I went on a Facebook rant last night about sound, bad, miserable, unprofessional sound. I am going to paint the whole picture, on the off-chance that it might actually make a difference at some venue, for some band, on some night.
Mixing sound for live music cannot be easy. I did it once and got away with it, but it is a job for professionals. However, it MUST be a job for professionals who act professionally. That means that you do your job, which is to work as hard as you can to make the musicians on stage sound amazing. It CAN be done. Chris at Dunedin Brewery, Josh at Skipper’s Smokehouse, and Joey at New World Brewery are just three of the many excellent sound engineers out there who bust their behinds to get everything just so.
And I acknowledge straight off that those are relatively small venues. The moment you get to a larger room with brick walls and little – if any – acoustic materials to help absorb sound, the job gets exponentially more difficult.
I always assumed, for instance, that there was no way to get decent sound in the Cuban Club cantina. I’d heard dozens of performers in there, but the sound always stunk. But not for this Tropical Heatwave. I was wondering why, until I saw Josh from Skipper’s at the helm. It CAN be done!
So the first problem is sheer volume. Ready? Finish this riotously funny sentence: “If it’s too loud, you’re too _____!” That is like, the funniest joke, like, ever. Done laughing? Good.
Louder does NOT equal better, unless you are devoid of talent and wish to mask that minor flaw. If you’re into death metal, then you already know all the words to the songs of Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel, and you are praying (OK, maybe that’s a poor word choice here) that your ears bleed. However, when you are listening to a band that depends upon nuance and your ability to understand the lyrics, having the volume cranked to Nigel Tufnel levels (that’s 11, for you non-Spinal Tap fans) does not enhance the experience. Having the bass and bass drum create pressure on your chest does not heighten the experience, either.
I complained bitterly about the sound at the State Theatre for shows with Bobby Lee Rodgers, Lettuce and the Motet. But when Galactic and Monophonics played there, the sound was pristine, so it CAN be done (I suspect they had their own sound people running the boards – people who actually give a damn and who have some hearing left).
I talked about a show at the Brass Mug with a small crowd. Why on earth would you turn the volume and bass up so loud that people would have to SCREAM AT EACH OTHER TO COMMUNICATE? It did NOT make the music sound better. This might be due in part to the fact that some sound engineers are familiar only with punk and metal bands, so they’re just mixing as they know how.
But that isn’t fair to the performers. Take the relocated Ringside. It is a beautiful, comfortable room with great people and good atmosphere. But most of the shows there have been much, much too loud. That started for me with the debut last year of Lemonade, with Bobby Lee Rodgers, the Stadelman Brothers, Fil Pate and Michael Garrie (I think). Most performances there have been ear-splitting up front.
The shows where the sound has been good are the ones where musicians are mixing the music from FOH (front of house). Big Bad John Werner and Kenny Bonesaw Harvey did great jobs mixing each other’s band when Come Back Alice and Holey Miss Moley played together. It was good for the Rev. Funky D’s 50th, because Joe Roma and Critter Critinden handled the sound.
At the High Dive in Gainesville last week, the sound was too loud from the start. The first band, a jazz septet, did OK because there were no vocals, but ear plugs were required. The next two bands featured wonderful vocalists, and their words were all but drowned out by the bouncing bass and volume overkill.
Last night, Christie Lenée was playing for the first time at the new Ringside location. This was my 14th time hearing her perform. (Yes, I have a database. Yes, I’m anal.) And I am here to tell you it was the best show I have ever heard from her; she was simply spectacular. So the saving grace is that the sound was at least balanced last night, but that’s all I can say positively.
When drummer Jonathan Thomas was on stage doing a sound check, he hit a drum, and the sound was like a gunshot, so loud it almost hurt. Christie did two solo tunes before bringing her bandmates on stage. The first was a superb instrumental with her tapping on the acoustic guitar. The volume was stupid loud. Attendance was light, and in any case there was no need for ear damage. Her second solo song was amazing, with a foot thump, but again far, far too loud. She’s playing magnificent acoustic guitar, but you’d think you were at an AC/DC show. Make no mistake, Miss Lenée can shred with the best of them – the very best – but even that doesn’t justify lousy sound.
So here would be three suggestions for any sound engineer in any room.
 If you’re not FOH, walk up there occasionally to see how it sounds up there. When your sound booth is WAAAAAY in the back or off to the side, you can’t tell.
 If you are a punker or a metalhead, ask for help or advice about music less familiar to you to make the band or performer sound awesome. And finally:
 Put your F’ing cell phone down and do the job they are paying you to do.
Seems simple enough.