How to: Improve your rehearsal technique

Rehearsing seems like the simplest part of playing in a band. Its the means to an end; a way to get together, get better, and write tunes together.

However, in my experience as both a guitarist and drummer, musicians and bands make fundamental mistakes in how they rehearse (myself included!) and these mistakes can have an adverse effect on the productivity at your rehearsal, as well as how you sound at gigs.

So, at rehearsals: Can you hear yourself? Is anyone too loud? Can't hear the PA? Does it always sound really muddy, or really tinny?

Most of these issues can be solved by addressing the way a band organises itself in a room. Whilst some of these problems can be attributed to a badly treated room with a lot of reflections, let's put that aside for now and assume that the room doesn't sound bad. Let's also assume we're using loud speakers for everything, and no one has in-ear monitoring (I'll cover that in the future).

Nearly every band I've practiced with, or every band I've seen practice, sets up like this:

In this well drawn diagram, we have the PA in front of the drummer, and the guitarists have their amps behind them, firing at the back of their legs. In this scenario, a number of things happen:

  • The singer is overwhelmed by the guitar amps, and can't hear themselves. This causes them to turn up the PA (causing feedback) and/or shout and strain their voice to get over the noise
  • The guitarists can't hear themselves and thusly turn up, exacerbating the problem with the singer.
  • The guitarists alter their tone because it sounds too muddy to them; because they're not facing their amps they can't hear what the amp is doing. This usually results in a really bright and piercing sound, which can cause feedback, and at gigs, overwhelm the audience (assuming they use the same settings).
  • The guitar amps spill into the vocal mics, making them sound louder, making the room muddy, and potentially causing feedback.
  • The drummer can't hear the PA, and is overwhelmed by guitar amps that are too bright and too loud - and thusly plays harder and louder to compensate

What's the solution? Cue another exceptional diagram:

In this scenario, we have all of the amps at the back of the room, like in a gig situation. This is (probably) where the term 'backline' originated. However, unlike a gig, the PA is now part of the backline too, so there's a wall of clear amplified sound coming directly to all members. Lets have some bullet points!

  • The vocalists now have a clear picture of all of the amplified sound, and can balance the guitars and the PA so that everything is the right volume.
  • With the mics facing away from the speakers, there's no chance of feedback or overspill from the other instruments.
  • Likewise, with the guitarists facing their amps, there'll be no feedback between the guitars and the amps.
  • The guitarists now have their amps in front of them. They get a realistic picture as to what their amp actually sounds like; and thusly how the audience hears it. Ideally, guitar amps are taken off the ground (via a stand or chair) to prevent low end rumble through the floor, and so the amp is closer to the guitarist's listening level. Another result: the guitarist turns down, because they can actually hear themselves.
  • With all the speakers and amps behind the drums, the drummer now has close proximity to the sound source. But, as the sitting position is only just in front of the speakers, and perpendicular to the them, the mix might not be as clear and loud as for the rest of the band. The result? The drummer plays quieter in order to hear everyone else.

Everyone is facing each other, playing in a round. Everyone can hear not only the details in the music, but also the tone of their instruments and amplification. All that expensive equipment finally starts sounding worth the cash!

If you're having trouble at rehearsals, give this layout a try. It might well improve your productivity, save your hearing, and make rehearsal that much more enjoyable.