A nice sounding instrument in the hands of a performer that knows how to play it is a magical combination that often makes life a little easier for an audio engineer. This is true on stage live or in the recording studio.
A sound system, in a live performance setting, is for reinforcement. It can make quiet instruments and voices louder via speaker amplification, however, to a limited extent. Equalization can compensate for instruments and voices that do not have the tonal response desired in the final mix, again with limitations. If an instrument is played confidently and at a manner of consistent volume and relatively close to the microphone, the engineer’s task is that of creative blending rather than being relegated to workarounds, fixes and damage control.
This is witnessed by engineers and concertgoers at concerts with two or more bands. Bands with more experience typically have figured out how to deliver a quality sound to the engineer rather than relying on the soundguy’s skills and equipment to resolve not-so-awesome sound sources. At a multi-band music festival, the opener might sound pretty good. When engineering, I always try to make every band sound their best, contrary to the myth that soundguys only make the headliner sound good. There is usually a point when the third or fourth band comes on, and it sounds really good without doing as much assertive engineering to arrive at that sonic happy place. The faders are up and it just sounds great (assuming the engineer knows how to mic instruments and run a stage in the first place). This is to the the credit of the performers and their performance skills on their instruments.
I play drums and had a good sounding drumkit with an decent, but not stellar, sounding snare. I found myself recording for artists, then as the mixing engineer, fixing my own snare tone in the mix.
One day, I rented out my kit for a show I was doing providing sound for and the drummer said, “ Man this snare is okay, but there is one at the local music store I would buy if I didn’t own 20 already and want to prevent further economical marital conflict.” I had wanted a new snare for some time. Great snares are unique and can be expensive. One should play it and feel it to ensure a good fit. I could tell this was a good fit and I shucked out the bucks.
The next day, I had the same band once again renting my kit and when the drummer saw the hammered bronze snare, he grinned ear to ear. He performed, and I mixed, undoing my equalization I had used on the okay snare the previous night. This snare had a smooth compliment of low body and high snap.
I was back in the studio the following day recording drums for a local artist. I would end up mixing his record too. The snare sat so much better in the mix than my old snare, without appreciable EQ’ing to make it jibe with the songs. Drummers have used the snare on many tracks in the studio when their own snare is not cutting the mustard. It has made my engineering life a little better.
Fast forward a year to another live performance in which my band, GravyBrain, is opening for U.K. based New Master Sounds. It was arranged that NMS drummer, Simon, would be using my kit. After three songs the guitar player made a comment over the mic regarding how good the snare sounded. The comments went on every few song breaks during the show. Simon ripped a funky snare-centric solo at the end of the set that blew some minds.
Gathering the drums after the NMS set, Simon approached and said, “That snare is THE best sounding snare I have every played in my life! When I played that solo at the end of the set, I wasn’t playing…the snare was virtually playing itself.” That’s a high compliment from a guy that plays a different snare many nights while touring the world. I’m quite certain it does not play itself, yet, it has a rebound response that feels wonderful to the drummer which is what Simon was eluding too. He went on to say the guitar player had authorized purchase of my snare drum then and there and I could name my price. Well, with that compliment and knowing damn well how hard it is to find such a magic instrument, I declined and gave him the make and model number so he could hopefully find his own. From then on GravyBrain has referred to it as the “Magic Snare”.
I played a gig without the Magic Snare recently and it was sorely missed. Lesson learned, I carry it around to my performances even if a drumkit is supplied. It has improved my recordings in the studio. It gets the dance floor rocking at a backyard party, in the nicest venues, and in the studio. Long live Magic Snare. I hope all of you find your magic instrument along your musical journey.