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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Why Do Concerts Sound So Bad?

Bad concert sound imageMost every time I go to a concert I come with the same feeling - why did it sound so bad?

I've posted the following a few years ago, but it's still holds true things never seems to get much better. Concert sound reinforcement equipment is better than ever, yet we're frequently burdened with a mess of auditory goo that just sucks the enjoyment from a live event.

Unfortunately this happens much more than it should, and I think it's a big reason for many people not wanting to attend as many concerts as they once did. It's tough enough with the high ticket prices, the "convenience charges," and the high cost of parking and concessions, but if you add to that a less than perfect concert experience, it doesn't give one much incentive to return again any time soon.

The fact of the matter is that the majority of concerts really sound bad these days and it's not because of the venue acoustics. It's the mix.

I believe that an entire generation of soundmen grew up learning the wrong way - that the kick drum and snare are the most important part of a mix. While that may be true in some small way when mixing a record (it's really important, but not the most important), it's an entirely different thing mixing live sound, where the vocal should be king.

Common sense says that the softest thing on the stage (the vocals) should get the most amplification and attention. After all, that's really what people pay to hear (and who they come to see the majority of the time), not the kick drum. And the overuse of subwoofers just makes a boomy venue all the more boomy.

So here are five reasons why I think concerts don't sound as good as they could:

1.  The vocal isn't featured. The vocalist is usually the main reason why we're there. Mix it so we can hear and understand it, please.

2.  Over-reliance on subwoofers. In real life, the only time you hear 20-30Hz is during a thunderstorm, earthquake or other natural phenomena, and adding in too much (as is sometimes the norm) can be a big distraction. Sure, you want to make the music sound bigger than life by adding in all that bottom end, but it shouldn't be at the expense of intelligibility.  

3.  Too much kick. A function of the above two items, many soundmen seem to have a myopic vision of the kick drum, spending way more time trying to get a sound at the expense of everything else on the stage. Believe me, most drummers at the concert level are using drums that sound great already. It doesn't take that much effort to make them sound good.

4.  Low intelligibility. Again a function of the above items, many concert soundmen seem happy if you can just hear the vocal. But what the concert goer wants is to understand every word. Let's spend some time on that instead of the kick.

5.  Bad mixing habits. It seems like many soundmen never listened to the CD of the band they're mixing. Sure it's different mixing live. Sure you have some wacky venues to contend with. But 1, 2, 3, and 4 on this list leads to #5.  Now's the time to break the cycle.

I'm sure this list won't change the mind of a current concert soundman. But if just one kid starting out decides that it might not be the best thing to emulate that guy, we'll all be the better for it.

34 comments:

Anonymous said...

As a sound technician (since 1971), live sound mixer (since 1976) and performing musician (since 1977) I couldn't agree more. I attended a Black Eyed Peas concert with my daughter about 10 years ago, and the sub-woofer knocked my socks of. I know, I know, if it's too loud your too old. But in fact, as a bass player I LIKE IT LOUD. But your points make good sense to me. I'm going to apply your observations at my next show and make sure that I mix for the vocals. Great post.

mgraves said...

Oh, man! Have you struck a chord with this one! In recent years I've seen The Eagles a few times. They sounded great, even in marginal venues. The mix left the space for everything to breath.

In contrast, I saw Rush on the R40 tour. That was seriously disappointing. It was mush. It was loud, but it was mush. Too loud overall, little intelligibility.

I took out my Android cell phone which has a simple audio test app. It measured a much lower absolute level than I would have expected. But it revealed extremely limited dynamics. The mix was overly compressed.

Larry Green said...

Gotta agree...to much kick drum!

Michael Johnson said...

A loud kick drum sounds great when it's mostly just playing 4 to the bar in a dance track. But when the drum pattern gets even slightly more complex it completely loses the groove if the kick's too loud.

It seems to me that most live sound engineers these days have very little musical appreciation and are just trying to make it sound "awesome". Same goes for movie soundtracks.

Christoph said...

Since the venues are larger spaces, how much does reflection figure into the mix? Should engineers be calculating distances for standing waves and compensating via EQ? Or are the distances so large that it doesn't matter?

Gabriel Harley said...

Last fall, my wife and I saw The Decemberists at a local theater. When the front man was playing and singing solo or if there were just a couple of instruments playing softer passages, it sounded amazing. But when the whole band kicked in, it was as if all of the vocals were suddenly ducked. I don't know if it was some weird FOH compression or what. The overall SPL didn't seem to change that drastically, but for a band whose appeal is largely their lyrics, it was definitely disappointing.

