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.