What Went Wrong At The Big Gig

Sometimes a show will really kick your butt.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

Do this type of work long enough, and there will come a certain day. On that day, you will think, “If just about half of this audience goes home being totally pissed at me, I’ll call that a win.”

For me, that day came last weekend.

I was handling a show out at the Gallivan Center, a large, outdoor event space in the heart of Salt Lake. The day started well (I didn’t have to fight for parking, and I had both a volunteer crew and my ultra-smart assistant to help me out), and actually ended on a pretty okay note (dancing and cheering), but I would like to have skipped over the middle part.

It all basically boils down to disappointing a large portion of an audience.

I’ve come to terms with the reality that I’m always going to disappoint someone. There will always be “THAT guy” in the crowd who wants the show to have one kind of sound, a sound that you’ve never prioritized (or a sound that you simply don’t want). That person is just going to have to deal – and interestingly, they are often NOT the person writing the checks, so there’s a certain safety in being unruffled by their kerfuffle. However, when a good number of people are in agreement that things just aren’t right, well, that can turn a gig into “40 miles of bad road.”

Disappointment is a case of mismatched expectations. The thing with a show is that a mismatch can happen very early…and then proceed to snowball.

For instance, someone might say to me: “You didn’t seriously expect to do The Gallivan with your mini-concert rig, did you?”

No, I did not expect that, and therein lies a major contributing factor. “Doing The Gallivan” means covering a spread-out crowd of 1500+ people with rock-n-roll volume. I am under no illusions as to my capability in that space (which is no capability at all). What I thought I was going to do was to hit a couple hundred merry-makers with acoustic folk, Bluegrass, and “Newgrass” tunes. I thought they’d be packed pretty closely together near the stage, with maybe the far end of the crowd being up on the second tier of lawn.

I suppose you can guess that’s not what happened.

For most of the night, the area in front of the stage was barely populated at all. I remembered that particular piece of the venue as being turf (back in the day), but now it’s a dancefloor. That meant that the patrons who wanted to sit – and that was the vast majority – basically started where I was at FOH. Effectively, this created a condition like what you would see at a larger festival, where the barricade might be 40 – 50 feet from the stage.

Now add to this that we had a pretty ample crowd, and that they ended about 150 feet away from the deck.

Also add in that a lot of what we were doing was “traditional,” or in other words, acoustic instruments that were miced. Folk and Bluegrass really are not that loud in the final analysis, which means that making them unnaturally loud in order to get “throw” from a single source is a difficult proposition.

Fifty feet out, there were points where I was lucky to make about 85 dB SPL C-weighted. After that, gain-before-feedback started to become a real conundrum. Now, imagine that you’re three times that distance, at where the lawn ends. That meant that all you got was about 75 dB C, which isn’t much to compete against traffic noise and conversations.

Things got louder later. The closing acts were acoustic-electric “Newgrass,” which meant I could make as much noise as the rig would give me. That would have gotten us music lovers to about 94 – 97 dB C at FOH (by my guess). The folks in the back, then, were just starting to hear home-stereo level noise.

In any case, I was complained at quite a bit (by my standards). I think I spent at least 50% of the show wanting to crawl into a hole and hide. That we had some feedback issues didn’t help…when you’re riding the ragged edge trying to make more volume, you sometimes fall off the surfboard. We also had some connectivity problems with the middle act that put us behind, and further aggravated my sense of not delivering a standout performance.

Like I said, there was some good news by the time we shut the power off. Even before then, too. The people who were getting the volume they wanted appeared to be enjoying themselves. Most of the bands seemed happy with how the sound worked out on the stage itself, and the audience as a whole was joyous enough at the end that I no longer felt the oppressive weight of imagining the crowd as a disgruntled gestalt entity. Still, I wasn’t going to win any awards for how everything turned out. I was smarting pretty badly during the strike and van pack.

But, you know, some of the most effective learning in life happens when you fall over and tear up your knees. I can certainly tell you what I think could be done to make the next go-around a bit more comfortable.

That will have to wait for the next installment, though.


A Proven Methodology For Winning At Thermonuclear War

You may know the answer already, but you might prefer not to admit it to yourself.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

The cultural apex that was the 1980s taught us the answer to this one. The only winning move in Global Thermonuclear War is not to play. Sadly, in the world of audio and music, people play Global Thermonuclear War all the time.

