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Mix Blog Live: Ten-Foot Kick

We like loud, we like clarity and we like dynamics. That's what we do in live performance. But now is not the time to drive an audience away with a wall-shaking kick drum.

A few days ago, I came across an interesting post on a forum that caters to drummers and drumming. Someone started a thread about excessive volume levels at live shows, and the trend of engineers pushing low end to a point where the kick drum is over-the-top.

It reminded me of my own words in this space from a few years ago (Mix Blog Live: How Big Does a Kick Drum Really Need to Be?). I had just seen a great national act (you’ve heard their recordings many times), and the front-of-house engineer—who obviously had never heard the band’s recordings—mixed it like he was mixing a rave. I have nothing against raves, except that maybe they run past my bedtime, but when you’re mixing an established act that’s charted the Top 100 more than 50 times over a career spanning 50 years, and is known for their well-crafted songs, maybe the mix shouldn’t be “kick drum, and by the way there’s a band back there somewhere.”

It irks me, and I hear it all the time: engineers mixing to get the pants legs flapping while ignoring the fact that maybe the audience might want to hear, say… the lead vocal or a guitar solo.

Some of the forum members posted responses to the original post ranging from “How loud is too loud?” to “I always carry ear plugs when I go to a show” to “live sound has been ruined because engineers insist on pumping massive amounts of low end into the room.” A few members who perform live said they don’t like it when an engineer tries to make their kick drum sound like it’s 10 feet in diameter.

Read more Mix Blog Live: Muscle Memory.

One snarky dude offered up the idea that his crappy P.A. could sonically beat a pro with $50K worth of gear (I’ll see that and raise you $10K, smarty-pants). One person speculated that perhaps the general public has been conditioned to accept crappy sound because they’re constantly being fed MP3s and audio transmitted via Bluetooth (i.e., an insult to injury).

The thing that really got me was the flurry of posts from various members that went something like this:

…The bass sounded like a low drone, and I couldn’t really pick out individual notes. I would have had no idea that I was hearing an upright bass unless I was looking at the stage.

…It’s a real drag to buy an expensive ticket, expect something great, and then see a performance ruined by headache-inducing audio.
…Paying a lot of cash for lousy sound really sucks.

If this is what our patrons are saying, then maybe we’d better listen. There’s no question that loud sound can impact an audience in an emotional way, but volume for its own sake, at the expense of clarity and intelligibility, sends people running for the doors—and we can’t let that happen. Especially now.