It can’t sound like that.

post by Michael Lagocki

It’s pretty rare you’ll see anything resembling a complaint on this blog. We use it for positive communication, mostly to create awareness about local art. But I had an experience at a concert last night that touched a nerve on something that’s been on my radar for a bit. I also think it has relevance for local musicians. So like Lauryn says, I’m going to try to “develop a negative into a positive”.

We saw Lauryn Hill at House of Blues last night. I’ve always loved her work, and while these days 90% of the music that gets me out to venues is local, I couldn’t resist going to see L.

Problem# 1 was the lateness. Doors opened at 8pm. Lauryn took stage around 11:15. I would’ve really appreciated a little more heads up on that. It was standing room general admission, so by the time she was seen, we’d been on our feet three hours. I almost skipped writing about that, because it’s not my main point – except that I’ve been seeing it with local acts lately too, especially in local hip hop. If you tell your fans to come see you at 10pm, and you take stage at 1am, you’ve screwed your fans. Really. People got stuff to do y’all. And they balance their energy for when they think they’ll need it.

Okay (see, bitching is contagious- don’t do it).

What was I really writing about? Oh yeah, sound. So, Lauryn tours with a huge band now. 4 back up singers, multiple guitars, brass, keys, percussion. Seems cool, right? Coulda been. If not for the sound.

The entire concert had that muffled sound of listening to loud music through a pillow held over your ears. You know that low hum that sometimes precedes the sharp sound of feedback? That “Charlie Brown teacher waa-waa-waa” sound? That’s pretty much what everything sounded like all night. And Lauryn was mixed lower than everything else.

You could hear her, but if you didn’t know every word to whatever song she was playing there was no way you were gonna figure them out on your own. I don’t think one full line of hers was clearly heard in that show, certainly not in a way you could make out the lyrics. Muffled. That’s the best word I have to describe it. It sounded like a muffled soup of sound.

I should say, this might not be the venue’s fault. Her opening act (a brass band from New Orleans) joked that they’d been in the building ten minutes before taking stage. I’m not sure what the sound crew’s supposed to do with that. But the crew did spend a while on L’s set up, checking mics and such, so who knows. I’m not a sound person, or even a musician, so I can’t articulate specifics. Our music director DebDriscoll thought it was Lauryn’s microphone that was the problem, that they gave her a regular vocal mic instead of a dynamic one. I don’t even know what that means.

What I do know is Lauryn Hill was playing a set list I would’ve flipped out to hear. She started with Everything Is Everything, and went right into You Just Lost One. Classics. She was feeling it. The crowd was not. We couldn’t hear her well enough to feel it. We left the show before it was over. It was far too late and every song was a disappointment because we knew she was performing well but it wasn’t getting to us.

Look… musicians… it’s important. It’s really important. Why did you bother writing lyrics in the first place? What is the point of really working on phrasing, cadence and words if none of that is going to get to the audience? I see it all the time at local shows too. I’ve seen my favorite local musicians sound brilliant and I’ve seen the same people sound like… well, like Lauryn Hill did last night.

Get it right. Sound technicians are a huge part of your show. Especially if you’ve got a lot of music on stage. If it’s anything other than just you and a guitar, the sound needs to be worked, massaged, blessed, adjusted, corrected, and loved until it is right. This is not an afterthought.

Music may be an art, but sound is a science. Get it right. Work with venues who have good sound, and much more importantly good sound people. And show up early enough that you can get a proper sound check. Know your sound back and forth. This is too important to overlook. If it matters that you play the right notes or that you sing the words in the proper order, than this matters just as much. Because if it can’t be heard, none of that other stuff does matter.

If you have a band in this city, and you’re serious about it, let me ask you this… do you know who the best sound people are here in Dallas? The ones who work the local clubs? You should probably know that.

We need to do better.

Sigh. I can’t believe I left a Lauryn Hill show while she was on stage. And at $50+ per ticket, it was a pretty expensive walk out for the three of us as well.

I promise you, it only takes one experience like that for an audience to rethink going to see that act again.


14 Responses to “It can’t sound like that.”

  1. Sorry you did not have a good experience.

  2. The basic idea is.. respect your audience… they are just as important as you are, the artist. This is also a good reminder that when we see a great event.. it’s not just the people up front who made it happen.

  3. I was at the concert last night as well. I got earplugs by the 3rd song because my eardrums hurt from the noise. I left early once I realized I wasn’t paying attention to the show any longer.

    I will never regret supporting a living legend, but I hope I get another chance to see L. Hill under better conditions.

  4. i can totally UNDERSTAND this!!!!!!!!! I have been in places where sound just didn’t come out right…and you are left wondering uh…what happened?

