Great Concert Plus Bad Sound Equals Disappointing Evening with Chris Botti

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October 11, 2016

Great Concert Plus Bad Sound Equals Disappointing Evening with Chris Botti

Chris Botti was in Jacksonville last Saturday night.  He performed with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra.  Of course he had his incredible band with him plus violinist Caroline Campbell and vocalist Sy Smith.  My wife surprised my son and me with tickets.  We liked the concert, but ultimately it brings me to this blog entry!

Let me start with a few qualifiers. I am a musician and a music lover.  I like most types of music, but especially Jazz. I am also a sound system designer, consultant, trainer and operator (not really a fan of the term “engineer” for that position).  I have a very high level understanding of what makes up “good sound” or a good mix.  I understand that we all have different tastes when it comes to how the sound should be mixed for a concert, but we can certainly all agree that when you see Chris Botti in concert with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra (JSO), the sound coming from the speakers should sound “like” Chris Botti and the JSO!  Or, as I like to teach; they call it sound REINFORCEMENT for a reason!

I should also state that I like Chris Botti’s music very much.  I think he is a phenomenal musician and entertainer, and a gracious concert host.  This blog is not a review of last week’s concert – the performances were great.  By the way, I also think our Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra is as fine a group of classically trained musicians as you will find anywhere.  Maybe even more importantly, they are very obtainable and community oriented.  They bring a first rate product to this market at a VERY affordable price.  We are fortunate to have this fine group in our city.  They also played a fantastic show this past Saturday – at least the little I heard of them.  And now, as it is said, we get to the rub…

The 3000 seat Moran Theater, where the concert was held has its challenges, but is better than most halls for a show requiring sound reinforcement.  I do not know if the sound system used for the Chris Botti concert was brought in as part of the tour or hired in by the venue. I do not know if the FOH (Front of House) operator was with the tour or hired just for this event.  I do know that sound in the upper levels (Balcony and Loge) was terrible – for several reasons.

Our first problem was physical issues with the sound system – which was a pair of JBL Vertec line arrays.  A line array system is not necessarily the best choice for this venue. Can it be done without over balcony fills used?  Yes, but only with very careful and deliberate aiming to cover the balcony seats. The flown speakers at the face of the stage have a pretty severe height limitation.  The arrays must be titled upward pretty substantially to cover the upstairs seating.  When you have just the top three boxes of your arrays aimed into the Loge and Balcony (as was the case Saturday), you are NOT going to provide the correct tonal balance and overall SPL to those seats.  Period.  Of course, maybe they weren’t concerned with the balcony seats when they set up the system.  I mean, it’s just the balcony seats.  Even though we only paid $35 for our tickets in the second row of the balcony, we did PURCHASE TICKETS and should receive a quality show!  I know that ALL sound reinforcement is a game of compromises.  I get it. In a 3000 seat venue like the Moran you can never bring in temporary PA and expect to have dead-even coverage throughout all the seating areas.  Still, you have a very large percentage of seats in the balcony, so you HAVE to provide high quality sound there, just like the floor – including the seats under the balcony. Even more so for seats in the Loge, which come with a premium price tag. I actually prefer the Loge over the floor most times.

Once we get past the obvious questionable speaker choice of “lyin’ arrays” as they have been called, we move on to the great myth of ground stacked subs.  Yes, subs play “twice as loud” on the floor (half space speaker placement).  That is great for the sound hire company – not necessarily the audience though.  From what I could tell, the hired sound system used a L/R trio of subs to create a pair of cardioid arrays (to keep excess LF off the stage).  Seating for this event included the pit.  That means there were seats close enough the subs to throw a wadded up tissue and hit them.  Two little boys, 6 and 9 sat directly in front of one of those sub arrays.  I fear they may have left the concert with some small degree of permanent hearing loss. You cannot change the laws of physics.  The inverse square law dictates that (in general) sound levels drop by half for every doubling of distance from the source.  If subs on the ground are playing at a moderate 90dB average at FOH during most of the music, and mix position is 60’ from the stage, then the subs are producing about 114dB where those little boys were seated – less than 10’ from the subs.  All night.  Everyone closest to the front had too much bass – the back of the room, probably too little. And remember, this was a Jazz concert with a Symphony Orchestra, not Justin Bieber or Katy Perry. No one was rushing the stage!

