Sunday, April 21, 2013

Bad Sound..

And What I've Learned From It.

Why does the sound usually suck for opening acts? Sometimes it takes a sound guy a little while to get the right mix and the opener is the guinea pig. (And I say sound “guy” here because to be honest, I don’t know if I’ve ever had a gig with a female sound person.) Sometimes he just doesn’t give a shit. Sometimes he doesn’t like the opener and, consciously or not, doesn’t want them to sound good. Sometimes the main act has their own sound guy and someone who's not very good at sound is given the job of doing sound for the opener. Sometimes it's accidental, sometimes intentional, sometimes un-professional and even unethical, but, it's been the fate of opening acts since there have been opening acts.

I complained about opening act sound guys and bad sound guys in general for a decade or two until I finally just gave up and decided to just make the best of it. Now it just seems to come with the territory and the way things are, the upper tier and the lower tier, one protecting its turf and the other coming after it. This division is, I suppose, at least partially maintained to keep people hungry, climbing, and competing since it sure does that. But since I'm not hungry or climbing or competing anymore and am pretty much a lifetime lower-tier guy, I pretty much take what I can get.

I try to keep my expectations as low as possible. If I can more or less hear myself and the room can more or less hear me, I just pretend there is no sound system at all and play with as much presence as I can muster and hope the essence of what I'm doing gets across. When I expect more, I just get disappointed, with my expectations as low as possible, I am occasionally surprised by a great mix right off the bat that just gets better as I go. But then I'm a solo folkie and my main interest is in being happy and enjoying making music. For bands that are more ambitious, it must be tougher to deal with. In any case, my favorite gigs are just me, solo, acoustic, and gear-less.

Another thing that used to drive me nuts was when the sound guy would get a decent mix by the second song or so and then just leave the board and walk away. These days I just adjust and roll with the mix I've got. This is one way that having bad sound guys has actually helped me as a performer. I don't expect anyone to make me sound good anymore. It's a bonus. I've learned how to adjust my volume and presence, vocally and instrumentally. I've learned to really listen to the sound I'm making versus what the system is putting out. I've learned in short, to correct for all kinds of bad sound issues, the biggest and best correction of which is this: step out from around the mikes, unplug and play acoustically. If you've always had perfect mixes, dialed to perfection by real pros, I wonder, can you step up and just play gear-less? I've seen plenty of upper tier artists who are not so good at it, usually because they can't produce much presence and volume without amplification and electronic effects.

And another thing about those upper tier artists, when I don't get what I want sound-wise, I immediately start working with what I have and I start focusing on the show, doing my best and enjoying myself; When they don't get what they want sound-wise, they tend to start throwing tantrums and focusing on themselves or blaming the sound guy. I’ve seen them do it right on stage. I once heard a famous jazz musician tell the sound guy, on the mike, that he should consider another career. Nobody enjoyed that show much and the main act, right or wrong, came off as a whiner and a prima donna.

I’m just looking at the silver lining here. I'd rather win, but the upside of losing is the opportunity to get over myself. And nothing I've ever done contributes to my happiness and well being more than doing that. So thanks bad sound guys! Seriously. You’ve helped me become a stronger performer and maybe even a better and happier person. 


  1. I have always tried to visit the venue ahead of time and make nice with the sound guy or girl. From a mercenary standpoint, I want them to care what I sound like, and to be interested in doing the best they can. But I am also seriously interested in what they do, and how, and I want to know the what and how of what they're doing. And from the sound guy's (or girl's) viewpoint, they don't get no respect; they usually get bitches and complaints. I want to let them know I appreciate what they're doing.

  2. Thanks for commenting Joe and I hear you. I try to do the same thing. It helps some but I've had great personal connections with sound people and still gotten bad sound. I think part of it too stems from the fact that a lot of people, sound guys included, aren't that into lyrics. They figure if you can hear the vocals, that's good enough. But being able to hear the vocals and being able to understand the vocals are two different things. I'm always ready to be surprised, but I usually go in ready for the worst. GB

  3. I needed a laugh! not had a good belly-laogh all day! It's the best medicine there is! Thanks! Gene!

  4. Good piece. Let me just enter one of my favorite sound engineer quirks, which is when he or she decides that you need a little coloring on a particular song and they just go ahead and add it. Usually it's a slow ballad, an emotional thing that you've worked hard on to make it sound just the way you want, with all the intensities in the right place. And then suddenly out of nowhere you've got all this reverb or chorus on your guitar. I know they think their helping but it's inane and it throws off your whole game. But it's best to be a good sport about it and not blow a gasket. Life goes on and nobody wants to go home feeling sour...

    1. Thanks for commenting Jim. I totally agree. Another thing that I really don't like and forgot to put in my blog post is when sound people make over-quick and large a guy gets a little soft and suddenly the sound guy turns up the vocal mike...or they get a little loud and suddenly the sound guy turns down the vocal mike. Two things is give the performer a chance to adjust their own volume...two, if you must make an adjustment do it slowly unless there's feedback going on. I was told early on by someone...I forget never make a big adjustment to the sound unless there's feedback...just nudge the fader in the direction you'd like it to go...a five second adjustment is not that noticeable...but a one second adjustment just brings everyone's attention to it. I just hate it when a sound guy is messing with the volume constantly. I want to create my own dynamics not be at a constant volume the whole time. If the sound guy keeps messing with it, I can never get my bearings volume-wise....