May 1996

Whatever Happened to the FOH Mix?
Why Live Sound Sucks

by Paul D. Lehrman

My friend Grumpmeier barged, unannounced as usual, into my office. "I hear they want you to write about sound reinforcement!" he snarled. "Just what do you think you know about it?" He planted himself on my desk. Well, as much as the next guy, I replied. I thought I'd talk about some recent advancements in automation, and delay-line design, and real-time impulse response analysis, and fiber-optic networks, and...

"Bfffpt!" he interrupted, with a sound I hadn't heard outside of the Bronx since the Red Sox blew the '86 Series. "How about telling 'em all live sound sucks!?" Oh, I couldn't do that, I said. I have friends who mix sound, and clients who make the gear, and we have advertisers... "Forget them!" he barked as he jumped to his feet. "They're all full of it. Live sound is a joke. Here, what do all these people have in common: Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson, Richie Havens, The Grateful Dead, Patty Smith, and Emmylou Harris?" I tried to be helpful. They're all dinosaurs? "No, dummy, they're all people I've paid good money to see in the last couple of years, and they all sounded awful!"

Dylan? I thought he was only playing medium-size theaters, with a small band. How could the sound be bad there? "I'll tell you how. All you could hear was drums. Couldn't understand a word the whole night. I mean, Dylan mumbles a lot, but most of the time you couldn't even tell whether or not he was singing. The guy at the mixing board, even though he had a clear path to the aisles, never moved, never walked away to see what it sounded like anywhere else. In fact, now that I think of it, I don't remember him ever taking off his headphones. Maybe it sounded great in the cans, but it sure sounded awful where I was. To make it worse, even though he had a real hot guitarist up there with him, ol' Bobby insisted on playing guitar hero in every tune. He only knows about three notes, but I guess the sound guy liked 'em, because every time Dylan hit his lead switch, that's all you could hear, those three notes over and over again. For this I paid thirty-five bucks!"

Okay, but how could Richie Havens sound bad? He's only got one or two musicians up there with him. "You'd think that would be hard, huh?" said my friend. "It was an outdoor show in a park in the middle of a city. They made a grass-covered amphitheater and brought in a really nice sound system. We'd heard a whole international folk festival there the week before, with a dozen different acts in two hours, and it sounded pretty good. Havens played with just an electric guitarist and a conga player, but the balance was ridiculous. The conga was so loud it was bouncing off half the buildings in town, and the guitar was on the edge of feedback most of the time. Richie probably would have been better off not showing up. I know I would have."

And the Dead? C'mon Grumps, their attention to sound was legendary. They probably had the most evolved system in the business, and their crew was with them for years. "That was an interesting one." He was warming to his topic. "You know, I used to see them at the Fillmore East, before they started going nuts with that 'Wall of Sound' thing, I thought they sounded damn good just through those stacks of Altecs. You could hear every note, from wherever you were sitting. It had been years since I'd seen them, and a coupla years ago I thought I'd check them out at the Boston Gahden -- thank God they've finally closed down that toilet. Turned out it was the last time they would ever play Boston.

"I went on the third night, figuring they'd have all the kinks worked out by then, ya know? So half the floor is taken up with this sound booth, which has got more computers than NASA, and there's two thousand pairs of shotgun mics sticking up in the air, like the fans expected there was really going to be something worth recording. The whole first half of the concert, there was just this dull roar, really loud, and totally undifferentiated. Can't even tell who's playing. Garcia looks like he's about to fall asleep, and Bobby Weir looks pissed off, and they obviously can't hear anything on stage either. The fans think they've gone to heaven, but I just wanted to run out of there as fast as I could. But they did finally get it together -- the sound guys I mean -- during the drum solo, and the band came back and you could see on their faces something had changed, so they played a pretty decent second set. I know it's not the easiest room in the world, but with all that technology, and all that experience, and all those people, how come it took 'em three days to get any kind of mix?"

