I’m pretty old – currently staring down the barrel of being 45… So, I groan when I get up from the sofa and my idea of a great concert (as someone attending) is whether it is seated and how easy the access is to the ‘facilities’. Whereas this may sound terrible to some (especially me to be honest), it does mean one thing – I’ve been playing live since I was 17 so I’ve been thinking about this kind of stuff for a long time. Along the way, having done over a thousand gigs, I’ve picked up some knowledge about some things that I might not have thought about before.
This week I want to talk about speaker placement when you perform… When I was a nipper, before the gig time, I had to keep my sound levels down low at home, because – you know, parents. I quickly found out the best way to do this was to lean my amp back (up against the wall) so the centre part of the cone was pointing at my ears. During this time, I wanted to be Jannick Gers before I knew that Jannick existed… basically, I wanted to stand between Smith and Murray on your bog standard Iron Maiden world tour. My bedroom came complete with a full-length mirror so quite often I was stood with my foot on the bed in that classic “on the monitors” way and other various poses the band are known for admiring my potential for being in the band... It was during this time I realised that where the speaker was pointing made an enormous difference to how I heard my guitar. It was either muffled if I wasn’t dead on, or bright and clear when I was. Based on this experience when I started with my first band I used to put my amp on stuff to make sure it was at head level as much as possible – I found that not only was it the best way to keep my stage level down but also the very best way to know that the people out front only heard what I was hearing. From there I went on to live mix large bands around the circuit which taught me also that in regards to upper mids and high end, speaker placement is absolutely everything. The lower the frequency goes, the more omnidirectional they become (this varies with speakers size) so you can put them anywhere and they’ll be heard, but those high ends have to be facing the right direction and high enough to literally go over the head of people, otherwise anything further than 10 feet from them with people in front of you, they are just gone.
Now, any self-respecting guitar player will be able to tell you that the best tone you get from your amp (providing you aren’t on a weak hollow stage) is to have your amp on the floor, but this is a nightmare for the people out front – you can’t hear your top end if you have your tone going into your calves, and also, if you are anywhere near the drummer you have to be literally twice as loud to hear yourself. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve seen a band where the guitar amps are on the floor and the first few rows have been slaughtered by sheer volume and gnarly top ends while the player thinks he sounds incredible.
With all that in mind, where do you put your speakers when you play live? Are they on the deck, or are they elevated? The current band I’m ruining is set up like this, my cab sits on top of a flight case, it’s a 2x12” (and I have it vertically) with the head on top. This means that because I am stood anywhere between 1 and 10 feet from my cab (usually about 2 or 3 tbh), at all times the top speaker is sitting close enough to head height for me to hear it properly. I have to have my cab a certain way ‘up’ as one of the speakers is truer on the higher end and the other is more about warm mids and lows. The top speaker has to be looking at my head, so I can keep the high end under control. As I play in a band that borders on country music, I have my cleans set on very clean with some sparkly high ends going on, so I sit on that verge of being shrill if I am not careful. I am so paranoid about this that I often hold my nose and blow down it to pop my ears out to ensure I am hearing all the highs properly… Something Mrs Wilding finds most amusing!
My current live speaker set up... vertically aligned so I can hear what I am doing... I don't play shoegaze, I promise...
Well, that’s the story part of the piece out of the way – what about the facts that support it, because we all like the sciencey facts part, right?
Speakers, and the frequencies that they protect vary in directionality. The higher the note, the more directional your sound will be projected. Here’s a little test… play a low E note and then one as high as you can straight after. Do that stood to the side of your amp, then at a 45 degree angle, and then right in front (also do this crouched down if your amp is on the floor). You’ll notice that the low-end notes sound pretty identical in all three but the higher notes will sound much duller when you are at the side.
Most guitar amp speakers are 12” and they demonstrate ‘beaming’ at about 1335hz – that is the frequency they become immensely directional. So, everything below that will feel a lot more omnidirectional. To put this in real guitary terms, a tubescreamer has a hump that is most prominent at 732hz and that’s considered to be a mid-range bump - upper mids is generally thought to be between 1khz and 2khz so everything above the midpoint of your upper mids is being protected in a strict direction. Now, think about standing on a stage with your amp on the floor about 5’ behind you. There is an enormous chance you are not actually hearing the high end of your amp properly, so your tone will be brighter than you think.. chances are you compensate for this by increasing the treble control on your amp/pedals. Now think about all those people who are standing on the floor about 15’ in front of you. Yep, it’s your high end that’s actually hurting them and ruining their night!
There are several companies that try to put a stop to this happening, most noticeably the Deefleex, it provides a deflection panel that sends your upper frequencies up to your ears - this is great - but in order to work properly they stick out quite a bit from your amp, so unless you are playing on a bigger stage, you just can’t use it as it will get in the way... if you don’t have that problem though, this simple solution could make a world of difference to your understanding of how you, and your audience, hears your tone.
