Photo Courtesy of Graham Burton
I was having a conversation over dinner with somebody I met that evening. All the usual chat to start with which inevitably ends up with the "what do you do for a living?". Usually when I answer, this is met with a few standard remarks such as "oh you're a DJ" or a blank look on their face something akin to that of a dog being shown a card trick. On this instance however the person happened to be a musician, singer songwriter type and quickly I was asked the question
"Why do modern P.A. systems sound shit?"
Now for any half decent sound engineer, system tech or anybody closely related to this subject you would think that the question is mad. The improvement in P.A. systems technologically over the last 15 to 20 years has been staggering and it isn't slowing down. Pretty much every major manufacturer at the moment is making amazing sounding systems. Granted people have preferences over manufacturer a lot of the time and different systems are better in certain situations than others but the average standard is very high right now. So why was I even asked the question?
The thing is he wasn't necessarily wrong to ask, but the blame was put squarely on the tools rather than the workmen. So if the sound system isn't to blame who is? As controversial as this is going to be here goes:
1. The Band
The old adage shit in, shit out, is there for a reason. The source material is the fundamental part of the sound. A sound system is there to amplify the band playing so that the whole audience can hear. If the band sounds crap then essentially you are just turning up a crap sound. Its not going to get any better. This however is not usually a major issue, regularly touring bands are usually (although there are exceptions) over this hurdle. They have worked hard to create their sound, the musicians have learnt their craft and can play very well.
2. The System Tech
The system technicians job is tough. To be good at setting up modern P.A. you have to be skilled in multiple areas. CAD drawing, audio analysis, rigging and good ears are all required. Before the technology boom a sound system was relatively easy thing to set up from a technical view point. In basic terms you would stack or fly a group of speakers together, point them in the right direction and turn them on. To get the best out of modern systems a good tech will measure out the venue, create a CAD drawing of the room then use the software to determine the ideal way to set up the sound system. From that data they will build the system specific to the room, plug it all together, then test each component to make sure everything is working correctly. If that wasn't enough next comes the audio analysis. Reference tones are sent to the system to assist with phase alignment and equalisation so that everything is working optimally. It's the audio equivilant of setting up a formula one car for a G.P. Far from being an easy job it requires huge amounts of knowledge and skill to be able to get this correct. There are a lot of great techs out there but many don't really understand enough to do the job well. Luckily most manufacturers run training courses to teach how it should be done and I would recommend if you want to work in this area you start researching hard.
3. The Sound Engineer
For me perhaps unsurprisingly, this is the most important part of a good sounding gig and also the most poorly done part. I will state this now and am prepared for the inevitable abuse that will come from it.
The average live sound engineer isn't very good at mixing music.
There I've said it, but before you scream at me, listen to why.
Live sound is a very different beast from mixing in the studio and with many different problems to tackle. Usually when a live sound engineer starts their career (especially when they work for a P.A. company rather than a band directly) they take on several roles on top of being a mixer. They are the warehouse man in the early morning, the van or truck driver to the show, the system tech that sets up the P.A, the stage manager, the patch man and then they can mix a band. You then rush through 3 or 4 bands sound checking just before doors open then 15 mins later the gig starts. Add to all this factors that you don't have to deal with in the studio, such as how to equalise the system in minutes just by ear, fifteen minute changeovers between bands, feedback, and only one go at getting the mix right. There isn't enough time to learn how to mix. In the studio you can play about with compressors and EQ's etc at your leisure and try different techniques to see what works and why. At a gig you don't have that luxury.
The digital revolution has brought us a new generation of live consoles that are simply amazing, and P.A. systems that are at the cutting edge of technology, yet the actual quality of sound isn't improving as much as we would like to think. For example many engineers are throwing "plug ins" on mixes because they want to use all the latest toys and are getting in a mess because they have not learned how to use them correctly.
Just because you can doesn't mean you should.
So how do we improve the quality of mixing at live shows?
My answer is this. If you are mixing in a live environment keep things simple. If you can't make it sound good without all the toys then it's not going to sound good when you add them in. Learn to use all the extra tools by mixing music away from a live environment. Download a D.A.W like Logic or Protools, search the internet for songs to mix or find mixing competitions to see how you fair against the winners. Find tutorials on youtube and work on your craft.
As they say practice makes perfect.