A friend of mine recently posted about a gig he did, which did not go the way he planned. He was placed in a position we have all encountered at some point in our career - the organiser of the event booked a rental company, asking for gear for a small lounge event which turned out to be a sizeable party. The PA system, which could have handled the planned event without a glitch, quickly became like a SUV trying to haul a shipping container. When he tried squeezing out every last ounce of sound from those quivering boxes, the inevitable happened - distortion, audible limiting, and the mother of all sound monsters: feedback issues. I can just see the poor guy frantically turning the knobs while the heads in the crowd started turning, throwing looks at him that hurt like ninja throwing stars. It’s bad. Really bad. It’s the stuff nightmares are made of.
Hitting Close to Home
Hearing about that story triggered a knee-jerk reaction in my head - I was immediately thrown back to my own nightmare scenario. It was about 12 years ago when I was booked to do a show for a well-known female artist at a small bar, located at the heart of our capital’s city center. She had a live band with her and I have worked with most of the guys already at other gigs, so we knew each other quite well.
I was told it would be an intimate gig, so there was no need for a lot of gear. I was equipped with one full range speaker and one sub per side, no real system processing unit, a small analog desk, a few channels of compression and one FX unit. The band had a small drum set, bass, guitar and a keyboard player - alongside the lead vocal - and they were all using wedges for monitoring.
The minute I walked into the room, I knew it would be a struggle. Tiled floor, lots of glass, parallel walls - the works. I could hear how the noise level from the crowd was pretty high: talking in an acoustically untreated spaces creates reflections that interfere with communication, so you raise your voice. Louder signals create more prominent reflections, which mask the conversation even more and the vicious circle begins spinning. A loud crowd could indicate a bachelorette party, presence of tourists from countries where everybody seems to be partially deaf, or bad acoustics of the venue. (If you are lucky, you can stumble upon a hen do of foreigners at “Tiles and Glass” - ear plugs are a must!)
If you are not an audio engineer, I am pretty certain you would have trouble imagining how I felt the moment everything was set up and I had the drummer play a few bars. After setting up the PA system, running all the cables, placing all of the mic stands, fitting in all the wedges and cabling all the inserts, I was ready to finally start doing my job of shaping the sound - just to realise from that first snare hit that there was no way I could possibly get anything remotely that loud from the PA. All the tools I have spent hours setting up were useless - my powers have been taken away.
I began doing the “band dance” of negotiating with performers on how much volume they can have on stage and what can be done to reduce it to a level that would be at least bearable, if not manageable. I tried repositioning the speakers, the band, the microphones, when all I really want to do was reposition myself the hell out of there.
And then the lead vocalist turned up and she had just bought a new condenser microphone that she has to use now, because it was really expensive and there will be no talk of maybe possibly exchanging it for a dynamic one that I brought. All in all - a perfect blend of factors that promised a “fun” night.
The gig went as expected - it started bad and quickly progressed to worse. I aged a decade in those 2 hours. I used every trick in the book just to keep the feedback at a minimum and make some sense of levels and overall sound- and failed miserably. I felt like a failure, ashamed and defeated. I could not deliver an enjoyable experience for the client or for the crowd. And the band was really understanding - being long time musicians they have seen it all. They actually commended my on my efforts and later on booked me again, but to this day, every time I have a bad show, I remember that gig and that feeling of utter hopelessness.
No matter how horrible that show was, I wouldn’t go back to erase it. That show made me appreciate all of my good shows a lot more. Not only that, I have learned a great deal on that show - how to quickly judge the sound of a venue, how to talk to musicians in such situations and most importantly, how do deal with my own frustrations during those types of moments. The most valuable lesson came in the form of added experience and confidence - if I survived that, I can survive almost anything. I realised later that no show is a bust if you were able to learn from it and grow as an audio professional and as a person. The worst experiences are the ones that make us dig deeper, read more, ask questions, do our research, train harder - anything you need to do not to feel so helpless ever again.
Go ahead, try it out. When you finish a show that was just “blah” (I still encounter at least one of those a year), make a list of 3 things that you could have done better or have learned how to do. It might surprise you how much of your knowledge comes from crappy situations you had to resolve. Just try not to make it your primary learning experience. You can still grow without having your hopes and dreams smashed to pieces on a regular basis - it might take longer, but you will be much, much happier.