Set & Setting in the Combo Room
By Hal Galper
PART ONE: SETTING
The Combo Room Is Part Of Your Instrument.
“Set & Setting” is a phrase borrowed from the 60’s. In this instance “set“ means the state of mind of the student during an event and “setting“ means the environment within which the event occurs.
Students and teachers alike are all too familiar with the generally sterile environment of the combo room, most of them originally constructed as classrooms, not being very conducive to learning music. Bare white walls, florescent lighting, a drummer practicing in the next room, the lack of sound suppression, etc. are just a few of the environmental factors that have a negative affect the teaching/learning process. Having had decades of experience playing in every possible type of venue promoters put a band in I‘ve often joked “You can put jazz anywhere: in a basement, on a roof, a plane, a boat, in a tree, etc.” A musician cannot remain unaffected by the ambiance of a performing situation.
The challenge to approximate a “Real Life” setting in the academic combo room however, is like fitting a square peg into a round hole. For the most part the combo room is not constructed solely for the purposes of learning and playing music. Coming up through the ranks of the apprenticeship system I was often advised by my mentors to “play the room,” i.e. be aware of the sound of each room one is playing in and adjust to it. Since the sound qualities of the combo room (or venue) can’t be changed the musicians must then adjust their playing to the sound qualities of each room. Some rooms will be too live, with the sound waves bouncing off the walls, ceiling and floors, and others may be too dead, with the sound waves being sucked up by the same. All of which makes it difficult for band members to clearly hear each other individually as well as a group.
The first culprit is amplification or volume. I was fortunate to have played with The Phil Woods Quartet/Quintet for 10 years and all through that period we played acoustically with only the slightest amplification of the bass (using a small amp) turned low for ambiance only. We never had a problem hearing each other in any venue large or small, indoors or outdoors. Sometimes, for an open air concert the band would be amplified for the audience but not on the stage. Keeping control of volume output is a basic element of a successful “group sound.“
Establishing individual volume control is the first step toward achieving a “group sound.” To correct the volume problem the group must work on parsing their individual and aggregate group volumes into four discrete levels, starting with the lowest level, increasing the volume in discrete segments up to the next clearly defined color level until the group can accurately switch to each level at will. Volume and timbre are closely related. Each discrete volume level has its own timbre or color. Learning to control volume by listening to color is more effective than trying to control volume by listening directly to volume. Begin the semester limiting the group effort to the lowest level (what we call “first gear”) for a few weeks until the joys of hearing each other become apparent. Then graduate up to the second level until the group can switch back and forth between levels (gears) with ease. As the group‘s volume increases to levels three and four (the ones everyone wants to play at!) the member‘s ability to hear each other clearly begins to suffer and the group‘s volume clutters up the “Air” in the music. Discussing how one maintains the “Air” in group performance is very difficult in a text format as we are taking about eliminating any extraneous sounds and vibrations emanating from each instrument allowing each musician to hear each other clearly no matter the volume level.
The next setting problem is the manner in which the combo room‘s instruments are arranged.
Each instrument has its individual and group priorities:
All instruments should be as close together as possible. It takes time for sound to travel. The closer together, the less time it takes for the sound to travel allowing quicker response times from the other instruments. After many years of playing you will become accustomed to the speed in which sound can travel on various bandstands.
As an obverse case in point: Having played on every kind of bandstand in my 50 years of experience I had become accustomed to the general speed at which sound travels on the bandstand. I believe that the spirit of the music is its most important aspect and have a preference for recording live as that spirit tends to get transmitted to the recording. The quality of the piano always being my main concern, a live recording was not always possible. Our recent trio recording of “Airegin Revisited“ (Origin Records) was recorded in a studio. Our bassist, Jeff Johnson, was in the same room with me but our drummer, John Bishop, was set up in a separate booth. For a while my timing was thrown off because of the difference in the speed between the bass sound getting to me acoustically and the sound of the John’s drums coming to me over the headphones so much faster than playing live. However after a few tunes my ear made the adjustment to the new time difference and all went well.
The Piano: If a grand piano, open the lid to its fullest. The most effective combo room setup has the crook of the piano facing sideways to the bass and drums so their backs are in line with each other. Assume the standard set of piano stage left, Bass center-stage and drums stage-left, the front of the bass drum should line up with the right-hand corner of the piano keyboard, with the bass set back enough for the rhythm section to have clear site and sounds lines. This is the setup we used in the Phil Woods band. It’s difficult to hear each other if you’re trying to hear the other players of the sound of you own instrument. this set up insures that each member of the rhythm section can hear each other clearly by hearing and seeing (eyeballing) each other from the side. The only instruments that should be in front of the rhythm section are the horns. More about that position later. There are other rhythm section stage setups such as the setup Ahmad Jamal and Oscar Peterson often use (drums stage-left, bass center-stage, piano right-stage, back to the bas & drums) that would not be appropriate to the combo room.
If an upright piano, you may not have the luxury of moving it to a similar position as with a grand piano since it may be too high, blocking eye contact. As with the grand, the ideal position is to be sitting sideways to the drums and bass as mentioned above. Open the top. Remove the board underneath the keyboard. There’s usually a lever(s) that releases it. Remove the board in front of the strings. Sometimes this can be problematical as the keyboard cover may end up resting on the keys of the keyboard. Roll up a small towel and insert it under the end of the keyboard between the keyboard cover and the side of the piano to raise the cover enough to free up the keys from striking the cover.
