Getting a good rehearsal sound

Rehearsal sound can be regarded as almost as important as the live sound on stage and would ideally mimic the actual on-stage sound at a gig. Although this may not always be possible creating a reasonably balanced sound is essential if the band are going to hear each other. Hearing the vocals in particular is a common problem.

So let us consider the following:

  • 1) Venue acoustics
  • 2) volume of other instruments
  • 3) Sound bleed into vocal mics
  • 4) Sheer volume of band/vs/PA capability/vs/Room size
  • 5) Composition/sound balance
  • 6) Conclusion
  • 7) If all else fails?

1) Venue acoustics

First of all, it does depend on how large your practice space is, and what the acoustics are like. If you have a large reverberant space such as a sports hall or empty warehouse, then you have real problems, full stop.

So presuming you have somewhere ranging from adequate to small in size and average acoustics (think living room-ish) then we have a starting point.

It is usually better with electric music to have a practice space that is quite dry acoustically so that you can hear each other more clearly, so you might find it an advantage to take measures to dampen the sound down using drapes or even acoustic foam if it is a regular rehearsal studio.

2) Volume of other instruments

In the studio, vocals are given the preferential treatment as regards to volume. Everything else, including guitars are adjusted so as to give the vocals definition (usually!).

This would be ideal at a live gig also, if it still allowed a suitable volume from the rest of the band. With large stages that is not much of a problem, but with a loud band on many smaller stages and venues it can seem difficult enough to to get the vocals heard at all, yet along what is being sung!

Now when it comes to playing with a real drum kit THE instrument that defines the overall level of sound should be the drum kit.

Quite simply because it doesn't have a volume control.

(Unless you have a loud brass section, that doesn't really have a volume control either.)

Guitar amps, on the other hand do, even so they are often the loudest sound(s) in the band and are usually the main problem when it comes to hearing the vocals.

Now, to put us on a firm footing, some of my best friends are guitar players so what I am about to say is nothing personal OK? ok...

Consider this:

If you cannot hear the vocals over the guitars when you practice, then how is anyone going to hear them when you play a gig.

Now I've heard endless arguments about how turning the volume down affects the sound blah, blah,blah etc., so don't bother with the comments!


The only real aspects of actual acoustic volume that affects the actual electric guitar sound are:

a) acoustic feedback between the speaker and the guitar strings, and

b) the mechanical/acoustic feedback between valves and speaker within a typical valve amp set-up at high volumes.

If the first aspect (a) is important, it can be solved by simply moving closer to the speaker to compensate for a lower volume.

I also recommend here to do the same as I suggest on any small stage/venue: Angle the guitar cabs across the stage or practice area and, if possible, lift them up onto chair or angled stand to throw the sound closer to your ears. You then need less actual amp volume as you get more of the sound.

The second (b) is often not noticeable to anyone apart from the guitar player (no-one else is close enough) and is easily simulated anyway with any number of guitar pedals these days.

All other arguments are blown away by the amount of times I've seen a competant session guitar player exactly emulate someone elses unique trademark sound (often within minutes of hearing it for the first time), often using their own equipment. (To then hear them perfectly emulate that persons unique playing style as well makes for an eye-opener to the un-initiated!).

If you have very large, very loud guitar rigs, maybe ask your self - wouldn't it be easier to have a smaller amp/cab etc and use an effects pedal to emulate louder amps? They are very good nowadays... Save a lot of humping, save going deaf at an early age, (I kid ye not, happens to a lot of electric guitar players).

Remember it is often easy to feed a bit of guitar through the PA to good effect. At a live gig this is very effective due to the fact that the guitar amps are further away from the audience than the vocals (and sometimes the drums). By feeding some of the guitar sound through the PA, even if only a little, brings the sound further forward and makes up for any lack of amp volume coming from the stage.

3) Sound bleed into vocal mics

Often one of the biggest problems generally, is the spill into the mics from all of the other instruments, so what we need to consider first is layout.

Now most stage mics have a cardioid pick-up pattern and reject most of the sound from the rear and are most sensitive from the front and sides. So ideally the amps and drums should be behind the mics i.e: the vocalists facing the guiter and bass speakers and the drums. Usually the opposite from being on stage. Obviously for a practice session the PA speakers can be here too, and the floor monitors should be placed near the base of the mic stands (as they would be on stage).

Now don't think that these speakers should always face the vocalists, if the guitar amps are angled then fine, the rear of the mic doesn't reject everything, so avoid pointing loudspeakers at them if they don't need to be.

Do the main PA cabs need to point directly at the vocalists as well or would the rest of the band be better served to be able to hear the vocal a bit better. Remember though, there may only be a couple of vocal monitors at a gig!

