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Why Do Concerts Sound Bad?

Five reasons why I think concerts don't sound as good as they could, along with suggestions for improvement.

By Bobby Owsinski May 15, 2019

Image courtesy of mudnwaffles

Most every time I go to a concert I come with the same feeling – why did it sound so bad?

I’ve posted the following a few years ago, but it’s still holds true things never seems to get much better.

Concert sound reinforcement equipment is better than ever, yet we’re frequently burdened with a mess of auditory goo that just sucks the enjoyment from a live event.

Unfortunately this happens much more than it should, and I think it’s a big reason for many people not wanting to attend as many concerts as they once did. It’s tough enough with the high ticket prices, the “convenience charges,” and the high cost of parking and concessions, but if you add to that a less than perfect concert experience, it doesn’t give one much incentive to return again any time soon.

The fact of the matter is that the majority of concerts really sound bad these days and it’s not because of the venue acoustics. It’s the mix.

I believe that an entire generation of live sound engineers grew up learning the wrong way – that the kick drum and snare are the most important part of a mix. While that may be true in some small way when mixing a record (it’s really important, but not the most important), it’s an entirely different thing mixing live sound, where the vocal should be king.

Common sense says that the softest thing on the stage (the vocals) should get the most amplification and attention. After all, that’s really what people pay to hear (and who they come to see the majority of the time), not the kick drum. And the overuse of subwoofers just makes a boomy venue all the more boomy.

So here are five reasons why I think concerts don’t sound as good as they could:

1. The vocal isn’t featured.

The vocalist is usually the main reason why we’re there. Mix it so we can hear and understand it, please.

2. Over-reliance on subwoofers.

In real life, the only time you hear 20-30Hz is during a thunderstorm, earthquake or other natural phenomena, and adding in too much (as is sometimes the norm) can be a big distraction. Sure, you want to make the music sound bigger than life by adding in all that bottom end, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of intelligibility.

3. Too much kick.

A function of the above two items, many live sound engineers seem to have a myopic vision of the kick drum, spending way more time trying to get a sound at the expense of everything else on the stage. Believe me, most drummers at the concert level are using drums that sound great already. It doesn’t take that much effort to make them sound good.

4. Low intelligibility.

Again a function of the above items, many concert sound engineers seem happy if you can just hear the vocal. But what the concert goer wants is to understand every word. Let’s spend some time on that instead of the kick.

5. Bad mixing habits.

It seems like many live sound engineers never listened to the CD of the band they’re mixing. Sure it’s different mixing live. Sure you have some wacky venues to contend with. But 1, 2, 3, and 4 on this list leads to #5. Now’s the time to break the cycle.

I’m sure this list won’t change the mind of a current concert sound engineer, but if just one kid starting out decides that it might not be the best thing to emulate that guy, we’ll all be the better for it.

Read and comment on the original article here.


About Bobby

Bobby Owsinski
Bobby Owsinski

Music Industry Veteran and Technical Consultant
Bobby Owsinski is an author, producer, music industry veteran and technical consultant who has written numerous books covering all aspects of audio recording. To read more from Bobby, and to acquire copies of his outstanding books such as The Recording Engineer’s Handbook, be sure to check out his website at www.bobbyowsinski.com.
http://www.bobbyowsinski.com/

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Keith says

In my opinion the subs are over emphasized creating a wall of low end that destroys the music. I play bass and love low end but not the way it is be done at most concerts. One exception was at a Marty Stuart concert where the sound mixer mid-stream beefed up the subs. Paul Martin (the bass player) stared down the sound man with a thumbs down. The sound man complied and Paul smiled - he is my hero! I have cut down concert attendance as it is a waste of money to me if the subs are too loud.

Mark Murray says

Spot on. I was beginning to think I was just being an old curmudgeon for thinking along these lines. I have seldom been satisfied by a live concert mix. It also seems to me the presence of subwoofers has made things worse by instigating an "arms race" of sorts between frequency ranges, with everything getting too loud (and over-compressed) and the words being lost. I taught recording techniques classes for 37 years, and tried to convey the message, "if you can't hear the words clearly, in your recording or in your live mix, you've missed the point." Thanks for your straightforward opinion.

Kyle Sheppard says

I agree with this list completely. I think the fact that a song is a vehicle for telling a story has been forgotten in many cases. Kind of hard to understand the story if the vocal is buried or unintelligible.

mike caldwell says

saw a noel gallagher show in indy last winter that had all problems above mentioned....the mix guy wanted it to be a hip hop show...it was awful

Nate says

Thanks Bobby! I mix, play, and train live all the time and constantly go against what I hear in that mainstream concerty vibe because it always feels either muddy and bad or harsh and bad.

I feel bad sometimes because it seems to sound quite a bit better, but I never hear anyone else going against these wilder standard practices.

I experienced way too much snare drum at the concert I just attended as a viewer (twice as loud as almost anything else) and vocals were also insanely hot and harsh. As a producer and musician, I would have liked some intelligible guitars and not-muddy keys.