Zeca Leme said...

Sometimes... There is another element on this equation... THE BAND!

cthulhu said...

I've found that using some sound level attenuation does a good job for me at most concerts. I tend to use cotton balls since I can control the amount of attenuation easily, although I'm sure that gear like the Etymotic earplugs work too. Cotton is more comfortable for me though. The first time I did this, I was shocked by how much of the muddy sound was simply my ears overloading; it's been standard procedure for me since.

Phil Emery said...

I've been at shows with horrible sound but thought "oh, I must be in the bad spot" so walked over to the mixing board, "must be better there".

Nope. I glance over at the soundman and he's checking his phone. All I could think was "aren't you hearing the same thing I am?" Never want to be "that guy" so don't say anything but I do wonder what's he's thinking.

Matt Kraai said...

At one concert, right at the beginning, I noticed that the kick and bass were way too hot. My family was looking forward to seeing this singer, and the vocals were cutting through, so I decided to make the best of it and have a good time anyway. Then came that time in the set when the vocalist stops, steps back, and looks at the guitar player, who steps into the spotlights and puts an expression of effort on his face. I'm thinking "cool, here comes the guitar solo." All I could hear was the bass, and now I don't remember much else about that evening.

Whoever is front and center on the stage should be "front and center" in the mix. We call the low end the "foundation" of the mix, but if the house doesn't have a solid frame and roof, and an attractive paint job, no one will care that the foundation goes 10 feet down and 20 feet beyond the walls.

Luke Smith said...

I enjoy going to a concert and seeing some good bands. I have notice that it depends on how big the band is, and on how well the concert production is as well. I've been to some concerts where I could not hear what they were saying because of the speakers being too loud, and some times the sound quality is great.

Tom said...

You make some valid points, though I think there's a couple of others worth adding.

There is a general lack of understanding amongst sound engineers when it comes to physical acoustics. You can have the best gear in the world, but if you're playing a room with an RT of 1.8 seconds at 250 Hz, you're going to have your work cut out for you finding any definition in the bass and kick. Knowing how to compensate for the acoustic conditions of the venue is just as important as any other element of mixing. This also applies to outdoor gigs where the fluctuations in temperature and humidity can make a huge difference in how sound behaves in air. There are tools and techniques for dealing with these issues, but many sound engineers don't understand how to use them.

Another issue i've seen on numerous occasions is a lack of music knowledge and musicality amongst sound engineers. I would never dispute that technical knowledge is fundamental to an engineers work, but all too often the pursuit of this knowledge overshadows the music. Being able to converse with musicians in musical language and understanding the artistic goals of a band is as important as any technical knowledge.

Lastly I would like to pull you up on one discrepancy that drives me crazy. The use of the term Soundmen. The audio production industry has been heavily male dominated for decades, much to it's detriment. In recent years we have finally seen an influx of talented women with a passion for the craft. The industry is vastly better off with them present. Continuing to use a gender specific term is insulting and may have the effect of discouraging other women from pursuing audio as a career choice.

Unknown said...

Bobby,

Thanks for posting this I think you nailed this one dead on. I have always been deeply disappointed with the sound of live concert experiences, and, for the reasons you pointed out it seems to be getting worse, not better. I keep trying new things, different ear plugs, positions in the hall, etc and I continue to be really disappointed. I honestly think at this point they should give up and stream the sound to mobile devices and have people bring their own headphones. Except for a small list of exceptional concertsI have been to think this would be a vast improvement in the experience!!

Jasen said...

I've been wearing earplugs to concerts since I was 12 (now closer to 50 than 40). When the volume starts closing in on 100dB I can't hear anything; as another commenter noted, my ears overload. Yet standard procedure seems to be to run concerts in the high 90s and well into 100+ dB. Why? Who can understand anything at that level? - other than people with hearing loss already.

I run sound for our student ministry. "Louder, LOUDER! More BASS! More KICK!" is the call from the youth pastor. Dude, I'm running in the mid-90s; that's plenty loud. I can feel the bass rattling my chest. Not every song is rap. I'm sure these kids' parents would like them to still have hearing when they graduate high school.

I've EQed the kick & bass with an HPF filter at 60Hz-ish. Getting rid of all those super low frequencies tightens things up a lot.

Jeff "Wally" Waluch said...