Remember: If you are using the same (or similar) equipment to practice as you do at gigs then knowing how to get a good sound when you practice will help your live sound no end.

Acoustics also come into play here and if your practise venue is very live sounding you are advised to use measures to dampen the sound down. Duvets etc., are handy, they can be hung or draped across reflective surfaces and even such things as a jacket draped over a music stand can help reduce direct spill behind a mic.

A jacket on a coat hanger hung from a spare mic stand etc., is another old studio trick that can be used.

4) Sheer volume of band/vs/PA capability/vs/Room size

Sometimes the actual volume is to loud for the actual space, or the PA itself cannot cope. In very small rooms the volume of an acoustic drum kit can be so loud that everything is turned up to the max to compensate. Even if it is possible to get much volume on the vocals without feedback it could still be distorted or the whole acoustic sound pressure level in the room is seriously overloading your ears and everything has become a distorted mush anyway!! (This is not uncommon, believe me!).

5) Composition and sound balance

Another point to consider is song composition, whereas vocals and instruments should share the focal point, not compete for it.

Something that shows up more obviously when recording songs, is other instruments or sounds simply drowning out the vocals, because they use the same frequencies or there is just to much going on.

If you listen to music productions where the vocals are clear you will notice that it is because they are given space.

Even very loud bands tend to cut the guitar or lead sounds down a bit behind a vocal line, either in volume, playing less, or in the case of two guitars/instruments, dropping one during vocals. Remember also that guitars and vocals cover similar frequencies so maybe a change of guitar sound may be a help to the vocals, one that doesn't clash tonally or isn't so cutting.

The band's actual sound balance:

Something I have noted elsewhere on this site is the importance of understanding the balance between the drums, the bass and the rest of the band.

The drums and bass are the underpin, like the chassis and wheels of a car. Don't stick them in the background, the kik drum/bass combination is vital.

Remember, more people will listen to your guitar and/or vocal work if it is put in a good setting and not dominating the piece.

6) Conclusion

Ideally a rehearsal venue should have:

A suitable acoustic (fairly dry in the case of rock bands).

Be large enough to accomodate the band as if on a typical live stage.

The band is set up in a similar way to that of a gig. The common difference being the vocals turned away from the "audience" direction and around to face the "band". That is usually toward the drums and the instrument amps. This can be handy when composing and jamming but actually setting up as you would on stage has the advantage of you getting used to it along with it's requirements and pitfalls.

So first of all place the drum kit, this is often at the centre rear of the stage at a gig but this is not always the best regarding spill into the vocal. Consider this with your vocal mics both live and during rehearsal.

Crossfeed guitar amps etc., so nothing is fed directly into mics. The idea is to create a good sound balance of all the instruments (drums, bass, guitars, keys, electric nose flute or whatever), on your "stage" so that everyone can hear everyone else. The other purpose is to avoid sending sound diectly at the mics.

Set up the vocal monitors behind the mic stands as at a gig (whichever way you are actually facing). You will get used to your direct monitor coming from there and it usually does a good job as long as it is actually pointing at you.

If you have stand mounted PA cabs then use them behind the mic line and angled to cross-feed over the rehersal space. If need be they can used be quite close as individual vocal monitors, bearing in mind the pick-up pattern of the mics and the increased risk of feedback.

Balancing the sound

The drums set the basic sound level, so first of all balance the bass against the drums, taking note of connection between the kik drum and the bass.

This can be a good point to set a rough vocal level, or at least get an idea of how much headroom is available.

Balance the guitars against the drums/bass sound. They should not dominate, the whole sound should be have weight and power. The same goes for any other instruments, whether keyboards, brass or any other loud sound.

Then, hopefully you will have some headroom left for your vocals, if not you will have to turn everything else down, and in particular anything that clashes with the vocal sound.

Repeat: If you still have problems then turn everything else DOWN! If that is impossible, then you need to find another practice venue!

This is pretty much the same as on a small stage so getting it right here can only help when you play out, don't always expect the soundman to sort your sound out at a gig!

7) If all else fails?

So none of this works, you rehearse in a tiny but echoey space, the 800w guitar stacks have broken volume controls stuck on 11-1/2 and, er, every one in the band is half deaf anyway ...

a) Use Headphones.

Big fat loud headphones of the closed type, the ones that tend to cut out external sound as well. DJ headphones are handy here. Does of course need the investment in headphones and headphone amplifiers, but it could be the answer to a difficult situation.

b) Decide that sod it, the vocals are crap anyway and who needs them when you've got such brilliant guitar players?

c) Figure that if the rest of the band can actually hear the vocals they will decide that they are crap, so it's probably best if they can't hear them anyway.

d) Sack the band and, er, get an Apple Mac and, ummm, a copy of Garage Band...?

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