A Sound Conversation--World Voice Day at Citytech April 16th

The National Association of Teachers of Singing and the Entertainment Technology Department of NYC College of Technology (City Tech--my department) are presenting a very interesting workshop next Friday, and I am one of the presenters.


April 16th, 2010, 1:00 – 5:00 pm

Voorhees Hall, 186 Jay Street, Brooklyn

From the NATS website (directions there too):

Vocal and audio professionals meet to discuss the complexities and demands of their respective fields.  Collaboration between these two disciplines is extremely important to achieve a great result in performance, and this workshop seeks to bring the two disciplines together.

Topics include:

  • How vocal and sound professionals can communicate to serve the needs of the production
  • There is no “Perfect” sound
  • How does live sound happen?
  • How is the singing voice produced?
  • Common sound and vocal issues and how to address them
  • Panel discussion with top tier industry experts from both professions

Panelists/ presenters scheduled to appear:

  • Dr. Jeanne Goffi-Fynn, Director, Doctoral Cohort Program, Teachers College, Columbia University
  • Jan Horvath, Adjunct Faculty, CAP 21 Broadway and Off Broadway Performer
  • John Huntington, Professor of Sound and Show Control, NYC College of Technology
  • Abe Jacob, The “Godfather” of Theatre Sound Currently at New York City Opera
  • Andrew Keister, Broadway Sound Designer
  • Gary Mauer, Broadway and National tour Performer
  • Dr. Pamelia Phillips,Professional Program Director, CAP21  
  • Michael Rider, Adjunct Music Theater Voice Faculty, Montclair State University Adjunct Faculty, CAP 21
  • Dr. David B. Smith, Chair, Entertainment Technology, NYC College of Technology
  • Philip “PJ” Volpe, Head of Sound, Metropolitan Opera


Note: (Please pardon any terse postings over the next week or so--home recovering from surgery and it's tedious to type)

Good Live Sound Starts With Mixtape

Live sound sucks so often that it's one of my pet peeves. And so, when I started this blog about a year and a half ago, I wrote up my thoughts on the subject, and ended up taking a lot of internet heat for the postings. But after all the noise, few actually disagreed with my premise, and no one seriously challenged my basic, non-technical criteria for judging whether or not a sound system is "good".  And I was thinking about this topic on Saturday night at the Trash Bar in Williamsburg, where I went to see my friend Josh Weisberg's band.

Before Josh played was a band I've never heard before: Mixtape.

(Sorry, crappy camera phone picture)

Why am I writing about them here?  Because not only did I really love their music and their show, but they also nailed the live sound. The Trash Bar sound engineer deserves credit, of course, but in a small venue like this, with so much of the sound emanating directly from the stage, the credit must be shared with the talented band. 

As I wrote in my "sucks" series, the key to good sound in small venues is a talented drummer, and Mixtape has a great one: Ismail Lawal. Why does good sound in a small venue start with the drummer?  Call it drummer escalation. If the drummer bashes away in a small venue, he can produce an enormous amount of acoustic sound, which travels directly to the audience. And then, of course, to try and get some balance, the bass player has to turn up. The guitar player needs to be heard, so ... he turns up even louder. Keyboards often get buried in this situation, and they... (you guessed it) turn up. The poor sound engineer, trying to make the vocals heard, can only do one thing: turn up the vocals (because, unfortunately, he doesn't have a "turn the drummer down" fader). With this mess, no one on stage can hear anything, and, so, they ask the monitor engineer to turn up their monitors (read more on monitors  here) to the hairy edge of feedback.  Long before that point, I've already reached for my earplugs. And often, in these situations, the band actually sounds better with (good) earplugs, since the nasty noise created by the escalation is toned down, allowing the important parts of the music to become clear. 