    Take care in the sounds musicians, it does make a difference! šŸ™‚

  5. Man…that sucks! I’ve met some sound engineers at HOB while playing shows and they have seemed very competent. The big shows I’ve seen there in the past were good too. I have no idea what happened here. Sometimes big acts bring in their own engineers for recording or for the front-of-the-house…maybe that was an issue.

    As for local hip-hop shows go… They’re usually at small bars and clubs, so doors open at 9 or 10. The groups start when the promoter says or when people show up…in Dallas that tends to be 12PM-1AM…crazy…I know. So, I tend not to point fingers at the artists.

  6. Glad to see this got some debate going. Thanks to all who responded.

    Sean, you make a good point about not pointing fingers at the artists, but ultimately a performer does have to grab the reins on their own presentation.

    If a gallery lights a painting of mine wrong, that could be something out of my control… but if my paintings are consistently lit improperly, somewhere I’ve got to step in and correct things.

    I think shows starting really late has hurt, not helped local hip hop. The audience that will wait until 1am to see a show start is going to be unbalanced toward A) very young people and B) very drunk people. That’s not gonna help artists or the scene grow much.

    All that said, you’re more of an insider on this one and I respect your knowledge. But I also know I’d be paying at the doors to more shows if I could count on the artists I see starting on time and having good sound.


  7. It always upsets me to see such potential wasted. A great performer, in a great venue, with a great sound system should only result in a great experience.

    When we are dealing with the local / underground scene, many times we are missing one or two of those crucial ingredients (performer, venue, sound system) or even all three. Though volumes can be said about making the most of what you have. But there is just no excuse otherwise.

    And I agree with you – the performer needs to be active more aspects of their performance than just writing songs and showing up to the club 10 minutes before they go on – your lack of caring is showing, and yet you wonder why it’s so hard to build a loyal fan base.

  8. Some of us are more professional than the so-called professionals. I personally show up for shows before the promoter or sound man most times. If i’m not there before them it is because they were there at least 2 hours before the show.

    The problem lies in laziness on both sides. Many times a sound man has said to me, “we’ll get it set on your first song” and that is for.the headliner. Musicians let that fly cause they don’t want to be a dick. I am a dick. You will sound check me or I won’t take the stage.

    I know how I am supposed to sound, but most of the personnell in the clubs don’t. sometimes you have to massage the sound. Sometimes you have to stomp your feet and be a dick.

  9. fan of lh Says:

    Well i knew that although the doors opened at 8, not to expect
    lauryn until 1030 or 11. Every show has been the same, and it was mentioned on the livenation site. Once i got there, i asked the security guard what time she was goin on and once he told me her set starts at 1030, i proceeded to get some gub from the restuarant.
    Sound was shitty but we still enjoyed the show. Lauryn was singon

  10. fan of lh Says:

    All the songs appeared to be on speed but it was still a decent show. I did wonder if they had sound check

  11. You know my friend Mario said the same thing about the speed of the songs. That was actually his chief complaint about the show.

    I don’t even think I got to notice that, but I see where y’all were coming from. Had they sounded right, I think I would’ve been so into the songs she chose, that I would’ve been okay with the arrangements.

    I didn’t mention in the article, but she covered those two Bob Marley songs as well. Those sounded better because of the pace, but still not clear.


  12. We saw Patty Griffin at HOB and it was great but that style music is different than LH. We were at a another much anticipated show at a local big venue and the sound man was too busy trying to impress a lady friend to watch and listen. Maddening. Could of also been equipment issues like an amplifier gone out. Whatever the reason, the economy makes fans have to pick and choose the shows you go to these days. Bad sound should not be an issue for long at a show.

  13. […] sound, Colin Roy (who runs audio at The Green Elephant). Colin and I have spoken a lot about what shows should sound like, and how to balance performers vs. instruments, being able to hear lyrics from live singers with […]

  14. People with money are generally cheap when it comes to entertainment. Thats why they put venues in buildings of the worst shape possible for audio. few venues are purpose built. Then the venue rents beat-up equipment If the sound guy gets paid at all, its a starvation wage. I have never met a good sound guy on a lucrative tour who was a happy person. The bands are paid poorly, if at all, so they work other jobs and often don’t show up to sound check. Also their management schedules life-threateningly long drives for the bus driver. No wonder bands are late. Even with a competent sound engineer and a decent system, the equipment brought by each band is unique, and mostly factors out of the engineer’s control are to blame. This is capitalism at its best. And its not going to change. I see concerts very selectively, and actually prefer purchasing a good live DVD to watch while wearing a good pair of headphones. There are a few good venues in the country, and even those have off nights.

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