That of course, is part of the story, but by no means, the whole story.
PERFORMANCE AUDIO IS ABOUT CONVEYING ARTISTIC INTENT FROM PERFORMER TO AUDIENCE, WHERE THAT INTENT IS SUCCESSFULLY COMMUNICATED TO THE AUDIENCE, "COMMUNICATION" BEING THE TRANSFER OF PERFORMANCE CONCEPT, CONTENT IDEAS AND CONTENT EMOTION.
PERFORMANCE AUDIO IS NEVER ABOUT THE SOUND SYSTEM, THE SOUND OPERATOR, OR EQUIPMENT, AND SHOULD BE INVISIBLE AND TRANSPARENT TO THE PERFORMANCE CONTENT. ANYTHING ELSE IS FAILURE.
This means that everything a sound operator does, must be in service of art, not ego. That work may not be very glamorous most of the time. People who don't understand this or who aspire to be stars, or who are dabbling in live sound for the wrong reasons, belong in other vocations. While reasonable people can understand the logic, others can be star struck and driven to continually be near musical artists, despite their technical ignorance, with the unintentional result being non-optimum performance presentation that actually victimizes the artists by misrepresenting them to their audiences.
There are FOUR basic reasons when the sound at your local coffee house or small songwriter showcase sucks. Here are the four reasons in order of priority:
1 Inadequate technical education.
2 Hostility between sound men and performers.
3 Inadequate music education.
4 Inappropriate gear, or gear being used inappropriately.
Other reasons can be trouble too, such as architectural and acoustical issues, club owner aesthetics, and of course, performers don't always have their act together—the proportion of performers who understand performance physics, acoustics and audio is in fact, far smaller than the proportion of sound operators. Fortunately for performers, it's perfectly adequate to have or develop an innate "sense" of audio to support performance, whereas sound operators ABSOLUTELY MUST HAVE a studied expertise in audio, or their chances of being able to do good and repeatable audio approaches zero.
1 The most ubiquitous problem is the non technical sound operator, and there are two reasons so many non technical people are trying to do live sound: 1) they're star struck or wannabees who will do whatever they can to be near performers, hoping that it will give them access or future entrée to music stars, and 2), there are so many of these folks competing for sound jobs and preying on the technical ignorance, laziness and greed of so many venue owners, that the pay is driven down by supply and demand to the point where educated technical sound people won't work for the low wages.
When I attempted to persuade the owner of the new ASH GROVE on the Santa Monica pier that he needed a proper technical sound operator to work the three channel mains THX-style sound system with six monitor mix channels that I had designed and installed, he informed me that he had called clubs all over Los Angeles and that even the House Of Blues only paid $10/hour, so that was all he was willing to pay. When I completed the acoustics and sound system at the Ash Grove, I set out to find the place a permanent sound person. I put half a dozen simple core audio questions on an employment questionnaire, but the dozens of applicants could not answer any of them even though many of them had years of experience in L.A. clubs such as House of Blues, Roxy, Viper Room and other respected venues. No one knew what stereo is (I kid you not), what a balanced line is, what a pan pot does, what a cardioid mike is or how gain behaves when mikes are opened or speakers are added. After months of testing and interviewing I felt like it was completely hopeless to try to find a $10/hour person knowing anything about sound and the gear and practices of the profession. The Ash Grove eventually hired a young enthusiastic hi-fi and vacuum tube fanatic, who immediately upon being left to work the club alone, went into the equipment room and changed the system's crossover frequencies two octaves away from the designed and calibrated settings, requiring $1000 worth of my driving and consulting time to put back to normal. In addition to that lack of courtesy and common sense, he brought in his own collection of vacuum tube direct boxes and took up to two hours to do stage setup that should have taken no more than ten minutes, and stretched sound checks right up to show time, when they should have also taken only a few minutes.
2 In turn, the insultingly low wages sound men get makes them cynical and resentful of the employer and can eventually lead to those feelings spilling over into their relationships with performers. While a sound operator should be part of the performance team and as such, be eager to help and even gently educate performers where possible, it's become axiomatically clear to me over 40 years, that most sound men—better than half, anyway—are failed musicians who are envious of performers. Some just plain want revenge for being rejected from band after band. Why these people choose to work in a field where they get insultingly low wages and regular confrontation with performers is a topic for an abnormal psychology study, or ought to be, but clearly beyond the scope of this report.
A really unfortunate side effect of the incompetence of sound men is that the occasional competent sound professional gets a baggage load of antagonism and abuse from artists because of their bad experiences with more typical sound men.
