I generally don’t act my age (somewhere north of 40), but a recent trip to see the Sam Roberts Band at The Kee to Bala had me shaking my cane at the sound man with the fury of the angry dad in the Twisted Sister videos. As a grizzled veteran of the live music event, I know the appeal of heavy volume and the euphoric feeling of a well microphoned kick drum punching you in the chest with each down beat. I have survived AC/DC, Guns and Roses and The Cult. I have stood a hair’s breadth from the Marshall stacks used by Gov’t Mule and had my teeth rattled by Nazareth in a club small enough for the bartender to hand you your drinks over the bar without having to lose your spot in front of the band. All of these occurrences were loud. What made the experience good or bad was sound clarity, and whether or not it left you feeling like blood was oozing from your ears.
AC/DC for example, left my ears ringing for a couple of days, but in a good way, if that’s possible. What do you expect when the encore includes a stage full of cannons blasting off for the last two minutes of “For Those About to Rock”? They were simply doing as promised, and saluting us. With cannons.
Civil War weaponry aside, I could still pick out every instrument and hear every note played. I could clearly understand when Brian Johnson screamed at me that rock and roll wasn’t noise pollution. It was full tilt, high voltage, super loud rock and roll. And it sounded great. There is a line though, that can easily get crossed between great sound, and a complete dog’s breakfast of noise. Instead of hearing lyrics, the vocalist starts to emulate the teacher from Charlie Brown doing bad karaoke at 120 decibels.
I consulted my friend who runs the soundboard at Casino Rama, and apparently the cause of too loud syndrome stems from a number of things. It could be the physical limits of the room, an overzealous soundman, or the musicians themselves. Let’s start with the drummer. Now, drummers are similar to hockey goalies in that they’re a special breed- i.e. weird. (Apologies to my friend Dean who is both a goalie and a drummer) They like to smash things and bollocks to you if you can’t keep up with them. This causes the guitarists, who are equipped with monster amps and suffer from smash envy, to turn up to eleven to be heard over the drums. Enter the prima donna vocalist who feels the need to be heard more loudly than everyone else. Now we have a deaf soundman who feels the only solution is to max out the vocals to top the guitars thereby turning them into a pile of sludge. The musicians aren’t affected as much by the blitz because they all wear in-ear monitors, which cuts down the volume considerably.
In the case of Sam Roberts, It was the first of two shows, so maybe the sound guy was just testing the waters. Doing a sound check in an empty hall is a lot different than when it fills with bodies, and maybe he overcompensated with a bit too much power. We all knew what songs Sam was singing because, hey, it’s Sam Roberts, but as far as discerning any distinct separation of parts, all was lost. There was great energy in the room, which was all good and well, but the music was reduced to a great slur of guitars and noise. If it’s too loud, lots of concert goers wear earplugs to take the edge off. I’ve done it once myself and it works great if the sound is clear and you don’t want your ears ringing the next day. In the case of Sam Roberts, all that would accomplish would be a slightly quieter, still muffled version of Brother Down.
Live music should be worth the price of the ticket or you might as well stay home and listen to the CD. It should be better than the CD. It should be the CD on steroids, complete with mistakes and unlikely surprises. It should be sing along choruses and blistering guitar solos, preening lead singers, drum solos and bass players singing backup who have no business doing so. A live show can change your life. It should never be something to be suffered through. Can you hear me Mr. Soundman?