Friday, February 5, 2010

Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?

All Rights Reserved © 2010 Thomas W. Day

It seemed like a clever idea, on paper and in the advertising: "The Music of Led Zeppelin & Queen with Members of the Minnesota Orchestra." The marketing puff for the concert claimed, "Bridging the gulf between rock n’ roll and classical music, conductor/arranger Brent Havens takes the podium to present The Music of Led Zeppelin & The Music of Queen, a program he scored to extend the listening experience of Led Zeppelin and Queen’s timeless tunes.

"Performed by members of the Minnesota Orchestra and amplified with a full rock band and screaming vocals by Randy Jackson, Havens and his ensemble capture Led Zeppelin’s 'sheer blast and power' riff for riff while cranking out new musical colors."

In reality, it was a painful excuse for a godawful sound company to blast the same old "musical colors" you can experience at any bar in any town in the country. What we got was the noise made by a mediocre garage band blasted at a moderate-sized audience through a PA designed in hell. It was another moment that painfully described why the audience for live music is shrinking so dramatically.

Moof-rumblerumble-moof-moof-rumblerumblerumble-moof . . .

And so it went for an hour or so, until my patience failed and Idecided to save what was left of my hearing. That's my best written description of the garbage that was emitted by the subwoofers. Somewhere in all the mud was a kick drum and an electric bass. Over the top of that, but equally distorted, was a screeching vocal, a honking electric guitar, a splatting snare drum, and an occasional moment of calm where one or two instruments of the 50-piece orchestra broke though. If I'd have brought a distortion meter, it would have registered well over 50% for every moment of the evening.

The Minnesota Orchestra is one of the most impressive orchestras in the nation, staffed with musicians from all over the country and capable off making even the most pedestrian classical music seem worthwhile. This evening wasn't up to the worst of their rehearsals. If I were to blame anyone for the terrible sound quality of the performance, it would have to be "Guest Conductor Brent Havens." He clearly never took the obvious step away from his conductor's podium and into the Target Center to see what kind of mess the idiot behind the sound board was making of his orchestra.

Or, Havens is deaf and thinks that skinny line array and ridiculous heap of subwoofers were capable of reinforcing something as full-range and powerful as an orchestra.

In the 1970's, Hartley Peavey and his band of hearing-impaired engineers assembled one of the worst combinations of horns and drivers into a product called the "SP1." Garage bands all over the country swept up the SP1 and linked it to another of Peavey's aural disasters, the CS800 power amplifier, to create sonic evil that was rarely equaled in professional audio until some deaf idiot decided to pawn off giant versions of Shure's 1960's Vocalmaster columns as clever engineering under the marketing gimic of "array." The two scroungy strings of miserably designed and aligned speakers arrayed over the heads of the Minnesota Orchestra couldn't have held a sonic candle to a quartet of Vocalmaster columns, but they were definitely much louder and produced as much pain and distortion as their aural grandparent, the Peavey SP1.

Even with the handicap of this shrill and distorted system, the orchestra's sound moron managed to make matters far worse. For starters, he mostly seemed to forget that there were 50-some orchestra members who deserved to be somewhere in his mix. Obviously, our goof-behind-the-faders had spent too many drunken nights mixing crappy garage bands doing mediocre covers of Led Zepplin crap and he is now left with such limited hearing that he can only hear 1-5kHz and feel 80Hz and below. Occasionally, a piccolo would pop through in odd bits of the midrange wall of noise, but the horns and strings were lost all but a few brief moments of the entire Queen portion of the show. The string bass players might was well stayed home and spent the evening entertaining themselves.

What wasn't lost was the giant muffled poofing sound of the kickdrum and the constant rumble of random electric bass. The subwoofer was so poorly setup that it failed to reinforce the kick and bass, but simply turned it into a constant LF industrial noise. Nobody who ever heard a decent recording of a kick and bass would mistake this system's indistinct LF noise for those musical instruments. Unfortunately, after submerging the Target Center's mediocre acoustic field with massive LF distortion, there was no headroom left for anything broadband. So, the sound idiot opted to tweek his already narrow band system until it delivered a piercing and painful midband shriek from every instrument he managed to poke into the mix.

In the PR bullshit, Havens claims that his Queen impersonator "Las Vegas star Brody Dolyn" was a perfect clone of Freddy Mercury; "inflections were spot-on and even the wailing rock sound had that Freddie resonance." Since it's obvious that Havens has severe hearing impairment, I can understand his confusion. However, I had the pleasure of hearing Freddy Mercury and Queen live and I can tell you Dolyn isn't Freddy Mercury and the garage band Havens assembled behind Dolyn isn't the rest of Queen, either. Dolyn is a decent vocalist, if a hambone of a performer, but it's hard to believe that a dozen or more local performers weren't up to his standard of musicality. On that note, I was disappointed to see that the Minnesota Orchestra went solidly East Coast for all of the rock musicians in this show. I know any one of those four (drums, bass, guitar, and keys) players could have been replaced with local musicians with equal or superior results. Part of the reason for supporting the Minnesota Orchestra is to support local talent. If the orchestra's administration is incapable of identifying local talent, they are doing the area a serious disservice.

