sun 21/07/2024

Opinion: Noise annoys – will venues ever sort out their sound? | reviews, news & interviews

Opinion: Noise annoys – will venues ever sort out their sound?

Opinion: Noise annoys – will venues ever sort out their sound?

Great band, shame about the sound. Why can't venues get their mix right?

Gorillaz: A great live band but no thanks to The Roundhouse's sound mix

Last month I thought I'd gone deaf. After decades of standing too close to the loudspeakers I'd finally got my comeuppance and my ears had given up the ghost.

I was at Joan As Police Woman's gig at the Barbican and the music sounded like a muffled whisper, as if someone was talking to me from the other side of the room through a ball of cotton wool.Luckily it turned out that it wasn't me, it was them. Joan apologised for the sludgy mix and explained that it had been perfectly fine during the soundcheck but some gremlins had decided to rain on her sonic parade. The sound improved a little during the show, but the incident highlighted the fact that after all these years, at a time when the live scene is thriving while the recorded music industry is going through its death rattle, venues still cannot get the sound right.              

I also go to a lot of comedy shows in big venues and the funny thing is that the sound for them is often better than it is for the bands who have played enormodomes for years. Suede at the O2 Arena lost all the finesse that make their records sparkle, whereas seeing Peter Kay there last autumn was – for better or worse, depending on how you feel about the Bolton banter merchant – the same as watching him on DVD.

Yet when comedy is more than one-man-and-his-mike it is prone to the same pitfalls as bands. At Tim Minchin's show at the O2 before Christmas, complete with 55-piece orchestra, I thought the sound was pretty good from the side of the stage. It was only the next day when a friend who was sitting elsewhere told me that he could barely understand half the lyrics that I realised that the trouble with mixing the sound in a venue this size is that, no matter how many flashing lights, dials and gizmos you have on your mixing desk, it is virtually impossible to get the acoustics right for all the people all the time. It's perhaps not insurmountable in an unseated venue where the sonically disgruntled can wander, but a royal pain when you are stuck in the same seat all night.

I don't expect a live gig to be as nuanced as the recorded version, but it would be nice to be able to decipher the vocals

I'm not alone in getting frustrated by this. In the last week two music reviews on theartsdesk Janelle Monáe and Robyn, both at The Roundhouse where I had issues with Gorillaz last year – have drawn attention to questionable mixing. I'm lucky, I often get complimentary tickets. I'd feel like strangling someone if I'd paid £50 for a gig and couldn't distinguish between a guitar solo and the sound of a cat's neck being systematically throttled. And this is a problem way beyond rock and pop concerts. My colleague Ismene Brown has complained regularly that the Sadler's Wells sound system is killing live dance performance.

There must be a solution, but even in this digital age the live circuit has yet to come up with a consistent answer. Is it the rooms or the people twiddling those knobs in them? Obviously some venues were not purpose-built for bands, but how hard can it be to balance the output from the stage so that the vocals are not drowned out by the overamplified pneumatic drill of the guitars?

I consider myself to be a moderately fussy but reasonable gig-goer. I don't understand how people can keep wandering to the bar during a show they've paid good money to see. I don't like people talking in front of me. I can tolerate the odd bored whisper, but at a novelty one-hour comedy gig a few weeks ago which featured 60 acts doing only one minute each, the couple in front of me talked almost constantly. Don't even get me started on texting at gigs. How short are people's attention spans?

Yet it is when mixing-desk engineers opt for volume over subtlety that I really boil over. To me there are very few occasions when lyrics do not matter. A live Clash gig in the late Seventies was a visceral experience, one so loud I could never make out what Joe Strummer was blathering on about at the time (it seems positively sedate on the video below) yet nobody cared. But that was an exception. I suspect at the premiere of Tosca at the Teatro Costanzi in 1900 there was some curmudgeon in the stalls complaining about the vocals. But I doubt that they had to put up with the quality of the sound at various major UK rock venues over a century and countless technological advances later.

I don't expect a live rendition of an album to be as nuanced as the recorded version, but it would be nice to be able to decipher the vocals now and again. Having seen the comments on other reviews on theartsdesk and spoken to colleagues, however, I realise I'm not alone in being irritated by this. Perhaps that is the one bright side. At least I now know that my hearing is not the problem.

The Clash perform "Janie Jones"


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The EXTRA annoying thing with something like the Janelle Monáe show is that I've seen shows at the Roundhouse - last year's SÓNAR show, or the amazing Radiophonic Workshop performance, where the sound was crystal clear (and loud) throughout. So it's not the venue itself that's the problem....

