Play to the Room
One of the comments I often hear from venue owners and managers when my band The GE3KS plays out is how we keep the volume to a good level. Now, "good" is very subjective (unless you're dealing with an actual town ordinance on volume, like York, ME's 90-dB limit), but in general it means that people can hear the music clearly throughout the venue, while at the same time not having to shout at close range at each other in order to have a conversation.
How is this achieved? In many cases, if not most, that lies squarely on the shoulders of the drummer. Yes, guitarists and bassists need to take steps to ensure that they can hear themselves well enough without having to turn up to unreasonable levels, but at least they have volume knobs.
Acoustic drummers don't, so it's up to them to self-regulate. If they don't, everyone else in the band soon turns up to hear themselves better, and the sonic balance is lost.
There are a lot of players who can only play at varying degrees of loud:
- Very Loud
- Too Loud
- Holy Crap!
The way to avoid this trap is to practice at many different volume levels. Why do we practice? To gain CONTROL over the instrument. Part of what we need to control is volume, so consider that part of your "chops". Then before any gig, as you're loading in, take mental notes about the size of the room and its acoustics, and what kind of volume it needs. This is how you start to "play to the room" in terms of dynamics. As you start to play, keep your eyes open for audience reaction. That's one thing I wish more musicians and bands would do: take visual cues from your audience to see how your volume is. If people are staying away from the front speakers, and you see a lot of people at tables having to lean over and talk right into their friends' ears, you could well be too loud.
I love an old joke from a Peter Erskine instructional video. He said, "If you think dynamics means, 'Dynamics? What are you talking about, dynamics?!? I'm playing as loud as I can!' Well, if you think that's what 'dynamics' means, you need to ... stop and reconsider."