Recently I have attended quite a few concerts at all different venues. All of the bands were bands I knew and liked, yet every time I left the concert feeling disappointed. We have all heard the myth that “They are so much better live” or “I didn’t like them until I saw them live” because of the atmosphere and the energy brought by the performers. Psychologically it makes sense, but as far as the music goes, this post is going to bring up some things that really suck about live performances.
This first example is of a tried and true band that has been performing for years. They sound very true to their recorded sound live and have all the venue space and money to put on such a huge show like this.
there are definitely some differences in the quality of sound from the record version here, but the singer is intelligible, the instruments levels are well mixed, and the musicians play well together. What I’m saying is this is an example of a good live performance, at least in terms of sound quality.
This is a live performance by the band Whitechapel in HD, from 2 years ago. Whitechapel, in terms of popularity of metal bands, is upper mid-tier. They aren’t as popular as bands like Lamb of God, Killswitch Engage, or Disturbed (cough), but as far as the sub-genre of death core goes they are cream of the crop. This is as high quality as it gets for deathcore bands and by watching this you can tell the sound is not anywhere near as clean and crisp as the Rolling Stones are live. This is not because Whitechapel aren’t as talented or as good of performers as RS, that’s not what I’m saying at all. The blame goes to the venues that host these bands, and the “sound engineers” that do the live mixing for them. It’s time for me to put my acoustical engineering degree to use. These are the specs of the venue that Whitechapel performed this in
This probably means very little to you, so let me point out some of the flaws of this system. First, look at the size of the venue. It’s pretty small, probably fits a few hundred people, now look at the speakers they have (listed as monitors, which are what the band hears on stage, mains, what the audience gets sound from, and subs which you have probably heard of as sub-woofers). The mains, what the audience hears, are all one type of speaker (which any engineer will tell you is a big no-no) and they are Meyer MSL6’s. now lets look at those specifically.
“Designed specifically for very large-scale sound reinforcement, the self-powered Meyer Sound MSL-6 is ideally suited as a stand-alone system for vocal public address applications. For high-powered music reinforcement, it works in combination with Meyer Sound subwoofers and/or the DS-2P and DS-4P Horn-Loaded Mid-Bass loudspeakers.”
This venue doesn’t look VERY large-scale too me, nor do I think is it every used for vocal public address applications. It says that if you combine it with Meyer Sound subwoofers (as the Ace of Spades did) it can be used for high powered music reinforcement.
Why on earth, would a small venue like this, buy such ridiculously large speakers AND an equal amount of ridiculously large sub-woofers? Let’s do some simple sound-math. You have 6 main speakers, designed for all ranges, and 6 sub woofers to focus on the lows. You have 6X Highs, mids, lows, + 6Xlows, what is that going to sound like? Well quite frankly, it is going to sound like that! A big muddy bassy mess where you can’t understand what the vocalist is saying or interpret fast rythms well because it all gets mushed together on the low end. Plus its going to be simply TOO LOUD. These speakers are designed for stadiums arenas and concert halls, not dinky bar+stage venues. Not only could they have saved money getting less powerful speakers, it would have sounded better in the space and made all the performers lives a lot easier.
I also want to specifically address this issue that I have with small venues and performances of all types. It is always too loud. I am 22, I am not old, I don’t hate the genre, I don’t live in the apartment upstairs. It is too loud. Our ears have limits, its not an opinion, they can be damaged by loud noise just like our eyes can be damaged by bright light. The threshold of hearing loss is just 85dB. If you are wondering how loud that is, it’s about as loud as a car horn from 10 feet away. It’s not as loud as you think. The threshold for pain in hearing is 120dB. Now THAT is really loud. This is about as loud as a jet engine on a commercial airliner during takeoff from 10 feet away. If you had to guess, how loud do you think a concert in a small venue like this is? Back to the meyer MSL-6 specs
on page 2, at the top, it says the acoustical specifications of EACH SPEAKER (one speaker). The maximum output is 145dB at 1 meter. One hundred and forty five decibels. I cant… I don’t… I won’t even say anything more. Bring GOOD earplugs with you to every show if you value your ear’s health. They still won’t save you completely from hearing loss (a -60dB reduction is impossible even with rifling gear on) but they will help.
Let’s pick a venue that I have been to personally, and is a chain of venues around the US: the House of Blues. I will use the Chicago location.
You have to click on the production specifications drop down menu to see the specs.
This setup is much better shaped for a small to mid-sized indoor venue like the House of Blues is. They have smaller speakers (4 EV xw15 and 9 EV xw12, http://www.electrovoice.com/product.php?id=29 here are the specs if you are interested) and side fills for the high range coverage that is necessary for clarity, and only 2 18’’ Subs instead of 6. This is why this venue is the best in Chicago, and why the House of Blues is successful around the country. They don’t overspend on absurd speakers and build the sound system to the space. Having been there many times, it still can be too loud sometimes, but the performers sound very intelligible and are well mixed.
Here is what the venue sounds like
here is another poor sound system in a venue, also in Chicago
the vocals sound fine, but the bass is too heavy and distracting from what is going on in the mid-high range of the track.
What I’m trying to say with this post is the next time you are at a live show, instead of just going nuts and enjoying the atmosphere; don’t settle for this terrible sound quality. Bands don’t always get choice on venues, but if you must go see them at one of these smaller places that it’s too loud and too muddy, let the band and the venue know (vie social media at least) that there were problems so that maybe something will be done about it in the future.
Yes I have seen the Dillinger Escape Plan live, twice now, and they sounded awful because of the venue setup and mixing. Probably the worst sound quality of any band I have seen live. It was a great experience, but if you want to go to just listen to the music I wouldn’t recommend it.