Bad live sound: Venue or band?
August 16, 2013 3:54 PM   Subscribe

I saw a reasonably popular rock band in a smallish venue a few months back and the sound was atrocious. It was all bass and drums and I could barely hear the guitar, keyboards or vocals. This band in no way plays bass heavy music. Is the band or the venue at fault?

Does the band employ a sound person who made the decision to over-bass the crap out of the sound? Or does the sound guy work for the venue and it's more likely his/her fault? Is it the drummer's fault?

If it helps, sound was less of a problem for the opening act.

The band sounds fine on YouTube videos I've seen, and I've only been to the venue once. I'm mostly wondering whether I should avoid paying to see this band again, or avoid going to this venue again.

I don't necessarily want to throw either the band or the venue under the bus, but I'll mention who/where if it helps answer the question.
posted by cnc to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The number of bands who can afford to travel with their own sound crew is vanishingly small nowadays. My bet is on the venue's own sound person. And if the sound was better for the opener, it's possible that they've played there before and the venue's sound guy/gal has some experience mic'ing and mixing them. A capable front-of-house person won't have any trouble mixing a bunch of out-of-towners, but it certainly does happen. Small club touring is endlessly frustrating from a sound perspective.
posted by mykescipark at 4:02 PM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

A very good friend of mine is a sound tech for a large local venue and has performed similar duties both for venues and tours over the past twenty-five years. He has lamented (often, about every time we see a concert) about the dying art of sound setup and mixing for concerts. He gave me some very anecdotal and technical examples, so forgive me if I screw this up.

Basically, he said that in the "olden days" bands were more concerned with the sound and their people were professionals - they were all educated and knew everything about sound equipment, acoustics, etc. He said that they'd carefully measure things like open space, the shapes of walls, etc before even putting up speakers. Now, he said it is all about the show. Bands and promoters want certain images so they stack speakers configurations and places that look really cool and look good in pictures/film but don't really sound all that great.

You may just be seeing a shift from live music being about the sound to the scene/experience.
posted by _DB_ at 4:10 PM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Have you tried asking the band directly on their Facebook page or Twitter? I saw a band once that had awful sound and asked point blank on FB, "What the heck happened that night?" They apologized and said of course they'd noticed and they had been frustrated by the house sound on their set, too.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 4:10 PM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Rock band in a smallish venue where the opening band sounded better and the headliner was too bassy and drummy? It's the fault of both the band and the sound person, who typically is the sound person for the venue, not a traveling sound person for the band.

Why is it both their fault? Here's an educated guess at just one pretty common reason why - without using too much jargon or tech-speak:

1. The opening band sounded better. That means the house system is capable of sounding fine and whoever was running the board was capable of getting decent sound out of it;
2. But the headliner wanted to be louder and make a bigger impact than the opener;
3. So they turned their amps up louder on stage, thereby increasing the stage volume and bleeding guitar amp sound into the house;
4. Meaning the sound guy had less control over the mix, since he couldn't control the stage amp levels or EQ;
5. Which he tried to compensate for by turning up the bass and the drums, since they were being drowned out by the too-high stage volume of the guitar amps;
6. But there's only so much the house system can take and still retain decent fidelity and a good mix;
7. And mixing at a higher volume is harder, as you start reaching the limits of your power amps and speakers and whatnot.

That said, the band had no idea they didn't sound good - because the sound on stage sounds nothing like the sound in the house. And those guitar players probably loved having their amps turned up too loud, blissfully unaware that they were ruining the mix.

Caveat: I'm a guitar player, and there's a little demon on my shoulder telling me to play louder. And he won't shut up until the air from my speakers is threatening to blow me off the stage and into the audience. It's just the way it is.
posted by The World Famous at 4:15 PM on August 16, 2013 [17 favorites]

Yeah, I think sound in some places now falls to whomever is available without regard to whether they have the actual skill required. Live sound reinforcement is really an art that requires skill, knowledge and experience but a lot of people (club owners, I'm talking about you!) either don't understand that or don't think it's worth the money.

Before I clicked into the details I was expecting that you had experienced the old standard volume war, where the lead guitarist keeps turning up to hear themselves and then everything washes out in distortion, but it doesn't sound like that was the case here.

Who knows though, maybe the sound tech had a beef with this particular band and sabotaged their set. Always tip the sound guy!
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 4:20 PM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

If by reasonably popular you mean nationally touring, chances are they have their own sound person. It's hard to conjecture from your description whether they're at a level that they would have their own person or not. There's a lot of bad sound people out there who put in way too much bass. But a too loud drummer or guitarist in a small venue who won't back off can totally ruin a mix.
posted by Candleman at 4:24 PM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Live soundguy for a living. Seconding all of the above.
posted by soundguy99 at 4:28 PM on August 16, 2013

All - thanks for the answers. The volume for the headliner was way, WAY louder than their opener, so I wonder if @The World Famous's #2 comes into play there. Based on what you guys have said, I wouldn't guess this band is nearly big enough to travel with their own sound person.

This band generally plays 200 to a max of 2,000 seat venues and has been at several of the major festivals multiple times. From what's been said, I doubt they could travel with their own sound person. This venue was definitely on the smaller side of the ones they'd normally play.

I see about a show per month, and this was the worst sound-wise, that I've attended, probably ever.
posted by cnc at 4:56 PM on August 16, 2013

In a smallish venue ten to one the front of house mix was done by a local guy. Band (if they were a headliner) should have checked the mix at the sound check, but it can sound pretty different without bodies in there, and they may not have done. If they were support, all bets are off -- who knows what happened? They may not even have had a sound check.

