How many otherwise beautiful weddings have been marred by bad sound? Don’t let this happen to yours.
Most wedding planners and many brides are visually oriented. From what I hear, many don’t understand the importance of sound at a wedding. Think of the vows (especially at outdoor weddings) that no one except the bride and groom could hear. Think of the weddings you’ve attended where the band or DJ was so loud that no one could talk without screaming. How relieved were you when you could leave?
Being able to hear and to talk is enormously important at virtually all social functions, but especially at a wedding where part of the goal is the creation of a community that will support you and your intended for the rest of your lives! You want people to feel connected. Good sound helps everyone connect, just as good music does.
How can you insure that your wedding will sound good?
When you begin checking out possible settings for your wedding, notice the sound quality of each place. If possible, visit when an event is in progress.
Choosing a ceremony venue may be easy if you are getting married in a church or temple you already belong to. There are exceptions, but most houses of worship have reasonably good acoustics and many already have PA systems, so they are less likely to present a sonic challenge. Hotels and country clubs also usually have ways of dealing with ceremonies that they know have worked well for previous weddings.
But if you want to be married outdoors, being heard can be tricky. Sound disperses in all directions, both outward from you and your officiant toward your guests (and the sky), and also occasionally inward toward you from the environment. A plane flies over, a train goes by… and they become part of your memory of the wedding. These interruptions can be charming, but be realistic about overtly noisy spaces: we once had a client who wanted to get married outside on the New Haven Green at 5 PM on a Friday, despite warnings about how noisy and non-romantic downtown city streets can be at rush hour!
If you have your heart set on an outdoor wedding, accept the fact that everyone may not be able to hear, seat your guests as close together as possible, consider whether you may need a sound system, and be ready to speak up!
Now on to the bigger challenge – the reception:
Check out the sound quality and hard and soft surfaces of any indoor space. (Tents for outdoor weddings usually sound fine.)
Marble, stonework, glass, concrete, and architectural features such as vaulted ceilings, allow sound to bounce around a lot and become muddy. Soft surfaces such as carpeting, fabric wall coverings, drapes, acoustical tile, and fabric-covered furniture absorb sound. The ideal is a mix of hard and soft surfaces in a space that is not shaped like a box (too many right angles makes for a mid-range-y boxy sound that feels harsh – odd angles in a room often “naturalize” the sound and make it more comfortable for listeners).
Wooden floors and walls can also give the sound a warm quality. The classic combo of wooden dance floor and carpeted dining area is a classic for a number of reasons. One advantage is that if your band or DJ’s speakers are aimed at the center of the dance floor, the sound will be full where people are dancing but will fall off by the time it reaches the tables. You want people at their tables to be able to talk comfortably.
Clap your hands together in the center of the space and listen for any echo or natural reverb. If you hear any, you have a fairly “live” room. Even before you add any music, conversation among your guests will produce a considerable buzz. The larger your tables are, the harder it will be for guests to talk across the table and hear each other. Tables for 6 or 8 may be a better choice in a very live room than tables for 10 or 12.
What if you’ve already committed to a space that has sonic problems?
1. Be sure your band or DJ shares your sonic goals! This is the most important single thing you can do. Hire people who don’t have to be loud to be good. If your musicians or DJ usually play at very loud volumes or with distortion, they are likely to apply those same approaches to your wedding. If accustomed to playing in bars or clubs where their task is to “drive the patrons to drink,” they may not actually prefer the sound quality or volume that is most appropriate or functional for a social event like a wedding. People who think that a heavy sternum-vibrating quality sounds “good” (think of a car with a big speaker system playing rap music so that you can feel it from the next lane with your windows rolled up) may not want to adjust to make their sound cleaner and may not even know how to. Sound travels in waves – be sure you are on the same wavelength with your band or DJ!
2. Think about sound when deciding on the seating for your guests. Music is naturally louder nearer the band or DJ’s equipment, so be sure to seat younger people in those areas and older people further away.
But also recognize that different crowds like different volume levels along with different styles of music! (We have played for a handful of wonderful Persian weddings. These have been some of the only times in my career when we’ve had what felt to us like a big full sound and yet still had older women guests coming up to us saying, “This is great, but can you make it louder?”) The important thing is to think well about your own audience, your friends and families, and to know that your band or DJ will be thinking well about them too.
3. Use fabric-covered chairs, tablecloths with skirts, draped fabric or screens, or area rugs in your décor – the more fabric, the better if you are dealing with an echo-y muddy-sounding space. (When I was in high school in Tennessee, we used the National Guard Armory for our school dances. Using a pipe and drape system, we lined the walls of this enormous room with fabric. We were not conscious of the sonic effect, only that it seemed much more special to see fabric than to see cinder block walls. Now that I have played events in gymnasiums both with and without draping, I realize what a good idea all that fabric was and is! Of course, if you choose a space that is already appropriately designed for parties and weddings rather than for tanks or basketball, you can just focus on being the bride!)
4. Finally, the secret weapon: Balloons!
The brilliant party designer Andrew Rubenoff explained this to me some years ago (www.andrewrubenoff.com – his work is far more beautiful than the photo resolution on the site can capture). Think about how sound waves travel. They travel through the air from one point to another by the movement of molecules. If you fill the air with balloons, each balloon acts as a little sound baffle and absorbs some of that molecular motion. The result is a more controlled sound, but you have to use a LOT of balloons. One room we often play in has a high vaulted ceiling and seats about 180 people. This room needs 200 to 300 helium balloons released up to the ceiling in order to sound its best. We have also seen balloons used in centerpieces or tied to the backs of chairs on long ribbons (only tie them to every other chair and vary the heights in order to prevent their tangling if fans or AC come on!).
Don’t plan your wedding as a silent movie! It’s not all about the visual. The audio matters. People connect through conversation and music. Make sound choices and you’ll strike the perfect tone for your wedding!
What are your strongest memories of sound at a wedding or party? Has bad sound ever ruined an event for you? What would have made it better?