Monday, November 18, 2013

ARTICLE: Loud Noises

All Rights Reserved © 2004 Thomas W. Day

"I'm busy," was my first excuse.  "Too many things to do, too little time, no money, my teeth itch," were among the later excuses I used to avoid getting involved.  None of those excuses worked.  He needed help and I was the only guy he knew who he would trust with his first big gig as a sound company.  He kept at me.  My friend was the proud owner of a startup business and his situation was the usual startup position of low cash and large expenses, this wouldn't be a paying gig for me.  Being self-employed and in the middle of my busiest part of the season, I do my best to avoid non-paying gigs. 

I worked, for a long time, for a pro-sound equipment producer.  During that period, I had the opportunity to slither into a fair number of high-end gigs, where I got to do monitors and FOH for some of my old musical heroes. This backstage pass got me into those opportunities without the credentials or the paid dues to be in that position.  I was the FOH and monitor engineer for one of the best horn bands I've ever heard, short of JB and Co.  So, I've done what I wanted to do in live music and it's been fun, thanks for the memories.  But, no thanks, I don't need any new ones. 

Three decades ago, I moved from doing live music to recorded music in one short moment of clarity.  I was a recording engineer, live engineer, and musician, at the time, and had fallen between bands and in the midst of business building.  One evening, after a particularly wonderful day in the studio, a friend called to say he was putting together an OMB (original music band, as opposed to the very financially successful cover bands he'd done in the past) and wanted me and my tunes to be part of the group. 

Still flushed from the day's recording work, it only took me a moment to respond, "What you're asking is do I want to work twenty hours a week, along with my day gig, putting together an act so that I can drive five-hundred miles a day to lug four tons of equipment up two flights of stairs and set it up while you (the drummer) putz around pretending that you're tuning your snare and the rest of the band primps their big hair, so that I can play my songs in front of a crowd of drunks who continuously bawl 'Freebird' for three hours until it's mercifully over and I get to tear it all down, pack it up, and drive to the next hellhole where I can do it all again?  Is that about it?"

"Something like that," he mumbled. 

"I think I'll pass," I answered.

We exchanged myths about where our latest project would be taking us and he went on to find another victim.  His victim was mutual friend who went on to riches and fame as a one-hit wonder bandmember and, as far as I know, the two of them are still touring fairs and clubs and are happy to be doing it.  I managed to nearly go broke with my recording studio/sound company and ended up where I am today through a completely random route. 

We ran into each other again, about fifteen years later, when one of his bands was recording two of my tunes.  As an afterthought, his management company decided they should get my permission to include the songs in an album.  Since they'd already recorded the songs and had pressed and distributed a few thousand media copies of the record, they thought it would be a formality.  Ah, the music industry; the soul of integrity.

Shift forward again, thirty years later, an old friend is trying to drag me back into the world of back-breaking labor and loud noises, if just for one night, and I'm not particularly tempted.  In the past few years, I've done an occasional live engineering gig and I've usually been disappointed with the experience.  Being a type-A, semi-perfectionist, anally retentive mental case, the sloppiness of live music in mediocre venues doesn't appeal to me.  Acoustically, the experience is disappointing.  Musically, the lack of control and perfection irritates me.  The big plus for most folks who love doing live music, the audience reaction, is a fat zero for me.  I do music for myself, outside opinions hold about as much water for me as a rusted sieve.  When the crowd cheers, howls, claps, or farts, I can't hear what I'm doing at the board and it irritates me to lose control for even a few seconds.  Every once in a while, all of that gets cancelled by the quality of the act and the complexity of the job, but not often enough to make me want to do it more than once a every year or ten. 

Have I made it clear that I didn't want to fly anywhere to be a part of putting together, testing, and running a sound system?  In the end, my friend found the cash to fly me to the show and the gig landed on a weekend where my schedule had a hole.  I was out of excuses and in the air in a post-9/11 world where flying is less fun than it has ever been.

He met me at the airport and, during the drive to his facility, we talked about the work we'd be doing the following day.  We ended up doing a little of that work before giving up for the night and he dropped me off at the hotel   Five hours later, we're on the way to his shop to load gear.  Sometime about now, he learned that the promoter had copped-out and opted to save a few bucks by not hiring the union guys to let us into the auditorium after noon.  We were going to have less than three hours to unload, setup, integrate the rented components, troubleshoot, and sound check a new and fairly large professional sound system. 

At least, we thought, the contract stated that we wouldn't be "allowed" to take part in the unloading of the truck (union rules), so we'd have some time to start wiring the system up as it was delivered to the stage.  On my way up the loading ramp, however, the union supervisor said, "If you want all this stuff on stage before the soundcheck, you better give us a hand with unloading."  So much for "extra time" we might have carved out of the idiotically tight schedule.

