Blame the Soundguy: Why Do Bands Sound So Awful on TV?

Proof that there are sound checks on TV.

It’s basically been the worst year ever for live bands on TV, right? It seems like some poor band sees their career blow up in their face every week on some soundstage or another. I mean mostly the one at SNL, but the opportunity is there everywhere you look.

The issue could be any of a few things. Fledgling bands with no actual talent wilting under the pressure of national TV (the grumpy old man argument)? Bad vibes from trying to act like a live band in a TV studio? House band heckling you? Or maybe the sound mix just realllllllly sucks.

I can maybe buy the first thing about new musicians (talent-ed or -less) getting all nervy and weird knowing that you’re going to be zapped into the homes of millions of people who don’t care about you that night. Or even that you’re performing while standing a few feet from seasoned pros who are 100 times better at music than you, like the guy who replaced Kevin Eubanks. But the bigger problem might be the sound. To my very modestly trained ear, it seems the sound is . . . not great?

Check out this recent performance by Sleigh Bells on SNL, which can kind of be summed up by: “barf.”

Here’s the recorded version of the song:

Sleigh Bells – End of the Line

I know, it’s a rough band to start on. Now as far as Sleigh Bells go, few bands are as dependent on really specific recording conditions (ie. blown-out tracks across the board) for their sound as they are, and so you can imagine how they might fall on their face when those conditions are taken away. Instead of everything in the red, we have a couple of digitally fuzzed-out guitars panned hard and sounding tiny and a wimpy drum beat that might as well be coming from an old Casio sitting beside the cameraman. Then there’s Alexis Krauss’s falsetto, which makes so much sense when it’s smashed and amped up on record, here just huffing and puffing all over top of the mix.

But it’s not just Sleigh Bells. A lot of the major shows have been having these issues for years now, and while it’s the hyped artists like Lana del Ray and Kanye West that get slammed the hardest for it, probably because their appearances mark the first chance lots of disconnected people have to judge them, regular old rockers and dinosaurs don’t go unscathed. Sir Paul McCartney endured/survived/forced upon us an epic stinker of a night on SNL back in 2010 (whatever, it was still kind of fun), and I even found myself feeling sorry for Chickenfoot during a particularly flat, slappy, wonky, poopy-sounding performance on The Tonight Show.

So what’s the deal? We can safely presume that people are getting paid to make it not sound like this right?

It seems like the short answer is that a lot of these stages and recording systems have just been victims of cut corners. SNL, Leno, and Conan’s brief run on The Tonight Show in particular seem to have some major issues with reflective surfaces, high ceilings, poorly thought-out studio construction. Conan’s new TBS show seems to have figured things out – maybe it’s the padded cell walls they hung on the bandstand?

TMBG on Conan, January 2012

I talked to guitarist Drew O’Doherty (from all kinds of bands, though his latest album is here) about the time he was on Conan playing with Ted Leo back in the day (nine years ago, actually), and he had nothing but great things to say about the experience:

Soundcheck was pretty laborious at the old Conan show in NYC. We loaded in real early in the morning and must’ve run through “Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?” a dozen times. Between soundcheck and the taping, we were invited in to hear the mix and give our input. When we met the engineer, she was A/B’ing her live mix with the Hearts Of Oak CD. She did a great job, using the album version as a reference for mixing. I was pretty impressed with her attention to detail.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a higher quality version of that performance available online. It may be hard to tell, but the audio mix itself was pretty spot-on. At the time, I heard from all kinds of folks how impressed they were with our mix on that show, since live rock bands so frequently sound like crap on TV. Maybe we just won the lottery with that particular engineer. I wish I knew her name so I could give her credit!

Of course, I’ve also seen/heard countless bands sound terribly mixed on various late night shows. I was at the JAWBOX one-off taping two years ago and was shocked to hear how unrepresentative the broadcast mix was. Sounded massive in the room. Not so much over the airwaves.

That feeling is echoed throughout the internet in small nooks and crannies where people really care about this stuff. O’Brien’s Late Night crew is consistently praised. But there always seems to be that feeling of, “Why doesn’t it sound as good as it did in the room?”

Here’s where the post breaks down a bit and becomes a total “This Would Make a Great Story with More Research” kind of a thing (note to prospective editors!), but still – what I’m here to report is that there are some interesting discussions going on online about this stuff. The most common complaint is that bands sounded great live and then sounded terrible on the broadcast. Some of it might be untrustworthy, but you can run into all sorts of people who it turns out work on the shows or, for example, helped build the studios. Regarding the ill-fated Conan Tonight Show, this guy “Lovekrafty” says:

I built out all of the audio rooms for the new Conan Show and built out the stage audio, ( Equipment and wiring ). I agree the sound is’nt the greatest. I think there are a few reasons — first off it’s a big room, originally designed for film production (it’s actually the Jack Benny shows old stage ).

They didn’t do too much in the way of treating the room. Including the rafters the stage is 40 ft high lot’s of bouncing around going on (in fact they stripped a lot of the original treatment off the walls, i.e. 50 year old fiberglass covered in burlap). The floor is covered is black shiny acrylic tiling which certainly doesn’t help.

On the production side, it’s a whole new crew , with new equipment and to be honest the production room design wasn’t that good. After all it’s only broadcast right?

Meanwhile, “Plexisys” chimes in like this, noting what might be the most important problem as far as I can tell: the ENTIRE MEDIUM OF BROADCAST TELEVISION!

Having mixed live sound for TV going back to the Midnight Special in the 70s up to today I can assure you it’s just not fun working with the broadcast side of things.

Most of the time the monitors you mix on have no relationsship to the sound that will be coming out of TV speakers. In most cases the broadcasters have the compressor/limiters set so tight there is little or no possibility of dynamics.

Some of the studios will not let the bands engineer mix the live parts but require the house “union” guy to mix the show. All you are to them is the PITA band of the week.

As an engineer/mixer, I’d rather mix monitors for a deaf band than mix for live broadcast.

All of this is over at Gearslutz, basically, which you might as well go read on your own, since there are some cool pics of the actual building of a talk show stage there. Basically, you start to get the picture that very few people in the business knows what they’re doing and you might as well be watching Flipper on some cable access show (oh look, that exists and it unsurprisingly sounds a-okay).

The best part of all is that no-budget blogs and zines are already figuring out ways to do all this in better, more creative ways. In general, video/performance series like Black Cab Sessions and They Shoot Music Don’t They. No sound guys or any of that kind of crap as far as I can tell.

In the meantime, some talk shows still knock it out of the park: Letterman and especially Jimmy Fallon are incredible. Fallon especially has already launched a few careers off of his stage (be honest – how many of you had ever, EVER heard of Odd Future before they jumped up and down a bunch on Late Nightlast year?) and made for some insane link bait with people we forgot we cared about, like this bonkers performance of “Bring tha Noize” with Public Enemy backed by the Roots and the Antibalas horns:

In fact, it’s not really ever the sound quality that we came to these programs for in the first place, but the occasion. It’s the chance to feel validated for the band you love on the same network that’s broadcasting presidential debates, and to see them thrillingly hung out to dry when the sound goes crazy. It’s the chance to see bands thrust into foreign situations alongside Dave and Conan and Charles Barkley…

…and suddenly have the cameras turned on and people like your parents are watching.

What’s gonna happen?

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