Why sound is still a mess at shows

We’ve been wondering about this too. So we decided to talk to someone who works with sound directly.
 Harvey  Herr is the founder of MapJam.co.ke and the Realm of Mist Cooperative.
MapJam is making it easier for artists to perform in more places and earn a respectable income.

Harvey has  been doing sound for rock gigs since 1999 when he setup my first concert. He agreed to give us some insight on what can be done to improve the situation which to be modest, is less than ideal.
My experience with sound has been F’ing insane and I massively respect all the sound guys and girls out there who are under appreciated for what they do.

Working sound for a rock gig is kind of like flying a 747 manually. You are working with a system that always has constraints that you may not necessarily be aware of.

You have to be aware of the nuances of each instrument and how they interact with each other. I have had many epic failures in my time, some where I swore I would never mix again.
My favorite experience was mixing  the Boargazm concert in 2013. We had just finished chewing a bunch of Miraa with the band only to find that there was no sound engineer! The band started to panic and were trying to setup a mix for themselves whilst the band Moment of Silence (now Bohemia) were on stage performing. I discovered this and quickly assured the band that I could handle it. Fortunately it was the sweetest rig I have ever seen in Kenya for rock: i think there were double stack guitar amps and a massive stack of mains and woofers running through a huge analog Allen & Heath mixer. It was like a freaking dream…but I’ve never seen that rig again. The cool thing is that this particular Allen & Heath mixer can really push the signal into saturation without distortion. I just kept pushing the signal up without loss of clarity. I was blown away by how massively brutal I could get the guitars to sound. It was incredible to see the crowd react. They were totally destroyed by like the 5th song.
To me sound is so interesting because as much as it is technical it is also an art. So to be really good you have to apply the techniques you know into something tangibly emotive within the environment. There are very few engineers who have reached this level of mastery. One such master I acknowledge is Jaaz Odongo. He has taken the techniques he learnt from producing and applied/modified them into huge rigs. But why don’t you do rock no more Jaaz? What is cool about being a sound engineer is that like all art there is room for experimentation and creativity. At Satan’s Disco in 2015 we had a tiny line 6 amp, a bass guitar and like 3 mics (1 vox, 1 snare, 1 kick). We ran an output from the headphone jack from the amp directly into the mixer and I just blasted the gain on it and the bass. I knew the house system was running through good limiters so I could create harmonic distortion on the signal with the mixer itself without fear of overloading the amps. Wow, I couldn’t believe the epic sound we got out of that shitty rig for Irony Destroyed….The keeds wept tears of joy.
I am always working with what is available because at the moment I’ve only got a hatchback for transport. Therefore I often plug into the house system if I can. Otherwise I carry a range of custom built speakers designed and manufactured in Mwimuto by Kristech Digital. Kristech has been building custom sound systems for more than a decade and he made the most compact system he was capable of making with local woodworkers for me in 2012.
What I notice with Rock gigs is that without an adequately configured low-end system we try to pump the bass into the mains – which basically saturates the power of the woofers into distortion. This produces a muddy low end and compromises the clarity and also the pumping power of rock that is so critical to the experience especially in breakdowns. In the ideal situation the bass and the kick are handled by a completely different set of speakers, that is technically everything below about 200 HZ is filtered hard into the subwoofers with a little bit of time compensation. Rock needs to be loud, however, the louder speakers are driven the less power you get from the bass and more comes from the high end. Most rock shows end up with this situation of an excruciatingly loud highs and muddy lows resulting in very low clarity of instruments and vocals in the live mix. I think that for some people this just ends up being an experience of a lot of noise and very little appreciation of the melodic structure and emotion within the music. You want the structure to be upfront. The first thing that has to capture the audience is the rhythm – especially in the low end because it is felt AND heard. Without the fundamental bass frequencies a lot of the power of rock and especially metal core is simply lost.
I realise that there is a huge amount of gear to haul around for a rock gig and people may not want to haul huge woofers around. Subwoofers and a low end system are fundamental to the sound of rock and if configured well will free up a lot of power in the mains to reproduce definition and clarity from the sound reinforcement system and still go loud. This is what needs to be improved upon with the existing infrastructure of our sound. A good low end system will to you can use smaller or fewer main speakers. it’s that simple really.
We need good woofers. A kick drum is between 18” and 21” that sound can’t be reproduced adequately by a 15” woofer. One 18” woofer is not going to match the power of the rest of the mix running through 2 X12” mains because you need double the power in the low end of what you are putting out into the high end. You need at least 2 if not 4 x 18” subs for a 2 X 12” set of mains and of course you need amplification that will match the ratings of those woofers.
The challenge is covering the expense of bringing in an adequate rig. With what we have available it doesn’t make economic sense for a small to medium gig. This is the problem that the MapJam mobile sound project is trying to address, not just for Rock but for Reggae and traditional music that we as artists and engineers are just figuring out how to amplify and reinforce. Since Noizefest 2016 we have been running a crowdfund (https://secure.changa.co.ke/myweb/share/7834) to assemble a system that is at once portable, but powerful and clear at the same time. Fortunately, advances in sound technology mean that there are several of these rigs on the market – but they are around $5000 a pop. MapJam conducted several shows in 2016 utilising such a rig and we have proof of concept as far as this goes (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGlemH_6N20). To effectively propagate good live music we need to meet this challenge of economic restrictions of logistics and return on investment for small to medium gigs because that is where the majority of the audience is. We are really counting on the support of industry to come through on this and see the benefit of propagating live music with hi-fidelity on a massive scale. There is so much talent out there and the reality is that there is limited space on the large stages and currently the market is not supporting local talent as it should because foreign artists and DJs provide spectacle that guarantees high attendance. MapJam is trying to reach the masses through existing events and small shows by providing awesome sound, and instruments, to artists – at a rate that can be afforded by most event budgets coming from people’s pockets. In writing this we have managed to raise nearly 20,000/- from donations alone and I am forever grateful to everyone who has read about us and come out to support us. MapJam is looking for more support from the fans and all corners to assemble it’s mobile sound system so that we can give back even more to Kenyans and build a real musical heritage for us all to appreciate.

Harvey Herr,
Founder/CEO, MapJam.co.ke

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