Live music volume and mixing: my rant...

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A thread on here about playing the drums at low volume made me think of the excessive volume of too many live shows that I've seen as well as many that I feel to be really poorly mixed. Just to be clear, I'm not talking about hip hop or electronic dance music, genres that I know less about and I realize that for their fans have to be very loud and have to have that feeling low bass coursing through your body. I don't however feel like this kind of overwhelming volume is necessary or even desirable for music made with analog type instruments (guitars, drums, horns, voices, etc). With the whole punk and then grunge thing having faded, with more awareness about hearing damage and presumably better more precise tools to mix with, it seems particularly sad that shows, at least ones that I've been to, are mixed in such an overly loud, super-muddy fashion.

Though I realize that with rock music, high volume has pretty much always been fashionable, I kind of feel that at this late a date, folks should be getting over that. We've seen the damage that it can to folks and it really doesn't tend to sound very good; once the volume gets beyond a certain point, the room is too saturated with sound to support anything like dynamics so things start to sound really flat, sound from amps bleed into vocal mics making lyrics tough to hear and the overall balance is terrible. Another thing that I noticed at some shows that I've been to in the past few years is that there seem to be subwoofers used that go ridiculously low. This seems to be a something that's a big part of EDM, as big, super-low bass I realize is a part of that. I figure that since just about any club these days that has rock/pop type music also hosts DJs and electronic musicians that most of them have subwoofers that are a necessity with that kind of music. Still, I don't hear that kind of ultra low bass as being an ingredient in rock music and when I hear bass guitar mixed that way, surely through big subwoofers, it just sounds muddy to me. Bass that low isn't very nimble so one note tends to bleed into the next and there's a sort of standing wave, low-hum effect... Basically it makes music sound awful! I think that if I were in some sort of touring rock band playing the circuit of typical clubs, I'd be telling the sound mix folks to just turn off the subwoofers entirely...

I just find it to be a real drag to pay the money for an expensive ticket, wait in line expecting something great only to be rewarded with a performance that might have been great were it not for muddy, headache inducing sound. I've read that high volume sound, in addition to being damaging to our ears can mess with equilibrium a bit and cause fatigue. This is something that I've noticed myself in that after experiencing really loud music, I seem to feel more tired and irritable than I would otherwise.

I will say that I have been to some shows that are really well mixed, which unsurprisingly weren't also painful loud. I'll also mention that I see plenty of jazz music (more than rock actually) and I have to give kudos on the clubs that host this music and the folks who do the mixing as it seems that there's typically a lot more care when it comes to presenting it.

Anyway, I'm curious about what other folks think about all of this... Thoughts?
 

charlesm

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Absolutely agree. Live sound quality has been ruined for a long time now because of engineer groupthink about the expectation of massive sub lows and the fear of not being considered a "legit" live mixer if you're not pumping massive lows through subs. It's all counterintuitive to serious engineering, ironically, since any good engineer will tell you that a lot of mix clarity, recorded or live, comes from subtractive low eq in the right places. And that doesn't mean losing punch. In fact, remove all that subharmonic mud and everything actually becomes punchier and more impactful.
 

Trilock_Gurtu

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Well, define "loud". Isn't that subjective. Of course Jazz is quieter, Rock is louder, in general...this is sky is blue, stuff. I always bring foam ear plugs to shows, just in case it gets 'too loud' (for me). Never an issue.
 

Tornado

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Yes, I've noticed the excessive low end thing, and wish they'd knock it off. And I love a lot of low end. Too much is just too much and sounds like mud.
 

Rock Salad

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We are open here, have been since the end of last Summer.

I agree with the op. The feeling is not shared by my whole band though, or our people though, unfortunately. People actually do want it to sound like an over loaded eq-ed car stereo playing a cd. It's super hard to play like that and something I need to learn to do more skillfully
 

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Where are you guys seeing live music in a pandemic?
I haven't been seeing any recently, for sure, but there was another post here which reminded me of a peve of mine. One of the last shows before the pandemic that I saw was Reverend Horton Heat, which sounded really, poor (and was too damn loud) and that experience, despite being more than a year ago, is still fresh in my mind...
 

