A veteran’s insight into live amplified sound.
“Man, that band would have been amazing if it weren’t for the awful sound!” I said as the house lights went up and the band known as Holy Grail, along with what few people constituted their road crew, began hastily clearing their gear away for the next act.
“I know, all I could hear was bass drum,” Matt said, pulling his ear plugs out.
“If you go in the bathroom you can actually hear the guitar,” Ron said, sipping his bass pale ale. It was our last beer of the night before the headliners, Blind Guardian, were set to take to take the stage in a club in Tempe. We had driven some seven hours from Las Vegas to catch them on their American tour, a rarer appearance for the old German power metal band as time went on. On the drive back, I would feel sick, blaming it on that last beer, which I admit tasted a bit funny.
“It’s a pretty awful thing to say that I can’t hear the guitar in a power metal band,” I said. “And the funny thing is, I can see what they were playing; I know it was hard to play.”
“I guess we’ll have to imagine the sound of shredding,” Ron said.
After a short wait, the lights dimmed back down and the intro track started for Blind Guardian, a long orchestral affair. The stage lights went up and – holy crap! – we could hear the guitar. Marcus Siepen and Andre Olbrich played their separate and intricate parts with crystal clarity. The drums rumbled, with the bass drums giving out a perfect, chest-thumping kick. The bass had tone! You could hear the keyboards perfectly balanced on top of the mix. Then Hansi Kursch started singing, and it was crisp and dynamic. The band dropped into a softer section, and I realized I had forgotten to put my ear plugs back in. For anyone who frequents heavy metal shows, you know that such experiences are rare ones.
The whole show was like that. Dynamic and powerful. Soft songs were soft and clear. Loud aggressive tracks chugged forward with clarity. The concert went from being a tolerable experience to a truly great one. What was the cause of this rift? The sound, specifically, the way the sound was run through the P.A. A well-run sound board can mean the difference between hearing nothing with bleeding ears and hearing everything without plugs – from a heavy metal band, no less.
If you want to check out either of these bands and get a perspective on what I’m talking about, here are a few links (I believe these are actually the first songs each of these bands played live):
Blind Guardian: http://youtu.be/CFZ_Uyqbr4k
Holy Grail: http://youtu.be/0BE1RwR81dc
That concert was a great example of lots of things with live sound. Who is responsible for greatness and failures in that department? The blame usually lands on the “sound guy,” that is, the technician that is managing all the volume levels coming out of the P.A. or house speakers. That’s true for the most part. There’s a lot more to it than just the board though, and the band, along with every piece of equipment that gets toted from gig to gig, is usually responsible for at least part of a failure when it comes to amplified sound. I’d like to talk about some of those reasons.
Before I begin, I should tell you that I’ve been performing music most of my life. As an adult, I’ve performed lots of amplified music on many kinds of instruments in far too many venues to even list. Just as much, I’ve been a member of the audience for musicians that I love. I’ve also been “the sound guy” for lots of other gigs, and I have experience as a recording engineer. These days I’m usually not a good choice for those later two due to my hearing loss, but I’ve learned a lot by filling all those different roles.
The most overlooked, and yet still most important, aspect of any gig is the room in which it is being played. The acoustics of the room, its tendencies to amplify and reflect certain frequencies and its tendencies to dampen others, makes the biggest difference when trying to create an adequate sound environment. Where you are standing as a listener can have a huge impact on your perception of the concert. Stand close, and you may get blasted. Stand in the back, and you may miss something. Or, as in the above example, you stand in the bathroom and hear something inaudible otherwise.
This is why sound booths are usually placed center stage at the back of the venue, where all the tendencies of the room (or outdoor venue, if that is the case) can be more or less heard and accounted for. A good acoustic space will produce similar experiences throughout the room, a poor one will be full of bass traps and hard surfaces, distorting what the audience hears. The amount of people in attendance can affect the sound too, as the human body acts like a big treble dampener when the crowd is packed in. Many times sound checks are done on an empty room, and when the place is packed things can sound very different.
A good technician will be able to make adjustments depending on what the venue is doing on a particular night and what they hear from the band. I’ve met a few bad sound technicians that will refuse to adjust levels in any event, claiming that they’ve already figured out the best levels. These are usually people that work the same venue every night, and though you would think they have the room figured out, every band sounds different and requires some different treatment to sound good coming out of the P.A.
Sometimes, a venue is just an all-around bad choice for a concert, and very little can be done to improve the sound. Stadiums and arenas were built for sports teams, not concerts, so nobody should be surprised at a poor acoustic experience at such venues.
This is the next big variable. If you are traveling with the same band for weeks, doing the same sets over and over it isn’t such an unknown (though there are always little things that change night to night, like a hoarse singer), but for most gigs you have a sound team that is local, or is at least somewhat different than the night before. Figuring out how to make a band sound good is sometimes a puzzle, but can be accomplished easily with a solid sound check and some adjustments as the night goes on.
