MUSIC DIRECTOR:  We tried out a new singer last night for the worship team, and she’s very, very good.

PASTOR:  That’s awesome!

MUSIC DIRECTOR:  Except for one little problem.  She sings unbelievably loud.  I mean, so loud that it wrecks the onstage mix.  And it’s every song.  I asked her if she could pull back a little, but she just said, “No.  Sorry.  This is the way I sing.  I can’t sing any other way.”

PASTOR:  So you told her she couldn’t sing with us, right?

MUSIC DIRECTOR:  Nope.  I need $1800 for a plexiglass cage so I can put her inside it.  And $200 for a vocal mic, and another $80 for a set of headphones so she can hear the rest of us.

PASTOR:  Should we also get her a Barcalounger?  Maybe a mini-fridge and a personal valet?

Drum shields are the scourge of ensemble playing, the thing that’s nearly single-handedly responsible for bringing real, organic, combo music to it’s knees in churches all across America.  If I haven’t made myself clear, let me say it another way:

I hate these things.

I’m an instrumentalist, for the most part, and I’ll admit a certain bias toward the band—I’ve had to grow up from the attitude that the singers were nothing but buzz-kill.  With regard to vocalists, I used to feel like Fonzie when he got a job driving the ice cream truck. Richie asked him how it was going, and he said, “I hate it! I just get that baby up to ninety, and I have to slow it down for some kid waving a dime!”

I’m better now, but I still love the bands, and more than anything I love and appreciate good ensemble playing.  I know the arguments for drum shields, and will admit they’re useful in certain settings. Here’s my argument against drum screens in most settings:

Drums are very carefully designed and manufactured to produce sound. They’re crafted to produce a certain tone, and then to project that tone – to throw it across the room. They’re meant to fill up a room with sound. So what do we do? We put the drums inside what is essentially a soundproof room so the audience cannot hear them.

Then, because the audience cannot hear them, microphones are placed all around to pick the sound back up so it can be run through a set of speakers up by the ceiling. Along the way, there are multiple opportunities to wring the life out of that sound: through cheap or improperly chosen microphones, through the EQ in the board (one set of EQ for each drum, no less), through compressors and limiters and gates, then through the reverb unit. And, I might add, through the ears of a volunteer sound mixer who is deciding for EVERYONE what those drums will sound like.  And all of this–ALL OF THIS–is in hopes of getting the sound of the actual drums faithfully reproduced to the audience! And the bloomin’ things are sitting right in front of everybody!

And if that’s not enough, the other people in the band can’t hear them either, so it happens all over again, only this time through the monitor board. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stood right next to a drummer, literally five feet away, and had to ask for him to be turned up in the monitor.

Sound reinforcement should be, in my opinion, used to make things louder, not softer.  If you’re using it to make things softer, you’re doing something wrong onstage.

Folks, I know this is the common approach, and I know the arguments for it, but it’s killing the ensemble playing. The drummer is now forced to wear headphones so he can hear the guitar player (don’t get me started…wait, I’m already started…) whose amp is also designed to throw the sound out into a room. The guitar amp, so very carefully chosen by the guitar player to for it’s power amp and speakers, is surrounded with sound baffling so the audience can’t hear it, and then…well, you know the rest.

That sound–that glorious, vibrant, live sound–that should be filling up the space is instead pinched down and funneled back through a couple of speakers. The space onstage, and in the room is no longer filled with the real sound of a band, but a poor reproduction of the real thing. The sound that should be bouncing off the back wall of the stage, off the sides of the room, swirling around and mixing together in an organic movement of air, is now being beamed directly at about 40 percent of the audience, the other 60% out of the ‘sweet spot’ and missing a lot of the sound. Imagine yourself going to Niagara Falls, then putting on earphones and listening to it through a microphone. It’s absurd.

Good ensemble playing means the players listen to each other, deciding moment by moment whether they’re too soft or too loud, working to blend. They’re forced to turn up or turn down, play louder or softer, in order to hear each other, or to make the music move and breathe. Sure there are reasons to have monitors—electronic keyboards being one example, or an acoustic piano that was never designed to keep up with guitar amps—but the term ‘sound reinforcement’ has come to mean ‘total and utter sound control’.

Ah, but you don’t know my drummer, you say. He beats those things like a rented mule. I sympathize. I’ve had my share of it all, and been on both the giving and receiving ends. Still, I argue that the answer is not to just take away the drummer’s ability to overplay. He needs to be reigned in. We ALL need to be reigned in from time to time.

You don’t just get to play whatever you feel like playing.

Or you shouldn’t, anyway.

I know the argument—heck, I’ve MADE the argument—that drums sound better when you hit them hard. It’s true, but if the alternative is the incredible life-draining effect of over-controlled sound and players who can’t see or hear each other, then I say it’s not worth it.

Here’s the alternative to drum shields and the over-reinforcement of sound:

Learn to play to the room. Play your instruments in such a way, and at such a level that it’s appropriate for the room. Stadium rock is fun, but in a three hundred seat auditorium, you ain’t gettin’ stadium rock no matter what you do. Have you ever seen a really great rock band playing in a small venue? They pick material that lends itself to the room. They change the way they play. The approach that works at the United Center in Chicago doesn’t work for an 800 seat club on the north side.

Develop your own identity as a band, or as a church. Choose your music so it fits. Play it in such a way that it reflects you, your tastes, the tastes of your congregation, and most of all, the size and feel of your room.

We’re soaking in a world of music. It’s on TV, radio, iPods and cell phones. It’s in cars, elevators, restaurants, and plays while you’re on hold. The world is like a big jukebox, and people put their nickel in, expecting to hear their favorite song. I’m begging—don’t give in to that. Don’t give in to the impulse to be all things to all people. Don’t try to reproduce a stadium rock song perfectly, then one song later copy the exact sound of a Fernando Ortega recording. It’s unnecessary. Make your own music. Get rid of all the trappings—the drum shields, the super-ultra-mega-hyper guitar processors that sound like every guitar amp known to man and at the same time don’t sound like anything. If you’re a guitar player, chose an amp, and dude—play the thing.

Drum shields and over-controlled sound reinforcement are turning young players into mush—only able to play a narrow style of drumming because they’re being pampered, allowed to play however they feel like it. Maybe this is because we feel we need them, that people won’t come to our church without them.  Call me old and cranky, but if I can’t find a drummer that will play to the room, play what needs playing, then I’ll do without one, thank you very much.  Same with guitar players, and listen—I’m one of those guitar players. I’m trying not to be, but there it is.

If you’ve read this far, thank you.  If you have a comment, if you disagree, if you want to prove me wrong, I’m okay with that. After all the years of wrangling guitarists and drummers, I’m conditioned for it.

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