But Grumps, you listen to a lot of different type of music, I said. Jazz, and folk, and that World Music you're always talking about. All the new clean-sounding mixing boards and high-efficiency speakers around must be helping that scene out a lot. "Hah!" he rejoined. "It's just as bad. Everybody wants to have the coolest sound equipment in the world, even if it's just two clowns with guitars. But half the time all those toys just make it worse. I went to check out this really interesting group, four women singing a capella in half a dozen different languages, and playing hand percussion. Someone decided it would be cool to give them wireless headset mics. But nobody told them how to wear them. So one of them had that little styrofoam-ball wind screen right up under her nose, and every time she breathed, it would set up a standing wave at about 35 Hz that I swear was making people's fillings fall out. This was in a really well-tuned hall, built for electric music, so that sound just hung there. People were looking at each other wondering whether there was an earthquake. The sound board must have been at some cancellation point, or else the mixer was wearing cotton in his ears, because it went on like that for almost an hour.

"What solved it was that they started to get taxi calls in the speakers. Heck, the theater was about a block from the two largest transmission towers in the state, handling UHF, VHF, FM, cellular, microwave, and who knows what else, each one pumping out a few dozen megawatts of ERP from DC to light, so something's bound to creep in to the wireless rig, am I right? So after a couple of minutes of hearing some guy with marbles in his mouth asking whether anyone feels like going to the airport, they yanked the headset off the woman with the heavy breathing and gave her a hand mic. Immediately, you could feel two thousand shoulders relax. And from then on it was a great concert.

"It's laziness, man." He was on a roll, so I just shut up. "It's like the sound companies hear that some machine will do half their work for 'em, so they buy two. They've got automatic equalizers, spectrum analyzers, power monitors, gates on every input and output, MIDI-controlled snapshot automation, but no one's listening. Sometimes I think it's like what's happening in the medical industry, where your doctor isn't allowed to tell you you've got a cold unless you've had a week of tests. There's so much money riding on these shows that no one trusts anyone to run the gear. Leave it all to the machines -- that way, if the thing comes out awful, there won't be anybody to blame or to sue.

"I don't blame the sound companies completely -- the bands and the promoters are trying to make as much as they can in as few days as they can, and so they're booked into impossible places. I mean, after the Beatles tried to play Shea Stadium, and nobody could hear anything, either on the stage or in the stands, they realized it was ridiculous for them to tour any more. But no one else has bothered to learn that lesson.

"The manufacturers have an impossible job, too. No matter how much power you throw out there, or how hip your time- and frequency-domain processing is, or how many giant neon stairways or inflatable donkeys you build, there's no way you're going to produce anything that sounds decent in a football stadium. You've got steel and concrete, and slapback delays into next week, and two-thirds of the audience sitting at 90 degree angles to the stage. These are places designed to sell beer, not to play music.

"But as far as I'm concerned, the ones who are really at fault are the fans. As long as they're willing to put up with this nonsense, it's going to go on. If they're going to stand outside some ticket outlet all night and then shell out fifty or sixty bucks for the privilege of being somewhere in the same Zip Code as someone they've seen on MTV, and be grateful, then I don't think they're going to be all that picky about how it sounds. If it sucks, they're certainly not going to complain to anybody about it. But it makes me sad. Obviously these performers got where they are because they had at least some talent, but if the only time we can hear them is through an overblown, no-human-intervention, let's-reach-the-next-county sound system in an acoustically irredeemable setting, we'll never get the chance to know what it was."

Grumpmeier slumped back down onto the desk, obviously exhausted. He reached over and grabbed the floppy disk sticking out of my computer, and started brushing the lint off his jacket with it, immediately erasing the column I thought I was going to run this month. I sighed. So do you mean you haven't heard a decent concert in two years?

"Of course I have. I heard a local band at a church hall last month. High energy world beat rock and roll, with really elaborate arrangements, lots of percussion, three-part harmony vocals. The place was a nightmare -- high ceilings, huge windows, what wasn't wood was cinder block. And they sounded great! The sound guy -- there was only one, and he was probably getting something like 50 bucks for the night -- had a little 16-channel mixer, and a reverb, and a couple of power amps, and that was it. But he never sat still. He would jump around the hall, listen, run back to the board and tweak, ask people how they liked it, run up next to the stage to listen to the monitors, I even saw him go outside to hear how it was carrying. It took him about a half a song to get it to sound pretty good, but he didn't stop; he kept right on running around, making it better. The band was hot and really tight, they could obviously hear themselves just fine, and everybody had a fine time. And it only cost me six bucks to get in."

If I know Grumpmeier, that was his favorite part.

Paul D. Lehrman, composer, educator, music fam, and long-suffering writer, has recently started locking his office door.


These materials copyright ©1996 by Paul D. Lehrman and Intertec Publishing