Respect the Audience

Posted on by Larry

Commentary.jpgAt NAB this last week, my team had a free evening so some co-workers and I went to see a show at one of the casinos. I am a huge fan of music and dance so I was looking forward to it.

Except… I walked out at intermission, so angry I could barely walk.

Granted, the show was raunchy, tasteless and over-done; but this was Las Vegas after all. And my co-workers enjoyed the show. So, why was I so angry? Even more to the point, why should I discuss this with you?

The answer to both questions is: the audio mix did not respect the audience.

As editors, our first goal is to tell a story that will captivate viewers. To do that, we need to find the best possible performances that advance the story or, and sometimes more importantly, hide performances that detract from the story.

Sometimes we reveal – other times we hide. But in all cases we respect the audience’s enjoyment of the story.

This show lost sight of that and in so doing disrespected the audience and the performers. To me, that is a terrible disservice.

LET ME EXPLAIN

The music was loud. Really, really loud. Mind-numbing, ear-bleeding, stunning loud. OK, its rock music. I get that it needs to be loud. Decent ear plugs would bring the levels down to an enjoyable level.

But the Front of House (FOH) audio mixer had so little respect for their craft that EVERYTHING was loud. This is lazy and inefficient. All instruments and voices share the same range of frequencies, but they don’t need to share them equally. The frequencies of sound can be shaped so that instruments and voice co-exist comfortably along the range of human hearing. Good mixing sees that the essential sound of each instrument comes through, without reducing the ability of the audience to hear what is being sung and said.

For instance, bass guitar frequencies could be cut at 200 cycles so they don’t interfere with the spoken word but still provide plenty of “thump.” Lead guitar frequencies could be dropped 6-8 db from 1,000 – to 2,500 cycles so that singers would soar over the guitars. Frequencies that encompass diction can be boosted to improve legibility.

In other words, this is Audio Mixing 101. Why was this missing?

This situation is typical in amateur productions with very limited budgets and personnel. But this was a major-market, Las Vegas stage show. It’s production budget was in the millions, with access to any cast or crew they wanted.  With everything they had, why did the director allow it?

WHAT WERE THEY HIDING?

It seems to me that a key goal for any stage director is for the audience to enjoy the show, not suffer from it. There was no need for volumes to be that loud, nor for the mix to be that inept. Unless…

UNLESS… you need to hide the fact that your cast can’t sing. (Or you hired a completely incompetent FOH mixer.)

This is what bothered me the most: the mix made it impossible to hear the singers, which told me that the director needed to hide the fact that the cast could not sing.

In which case, why is the audience paying up to $100 a seat to listen to singers that can’t sing buried in an audio mix that is too loud?

Was the director so insecure in their staging that they need to hide behind a too-loud audio mix for fear they would be found out?

Any way you look at this, the audio mixer and director showed that they had no faith in their skills, cast or audience. And that made me really, really angry.

WHY DOES THIS APPLY TO US?

Think about the editing you are doing and the stories you are telling. No cast is perfect, no script is perfect and no acting is perfect. Each time we edit we are trying to tell the story the best way we can using the materials at our disposal.

Sometimes we reveal, sometimes we hide. But, whatever you do, always keep the audience in mind.

Respect your cast, respect your story but, above all, remember that the audience is watching because they want to learn, be entertained, or take a break from life. In all cases, that deserves respect.


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10 Responses to Respect the Audience

  1. Mike T says:

    Larry,

    You and I appear to be of similar “vintage”. So I had to laugh when, in your justifiable anger, you refer to sound frequency with the old guy “cycles” instead of that newfangled term “hertz”.

    An excellent article, and something you wish sound guys in many media would do – put the voice “out front”.

    Thanks, as always, for your insightful comments.

