Saturday, August 31, 2013

Weapons of Mass Destruction – Live Sound

Nothing disappoints like a good band and a lousy live sound company. I’d been waiting to hear Robert Randolph and the Family Band for half a decade when I discovered the band would be on one of the outdoor stages at the Minnesota State Fair. I own three of the band’s CDs and have seen several of their shows on YouTube, so I’m familiar with their stuff and had high expectations for the band.

My wife and I showed up early to get good seats and my first indication that there was bad news on the way was the fact that the band’s crew appeared to be a sad mix of clueless kids completely out of their depth with the Avid monitor console and biker bar bouncers. The two kids spent the whole setup making “yup, yup” noises into Randolph’s SM58 and demonstrating a sort of ignorance that only music school graduates exhibit. Even the traditional “testing one, two, three” seemed beyond their grasp. Looking for a couple of friends we expected to join us, I ran into Michael and Claudia McKern near the back of the seating area and invited them to sit with us. They wisely declined with the expectation that the sound would be deafening and painful any closer than their nosebleed seats. I should have taken the hint right then. The show started on time and got going with more than few technical hitches as Randolph’s crew spent the first twenty minutes running on and off stage wrestling with instrument and microphone problems. Their lethargic stage setup and goofy concentration on unimportant trivia were a sure sign that show problems were on the way.

The sound company was a local vendor and I’ve heard this system before. It’s a small “array” system (a glorified term for speaker columns on steroids) that is incapable of reproducing anything more sophisticated than “the white zone is for parking” announcements. The only “quality” the system has is volume. Accuracy and frequency response have been sacrificed for output and the company has a habit of pushing their pitiful equipment far past it’s meager capabilities. Last night was no exception. My best description of the sound quality is “a really loud, but damaged, AM radio accompanied by an equally lo-fi cardboard tube subwoofer.” Mostly what was demonstrated was that throwing money at a lack of talent is just good money after bad. The people in charge of running this system are hearing impaired. No amount of equipment can fix deafness.

The sound of the kick drum was one of the two most disgusting options live sound clowns seem to have; lots of 100Hz with no definition and enough resonance in the system to make every kick strike ring for no less than half a measure, even on slower tunes. The bass guitar was equally indistinguishable from rumbling earthquake noises, except when Danyel Morgan slaps his bass which produced weird quacking sounds. The band’s great voices were reduced to public address system quality monotone speech. The rest of the mix was a wash of distortion and mid-range confusion. The only way this could have been worse would be to take it indoors where lousy acoustics would add to the mess.

The band struggled to generate energy with their technical handicap and produced some moments that transcended the sound system. As for us, we filtered from the front rows back to the street without any real improvement. The FOH clown was busy fooling with a personal computer or his cell phone during the worst moments of the show and he made no attempt to clean up the sonic mess he was making. Clearly, this band would be better off running sound from the stage without the interference of “professionals.” In fact, the best three shows I’ve seen this summer were all sans-soundmen. All of the worst shows had some fool in charge of the sound system whose job was, apparently, to create as much audio havoc as possible.

All of this reminded me of why I decided to quit making professional power amplifiers twenty years ago. “Sound reinforcement” is just a polite term for making loud noises intended to damage hearing on a large scale. There is no excuse for allowing this kind of audio garbage in a modern world. Musicians and the industry have no business complaining about MP3s or file-sharing when there appears to be no quality control in any aspect of live music. Nothing could sound worse than this kind of PA system with this kind of fool in charge. So, if our customers can’t hear the difference between high resolution audio and a 128kbs MP3, we only have ourselves to blame. Honestly, this kind of sound system is largely responsible for the fact that a whole generation is going deaf. A decibel meter anywhere in sight of the stage would have measured hazardous sound levels.

Postscript: The second night's show was better, musically, but the sound system was even worse, if that was possible. After almost a decade of looking forward to seeing and hearing the Robert Randolph Family Band live, I most likely won't make that pilgrimage again.

No comments:

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.