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  • The cost and complexities of sound gear

  • I've been thinking a lot lately about the technology of local live music.
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  • I've been thinking a lot lately about the technology of local live music.
    Every time you see a band play, from the most established professionals to a high school garage band playing their first gig, you are looking at a group of people who have spent more money than they can afford on sound gear.
    When I was in high school, I played in a band that was considered to have pretty good equipment because we had several microphones and an old, Sears-brand amplifier that we used as a combination bass amp, guitar amp and PA system to sing through. It stood 4 feet high and was covered with a partially disintegrated, canvas-like material through which could be seen a great deal of the wooden substructure of the speaker cabinet.
    It also was not properly grounded and delivered a mild but startling electrical shock whenever you got carried away while singing and bumped the mic with your lips. This happed a lot because, big as it was, the amp still wasn't loud enough to be heard over the uninhibited roar of garage rock to which we used to expose our unprotected ears. In a quixotic effort to feel relevant in the mix, vocalists would attempt to sing as close to the mic as they could without actually touching it. We got shocked all the time.
    A gigging club band has at least a few thousand dollars worth of equipment piled in the back of the van. The instruments and amplifiers are expensive, but bands also spend untold hundreds on effects units and cables and strings and assorted maintenance chores. And we haven't even mentioned PA systems yet. Many venues have them, and many venues don't.
    What this means in practical terms is that a band that wants to work needs to buy a PA system. This becomes a sinkhole into which aspiring musicians pour ever-increasing amounts of money — often without ever feeling satisfied by the results.
    There's also the human element. Once a band has its fancy new PA rig, somebody has to run it. In my experience, no two semi-professional sound engineers have ever agreed with one another on even the most basic questions of equipment or technique. Bands break up over the issue of who will control the mixing board.
    I say all of this partly to point out that the jokes about musicians not making any money tell only half the story. Most musicians spend more to play than they'll ever make back. Bands around here try to hold out for a $50 per member payday, but they don't always get it. Bands around here in the early 1970s also used to get $50 per member. A friend recently told me that his dad used to make $50 a night in the '30s playing saxophone in swing bands in Portland. Too bad the cost of equipment hasn't been static for the past 80 years.
    The other reason I bring up sound gear is to draw some attention to the otherwise hidden complexities of live music. Running a sound system isn't as simple as putting all the knobs and dials in the right spot and leaving them there. No two rooms sound exactly alike. A room full of people sounds different than an empty room. There are too many variables to list.
    Many live music fans may be surprised to learn that the band doesn't sound the same on stage as it does in the audience. In a big enough venue, the band is actually hearing a separate, self-contained monitor mix. Even in a small club, the stage sound differs from what you would hear out in front of the PA speakers.
    A strange stage mix can make it difficult for musicians to deliver their best performances. A guitarist playing through an unfamiliar amp or singers trying to harmonize without being able to adequately hear one another can act as a catalyst for a bad show. It can be a sort of negative emotional feedback loop — a group of musicians who may already be nervous don't always identify sound-mix problems in real time. They may just feel like they're playing poorly. If they get down on themselves, they might actually start playing poorly. Things go downhill from there.
    As performers become more seasoned, they find themselves less susceptible to this sort of thing. Sometimes you have to grind out a rough gig under less-than-ideal circumstances. If you trust your material, trust your ability and trust that the audience wants to be there, everything will be OK.
    As I have stated in this column before, local live music doesn't happen because there's a lot of money in it. It happens because people love it. Some love to play it, some love to listen to it. Everybody at the show, both onstage and in the crowd, wants it to work. The PA system doesn't have to be the best, the sound guy doesn't have to be a genius, and the guitar player doesn't have play perfectly.
    Reach musician and freelance writer Jef Fretwell at jeffretwell@yahoo.com
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