While we are talking of speaker cabs, here’s another thing to consider… how you have your cab laying. If you are using a 1x12” cab, the sound will spread out evenly in all directions (this isn’t strictly true, but for the sake of this piece let’s keep it simple), but if you are using a 2x12” cab it will react quite differently. If you have the speakers in your cab aligned horizontally, you will get a bigger spread ‘up and down’ than if you put them vertically which will spread the sound wider. This is why I have my cab elevated off the ground and vertical, so the cab will spread more to the sides that it does up. If I had to put my cab any lower I would put it so the speakers are horizontally aligned, so the sound goes up more. For me, in a band that plays smaller venues, the dispersal of the sound to the sides is WAY more important because there won’t be enough room for a horizontally aligned cab to fill the room with sound. And there’s no point in taking all this gear to a gig if only a few people directly in front of me can hear it, right?
Tone sculpting has become a bit of an art, and many players pay so much attention to all facets of their board and guitar. Every link in the chain adds up to the overall tone you’re going to have coming from your amp, and small adjustments in your chain can make a big difference e in the long run.
Picks – There are thousands upon thousands of options for picks, ranging from extremely cheap budget picks all the way to expensive boutique picks that are worth almost as much as some pedals are. If you’re ever looking for a quick adjustment in your tone for something different, try a different pick shape or material. Different material will have a different tonal result on your pick attack, the harmonics and even feel of your playing. Metallic picks (using coins, etc) will have a brighter, chimey-er tone, where using some wood picks will yield a much darker tone. There are a plethora of options in terms of the material used to create them, so do your research and find which material yields the tone you’re looking for. Different thicknesses will make a large difference as well. It’s a fairly inexpensive way to for you to approach your tone differently. Also, if you don’t normally use your fingers, try it! Your fingers and fingernails have their own unique tone, and can resonate differently than a pick can. Switching up your right hand technique can really help you break out of the box tonally and technically.
Cables and Buffers – These are a foundation part of your tone, so great cables can make a huge difference. Again, there are a plethora of options out there for soldered and solderless cables, along with varying ends and methods of creating those cables, along with shielding options and types of outer casings for enhanced durability. The key to finding a great cable is finding a set that creates minimal signal degradation. The cheapo $5 patch cables can suck some tone and cut your high end, which after going through several of those cables will yield a more muffled, dull bypassed tone. Buffers also play a huge part in keeping your tone pristine. Buffers alter the impedence of your guitar signal, which helps it travel through your board easier. Just remember that some pedals (fuzzes and wah’s) aren’t fans of buffers, so place them before it. The best judge of whether you need a buffer or not is to take a short guitar cable (10’) and plug directly into your amp and play. Now plug into your board and see if the tone sounds muffled or like a blanket is lying over your amp. This would be due to signal loss from not having a buffer or needing better cables.
Speakers and Speaker Cabs - Of all of your tonal puzzle pieces, these are literally the devices that project your sound into the world, so choosing the right speaker for the application can play a huge role in turning great tone into STELLAR tone. There are more options than I can possibly put into a single blog, but there are hundreds of speakers from various companies that can accentuate the amp it’s paired with, and subsequently the pedals and guitar that are running into it.
The key to finding the perfect voicing for the sound you have in your head is realizing what you’re intentions are for the amp you’re using. If you want clean headroom, your speaker choices can differ greatly from an amp that you’re intending to use as your dirt tones. Choices can be affected by what configurations you have as well, so a single 1x12” cab will sound different from a 2x12” and a 4x12” (or 4x10”, or countless other options). Having a cab that holds more than one speaker is beneficial because it allows you to mix speakers to fit the perfect application. One speaker may be designed for more aggressive lows and highs with less emphasis on mids, where you could pair that with a more mid-focused speaker to fill out your sound tonally.
When choosing your speaker, you need to pay attention to the outputs on your amps and what ohms they can put out, as well as the speaker and make sure they match up. If you’re not sure exactly how to do this, the easiest method is to email the company and let them know what amp you’re using and they can recommend the right product and ohm rating for you. Your amp can sound completely different based on whether you’re running at 4ohm, 8ohm and 16ohm and doing the research between the various options and what works best for your amp will yield some really fun and great sounding results.
Along with proper speaker choices, deciding on the right cab (as mentioned above) will play a part in your overall tone. Horizontal cables vs. vertical cabs can make a big difference on the tone you and the audience are hearing, along with which way the cab is facing and whether it’s tilted, off the floor, or even facing a different direction. The last thing the front row of a gig wants is to have your speakers blaring directly in their faces. Tilting the cab back (on combos) or getting the cab off of the floor will help diffuse some of the sound and disperse it into the air instead of directly at the audience’s faces.
Mix it up a bit – Do you normally run your delay into the FX loop? Try placing it before your dirt pedals for a completely different set of tones. There are typical “guides” and thought processes that come to mind when laying out a pedalboard, but when it comes down to it there are no rules, and what’s right is whatever sounds best to you. Experiment with signal chain order, especially stacking different pedals into each other to see what sonic tones you can coax out of something that would seem so unorthodox.