As irritating and aurally hazardous as this was during the Queen portion of the performance, it got much worse when Randy Jackson brought his impression of the worst voice in rock and roll history, Robert Plant, to the mix. After the third tune, I was flinching as if someone was poking my eardrums with a sharp pin every time Jackson squalled at the high end of his range.

I admit it, I do not like Led Zepplin. I haven't heard a thing worth noting from LZ since their first album. I loved Good Times, Bad Times and even covered that and Communication Breakdown in a few of my own garage band ventures (30 years ago), but ten thousand radio-plays of Stairway to Aural Hell and I never wanted to hear Plant's noise again. Like Zappa's early recordings, I'd probably appreciate LZ a lot more if I could hear their stuff before they overdubbed the vocals, but I don't have that luxury.

Put an impression of that awful voice through a sound system limited to 1-5kHz and you have a formula for sonic pain. My wife and I voted to escape before we had to be air-lifted out of the Target Center. My ears were ringing the next morning as though I'd spent a day in a sheet-metal factory. I should have had a hearing test on Thursday so that I could take another one Friday and sue the Minnesota Orchestra for the difference. There is no way that the SPL in the Target on the evening of February 4, 2010 was any where near OSHA approved levels. The sound was painful, harmful, and musically and morally objectionable. I doubt that I will ever trust the Minnesota Orchestra with my ears ever again.

Supposedly, this farce has been going on for 12 years. All I can say is "there is no accounting for taste."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've never liked pop orchestras' renditions of metal music. I remember hearing Fieldler and the Boston Pops rendition of Rock shit when we worked at Valmont, & I thought it was silly then, too. Unless someone can pull it off as good as the Crusaders & the London Symphony Orchestra, it's not worth even attempting.

"Havens claims that his Queen impersonator "Las Vegas star Brody Dolyn" was a perfect clone of Freddy Mercury..." Obviously Havens must have meant that his clone was as gracious at taking it in the ass. Sounds as if the sound man gave it to everyone up the ass.

I feel your pain, but must gloat. I've only heard one good classical concert since I moved from the OC, 7 years ago, where I had 7th row season tickets to the Pacific symphony Orchestra, dead in front of the first violins, at the Seagerstrom Concert Hall.

I loved the Pacific Symphony Orchestra and Carl Sinclair, on Thursdays, even though their classical Saturday concerts were dumbed down for OC morons, complete with lame expainations between movements--no shit! But the Thursday night concerts were superb. Steph and I loved every one of them.

I knew that when I came to LA I'd never be able to afford the same kind of incredible seats, so I didn't even try.

However, last week I thought I'd take a chance again. I went to our local conservatory music school, the Colburn, in downtown LA right next to the Museum of Contemporary Art. I'd never seen a performance there, but I knew it was an OK auditorium, because years ago I heard a lecture there by architecture and sculpture buddies Frank Gehry and Richard Sera.

So when I got to the free concert just before it started, I was delighted that they directed me to the FRONT ROW, three feet from the third and second violins. I hadn't heard a symphony from the front row since one of those Saturday concerts in the OC, but since I had been in front of the double-basses, the mix sucked. It was still really interesting, as 6 Double Basses really rock, but there's no way I'd want to hear every concert like that, since many instrument sections were just drowned out from the mix in my seat.

But this front row seat at Zipper auditorium in the Colburn was different. I could still hear every instrument in the 60 piece orchestra, and I didn't mind much that the second and third violins were up higher in my mix. It was really fun to hear all those subtle background arrangements in such clear and distinct "surround sound". It was really nice to be able to listen to each individual second or third violinist's playing so critically, becuase of the wide imaging spread. In the first row, I don't think I even heard any PA at all, expcept for the bassoon and clarinet solos in the great piece by Richard Strauss. I had never heard this before, but the contrast between the sweet sound of the incredible clarinetist (I normally hate clarinet sounds) and the complimentary mellow tambre of the bassoon were so mesmerizing. For that piece and the Bethoven Op. 25, the entire orchestra sounded great, and I didn't even mind having the Tympanis up 15 dB too loud (they were ten feet in front of me).

I guess I might be able to get a recording, of the performance, too, if I talk to the engineer.

I'm so glad to have found out the secret about this school. I can't wait to hear the cello recital tonight at the Colburn.


Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.