Three live concerts: Dead & Company, Yes, and Radiohead. From somewhere in the front 10 rows and back of the venue.
The Grateful Dead, in 1974, introduced the famous “Wall of Sound” to bring a better amplification system for the audience at their concerts. Much has been written but the basic concept was that each instrument had its own amplifier resulting in less intermodulation distortion. The key to getting the best sound at a rock concert remains with this idea.
Dead & Co: Riverbend, June 2018
The vending area in the parking lot or a set aside field is an essential part of Grateful Dead culture and the band of fans and vendors that follow the group on tour. Fans usually arrive en mass about an hour before the concert for food, pop-up bars, t-shirts, memorabilia. Like “Alice’s Restaurant”, you can get anything you like. Shakedown Street is the The Grateful Dead tailgate, and not to be missed before a concert. The group has been touring off, and on, in one form or another for over 50 years.
The death of Jerry Garcia in 1995 marked the end of the original era. The other four original members got together for a series of concerts in 2015. The current lineup of “Dead & Co” includes John Mayer along with original Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bob Kreutzman
Riverbend, June 2018
We hung out at Shakedown Street before the show and then made our way to the pit. Very relaxed crowd and we easily made our way close to the front of the stage. The sound was fantastic as expected. Notice the individal microphones and amps for each instrument. Riverbend is an outdoor arena and there are large arrays of speakers above and to the sides, projecting sound to the larger audience. The sound we heard, primarily seemed to come from the stage amps and speakers. John Mayer did a great job and we had fun. Didn’t think about the “sound system” during the concert. The individual guitar amps seem to be either the classic Vox or similar tube amps. Unlike the home system, in this case the “soundstage” is formed by the individual speaker/amps. I’ve learned that these are mic’d for output to the main PA system which is clearly Class D or similar high powered. Note the abundance of on stage powered speakers.
Yes: PNC Pavilion, July 2018
Returned to PNC Pavillion, the little brother of Riverbend and part of the same complex, for “the Yes “An Evening with Yes”. We had seats in the right Pit approximately 8 rows from the front. As seen from the video clip, there are also small stage amps, but our seats were closer to one of the large arrays to each side of the stage. Steve Howe’s guitar playing was itself magical. He is unquestionably a master of the instrument and, like Bob Weir, its remarkable that they have been performing for 50 years! From an audiophile perspective, however, when the band played together and loud, the individual instruments blurred together. I found this distracting. In this case being seated close to the edge of the stage was not a good spot to listen to “Close to the Edge”. Further back near the mixing box, the sound was similarly blurred when loud. Rather than sitting back and listening to the concert, I found myself increasingly listening to the sound system.
This wideangle video shows the banks of speakers.
Radiohead: US Bank Arena July 2018
The site of the infamous The Who concert of 1979 in which 11 teenagers and young adults were trampled in the rush to enter the arena for sold-out festival seating. Cincinnati subsequently banned festival seating until 2004. We got general admission tickets. When we arrived at 5pm there was already an orderly line forming. The gates opened at 6PM. We headed right for the center of the moon shaped pool of people congregating at the front of the stage after grabbing a couple of beers from a vendor. Johnny Greenwoods Jujun opened. Note the individually mic’d instruments and VOX guitar amps. Perfect soundstage!
When Radiohead started I was mesmerized. There are many Youtube videos of concerts — some terrific and with excellent sound but none of these compared to seeing and hearing them live and up-close.
US Bank Arena doesn’t have a great reputation for sound either but from our position the sound was terrific. Similarly guitar feeds into on stage Vox (or similar) amps. Huge speaker arrays way above and to the sides of us.
My impression of modern rock has been multimic’d multitrack recordings assembled by the mastering process into a final stereo production. What amazed me was that the blend of purely acoustic sounds, with analog instruments and vacuum tube amps, along with electronic samples, midi etc … and all live. During warm up it was clear that the drums had both a direct sound as well as a midi feed into sampling/DSP. Two drummers full time, and up to four with both the Greenwood brothers playing drums on one song! These complex rhythms are performed live. Whoever is routing the instruments through the MIDI/sampling is an unsung live performer!
Daydreaming is the opening song. Carefully organized, a symphony of motion, sound, light. The soundstage was full and ambient. I didn’t listen for instruments in a particular location in space, rather sounds fill the space from right to left up and down, with reverberation from back to front.
Desert Island Disk the acoustic guitar and bass lead into vocals. In this case the guitar is precisely located on the stage which is otherwise filled with swirling electronic samples. “Different types of love are possible”…
Ful Stop the stage pounds with a hard driving beat, electronics, and blaring blue lights. Raw energy fills the arena. “You’ve really messed up everything.” … the guitars enter … “Truth will mess you up.” I’m hypnotized.
2+2=5 We head back to “Hail to the Thief” seamlessly. Thom Yorke is fully warmed up and on fire.
Myxomatosis The entire crowd is rocking to this raw energy version. Is the bass synthesized? I’m just having fun. This might have been my favorite song of the night … might
Kid A MIDI Synth with a swirling soundstage, electronic. Wow this is live! Of all the songs, I’d have thought this was a studio creation.
All I Need Electronic Love Song. Swaying Back and Forth with my arm around my wife. Singing to eachother. The bells are real bells … who would’ve thought that will all the synth and electronic equipment they’d bring real bells.
Videotape Awesome piano. Sure its a sampled piano. Do I care?
Lucky Back to OK Computer. Wow, I’m realizing that these songs flow effortlessly from 1997-2016. This is a unified performance.
Bloom of all the songs you’d think are synthesized, they are playing this live. Hmmm. Real drums.
Ok so the rest is equally terrific and they close with How to Disappear completely, perfect. We use this as an opportunity to head up to grab some food & beer and the remainder of the review takes this into account. Firstly I realize how lucky we were to be so close because the entire arena is filled and everyone is standing even in the nosebleed seats. They do two encore sets: a total of 8 songs! Immediately I notice that the music is blurred. Its still as loud as it was on the floor but now loud and muddled. Its an entirely different experience.
The Bends Woah! Of course the crowd erupts and sings along. From 1995 blending in perfectly with music from this decade.
Karma Police and Thom Yorks ends with an acoustic sing-a-long with the audience… perfect.
Closing Food for Thoughts
When you are having fun and it sounds right, the details of the soundsystem fade into the background. Modern guitar bands continue to use tube based amplifiers and these amplifiers are mic’d to send to the large PA system. Avoiding this PA system is the key to great sound. Don’t worry about getting close and center because the large amps and speakers don’t project at you, rather you get on stage sound which is remarkably better. This isn’t subtle. The Dead were inventors/early proponents of the “Wall of Sound” i.e. individially mic’d and amplified instruments. Whether this is due to lower intermodulation distortion, avoidance of “Class D etc” amplifiers, or avoidance of overload distortion, the sound coming from the linear banks of speakers is horribly distorted comparted with the smaller on stage powered speakers.
This supports the idea that multi-amped systems with an amplifier per speaker element (at home “Wall of Sound”) may be the best way to reproduce complex rock music. My experiences also support the idea to me, that the specifications of the individual ampliers remain critical regardless of the music source.