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Progressive Rock Update With Brad Houser: Tone Survival, Turning Nightmare Gigs Into Minor Triumphs

Meet Brad Houser

I am a procrastinator. This issue’s column was to be about “The Flaming Lips.” I kept trying to get started on it, and…. nothing. Repeatedly. In an ironic turn of events the topic of this column came to light onstage in…….. Oklahoma, home of the Lips.

So, this time around, I bring you “Tone Survival: Turning Nightmare Gigs Into Minor Triumphs.”

The Setting: typical modern music venue, capacity 200-ish… Punk Rock in decor and flavor… Four subwoofers on the floor in front of the stage… four mid/hi cabs flown on either side of the stage. Arriving after a 4 1/2 hour drive, we start setting up. Soundman is friendly, seems capable. (Our budget does not allow an engineer to travel with us; We in a van, dawg). Mics go up, our sound-check is the first song. Every time I hit an “F” it rings for about ten seconds, I’m guessing that the bass drum is feeding back. Tapping on that mic seems to produce no ring, so more guesswork. Consulting my “smartphone” I go to a website that lists a table of note values and corresponding frequency values, in Hertz. F at mid-neck is 87 Hz. I ask the engineer to come to the stage, informing him that cutting 87 a few db on the EQ would be nice. He is open to it, says the tabla mic may be the culprit. Indeed, I look over and there is a large diaphragm mic on the low tabla drum. Engineer tries muting that mic when drummer is not playing tabla, we continue playing our set. I’m also noticing that my bass in the house PA is squishy and pig like, as opposed to tight, woody, and fat. Seems like the subs are cranked, and it feels like all the mids are scooped out. My strings are feeling like rubber. Not Good. We slog our way through the first set, then it’s break time.

On set break, a local musician sets up his DJ rig and starts to rock it. At this point I notice that the PA is sounding REALLY scooped out; All bass and all treble, not many mids. I resolve to get crafty on the next set….

In my pedalboard, aside from the usual, distortion, delay, envelope, and synth pedals, I have a Radial Bassbone A/B switcher/EQ, a Tech 21 VT Bass, and an Aguilar 18 volt active preamp. Each one of these has bass/treble controls……. that’s a lot of eq before my signal goes into a direct box, at the end of my signal chain, before hitting the amp. On this tour, I’m using the drummer’s Ampeg RocketBass combo, a small 100-watt amp, due to logistics and van space. At this point in the evening I’m beginning to wish for 600 watts and a phat 4×10 cab, so I could just crank it and forget sounding good thru the PA. Not Gonna Happen!!!! So……. I cut the bass knob on the VT pedal back to 11 o’clock, (it was at 1:00), cut the bass knob on the Bassbone back to 11 o’clock (it was at 2:00). Leave the Aguilar where it is, bass up 20%, treble flat. I then bring the master volume up on the VT pedal (it has tons of boost ) to make up for the bass cut. I also take my vocal mic and put it in front of the Ampeg, turn the amp down to non-farting level, and hope Mr. engineer notices. He does, he later tells me. No vox for me. I’m hoping that the mic will pick up some mids off the amp…..

Lo and behold, my tone starts to sound like I like. Tight. Phat. Non-flappy. I’m not hearing the amp hardly at all, it’s all house at this point. Further bass rolloff/gain boost makes the G and D strings start to catch the subs better. (I’m playing a P-Bass with flatwounds. I like my sound clear AND dark). The rest of the set flows like magic and we and the audience are happy. CDs are sold.

What I Learned:

This keeps repeatedly coming back thru the years. To get more clarity, rolling off bass and boosting gain works. Simply boosting mids and treble would have just made the bass sound honky and shrill. Cutting lows and boosting gain tightened up the sound, while preserving fatness. The engineer later informed me that he turned down the volume to the subs a little, also. This helped tighten the room up. Seems like it was a boomy room to start with.

Many basses these days have active preamps, with bass and treble controls built in, and a lot of guys tend to crank both and let it rip. This works sometimes, especially in loud Metal and Punk Rock, but often won’t work for other stuff. I’ve also noticed that cranking the bass knob on the bass or the amp tends to make the low end get squishy and/or farty. Not what I prefer, but it works great for some folks. In the 90’s I started hearing a lot of guys with Music Man or J-basses in punk bands using Tons of treble, lots of fret buzz, cranked way up. Sounded ferocious, I would never have thought that type of tone would work. In those bands it sounds amazing, like an old American car crash, breaking glass, crunching metal, with Low End. There are a lot of options out there in toneland……

Hopefully this can help get you out of mud-ville, next time you get stuck.

Next issue……… The Flaming Lips.

BH

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