Bluegrass Music: How To Amplify a Bluegrass Band and Preserve the Acoustic Integrity
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Bluegrass Music: How To Amplify a Bluegrass Band and Preserve the Acoustic Integrity

One of the most significant characteristics of Bluegrass music is that it is performed entirely by acoustics instruments. However, to reach larger audiences the Single-Microphone technique is often used to amplify the music, simplify the sound management, and preserve the acoustic integrity of the traditional Bluegrass music.

Bluegrass Unheard

There has been a considerable amount of discussion in the last few years about how to “amplify”, if you will, Bluegrass bands or groups. Interestingly enough this has been fostered by a growing popularity of the Bluegrass genre to reach more people in live performances and in jam sessions where several grinners are in attendance. Most acoustic traditionalist (including myself) would agree; there is undoubtedly no substitute for the pure melodic resonance of a finely crafted and tonally optimized acoustic instrument - sans sound system. The acoustic sound is one of the significant defining characteristics of the traditional Bluegrass sound. However, beyond the first several rows of enthusiastic listeners in attendance the essence of acoustic bliss dwindles and amplification becomes necessary. Conversely, if the onlookers are few then by all means preserve the acoustic integrity and deliver the sound in its most favorable acoustic intent; let the air do your mixing – no amps need apply.

Preserving the Acoustic Sound

So in the spirit of reaching more listeners; the challenge becomes transmitting the essence of the original performance as much as possible without compromising the richness of a purely acoustic sonic experience. Even for the most experienced sound engineer this can be a significant undertaking. There is no consensus as to how one may consistently accomplish this aural gymnastics but most would agree – less can be more. Consider using only one microphone.

The Single-Microphone Method

Single Microphone Method Diagram

Unlike conventional microphone placement whereby each vocalist and instrument is provided a microphone, the Single-Microphone is just that – one microphone. This method popular several generations ago is gaining prominence in the Bluegrass community; partly due to a traditional approach to performing live Bluegrass music and partly due to an easier method to manage your sounds system or recording environment.

Several years ago I visited the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky where I first learned of the technique as a natural (on-the-fly) sound mixing technique employed by the early radio stations from the 1920’s through the 1940’s. A single large diaphragm cardioid condenser microphone was placed in the center of the performers. The performance was choreographed sonically as each vocalist and/or instrumentalist would move in and out of the microphone’s optimum pickup hot spot (or sweet spot). Several years later I saw this sonic choreography performed live on stage around such a microphone by The Karl Shiflett & Big Country Show – they performed it flawlessly and consistently song after song. The way they moved in and out of the microphone hotspot (or vocal field) was very entertaining and demonstrated a very polished performance. It added a nuance to Bluegrass music that I had never experienced before; I enjoyed it immensely. I found out later that the microphone they were using was similar to an audio-technica AT4033/CL Cardioid Condenser Microphone – a favorite among the Bluegrass community.

Setting the Stage

It seems this single-microphone stance is a natural performance posture for Bluegrass musicians who feel comfortable facing each other in a circular or semicircular position whereby they may easily hear each other and queue off of each other without requiring performance stage monitors. It is typical that instrumentalists (particularly guitarists) will opt for the stage monitors when performing lead breaks. However, the single-microphone setup does facilitate stage monitors quite well – with only one microphone you achieve a much higher gain before experiencing any feedback. The only possible exception would be setting up your sound system in very small venue where you cannot place your main speakers and monitors out far enough from the microphone to eliminate any feedback. However, considering a small stage you may be close enough to your other band members to not require stage monitors.

If you are interested in this method of mic’ing you can find much more details about it on the internet concerning choices of microphones, microphone placement, vocalists, instrumentals, stage monitors, and PA systems. Just search on “Single Mic” and read some of the experiences.

So, get out there and make sure they can hear the music you love. Maybe you’ll draw an audience big enough to warrant the infamous Single-mic technique. 

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