From the Mailbag: Should I Set Up In The Center, Or Near A Wall?

From this week's mailbag: “Should I set up in the center of the room, or near a wall?”

There's no easy answer here, as everything depends on the room you are playing in. I have set up in all types of places in all types of rooms. I have always chosen my set up place in order to maximize the sound potential of the room, and in some cases to also maximize the seating potential of the people attending. But in a lot of situations, the room itself dictates where to set up.

Different Rooms, Different Acoustics

Let's take a look at various situations and also look at some of the acoustical problems presented by different rooms. While I have set up in the middle of a room onmany occasions, I prefer to set up near a wall. Part of this is my own personal preference for sound and how it works against a wall. Another part is how to fit everyone in the room. And there is also the acoustics of the room and how things will sound vs set up placement.

In a long rectangular room, I prefer to set up on one end, preferably without obstructions like doors and windows behind me. I like to have my main Gong rack, with 5 Gongs, approximately 24" from the wall. I feel that this gives enough room for the sound to breathe, and also allows the wall to help reflect the sound out into the audience. This reflection reinforces what I'm playing so that I don't have to overplay or bring up volume.

But there are a lot of other factors at play here:

  1. Curtains or other sound absorbing materials against the back wall will take away any useful reflections.
  2. Mirrors or windows against any other walls will make the room livelier. Conversely, carpeting, curtains or acoustical tiles on any other walls will help deaden the overall sound.
  3. The height of the ceiling—low or high—will have a big impact on the sound. A low ceiling will tend to keep the sound close and often sound boxy. A high ceiling will let the sound breathe more and open things up. It can also add a nice reverb to everything, but in some cases may add too much reverb, making the sound difficult to control.
  4. The length of the room has a big affect on the sound. A shorter room can sound boxy, while a very long room can sound hollow. Again, the affect of the room sound will be changed by the hardness/softness of the various walls and ceiling.
  5. The type of floor is a big factor. Carpeting will absorb a lot of sound, while tile/wood/laminates/etc. will reflect the sound.

The shape of the room is a very big factor in both the sound and the set up. 

Last week I played in a Buddhist Temple that is a former church. I had to set up in front of the altar/platform, which put me about 3-4 meters from the wall behind me. While I was not quite in the center of the room, I was far from any walls, as the room itself is more or less round with a very high vaulted ceiling. The sound there was very open and airy. Because of the shape of the room/ceiling, there wasn't that much reverb, so it didn't sound like a school gym, but the sound was very spacious. Older churches were designed to help project music, especially an unamplified choir, so they tend to sound great for Gongs, Bowls and Bells.

Out near the center of the Buddhist Temple.

I had people on 3 sides of me, but no one behind me because of the altar. In other large spaces I have set up in the center with people all around me, but that's not my favorite arrangement, as I look at my set up as having a front and back to it.

The week before, I played in a very small, square yoga studio with a carpeted floor and 12' ceiling. The sound in there was very compact, intimate, and present. I had to set up as close to the wall as possible, which had my Gongs less than a foot from the wall. To me, the Gongs felt stiff and unyielding, as there was no space for the sound to open up. I adjusted my playing to fit the room, bringing the sound down and also working to contain it more. In the bigger temple I could let the sound go. Here I tried to contain it.

In a rectangular room I prefer to play on one end with the longer space in front of me, but there are some places I set up in the middle of the longer wall on one side because its best or only wall that will work. In a long, skinny room this can create a sound where the reflections off the wall in front of you are immediate and very strong. 

Setting up on the longer wall in a rectangular room.

In one room I play regularly, I set up in a corner. The room is a large square with a high ceiling and large windows on two adjoining sides that I set up between. The main reason for this is because there is a support pillar in the middle of the room and this way we can get better seating by having concentric half circles in front of the Gongs. Also, there's really no good wall to set up on, so the corner is a compromise that works as far as the sound goes.

Setting up in the corner between windowed walls.

Another reason to set up in a corner is an 'L' shaped room. This is a practical solution for the sound being evenly available to both sides. I also set up in the corner due to doors and other obstructions that make setting up on any wall impractical. And sometimes a corner just works best for the room. A corner with hard walls can act like a megaphone and really project your sound, so you need to be aware of that and not overpower the room.

If I'm on a stage, I like to set up close to the front of the stage to be closer to the people. This always gets me away from any back wall on a small stage. On large stages, there's usually a curtain behind and then a whole backstage area behind that.

Set up on a concert hall stage with wide open background.

One important thing is an empty room vs a full room. An empty room may sound very open and lively, but put a lot of people with mats/blankets/bolsters and their clothes in the room, and the acoustics change drastically! People and their things really absorb sound.

The Great Outdoors

Outside is a completely different thing. I've played outside in open spaces, covered stages, buildings or tents with open sides, stone circles and other areas. The acoustics are very different outside, especially because there often are no walls/ceiling to reflect the sound back. The sound just goes out and keeps going. In these spaces I usually have to play a bit louder and may use harder mallets to facilitate that.

Setting up in an outdoor pavilion.

Making The Best Choice

Other than on stage in a concert hall, or in an older cathedral type church, there are few ideal sound spaces. In a new room, I usually walk around listening to it, finding what set up placement will work best for each room. You need to also adjust your playing for the room and make the best of it.

~ MB

Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™

* A quick disclaimer: Since this is my blog, it is also my opinions. You are of course free to believe whatever you want and to use whatever ideas work for you. I do.

Over the past 9 years and 3 different blogs, I've written almost 500 blog posts. That's a lot of my time and energy devoted to putting my thoughts and ideas out there on the internet for you to read. If you've enjoyed reading them, and have gotten value out of them, please consider a donation. You'll be helping me keep writing for hopefully another 9 years. Thank You ~ MB.


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