As a Live Mixer since 1975, I have to tell you. There is a distinct difference between a "Musical Engineer" and a "Sound Guy/Gal". If you have no concept of what the progression is doing, where the harmonies fit, in the grand scheme and what the melody line is supposed to be portrayed as, you are the later. And the audience gets gypped out of a great show. I know 11 guys who are, the Former. Only one went to Full Sail. The remaining ten are musos who KNOW music and portray it as such. And they took the time to come up in the Business by "doing the work". Kids these days are about instant gratification and low balling veterans as their way of getting a "foot in the door". Balderdash I say!
"Sound Guy / Gals" need to focus on being System Engineers and doing that correctly so "Musical Engineers" can go about doing what they do.

Douglas Stringfellow said...

I have often said, this new generation of sound guys just don't get it.I never understood why if you have a million seller artist that sings, he only use 1 microphone. Why it's so important that the kick and snare gets 2. If I do have a night off to go hear an artist,if the sound mixer is under 35 years of age, it's not gonna sound good. This has been proven to me many time. I have been mixing since 1978.

siasam said...

Here's a slightly different take on these issues:

Reasons why the 5 reasons Bobby O. listed REALLY happen:

1. The FOH engineer is NOT a trained SYSTEMS ENGINEER - mixing is a skill. Setting up systems is a skill. The best FOH engineers, the guys who get the great gigs and make most of thier shows sound great, are BOTH GREAT MIXERS & GREAT SYSTEM ENGINEERS. Ask Scovill, Morgan, and many great FOH engineers. Here's an example: If a subwoofer system is setup to run too hot (relative to the Low Freq portion of the system), and the x-over frequency is not lowered, the amount of overlap between these two portions of the sound system can create almost unavoidable mud! Guys who know how to mix, may know allot about the input side of the console, but the output side is a very different place!

2. The designer of the system did NOT study the hang-points or geometry of the room, and the system is configured in such a way that it can NOT properly 'cover' the seating area. No change in eq or mic change will fix this!

3. The load-in got delayed and the time for system tuning got crunched to almost nothing!

4. The FOH engineer either never leaves FOH or does NOT have an engineer he trusts, walking the room to hear each ZONE. This A1 / support / system engineer should be adjusting the zones away from FOH.

5. The system is exciting the poor acoustics of many venues in such a way that the sound quality for many people is degraded. I worked on a church recently, that bought a set of HF devices, that they added to the top of thier installed clusters. These HF devices were (unintentionally) pointed at the rear wall and ceiling, resulting in strong reflections that degraded both intelligibility and tonal balanced.

There is a long list of real REASONS why the situations sited happen... and most can be avoided!

Sam Berkow

Noel said...

I agree completely with this post. Our job as live mix persons is to reproduce and amplify what the performers are playing on stage, that is why it is known as SOUND REINFORCEMENT not (insert name here )'vision of what it should should sound like. Go and listen to the instruments at some point either in rehearsal or at line check time..hear what the bass guitar actually sounds like ..hear what the drums are actually tuned to..then dont go and try and add frequencies that dont exist in the signal that you are receiving from your expensive microphone de jour . Also just for shits and giggles bypass all the plugins on the input and see what that does as well (I am not bagging the use of plugins but really do you need 6 on the rhythm guitar input ) Also practice the lost art of using your ears to tune the system..dont rely solely on a computer and balance the frequency bands of the system and if the venue has a balcony that masks the hang go old school and ground stack some boxes to squirt some signal to the folks sitting in those seats back there.

Woody said...

When the audience fills the theatre where I work as the FOH engineer, I am obligated to make sure the show they hear is at a comfortable level, pleasing to the ear, and intelligible. They, as well as myself, want to hear and understand the vocals. I strive to make sure I do a "radio" style mix where the instruments are complimenting and not overpowering the singers. That's what keeps our patrons, regulars and new, happy.
A happy audience means a returning audience and that's what pays the rent. This approach has worked well for the last 46 years.

Woody from SFT

Anonymous said...

I have seen many amazing concerts at The Greek theatre in Berkeley. The last one was Florence and the machine. The sound was perfect, her voice and the whole sound was transcendent.

stu said...

As a live sound engineer, mainly doing house sound, I find your article to be absolutely spot on. Far too much emphasis on the kick and snare,far too many engineers with no knowledge of the bands before sound check. I always made sure to check out bands way before they made it to the venue. I made some really good friends that way as well. And not just lack of musical knowledge, but a lot of house engineers seem jaded and act as if they are prepared to not like music. And both lack of professional training, and the ability to rely on their ear. There is a reason why reputable audio engineering schools have music theory and ear training as part of their curriculum. I also think that sub mixes are under utilized in live sound mixes. Being able to use subtractive mixing to keep the vocals clear and intelligible was always very important to me. Also, knowing the difference between an artist and a technician is very important as well. But the one thing that I always remembered is who I was really working for. Regardless of who paid me, the audience was who I worked for.