What I mean by this is quite simple: People will throw vast amounts of money and time at all manner of problems and conflicts, hoping to solve them through technological means. This is, of course, encouraged by the equipment manufacturing and vending industry, which makes quite a bit of scratch on the premise that “there is something you can buy to fix this.”

And, you know, they are actually right. They are right in the sense that pretty much any sonic issue you can imagine is fixable if you have unlimited resources. I’ve said this to people on multiple occasions myself. “We can absolutely fix this.” Of course, I then follow up with: “How much time and money do ya got?” I can absolutely, positively, make your giant echo-chamber of a gym sound like a control room in Abbey Road studios. That is totally possible. I’ll need a starting budget of $100,000 for acoustical treatment and install labor, plus six weeks to get the task accomplished.

Oh, you were thinking of going down to that place that’s a “center” of guitars and plonking $200 down on some doodads? Yeah, that’s not really going to do it for you…

Recently, I was discussing a particularly difficult situation with a fellow, local-music human. A venue is constantly in trouble with its in-building neighbors for being too loud. The stage has been torn open and deadened. The absolute minimum necessary signal is run through the PA. Drumkits are not miced at all. Are the neighbors still pissed? Yup. What’s pissing them off? The drums of course. So, the inevitable question was asked – does the place need to get a drumshield, or a ton of acoustical foam for the walls?

Well, neither of those things is likely to work. I have a very strong hunch that the drumshield would help a little, by reducing some of the sound traveling through the air to the walls and ceiling. Even so, the shield won’t do anything at all to stop mechanical transmission from the stage to the building structure (which is what I think is the real killer), nor will it provide what I imagine the disgruntled co-tenants actually want: A 20 – 30 dB drop in level. By the same token, a big spend on in-room treatment will make the venue’s space dead, but won’t do squat when it comes to stopping the walls from moving due to low-frequency material and physical impact.

Isn’t there a technological fix? Of course there is! The establishment can close for a couple of months while everything is ripped out, and a soundproof chamber is built inside the existing shell. The ceiling and walls could be completely decoupled, and the floor could be floated. The whole shebang would be built of cinderblock filled with concrete. At last, the other folks would have peace and quiet, even if someone threw a death-metal show into the mix.

Possible? Yes. Plausible for any reasonable investment? Not a snowball’s chance.

As such, my answer to the query was, “Don’t book rock bands in there anymore.” The fight isn’t worth fighting, because more and more time and money is being thrown at a conundrum that isn’t getting solved. Irritated neighbors don’t award points for effort. The goings-on is a slugging match, a contest of wills between groups that want fundamentally different and incompatible things. To give the other guys what they want while getting the music side what it wants just isn’t practical in real life. Live-music can still happen in that space, but it needs to start out quiet instead of being turned into quiet “ex post facto.”

As such, the way to win the game is to stop playing. Gordian knots aren’t untied – they are cut.


How Could 10 Watts Be Too Loud?

We think audiences want volume, but I’m not sure that’s really true.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

I’m not just hammering on players here. The context for this is very much “pro-sound.”

I used to have this regular gig that I loved dearly. Fats Grill is now a hole in the ground, but just a couple of years ago we had live-music every weekend. The PA in the downstairs venue was anything but huge, and yet it was very, very adequate for the space. The mid-highs were mated to an amplifier capable of putting 1000-watt peaks into each box. That works out to a theoretical 127 dB SPL peak for each enclosure – if only at close range (1 meter).

If you were in the middle of the room, you were about 4 meters (or 13-ish feet) away. We’ll say that makes for a practical peak of 115 dB SPL per mid-high, although the room being tightly enclosed would make the real number around 118. Put the two boxes together, and you had a system that could deliver a 121 dB peak in the midrange, plus whatever the subs could do.

Now then.

In pro-audio terms, a 121 dB peak isn’t considered “really loud.” It’s especially not considered loud when you realize that the continuous level, or what humans hear readily, was about 10 dB below that.

But here’s the thing: My experience suggests to me strongly that most folks don’t really want their live-music as loud as “music people” might think. Even for those that love their Rock and/ or Roll, 111 dB continuous can be considered bombardment. This is especially true for the 100 Hz – 15 kHz range. (Subwoofer material is far more easily tolerated, generally speaking.)

