How Sound Men Are Ruining Rock and Roll

Howdy Cats and Kittens,

Jim “Reverend Horton” Heat here. I know that last weeks post was really sour grapes. Sorry. After reading some of the positive things about “My Secret and Possible Free Way to Meet and Pick-up Chicks – Hopefully”, it made me realize that these posts may be more enjoyable to read if I avoided the sour grapes articles altogether. Maybe I should not write the stuff where I pour out my true feelings about a topic or situation, and instead, focus on the funny stuff. However, that would be kind of out-of-whack with the way real life is. Therefore, I guess that I’m apologizing in advance for not trying to be funny all of the time, but, hey, that’s not me. And, as I’ve discussed before, the rants can work pretty well too.

This week’s rant is about how sound men are ruining rock-and-roll (and “live” music in general).

Sound men have taken the chain-saw guitars out of rock-and-roll. But, why?

Answer: The drums. Well, the bass too.

They love to talk about, brag about, and “get” a great drum sound. They all feel that their whole reputation in the sound business is based on that great drum sound that they “get”.

Now, every show that I go to, the sound men (or, ladies too in all fairness) have the drums up so loud that, the chain-saw guitars that should sound like a fast ch-ch-ch-ch-rip-ch-ch-ch, instead sound like a droning mmmmmmm in the background. I watch closely as the guitarist plays powers chords using fast up and down picking and it just sounds like a distant hum. It’s lost in a sea of “are you enjoying what a great drum sound I’m getting?”

By the way, sound persons don’t “get” a drum sound. Drummers “get” a drum sound. I can hear the sound man constantly moving faders. When the guitar solo comes in, the sound man (let’s just say “man” for our purposes here) has to turn up the guitar because if he didn’t, you wouldn’t hear the lead solo at all. However, once he turns up the guitar for the solo. a lot of nuance is still no where near being clear audio.

This is very frustrating for me, being a guitar player. I can’t hear the notes! I can barely make out what he’s playing, but, still, it’s in the background.

Sound men are sometimes like the guy who just put that new sound system in his car. They have to show it off. They have to show the dynamic range by having the kick drum and bass so loud that it completely drowns out the musicians that are playing the so-called “leading” roles.

Not to mention the lead vocal. I often wonder that, if these lead singers knew just how un-intelligible their lyrics were, they would trash way more dressing rooms than they normally trash. I’m mean come on! I think that one reason rock-and-roll died out while country music got stronger is that in rock-and-roll, the lead singer might as well not even be there. In country, the lyrics are understandable. In rock-and-roll, lyrics are thrown out the window in favor of the drums.

OK. I know what some of those sound men are thinking out there. They’re saying to themselves, “Those pounding drums are what rock-and-roll is all about!” Wrong. Let me prove it. Louie Belson was a great drummer. Not rock-and-roll, but a great drummer. He “pounded” the drums. What I think sound men are doing today is making Louie Belson so loud that you can’t hear Jimi Hendrix.

Here’s how they do their afternoon sound check. They start with the most important thing to them. Right – the drums! “Kick drum please.” Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom…you get the picture. Then, they just say, “Snare.” Pop,pop,pop…again, you get the picture. Then it’s the tom-tom’s. Then it’s the cymbals. They all spend by far the most time “tweaking” these things and feeling “professional”.

Then they move to the bass. Then they move to the guitar. Then finally, as if it were an after-thought, they listen to the lead-vocal microphone. By this time, there is really no room in the PA for vocals or guitar.

So…the most important microphone on the stage, the lead vocal mic, gets by far the least amount of time and attention. And, it’s the last to be considered. While the loudest instrument on stage, the drum set, gets turned up even louder!

The public address audio system was invented for the voice. It was necessary in music so you could hear the singer over the drums. Now they’re mis-using it to drown out the vocals all over again. Come on!

Here’s what I’d like sound men to try. Get your drums sound checked first (if you must), then get the bass, guitars, keys and so on. Get the vocals last if you just can’t break with decorum (personally, I think it’s stupid to try to listen to drum mics if the lead vocal mic isn’t already on and turned up to it’s usable volume, but, hey, I’m just a musician). Then, to see just how right I am, get the band to start playing. Once they’re going, turn the drums all the way down. That’s right buddy, out of the mix completely. Then, just listen and watch for a minute. My bet is that in many, many situations you’ll still be able to hear the drums pretty well! You may need to add a little kick drum. But, if you can still hear the drums, they’re probably more audible than the guitar was the way you had it before. And let’s face it, the lead singer and the soloists are the stars of the show – not “your” drum sound.

Slowly bring the drums into the audible range. Remember, it’s the vocal and guitar that should be crankin’.

Now, do the same with the bass. While the whole band is playing, take it out of the mix. Then slowly bring it back to an audible level.

What I tell the sound men who work with me is that their main drum mic is….my lead-vocal mic. You would be surprised at how much drums (cymbals especially) are picked up by the lead-vocal microphone. I know that a lot of sound men think they have a technical solution for this problem. Noise gates, compressor/limiters and stuff like that have their place I guess, but they are no solution. A noise gate on a lead vocal mic means that if the singer backs way off of the mic and let’s out some little yells and “oh yeah’s” and stuff, those things will be “gated”, or, un-hearable. I think it’s those little things are what give a performance soul and excitement.

I really still want the whole band to be nice and loud, but not mixed so the main players are completely covered up. Keep those chain-saws buzzing and enjoy the lyrics. Your drums and bass will still be there and be audible.

Next time you go to hear a band play, listen to see what I mean and tell the sound man about this article. I’m guessing that while you’ll be able to hear every little tap on the drums, you won’t be able the understand the lyrics and the guitar will be a distant, droning mmmmmmmm. All of this is another reason that going to see bands play is hard for me now. If I ever hear a band whose sound man doesn’t do this, I’ll let you know. So far, it’s been years since that happened, so, don’t hold your breath.

Next week, I’m going to talk about how close microphones on all of the drums have changed the way the drums are played. Some drummers are not going to be so happy with me, but, some will love me for saying all of this. Drummers do actually like loud chain-saw guitars and lyrics too!

Jim “Reverend Horton ” Heath

P.S. We’re on tour with Junior Brown right now. He used to not let his drummers use anything but a snare and two brushes (no sticks). I heard that when a drummer of his set up a kick drum one day, Junior walked in for sound check, saw the kick drum, picked it up, carried it out the back door and rolled it down the alley. If that’s true, that’s pretty cool. Drummers please don’t hate me.