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Monday, June 11, 2012

5 Reasons Why Concerts Sound So Bad

Concert image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture production blogI've posted this before a long time ago (in 2008, I believe), but it's still relevant and a particular pet peeve of mine. 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.


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Jef Knight said...

We're blessed, up here in Central Ontario, Canada, to have some wonderful venues such as the Amphetheater(?) at Ontario Place and Casino-Rama.

Both have superb in-house sound guys and are a real treat to attend.

However, the opposite it true of many of the other venues.

Vetran engineers who own major production companies, but who also have burnt out ears from doing it so long, are more the norm.

These guys usually bang up the tops and subs and gut the mids for that no-pressure sound that almost feels like it's sucking your eardrums out (phase magic also?).

I think it's natural that as ears fatigue these guys mix in a compensatory way. Still, it sucks.

On the other hand we have several engineering schools here, so our Province is blessed with an abundaza of sound guys who are pretty good right out of the box, so to speak.

Of the twenty or so times I've done live sound I've gotten many possitive responses, mainly because I mix "in key" when possible and generally approach it like studio mixing. At first my friends etc would laugh at me saying, "what's with all the tweaking? Just set in and leave it." But by the end of the show they are all saying, "I don't know what you're doing over there, but keep doing it."

Cuz entertainment should be entertaining.


NatJag said...

Great post. I'm in a early 60's music band where the leader has sometimes disconnected the kick mic as we'd rather have none than a constant thump. I think some sound guys just want to show of their subs. Quite often it also seems they ignore the bass guitar.

When I started in my first band I was told, make sure you can always hear the vocal and don't get any feedback. Thats all the audience care about. Of course this was fir gigs at local pubs and small clubs with just a vocal PA, advice that I always remember and use to this day.

Keith Jolie said...

I think one thing you left out and that contributes to #4 is over amplification - I've been to too many shows where the sound level is so high you actually hit that pain threshold we learn about...not good and it completely eliminates any chance of hearing vocals. I love loud - a lot, but even I have my limits...thanks for the post, maybe it will get noticed

Robert Birch said...

I think you missed out on the most important one. TURN IT DOWN!!!!

Concerts are way to freaking loud for something indoors. I have done so much damage to my ears from going to concerts it is crazy.

Rick Cole said...

Let me preface my remarks by stating that I do mostly studio work, but also the occsional live sound gig. I attend a number of performances (mostly in clubs rather than concerts). My belief is that Subs are one of the worst things to happen to live sound (for exactly the reasons you've stated). The temptation to trade low-end ear candy(supplemented by triggered kick drum samples) for the human elements of a performance seems to be too much for many venus/live-mixers to resist. We're all very impressed with overly-HiFi, super-powered reproduction systems .... for about five seconds. Then it starts getting in the way of the performance. It's not about you (the sound man). It's mostly about the vocal. Get it? All things in moderation.

Anonymous said...

I mix mostly cover bands. I find it strange that the younger gen never really listen to classics for effects that are in the songs. Such as delay throws and proper tap times.

Anonymous said...

I am not a sound engineer, but i love seeing bands play live. In my experience a lot of sound engineers seem to believe that getting a band heard means LOUD.
It feels like al the instruments are shouting at you at the same time so you can't make out what each one is doing.

Anonymous said...

I agree with those who say it's just too damn loud. I went to see a show in a small venue and the mix was PERFECT. The problem was, it was a small venue and the volume caused me to sit with my fingers in my ears until I finally just gave up and left despite how much I was enjoying the band. Why oh why can't we have some sense when it comes to this?

Anonymous said...

"We're blessed, up here in Central Ontario, Canada, to have some wonderful venues such as the Amphetheater(?) at Ontario Place and Casino-Rama."

Just went to the Molson Amphitheatre yesterday for Florence + the machine. The audio was atrocious.

Anonymous said...

