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If concert sound is bad, don’t blame the Sprint Center

Updated: 2008-10-01T15:18:26Z

By TIMOTHY FINN

The Kansas City Star

On Wednesday night, Tina Turner opens her North American tour at the Sprint Center.

If you’re going to the show and it’s your first at the Sprint Center, be warned: Fans have complained about the acoustics.

If the sound is bad, whose fault is it? Fans have blamed the arena, but experts say bad sound falls on the sound engineer.

In the days after the Bruce Springsteen concert in August, fans swamped The Star’s music blog with complaints about the Sprint Center’s acoustics. Some examples:

“When you fork over $100-plus per ticket, you shouldn’t have to suffer through hours of bad audio.”

“The quality of the sound was terrible. First time at the (Sprint Center) and maybe the last.”

“The sound was HORRIBLE. Very disappointed. Even when I knew every word I couldn’t understand one thing he sang.”

However, the sound has been adequate or even good at other shows, like the Police, Tom Petty, Bon Jovi, Brad Paisley and all nine Garth Brooks shows.

Bad sound at a concert is not usually the fault of the venue, several sound engineers told The Star. Good sound, they say, starts with the band and the engineer behind the console.

“With the way systems are designed these days, you shouldn’t have too many bad shows,” said Jeremy Dixon, president of Digital Sound Systems Inc. in Overland Park. “It all starts with the band and the band’s representative in the front of the house.”

“In general, it comes down to how the engineer adapts to the environment,” said Mark Davis of Kansas City, a sound engineer who has toured with scores of bands.

“That can be a challenge when you’re doing clubs or even some theaters that are different from one another. But arena shows are essentially the same from one arena to the next: basically the same PA, same console, same-size room.”

So what explains the difference in sound from, say, the Alicia Keys show to the Police show just a week later in the same place?

Several variables, said Davis and Dixon, from the size and volume of the band’s monitors and the kind of music a band plays to the size of the crowd. And sometimes it comes down to someone — the band or the engineer — having an off night.

Sports first, music second

Neither Dixon nor Davis attended the Springsteen show, but both had theories on why a tour that uses top-of-the-line equipment and hires award-winning engineers might have an off day.

Dixon said: “They have two monitor engineers and they’re both up for engineer of the year in our little world. The system designer, who tweaks the system at every show, is up for system tech of the year. And the front-of-house guy is a huge money guy.

“I didn’t see the Sprint Center show, but I’ve seen several Springsteen shows on this tour. Some have been absolutely awesome. Some have been not as good.”

Because of the size of his band, Springsteen’s tour is a good example of a band posing a challenge for the sound engineer, Dixon said. Springsteen tours with three guitars, a bass, two keyboards, a violin, a saxophone, drums and, at times, four vocalists.

“The stage volume is huge on that show,” he said.

And the sound engineer has to accommodate all that noise in a slightly hostile acoustic environment.

“Sports arenas by design were designed to amplify crowd sounds to make the clapping and cheers louder,” he said. “When you turn a sports venue into a live-music venue, the key is to have enough PA (public address) to get over that sound threshold and then distribute the sound appropriately.

“For large tours, you do that with delays — not just the left and right cluster of speakers but out-fill and back-fill speakers. The objective: Get more sound closer to the audience.”

And when the sound from the stage is louder than normal, that threshold is even higher, requiring more volume from the main PA system.

Not everyone thought the sound was bad. In The Star review, I wrote: “From where I was standing (by the mixing board) the sound was bad for the first several songs — trebly and muddy. It seemed to improve gradually as the show went on.”

Springsteen’s tour has ended and his sound engineers and management could not be reached for this story. But not all in attendance thought the sound was bad.

“Sound in the suites was good — and incredibly loud.”

“The show was amazing and since when do you expect sound at a rock concert to rival your living room?”

Dixon: “Everybody has an opinion, and everybody has different expectations. A lot of people are used to hearing things in small rooms or through their iPods. An arena’s not going to sound like that.”

Theaters

Even in theaters, which are designed for events like concerts and comedy shows, a sound engineer can compromise the sound.

Larry Sells, who owns the 2,000-capacity Uptown Theater, reminds engineers that because of the theater’s design, they can go easy on the volume.

“We tell them to underplay it,” he said. “The place was built with a focus on the acoustics, so that if someone was standing on stage, you could hear the spoken word clearly, whether it was a vaudeville act or a comedian.”

Sells said he gets few complaints about the sound in the Uptown, but when he does, it’s usually about the volume being too loud.

Dixon’s company designed the sound system in the renovated Midland at AMC. The system, he said, was designed in consultation with acoustic design engineers.

But even with a state-of-the-art sound system, things can go awry, especially in a newly renovated theater. An example: the recent Jerry Seinfeld shows at the Midland.

During the first of his two shows, the sound for the opening act, Mark Schiff, was bad. Larry Hovick, the Midland’s general manager, said the cause was simple but unexpected: The microphone was sound-checked for Seinfeld, who holds it about midchest high.

“But (Schiff) used the same mic and he held it … up to his mouth — he was eating it. So he blew the mic away. Everything was fine for the second show.”

“There’s some trial and error here,” Dixon said. “It was our first packed house and our first comedy show. Spoken word is one of the hardest things to get under wraps. If you overpower it, it sounds like hell. If you underpower it, it sounds like hell. You have to find that sweet spot so the audience can understand exactly what they’re saying.”

Sound engineer Paul Stenstrom was in the Uptown recently doing a sound check on the band Hanson.

His take on the theater: “It’s like a lot of other theaters we do, so no big surprises. I don’t like the overhang, obviously, but most theaters have them, so we can work with them.”

He also checked with the tour manager to see how many people were expected that night. The size of the crowd is another variable to consider, he said.

“You can only guess during sound check what the effect will be,” he said, “but having people in the room will affect the sound.”

Sometimes the performer can affect the sound, adversely. Anita Baker recently performed at the Midland, and didn’t want the fill speakers on stage with her monitors.

Fill speakers are small speakers that augment the sound for people sitting so close to the stage that the sound from the PA goes over them.

Hovick said, “We had some complaints from people in the first few rows about the sound volume.”

A sound system is “like a Ferrari: You can’t let a kid drive it,” Dixon said. “A lot of times, with some of these newer rock bands, it’s their buddies who are now, all of a sudden, engineers. But it’s a science, truly.”

And if the band is having an off night?

“We have a saying,” Dixon said. “If it’s not good coming off the stage, it’s not going to sound good when you turn it up louder.”

But Davis added: “A good sound guy can make a bad room sound good and a good room sound great.”

So if you’re not happy with the sound at the Tina Turner or ZZ Top shows this week, don’t be quick to blame the venue. Remember this about sound engineers, Dixon said. “Like everybody, they can have bad days, too, even the good ones.”


Sound advice
To get the best sound at an arena show, sound engineer Mark Davis said, he tries to take a spot where sound from the PA intersects.

“Usually if the soundboard is in the center of the room, that spot is about 30 to 60 feet in front of the soundboard,” he said. “I’ve been to the Sprint Center twice. Both times I sat in Section 100, on the side. From there it was hard to tell what the sound guy was doing. I moved to the floor both times and it sounded much better. On the side, it felt like some low end (bass) was missing.”

And avoid the back wall, he said. “The low end travels farther than high end and it bounces against the wall, which can wash out some of the rest of the sound,” he said. “Along the side walls you can lose some low end and get mostly mids and highs. It’s best to stay in the middle.”

Jeremy Dixon said that seats on either side of the stage ought to be fine.

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