At Fats, I very regularly had the system limited so that the top boxes hit a brick wall at their amplifier’s -10 dB point. That’s a peak output of 111 dB in the middle of the audience area, with only about 101 dB of continuous level. That still felt loud for some people. It felt loud for me at times. I wore my earplugs religiously.

To be fair, the PA wasn’t the only thing making noise in the room. The monitor rig and the band’s instrumentation could easily give the total acoustical output a shove that got you into the upper reaches of the 100 dB decade. But even so, you have to realize that 101 dB of continuous system output at room-center resulted from only about 10 watts of continuous input. Remember that I said the limiter for FOH stopped the peaks at 10 dB down. So, that 1000-peak-watt amp was now really only 100 watts maximum, with the continuous power available being 10 dB down from that.

What I’m NOT saying here is that we should all downsize our audio rigs to run on hamster wheels. Headroom (holistic headroom, that is) continues to be a very good idea. There are situations where very large peak-to-continuous ratios have to be handled. What I am saying on balance, though, is that dumping a ton of resources into system capacity that’s actually excess isn’t something I can advise. I just can’t escape this ever-building perception that what a good number of live-music audiences really want are balanced mixes which stay well under an A-weighted level of 100 dB SPL continuous. Add the subwoofer information and you might get to 100 dB or more on another weighting, but that’s a different story.

(And, of course, we have to do what we have to do. Keeping up with a band that’s running hot is a necessity. There were plenty of Fats gigs where I started opening the limiters a little. There was one night where I had to adjust my threshold up to the point where the main amp would show clipping – and then drive hard into that limiting point.)

But there are plenty of gigs that aren’t a slugging match. In those cases, 10 watts of continuous input power might be all that’s actually used. Maybe even less than that. Ten watts can be “too loud” sometimes. I’ve gotten complained at during acoustic shows that people could easily talk over, for goodness sake. I did a few nights at a place with a very nice install that you could barely use in any meaningful way; You would just start pushing some clarity past the monitor wash, and somebody would comment that the music was too loud.

A lot of us aspire to “the big rig,” and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that on the surface. I simply urge caution. A huge system can be hard to get people to pay for, requires a lot of logistical work, and may be a tremendous amount of excess capacity that never gets leveraged.


The Number The Knob’s Pointing Toward Doesn’t Matter

A “Schwilly” article on how too loud is too loud, no matter what number the amp is set to.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

“If the amplifier doesn’t sound good until most people think it’s too loud to sound good, then the amplifier doesn’t actually sound good.”


Read the whole thing here!


The Great, Quantitative, Live-Mic Shootout

A tool to help figure out what (inexpensive) mic to buy.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

See that link up there in the header?

It takes you to The Great, Quantitative, Live-Mic Shootout, just like this link does. (Courtesy of the Department of Redundancy Department.)

And that’s a big deal, because I’ve been thinking and dreaming about doing that very research project for the past four years. Yup! The Small Venue Survivalist is four years old now. Thanks to my Patreon supporters, past and present, for helping to make this idea a reality.

I invite you to go over and take a look.


Communicating With The Sound Engineer (Another Letter)

An article for “The Schwillies” about how to pass messages to audio humans.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

From the article:

“When it comes to a complex topic, especially in a pressure situation, the ability of spoken language to convey nuance and relay information unambiguously is a huge bit of leverage.”


You can read the whole thing here.


Up In The Air

A good rigger is an important person.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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This is one of those topics that’s a little outside of a small-venue context.

But it’s still good to talk about.

I recently had the opportunity to work on a “big-rig” show. What I mean by that is we had six JBL SRX subwoofers deployed, along with two hangs (four boxes each) of JBL VRX. For some folks, that’s not a huge system, but for me it’s pretty darn large. Going in, I was excited to be on the crew for the event – and also a bit apprehensive. I had never before had any “hands-on” experience with rigging and flying a PA system.

