Amplification - getting it right.
Almost every client who books me to play guitar or piano for their wedding or event has questions about amplification. Its an important issue that needs to be got right. Each wedding venue or room that I play in is a different size and shape, and the number of guests always varies - you will want the music to be heard but not overpowering in any way. Wedding guests will want to enjoy the music, but conversation is more important - no one wants to have to struggle to talk to people because of the music being too loud!
Whether it is for background music or more ‘spotlight’ music there are many factors that will affect how different types of amplification (and specifically how it is used) will add to or detract from the listening pleasure of your guests. Your musician needs to be experienced to get good results in any acoustic environment. After more than 25 years playing for weddings, parties and events of all kinds I have learned that some of the things I really have to consider are:
If you are hiring a quality musician to add that special musical dimension to your wedding ceremony then you will want it to be clearly audible, not too loud, and as natural / organic sounding as possible. Some wedding ceremonies can be played for without any amplification, but only if the room is small and there are no more than about 30 guests standing quietly as the Bride enters. People will talk during the signing of the register so the music will be less clear without amplification but still enough to fill the gaps in any lulls of conversation. For larger rooms and more people I use a small good quality amplifier which will project well and have it next to me so that I can control the volume.
The drinks reception at a wedding is a different thing. People are laughing and chatting and the music needs to mingle in with that to be effective in adding fuel to the mood, so if numbers
are more than about 25-30 people I will always want to use gentle amplification. For more than about 60 people it is best to use multiple speakers, positioned above head height and spread around the room or outdoor space. This enables me to spread the sound without it being too loud in any one spot. Two or three medium sized PA speakers is usually plenty and can be enough comfortable volume for up to about 200 people.
There is a big difference acoustically between indoors and outdoors at the venue. Indoors the type of floors, walls and ceiling in the room make a big difference to the sound / music. Some wedding reception rooms have thick carpets, heavy curtains and lots of big soft furniture and this type of room will sound very 'dry', meaning that the natural sound won't reverberate much. This is easily improved by adding some digital reverb to the sound, making it more 'lush' to the listener. Other rooms have bare floors - wood, stone etc with lots of glass windows and shiny surfaces which gives a much brighter, 'boomier' sound. Wooden rooms usually sound great, while in stone & glass rooms I need to be careful with the volume to avoid it getting too 'muddy'. It is possible to get a great sound in almost any type of room - you just need to know what you are doing!
When playing outdoors the music source should ideally be near the stone wall of a building, or
in the corner of a courtyard for example, as this will help to reflect the sound to the listener rather than being too out in the open where the sound will dissipate quicker and be affected by breeze etc. The key is really to use high quality equipment, rather than cheaper models - there is no substitute for quality! After many years of playing for weddings and parties I personally find that Bose amps and speakers are hard to beat for delivering great quality sound across all environments, so this is primarily what I use for the events I play at.
Size / shape of the room / space
Sometimes rooms are odd shaped, with several sections, or 'L' shaped. This sometimes presents the problem of how to be seen and heard by enough of the guests. Again, multiple good quality speakers are the solution. Two or three placed around the room will spread the music evenly around so that it is not too loud or quiet in different places.
This photo is of The Terrace Room above The Roman Baths (Bath) and is a good example of a difficult room to spread the sound evenly. It is long and narrow, often with no room allowed for the musician or speakers. I get around this by using 3 speakers (one in each doorway) and this is very effective. Each speaker's volume can be adjusted independently to make things easier.
Size of groups at tables
If I am playing during the Wedding Breakfast or other occasion where people are eating while I play then depending on the event the groups of people at tables are different. Most weddings have quite large tables with guests needing to speak quite loudly to be heard across the table. Smaller events, like for example Valentines Day in a restaurant will have mostly tables for two people only, and people will be talking much quieter. Some groups of people are quite loud and outgoing, while others are more reserved, and this can't be known until the event is
underway. All this makes a big difference to the overall volume in the room. The musician has to be always listening to the mood in the room as well as their volume and watching people to see if anyone is finding the music too loud - and if so turn down straight away. As a general rule I always think that as long as I can comfortably people's speech from where I am sitting, as well as the music I am playing then that is about right. If either the speech or the music is louder than the other then generally something needs adjusting.
Ultimately the comfort and enjoyment of the guests is paramount - background music is not the same thing as a concert and the musician must always remember this. It takes an experienced, versatile and sensitive musician (and PA system) to deliver this. Last but not least - all electrical equipment must be PAT tested and it is a legal requirement that the musician has public liability insurance. Certificates available on request.