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Well, define "loud". Isn't that subjective. Of course Jazz is quieter, Rock is louder, in general...this is sky is blue, stuff. I always bring foam ear plugs to shows, just in case it gets 'too loud' (for me). Never an issue.
Well, I can't give you an answer in exact dbs... There's a point though to me where the music has a certain satisfying crunch that I like to hear with rock music, where I might feel that I should probably put in ear plugs (and typically do!) but where if I don't I'm still not likely to get a headache of have my ears ring for a while after the show. Basically, I feel that excessive volume and muddy sound are related, so besides being unpleasant from a pain threshold standpoint, it all just doesn't sound very good. For me, a show of music, with the key word being music, the single most important thing as far as the presentation goes, is the sound quality. Just as I expect good sound out of my drum kit and my audio system, I expect the same for live music and I feel that if it's too loud it just isn't going to sound anything but low-fi.

I realize though that I may be part of a minority that actually expects live music to sound good as I've been to several shows where I thought that the sound quality really marred the show but no one I was with felt the same way. I don't even care about stadium shows as I know that I won't dig the sound enough to bother... so it's easy not to to spend that $300, or whatever those things cost these days.
 
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shuffle

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For several yrs i was in an old school West Coast Swing, Jump/Blues band. As time went along at certain venues where we didnt mix our own sound, the sound guys would throw those subs in everytime.
We would try to explain that we didnt want or need those subs but to no avail.
Muddy Waters,yes!
Muddy music,no!
 

Stickclick

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I always carry earplugs. I prefer it when people can still talk in the back of the venue, but some people might like it loud. Something for everybody.
 

cruddola

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I have yet to go to any concert without some type of ear protection. Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. Anyhow, I can only speak for my drumming in general. Drumming dynamics are almost a dead issue today. Bash'n an' crash'n seems to be the order of the day. For me dynamic control is my strength. Especially the whole-band-in-the-same-room recording sessions. Dynamics was the main reason I did well on acoustic band's recording sessions, especially tours. My dynamic control is what got me 90% of my jobs. I agree with you 100%. Paying a ton of dough for lousy audio really sucks. Went to see the Rippingtons, the audio sucked and they got booed. The venue was built 1904 and is considered one of the best acoustically-efficient venues of the 20th Century in the world. Restored to it's original state back in 2000. Placido Domingo, George Winston and Yanni are known to sneak into town to record there. It carries vocals and acoustic instruments that rival the best the world has to offer. Yanni and Andreas Vollenwieder attested to it as did Winston, Yo-Yo Ma and Charro. Who'd think? It was given no justice that night , all bump and thump. I wanted to hear the saxophone and stinking guitar!! It's a guitar-emphasized band, for God's sakes! Like Photoshop is to lousy photographers, riding the gain and compressor is to a lousy FOH setting. Those FOH folks should've had their ears ice-picked! Even a dumb-bum like me could've done better. I've always done my own microphone set-ups with my own microphones, cables, pre-amps and mixer. The FOH folks got what I gave them and have had only one problem. I was having the bass drum brought down in volume at the Glassworks, Northern Ireland. It wasn't true to the acoustic instruments, especially the harp. The harp also acts as the bass. I was always fortunate to have that freedom with the bands I toured with. They all welcomed it. I hear where you're coming from.
 
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Whitten

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Interestingly, playing live the musicians that play with much less dynamics are all wearing IEM's. It's like they are playing solo in a world of their own.
people have stopped listening to each other.
For me live sound has never been better. Volume also depends where you are. I saw Fleetwood Mac a few years ago and we were way back, I could hear the person next to me singing along louder than the band. terrible. Obviously if you were ten rows from the front the band might have been 'too loud'.
I always take ear protection too.
The gear onstage has become more, bigger and louder. A lot of times the FOH mixer is trying to set the PA louder than the (less good) sound coming off the stage.
 

Rock Salad

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A cheap sound system will sound bad no matter what.
Disagree. I think this was the op point too. I feel like I can make a better, ie more accurate sound of our band with our cheap-o pa and mics, than is done by professional sound engineers with $50k gear.
But
I think that that muddy sound is what the venues and many of the audience are looking for, sadly. Look at the garbage people listen to music on at home. That is what they are conditioned to think of as "proper" sound. Blue toothed mp3 through a 2" speaker designed for maximum bass and logarithmic compression for maximum volume through the little turd.
Even symphony orchestras in concert halls are heard though pa these days.
I don't know any solution to reconcile what is clearly in demand today, with accurate sound.

I salute you, dynamic musician. Don't give up!
 


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