Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Enforcement or Reinforcement?

Last night, I met a friend at a downtown St. Paul bar to hang out after being away for the winter. The bar has a barely-attended open mic on Mondays, so that was supposed to be our background. As usual, that was a mistake. Even though all of the performers were "acoustic musicians" doing folk songs and folk interpretations of pop songs, the sound system was cranked, painfully distorted, and grossly overbearing. Big surprise, right?

I worked for QSC Audio Products for a decade, back in the 80's. That came after 15 years of running my own engineering, service, sound reinforcement, and recording studio business. When I first stated working in audio manufacturing, I didn't think much about the moral aspect of what we were doing. Ten years late, hundreds of live sound gigs under my belt, tens of thousands of audio power amplifiers into the pipeline, and far too many conversations with live sound "engineers" and having suffered the result of providing deaf, stupid people with reliable high-powered amplification, I was pretty much done with the idea of live music as a morality-neutral business.

Our customers were about as concerned with musical fidelity as the two douchebags on the left. Too often, musicians are not performing art as much as they are shouting, "Look at me! Hey! I'm over here! Hey! Look!" Like spoiled 2-year-olds, they are not trying to entertain anyone other than themselves and they are willing to deafen anyone foolish enough to suffer their "art." Think South Park's "The F-Word," if you need more non-musical references. I began to think working for a cojppany whose primary purpose was to make music painfully, harmfully loud was less than ethical. It could be that I was just looking for a good reason to leave southern California, but my dislike for over-amped musical performances has tenaciously hung-on.

To my ears, the two things that make live music less than enjoyable are loudness and lousy tone. In many ways, the two are attached. Poor mic technique came about in an irrational effort to "improve" gain-before-feedbacik. Performers sacrificed quality, dynamics, and detail for loudness. Acoustic guitar pickups are a consistent source of lousy tone and, like poor microphone technique, the whole justification for those awful, twangy things that train listeners to expect awful tone from acoustic instruments is loudness and freedom from microphones. Performers who want their audience to know how special their instrument sounds use either no amplification or employ high quality condenser microphones and use those instruments as competently and flexibly as a talented vocalist.

The problem isn't the feedback, it's the volume of performances. At some time in the 60's, sound systems moved from being reinforcement to an attempt to enforce attention from the audience. It didn't work. It shouldn't work. It's a non-musical concept.

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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.