Good Sound Requires Cooperation

Posted on May 4, 2010

-by Dark Star Dan

One of the most important things I have learned about live sound in my career is that good sound requires cooperation.  My greatest dissatisfaction as a live sound engineer is the issue of band members playing their instruments too loudly.  Amps that are turned up too high, stage monitors that are set too loud, and drummers who beat the heck out of their drums fall into this category.  This is a major issue for me when I’m trying to mix a “warm and rich” sound at Glide Memorial Church.

The first issue we have at Glide is that the band members are too close to each other – and to the choir – due to space limitations onstage.  As a result, the band members have trouble discerning their sound because of the volume of the instruments around them.  So the musicians tend to A) turn up their instrument volume to hear themselves better, and/or B) ask for more monitor volume to hear themselves, the lead vocalists, or the choir better.  Then the microphones designed to pick up individual instruments and choir sections tend to hear too much bleed from the other instruments in the sound field around them.  And the overall clarity of the sound suffers.

Now at Glide, a common complaint I get is, “Why it is so loud?”  This actually hurts me to hear because there’s nothing I can do – and the loud volume hurts my ears too!  To answer this question, a good starting point would be the issue I raised above.  But also, when we installed our brand new Meyer Sound system in September ‘09, we didn’t have a budget for acoustic treatment of the room.  What we need is high-density, fiberglass padding for the hard, reflective spots, to tame flutter echo and primary reflections in the main room.  We also need broadband corner bass traps to manage the standing waves from the large, low-end bass sine wave that gets caught in the corners, and in the space below the balcony.  Without such treatment, sound waves tend to bounce all over the place, creating a big mess of unclarified sound.

Sound is essentially created by pushing air through a controlled space, and volume is known as Sound Pressure Level (SPL) and measured in Decibels (dB).  The higher the SPL, the louder the volume.  When the attendance at Glide is low (meaning lots of empty seats in the church itself), we don’t have enough warm bodies to absorb all the reflection and SPL coming from our combined 90-person choir, 8-piece band, and multiple lead vocalists.  The result is sometimes not pretty, especially for a loud and rocking song.  When those loud songs are played, the Sound Pressure Level simply overwhelms the room.  I liken it to blowing up a balloon inside of a box: only so much will fit before it distorts and eventually pops, creating just “noisy air” with no definition.

Just last Sunday, the overall volume of the band – especially the snare drum – was at such an extreme level that I only dared to put vocals and choir in the mix.  Halfway through the first song, a pastor complained to our technical director that it was too loud, and he came racing up to the balcony to relay the message to me.  But when he saw my mix he had to concede that the volume was coming all from the band onstage.  No wonder our drummer and guitar player wear ear plugs!  But how are you supposed to hear a vocalist over that din?

The whole issue is a darned shame, because to have one of the premiere sound systems in the world (Meyer Sound) and essentially not use it seems like a terrible waste of money.  Every week I implore the band to play softer so I can create a balanced mix, but my pleas just fall on – if you’ll pardon the expression – deaf ears.

My hands are tied.

And this isn’t to imply that we don’t get a gorgeous sound at Glide, because quite often we do.  But many factors play into the sound quality, such as the amount of attendance, the chosen songs, even the weather conditions on a given day.  As I mentioned, sound is essentially the pushing of air through a controlled space, so whether it’s raining or sunny, hot or cold, humid or dry, each of those conditions has an effect on the sound itself.

Speed of sound depends on wind conditions, temperature, and humidity.  It does not depend on frequency; all notes travel at the same speed.  With every degree rise in temperature above 0 degrees Celsius, the speed of sound in air increases by 0.6 meters per second.  Sound travels in water about four times as fast as it does in air.  In steel, the speed of sound is about fifteen times faster than in air. That’s why you can feel the distant vibrations of sound when leaning against a wall or girder.

So this leads me back to the title of this blog:  good sound requires cooperation.  If the musicians could learn to play at a reasonable volume level, or wear in-ear monitors, we could set the stage monitors lower, and prevent reverb and delay in the main room.  The choir could hear their cues better, the lead singers could hear themselves sing and stay in tune, and most importantly, it would allow for a balanced, rich, and warm mix of sound to come through a gorgeous sound system.

This would only enhance the overall harmonious experience of a great musical aggregation.  And truly, it would enhance my job satisfaction.  Because nobody should have to wear ear plugs while trying to enjoy a Sunday celebration.

Can I get an Amen?

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