If the sound didn't improve during the show then either the FOH guy had tin ears or he was up against something insoluble -- drums too loud and PA not up to snuff, trying to keep back the guitars so you could hear the vocal.

Even big bands often use the house FOH guy. I have a friend who does house FOH for some BIG (like thousands of people) venues around here, and he's mixing everyone from De La Soul to Neil Diamond. Most sound guys I know try really hard and have good ears; where there's a problem it's often beyond their control. Too loud stage volume is a biggie, inadequate PA another, shitty monitor mix another.

As a band unless you know your FOH guy really well you have almost no control over the mix at all. I'm always profoundly grateful when it sounds good.
posted by unSane at 4:56 PM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

How small is smallish? like 100 people max? 250? 500?

My only experience in this is in the like, 25-150 sized venues and DIY shows, but i've also played at and been involved in shows at somewhat larger(up to about the 250 point) venues and had back-and-forths with their sound guys tweaking both my own levels and theirs.

I almost universally attribute this when i encounter it to the band having the stage levels too high. ESPECIALLY if they're using their own effects or electronic stuff(drum machines, samplers, synths) and piping it in to the house mixer directly/through DIs.

There's this dumbassinated rockstar tendency to crank everything up to 11 when they start playing especially if they're the "big name" of the night and just really blast it. Often the sound guy(sometimes me, especially when i'm hauling in my own PA for a show at a smaller place or just running the board) ends up going up to the band or signaling to them to turn their shit the fuck down.

The extra annoying aspect of this is usually they don't turn it up to these levels during the check and then do it while they're playing after they've had a couple beers and see the big crowd. So everything was dialed in to sound close to as good as it possibly could on that space+system and then they just crank it up to the max and blow it out.

You'd be surprised at what say, a 1000w(or even 2000w) bass amp in even a pretty big room can do to create completely overpowering bass, especially when it's plugged in to a cabinet with like 8-12 drivers in it. and even smaller bands have GIANT bass power amps like this now with commercial refrigerator sized speaker cabinets. If the bass player cranks that thing up and is playing mostly in the "sweet spot" of both the speakers and where it really resonates in the room, there isn't much to be done. I've seen this sort of thing happen in the 250 cap sized places even when the bass isn't coming out of the venues PA much of at all.

The drums being too loud pushes it in to "both" territory, but i honestly bet the sound guy was just trying to make them audible to a reasonable extent over the wall of bass.

And don't even get me started on macho DJs/producers cranking everything up until it's completely distorted with awful EQ and creating the same sort of situation. Ugh.

So yea, i generally attribute this thing mostly to #2 and #3 and The World Famous' list. Although i might be a bit of a cynic who's really burned out on tiresome cock rocking rockstar machismo bullshit. The rest is reactionary to that. It's like saying that it's someone fault for not putting the fire out fast enough or not having enough water to do it effectively, when someone else intentionally started the fire.

As an ending side note, i wouldn't blame the band too much for this mostly because tons of people do it. I've seen it happen over and over and over again, and sometimes from bands i really liked. Sometimes they were obviously not even a bit drunk or anything when they did it. It probably sounds awesome to them on the stage right in front of their amps, and maybe the vocals even sound good out of their monitors which probably have a lot of the low end chopped out(either by simply being small monitors, or at the board).

As a side note, I really wish my friend who did live sound for 15 years or so in seattle through the entire grunge thing posted on here, because he has some hilarious stories about this kind of shit.
posted by emptythought at 6:33 PM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm mostly wondering whether I should avoid paying to see this band again, or avoid going to this venue again.

Eh, *shrug*, I don't think you'd be crazy to give both of 'em at least one more chance before writing them off.

Not least because if a band is playing that wide a variety of venues, the answer to the question of whether they're traveling with their own sound tech is, "Maybe, sometimes." So maybe next time the band's got their own tech who knows what he's doing, or maybe it was their tech fucking it up, and the next show (with a different band) you see at the venue will be fine because the house guy knows what's up. Maybe next show at the venue will have a different house tech. Maybe you go see that band at a different venue and everything's fine.

sound was less of a problem for the opening act.

Back when I was house tech at a couple of 300-seat clubs, it wasn't uncommon for a touring FOH guy to either clearly have no real experience with the quirks of doing sound in a smaller venue & smaller PA, or to have just done a coupla shows in NYC or Chicago in much larger venues and was trying to make our PA do what those PA's could do, which . . . . . not gonna happen. So there's that.

The band sounds fine on YouTube videos I've seen,

Just, y'know, for the record, that's really not much of a gauge for how they'll actually sound IRL. Even if it was just recorded with a phone or a mic attached to a camera, those mics mostly aren't capable of capturing the low end, and there's most likely some processing rolling off the low end to reduce the chance of the entire audio signal distorting.

If not, well, I've seen a helluva lot of YouTube live phone videos where the audio is comically overloaded - like PHBBT KRSHH PHBBT KRSHH PHBBT KRSHH WHAAARGLEBGRGLE PHBBBT.

And I know the band doesn't sound like that live 'cause I just mixed 'em the week before.
posted by soundguy99 at 8:09 PM on August 16, 2013

I wouldn't guess this band is nearly big enough to travel with their own sound person.

That doesn't mean the venue does the sound.

They might have someone in the band who usually sets up sound before the show.

One of the other bands could have been doing sound.

Was there even someone running the sound board there?
posted by yohko at 10:31 AM on August 18, 2013

To answer a few more questions - I think this was about a 200 seat venue. I'm pretty sure there was someone on the sound board. Thanks again.
posted by cnc at 4:27 PM on August 19, 2013

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