I love music. There’s a soundtrack to pretty much everything I do, even if it’s just in my head. Going to concerts has always been a thrill and I’ve got hundreds of great ones to recall. But one thing that doesn’t accompany any of those memories is the phrase “and the sound was amazing”— because it wasn’t. The sound at live shows is mostly bad. Often it’s awful. The biggest reason why is because they just need to turn the damn PA system down.
There’s a macho need among venue operators to create the most noise possible, fearing otherwise that people somehow won’t feel they were at a show. This is even worse at rock concerts, where bands actually used to battle to push the decibel meter past 100, the PA system equivalent of 11 on a Spinal Tap amp. The problem is this makes the PA vomit out a noise that sounds like a hand grenade and chainsaw battling in a giant dumpster.
It would be easy to chalk this up to age (I’m 50+), but that just ain’t the problem. Anyone who’s been to my house and has heard the System of the Gods knows I love hard rock. I have gladly blasted the surround-sound version of “One” by Metallica and transported many lucky souls right into the middle of a heavy metal battlefield. Here’s the difference, it sounds brilliant.
When I was younger and partying like a rock star, I was willing to overlook this as part of the experience. (At the time, you also had to wonder whether David Lee Roth would be too drunk to remember the words to Van Halen’s songs.) But as my home listening environment rose to studio-mastering room quality, my tolerance for garbage sound left the building. And so should everyone else’s.
A Steven Wilson show I just saw serves as the perfect example. Steven is a brilliant musician, songwriter, and all-around artist. He’s also renowned as one of the gurus of surround sound, leading the way with recording and remixing for this format. He’s filmed a number of his shows over the years and the sound is always stunning. His bands are so tight and the recordings so good, there are versions of his songs I think sound better from the live sessions. Wilson been touring for his latest record for a while and already has a concert Blu-ray out, so I had actually seen and heard the show we would experience before even arriving.
The band delivered everything we expected, but so did the venue’s PA system. The sound was Space-Shuttle-take-off loud, and about as well-defined: Over-modulated, thick with muck and light on anything but a wave of noise. Assuming this would be the case we brought hi-fi earplugs designed to drop levels about 15 db across the whole spectrum. This was better, but it muffles the vocals too much to be a good solution. And why should we need them anyway?
You see, it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s a really simple fix that works for almost every size and kind of venue and genre of music. Turn the damn PA down. Seriously, it will make the sound so much better and your audience will thank you. So will artists who will hear from fans that for the first time in decades, they could actually understand the lyrics, differentiate between the instruments, and avoid a bass so boomy and overblown it buries the music in an avalanche of mud. There’s obviously more that needs to be done, but the immediate difference created by just pulling that main slider down about 15 db should make it a no-brainer.
The massive multi-use halls that double as sports venues have the biggest challenge because making anything sound even passable in a giant reflective warehouse is hard. So after the great turn down, venues need to consider more distributed systems instead of a massive bank of speakers hanging in an arc in the front. Take a cue from surround sound and spread the speakers out around the place. Maybe blowing the brains out of the fans in the front while projecting reflected mush to those in the back is not the best answer.
Jim Hanson is president of Security Studies Group and served in U.S. Army Special Forces.