Lefteris Sklavounos said...

Thumbs up!!

Bigfader said...

Bobby, I stopped attending most shows years ago for the reasons you opted in your article. I'll just buy the CD, thank you. I think Sam Berkow had some valid points that apply for some shows as well. Robert Scovill had a post one time that I can't find to quote it exactly but the theme was that we have a generation of sound people that have learned how to run various digital consoles but do not know how to "mix sound" there is a lot of truth in that.
On a wider scale, we see the same things on Sunday Mornings in contemporary churches - at least in the US. Kick drum and the sub way out in the mix with vocals and other instruments layered behind is the norm. Ballad type intros with acoustic guitar and vocals that sound well balanced until the rest of the band comes in and the Sub is at the same level as the up tempo song before, all at a 100dBA level. Etymotic earplugs are my best weapon - but should I have to wear them?!?
Thanks for bringing this to the forefront.....again...

Andre Kaufmann said...

Too much of anything is not a good thing and that includes kick. I have experienced just a phenomenal amount of kick when it is played alone and then the band buries it by playing louder. If you can't hear an instrument then why is it there? Mixing techniques that don't only include turning things louder is what is required equing sound holes and ducking techniques can enhance a mix by making not only the vocals intelligible but also the rest of the instruments. There is no excuse for buried Vocals unless the band volume is so loud off the stage that the sound man has lost control of the mix. I agree absolutely that stage volume is a Hugh contributer to an unintelligible performance. If you mix a band using ear buds you will know the difference. Unbe.liveabley cleaner and more controllable. Also phasing issues can really screw up your mix especially between bass amp and FOH. Many thing screw up a mix. Not really disagreeing with what was said but blaming another part of the mix being too loud is an over simplification. There are ways to make all instruments intelligible and contributing to the overall enjoyment of a concert. Since we have all not been to the same concert we could be totally be agreeing and I would absolutely agree that the kick was too loud. So more info on how to make the mix better would help.

Peter Mintun said...

Is there “live theatre” anymore?

Access to live stage shows is a solid reason for living in New York. I try to support the concert and theatre arts when I am able to. I look forward to plays and musical shows with great anticipation, because it can be such a transporting experience. More and more, though, I am elated at the talent but crushed and defeated by the electronic manipulation of the performance.

Musicians and singers refine their crafts until they reach the highest level of professionalism. Conductors rehearse their musicians until they have created a carefully balanced ensemble. Likewise, singers are taught how to modulate their tones so they can convey every nuance from tenderness to boisterousness. A chorus of singers practices until they create a beautiful, evenly balanced sound that embraces the listener. A solo singer rehearses until he or she knows exactly how much energy it takes to reach the last seat in the balcony.

To me, the ultimate musical experience is hearing music expertly performed “live” by real people. I want experience the sound of a human voice, a most basic and primeval desire. Furthermore, I want to hear the woody quality of a woodwind, and I want to hear a violin and a harp the way they were first heard centuries ago. I want to hear a pit orchestra that is under the control of its conductor and its musicians, not a technician.

Perhaps the younger audience has never been to a show that was not amplified. Perhaps this type of person has never heard a violin played in the forest or heard a guitar at a picnic. This type of person knows “recorded sound” and nothing else. Perhaps if they heard an unamplified orchestra is a concert hall they would think something was drastically wrong.

A reassessment needs to be made concerning amplification of shows. The term “sound reinforcement” doesn’t apply anymore, because sound engineers design the sound of a show instead of enhancing what is onstage. The engineer governs the sound of cast members and musicians. No matter how the performer wants to shade or vary his or her performance, that is out of their control. As far as I am concerned, this harness of technology stifles creativity. Most sound engineers today make every show sound as if it is prerecorded, and it might as well be!

Although I enjoy the talent in the shows I see, I believe the experience known as “live theatre” will soon be lost forever.

Chris Beale said...