I’m constantly pushing my team to “understand the CD” too though mixing for the live. Understand every word of the vocals, but it had better not be house vox featuring some stage noise.

Bob Knight says

I have a playlist on a streaming service with all the artists I'll be working with in the coming few weeks. Helps me know their sound. Also, if it's original material - intelligibility of the vocal HAS to be the priority. Seems obvious to me.

Brian says

I'm an old school mixer and everything mentioned is why I haven't been to a live show for years. The over use of subs is just absurd. Crisp highs and hearing cymbals, hats and S's and T's is non existent.

Mike Caldwell says

It looks like there are two Mike Caldwell's, this Mike Caldwell agrees with everything said here!
To add to the problem in today's digital mixing world there are far more ways to ruin a mix with all of the available processing and a band engineer that is determined to use all of it on every channel all of time.

david wright says

Yes, unmask the emperor, please. Ban bad sound engineers who don't get it and assault us.

Daniel Surkis says

Great article thank you! I recognize that it is an uphill battle, but I feel artists should work to take control of their sound where ever they perform or record. Artists could thoroughly vet or bring their own sound tech. Artists can develop their own mixer and IEM setup so the stage sound is never at the hands of a stranger. Artists could decline to perform shows where the desired sound quality cannot be assured.

Terry says

Amen to this article. All portions of the sonic landscape is important to a good show. Unfortunately I also feel that proportionality has taken a backseat to the latest gear, plug ins and bag of gimmicks. The use of the best tool we have (ours ears)
has become a thing of the past.

Phil says

Personally, I feel the move to digital is the biggest problem. The clocks on even the finest gear these days still aren’t good enough (and probably never will be) to lose the smear on the highs and lows and the harshness of the mids. I think one of the reasons vocals are mixed the way they are today is because it’s nearly impossible to make them sound naturally warm and not harsh. Our ears are meant to hear analog wave forms, not zeros and ones.

Doug Hart says

If I may add one more thing... It's too dang loud. No, I'm not "that" old, but seriously.
The best sound I've ever heard at a concert (and I've been to too many to count) averaged around 92db. Large venue, pure, crystal clear sound. Every instrument, every voice could be heard distinctly. It didn't hurt and you could still talk to your date. Yet, it was still loud enough to have impact, to have energy.
They say "If it's too loud, you're too old"
I say "If it's too loud, you need to learn how to mix"

BTW: It was The Eagles

Jay “Hot Sam” Barth says

Very well said...I have never seen “kick drum” on a Marquis....that and the pointless excessive sub levels...I spent an over 30 year career mixing great singers...Bob Seger, Aretha, Rod Stewart, Robin Zander, Brian Howe, and more...I would have been on the Greyhound bus if I mixed the ways some of this is today.....

Dave says

My biggest complaint is the over use of compression. I know that compression is necessary in the studio to optimize for poor play back devices and digital file compression, but with the quality of PA that exists today it is not necessary for live anymore. Compression causes tonal shift and unintended artifacts that can ruin a good sound. If engineers would learn to keep their hands on the faders and know the dynamics of the artists then we would be miles ahead. Far to often I see engineers mix entirely with the compressors then stand back with their arms crossed.
I believe that this approach stems from the fact that engineers are locked into the mindset that they need to mix the cd, but that limits them from getting the most out of the system and the concert. It blocks their imagination. Instead of getting a rich, dynamic sound, we get one that is smashed and unintelligible. Don't get me wrong, compressors are important tools, but overuse can be worse than not using them at all. We need to get back to actually mixing the damn show, not just programing a console.

Bill Kahler says

Good one, Bobby! What can we do about it as concert goers?
We saw Tom Petty years ago at an out door show - sounded like a record. Three months before he passed we saw him and it was all subwoofer explosions. Couldn’t hear the guitars, couldn’t hear what he was saying between songs. Hell, Joe Walsh opened the show and we couldn’t hear his guitar! We saw the Eagles a few months later at the same place, against my protest, and it sounded like record.
Saw a David Gray last night - another subwoofer festival.

King Midas says

6. Over reliance on digital presets, also takes away part of knowledge and talent that some of us learned in the 70s 80’s and 90s...

Clayton Davis says

Good God. Number 3. Almost EVERY metal show I go to. I don't get it. Can't these guys hear that their mix sounds like ass? It's metal. Where are the f**king guitars?

Robert Miller says

Thank you very much for confirming what I have been telling all of my friends. They just keep telling me , something is wrong with you. I fell they want volume over a clear good concert. I went to three different theater concerts all rebuilt for concerts, they were all awful. 115 DB at the last one , I walked up to the balcony and almost died. They hang these giant arrays and blast the place like an out door venue.

Gil says

I am a musician and I go go sometimes to concerts, coming back with the same feeling ! It was not good ! and you forgot to say: TOO LOUD !
Thanks for your article. It tells the truth !

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