Amplification at Informal Sessions?

Amplification at Informal Sessions?

I saw a reference in a recent Discussion to an amplified bass guitar being used at a regular weekly session, which I’m assuming was a casual arrangement, i.e. not a gig.

I was wondering how people feel about the thorny subject of amplification at informal sessions. I’m not referring to the overhead microphone(s) used in some noisy venues so that the punters can hear the session from further away, but whether or not you feel that certain instruments should be amplified?

The main instruments I’ve noticed have been keyboards, and occasionally bass guitar. (Note: semi-acoustic bass guitars are rarely loud enough to be heard unamplified at a session). As a guitar (and occasional bouzouki) accompanist myself, I’m quite sensitive to the use of these instruments in informal sessions, so rather than expressing my own view, I’m interested to know what others think.

In particular, I’m wondering how and when the use of amplified instruments is considered acceptable or otherwise, and how do you manage the volume levels on a group basis - as is frequently the case, the amplified volume may increase as the night unfolds…

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For me it’s an emphatic no. If an instrument needs amplification it doesn’t belong in a session. Electric keyboards are are tolerated providing they only use their internal speakers, and only the piano voice.

There is a session locally that I rarely attend because they play mostly country and oirish and cowboy music. They initially let an electric bass player bring an amp, but once it was there the main fiddler wanted to plug in, then the accordion, then the guitars…

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Where you have to have amplification because of the size of venue, don’t let anyone plug into the main PA. If there are instruments that have to plug in put them on a separate system with either wedge monitors or side fills covering the ensemble but not the audience. Let them get the balance within the ensemble, and just use your overheads or whatever to ambient mic the whole lot on the main PA. I do sound for a fiddle orchestra that uses an electric piano and upright bass that needs boosting, and doing it this way works very well.

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I have been to sessions (not Irish) where someone had an acoustic bass guitar with a small battery amp that made it audible but less so than an upright bass.

It seemed to be acceptable in the sort of session where an upright bass was acceptable…

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My preference is not to have any amplified instruments. Or a bass of any kind.

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I think I’d have to take each case on its own merits.

In one session I could get to, I’d give a “no way”. I really can not imagine it not affecting the nature of this pretty “traditional” session with (as far as I understand it) a core who have played together a good 30 years. I’d also find it difficult to imagine any attempt to electrify anything as being welcomed. To me, it set out where it wants to be years ago, works well (even though I can spend a lot of time just listening) and should remain as it is.

The other one is more “flexible” and I have known someone use a small practice amp to give just a slight lift to a bouzouzi there and do so very effectively. I must confess, I did once try electric mandolin there but that was just a one off curiosity thing for a couple of tunes to see how it would work in a session environment where I felt safe with a short experiment. While it did seem to work, my own feeling is that my own type of attempted melody playing would be the sort of thing that could kick off an undesirable race for volume… (As well as, for my own ,playing wanting to be unamped and having the option of tenor banjo as well as mandolin).

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Amplification used to be for the audience, now its for musicians to worship themselves. Proper amplification requires a desk balanced by someone who is not a DJ, or a bloke who just bought himself some equipment and thinks that gives him musical taste.

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I like that, Fidele!

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"Amplification used to be for the audience, now its for musicians to worship themselves."

Sorry, can’t agree with that. That’s a very cynical view, in my opinion, and doesn’t ring true of the musicians I know.

We have a piper who comes to our local session. Rather than play his GHB, which was never really designed for indoor playing and is not at concert pitch, he plays electronic pipes through a small amp at a volume no louder than a flute or fiddle. We also occasionally have a fretless bass player who does likewise. Both excellent players and sensitive musicians who add to the session.

In the right hands I don’t see much difference between acoustic amplification (as in the body of a fiddle) and electronic amplification. It’s the music that’s important, more so than the means of production.

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>>"In the right hands I don’t see much difference between acoustic amplification (as in the body of a fiddle) and electronic amplification. It’s the music that’s important, more so than the means of production."