The Bass: Set up the bass back enough between the piano and drums so the pianist and drummer can see each other while maintaining the site line of all three rhythm section players. The architects of academic combo rooms rarely placed their power receptacles in a place convenient for those instruments requiring electricity such as bass and guitar amps, vibraphones and vocalists using a microphone. How often have you seen a guitar set up in a far corner because of an inconvenient power receptacle placement? Always have an extension cord on hand. Be aware that one of the quirks of an amplifier is that the focal point of its sound can be up to six feet in front to the amp.
I was once playing for a week at The Village Vanguard in a band with Rufus Ried on bass. He was trying out the then, new, Walter Woods bass amp. When setting up I’d stand about 10 feet in front of his speaker to judge his volume because it’s focal point was that far in front of it.
The Guitar: The ideal placement for the guitarist is either in the crook of the grand piano or at the far end of it. If an upright, set up at either end of the piano. Being harmonic instruments the piano and guitar have to set up in such a way as to hear each other clearly while maintaining line-of-site with the other band members. Finding the appropriate volume setting for the combo room is the most prevalent difficulty guitarists have often being too soft or loud relative to the total band volume. Most of the guitars I’ve seen have a volume knob without any markers on it which makes it difficult to find and set an appropriate volume setting. You can’t find the proper setting for your volume knob when the room is empty. Wait until all the band members are in the room to find the best volume level as their bodies will soak up the sound. It may require resetting again once the combo starts playing. Once set keep it there. Don’t start adjusting while the band is playing as it will be difficult finding the original setting again. If the volume knob has markers on it make mental note of where the original marker setting was. As with the bass, always carry and extension cord in case the power receptacle is placed inconveniently.. Double check your volume level (if you have a long enough guitar cord) walk out in front of the amp one time to find it’s focal point while the band is playing.
The Drums: The drum set should be placed sideways to the other rhythm section members. That way the drummer doesn’t have to try to hear the piano, bass & guitar over the sound of the cymbals and drums.
An experience I had while playing with Chet Baker‘s Quintet clarified this advice. The band was playing on the West coast at a club, “Shelly’s Manhole.” Drummer Philly Joe Jones came in one night to sit in with us. The bandstand was set up in the standard side-by-side manner. It was reputed that Philly could be a very loud drummer. What was amazing was that he was swinging hard but none of his volume or energy affected my playing. All of it was going out, off the bandstand, toward the audience! Later that evening I was in my motel room mulling over this experience when it dawned on me that energy goes where you think it’s going! If you don’t think of it going anywhere your energy stays on the bandstand affecting the other players. It had never occurred to me that energy could be directed by merely “thinking” of where it was going! Drummers, take whatever you can from this lesson!
The drum set should have two cymbals, a ride and a crash, the crash cymbal having a lower sound than the ride. Generally, the low sound of the crash is better used as a ride for accompanying the piano. There are no two instruments as close as the cymbals and the strings of a piano. Both generate massive amounts of overtones. Certain cymbal’s over tones can match the sound of the piano’s over tones canceling out the sound of the piano. Having two cymbals also gives a drummer the option of using a different ride cymbal for each soloist to add an extra coloration to a solo.
The Vocalist: Vocalists will either be in a combo with a full band or a combo with just a rhythm section. The latter instance vocalists should place themselves close to the piano, in front of the rhythm section, back to the rhythm section, similar to the front line horn set up (More later). In the former instance the vocalist should be considered part of the front line as well. Again finding the appropriate volume for an amplifier will be similar to that of the guitar.
The Horns: Placement of the horns in the combo room creates a challenge for all concerned. There is not a bandstand in the world where the horns face the band. The question then becomes “who do I play too?” There’s no audience in the combo room. If you turn your back to the rhythm section you’re usually playing to a blank white wall. Very disconcerting. However, if the horns play toward the rhythm section you will be too loud, making everyone else play loud, a position you don’t want your ears to become accustomed to. Another aspect of having the horns facing the “audience“ is “signaling,” being able to send messages to the rhythm section using body language. For example; It has been a tradition that a horn soloist will turn partially sideways to signal the they are coming to an end of their solo. There are many other signals that can be sent to the rhythm section but that is not the focus this article. For more on “signaling” see my YouTube Video on the subject.
Though not in anyway ideal, the teacher, by placing themself can function as audience, in front of the band in the audience‘s position. It should be noted that in live performance everyone is playing to the audience’s ears. This is the process that creates the “connection” between players and audience. Getting used to and husbanding the feeling of the bond created between player and audience is a musicians job. The best, though not the easiest solution to this problem, is to insure every combo has the experience playing in public as much as possible.
My trio had the good fortune to play and teach at Ann Arbor Community High School under the direction Mike Grace, of one of the masters of early level jazz education. His student bands played all over Ann Arbor for any occasion: parties, retirement homes, political functions, etc. Mike told me his bands played hundreds of gigs a year, gratis. And they sounded like it. It was such a pleasant surprise how professional they played. Getting a combo out of the academic environment into the real world should be a priority for every combo leader!