Sound persons, there is a simple answer. Soundcheck vocals first, then overheads and leave them open whilst you check the rest of the band. After all, that is how the performance will be heard, so why would you check a drum kit before the vocal mics?
If the vocals don't sound perfect with only a hi-pass and minor eq adjustment then ask the system technician to correct it. 'Kick, snare, hat' should never be the first three words in a sound check.
I learned the lesson many years ago when I found myself mixing a big band competition. My rock approach didn't suit the bearded cognoscenti one bit and I had to start the mix from scratch, massively understating the drum kit. When I moved on to mixing Talk Talk and Elvis Costello the vocals first approach saved me in many instances, especially if provided PA systems were set up with Donald Fagen CD's.
Later, as a PA designer and now an environmental noise consultant, I see the same mistake being made time and time again. Festival performances are sometimes so kick drum heavy that the rest of the band might as well have stayed in the dressing room.
So give it a go and start from the right hand end of the desk. When you get to the kick drum you'll discover that the two lower controls on the channel equalisers can be used creatively!
If you're mixing at one of the festivals I'm managing and I see you doing it the right way you'll get my extra 3dB award!

Malle Kaas said...

Phew - I'm glad you only mention the guys in this article, 'cause we girls know not to use 3/4 of the soundcheck on channel one (kick). And eventhough we should be a bassplayer, drummer etc ourself, we do concentrate on an even soundimage where each instrument comes to it's right. Though with a high priority to the intelligibility of the vocals :)

Andrew Bratcher said...

Postmen, airmen, women... The word men is even in the word women do you want us to change that too so we can be politically correct and make everybody happy so they don't get offended?

tmac1k said...

As a studio mix engineer migrated to FOH I focus on mid and mid low frequency information for most of my low end really focusing on those sweet spots based on the room size. Subs are used for sweetener and look at them as low end reverbs in a sense. It's important to note that with the addition of plug ins in live sound one can achieve that closer studio mix. Gating other instruments correctly and Compressing properly is crucial in maintaining vocals on top.

kirkdickinson said...

You left out a couple of points that I believe have a great effect on live sound.

1. Many sound guys have some hearing loss and can't hear accurately what they are putting out. I was at a concert last year and I could tell the sound guy was practically deaf between 1.5 and 2 Mhz. It was twice as loud as it needed to be and painful.

2. They tend to crank it about 5 db louder than the sound equipment/sound treatment of the venue can handle. Hearing loss? I don't know for the sound guy? I don't know, but my ears rang all the next day and I wasn't even down front by the speakers.

SoundGirls.Org said...

While I agree with some of the points you have made, I was quite amazed at your lack of awareness of women in the industry. It is 2016, and while we may only represent a small percent of the sound engineers, we do exist in much larger numbers than you might be aware of.

When we inadvertently or deliberately use language that excludes people, it can and does have a negative impact. Most people, most of the time, are not aware they are doing it, and the effects can be subtle or even subconscious. But we should be aware of our choice of words and language to not exclude and alienate people.

I understand that using gender neutral language can be difficult, we all say soundman, sound guy and in most cases the sound engineer is male. But the choice of your words does exclude women. If I was a young girl that was interested in pursuing a career in sound, and found your article - I would take away that there is not a place for me in this industry.

Changing the way you use language won't exclude men and will include women, making the audio industry feel like a more welcoming place for everyone.

Lac'Nala said...

I am an old school, analog recording engineer / live sound engineer and,I could not agree more. Most of the concerts I have been to recently are entirely too low end heavy.

Anonymous said...

#6, for younger shows. I assume kids these days are more interested in the show than the music. They don't care about the clarity, the musicians, or if the singing is live. They want to see dancers and costume changes. And volume!
I know these aren't the concerts you are talking about, but it bleeds over to what people in the business thinks will sell. Noise rules.

Another thing I bitch about - watching bands on youtube that I liked. And realizing how poorly they are performing! SO sloppy. Maybe because they know people aren't really listening. Not like someone at home, 30 years later, not caught up in the excitement...
OK - I'm done.

Pierre Tougas said...

Good Article.
I started out as a rock musician,in charge of booking,hiring,and setting up lights and sound in the late '70's..then moved on to a paying job as a sound engineer,technician and board operator.I still mix around 30 to 40 shows a year,but in the last 20 years,I have specialized in sound reinforcement,PA design,install and calibration.I have been the Man in charge in so many festivals tours and large event that I cannot recall.One thing I DO recall:Most sound men are ass holes ,sound like shit on a perfectly tuned and powerful modern PA,because they have their head down on the Digital board's display ,playing with plug-ins and not aware of what is going on stage.In the last 5 years alone,I have been FOH for at least major 150 concerts,I can recall only 10 or 12 shows that sounded really good.And those were mix by and older dude on an XL4...The good thing is, that I am old enough and have a good enough reputation ,to tell them to their faces that they sucked.
Pete, The AudioMan.

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