I agree in principle, and wouldn’t have a problem with amplification used sensitively as in the cases you describe. But the problem comes in enforcement - a simple ‘no amplification’ rule is clear-cut and easy to enforce. As soon as you allow some amplification the boundary gets blurred, and you inevitably get creep - the bassist thinks ‘this would be better if I put it through an FX pedal, then you think ‘the flauist is getting lost under all those whistles, let’s give her a little boost’, and before you know it your acoustic session has become the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

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The bass in the OP* is a Kala and she uses a small amp. No one else plugs in. Without the amp we would not be able to hear her playing. I like having her play in my session.

* "I saw a reference in a recent Discussion to an amplified bass guitar being used at a regular weekly session."

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We have a bass player that needs a boost and he uses it with proper discretion.
There are two sessions in Chicago that use a PA and at one it made it really uncomfortable to join. There was absolutely no way I would be able to hear my flute over the booming vocal and screaming banjo which was also amplified. It was really a gig though they call it a session. I also felt, though I may be projecying, that it was a way to intimidate the lesser player which in Chicago at least, I fit the category. The music sounded great however. The PA was quality and dialed in well though too loud for my tastes.
The other session was again very loud and the quality was not as good. The fiddle had a terrible tone and the guy is a top Chicago player. It felt welcoming though and I think they may have tried to find a mic for
me had I asked to join.
All in all I did not like either for different reasons and will probably never be back.

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About 15 years ago, on one of the rare occasions that I have been one of the ‘anchor’ musicians in a session, I was persuaded to use low-level amplification. It was in a noisy pub and the mandolin I was playing at the time was not nearly loud enough to lead the session without some electrical assistance. In fact, the guitarist I was playing with, who played fingerstyle, was in the habit of using amplification for the same reason. But I was not very comfortable with it. It is not simply a case of balancing volume - it creates, for me, a kind of disconnection from the other musicians, the idea that *I* am to be listened to and *they* are to listen and play along. If that is what being a session leader involves, then I’d rather be on the other side (…there again, offer me money and I’ll do anything 😉 .)

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Know a couple of chaps that play some type of electronic piano accordion which has an amp etc., and they can set various ‘instrument voices’ on them. In fairness this is professional gear for functions but also seen it used in session type situations and in this context they are overpowering and not pleasant.

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I took a Marshall stack to a session and I loved it.

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A bass has recently joined a session I go to. The venue can often be quite noisy and the tune players may have difficulty hearing each other, especially as there are usually a few guitars. I don’t think the bass has changed the session much musically but it’s increased the ambient noise of the place so that the punters increase their conversation volume, making it even more difficult for the tune players.

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All Moldy, as a melody player myself nothing in your description sounds good for playing melody in a session like that.

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I’ve seen a very appropriate use of a small amp for an dobro electric bass at the session in Chico that worked wonderfully. It provides a nice bottom end to the sound in what is often a very loud pub and gives the music more of a ceili band feel. The gent who plays it is also extremely good at what he does.

Other than that, I don’t enjoy to play in a session with amplified instruments. A long time ago, in a local pub far far away, in a session long since gone, we’d have two or more amplified standard and octave mandolins. It seemed to be a trend at a time, a arms race for being heard in a very large and loud session with too many guitars and bodhrans.

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Amplification or not I appreciate non-melody players who appreciate the tune and play with a sensitive ear for those of us playing melody. We like hearing the tune, please, & thank you very much.

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I like having a bass or piano in a session and unless the bar has a piano or the bass player uses an upright then amplification is necessary. Just because someone uses an amp doesn’t mean they aren’t sensitive and are only interested in engaging in volume wars; well unless of course they’re guitar players and bring a half stack.

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I agree with the above. Pure drop…. Though at times a large session can be a lot of fun, there is nothing like the magic that happens when two or three or four melody instruments are flying high, playing along in perfect unison. Without amplification.

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It wasn’t a half stack

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Since you asked, I’m pretty opposed to amplification in informal sessions. I guess I could see somebody bringing in an electric keyboard if the pub doesn’t have a piano and one is desired, but as a pianist myself I can’t imagine lugging my Roland, amp, keyboard stand, and chair all out for a non-paying gig. Also I dislike basses in this music. Opinion.

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I wouldn’t enjoy a session where any of the common trad instruments were amplified, because that would mean there was either enough noise from the venue to justify it (and therefore no fun), or else the musicians had succumbed to the volume wars Mark M mentioned above. Also no fun.

