Sunday, July 17, 2016

Addicted to Noise

Almost 50 years ago a friend and I managed to squirrel our way on to the lineup of local performers who played the stage at the Dallas folk music club, The Rubaiyat. Until a few years ago, I could remember the name of the “group” we played as. “Jug Band” was in the name somewhere and some word like “undefined” or “random” was also in the name because there were several of us who played together but you never knew how many there would be outside of the two of us, Ed and I, who were the core. It might be a duet or it might be a 17-piece collection of assorted “percussionists” banging on everything from bongos to forks and spoons with banjos, a stand-up bass, and assorted guitars tossed in for volume and texture. Our high point was intro’ing one of the period’s famous “Toms” or “Tims”: Tom Paxton, Tim Buckley, Tom Rush, Tom Glazer, Tim Morgan, etc. You’d think I’d remember, but I was mostly into soul music at the time and playing on stage, with nothing between me and what felt like a hostile world but an acoustic guitar, scared the shit out of me. Usually, when I left the stage I just kept going until I was out the door and sucking in large quantities of fresh urban Texas air until I could relax a little. All I remember about the headline is when we walked past him on the way off of the “stage,” he said, “You guys know what it’s supposed to sound like.” I have never known if that was a compliment or a mild cut our outright sarcasm.

I’m sure I don’t accurately remember how many people could cram into the Rubaiyat, but it was more than a handful and likely close to 50 or 75. Some people called the place a “coffee shop,” but I don’t remember coffee at all. I didn’t drink the stuff until I was in my 40’s and, like golf and Harley Davidsons, I considered coffee to be something “old people” did. I think you could buy beer at the club, but I didn’t drink beer back then, either.

What I do remember about the Rubaiyat was that we didn’t mess with microphones or a speaker system in the club. You just sat down in front of the room and played. People were quiet if they liked and not as quiet if you bored them. It wasn’t a hostile room to play, but it wasn’t mindlessly supportive, either.

Today, every fool with an acoustic guitar, banjo, autoharp, ukulele, or poem to recite feels the need to pull a microphone closer as some sort of defense against being so pointless that people refuse to listen. I think “sound reinforcement systems” are the performers’ equivalent to the “everyone gets a trophy” education/competition philosophy. You’ll never know if you suck if you are so overwhelmingly loud that you can pretend people are playing attention to your message simply because they can’t yell loud enough to overcome your noise output. That may be a lot of things, but two things it isn’t would be “music” and “art.”

I’d bet if you asked 100 random people how often they have left a club, restaurant, or park because the sound system was painfully loud and the “talent” was missing, you’d discover that close to 100 people would admit to being sound system critics. I realize I’m grumpier about this bullshit than most people, since I openly advocate smacking live sound fruitcakes whenever possible. However, I think sound reinforcement systems are responsible for driving more people way from music venues than they could possibly attract.

Here are some rules I’d apply to when you need a sound system:

  • · Your facility holds more than 100 people and you serve food. If the food/bar service can’t be quiet enough to allow the audience to hear the music, you have justification for a small, high fidelity sound system.
  • Many of the artists in your venue bring pre-recorded accompaniment to enhance their performance: rap, spoken word, etc. You don’t need big power, since you are still a small venue, but you will need to be able to accomodate 1/8”/3.5mm TRS, 1/4” TRS,  XLR, and even phono connectors to get their gear into yours. Again, you are a small venue and you don’t need to pulverize your victims’ hearing. Getting the background up to the acoustic output of the voice is enough. Almost any stereo system can pull this off.
  • You venue holds 100+ customers and many of them will be dancing.
  • Outside of those three categories, your need for a sound system is purely psychological. If Tim/Tom didn’t need reinforcement at the Rubaiyat, you don’t either. I know our jug band didn’t need or deserve any additional volume and we were probably better than you or your group. After all, we intro’d Tim/Tom somebody semi-famous in a now-legendary coffee house back in the days when men were men, music stars played tiny clubs for $100, and small furry animals from Alpha Centuri were small furry animals from Alpha Centuri.

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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.