Sound Quality at Your Wedding

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.

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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?

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Get This Party Started!

Get This Party Started!

Party-goers from different generations have very different expectations about how a dancing party gets started.  Our band played for an end-of-term college dance on Wednesday evening and saw a pattern that is typical for today’s students.  The dance was advertised as beginning at 10 PM and when we began playing, no one at all was there except for the two organizers.  A group of young women who were expert swing dancers were the first guests to arrive and they made great use of the open dance floor for about 15 minutes as other guests began to slip into the room and help themselves to the food.  (As I wrote in a previous post, women want to dance!)  Occasionally, another couple or two would join in on the dance floor, but there wasn’t a critical mass of dancers until over a half hour into the first set.

 

We mentioned the issue of late arrival to one of the students and heard an answer we have heard many times in recent years,  “you know it’s the old wanting-to-be-cool thing – no one wants to be the first one there.”  This is in sharp contrast to the behavior we have often seen from older groups of dancers.

Our band has played a large number of college reunions for three decades, so we have had many chances to observe dancing behavior of distinct age groups.

We have had long relationships with certain college classes, for example, having played every reunion for the Yale Class of 1939 for the 25 years from 1979 until they stopped having reunions in 2004.  We have similar experience with reunions for classes from the 1940s through the 1970s as well.

 

For many mainstream Americans who came of age in the 1930s and 1940s (during the big band era), dances with live music were important social occasions and dancing was an important social as well as physical skill.  People who grew up with this usually carry their comfort with dancing throughout their lives for as long as they can move.  We have seen very touching instances of this at weddings when Great Grandma dances with her grandson or whomever.  There were and still are groups, such as some Southern Baptists and Orthodox Jews, who don’t approve of couple dancing, but by and large, dancing in couples was fun for older generations.  Live music was precious and people were eager to take advantage of any opportunity to dance.  Playing for them was very easy.  They were on the dance floor from the first note.

 

What has changed for younger people in recent years is their sense of awkwardness about getting started.  Events take a lot longer to get off the ground.  They are wonderful once they’re in full swing, but there’s a long period of standing around, waiting for someone else to make the first move.

 

People with higher skill levels are often the ones to break the ice, as we saw on Wednesday.  The strong swing dancers, the very athletic break-dancer, the couple who know how to waltz, tango, or cha cha, the guy who can moonwalk or do the robot, often attract others to the dance floor–others who at first just watch and admire, but then decide to join in.  At other times, there is almost a group “charge” to the dance floor, as “I will if you will” meets “all right men, we’re going in!”

 

There are sometimes particular songs that signal “it’s time to dance” for certain audiences.  Classic party music reduces people’s uncertainty about what to do by several different means:

 

  • Familiarity – You may have danced to this before and have good associations with it.
  • Rhythm – The beat is very definite and you feel comfortable moving with it.
  • Instruction – The song may literally tell you what to do, i.e.  “come on baby, let’s do the Twist.”
  • Known audience participation aspects – People have learned to expect to sing along on “Living on a Prayer” or pump their fists on “Sweet Caroline.”
  • Choreography – The song may have definite arm motions that go with it, as in  “YMCA” or dance steps as in line dances such as the Electric Slide or Macarena.

 

I used to wonder why bands never played the more obscure songs I liked and why other songs that were not “better,” but only more familiar, were played so often.  Now I see why:  because certain songs work better on a social level than other songs do.  We hear the same central repertoire of older and newer “standards” in many different situations because these songs have proven to help get the party started.

 

The next post in this music and dancing series will be “The Wheelchair on the Dance Floor” May 5.

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What songs, sounds, or situations make you want to dance?

Do certain dancing parties stand out in your memory?  What made them special?