The Backline Dilemma

I've written before about the mixed blessing that on-stage guitar amps tend to be. I recently mixed a show 

where the back line became the front line, to the detriment of the vocal track.


How does this happen?


We had a show with 3 on-stage amps. Sound checks were great and everything, including the vocal, was 

in perfect balance. Vocals were good and strong. 


First song went very well, running about 100 dB - pretty typical for close up to a rock band. But, the management -

who is technically our customer - wanted the volume down quite a bit (around 90 dB at peak). This is

a substantial drop in volume. Depending on how you do the math, it is somewhere between 50% and

25% of what we had done on the first song. 


I'm not blaming the management here. They are perfectly entitled to their opinion of how loud

the FOH volume should be.


But, in the process of cutting the PA volume, we ended up with a situation that was not fixable within

the time frame of the concert itself. That situation was that the drums and back line amps were now

louder than I could possibly make the vocals. I removed the drums from the PA and most of the

rhythm guitar, but had to leave lead, sax and bass in the PA for them to be heard. To be fair,

the bass was mostly in the subs, which did not attract the attention of management.


But the vocals were doomed. To raise the vocals to audible levels meant going over 90 dB, 

which was forbidden. 


So what should we have done? Well the ideal thing would have been to restructure the gain.

Turning down the amps (a lot) would have got us there. Why didn't we do so? Unfortunately,

this show was performed at a venue with some strict labor policies and we only had 75 minutes

to load in, connect, and sound check. Not really enough time to get it "right." Just enough time

to get it passible. We literally had 2 minutes to do a partial run through on a song to make sure

the levels were OK. 


So now your humble correspondent is smarter about the wording in the rider and will ask 

specifically about local agreements that might limit load-in time. An additional 30 minutes would

have been sufficient to get it "right." 


In addition, your humble correspondent will now dema…. er, ask nicely that the back line is much,

much, much quieter. You can have all the monitors you wish (barring wash back into the audience),

but you can't be blasting at the same volume as that expected from the PA. 


Again, this is not the fault of the band - who normally mixes themselves, but rather this old soul. 


Like every day in audio engineering, it is an opportunity to learn something new. And, just to be

very clear, to be humbled by how much I don't know….

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