I guess the two special cases are keyboard and bass. I enjoy hearing piano in a Cape-Breton focused session, if played by someone who knows the style well enough. So if it’s *that* kind of session, then a keyboard played with internal speakers might work.

Bass is something that I think only works if you’re another Trevor Hutchinson, and are able to play with that level of sensitivity. And you can still go acoustic on bass, either dragging in a full doghouse or play a more compact acoustic guitar-body bass. The latter don’t have much volume compared to an upright bass, but that can be an advantage for the melody players. Once you set an amp on the floor for something like a Kala bass (ukulele with rubber strings and a pickup), you’re asking for someone else to do the same with another instrument.

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Our bass player has only been with us for about 14 or 15 years. When do the other instruments begin using amps?

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@AB
Talking in general terms here. It’s great if your session with the amplified bass player has been able to avoid escalation.

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Judging by some of the comments above I can only assume that some posters attend (or have attended) fairly competitive sessions where the aim is to be the loudest.
Sorry, I just don’t have much experience of that in tunes sessions. In sessions I have attended it has not been the case that, because some electronic instruments uses electronic amplification, players of acoustic instruments have felt the need to augment their acoustic amplification with electronic amplification.
I mean, if one of your session members was a bit hard of hearing and started using a hearing aid, would you feel obliged to use a hearing aid as well so you could hear louder than them?

I think it’s fine for electronic instruments, that otherwise would be silent or practically inaudible, to be amplified electronically, just as I think it’s fine for acoustic instruments to be amplified acoustically. What’s the big deal?

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Conical bore, it didn’t sound general when I read Kala bass, since I mentioned that earlier.

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Volume "escalation" doesn’t have to just be between players - it is often between the players and the punters. If the music is loud, people having a conversation will talk louder, which makes it harder for the musicians to hear, so they play louder, and it becomes an un-winnable arms race of mutually assured destruction.

I’m generally against amplification in sessions, and it’s partially for this reason. If it’s easy to play louder, then the temptation to play louder because of a noisy environment is there, and thus begins the arms race.

But my real underlying reason for disliking amplification in sessions is that traditional instruments don’t need amplification to blend well in a session. The one exception might be an electronic keyboard that is acting as piano accompaniment - but most of the sessions that I attend have more than enough accompaniment. One of my sessions actually has a piano available, and we have had a few instances where someone would accompany us using the piano, which can be fun if they know what they’re doing… But a piano can muddy up a session if not played well and can walk all over the other instruments if it’s not being played tastefully. (Which can be said about almost any instrument, I guess…)

If you play an instrument that doesn’t work well in a loud session, then maybe you shouldn’t be trying to play that instrument in a loud session (says the banjo player 😉 )

But another reason not to like amplification is that sound is different when it resonates from a speaker instead of from an instrument. So even if volume, or relative volume isn’t an issue, amplified sound doesn’t necessarily mix well with acoustic instrument sound.

In the case of gigs (and I’m not really including paid sessions in this…), amplification can be much more acceptable because potentially all the instruments are amplified, and in most gigs, the music is the center of attention, so you don’t have any volume escalation between players and the audience.

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Now I’m completely lost. So, I assume the general attitude is amps are not acceptable in informal sessions. I realise it’s not unanimous, nor is it the consensus of all members. But apparently it is significant for those who do not want amps to be used in informal sessions.

I don’t share this opinion about the use of amps which I have experienced in my session & another one locally. But I am beginning to realise it’s a problem for some of you contributing on this thread.

It’s good to be clear on our different perspectives. Thank you!

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I usually take ear plugs to music venues. When I think about it, there is something wrong with that situation. Its supposed to be pleasant.

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Got it! Thank you, Fidele Barnia. It’s not the session per se but more likely the venue, or the night of the week or the crowd. I get that about problems with volumes and not having a pleasant acoustic experience. ‘sWhy I like my music early and late. It’s the middle periods when the unwashed masses are pushing and shoving. The shadows and fringes are more what I’m built for.
;)

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I generally appreciate acoustic music, but…

I regularly attend sessions with an amplified mandolin that is quite appropriate (delicate melody lines), and another with an acoustic mandolin that is not so appropriate (lots of chomp-chomp-chomping, like in bluegrass backup)

My tolerance is very limited when it comes certain instruments such as highland bagpipe and snare drum. (Umm, those are acoustic instruments). Drones are terrible. Bodhran - it depends; I know a couple really good players. Bones - rarely. Spoons - ughhhh.