A lot of the hostility between sound men and performers stems from miscommunication between them and is caused mainly by the difference in musical and artistic understanding between performing artist and failed would-be performer. This is a problem of enormous proportion and will, I fear be with us, as long as there is greed, laziness and envy, and venue owners who don't get it, don't care, and keep hiring people who say they know sound but who in reality should never be allowed to touch anything with knobs, faders or audio circuits inside.
3 You're probably getting the impression by now, that I think sound operators are mostly a detriment to the presentation of live music. For the majority of cases, I do, but only after giving each individual situation the benefit of the doubt and a chance to prove me wrong and show some sensitivity to the music. In the vast majority of cases they do not. This is one of the four deadly problems that keep bad audio comin' at ya. Sound men who "only know death metal" shouldn't be mixing Bluegrass; guys who only like Irish folk music shouldn't be mixing jazz. As I have stated in my recording philosophy, I believe that people who work in sound for musical recording or performance MUST BE familiar to the point of fluency, with the music with which they're working. Anything less is unacceptable. This means that sound operators should by necessity and training, be music lovers, with wide and eclectic appreciation of their client's art.
ONE SMALL TRIUMPH OVER PREJUDICE
In 1996 at the Ash Grove on the Santa Monica pier, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys appeared. I was still trying to hire a qualified sound operator—something that turned out to be impossible to do—and so was still mixing shows. Before the sound check began, Ralph Stanley approached me in the sound booth and asked me "where you from?" to which I replied I was a native of Los Angeles. He simply turned and walked away, and muttered in a deliberately audible voice "oh shit" as he walked toward the stage. The group that night had two guitarists, fiddle, banjo, two mandolins including Stanley himself, string bass and vocals. Bluegrass music as the Clinch Mountain Boys play it, often trades solos from one player to another, sometimes every two bars, in addition to the more conventional four bar approach like jazz. The players do their best to make the solos pop out louder by taking a step closer to a microphone with their instrument, and then stepping back when handing off the solo—in this respect, not unlike a big band horn player standing up when soloing. With the large three channel system with its amazing capability for subtlety, it was critical that each solo be boosted a couple of dB to clarify the mix and just barely increase the soloist's audibility. After the show that night, Ralph Stanley once again walked to the sound booth and simply asked me "where'd you say you were from?"
I can tell you, as both an instructor of audio at UCLA and as a sound professional myself, that the situation looks pretty hopeless and will remain hopeless barring being featured prominently on TV and in the media. I think we have a long wait ahead.
4 Inappropriate gear can mess with live performance sound as well. There are garbage barge loads of junk sound gear doing damage to performance art damn near everywhere. Of course, technical ignorance is the reason much of such gear exists in the first place. If consumers were knowledgeable about their purchases, there would only be good gear ranging from small to large, but far, far less garbage of the sort that victimizes performers and denigrates venue reputations about two times out of three. Far more often, however, than the quality of gear degrading live performances, the mis-application of the gear does this nasty job instead. The constant example I see is the sound man with extravasate testosterone and an oppressive complex about his manhood, determined to prove the latter by blustering with his kick drum microphone and his 20,000 watts of subwoofers, like the guy with the limp twig who has to buy four foot high tires for his pickup truck and ride ten feet up to be above other vehicles. This guy should be on a blacklist in every post office in every town around the world, not victimizing performers with his insane distorted image of how he thinks music should sound. His taste is that of rubber, like his tires. He doesn't belong in music performance venues—probably not even as a spectator.
At a Santa Monica club named "14 Below," July 1st 1998, I was introduced by the owner, to the sound man and told how proud they were to have him, because he was the "best in town" and blah, blah, blah. The act consisted of a female singer/songwriter, her producer, a drummer and myself. Two acoustic guitars, Doobie Brothers drummer Chet McCracken playing tasteful brushes, and my double 15" speaker bass rig with 400 watt Walter Woods amp head. The idiot sound man first spent 20 minutes of the 25 minute setup and sound check working on the kick drum, and then proceeded to make the entire show a kick drum solo with the huge thumping hip-hop kick sound a hundred times too loud for the type of music we were trying to do. Even Chet complained that he couldn't hear my bass (even though without leaning, he could have rested his elbow on my amp stack) and could only hear the kick. There are places in the world where such behavior can result in prison for the sound man.
Diamond Dave Somerville is the original lead singer of the Diamonds—a Canadian doo-wop rock group that had half a dozen hits in the late 50's, including the still huge "Little Darling" and in 1957, toured the U.S. on a bus with Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, The Drifters, LaVern Baker, The Every Brothers, Paul Anka, Eddie Cochran, Clyde McPhatter, Frankie Lymon and Buddy Knox.
