Bluegrass Music

Today’s Live Sound Engineering Ain’t What It Used To Be (Or Am I Just Getting Old?)

This past Thursday, my buddy Ken and I went to see Bela Fleck and his My Bluegrass Heart touring band at the Detroit Opera House. Bela is a living legend on the banjo, and his touring band is the cream of the crop as well, with Sierra Hull on mandolin, Michael Cleveland on fiddle, and Bryan Sutton on guitar among others. Special guests who warmed up for the show were dobro master Jerry Douglas and mandolin god Sam Bush.

First, the good parts. Having Douglas and Bush warm up with their respective touring bands was phenomenal! Both are beyond professionals as far as musicians, and know how to talk to their audiences. Bush always looks like he’s having fun on stage, and has no problem making light of bad situations, such as when his fiddle was feeding back too much to play properly. Both he and Douglas were on their game as far as soloing, and their band members were just as supportive.

The same can be said about all of the members in Fleck’s troupe. No screw-ups during solos, and everyone worked with each other. One of the personal highlights for me was when Fleck pulled out John Hartford’s banjo to play on a beautiful song. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a John Hartford fanatic, and his banjo has a very distinctive bassy tone that I have never heard from any other five-string.

Now comes my disappointments with the show:

  • Way too long on a weeknight. I’m getting old, and probably 3/4 of the crowd there was hovering around my age as well. The show started just after 7:30 pm, but Ken and I left at 10:30 barely able to keep our eyes open, so we missed the all-star jam at the end with Douglas and Bush joining the band. Those who stayed surely got their money’s worth, but I just cannot sty up late any more on a weeknight, knowing that I have a rough day at work the next morning.
  • Lousy sound mix. I am not sure that the Detroit Opera House is meant for that type of music. Douglas’ and Bush’s bands were mic’d as well as running direct into either amps or the mixing board. Fleck’s band all just used microphones. Either way, everything sounded muddy and awash. The electric guitar in Douglas’ band sounded like a blanket was covering the amp. When Fleck and his band came on stage, the mix was horrible! It was like the sound engineer did not have a clue. Now granted, Ken and I were in the upper balcony, and it could have been mixed for the main floor seating, but there was no clear distinction between soloists and backup playing. I was watching Sutton and Hull, and both of them had the smarts to back off from the mic when not soloing. Still, it was getting stressful to listen to!

Both Ken and I used to do live sound work for bands years ago, back when you manually adjusted volume and EQ by sliding or turning knobs on a mixing board. Most live shows today use computer tablets to adjust levels, which I have find to be a terrible alternative to the ear. Good sound engineers have certain “touch” to the sliders that work. Moreover, many times I feel that the engineers don’t adjust to the rooms. During a soundcheck, the room is usually empty, save the musicians and engineer. However, once the room fills up for the show, the crowd makes the room acoustics totally different. The bodies soak up a lot of the high end of the sound, and reverberations are a scramble from the main floor to the reflections near the ceiling. I truly think that today’s sound engineers do not study the science of acoustics, and just go for one sound, hoping that nothing feeds back.

My ears got burned out years ago doing live sound, and I quit as soon as I realized that all bands sounded the same to me. I would occasionally help out my friends at Rock City Eatery when they had a band play at their restaurant, but that was as a favor and not as a job. Plus, as Ken commented to me at the show, I do not miss doing the roadie work of winding cables and pulling up duct tape from the stage. I know that live sound engineering is not an easy job, but to be good at it, a person has to study it and practice just like a musician has to practice his/her instrument.

Her is a clip from that show someone in the audience recorded (which, by the way, they asked people not to do).

Chew on it and comment.

Americana Music Bluegrass Music

YouTube Finds: Otis Gibbs, Mark O’Connor, Sam Bush

First off, I will be making a big announcement (at least to me) in next week’s blog, as I haven’t completed my actions yet. The announcement will be shocking to some, expected by others, but it is something that I feel that I need to do in my heart.

Now, let’s get to some quick business. I briefly mentioned it in my last blog, but I implore you to check out the Otis Gibbs channel on YouTube (! I have been fortunate enough to hang out with Otis on occasion at previous AmericanaFests in Nashville. While a few of the videos are of his songs and performances, the truly enjoyable ones are of his interviews with people in the music industry. These people are not stars or business moguls. These are the roadies, back-up musicians, and technicians that have amazing stories about working with the big-time performers. They are filmed in a way that is less like a documentary and more like a barroom conversation. A great one is of bassist/producer Mark Fain talking about working with Tom Petty. Just about every one of the videos is a treasure, so you won’t be disappointed.

Another great YouTube channel is one by Marc O’Connor ( Do I really need to tell you who Mark is? Besides being a phenomenon on the fiddle, he can put anyone to shame on mandolin and guitar as well. In fact, many of his recent videos showcase his guitar skills recorded for his Markology II album. There are also fiddle duets with his wife Maggie, some instructional tidbits based on his successful O’Connor Teaching Method, and some amazing live performances throughout the years. He also has some videos of classical violinists performing some of his compositions. Of course, you could never go wrong seeing Mark jamming with Tony Rice, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas and Mark Schatz.

Speaking of Sam Bush, he’s been loading up his YouTube channel ( with a lot of great videos of him jamming in his living room with guests like Ronnie McCoury, Tim O’Brien, Bryan Sutton and Jeff Hanna. Plus, there are a few vids of him discussing his admiration of Jethro Burns while holding Burns’ mandolin. Sam is one of those guys that you wish was your next-door neighbor. Over the fence, you would be talking music, baseball, and the weather. Sam is a treasure, to be sure.

Chew on it and comment.