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Sounding Off

The Sound Of (Live) Music

The acoustics of large venues are totally unsuited to modern electronic music, writes David Pickering Pick.

One Friday evening not long ago, a friend and I travelled to see Paul Simon in concert at the Wembley Arena. We left early, in order to leave time to pick up our tickets from the agency box office, and maybe to have a quiet drink beforehand.

We travelled hopefully, I would say, anticipating a rare and memorable concert by an artist of true world class, to whom both of us had been listening carefully and with enjoyment over the last 25 years. The concert would involve about 20 musicians, no doubt amongst the very best in their field, including Steve Gadd and Michael Brecker, as well as the Simon regulars Ray Phiri and Richard Tee. The technical support, lighting and PA, we had no doubt, would be well up to the same high standard.

Given this level of expectation, we did not hesitate to authorise Visa on our behalf to pay Keith Prowse Music nearly £50 for the two tickets; nor did we really mind paying £6 to park the car, £5 for two disgusting hot-dogs (serve us right) or £2 for a pint of tasteless (and rather pointless) lager. Even the news that the said ticket agent had failed to arrive with the said tickets, leaving us and many others to speculate on how far the said agent's neck could conveniently be stretched, did not cast more than a very temporary blight on the evening.

Seated on our orange plastic seats, observing how middle-aged our contemporaries seemed to have become, a hush descended as the house lights went down. The stage lights, in purple and violet, dimly outlined the four percussionists on risers to each side of the drum kit. The opening side-drum rhythm from 'The Obvious Child' came cleanly down from the massive flown PA speaker clusters. Paul Simon entered to thunderous applause. Then in bar 7 came the first tom and bass drum beat, enhanced with a fabulous long, rolling bass reverb. Wow — impressive sound. A Lexicon 224 at least.

As the song gets under way, that big impressive reverb just goes on building. A reverb time of maybe 4 or 5 seconds, with all the LF damping taken off, and then some EQ on the returns at about 40Hz.

Hang on a minute, this is a bit much. The top end of the sound is fine — clear and fairly articulate for the acoustic guitar and Simon's vocal, but the bass end is a complete shambles: no definition at all, impossible to hear the kick drum or bass guitar or lower toms. It sounds like a huge double decker bus is continuously pulling away from a stop, just behind the stage. Or a couple of jumbo jets starting their take-off run.

Of course the sound engineer is not responsible. He really hasn't left the Lexicon switched to some megalomaniac program with the desk returns open: what we are hearing is the Wembley Arena Acoustic in all its terrible majesty.

It would be nice to report that the sound engineer managed to get it under control as the evening progressed, but although the bass rumble did lighten up slightly during some of the songs, every time the kick drum went off the fallout would drown everything below about 1 kHz.

I have to say that the sound was dreadful, and nearly, but not quite, ruined the evening. What saved it was the quality of the performance, which was superb. Paul Simon, often appearing in the past as a shy and uncommunicative performer, was clearly enjoying himself and the band (those members that we could hear anyway) really rocked. We left, after a good two and a half hours, feeling none too hard done by. But if only they could have sorted the sound out...

The following day I went to a concert at my son Josh's school, which took place in the chapel. A small chamber orchestra played Bach and Holst, and the choir sang Taverner and (unbelievably) Fats Waller. The only hi-tech contribution was a synth keyboard which ably provided an authentic harpsichord for the Bach orchestra — a reasonable compromise. In the complete absence of a PA system, the sound balance was superb, with the chapel's natural reverb of around 3 seconds softening and enhancing the sound of the performers.

It seems to me that the headlong development of technology in the field of popular music, which has provided a dazzling array of sounds, atmospheres and textures, has largely failed to translate these sounds from the recording studio to the concert hall. I think it would be fair to assume that the PA at Wembley was state of the art, and I am sure the engineer cannot be blamed for what is quite clearly a disastrous shortcoming in the venue's acoustics.

A more valid question may be why concert promoters, who can hardly be unaware of the acoustic problems, continue to use it. Perhaps there is a shortage of 10,000 seat stadia in London. Maybe there is insufficient paying demand for a concert venue with first rate acoustics for amplified music. With 10,000 people paying around £20 each this seems unlikely.

Three or four hundred years of development of classical performance is reflected in architectural spaces whose acoustics enhance, rather than hinder the music. Maybe it is just too early, after only about three decades of amplified concerts, to expect to hear in a concert hall holding 10,000 people the kind of high quality sound I expect to hear in my studio, coming out of ATC monitors in a room with (moderately) well sorted acoustics.

Perhaps I am simply being over-optimistic in expecting to hear, as well as see, Paul Simon in concert.

What is the point of this story
What information pertains
The thought that life could be better
Is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains
'Train in the Distance' — Paul Simon.

David Pickering Pick is a Divorce Court Welfare Officer and a partner in FFG, a company which amongst other things promotes Christian music. Having discovered a 24-track recording studio in the basement of his house, he is busy making use of it.

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Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - Oct 1991

Donated by: Bert Jansch / Adam Jansch

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