It’s a rare occurrence that you get to mix in a really nice room.
The world is full of sub-par venues (acoustically speaking). While the gear and know-how is definitely out there, and getting more affordable all the time, not many places take advantage of every aspect to make a great sounding venue. Speakers, acoustic treatment, placement, coverage, microphones, consoles, system processors, monitors! Most venues will invest in 1 or 2 of these things, but that’s about it. There are always weak spots, and part of my job is to overcome those, and create a consistent experience for the performer and audience. Not the easiest job ever.
Now. What if you had an unlimited budget and decided to invest significantly in all of these areas? It would be the most amazing place to hold concerts! Imagine: Bass traps to absorb those pesky standing waves the bass player always finds, absorption to suck up that flutter echo distracting the singer, wonderful flown subs to enhance coverage of the audience (in addition to time delayed balcony and front fills), tons of headroom in the monitors, more PA than the room needs so it’s not being pushed too hard, and a state of the art digital console to bring it all together.
I got to mix in this exact room this past weekend. The room had been tuned by the latest software, and a very well-known acoustician, my test tracks sounded great! It was basically like mixing in the studio… An engineers dream!
Then the band took to the stage. This was an acoustic-based Americana trio with female and male vocals, and between them they play upright bass, mandolin, acoustic guitar, banjo, mandola, and an electric guitar! They all have gorgeous instruments, with the best pickups and preamps money can buy. They are all seasoned players, and they all had the worst night of their lives.
Ok, that’s exaggerating a bit…
But it was certainly a very difficult soundcheck. Nothing was gelling, the wedges were uninspiring, the DI’s all sounded funky, and things were far from “natural” sounding. Lots of time was spent EQing to “get the funk out”
The following night, we walked into the venue which was a huge old church with typical church acoustics. Lots of BOOM and echo. There was a small truss above the stage with no-name 12’x horn hanging on either side, plus 1 old JBL sub under the stage. That was all that was covering 700 people! The wedges were basic, nothing noteworthy.
My first thought was “oh man. 2 rough nights in a row” plus, I was mixing on a less-than-ideal console. One of those digital desks that was from a slightly more primitive era, but it’ll have to do! I spent a lot of time with reference material and my own voice trying to tune the PA, and reluctantly called the band out when I realized there was no more I could do.
From the first channel I pulled up, it was undeniable. It sounded amazing.
The band needed no adjustments to their monitors, never asking for an EQ change, they were in love with the sound right off the bat. Obviously, their performance reflected their enthusiasm over the sound.
I have a few takeaways from this experience.
- The performer’s interaction with the room is king. If they are happy, it’ll be a better show. Hands down.
- Perhaps high-fidelity and ultra linear isn’t the way music was meant to be heard? This is definitely a philosophical discussion that could go on for ages, and I am undecided. Just food for thought.
- Don’t worry about the name brand on your gear, or what the paper tells you. Use your ears. Always.