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What makes great sound?

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Guy Johnson:
I feel like writing a few words about the perception of good live sound, from the perspective of live music. So here they are ...

We can all argue about what constitutes ‘good sound’ until the cows come home — but for now I we can all think of many examples of great-sounding recordings — even when listening with bad MP3 players.

So, what makes live music sound good, bad or indifferent?
I’m talking about peoples’ perception, rather than the immediately obvious things such as engineering, musicians, equipment, acoustics and the like.

I write this with more than a little bafflement as to what audiences, musicians and promoters actually want . And how this all meshes with what I feel strongly about: engineering good sound. Good sound without being too loud or too quiet, and with the right amount of dynamics for any particular type of music. It can be sweet and ‘nice’ or grungy. It can be powerful, or ethereal. But it has to be GOOD!

Loud genres of music featuring amplifiers and close-miked drums are a learned sound and are easily recognised, so it could be argued that whatever sounds the band and engineer produce are "right" ... to a certain extent. But we still recognise good rock sounds, even though there is this fergle-factor with rock etc.
However, when it comes to acoustic music such as folk, some jazz, classical and so forth, the sound has to be faithful to the acoustic sounds (except for special effect sounds and samples). So there is less room for error and interpretation if one is going to reproduce realistic and exciting sounds from acoustic musicians.

The General Public are customers of ours, and most of them would say they wouldn’t know great, from merely ‘ok’ sound. But ... people know these sounds from good recordings, so they should know what's what at gigs, surely?

Now, to the nub of this post. My love of acoustic music. Which ought, I think, to sound like it is, as explained above.

So I make it sound real, and maybe a little louder than it would be at a few feet from the music — after all everyone turns up their favourite tracks at home.

So then, why do people complain that acoustic-type music is ‘too quiet’ (when it’s not stupidly loud) but tend not to complain when it sounds like a pile of poo, but is distorted and / or too loud?
(Sometimes of course it’s a bit poo due to factors beyond our control!).
And why is it that almost all of the "it's too quiet" whiners are the back-of-the-gig lurkers who won't go forward to where the level's OK? Where the sound is (usually) the best.

It’s disheartening to get such reactions and plain indifference. If you go out to eat, and the food's bad at a restaurant, you don't go there again. But it seems that people will keep using venues with poor sound without turning a hair! Weird.

And then there's those that save a small amount of money and go with a cheaper company or engineer to get less good sounds, to no ill-effect that I can see from the punter's point of view: they seem happy enough!
I suppose the only thing to do is keep on not compromising one's art, if that doesn't sound too pompous ...

Anyway. There we are! Is there any point to this letter? Perhaps not, but I thought I'd put down some thoughts here. Having said all that I still like engineering live, and recording, as well.  ... Mostly ...

Enjoy the silly poll  

Dick Rees:
Great sound is simply an adjunct of making the show/event a success.  There are so many other facets to least at the basic level where I operate.  That's why it says "Sound and Production Services" on my business card rather than "Sound".  

Just as an example:

How many times do you become de facto stage manager on gigs?  How often do you have to advance the gig, suss out power, correct any glaring omissions in the support scheme?

For me it's "making great service".  Sound is a part of that.  Why bother?  Because I care and it keeps me in business.

Scott Helmke (Scodiddly):
I was a little disappointed that your poll didn't seem to fit your title.  I don't really worry too much about whether the audience noticed great sound (really if they notice the sound then I screwed up somehow).

I bother with trying to make shows sound better because that's what I like doing.  All sorts of really interesting challenges.

Guy Johnson:
Admittedly it's a silly poll. I should have changed the thread's title, but was doing a conversation with someone at the same time!

Yes, it's all about taking care, and some peeps will notice, and most will appreciate the music all the more, even if they're not sure why.

:edit: OK, made a quick change to the topic subject. A bit better-er.

Go on, vote for my foxy lady.

john abney:
What makes great sound?

Great songs and courage.

Great songs? That's entirely up to the band.

Courage? That's partly up to the sound crew. Examples of sound-crew courage could be as simple as asking the rest of the players to stop playing during one member's sound check.

But what about the fading diva who can no longer hit the high notes of the melody on her 20 year old hit? And a member of her entourage is standing over your shoulder glaring whenever the fading diva's now rather dull harmony part is not 10 dB louder than every other vocal? And you can hear the crowd starting to sing along to the lead melody, but stopping because the lead melody is buried in the mix?

The courage to push for greatness can be costly. Perhaps that's why it's rare.




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