PRINCESS THEATRE - Raising the Curtain: Acoustics And The Princess Theatre

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Acoustics And The Princess Theatre

The Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary defines acoustics as:

noun plural \ə-ˈküs-tiks\ :the qualities of a room (such as its shape or size) that make it easy or difficult for people inside to hear sounds clearly: acoustic qualities.

Unfortunately, bands, old established bands, and upstart bands, playing the Princess have long disregarded and ignored the "acoustics" of the theater.  The Princess was built in 1939, after the last total destructive fire.  A time when theater builders knew a little about sound and how it travels.
Even the ancients knew that sound travels in round waves, spreading out until it either dies away or hits something and bounces back toward the source.  The "bounce back" enhances the sound on it's way back to source.

In the early years of theatre, there were no microphones to amplify the players' voices.  Actors and singers had to either project their voices or rely on help from the building's design.  Luckily for the performers coming to the Princess, the building is superbly built for that very purpose.  Unfortunately, outside the one or two theatrical shows we've had, no one, or no band has yet capitalized on our Princess' acoustic design!

Acoustics allow the audience to hear the instruments and the voices just as they are; not amplified into distorted muddy noise!  The sound should leave the stage and fan out in a wave, bounce off the hard plaster in the rear of the building, and back toward the stage.  The walls should be of such material as to soften the waves preventing an echo.
That all works fine for players and dances.  But what about concerts...modern day concerts?

It takes takes a little more prep for that kind of electric driven sound.
Thus far, on stage at the Princess, are groups with "sound men", two of them in most cases, that think louder is better, when in fact it's killing their sound and appeal to the intended audience.  We keep telling them to turn it down, but they want it louder, as if that makes them sound better.

The result is that loud music (rather sound) is all that is heard and the artists are muffled somewhere under all that noise and cannot be understood; unless they know the words, causing them to perceive that the lyrics were heard and understood.

I went to the Tennessee Theatre once, and, yes, all theaters have the same issue these days, specifically to hear Chris Robinson's lyrics to all the Black Crowes songs.  I was so disappointed when I could not make out one single word he screamed; trying to get above the noise I suppose!

"It was too loud!"

"Can't they turn it down some?"

These have been the common, and only complaints I've heard from Princess goers.

The words of Muse Watson, from some almost 10 years ago, ring in my head every time I hear a band kick off on "11" (for those of you that might be "This Is Spinal Tap" fans), or see someone stuffing tissue into their ears at a concert, "I've been on many stages, but the Princess has the best acoustics anywhere!"

My theory, make it yours (to borrow a phrase from Phil Williams), is that musicians and sound men (people) are nearly deaf!
Hearing loss by members of bands begins at the high end, accounting for the extremely hot treble at many concerts. Their sound is simply on the edge of feeding back because they are maxing out volume!

They can't hear the music or the on-stage monitors.

These monitors are called the "foldback" monitors or system.
Without a foldback system, the sound that onstage performers would hear from front of house would be the reverberated reflections bouncing from the rear wall of the venue. The naturally reflected sound is delayed and distorted, which could, for example, cause the singer to sing out of time with the band.  A separate mixed signal is often routed to the foldback speakers, because the performers may also need to hear a mix without electronic effects such as echo and reverb (this is called a "dry mix") to stay in time and in tune with each other. In situations with poor or absent foldback mixes, vocalists may end up singing off-tune or out of time with the band.
For live sound reproduction during popular music concerts there are typically two complete loudspeaker systems: the "main" system and the "monitor" system. Each system consists of a mixing board, sound processing equipment, amplifiers, and speakers. The two systems usually share microphones and direct inputs using a splitter microphone snake.

The stage monitors may be part of the problem as well.  More technically progressive bands and artists insist on "ear bud" or "in-the-ear" technology.  Those put the sound right in the artist's ear saving the audience from possibly enduring the issue with "I can't hear my monitor, turn it up!"

So why have sound checks?  It's supposed to be to get the sound perfect before the concert begins.  Right?

The problem is that a venue sounds completely different when empty (when the sound check occurs) than it sounds when full.  So just trying to figure out what sounds good, let alone what sounds good all over the place, is pretty difficult. 