As it turned out, my anxiety was misplaced. When you finally get up close and personal with a box like VRX, you realize that the box-to-box flyware is really easy to understand and operate. Constant-curvature arrays are hard to get wrong in and of themselves. You would basically have to actively attempt to screw up the hang in order to run into a problem. The boxes have a built-in angle, so you don’t have to think about much other than lining a couple of ’em up, flipping the connection flanges into place, and inserting the fly pins.

Another reason my anxiety was misplaced was twofold:

1) We had a good rigger on hand.

2) Everybody implicitly agreed that the rigger was the “lead dog.”

What I mean by point two is that I consider there to be exactly one proper attitude towards an honest-to-goodness, card-carrying rigger. That attitude is that you listen to the rigger, and do EXACTLY as the rigger tells you.

I don’t think I can stress that enough.

An actual rigger is somebody who can safely hang very heavy things above people’s heads, and has the maturity to do it the right way (with no tolerance for shortcuts or other horse-dip). They realize that getting a hang wrong may be a very efficient way to end people’s lives. They distinguish between “reasonably safe” and “truly safe,” and will not allow anyone to settle for the former.

As such, their word is law.

I DO think that safe rigging is within the mental capacity of the average human. However, I also think that there are numerous particulars of equipment and technique which are not immediately intuitive or obvious. I think it’s easy for an un-educated person to hang things the wrong way without realizing it. That’s why, when a rigger shows up in a situation where everybody else is NOT a rigger, the rigger immediately becomes the person in charge. Somebody else may be making executive decisions on what’s wanted for a hang, but the human with the most experience at actually flying things makes the final call on what can be done and how.

(If you ever get into a situation that appears to be the opposite of that, I think you should be concerned.)

Like I said, the case on this show was that everybody was listening to the rigger.

And that meant that everything got up in the air safely, stayed up in the air safely, and came down safely after everything was done.


Entering Flatland

I encourage live-audio humans to spend lots of time listening to studio monitors.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

Do you work in live-audio? Are you new to the field? An old hand? Somewhere in between?

I want to encourage you to do something.

I want you to get yourself a pair of basically decent studio monitors. They shouldn’t be huge, or expensive. They just have to be basically flat in terms of their magnitude response. Do NOT add a subwoofer. You don’t need LF drivers bigger than 8″ – anything advertised to play down to about 40 Hz or 50 Hz is probably fine.

I want you to run them as “flat” as possible. I want you to do as much listening with them as possible. Play your favorite music through them. Watch YouTube videos with them passing the audio. When you play computer games, let the monitors make all the noises.

I want you to get used to how they sound.

Oh, and try to tune your car stereo to sound like your studio monitors. If you can only do so coarsely, still do so.

Why?

Because I think it’s very helpful to “calibrate” yourself to un-hyped audio.

A real problem in live music is the tendency to try to make everything “super enhanced.” It’s the idea that loud, deep bass and razor-sharp HF information are the keys to good sound. There’s a problem, though. The extreme ends of the audible spectrum actually aren’t that helpful in concert audio. They are nice to have available, of course. The very best systems can reproduce all (or almost all) of the audible range at high volume, with very low distortion. The issue is over-emphasis. The sacrifice of the absolutely critical midrange – where almost all the musical information actually lives – on the altar of being impressive for 10 seconds.

I’m convinced that part of what drives a tendency to dial up “hyped” audio in a live situation is audio humans listening to similar tonalities when they’re off-duty. They build a recreational system that produces booming bass and slashing treble, yank the midrange down, and get used to that as being “right.” Then, when they’re louderizing noises for a real band in a real room, they try to get the same effect at large scale. This eats power at an incredible rate (especially the low-end), and greatly reduces the ability of the different musical parts to take their appointed place in the mix. If everything gets homogenized into a collection of crispy thuds, the chance of distinctly hearing everything drops like a bag of rocks tied to an even bigger rock that’s been thrown off a cliff made of other rocks.

But it does sound cool!

At first.

A few minutes in, especially at high volume, and the coolness gives way to fatigue.

In my mind, it’s a far better approach to try to get the midrange, or about 100 Hz to 5 kHz, really worked out as well as possible first. Then, you can start thinking about where you are with the four octaves on the top and bottom, and what’s appropriate to do there.

In my opinion, “natural” is actually much more impressive than “impressive,” especially when you don’t have massive reserves of output available. Getting a handle on what’s truly natural is much easier when that kind of sonic experience is what you’ve trained yourself to think of as normal and correct.