Two hours later (and twenty zillion minor hassles with unloading, available stage power, and equipment configuration), I'm firing up the mains and setting up the crossover and EQs.  One major piece of luck occurred at this point: one of my friend's potential future customers was on site for this stage and left before the headliner's crew got their hands on the gear.  Our initial sound check produced tons of volume (enough that I stuffed my ears with -25dB earplugs) and a tight, clean musical output.  The customer commented on the quality of the sound and said we had more than enough power for his facility and he left. 

An hour later, the headliner's FOH guy had "tweeked" the crossover until the subs dominated the system's output and bass definition was lost in the blubbering wind of 80Hz-and-below rubble.  (Ask me why I don't think live sound guys have ears and I'll take you to a concert.  Proof enough?  Ask me again and I'll take you to an audiologist, where a quick hearing test will eliminate all doubt.)  Finishing off the system's low frequency response, the FOH guy EQ’d out everything from 150Hz to 400Hz, with a few dips in the random lower midrange and his test music sounded like a 1960’s airport public address system.  He was a happy camper, as best I could tell. 

The band's monitor engineer added an equal demonstration of expertise by waving his SM58 inches from the monitors and asking for various frequency bands to be cut until he could no longer produce squeal.  Then the monitor volumes were increased until he got more squeals and had rolled off those tones.  When he was done, the monitor graphics had all cut everything from 300Hz up.  He might have asked for a shelving bass boost and got the same effect. 

Various other problems appeared as we went through the sound check and some of them were pretty serious.  We wrestled with bugs and glitches right up until the lights went down and the crowd came through the doors.  To protect the innocent, guilty, and random bystanders, I'll refrain from anything more specific than these descriptions of our tribulations, but everything (barely) short of burning down the house happened between the start of the sound check and the headliner's opening notes.  We did lose about an hour of troubleshooting time due to a false fire alarm that chased us from the building.  I used most of my experience as an engineer and all of my abilities as a politician from the moment we hit the loading ramp until we closed the truck door and drove away from the venue. 

I ran FOH for the opening acts and "accidentally" hit the main's EQ bypass switch for those acts.  In fact, I forgot to switch the EQ back on for the FOH engineer and he happily played with the knobs and buttons for the first half of his act, with the EQ out of the signal path.  Other than the huge sub crossover boost, the system sounded pretty decent flat.  As the volume rose through the show and hearing fatigue took its course, I continued to trade up my hearing protection until I was stuffing 34dB industrial foam ear protectors around my 25dB "musician's" protection.  My ears still rang the next morning and I'm way too old for that shit. 

While doing my bit as a customer service agent during the main act, I watched the FOH guy fool with a delay line.  While he had a short, medium, and long tap assigned to the output, the short delay seemed to occupy most of his attention.  He rolled it about 5mS above and below 45mS, varying it with the song being played and some inner cue, but never seemed to notice that the delay had no signal on its input indicator.  That particular aux group had its group volume control half way up and none of the individual channels were assigned to the group.  The same story applied to most of the other effects he "used," too. Lots of adjusting, no input signal applied.  Or, I suppose, the input signal was so minor that my old insensitive ears and the units' VUs failed to pick it up.

At the other end of my attention was the question my friend asked me every time he and I ran past each other during the show, "how does it sound?"  My first response was "loud."  Too damn loud, was my actual opinion.  I tried to listen critically and I had to admit that most of the percussion was audible in the mix, the vocal was reasonably clear (considering the microphone being used), and everything but the bass and kick were present and identifiable in the mix.  That's about as good as amplified live sound gets, in my experience.  So, that's what I reported at the end of the show. 

He was happy.  The band was really happy.  The venue was impressed.  The union guys helped us reload the gear and we got the hell out of there before anyone became undiplomatic and violence erupted.  I've since heard great reports from my friend about the reviews of the show and the response from his potential customers.  Everyone's happy and I survived. 

The next day, I flew home.  Now I'm back in the studio and, if it's another couple of years before I see, do, or think about a live show, I've had my Jones satisfied and it won't cross my mind that I might be missing something by living in the virtual world. 

You live guys have a hard road to hoe and I respect the work you do under the conditions you do it.  When I was building pro sound gear, I thought we were doing the world of music lovers a disservice by making it possible for their hearing to be so abused.  When I get my hands dirty in the actual production of a live show, it makes me feel even more guilty.  My generation is going deaf faster than any before it and the generations following us are even more damaged.  There is nothing good to be said about volume over quality and you won't catch me even trying to defend the majority of live music situations.  This experience reminded me of why I rarely go out to see an act, even one I'm recording, and why I do any damn thing I can think of to avoid sitting at either the FOH or the monitor desk.  All of my heroes have ears and I'd like to hang on to mine as long as I can. 

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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.