I've given up going to so-called 'world music' events because the distortion has been so bad. We left an Cuban Allstars event at the Snape Maltings halfway through because the sound kept cracking up, and though I lasted all of Taraf de Haidouks' very mixed last Barbican gig, that was bad too. The fabulous clarinet of Ivo Papasov could hardly be detected as such from the miking in Vienna's Bulgarian Cultural Centre. I'm told that these groups very often insist on their own, very bad, amplification. Too bad - now I play safe and stay at home with the CDs, which is a shame, since the visuals and the being there should win out.

When I'm at a musical event where the sound is unfathomably bad, I've always assumed that the sound mixer must have lost a good part of his (her) hearing a long time ago. (Occupational hazard.) It probably sounds great through his ears! Maybe the folks who work sound for comedy acts aren't deafening themselves so fast?

I'm a touring sound engineer, so this is of interest to me. I was at both Janelle Monae and Radiophonic workshop and broadly agree with Joe's assessment. Who do you hold responsible as reviewers and fans? Venue or engineers? Do you know before you go that some venues sound better than others?

I work at the Barbican as the Music Programmer and I booked Joan to play that night. I am as concerned (and at times accused of being obsessed) about sound as any music fan has the right to be, but Bruce is missing the point here, as most venues DO NOT MIX THE SOUND FOR THE SHOW it is the touring engineer who is employed by the artist. The artists on this occasion had 3 hours to soundcheck and unfortunately didn't get the balance right - I had to personally intervene at one point and speak to the engineer. I am a massive Joan fan and so was as gutted as the audience members there that the first part of the show was messed up, but I'm afraid there was nothing we could've done to prevent this happening. If they don't work it out in the soundcheck - what can we do!? I know it is not our sound equipment that is at fault as we have spent years investing in the gear and testing it. Also the night before we had a full-on reggae retrospective 'Reggae Britannia filmed by the BBC and the sound was fantastic. Bryn Ormrod Barbican

further more... even though it took a while to sort the sound out Joan rocked - she is a fabulous artist and got a standing ovation and several great reviews of the show. So there.

Great to have Bryn's perspective here. Obviously I'm aware of who is responsible for the mix, but my question alluded to exactly the confusion you point out in your response: who do the public blame for these problems? If a show sounds bad no one individual or organisation is always responsible in all cases. In some cases the mix may be terrible. In other cases the PA may not be appropriate to either the artist or the room. In other cases the coverage may not be adequate. In non purpose built places the room may just sound horrendous acoustically. In cases of obvious unintentional noise or distortion something may just be plain broken. Obviously The Barbican doesn't fall into these categories, but there are venues which fall foul of all or some of these. Or to put it another way: Musician: "it sounds like a big empty sports hall, could you take the reverb down?" Engineer: "It is a big empty sports hall." It's such a frustrating and complicated situation. Sadly, for many venues, it doesn't seem to be the same priority as it is for Bryn. Mainland Europe on the other hand.....

Thanks for your lively comments. I think anyone who goes to gigs regularly will know that some venues simply have dodgy acoustics, while even good ones may depend on the skill of the sound team. The problem at Joan as Police Woman at the Barbican was clearly the mix not the room. The engineers tried to rectify the problem mid-set and it did improve, but it would have been so much nicer if it had been good from the opening. @Bryn – I gave the show a great review myself, but everyone there including yourself could hear there was a major problem at the start. I'm no Sherlock Holmes, but the fact that there has been great sound at the Roundhouse and duff sound too certainly suggests that the team on the night is responsible, although I did wonder whether the unconventional shape of the venue might have posed a greater challenge than usual. I think regular gig-goers realise that usually it's not the venue at fault and that bands employ their own crew. Certainly the Barbican has a good reputation. Although my colleague Ismene Brown has suggested that it might be time Sadler's Wells do something about their sound system. Also, as I said in my piece, it's often where you are sat that causes annoyance. At Gorillaz I moved around because it was simply too loud for me at the front of the stage. Judging from comments, maybe it's worth me investing in earplugs. Infinitely preferable to investing in a hearing aid.