Hammered dulcimer is not my preferred because the sustain can muddy the chords, but it depends on the player. I know a superb player who dampens out offending chords as the melody moves on.

I shared a session with a visiting Saxophone player (once). It was very nice as the musician was good and he added a subtle, unusual element.

So the take-away, obviously, is that it depends on the musicianship.

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This is one of those classic "do’s and don’ts in sessions" discussions.

There is obviously going to be a great divergence of opinion and different ideas and beliefs as to what constitutes an ideal session. After many years, I’ve come to the view that a session should be whatever the regulars wish or are prepared to tolerate. Obviously, I have my own preferences which includes limited or no amplification amongs other things.
However, I always have the choice whether to attend any particular session or not. If I don’t like it or not prepared to tolerate it(even for just one night), I don’t need to be there.

Generally, I’d have no objection to an amplified bass guitar or keyboards used sensitively but, then again, this also depends on the style of music in the session, size of the room, and amount of available space. Some acoustic instruments have some "built in" amplification of their own which may also be OK depending on the circumstances.

I have a *very small* amp for my mandolin which I bought several years ago thinking it would be a good idea but I soon realised that it wasn’t for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the sound wasn’t the same and, besides, I soon learned that the instrument is actually much louder than I thought. It blends in fine until you make a mistake and then you realise how loud it is… 🙂 Playing style also affects volume. So, with good practice, you get more volume in any case.
If a session is really loud, I’ll sometimes switch to tenor banjo, octave mandolin, or even fiddle rather than think of using amplification.
Having said that, I very occasionally use my amp when I’m playing with a piper friend but this is a very small and informal session. It wouldn’t be something I’d normally do. Even there, I generally prefer to use a banjo, tenor guitar, octave mandoin, or mandola instead.

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I have played in a few sessions with an electric bass player and hated it. It dominated the session, with a plodding bass line preventing any sense of dynamics and flexibility. Bass players are not essential in ITM.
Instruments need to be acoustic: it makes a more organic sound. We have little space so dragging speakers and amps and cables and plugs onto it is impractical.

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I agree with both David Levine (pure drop, everyone flying high, no amps) and with Jon Freeman (every case taken on its merits..)

Sadly, due to hearing loss I had to give up playing my harmonicas in pub sessions. But when I was playing I routinely used a Roland Mobile Cube battery amp and a tiny lapel mic just to get me up to the level of the fiddle and guitars (so not pure drop, David!). In my armoury I had a few harmonicas that could cut through without help as long as there were no banjos or too much background pub noise. But most of the time I used the amp, which increased my volume but with which I banned myself from using reverb, chorus or any of those other tricks. I just wanted to be approximately as loud as everyone else but still sound like a harmonica.

My mates always accepted the amp and I unfailingly consulted them as to whether my volume was appropriate. So, mainly out of self-interest I suppose, I don’t go along at all with the blanket amplification naysayers in this thread.

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…sigh.

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Why "sigh," Ali? You’re in a pub, with all the hubbub that goes with that. You’re in a session with guitars, fiddles and banjos, all a damn sight louder than your poor harmonica. You simply can’t be heard. So you get yourself a little battery amp with a tone clean enough to make you sound like yourself, just a bit louder. Just loud enough get yourself heard. Not heard louder than everyone else because you have a big ego, just heard at all. Maybe you don’t think that harmonicas should be allowed in sessions at all, or that, if they are, they should be tolerated under protest and therefore not actually heard. I’m pretty good at projecting my sound and will use my Tombo tremolos and XB40s to cut through whenever I can without any help. But there are occasions when that simply isn’t possible and, without a bit of boost, I might as well not be bothering. Actually, I can play quite well and, without wishing to sound egotistical, I can actually add something. Surely everyone who plays tunes in sessions wants to be heard, at least as part of the mix. That isn’t ego, that’s why we go out to play. And, in 25 years of doing it, I’ve never been objected to and have always consulted my mates as to my volume and as to whether they think I’m intruding inappropriately. So why "sigh?"

