Sunday, February 15, 2009

Musicians: Does your mix really stink out loud?

Recently I did some consulting with a church regarding their sound mix. Churches are fun because that’s where all the old roadies, techies and rock-and-rollers seem to end up.

Once again I ran into the age-old communication breakdown between musicians and technicians, and once again I’ll remind you that it is good for musicians to be technicians, too.

There is a lot that musicians don’t know, things they need to know in order to build and preserve a long term relationship with their techs. One has to do with a room’s acoustic characteristics, a problem that can pit the band and crew against each other, resulting in a lot of red faces and angry exchanges.

Imagine that someone—a friend, perhaps—approaches you after every show and tells you that you sounded great or terrible, or that you get conflicting reactions from different people attending the same show.

Furthermore, when you complain to the sound engineer, they roll their eyes and tell you to go back to playing music and leave the sound to them. They add that there is nothing wrong with the sound.

The problem is, according to their own perspective, everyone in the situation is right. The audience is hearing good and bad sound (in the same performance), the musicians are hearing complaints, and the engineer is probably running the sound correctly.

But sound is a compromise. You will never please everyone. Because of phase cancellation, which I explain
here, parts of the room will sound perfect and some will sound strange—there’s a reason some of the seats are the “cheap seats.” Anything toward the back of the room, or sometimes in the strange boxes that exist in an asymmetrical room, will lose part of their sound because of the aforementioned phase cancellation. And, generally, any place that approaches 90 degrees from the front of the speaker in any direction (up, down, left or right) will lose clarity—being on the side of the speaker will be just like being behind the speaker.

So people in different parts of the room are going to hear different sounds—even to the extent that it could sound like a different mix. In one part the highs are piercing, in another the sound is muddy, or the midrange disappears, or the bass overwhelms.

And in the middle sits the musician, who hears all the complaints and simply doesn’t know any better which ones to listen to and which to ignore—based on location in the room.

If you really want to get organized about this, print out maps of the seats in the room. Figure out in advance, with your sound engineer, which seats are in the sweet spots (where it sounds great) and which are in the bad spots. When someone complains, ask them to tell you exactly where they were sitting, and mark that chair and note the complaint. If it’s in a sweet spot, listen to the comment more closely. If the listener was in a bad spot, then your response can be more like, “Thank you very much, have a nice day.”

It’s probably better just to leave this all up to the sound engineer. But until you know a little more about acoustics can do to your sound, it may be hard to fully trust your engineer.

Consider this a start.