback under most conditions, and fortunately my obsession with easing the setup process had led me to produce a draft setup guide once I finished with the construction of the new system. While one of the vocalists on the platform vamped through a bunch of standard humor (something he was very good with), we twisted and slid dials and sliders with gay abandon until we were back to the "normal" setup.

The remaining sets were mostly modern, up tempo rock and pop dance numbers (and C & W - I will never get used to playing country and western music, but here in the South you better be ready to deliver it), so we had little problem up to the "downhill" portion of the last set, when I always rotated all of the vocalists up on the stand for one final "farewell" number.

At that point, my sound-sensitive vocalist rode the board like a pro, tweaking and adjusting as the performances went down. All of the sweet, romantic numbers went off without a hitch, and he was able to take the stand for the finale (Funny How Time Slips Away, yeah I know, more C & W, but a great, silly song to end a show with regardless), which also came off without a problem.

My next planned modification to the big black box on wheels was to have been a ventilation and locking system so that the thing could be closed up (but still be running), secured and out of the hands of those who would meddle. I've still got the parts (including a nifty piece of ventilation screen for the fan ways, front and rear), but haven't yet done the work.

And, it's not like I wasn't aware of stuff like this happening. When I was a mere sprout, playing in the All County Orchestra in Saint Louis back in the early 1960s, we performed before the amassed teachers of the area at a concert held in the Kiel Opera House, near downtown Saint Louis.

It was a big affair, located a quarter mile from the nearest parking garage (where I paid for parking for the first (but not last) time in my life), and I had to lug my bassoon, clarinets and bass clarinet (and associated stand bags) a long way just to get to the assembly room, much less the stage.

High school groups were not accustomed to using amplification at that time (even our school's jazz band used all acoustic instruments, amping only the vocals, few as they were), but the stage in the house was well provided with same. Some stuck up 'cello player did one movement of a concerto with the orchestra, and the same microphone was also used for the leader, a great gal (now long dead from cancer) who taught orchestra at a district that no longer exists (Berkeley, up by the Saint Louis airport).

She was great in many ways, but I appreciated her most for letting players from our district (Lindbergh, which did not have an orchestra program at that time) to participate in the group.

I was the first, a loner playing clarinet/bass clarinet/bassoon who filled in a hole for a particular performance (the overture to Candide, Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice, some 'cello mess, and a number of classical and romantic pieces (overture to The Flying Dutchman comes to mind). She valued me for my bass clarinet playing as well as for the ability to double on the bundle of sticks, and for my interest in orchestral music, especially as I came from a district that only played concert band and jazz band music (no orchestra, no marching band).

It made for a strange appearance in the program - due to the full string section, other districts all had four or five names in the program, and then there was this one dweeb from Lindbergh, wherever that was. However, it changed so that in my senior year, we had two full cars full making the trip - all still from a district without an orchestra program.

Anyway, there we were, 'cello piece done, and madam tried to speak into the cavernous auditorium (the place is huge) on a microphone optimized for the groanings of the "violin between the babe's legs" that was the 'cello. The result was anything but flattering.

So, she tells the second desk violin leader to run backstage and get the problem fixed. The slip of a girl walks off and goes looking for someone to handle the sound. No sound man, no stage hands, nobody from the auditorium could be found (not surprising considering that the conference organizers didn't have that much money to pay for stuff).

So, it comes down to the bassoon/clarinet/bass clarinet guy and his tuba playing buddy, lounging offstage in a pair of folding metal chairs, to do the deed. The violinist scoots back on stage to join the orchestral number in progress while we try to figure out what to do.

Neither of us knew anything more about amplified sound beyond what we may have heard second-, third- or fourth-hand from the then-emerging pop music scene. (Doug had some very minor experience with same, I had yet to play an amplified job at that point in my life.) We both knew the terms, but we had absolutely no idea as to which channel the mike was on, or what the settings should have been.

In the end, we settled for bringing everything on the scrambled up mixer (all of the channels were in apparent chaos, and it took us some time to figure out which one we should be dealing with) into the neutral position, while not messing with the volume dials at all at that point. We made it through the next number with only a minor squeal, and we had that squeal to use to squelch the mid and low a bit to clean it up. Then, it stood for the rest of the program (during which we had to be out on stage, anyway).

A footnote to the whole affair:

After we cleared out the orchestra set, some of us hung around for a while, just to mess with the still operational microphone and the cavernous Opera House chamber. Myself, Peter (a flute/piccolo player) and "Woody" (Bruce, a talented drummer) were taking turns at the microphone, cutting up and singing to the dark spaces outside of the still-on lighting setup, when a voice comes out of the gloom.

"Oh, ****!" was our immediate reaction - we've been caught.

Nope. It was none other that the infamous Victor Borge. He had been there for a concert set to come off that night, had listened to the first part of our concert (during which I did a flawless rip through the very up-tempo bass clarinet solo in the Candide piece - I carry the pride from that to this day, as he commented on what I had done), had gone off to meet with the MD for the night's concert, and had come back to see if anything was still going on.

He worked his way down to the stage while we recovered from the scare, and we had a pleasant half hour with him before he had a luncheon date. Before he left, he invited the three of us back for the performance that evening as his guests.

Mind you, I barely knew who he was at that point in my life - after all, my school had no classical music oriented program at all, and recorded music at that time was limited to what record albums your folks might have in the house. However, we accepted immediately, and spent the rest of the day screwing around in downtown Saint Louis, killing time until the night's performance.

Now, this was in the 1960s, when a high school kid didn't carry much dosh on his person. I did have an emergency $20 stashed in my wallet, but that only went so far when you had three people to feed two meals to during the time (and parking to cover).

No cell phones then, either. True, phone calls were cheap (a dime for three minutes), but no answering machines to take a message if Mom was out with her bridge club. Between the three of us, we only managed to land one connection, but she didn't manage to contact either of my parents, making for some 'splaining to do late that evening.

And it was late that evening, for not only did we enjoy the show from the wings (all of us knew members of the orchestra, and they did their best to accommodate us as well as did Mr. Borge), but we were invited to the post-performance party at Cyrano's, then a very popular coffeehouse/dessert parlor located in a Clayton MO basement, but since moved three times, and then gone out of business).

(It's since been reborn as a pale imitation of its former self in Webster Groves - a pathetic restaurant with passable desserts (World's Fair Eclair - great except for the pathetic whipped light cream that they currently use - I've suggested that they invest in one of the machines used by the Cheesecake Factory to bring their work of art back to its former glory, but no luck there.)

That double sawbuck reached the vanishing point by the end of the evening, but it was a great time. (We hit up Peter's flute teacher for a few dollars more, and made it through the night with a pocketful of change to spare.) Borge was every bit as hilarious in person as he was in performance, and the eclair started a love affair with both the dish and the place that lasted me through much of my time in Saint Louis. Nothing impressed young women of the early 1960s like spending ten dollars on them for a late night meal and dessert.

However, it was a very difficult time for me late that night, explaining why I had kept the "utility car" out so late that evening (a Friday night, which had my mother calling every girl I associated with, trying to find out which hussy was the cause of this all), and it was only resolved when a) Peter's mom was contacted by the other two suspicious moms, and b) the autographed (cloth) napkins that Victor gifted each of us were compared and contrasted by the parents involved. (My mother, bitch that she was, sold mine, framed and adorned with a photograph of Borge by her artistic buddy.)

Oh, and to tie it all together, one other problem with Cyrano's was (and is) that they allow acoustic folks to perform there, and they (the restaurant) don't control the volume. I had almost forgotten that until I wrote this just now.
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