So get yourself some studio monitors, and make them your new reference point for what everything is supposed to sound like. I can’t guarantee that it will make you better at mixing bands, but I think there’s a real chance of it.


Unmasking

More and cooler audio toys can fix some things, which causes the things that can’t be fixed to stand out.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

From the article:

“There’s a myth about sound-reinforcement gear which can be voiced in many different ways, but usually boils down to this: “This problem will get better when we’re on a big stage, with lots of monitors and a big FOH system for the audience to listen to, all with enough power to melt somebody’s face off.”

You know what I’m going to say, of course. The above is not true.”


Read the whole thing, for free, at Schwilly Family Musicians.


A Weird LFE Routing Solution

Getting creative to obtain more bottom end.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

This is another one of those case studies where you get to see how strange my mind is. As such, be aware that it may not be applicable to you at all. I had a bit of a conundrum, and I solved it in a creative way. Some folks might call it “too creative.”

Maybe those people are boring.

Or they’re reasonable and I’m a little nuts.

Anyway.

I’ve previously mentioned that I handle the audio at my church. We’ve recently added some light percussion to complement our bass-guitar situation, and there was a point where our previous worship leader/ music director wanted more thump. That is, low frequency material that was audible AND a bit “tactile.” In any case, the amount of bass we had happening wasn’t really satisfying.

Part of our problem was how I use system limiting. I’ve long nursed a habit of using a very aggressive limiter across the main mix bus as a “stop the volume here” utility. I decide how loud I want to get (which is really not very loud on Sundays), set the dynamics across the output such that we can’t get any louder, and then smack that processor with a good deal of signal. I’ve gotten to a point where I can get it right most of the time, and “put the band in a box” in terms of volume. Drive the vocals hard and they stay on top, while not jumping out and tearing anyone’s face off when the singers push harder.

At the relatively quiet volume levels that we run things, though, this presents a problem for LF content. To get that extended low-frequency effect that can be oh-so-satisfying, you need to be able to run the bass frequencies rather hotter than everything else. The limiter, though, puts a stop to that. If you’re already hitting the threshold with midrange and high-frequency information, you don’t have anywhere to go.

So, what can you do?

For a while, we took the route of patching into the house system’s subwoofer drive “line.” I would run (effectively) unlimited aux-fed subs to that line, while keeping the mains in check as normal, and we got what we wanted.

But it was a bit of a pain, as patching to the house system required unpatching some of their frontend, pulling an amp partially out of a cabinet, doing our thing, and then reversing the process at the end. I’m not opposed to work, but I like “easy” when I can get it. I eventually came to the conclusion that I didn’t really need the house subs.

This was because:

1) We were far, far below the maximum output capacity of our main speakers.

2) Our main speakers were entirely capable of producing content between 50 – 100 Hz at the level I needed for people to feel the low end a little bit. (Not a lot, just a touch.)

If we wouldn’t have had significant headroom, we would have been sunk. Low Frequency Effects (LFE) require significant power, as I said before. If my artificial headroom reduction was close to the actual maximum output of the system, finding a way around it for bass frequencies wouldn’t have done much. Also, I had to be realistic about what we could get. A full-range, pro-audio box with a 15″ or 12″ LF driver can do the “thump” range at low to moderate volumes without too much trouble. Asking for a bunch of building-rattling boom, which is what you get below about 50 Hz, is not really in line with what such an enclosure can deliver.

With those concerns handled, I simply had to solve a routing problem. For all intents and purposes, I had to create a multiband limiter that was bypassed in the low-frequency band. If you look at the diagram above, that’s what I did.

I now have one bus which is filtered to pass content at 100 Hz and above. It gets the same, super-aggressive limiter as it’s always had.

I also have a separate bus for LFE. That bus is filtered to restrict its information to the range between 50 Hz and 100 Hz, with no limiter included in the path.

Those two buses are then combined into the console’s main output bus.

With this configuration, I can “get on the gas” with low end, while retaining my smashing and smooshing of midrange content. I can have a little bit of fun with percussion and bass, while retaining a small, self-contained system that’s easy to patch. I would certainly not recommend this as a general-purpose solution, but hey – it fits my needs for now.