A colleague recently posted about a gig he worked that didn’t quite go the way he planned. He was placed in a position that many of us encounter at some point in our careers – the event organizer booked a rental company and requested enough gear for a small lounge show that in reality turned out to be a sizeable party.
The main PA, which could have handled the stated request without a glitch, quickly became like an SUV trying to haul a shipping container. When my friend tried squeezing every last ounce of sound from those quivering boxes, the inevitable happened: distortion, audible limiting, and the mother of all sound monsters, feedback issues.
As I read his post, I could just see the poor guy frantically turning knobs while the heads in the crowd started turning, throwing looks at him intended to hurt like ninja throwing stars. That’s bad, really bad – the stuff nightmares are made of.
Hitting Close To Home
The story triggered a knee-jerk reaction, where I was immediately transported back to my own nightmare scenario. It was about 12 years ago when I was booked to do a show for a well-known female artist backed by a band at a small bar located at the heart of our capital city’s center.
I was told it would be an intimate gig, so there was no need for a lot of gear, equipped with a full-range loudspeaker and subwoofer per side, no real system processing unit, a small analog desk, a few channels of compression, and one FX unit. The band used a small drum kit, bass, guitar and a keyboard player – alongside the lead vocal – and all had stage wedges for monitoring.
Immediately upon entering the room, I knew it would be a struggle.
Tile floor, lots of glass, parallel walls – the works. The noise level from the crowd was already pretty high; talking in acoustically untreated spaces creates reflections that interfere with communication, so people tend to raise their voices. Louder signals create more prominent reflections, which mask the conversation even more and the vicious circle begins spinning.
A loud crowd could indicate a bachelor/bachelorette party, the presence of tourists from countries where everybody seems to be partially deaf, and/or bad acoustics in the venue.
After setting up the loudspeakers, running the cables, placing the mic stands, fitting in the wedges on stage and cabling all of the inserts, I was ready to finally start shaping the sound – only to realize from the first snare hit that there was no way I could possibly get anything remotely that loud from the PA. All of the tools I’d just set up were largely useless – my “powers” had been taken away.
Thus began the “band dance” of negotiating with the performers about how much volume they could have on stage and what could be done to reduce it to a level that would be at least bearable, if not manageable. I tried repositioning the loudspeakers, the band, the microphones, when all I really want to do was reposition myself the heck out of there.
And then the lead vocalist showed up with a just-bought condenser mic that she had to use now, because it was really expensive. There would be no talk of maybe, possibly exchanging it for the dynamic mic that I’d brought. All in all, the situation was a perfect blend of factors that promised a fun night for all.
The gig went as expected, starting bad and steadily progressing to worse. I felt as though I aged a decade in those two hours, pulling out every trick in my book just to keep feedback at a minimum and make some sense of levels – and failing miserably. I was a failure, defeated, not able to deliver an enjoyable experience for the client or for the crowd.
One positive note is that the band was really understanding. As long-time musicians, they’d seen it all, and they actually commended my efforts and even booked me for a subsequent gig. But to this day, every time I have a bad show, I remember that gig and in particular that feeling of utter hopelessness.
Still, no matter how horrible that show was, I wouldn’t go back to erase it. It made me appreciate all of the good shows a whole lot more. Not only that, it taught me a great deal: how to quickly judge the sonic characteristics of a venue, how to talk to musicians in stressful situations, and even more significantly, how to deal with my own frustrations.
The most valuable lesson came in the form of added experience and confidence – if I survived that show, I could survive almost anything. Later I realized that no show is a bust if you’re able to learn from it and grow as an audio professional and as a person. The worst experiences are the ones that make us dig deeper, read more, ask questions, do our research, train harder – anything necessary in order to not feel so helpless ever again.
Go ahead, try it out. When you finish a show that was just “blah” (I still encounter at least one a year), make a list of three things that you could have done better or learned how to do. It might be surprising just how much knowledge comes from lousy situations that need to be resolved.
Just try not to make it a primary learning process. We can still grow without having our hopes and dreams smashed to pieces on a regular basis – it might take longer, but we’re also much, much happier.