One of the topics we hear come up time and time again is the idea of a “silent stage.” This idea isn’t new by any means but has shown to be more prevalent lately with the advances in amp simulators, fx units, and electronic drums. What exactly is a “silent stage” you ask? Well, imagine you go to see your favorite band play. You move up close to the stage to catch a glimpse of the gear they’re playing and are shocked to see no amps on stage. A true “silent stage” would be set up so that there are no objects on the stage producing sound. This means no monitor wedges, no drum sub, no guitar/bass/key amps, and potentially no acoustic drums. We would be left with a stage void of amplified sound – a “silent stage.”
The band Chicago has totally embraced this idea over the past years. We decided to reach out to Scott Koopmann, the Monitor engineer for Chicago, for his take on the “silent stage.”
Q: How long have you been with Chicago?
Scott: I have been working with Chicago exclusively for just over 10 years now.
Q: How long have you been the Monitor Engineer?
Scott: I’ve been mixing monitors for about 6 years now. I was the A1’s stage tech prior to that.
Q: What is your stage set up like?
Scott: We’ve really pushed for isolation. Chicago does not use any live amps on stage anymore. The guitar goes into an amp simulator / fx unit and that patches directly into the stage rack. The bass goes into a DI and that goes directly into the stage rack. The keys are also going into DIs and those go into the stage rack. We use to have a Leslie cabinet on stage enclosed in a case but now with the advances in emulators we no longer use that. It now is a Leslie emulator. The only things on stage that produce volume are the drums (acoustic), percussion (acoustic), and horns. There are no monitor wedges on stage. Everyone Is on In Ear Monitors. Including the crew.
Q: Why does the band like it so isolated on stage?
Scott: They all really like that environment. Especially the horn players. If it’s too boomy or loud on stage from other live amplification it’s really hard for them to find pitch. Which causes a big issue and they begin to change their IEM mixes. Once their seal on their ears starts to go they pick up more of the ambient stage noise and sound from the P.A. Which also leads to the horn players having a hard time finding pitch. As male individuals (we are all male), over time our ear shape tends to change. And because of that we tend to loose the seal. Roughly every 3-4 years we try to get new ear impressions done. Then send them off to get a new set of ears with a proper seal. Once they start asking for the drums to be pulled down in their mixes and there is no room for them to go down anymore. This typically means the seal is not as tight.
Q: Do they ever feel as though it’s not natural because of the isolation?
Scott: Not at all. The quality of the console, absolute cleanest RF and IEM mix lead to them feeling that it is natural. We don’t even use audience microphones and there really is no need. The band has six vocal microphones on stage. Those vocal microphones are more than capable of picking up crowd noise and stage ambience.
Q: Do you think amp isolation is helpful?
Scott: Yes. It makes mixing for the FOH engineer a lot easier. The more stuff you have on stage amplified coming off will change the mix and delays set. A silent stage allows the FOH to have almost complete control of everything coming off stage. For the Monitor engineer it’s great as well. With that lack of the stage volume you don’t have to worry about isolation for microphones. I can’t really think of too many cons for an isolated stage. One is if you DI the bass and have no amp, the signal is no longer split. That leaves you with no back up if a line goes bad.
Q: What would you change about the set up, if anything?
Scott: We have being touring with the same wireless units for years now and recently tried a newer one. The guys and myself were blown away with how things have advanced in the years. That being said it would be great to upgrade our wireless system. Newer high tech equipment would be great.
Q: How many IEM mixes are there?
Scott: I have 24 stereo mixes going. They range from the band, the crew, fx returns, video feeds, and replacement player mixes.
Q: Any tricks to make the band “feel” more of the live show?
Scott: The guys move around on stage a lot, hop on different vocal mics, switch keyboards, .I am always mixing. Constantly. Changing levels, cutting, and boosting. “Mixing the show is my biggest trick.”
Q: What do you think is important when it comes to IEM mixes?
Scott: The most important thing is clean frequencies! Very fine tuning of panning. Very minor adjustments to volume, EQ, and dynamics can be heard more clearly based on the isolation on stage. You have to take that into account. I ask they guys all the time for their opinions on the mix. Placement of instruments in mix is very important but varies greatly from member to member.
Q: What is the biggest issue you have with IEMs?
Scott: Cables failing. Cables get pulled on a lot. Sweat is also and issue. Drivers and armatures blowing from wear and tear. Everybody has at least 1 spare set of ears incase something happens.
Q: What’s the biggest pro to using IEMs?
Scott: “Ultimate freedom.” You can move anywhere you want and yet still feel like you are in it. Feel it, hear it. No tether!
Great Ways to Isolate the Stage
- Use amp simulators instead of actual amps. Now adays there are a lot of great amp simulators on the market that can produce amazing tones and sound. These can be used for guitar, keys, and bass. Plugging the output of the simulator right into the stage rack.
- Make the switch. Remove all monitor wedges from the stage and go to IEMs. This is a fantastic way to lower stage volumes. Wired packs for IEMs and wireless packs work great. Lots of drummers still complain of not “feeling” the kick when wedges are removed. Some drummers still choose to use a drum sub monitor. A better way around this and a great way to lower stage volume even more is by using a “butt kicker”. Essentially a tactile transducer that receives signal from the monitor console and produces low end the drummer can feel. The transducer would be attached to the underside of the drum throne.
- Use a drum shield. This isolates the drums acoustic sounds even more. Making the sound from the drums harder to bleed into other microphones on stage. Having a drum shield does not mean the drummer can or should play harder than normal. There are many options for these on the market. Ranging from a front shield to a fully enclosed isolation booth.
- Use Electronic drums. There are many manufactures out there that have worked hard to make electronic drums more sensitive and reactive to the players’ nuances. The new brains on the market are producing unbelievable drum tones that not only are user adjustable but are a very convincing.
A “silent stage” is a great way to give total control to the FOH and Monitor engineers. It allows for less amplified signal bleed into microphones. This concept may not be for everyone. You often see a hybrid approach where the musicians still have amps on stage (often playing at lower volumes, sometimes amps facing rear of stage) but they have no monitor wedges. Everyone is on IEMs. Experimenting with different set ups is key to see what works for you. What feels right to you may vary in different venue / stage set up scenarios. For example: In a small room with a small stage it may be awkward to the audience to have no amplified sound coming off of the stage. Whereas in a larger stage and room environment, the audience may not even notice the difference if there are no amps on stage. There are trade-offs whichever way you go. On a smaller stage the chance of amplified signal bleeding into microphones is greater simply because of the proximity of the different sound sources to the microphones. On a larger stage typically the amplified sound sources are further away from each other and other microphones (such as vocal microphones), meaning less potential for an issue with unwanted signal bleeding into the microphones.