Put the same subwoofers in the air, 30’ high.  You have to fly twice as many subs with twice as many amps to get the same SPL, but the front row is now 30’ from the subs and FOH is only about 65’ away.  90dB at FOH is only 96dB at the front row.

Meantime; we had no bass in the balcony…  I watched the bass player move frantically up and down the neck of his instrument and higher notes came through to the balcony.  Not the lowest lows.  You see, not only will subs (placed solely) on the floor NEVER cover the venue evenly, but split subs create their own set of problems with audible peaks and nulls across the venue.  Add to that a heavily damped concrete hall with a concrete “chamber” at the rear of the floor area (the under balcony seating) and you will have unusually strong bass at places downstairs while very little reaches the balcony from the floor.

Which brings me to part two of the problems I had with last Saturday’s show.  Poor performance by the FOH mixer (sound guy or gal, FOH engineer, whatever name you choose to assign that position).  I cannot imagine the person at FOH ever made a trip to the balcony (or sent a trusted set of ears to listen and report back).  Not during the system setup, not during sound check and certainly not during the performance.  If that had happened, he would have known about the lack of low frequency coverage in the balcony.  I have said over and over again; if you never leave mix position to listen to changes throughout the room, then you are only mixing for one person.  I also teach to get the balance dialed in WITHOUT subs then add in the subs.  I don’t want ALL the kick and electric bass energy coming from JUST the subs – but I digress…

The REAL crime committed was the outrageous balance issues between the main instrument/voice being featured on any given song and “everything else”.  From Chris Botti’s first notes to his last he was too far “out front”.  Not “just a little” too far above the rest of the mix either.  This was bad-karaoke too loud. And it was not just Chris.  When Sy sang or Caroline played violin, they were also too loud. The duet parts were WORSE.  I could not hear the JSO at all when Chris played.  I heard the brass section peek out of the mix ONE time the entire night.  As an aside – it appeared the Horns’ bells (“French Horns”) were mic’d from behind.  Don’t do that.  That is another subject for another day.  There was certainly no “lushness” to the strings  – I heard celli and basses very rarely – super disappointed in the mix job.

Part of the issues I had with the mix go back to the physical problems of the system.  There was CERTAINLY far more sub-bass at ground level which would have provided more “fullness” to the sound.  I suspect the low-mids were also considerably stronger downstairs as well. I never ventured down there, so cannot say how much better it was at floor level. There was just a LOT more speakers with that sonic energy pointing in that direction.  I also don’t think of the JBL Vertec rig as the poster child for “rich and lush” sound.  As a matter of fact, when Chris featured the incredible Caroline Campbell on, she sounded absolutely wretched through the system. All high-mids and highs – scratchy and piercing.  Uuuggghhh!

And then there was the utter ABUSE of effects.  I told you at the head, I am a Botti fan.  Even as jazz guy, I think he is “the real deal”.  As a matter of fact, I believe he has one of the most pure, closest to sine wave quality sounds of any trumpet player I have heard – especially jazz players.  Part of the Chris Botti sound IS the reverb and tasteful use of delays.  I not only KNOW he is electronically enhancing his sound, I LIKE IT!  But the effects added to his sound on Saturday night were mixed TOO HOT, always.  Take the trumpet sound that is already too far forward in the mix and then ADD delay and reverb that is as loud (and at times louder) than the primary sound source, and you get one miserable mix.  My son is 16.  He is a musician also, and Chris Botti fan.  He also commented on the bad mix.

All in all, a terrible way to treat what really was a great show and a terrible way to treat an audience that paid for a product that should have been much better.

Again, it may have “seemed worse” in the balcony, but some parts of the bad mix had to be as prevalent at floor level. And issues like poor sub placement are just plain a bad industry-wide practice (and a bit of laziness).  I propose that if you only want to fly sound reinforcement for the floor and only mix for the floor; then only sell floor seat tickets.  I just thought I would use my little corner of the world “to vent”.  Thanks for listening.