Musicians, who’s watching out for your music?

Back in March of 2014, I posted the Can you hear what you’re doing? (Part 1) entry in this blog. I said it would be the first in a series written with the hope of helping musicians and other recordists who are interested, like myself, in studio setups and recordings that get out of the way.  Since then, there have been other entries dealing with the subject.  The current entry, while not about studio setups, does deal with recordings a bit, and it deals with live performance.  And it is about things that get in the way.

I have been fortunate in recent times to attend concerts by some of my favorite artists, some of whom I’ve followed for decades but never, until now, got to see live.  The music at all of the shows was everything I’d hoped it would be, the players on their game, delivering thrilling performances, taking chances, and taking the audience on amazing musical adventures.  Why then, I always wondered, when the music is so great, is the sound so awful?

I remember one performance by a singer/songwriter whose work I very much admire.  The song was of the up-close-and-personal sort, an almost private voicing of the artist’s feelings.  I will never understand why the “soundman” decided this particular tune required deep reverb on the vocal, accompanied by spinning disco-type lights.  The effect was to take what was an intimately sung ballad and turn it into a sung-from-afar dance number.

More recently, I attended a show where the opening act was a very gifted solo artist accompanying his vocals by fingerpicking on a Martin acoustic guitar.  What is the special talent required on the part of the soundman to make the sound of a solo voice and acoustic Martin hurt?  All the inherent delicacy and sparkle of the Martin was gone.  It sounded more like a left-out-in-the-rain, trash instrument, while the vocals were heavily compressed and had the midrange frequencies boosted to the point where the words stabbed at the listener’s ears.

When the headlining band took the stage I noticed that the drums were being mic’d and fed through the public address (or PA) system.  If left unamplified, the drums would not have had the slightest difficulty filling the small auditorium in which the show took place.  They could have been loud from the last row of the balcony.  When amplified as they were, this forced a horserace of loudness for all the other instruments and all of the vocals.  The result was that I could see the musicians playing their hearts out, but the sound was a near-undifferentiated mélange of mush.  I could see how melodic the lines played by the bass player were, but I couldn’t hear them.  Oh, I heard lots of bass, but the lines, like all the other sounds from the stage, were just out of focus.  Loud, for sure, but not at all clear.

The show was musically engaging but sonically a mess, and I pondered why this is the case so much more often than not with live shows.  Certainly the public address systems in use are partly responsible.  They are seemingly optimized for high speech intelligibility at extreme volumes.  That might be great if you’re listening to someone speak from 1/4 mile away, but not so great when you’re in the same room listening to music.

Add to this the propensity of the soundman to “do stuff” at the mixing desk.  At the last show, I saw him working during that voice and solo acoustic guitar performance, and I wondered what it was that made him feel the need to push faders.  (Over the years I’ve learned that what makes some sound engineers great is not so much what they do but what they don’t do.)

Of course, as with everything else, there are exceptions.  I remember attending a show by the Grateful Dead many years ago.  The sound at their shows was justly lauded.  I remember a wall of loudspeakers behind the band—with tie-dyed grill cloths!  Their sound system simply reinforced the band—as opposed to being a weapon aimed at the audience.

It is getting to the point where seeing a musical artist live does not necessarily mean hearing them live.  Most of the time nowadays the audience is subject to the soundman’s take on what the musicians are doing.

One of my favorite moments in live music occurred at a show I attended a couple of years back.  The acoustic trio on the stage was about to play a traditional folk song and for this tune (unfortunately, only for this tune), they stepped to the very front of the stage, leaving the microphones behind them.  Something wonderful happened.  The audience got very quiet, very attentive.  We heard the three voices, along with the guitars and mandolin, blend beautifully.  It was pure musical magic.  Then they went back to the other side of the mics and the bright, piercing sound of the PA dominated the rest of the show.  But for that one song, I surmised other audience members might have felt it the same way.  Their enthusiastic response at the end of the tune confirmed this.  Even if they might not have been conscious of precisely why, I think the level of communication between artist and audience deepened profoundly during that song.  And then the moment was relegated to memory.

Do the players realize how their music sounds from this side of the PA?  Of course, I frequently ask the same question when listening to their records at home.  I question whether the drummer and the rest of the band really want the drums to sound as distorted as they sometimes do.  I didn’t notice him using a distortion pedal on the snare during any of the concerts.

In addition to systems and records that get out of the way, and let me hear the musical message as directly as possible, I long for live performances where the PA system and the sound person get out of the way.  It is the contact with the artist and their work that is where the greatest musical magic is to be found—for me anyway, and I would guess for a large number of other listeners too.

So where are the musicians in all of this?  I always wonder if they aware of how their music sounds from the audience.  Or perhaps they like the way it is presented.  If so, well, it is their music after all, and they should determine how it is heard.  But if not, I ask the musicians: Who will watch out for your music if not you?

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