Dear Mother Maple: brrrfl whmf da shndt?

Dear Mother Maple:

Mother MapleWho are these people who run the sound at our clubs and do they ever listen to the artists they are running the PA for? I am tired of trying to pick out musical details and lyrics at most of the shows I go to. Last week I showed up for what promised to be a great gig and left after the 3rd number because the sound was so muddy. This happens way so often that I question my own hearing but there are a few people who can get wonderful sound so it’s not me.

Why don’t people take pride in their work?

Tired of straining.

This goes a bit beyond Mother’s ken, Tired. When I was spending more time on stage, the sound technician mostly ensured there weren’t rips in the megaphone the singer used and kept the cones on my Dobro in good shape. So when I see all this newfangled gear in clubs, like when I saw that devil Fred Eaglesmith at the Bow Valley Music Club a little while ago, it boggles my eyes, let me tell you. And I was at a house concert recently where they used that little Bose system. It might have sounded good, but it just looks dirty to me.

If there’s blame to be laid here, Tired, where should it go? It doesn’t seem quite fair to blame the performers. They’re on stage, and it’s hard to hear them. I wonder if some sound engineers have either lost a little hearing from too many shows, or perhaps they’re not trained in the craft.

Some small venues just may not have access to a professional, and once a show is underway, the man or woman behind the board is overwhelmed (Why AREN’T there more women behind the boards? Now THERE’s a question Mother would like to tackle). But if you’re able to have a quiet word during a break, Tired, and especially if you might be able to offer some help diplomatically, why not reach out?

A wise man once said “Dare to reach out your hand into the darkness, to pull another hand into the light.” I implore you, Tired, to reach out your hand into the muddled bass frequencies and pull another ear out of that spring-reverbed mess. But be nice, and if they reject your help, take it as a lesson learned.

Mother Maple loves your questions. Send them to her at mothermaple@rootsmusic.ca

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  1. avatar
    Jives 6 May, 2011 at 11:58

    The whole hearing loss idea has some merit. I think sometimes the sound techs have a dearth of experience with acoustic performers and don’t realize the audience wants to actually hear the lyrics – not only hear the music.

    I’ve been blessed with competent and dedicated sound men/women and am working diligently to improve my own skills on the board. I have found that approaching the board is only daunting the first few times…
    IMNSHO, it’s preferable to voice your concerns before deciding to leave a show.


  2. avatar
    John Zytaruk 6 May, 2011 at 13:41

    The fact of the matter is that sound is practically an afterthought for so many clubs and presenters-especially in the folk/roots genre. This winter I noticed that a certain festival occurring in a certain big Canadian city was relying on volunteers for sound. I understand there were probably financial motivations behind this but I would consider hiring/paying professional, qualified soundpeople an essential part of a concert series or music festival. You get what you pay for! Twice recently I’ve performed in bars where the bartender was also the person who was supposed to run the board and the sound was as lacking as you’d expect with that kind of arrangement. I can do my own sound if I have to (I did that professionally in television for 12 years) but you can’t beat the joy of wallking into a venue and being greeted by a competent, friendly pro who’s there just to do the sound. Everyone benefits so much-after all isn’t it all about what you’re hearing?

    P.S. Props and shout outs to brilliant soundmen like Frank (Cameron House) and Colin (Tranzac.) They set the example of how things should be.

  3. avatar
    Bill Vollrath 7 May, 2011 at 10:56

    Some want to use all the power they have because it’s there and then it’s too loud. Some don’t have good ears but they love being in charge or the love the technical side…neat cables and all that. Most are volunteers so you can’t say anything. When I go somewhere and the sound is bad I tell the soundman what I’m hearing and let him take it or leave it. When I mix…the sound is awesome! lol Outdoor gigs are hard because a change in the wind will change the sound.

  4. avatar
    Jim Yates 7 May, 2011 at 11:18

    I’ve noticed many sound(wo)men saying,”What do you mean , you want to use a mic for your insrtrument? Why don’t you have a pick-up in it?”
    I guess today’s pick-ups can sound all right, but I have a 20 year old Fishman in my guitar and it just doesn’t sound like an acoustic when it’s plugged in, besides, I like to work the mic. When did it become necessary to have a pick-up in an acoustic instrument?
    Watch some of the old TV shows like Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest and you’l see groups like the New Lost City Ramblers or the Greenbriar Boys playing to a single, 1960s quality mic and you can hear every note.

  5. avatar
    BethSheff 8 May, 2011 at 08:57

    Sometimes the sound guys seem like the proverbial ‘old boys club’ to me. I know a sound person who is exceptional, but happens to be a woman, and she gets overlooked for gigs that our little community uses sound people for.
    I think it is a measure of her brilliance however – you forget she’s there and that the sound is being amplified.
    That’s what I’m looking for in a sound technician – regardless of their gender or education.

  6. avatar
    Kev Corbett 9 May, 2011 at 17:18

    It’s very much a moving target, the perfect sound, and there really isn’t an answer to your question, because every guitar-artist-room-tech combination is different. Some people have muddy guitars (there’s one very popular model I’m thinking of), old strings, bad pickups, bad mic technique, unimpressive projection, crowds too big and/or chatty to fight, an uninterested sound dude, a blown tweeter in the front PA, etc. So many variables in chemistry. Think about it, but don’t overthink. Good sound is a collectively acquired skill, and should be appreciated in a more-than-the-sum-of-it’s-parts way. Don’t let it ruin your night.

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