The band can also affect the sound outcome negatively in some ways they themselves may not be fully aware of. In the above example, the opening act, Holy Grail, was playing on stage with traditional amplifier rigs. In a heavy metal band this usually consists of very loud half or full stacks (guitar and bass amplifiers with one or two cabs filled with four speakers each) placed next to or behind the drummer, facing out toward the audience. In the old days these were more necessary, as P.A. systems often lacked the power and clarity to handle much more than vocals, and venues were small. Now they are less necessary. This detail is important because, although we in the audience could not hear the guitar players much at all, they likely could hear themselves loud and clear. They were not aware that they sounded bad.
Bands also can ruin their own sound by making demands about their sound from the stage, where they cannot accurately hear the P.A. They can also play differently than they did at the sound check (you would be surprised how much this happens – bands turning up their amps, singing louder, or using their microphones differently). They may also not have an idea of what they want their amplified sound to be like, just assuming that the technician will know what to do. The person at the board might just assume they want everything bass-heavy and loud when what the band wants to be heard is the high-end of the bass and the sound of the hi-hat. The band must communicate what they want.
Lastly, their equipment might not be set up to be easily compatible with their sound system. Direct inputs for bass and keyboards can be distorted without the proper knowledge for patching in, and the microphones for acoustic instruments may be something unfamiliar to the musicians if they did not bring their own. All of these things are the band’s responsibility.
The sound system at a venue can have a big impact on your experience as a listener as well. A sound system might be geared toward a certain type of music that frequents that location, and you may be listening to a different genre. Monitor systems may give the band a different impression of the sound than what comes out of the main speakers. The P.A. may be too big or too small for the genre you are listening to, making a jazz band sound over-loud or too bass-heavy, or making a heavy metal band sound like static. Big subwoofers work for rap, but sound far too boomy for folk music.
The “Sound Guy”
Though it may seem like I spent the last thousand words trying to shift the blame for bad sound away from the technician, ultimately it is their responsibility to run their equipment optimally during a concert.
This failing comes in several varieties.
The union guy. I’ve been to a few shows (and played in a few more) where the technician running sound got the job based on seniority; even non-union venues will often hand jobs to the people who have been around the longest. Needless to say, with age does not necessarily come wisdom, much less skill. I’ve dealt with older techs that are deafer than me, which is really saying something. You can usually tell if this is the case when there is a screeching amount of treble, even from the booth, as those frequencies are typically where most people lose their hearing. This isn’t to say all union guys are deaf or bad at their job (in fact, most are quite good at what they do), just that they are out there and you get them from time to time
The rock/pop show guy. You will find this particular kind of tech running sound at a gig of a different style, say jazz or an acoustic guitar-based group, and generally bringing over habits and assumptions from the other side. Audiences at rock concerts or clubs generally like things really loud, with the bass booming, and rock show guy will give you just that, even if the current act is a jazz trio. If you find yourself plugging your ears at an unplugged concert you usually have this sort of tech. He might also like to pump up the reverb effects for an indoor event, or make acoustic instruments like horns overly dry because he’s used to guitar coming in drowned in reverb from the amp.
The vengeful sound guy. This the tech that gets angry over a band making certain requests, and chooses to exact his revenge by making the show sound awful for everyone present. Any number of small things can set him off, such as a drummer repositioning his mics so that he doesn’t hit them while he plays. If you’ve ever heard a musician declare that you should be nice to the sound guy, chances are they’ve med the vengeful type and fear them.
The sound guy who just doesn’t care. This probably most of your bad sound experiences right here. It’s an opening act. Who cares? Eh, so what if that mic doesn’t work, you can hear the cab from the stage anyway. Hey man, can you watch the board? I’m gonna go get a drink. Just pull back this slider here if you get some feedback. What more can you expect from a PA salesman from Guitar Center that was asked to run sound for his buddy in a local band?
Blind Guardian and Holy Grail- Why Such Difference?
Revisiting the two metal acts I saw with my friends, I can tell you why they sounded so radically different in the same room with the same PA only minutes apart:
1. The Band. Blind guardian is a group of very experienced and legitimately good musicians. They have been touring for nigh on thirty years and understand how to adapt to situations better than their young and still inexperienced openers.
2. Equipment. Blind guardian actually played with no monitors or amplifiers on stage with them. All of the amplification and processing was done off of stage left in well-organized road racks. Isolation cabinets were used to perfect the sound. All five of them used in-ear monitors, which deadened some of the loudness of the drums on stage and allowed them to play with good balance. Holy Grail, by contrast had their cabs on stage, and was using angled monitors to hear themselves.
3. The sound guy. Blind Guardian travelled with their own sound tech who was familiar with how to run their show, but the opening acts that travelled with them had to use in-house sound techs. The person running the board for Holy Grail was likely not as competent or did not understand what the desired sound for a metal band was, as shown by the booming, muddy bass and total lack of guitar in the mix.
There you have it! I hope you have found it informative. Feel free to leave me any more article suggestions.