I agree that it's important for the audience to be able to know where to go to if they want comment on poor (or perhaps even good!) sound. Barbican audiences are very vocal (we encourage people to be) and so they usually write to us - and we respond. I would suggest that anyone who has a bad experience write and leave a posting on the venue website or their Facebook and also the artists pages, this way your comments are more likely get through to someone with responsibility and influence. The more people are prepared to voice their concerns the more likely the venue or artists will take note of this. Also I don't think it's as straightforward as some venues have 'dodgy acoustics' although some I've been too obviously haven't even thought about sound design for the space. Some venues, like ours, have more challenging acoustics (primarly becuause it was designed for Symphony Orchestras), we have since spent considerable money and time making sure that the hall is fit for a very wide range of music (Death Metal excluded) and probably demand a more technically adept & experienced sound engineer, but if they do the job properly the sonic experience can be second to none. I was at the Gorrillaz gig at the RH too (which has got and the sound mix levels were pretty near unbearable) even with ear-plugs in. I would/ve thought the venue was to blame myself had I not just been to see Spiritualized a few months earlier and the mix was again I'd say it on this was more likely to be the engineer rather than the venue.

Other than gigs I'm working on I very rarely watch a show without my custom ear plugs. It takes a little getting used to, but they are essential. @Bryn: There are venues such as yours built for different purposes which do have challenging acoustics. Naturally these can be overcome. However, there are venues, particularly outside of London, which are built for selling as much beer as possible and little else. I don't particularly want to name and shame, but they are concrete boxes with a bar in. One venue has even moved the rather inconvenient sound desk to the back of a room, under a low ceiling well out of the throw of the PA, in order to increase capacity for club nights. How can a visiting engineer mix a balanced show for the majority of the audience if they can't hear what they are doing? The poor house engineers have to deal with the same complaints every day, powerless to actually change anything for the benefit of the sound. And this is without discussing the difficulties caused by some of the frankly awful acoustics of stages in these places. We are, relatively, spoiled in London. Somewhere like The Barbican is prepared to invest in the quality of the music experience. I'm afraid the same isn't true in a lot of places.

noticed another review of the Janelle show mentioned the sound i can't comment on the more technical stuff that you guys are talking about - but its very interesting and so glad there's some actual sound techs here. So often i wonder whose decision it is on who does the sound - and is there a 'rule book' to follow to the letter - or does it end up a personal preference of whoever the sound tech is? i'm not a fan of the roundhouse for it's atmosphere and it would be nice to see a gig with great sound too to try and overide this...

I'm a regular Barbican attender, mainly for classical vocal music. Acoustic is generally peerless. Recently went to see Waterboys, to hear Mike Scott put words of WB Yeats to music. Didn't hear a single word. Not one. Mix was appalling, Scott far too way down. Walked out after 30 mins. Went to a Salif Keita gig a couple of years ago. Sound was dreadful - this time the singer's mic was distorting as he hit the top end. After these disappointments, I won't be going to any rockpop gigs at Barbican again. I remain a devoted fan of Barbican's classical output, though - Berlin Phil the other week was out of this world. Barbican is London's finest concert hall, by a mile - it beats RFH into a cocked hat.

This is a whole different issue, prompted by Gerry's remark (I can feel a 'why doesn't London have a state-of-the-art symphony hall?' opinion piece coming on), but I must say that you get a very different experience of large-scale concerts at the Barbican depending on where you sit. Especially where voices are concerned. Inadvertently put this to the test by sitting in three different stalls areas when Runnicles conducted Wagner's Tristan und Isolde over three different evenings. In Act One, seated stalls left as you face the concert platform, I could hear Christine Brewer and John Treleavan in what sounded like perfect balance between voices and orchestra. Act Two, seated to the right - unsatisfactory in my experience - not nearly so well. Act 3, centre back, somewhere between the two. The other problem is that the Barbican, despite acoustic improvements, does tend to magnify the sound - piano becomes mezzo forte, etc. RFH improvements have made a difference, but it's still a dry sound. Go to Symphony Hall Birmingham and it's like hearing music with the lid off, and plenty of air around it. Favourite London venue for classical concerts? Kings Place, though that's only designed to cope with chamber orchestras at most.

I went to one of last years sonar shows and paid a fair bit to see Doom. I couldn't hear a thing though and was very disappointed. This article and comments not saying much about their sound!

Yes as with other concert halls the Barbican's design for acoustic classical music throws up specific challenges when amplifying music but (apart from problems with inexperienced visiting sound engineers) I really feel we have overcome these challenges. For every one complaint we have many positive comments from audiences and reviewers alike on the excellent quality of the sound and the experience, a few very recent examples of complex sound sets-ups with glowing response from audiences include: These New Puritans & Britten Sinfonia ,Titi Robin & Faiz Ali Faiz, Jazz Voice, Tony Allen 70th. Afro Cubism. Totally appreciate that some bad experiences can be very off-putting but I think it's a shame that Gerry has decided to forgo attending any future 'non-classical' concerts at the Barbican as he's going to miss a lot of great music this Spring and Summer, music that won't be happening anywhere else in the capital.

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