I would argue that earplugs should never be necessary at any show, and thankfully, I didn't need my earplugs for Mixtape's set on Saturday, because Mr. Lawal is a quite talented drummer. He was able play in control, and, the rest of the talented band also showed restraint.  And so, I was able to hear Craig Hartley's songs (and keyboard playing), while still being able to clearly hear Jacob Cohen's bass and Eli Friedmann's guitar. So far, the whole show has met three of my four criteria for good sound (as detailed in my Concert Goers' Bill of Rights):

  1. You should be able to understand the words.
  2. You should be able to clearly hear every instrument/sound source on stage.
  3. You should not have to endure painful levels or have your hearing damaged.
  4. You should get decent sound no matter where you are sitting/standing.

And for number 1 above?  Enter Karlie Bruce. The talented Ms. Bruce is one of the few vocalists I've seen who treats her microphone as an instrument. She holds it correctly (something few rappers ever do, but that's a subject for another entry), and also uses it to help control her own volume (perhaps a bit too much, but that's a minor quibble).  And, she has a fantastic voice.


And so, not only was I able to enjoy the band's music and Ms. Bruce's excellent singing earplug-free, but another benefit of talented musicians showing some restraint: extended dynamic range.  When everything's cranked to 11, there's no room for dynamic (volume) subtlety: everything is just flat out loud, or the band is not playing.  For a band like Mixtape, though, because they are playing in control from the start, they can actually get loud when they want and use volume change as compositional tool.

Mixtape has a couple gigs coming up in September, and I hope to see them again, and, I hope, enjoy yet another earplug-free demonstration of great songwriting and fine musicianship.

Seeing Sound Waves

I noticed something interesting during Garth Brooks' performance at the pre-inauguration concert on Sunday: I could actually see the sound waves. No, I wasn't hallucinating. To see the sound for yourself, check out this little video I made:

Note: Video quality updated October 11, 2010

What does this have to do with sound systems or entertainment technology? Many people don't realize that sound, which travels only about 1,130 feet per second (depending on the temperature), actually travels way, way slower than light, which travels at roughly 186,000 miles per second. This accounts for why when you see a lightning flash, you generally hear the thunderclap seconds later.

And so, when we have a sound system where we want people to hear some distance away from the stage, sound system engineers have to take this into account. Speakers at a distance from the stage (like at the concert pictured in the video) must be intentionally delayed to get them to line up in time with the sound emanating from the stage.  This happens because the electrons in the cables transfer the audio signal out to the delay speaker positions effectively, for our purposes, "instantly", while the sound waves, vibrating air molecules, can take many seconds to travel.  And if the "delay" speakers, remote from the stage, are not aligned in time (even milliseconds matter), the audience will hear either destructive interference called "comb filtering", or perceive an echo. (Interestingly, from what I saw on screen, it appears that the large video displays on the mall were actually delayed to match the slowness of the sound.)

Keep all this in mind the next time you are at a large concert!

If you liked this entry, please check out the rest of my blog...

is it common for your ears to ring for more than three days after a concert

My web hosting service (Squarespace) tracks queries that lead to this website, and I like to read them to see how people find the site (knowing people are reading this stuff keeps me going!)  Here's one of the sadder ones I've seen, "is it common for your ears to ring for more than three days after a concert?" Whoever searched this found my "concert goers bill of rights", which I wish we didn't need. 

And, of course, while the answer is it may be common for your ears to ring after a concert, it certainly should not be.  This poor concert goer may now have tinnitus, thanks to some moronic band and irresponsible promoters.

Metallica too loud?

OK, it's for a recording, but I never thought I would read these sentences from Brian Hiatt at Rolling Stone:

For the first time ever, Metallica fans are asking the band to turn the volume down

In the case of Metallica, some fans are taking action: 11,000 people have signed a petition asking for a remix and remaster of Death Magnetic

He goes on to explain:
The Metallica dispute is the latest battle in the so-called loudness war, in which bands use dynamic compression — a studio effect that minimizes the difference between loud and soft parts of a song — to make their music louder and louder as they compete for listeners' attention

Here's a pretty good explanation of that issue:

But I mean, in the end, Metallica fans are complaining about distortion?  Maybe there is hope for good sound!