  2. Tom Thornton says:

    Respect the Audience – My wife and I travelled to Vancouver BC to enjoy a long awaited arrival of the New York touring production of Le Mis. The experience was much as you describe Larry . The audio under the control of the FOH operator was painful .The music completely drowned out the vocals to the point of obliteration, On returning home I looked up the reviews and most reported the same issues. I felt at the time that the problem was caused by the hearing impaired roadies but now like you I wonder if it was the director masking his weak casting . Whatever, the outcome is we no longer go the these events so avoiding having such insults hurled upon us.

    tomt

  3. Robet says:

    Larry,
    This mixing style of presenting musical performances is out there.
    While I work, I have a pair of drug-store earplugs that seem to deliver a perfect mix.
    They are florescent orange, have double barriers, and inadvertently send the message that the audio is need of reform.
    Unfortunately, the message falls on deaf ears.
    I am protecting myself, because others have little or no regard for the over-baked, sound-blasted mix they decide to present.
    Sometimes it is so loud, my eyeballs and vision vibrate.
    Regards,
    Robert

  4. jillj says:

    Thank you Larry! A simple concept yet often lost. As an avid theater goer, I wonder why I have to strain to understand what is being sung or said, and why for the love of hearing am I being subjected to such load noise. If I go to a rock concert I will bring earplugs, if I go to a musical theater show, I shouldn’t have to.

    Also, as a videographer/editor that works primarily live classroom events, it astounds me that the audience/student is rarely thought of. What type of background are they looking at for hours on end, how is it light, and sound checks are like pulling teeth.

    If one looks at the big picture, or the end user, decisions made with that in mind will always lead to respect. Something that you and your team, Larry, always do.

  5. Larry Scher says:

    Larry, absolutely on point. But you should also note that on many feature film and television productions, sound designers and mixers do similar damage when they mix the M&E tracks so loud that the smother the Dialogue tracks. I suspect that in the show that you attended, the mixer was partially deaf, a very common problem. At least for home viewing, Fraunhofer has a solution for viewers: http://www.iis.fraunhofer.de/en/ff/amm/prod/digirundfunk/digirundf/dialogueenhancement.html.

  6. Ray Naylor says:

    Larry, as a novice to all stuff video, I got involved because of my avocation in songwriting and performing. My internet tv “The Performing Songwriter” is not just about songwriting, but also performing. One of the major things is that those of us on stage are not there for ourselves, but for the audience. Relating to and involving the audience is the difference between a crappy performance and an excellent one. I always say that I’d rather listen to a good performer sing a mediocre song, than the other way around. I learned a lot of this from learning and performing magic. A lot of Singer/Songwriters, whom (or is it who?) I am most involved with, tend to think the song will carry the performance all by itself, and it’s just not true. One of the things that drives me crazy is the music on Saturday Night Live. The sound people always buries the lead vocal. It’s never out front. A friend of mine, who was actually the drummer in the original Saturday Night Live band, said “Your just like your parents”, relating to my wining. Ok, rock music other genres may not be concerned about lyrics, but country, folk, acoustic, etc, they do. Ok, let me get off the Soapbox.

    • Larry says:

      Ray:

      One of the things that drives me nuts is that the performers can be perfect – only to have their performance destroyed by an audio tech or director that has a different agenda.

      The only way this gets better is if we complain – we attend shows to listen to great performances. It would be wonderful if we could hear them.

      Larry

  7. Ethan Derner says:

    Larry,

    I am of the belief that a great number of the FOH mixers working out there are simply tone deaf, and thus are compelled to raise the volume levels as loud as they do to compensate for their own hearing loss. This has been shared with me on several occasions by professionals working in the live sound industry. It’s a shame those of us in the audience have to suffer on account of those who didn’t protect their number one asset: the sense of sound.

    All the best,
    Ethan Derner

  8. Danny Drabb says:

    Great article, I completely agree. One thing that drives me crazy are FOH engineers who think a bass kick drum should blow a hole through my chest. Proper balance please, so it sounds like I am in front of a real drum kit please. Just because you can make me have a bowel movement with your low end does not make it a great idea.

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