Getting in Gear
Tremolo. Delay. Overdrive. Fuzz. Condenser. Dynamic. Phantom power. Daisy chain. Ground, lift. Passive, active. EQ. Direct, bypass, signal, gain, frequency. Musicians standing still onstage with an ear cocked toward the monitor and an index finger held in the air, signaling something to the sound engineer during sound check.
When I started touring, the language of audio gear was a foreign language to me, and it’s still not one I speak fluently. The terms above refer to sound waves, ways of using gear, types of microphones, pedals, pickups, monitors, and the way that electrical signals flow through all of these things to make sound. (Or something. I am not an engineer.)
While studying at Berklee, I muddled through a couple of studio recording classes, but I didn’t learn much about gear or live audio from a performer’s standpoint. Maybe there’s a class — if there is, I didn’t take it. And as a violin performance and songwriting double major with a minor in American roots music, I certainly didn’t learn a single thing about electric guitar pedals. But as my band has accumulated years of gigs, we’ve homed in on what works for us and our desired sound.
When onstage, I like having control over how I will interact with my instruments. And as an acoustic musician, I value a natural and high-quality sound. I’m also not rich, and good gear costs money. These can be tricky factors to triangulate.
A microphone, whether on a stand or attached to the instrument, is usually going to sound better than a pickup for an acoustic instrument. (What’s the difference? To make a long story short, mics and pickups capture and transmit sound in very different ways, and a pickup is built in or otherwise attached to the instrument.) This is true for guitar, but it’s doubly true for fiddle. In my opinion, a lot of fiddle pickups make a fiddle sound somewhere between a kazoo and a computerized trumpet. (Tell us how you really feel, Isa!) But a pickup is louder, can allow for greater control over your sound, and will be less finicky than a mic in the monitors. Some use both a mic and a pickup to get the best of all possible worlds — the clarity and definition of a mic with the consistency and workhorse power of a pickup.
The three of us in my band, Lula Wiles, sing around one large-diaphragm condenser microphone, rather than each having our own vocal mic. Bluegrass bands have been doing this for decades, and many still use only one mic for the entire band. However, we plug in our instruments. Unless we’re in a small room where we don’t require much amplification, the one-mic rig doesn’t quite work for us on its own. This type of microphone does pick up a lot of sound, including all the instruments, but if you pay attention to a bluegrass band huddled around a single mic, you’ll wonder how no one gets a fiddle bow in the eye or a headstock in the face. It requires some real choreography to make that setup work. And when you’re using one microphone, you also lose the ability to adjust the sound (EQ) for each individual instrument. Some remedy this by using microphones in stands for the instruments, but we prefer to plug in because it allows greater freedom of movement onstage. The other drawback of the large-diaphragm condenser is that although it sounds great in the house (what the audience hears), it’s prone to feedback in the monitors (what the musicians hear onstage).
For our vocals, though, the one-mic setup allows us to blend our voices in real space and time, by getting physically close together, instead of only hearing each other’s voices fed through a mic and then a monitor. We can control our volume relative to each other just by moving our heads, we can see each other and communicate visually, and the mic itself sounds damn good. (Ear Trumpet Labs is the company that makes those big, funky, old-fashioned-looking microphones that you keep seeing at your favorite rootsy bands’ shows.) It’s also an aesthetic preference and a nod to tradition.
To amplify my fiddle, I use a tiny condenser mic that attaches to my fiddle via a piece of foam stuffed in the tailpiece. It’s made by a company called Bartlett Audio, and I enthusiastically recommend it to every fiddle player I know. I upgraded it by buying a mute switch that attaches to the other end of the cable and sits on the stage floor, so I can quickly turn off the mic with my foot to tune silently onstage. My acoustic guitar has a pickup made by K&K, and it then goes through an LR Baggs Venue DI box, a wonderful gadget which includes various EQ options, a boost switch to bring out my guitar solos and fingerstyle playing, a mute switch, and some other secret magic that makes my guitar sound great. Again, I’m not an engineer. I’m also not endorsed by any of these companies. I just like their products and wanted to tell you about them in case you’re a budding gear nerd like me.
This is what I’ve found works best for me in the context of my band, but I know I’ll continue changing my approach as my career evolves. As for my electric guitar, you can ask me about my rig in a year or so once I’m less overwhelmed by the world of effects pedals.
I also want to mention that women musicians are often not taught to care about gear. This leads to a widespread perception that women don’t know anything about music technology, and that being a gearhead is only something that men do. That leads to women not seeing a place for themselves in the worlds of audio and gear, or being too self-conscious to show an interest in it, for fear of making a mistake and confirming the biases of some arrogant sound guy. The coding of technology and gear as male pursuits also serves to delegitimize musicians (particularly women) who don’t know or care about those things. The quality of your music, good or bad, will be communicated regardless of how fancy your gear is.
I learned most of what I know about audio and gear on the fly, on the job, by asking friends and Google for advice. I have so, so much more to learn, but I’m starting to get the hang of it. For me, being able to present a consistent and deliberate sound for my instruments onstage helps me feel more empowered and capable in my profession.