Sunday, July 19, 2015

Playing at sound engineer

It was one of those nights where my teenagers had other things to do, and the prospect of more overtime at work after a long day was unappealing, so I decided to see a band called The Whisky Runners. They were playing at an Irish bar, and their publicity flyer promised classic rock covers that were upbeat and entertaining.

All five band members are competent musicians, but I left before their set was complete. For me to walk out on a show like that is unusual, so I wanted to capture a few thoughts about why I did so. The Whisky Runners aren't likely to give any weight to my opinion, but I don't blame them for that at all.

My hope is that whoever reads this blog entry won't begrudge me the chance to lay down a marker for the value of sound engineering.

I've mentioned that the band has talent. I should add that their playlist was top-notch: We're talking about some of the best-known work of musical legends like Ben E. King, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band, and The Eagles -- exactly what you'd expect from a group working its merry way through classic rock covers.

Unfortunately, the sound mix was awful. I think the band realized that, but could not decide how to fix the problem. The lead guitarist spent most of two songs eyeballing the mixing board, and asked the audience if the sound was good. Some dummy near the stage shouted "It's not loud enough!," but from where I was sitting, his comment was easy to dismiss as a bad joke. It won a guffaw and a "Rock On, Dude!" from the band's front man, which I thought was a shame, because the "muddy sound" problem that they never fixed might have been less glaringly apparent if the band had turned its amplifiers down. More subtle sticking from the drummer would have helped, too.

Before I get to why, a disclaimer: I have no formal training in acoustics. I've never been a roadie. And the last time I picked up a soldering iron for "fun with electronics" was as a Boy Scout.

On the other hand, I've heard a lot of live music, read more than my share of record album liner notes, and worked (back in the day) as a disc jockey at a college radio station.

If I could have found a way to channel Christopher Walken-as-record-producer-for-Blue Oyster Cult, per that "More Cowbell" skit from Saturday Night Live, here's what I would have said to The Whisky Runners:

1. Your drummer isn't so much keeping time as supplying punctuation. He doesn't have to beat the crap out of the kit on every song. After awhile, it sounds like falling painfully down a long flight of stairs, even when it's well-timed. A Beatles ditty like "When I'm 64" should swing, not clomp or bludgeon, but it can't do that when every downstroke is an exclamation point.

2. You guys like to play more than you like to sing, and that's okay, but the vocal mics were overwhelmed by the "wall of sound," which meant some tasty lines were hard to hear. If you have to shout the lyrics for a comparatively mellow tune like "Take it Easy," then you end up robbing the song. Would Don Henley and Joe Walsh sound like backup singers for Twisted Sister? No, they would not.

3. Any keyboard player who can jam his way through the  arpeggios that your keyboard guy laid down for "Hey Jude" ought to be front-and-center in the sound mix for a song like that.

4. You have a rhythm guitar player. I saw him, and I saw his guitar. The lacquer finish on its body is worn off in all the right places, but the instrument itself seemed to be missing in action more often than not. Some aural separation between guitars would have been welcome.

My ears were ringing when I left the bar and walked to Dairy Queen for a "consolation cone."

Ironically, the best music I heard all night was on the satellite feed over speakers there, with singer/songwriter Jason Mraz crooning "I Won't Give Up." That sweet, syncopated ballad is nowhere near as iconic as most of the repertoire I'd just heard, but it benefits hugely from being a more technically proficient recording. The moral of the story: Sound engineering can make or break performances.

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