As a FOH engineer I just want to say ears respond differently to higher volumes. 1) Higher volume creates energy 2) The snare and kick need to be so loud because of your ears compressing the loud mix, plus we're not trying to show off the subs with a loud kick, we just want it to punch hard, for more energy. The reason vocals are quite are to cover up vocal mistakes because you hear the pitch of the instruments, not the vocals. Add then just take the harsh stuff out of the mix make all the instruments sound even and then you got a standard concert mix. And I agree on the bass guitar, I like the bass to have enough volume that you can hear it but it doesn't interfere with the kick punch.

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Matti said...

Ah so it's not just me! I refuse to go to Vector Arena in Auckland any more due to the awful sound. Roger Waters sounded like he was under water. Could barely make out a word. Other concerts there were almost as bad.

Anonymous said...

I saw the rock 'n blues fest at the Bergen Performing Art Center in Engelwood NJ. Edgar Winter and Vanilla Fudge tribute to Johnny Winter. The sound was awful. All bass, and kick, very very woofy. Vocals were distorted and often unintelligible. Edgar's keys on Frankenstein was inaudible. I complained to the guy on the board and he threatened to punch me out. People I was sitting near (strangers) seemed to agree that the sound was a "bit woofy" but somehow they accepted the poor sound. Why does this happen? What can be done?

As for Ontario Place in Toronto. I saw BB KIng there about 10 years ago. Jeff Beck opened. The sound was equally bad then. Maybe it's better now I don't know.

TURHUN said...

I am an older guy 59 , that loves all kinds of music.
I have been to a few concerts in the last few years that were just awful, and everyone ask me if I was at the same concert.
I find all the comments by the pro's enlightening but there is something being overlooked in this forum.
Today people are heard followers, use to people listened to music, not as background sound, but for the pure pleasure of the music, so the sound had to be right or people would ignore it and move on.
Todays concert go'er is drunk or stoned and listens to music most of the time while they are doing other things and not really paying attention to the detail of the music, along with all they care about is bass!
I cannot be like that, I started buying old JBL , Altec's and Klipsch speakers, once you hear what clear sound is ,even at high levels ,you will never be satisfied with todays sound.
I went with friends to see Joe Bonamassa, it was horrible , I have the cd's they are great, Again cd's on my vintage altec speakers with vintage amps and clear sound.
I said the sound was horrible and they said I was the only one in the place that thought that, I doubt that but ok, I will not follow the heard.
Most People just could careless about good clear music free of distortion anymore at all levels anymore, Listeners, sound guys , band members, not all but enough to ruin good music.

Anonymous said...

Seems many people on this forum have heard it; over loud sound but the really annoying bit is it brings a total lack of individuality to vocals and the separate instruments.
Unfortunately the loudness is raised before the overall compression, so what comes out is reduced dynamic range, instrumentals ducking the vocalist and a loud muddy sound lacking definition.
I just dont get why so many people dont hear this.
Aucklands Vector Arena is a tough venue to mix, but dont blame the venue alone. The Neil Diamond PA and mix proved this place can sound great if managed well. We need more people to complain and raise general awareness of what should be expected

Theo KR said...

Thanks for the article. I go to loads of rock shows and I can never get my head around this.

I'm in the UK and I find that especially at smaller venues it's either bass far too heavy, no lead guitar and always poor vocals. You can almost never make out what the vocalist is saying. Even when no music is playing between songs and the vocalist is talking, all you get is inaudible booming. Really ruins it for me unless I know all the songs and can guess the lyrics.

It's not just the loudness of the drums. Very often, the rhythm guitar or bass guitar is just ridiculously loud and completely drowns out the lead. I've often wondered in the past whether bands do this because the musicians are drunk or something and it is a way to cover up mistakes.

Also, I'm no sound expert but I'm guessing you wouldn't mix rock music the same as say, rap music.

Sound guys. Get it together please.

Bands. Fire your useless sound guys or make sure the venue has sound guys around that actually know your songs and listen to your style of music.


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