The second problem is, the majority of rock culture is "louder is better".  This problem is the hardest to overcome.  The rock culture has spilled over into the "country" realm, so now every group wants to sound loud.

Sadly, country music should fight this, because country music is all about the lyrics.  If you can't hear the sad, beer drinking, pickup truck driving, dog dying, my girl left me lyrics, then you've lost the whole point of the song in the first place!

True, rock is more about the music, but a good music lyric should never be wasted on an audience.  It should ride above the lead lick, not under it!

After all, I can turn my stereo up to "10" and still hear the lyrics at home!  Why is that?  It's because it's mixed that way...you should never lose an artist's voice in the sound mix!

So why don't artists fight harder to be heard?

It's because they hear themselves in the stage monitor or through their in-the-ear foldback device.  They don't know that granny, sitting out there in the dark, with tissue hanging out of her ears, can't hear anything but the bass thumping her chest, and the lead guitar flapping the legs of her pantsuit, and trying to tear through the tissue paper! 

Management, and/or producers of the event, need to sit down with bands and talk about their sound extensively.  Sadly this is rarely done anywhere.
  
If not, then as soon as the band cranks it to the nine's, the vocalist will look at you and say "I need more voice in the monitors!"  It shouldn't happen!   They will get angry when they don't get it!  But, all that needs to be done is to oblige them and show them the inevitable screeeeeeeetch!  Oh, feedback!  Told you that you were on the edge out here!

I've written this to future groups and artists coming to the Princess, what about a good ol' acoustic set?  Seriously, if not that, turn it down so we can hear you out here!  You don't need all that sound and equipment at the Princess.  We could hear you quite well in fact!

If we don't get it, more of us need to shout out "turn it down", and keep interrupting them until they get it right.  We don't want our chest thumped, or out pant legs to blow in the wind, UNLESS, we can understand the lead singer!

The Princess Theatre has the best acoustics anywhere!  We've been told that, and we need to pass it on to those performers coming to entertain us, or they're coming for nothing!

Come on event producers, and Princess management, listen up!  Start selling our "acoustics", and asking for acoustic performances!  Or, just don't be afraid to tell them to turn it down!

Here are some basic rules to consider in contract agreements:

1. The sound is for the audience not the band.

2. The sound on stage will feel quiet to the band because it is always louder out front.


3. Other than kick drum most small to medium sized clubs require no drum micing.


4. If you must be loud you do not get stage monitors; period!  If the band exceeds a reasonable volume feedback is unavoidable in vocal monitors and they become a hazard instead of a help.


5. If a band has agreed that they are running a vocal P.A. only, they need to trust the house judgment on volume.


6. The bands volume is based on the vocalists volume; period!  Set up the vocal first then you have a base line volume to measure the rest of the sound levels on.


Okay, I'm off my soapbox now!

3 comments:

Paul Mashburn said...

Here's a comment from Jimbo Duncan from our Facebook page (Friends of the Princess Theatre):

Can you imagine how 3 or 4 guitars and singers would sound without any mikes. Like songwriters night at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. Paul Mashburn, Most of the problems with miking everthing is you have to bring everything up to the level of the drums, a Plexiglass baffle will help out a lot. I think I have only seen one at the Princess. You are at the mercy of how hard the drummer plays. You are right about the acoustics of the Princess. The 'house pa system ' is more than adequate to handle any act that comes to the Princess. Using it exlusive would give you much more control over the final product. Acoustic acts are what the Princess could really be known for. Think about how Crosby Stills and Nash would sound. It is a path that has been taken yet, but I would surely like to see it explored.

Well, Jimbo, me too!

Paul Mashburn said...

Lon Bird commented on Facebook: I could not agree more! I have worked sound for R&R, Country, Jazz, and Choir groups. The singers want to be heard clearly and the band wants to be loud. Each house sounds different so the entertainers need to trust the house sound guy.

Paul Mashburn said...

As a follow up, Jimbo wants to add:

Jimbo Duncan: I would like to add to my comment. Live Music is going to be loud. That is the nature of the beast, high energy music, whatever type is going to be too loud for some people.

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