Sound Board
Acoustic Sound Reinforcement by Musicians

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How to make a great dance weekend: Take a building with the acoustics of a 50-gallon drum, but holds 200-400 people. Have these people stomp on the floor, (the springier the better) in unison. Have incredibly talented people play music on wooden instruments, and make sure the dancers can hear every note of every instrument, while they're stomping. Now add a single voice, giving instruction and encouragement. Let this voice be rich in warmth and humor, and let each dancer hear every word and inflection that the lone voice utters, while all the stomping and music goes on unabated.

Sigh……..  If only it were so. In truth doing contra dances is one of the toughest venues for sound reinforcement that exists. The combination of factors mentioned in the paragraph above lead to a host of problems for the sound person trying to help create that energy flow between the dancers, musicians and callers. While these factors make dance sound very difficult and frustrating at times, it also makes for some of the greatest satisfaction and joy when all the elements are in line. That’s why I do it.

I’ve been ‘doing sound’ for contra dances, concerts and festivals for about ten years. I got started by being a musician 25 years, and working the board for myself. When I was frustrated at lack of attention during an open mike/concert series in Florida, I offered to run the board, and ended up running it in that monthly venue for about 6 years. I started playing in a contra band in 1988, and of course worked sound for the band, Friends of Reilly, for 9 years. Of course sound reinforcement was needed for other bands, I had the gear, and the ear….., you get the idea. In 1994 I started working sound venues at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, West Virginia for their five-week session. I run the monitor board for their concert series, the dance boards for some of the evening dances, and coordinate the sound gear and technicians.

I believe that musicians make the best sound techs. I play most of the instruments that are found on the contra band stages. Knowing what the instruments should sound like is a key to getting that sound to the dancers ear. A tech can have great skills, but if they are not familiar with acoustic instruments it’s tough for them to know how to bring out the sound of each player. Knowing what the calls are helps in making the caller more articulate, particularly in an environment where the ambient noise (or foot) level is so high.

Playing in a contra band helps a sound tech understand the problems that the bands are having. I know when the band can hear each other well, they start to have more fun, which is reflected in their playing, which the dancers hear, which makes the dancers scream, which makes the band happier, which makes them have more fun! As a musician/dancer/ sound tech, I know that the sound of dancers screaming is the safety valve on the fun cooker.  Getting the monitor mix right is at least half the battle to getting there.

Every hall has its own sound, and its own needs. Coming in on Friday afternoon, techs rarely get all the time they would like to feel out a room and set the gear and levels accordingly. Rooms react so differently when they are empty, which also makes it imperative that whoever is at the board is awake and responsive for the entire dance, not just the first hour. As my skills improved over the years, I found that I danced less and less when I was doing sound. The room changes constantly during a dance. The sound is affected by numbers of people, temperature and humidity, and the board settings need to reflect these changes. These days the only time I leave the board is to listen to the sound in different parts of the hall.

I do dance sound. When I decided to really do it right, I based, and continue to base, all my equipment purchases on that idea. I love the music, dance and community of the contra dance world. In creating that link between the dancers, musicians and caller, I strive to make that first paragraph a reality. Read it again.

See you on the floor,
Wes Maluk

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