In an oldies show with an audience of thousands on outdoor bleachers, I played with Diamond Dave's band. We were the only instrumentalists, and were pressed into service to back up the other acts that day—The Coasters, The Drifters, The Champs, Tommy Sands, and Lenny Welsh. The sound guy's first act was to put the kick drum mike up and spend three quarters of an hour getting it dialed in the way he wanted it. He spent a total of well over an hour sound checking the drums and about 15 minutes doing the entire remainder of the performers. I thought 'how typical,' and knew right away that the sound would be a big detriment to the music. Even after several of us had told him that the music didn't even need the kick drum miked, he persisted. There were two rows of big wedge monitors, at the stage lip for the singers in front, and fifteen feet back for the band, including two huge wedges flanking the drummer, George Green, who had been Frank Sinatra's last studio drummer. The monitors were so loud that I could not hear the drum kit on a 24" riser three feet from my head, and I had to use earplugs just to avoid being damaged by the front row monitors that were even louder. Just before the show started, the sound man left his 14 year old son in charge and drove off to another gig that was "more important," leaving us all at the mercy of chance. After asking repeatedly to hear our backup vocals in our own monitors, the kid switched our monitors off completely and boosted the volume in the front row to over 120 dB, causing physical pain. The kick drum was, of course, 30 dB too loud for the type of music being presented. (note: 30 dB is 1000 times more power. (E.g., if 1 watt = 0 dB, then 1000 watts = 30 dB)
Singing four part harmony with my cowboy campfire music group The Lobo Rangers LINK was a challenge the day we performed at a small outdoor amphitheater. The sound man that day had only a small pair of single 12" woofer + horn boxes on stands, and a small mixer at the end of a cable run into the audience area, but two things turned the performance into crap that day: the guy knew our substitute lead guitarist Howard Yearwood, by name, so of course Howard was featured in the audio mix even though we had told the sound man that Howard was only subbing and had never rehearsed with us. That, and the sound man's busy little fingers constantly moving faders in a vain attempt to "balance" the vocal blend, made the performance a living nightmare. For those of you who may not know how vocal blends are achieved, it's all—100%—the singers, listening to each other and adjusting on the fly, to subtle differences in volume and tone. Needless to say, when vocal mike faders are being constantly moved, vocal blend is impossible. As a result, the sound was bad, the performance was bad, the impression was bad, and if I ever happen on a situation like that again, I won't feel the slightest hesitation to stop the show and ask the sound man to take a seat in the audience or risk having his busy little fingers broken.
SOME PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS ON THE HISTORY OF LIVE SOUND
In my 57 years of performing music in public, I've seen some amazing things. Half a century of participation and fascinated observation provides some interesting tales to tell.
I'm not relating only a bunch of bad
experiences here, though the good ones can be counted on my fingers and
toes over a half century. Here are some
good ones for the record so we have a baseline from which to judge.
1952 — my first public performance. A recital of students at a Los Angeles
competition. Queen Elizabeth’s coronation
England happened that year. I was 32
with a “junior” 120-bass accordion that went from my chin to below my
knees. It was all acoustic.
parents went wild. By 1954 I found the
was more manageable for my size, and was singing for the weekend card
crowd at our house—half a dozen aunts and uncles—and
I sang all the big band tunes played on “Lucky Lager Dance Time” on
Los Angeles. By six, I was beginning to
show to the songs, imitating Nat Cole, Tony Martin, Eddie Fisher, Frank
and some of the other big singers on the new fad, television. Like a lot of kids in Los Angeles back then,
was a succession of school music offerings; choruses, madrigals and
even an elementary school orchestra, then junior high school and high
bands, choirs, madrigals, and drama studies. There were good
and good people came out of the available offerings. In my high
alone during the three years I attended, were Rick Cunha, Mike Curb,
Garfield, Dennis Olivieri, Bob Corff, Mary Rings, Tom Sellick, Micky
Tom Scott, John and Tom Morell, Stuart Blumberg and Steve
Bohanon. Our madrigal group of eight singers did a TV special
performance of a Fred Katz composition with the Paul Horn Quintet, at
KCET, the PBS station here in Los Angeles.
