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.

.

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?

The Wheelchair on the Dance Floor

This is the internationally recognized symbol ...

This is the internationally recognized symbol for accessibility (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Several of the most fun dance experiences I’ve had in the past few years have been at events where a person with a disability was central to the proceedings.  Contrary to what some people might expect, participation from the disabled person made the entire dance experience more engaging for everyone there.

One instance was a wedding and the ceremony took place outside, on a beach downhill from a hotel.  Everyone walked down a long zig-zag aisle to get to the ceremony location and once the processional began, we could see that this arrangement had been chosen not only for its visual beauty, but also for functional reasons.  The Best Man used a wheel chair and the zigs and zags were like a series of ramps, making it possible for him to process down to the beach as a member of the wedding party.

Later, at the reception, the dancing was all right, but really took off when a female guest invited the Best Man onto the dance floor.  As he rolled and spun in his chair, and everyone else joined in, the whole event seemed to lift.  It was suddenly not about dancing just like your neighbor danced, it was about expressing joy, rhythm, and movement in the ways available to you at that moment.  Dancing had become “safer” for everyone.

The Best Man was a good dancer.  He was in a wheelchair, but he was a good dancer. My husband leaned over to him and said, “you’ve got some good moves there!” to which he replied, “I had even more a few years ago.”  My husband just laughed and said, “Yeah, me too!” and we all danced with all the moves we had on that particular day.  It was fun!

Whether we say it overtly or not, people are always seeking that special chemistry that makes a party “gel,” the energy that connects everyone more intensely, the magic that makes an event memorable.  Back in the 1950s, politicians used to talk about “making the world safe for democracy.”  I’m interested in making the world safe for fun and one of the ways we do that is by being aware of the conditions that allow more people to participate more fully.  Making that zig-zag aisle allowed a man in a wheelchair to play an integral role in a major life event for his friend.  Including a person in a wheelchair in the dancing made the whole celebration more fun for everyone.  We’re not just “doing a favor for a disabled person” when we make our events more inclusive; we’re making our own worlds larger and friendlier.  And if we should become disabled at some point in the future, the image of the wheelchair on the dance floor will remind us that there are still many ways to dance.

Women Want to Dance

Many more women than men want to dance.   Cyndi Lauper wrote “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and I’m saying “women want to dance.”  This appears to be true all the way up and down the age spectrum.  There are always men who are excellent dancers and love to dance too, but they are relatively rare.  (Any of you guys looking for love, take notice!  If you are a good dancer, a genuinely nice guy, and not skeevy, you’ve really got something!)

An internet video called “Dance like nobody’s watching: mall” shows a woman (Angela Trimbur) dancing alone (and very well) in a mall and being almost completely ignored by passers by.

And there it is, my point entirely:

Who is dancing? Where?  Why?  And who is noticing?

I’ve had a great vantage point as a bandleader and singer for observing how people’s responses to music and dancing have changed over the past three decades. I’m going to write one post every week for the next four weeks on how these kinds of fun have changed.  So for this week, the issue is women’s experiences of fun with dancing.

From the 1940s through the 1960s, dancing in male-female couples was a cultural model of heterosexual romance and a familiar experience for many Americans.  Big band swing, ballroom dances, and early rock n roll supplied soundtracks for couples to dance to.  A breaking point came with the Twist in 1960.  Couples could now dance separately, without touching.

Over the past fifty years since then, couple dancing has ebbed and flowed in popularity, influenced by musical and dance styles such as disco and dance movies such as Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Dirty Dancing (1987).  Since then, dance styles have been heavily influenced by hiphop, rap, and music videos that feature solo or group dancers more often than couples.

However, a British survey in 2007 found that Dirty Dancing remained number one on their list of women’s most-watched movies and those dance scenes still hold special appeal for women.  Women still think dancing is fun—as well as potentially romantic or sexy.

Several months ago our band played a wedding in which “I Had the Time of My Life” was a theme song and the bride expressed hope that the end of the wedding would resemble that ending scene from Dirty Dancing  (it did).   Such joyful, intergenerational celebrations are not easy to find in places other than weddings these days.  The dinner dances that clubs and organizations used to sponsor occur much less frequently now.  Weddings are often the only chances for social dancing that many people have.  I hear “maybe I can get my husband to dance with me” often enough to know that many women still want to dance more than their male partners do. Bands and DJs try to meet this pent-up demand from women by playing female anthems like “I Will Survive” and “Dancing Queen” that women can dance to in a group.  We also know that structured activities like line dances allow women to participate without having partners.

But what if no one you know is getting married?  Where else can you dance?  If a need isn’t being met in one place, it will often show itself somewhere else.  So women are dancing in exercise classes (typically with other women and led by a woman), we are dancing in gyms, YMCA’s, pools, and now even the mall; we are dancing for fitness, to enjoy movement and music, to have fun and feel sexy, and to be happy, but we are not dancing in couples that much or in traditional social situations the way people danced years ago.

Dancing and physical movement to music are just too much fun to miss.  Think about your own experience.  When was the last time you danced?  How did you feel about it?  Was it fun?  Why or why not?