Let me start off by saying I’m a musician. I’ve played over 600 shows around the world.
A couple nights ago I went to the legendary Sunset Strip rock club, The Viper Room, for a radio station curated showcase of a few Australian bands. I’ve been to the Viper Room a few times over the years to see friends’ bands play.
Of the maybe four shows I’ve attended at the Viper Room, none of them have sounded very good. The mix is always awful.
I excused these poor mixes to the sound guy just not giving a fuck. Because, there were “shitty local bands” performing. Not to say my friends’ bands are shitty (they aren’t), but I figured that’s what the sound engineer probably assumed when the night began (more on this later).
But this night, these were internationally touring bands playing a showcase put on by a well respected radio station to a packed house. If there was one time to give a fuck it would have been now.
But, once again, same shitty mix.
The lead singer, songwriter and guitar player fronted a band of local hired guns. He frequently took guitar solos. 9 times out of 10 they were drowned deep in the mix. Completely inaudible. Very often throughout the set people looked up at the sound booth to see who was up there and what the fuck he was doing. Did he not see that the lead singer/guitarist was taking a solo? Turn it up! He was busy working the light show, or most of the time, no where to be seen.
But beside the fact that he missed nearly every solo, the vocals were piercing. High mids assaulted the ears of everyone unfortunate enough to forget their earplugs. The snare was buried, but oddly the cymbals were thrashing through. The keys, on a B3 setting meant to fill space, were louder than the lead guitar’s solo. The bass was nice and heavy which revealed the powerful subs in the room.
The band did not suck. I was informed that this singer’s hired guns regularly tour with superstar artists.
The sound guy sucked. Plain and simple.
It’s unfortunate that a rock club as legendary as the Viper Room has fallen to such pathetic lows. Because the “standard deal” for any Viper Room show is “pay to play,” the majority of the acts who play the room do suck. There’s no curation or reputation that goes into booking anymore. It’s whoever is willing to take the shitty, lopsided deal to make the Promoters the most amount of money.
And because of this, sound guys get burnt out dealing with shitty local bands night after night. They give up on doing a decent job. Or they have lost their hearing after all of these years.
If venues do not take care of the most important element of their club, THE SOUND, then they will lose their audience. Permanently.
Venues wonder why they can’t get return visitors. It’s not that the bands you book don’t bring anyone, it’s because your club isn’t providing an enjoyable experience. Bands shouldn’t have to hire their own sound engineer to come in and mix their set at a 300 cap venue. The house guy or gal should be top notch. Especially for well respected clubs, these engineers should be the best in the biz.
I hear so often from (non-musician) friends, “I don’t like live music.” Well, the reason they don’t like live music is because far too often they attend smaller shows and have horrible experiences. They don’t know why, but most likely it’s because the sound is awful. They wouldn’t be able to pin point why it doesn’t sound good, and most would, unfortunately, blame it on the band.
But I know better.
I’ve experienced this over and over again from rock clubs around the country: sound guys who crank the volume SO LOUD it’s completely deafening. Who is this fun for? I’m no grandpa. I’m 29. Typically the highs are so piercingly harsh that the only explanation is the sound guy has lost all of those frequencies in his hearing from years of cranking it up.
I must contrast this with a show I saw this past Sunday at the Bootleg Theater in Echo Park, mixed by Sir Eric Brown. One of the best live mixes I have heard in a long time. The sound booth is located on the side of the room, up top near the ceiling (like the Viper room). However, unlike the Viper Room, Eric Brown at the Bootleg had a digital mixing board he controlled from his iPad and walked to various parts of the room (discretely) throughout the night, mixing. Because it’s impossible to effectively mix from a booth 10 feet above the crowd. I have to give him a public shoutout because this sound engineer was not only talented, but was actually doing the job he was paid to do. And putting some effort into it. Imagine that.
The Hotel Cafe, another favorite spot of mine, always has great sound. They have talented house sound engineers who rotate nights. Special shoutout to Joel Eckels who mixes some of the best sounding shows I’ve heard in that room. Patrons love The Hotel Cafe because they know they will always get a great sounding show. They book top notch bands (all curated by the owner, Marko), pay them a very competitive rate, and hire excellent engineers.
Venues need to step up. Get some musician ears in there to listen to your house sound engineers’ mixes. Get some honest feedback from your patrons. Most average music fans don’t know why they don’t like the sound, but if the band is great, then it’s either the fault of the sound guy or the house system.
The most frustrating thing as a musician is spending hours and hours rehearsing and getting my set to sound just right, for it to be mangled and trashed coming out of the house speakers because the sound guy just doesn’t give a fuck.
Home page photo by Justin Higuchi and used with the Creative Commons License.
Ari Herstand is a Los Angeles based singer/songwriter and the creator of the music business advice blog, Ari’s Take. Listen to his new album, Brave Enough, on Spotify or download it on BandCamp. Follow him on Twitter: @aristake