All of the performances of school
sponsored music and drama were 100% acoustic—there simply were no
microphones or P.A. (Public Address) equipment or instrument amps of
any kind at schools, except for the Fender or Silvertone amps we used
for the sock hop bands after school in the gym. I
started playing guitar "dance combos" in 8th grade at the age of
P.A. for those dances was always
a high-impedance microphone plugged into the second channel of a Fender
guitar amp. It sounded awful because
are anything but flat or uniform, had open backs behind the speaker,
were of course, never intended for that use. The
combination of such an inappropriate amplifier and a cheap mike
usually meant that you turned up the volume until it squealed and then
backed it off until it stopped—that was the “setup.”
Of course it was usually close to feedback so when you
step aside from the mike, it would sometimes howl, so the “show” at
junior high dances was usually quite unprofessional. A few years
of playing with this inappropriate gear being used for P.A., aiming
mikes, and so on provided some insight into the temperamental nature of
electroacoustics, but not much science. Books
had to be sought and experts consulted, but neither were abundant in
By the time I was sixteen in 1963 and started working at the local music store after school, musical instrument (M.I.) companies were starting to sell public address equipment into the consumer musician market. There were no manuals describing the technical operation of the equipment, though Shure Bros. microphones did have specification sheets with frequency response and polar plot diagrams on them—all intended of course, for engineer readers, leaving all technical meaning unexplained to consumers. The loudspeakers available at the time were clearly designed for the solo singers in all-acoustic big bands a decade before in the 50’s. It was all basically garbage and all designed by guitar players with no real engineering background who worked at these M.I. companies, The speakers had no high frequency horns in them, the cone drivers were all cheap with horrid, non flat performance (like guitar speakers!). They couldn't keep up with an energetic drummer in a four piece rock band, and were completely inaudible under the screams of fans in stadiums at the first U.S. Beatles concerts. There were a few speakers like these used successfully—commercially at least— in some of the Los Angeles coffeehouses I frequented in the early 60's, where there was one mike and the guitar was typically unamplified. In 1963, amplifier power was almost fixed. Everything was vacuum tube, and sixty watts of high quality power was a big deal. The transistor had been invented in 1947 and first produced commercially in 1951, but would not become an amplifier mainstay until 16 years later in 1967, when the first high power audio amps began to appear. That year I got an after school job at Vega (later to become Cerwin-Vega). The Crown DC-300 and then the Phase Linear 700 ushered in an era of growth in concert sound, and sound levels. Now it was possible for the vocals to be heard over the band even with guitar amps and drums, and it was possible for all of it to be projected to large outdoor audiences.
Jump ahead to
1969. I mixed and recorded the 1969 “Palm Springs Pop Festival”
with headliners Ike & Tina Turner, Procol Harum, John Mayall, the
Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Lee Michaels, Gram Parsons, the Flying
Burrito Brothers, and a dozen lead-off local area bands before the
120° sun went down. There were no monitors and the mix
position was on the side of the stage on a folding table. The
“console” was a group of several six input (phone plug) Bogen club
mixers with spring reverb tanks, all daisy chained together. The
two stage mains speaker stacks each consisted of four Vega (pre
Cerwin-Vega) folded horn bass bins topped with four stacked and splayed
JBL 2350 radial horns and 2440 drivers. It was all bi-amplified
with an Altec passive line level, 500 Hz crossover. Phase Linear
700s powered the bass bins, Crown DC300s powered the horns.
THERE WERE NO MONITORS.
years ago April 9, 1969, Ike and Tina Turner, Procol Harum, John Mayall
the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Lee Michaels, Gram Parsons, the Flying
Burrito Brothers, and others appear at the first, and last Palm Springs
Pop Festival and San Andreas Boogie in Palm Springs, California.
The festival site holds 15,000 people but 25,000 people jammed into a
drive-in theatre parking lot through a hole in the fence made by an old
pickup truck, to see Ike and Tina Turner and Procol Harum. Police
helicopters arrived to disperse the crowd, but gave in and went home
when they saw the size
of the crowd and realized that short of calling out the National Guard,
it was useless to attempt crowd control of the already settled-in
now comfortable sitting on the ground enjoying the concert.
The entire head-end of the concert sound system was three of these mono mixers—hardly what anyone could even imagine calling "professional"— daisy-chained together. They had spring reverb tanks and more than once as the stage was jostled by the movement of the artists and the crowd bumping the scaffolding, there were loud spring crashes from the sound system. Volume, bass and treble were the only controls on each microphone input. Inputs were unbalanced phone plug so every microphone required a transformer. The transformers used cost more than the mixers! The reverb (what little was used) had to be handled with great self-discipline because it was controlled by the on-off black rocker-switches per input channel, with only a master "reverb intensity" control.