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"You’re in a pub, with all the hubbub that goes with that. You’re in a session with guitars, fiddles and banjos, all a damn sight louder than your poor harmonica."

As a mandolin player (mostly) and "developing" flute player, I can imaging all the mandolin players here wondering why that doesn’t apply to us too. 🙂

The key of course, is how loud the ambient noise + instruments are. Past a certain point it isn’t worth it, with or without amps. I manage okay in a session playing mandolin with one or two smallpipes and several fiddles, and that’s pretty loud. I don’t know if anyone can hear me once the tune starts, but they can hear me well enough if I kick off a tune, and I can hear myself. That’s enough.

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This topic about amps gets kicked around on the forum and I always appreciate reponses which are careful to not generalise too much. I appreciate people like Steve Shaw who answers the issues about when and how ‘any’ instrumentalist works with his volume, proximity, other instruments in the session, the venue. Situations vary and if I trust anyone on the session.org to choose when amplification works and when he doesn’t need to plugin; it’s Mr. Shaw. He has provided some clear, thoughtful advice about sound management on this and previous threads.

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My "sigh" was not directed at you Steve. Rather at the discussion in general. I host various sessions in Skye with a Bass player using an amp. So what? If such little things are really a problem for people they have the choice not to bother playing. Too many rules and regulations in these threads, not enough "sure come and join in".
I play guitar myself, an anathema to some also, especially as its a Jumbo!! There’s far too many things messed up in this world so why make such a fuss over nothing at all folks?

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Ok, Ali.

My sympathies also to mandolin players. I have a friend who is an ace luthier. He consciously set out to build himself a mandolin much louder than the "usual" ones, with considerable success. Hohner used to make a harmonica model called the XB 40 which was mighty loud for a harmonica and which would nearly always cut through. Sadly, they stopped making them years ago. Rick Epping (who was the designer of the XB 40) made himself a diatonic octave model made from chromatic harmonica parts that was impressively loud. I find Tombo tremolos can often do the job unaided, but not everyone wants to play tremolos. Normal chromatics and blues harps are nearly always a bit too quiet unless the atmosphere is very quiet and there aren’t too many plucked thingies around. I can assure the world that no self-respecting harmonica player likes being the only person amplified, but like everyone else, they do like to be in the mix. Agreement with your mates is the key thing.

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We’re a fickle lot aren’t we? Thanks to everyone who contributed, as always everyone has their own opinion on this type of topic.

I’ve deliberately not expressed my own view up to now, and (maybe unsurprisingly) I would say…"it depends".

But…here are a few mildly contentious observations. I’ve certainly noticed a lot more use of amplified keyboards in sessions since I started. The downside of this is that they usually automatically take over the session accompaniment, rendering others (e.g. guitar, bouzouki, harp) semi- or fully redundant. So it can be a form of elitism and unless the volume control lives up to its name, the whole session can become an ego trip for the pianist (especially if there is drink involved…). In all my years of playing I have only come across one person who plays electronic keyboards in a session in a very controlled manner. In a band situation they can be great and I love playing with a good keyboard player.

Bass guitars - upright bass can be very dominant but can work well. The acoustic bass guitar models are generally not loud enough to cut through so a small amp can help; again you have the volume control issue and I remember one instance where the bass player went up a notch after every pint. Towards the end of the night all you could hear was the bass…not good.

Guitar-wise, I have used a Strat judiciously at some sessions and have never been asked to stop, I hope that’s a good sign. (I always bring an acoustic as well…). Innovation in Irish music being what it is, some things are generally frowned upon until somebody famous does it, so I was heartened by Steve Cooney recently postulating the use of a Strat as a harp substitute in certain settings.

Technology is advancing to the stage where virtual instruments in sessions will soon be feasible. That’s when the fun will really start. I think that deep-down, despite the fact that I have played a lot of amplified electric music (rock, blues and a bit of jazz) over the years, I think that the best Irish traditional sessions tend to be unamplified and spontaneous. I wouldn’t encourage amplification as it removes spontaneity and potentially creates tension. But in the hands of a capable and sympathetic musician, an amplified instrument could be a very welcome addition to certain types of session.

That’s my tuppence worth. If you see a bespectacled older gent toting a Roland Cube and a strangely shaped guitar case at a session near you….you have been warned!!!