Here’s a remembrance of that historic festival by attendee Clyde “AJ” Johnson:
Procol Harum at the Palm Springs pop
thanks to Clyde 'AJ' Johnson and his superb 30-year memory!
Even given the times and the fact that no
one locally had ever heard large P.A. systems like this before (the
system was absolutely microscopic in terms of acoustic power compared
to today’s systems), I thought it sounded pretty bad, but that was
based on my experience with hi-fi which was the passion that had guided
me to Vega in 1967.
Paul Butterfield’s incredible bass player had a fretless Ampeg scroll head bass and used a Fender Twin Reverb open-back guitar amp set on a chair behind him, with an EV RE55 mike on it.
My recollection of stage volume is that it was quite comfortable, maybe 90 dB, and I doubt that the audience sound level at 100 feet was much more than maybe 80-90 dB based on modern calculation of the components being used. Certainly nothing like the wide-band 110-120 dB sound in a modern rock concert, or even the 95-105 levels at a James Taylor concert.
Jump ahead to the early 70’s. Jimmy Buffett and I auditioned for the bass position in The New Christy Minstrels on the same day. 40 kids in all auditioned that day. Auditions were held once a month in those days. It was that very day that kicked off Buffett's career. For his audition, he played half a dozen of his songs for the 40 (adoring) other kids and Sid Garris, the owner of The New Christy Minstrels. After being rejected, Jimmy asked Sid if he could do anything with the songs. Sid said he'd love to but that he was the wrong guy (I bet he kicked himself later). Then Sid wrote a name on the back of his business card and told Buffett to get on a conference call with the person, I think the head of Glenwood Music Publishing, when he got home to Nashville. Two weeks later, I was on the road with the Minstrels and Buffett was on the charts in the top 40.
The group auditioned 400 people for each one they hired, and had a dozen gold albums in the 60’s and still commanded $20,000 a performance ($85,459 in year 2002 dollars) a decade later with no original members. The New Christy Minstrels were chosen over the very hot 5th Dimension with their #1 record on the charts, to perform for the President at the White House and the Returning Viet Nam war prisoners on a national NBC special, with John Wayne, Sammy Davis, Edgar Bergen, Joey Heatherton and Roy Acuff. I traveled the world for three years with the group, and played 261 different towns in 1972 alone. During that period I sang through over 600 sound systems, and only four times, were there monitors (hint, there were no monitors at the White House). We sang for Bob Hope in Vegas. No monitors. We sang the National Anthem at a World Series game in Oakland. No monitors AND a 0.4 second delay from the scoreboard. That’s a quarter-note at 150 beats/minute.
In the mid 70’s I was working with big recording stars at the Sound Factory recording studios while playing studio sessions and the occasional live gig, and starting to notice monitors but mostly installed overhead as part of better club sound systems, such as a system at The Basement in Marina Del Rey, California where I played for a year with a cover band. Hannon Engineering had installed a pair of Altec A7 "Voice Of The Theater" speakers with the revolutionary new Altec “Acousta-Voicette” 1/3-octave equalizer system and an additional 90-degree multicell horn up in the light bars, facing the stage because the room’s back wall was a concrete reflector, and musicians needed the immediacy of the stage. That sound system in today's dollars would have cost 30 grand—ten times more than modern equipment capable of better performance.
Monitors were here to stay by the mid 70's, but as time went on, musicians responded to their ubiquity by starting to insist that monitors be loud, and thus began the downward spiral of performance sound quality as sound systems got more and more complex and sound system operators got less and less qualified. In the mid 70’s, power amplifiers were getting huge. It was common to find amps delivering 600 watts per channel, and serious power could be trucked around and delivered to huge stacks of loudspeakers for outdoor rock concerts like Cal Jam II for 250,000 people.
About this time, audio equipment manufacturers began looking at the rock concert market with a critical eye, and started turning their attention to market shares. Some of the best minds and experience were put to work creating cookie-cutter loudspeaker boxes and systems based on what a few of the larger touring sound companies were using, and what they were asking for in order to maximize costs by squeezing more acoustic power into a truck trailer, which it turns out, is one of the major costs involved in tour sound. At the same time, bigger and bigger power amps were being developed onward toward where we are today with 6000-watt amplifiers. Now, huge amounts of acoustic power can be fitted into truck trailers, and used to create impressive and sometimes great sound with all the power, subtlety and nuance performers may be able to bring to a performance.
If only all this history and technology were passed down instead of having to be re-learned by each musical generation. (sigh)