Salt Mines Studios / Mesa, Arizona
I had the opportunity to see and hear a live outdoor show at Salt Mines Studio in Mesa, Arizona. The Salt Mines is Arizona’s largest recording facility with the most square footage under roof within the state of Arizona. Owner, Don Salter, has done a great job of designing and building a tracking, mixing and production studio facility that can accommodate any level of recording talent. The Salt Mines is also unique in that it has a private bungalow for recording artists to stay in and have complete access to the recording facilities. The out side courtyard area has a stage surrounded by 12′ tall solid concrete wall that surrounds the courtyard which probably measures 100′ x 75′. This is where the live show was scheduled.
Live Sound Outside
Listening to live music outside in a concrete enclosed courtyard is a different sonic experience than listening to a song played inside a small room environment. With such a large area of space surrounded by a tall concrete wall we have some interesting sounds going on. It is not a large outdoor arena concert with acres of people and multiple speaker towers for sound reinforcement. It is also not a small room acoustic situation either. It is kind of in the middle of these two revenues.
The first thing one notices is the bass response in the courtyard. With an electric bass on stage, we get to hear a 40 Hz. wave run free and uninhibited by a room boundary surface. Well, not quite without boundaries. The concrete courtyard fence that surrounded the courtyard and studio did provide some containment of low frequency energy, but not anywhere close to causing any resonances within the courtyard itself.
Bass notes are clean and tight in this wide open space. Well, the bass notes will be as clean and tight as the engineer will let them be without over driving the speakers. With all of this space available lets use the ambiance of the space to reinforce the good qualities of bass energy without using gain. Go ahead and set the board and then walk away.
Listen To Everything, Everywhere
Walk around the courtyard and listen to how the bass sounds in the area. Feel the energy throughout the total venue instead of just behind the board. With a large courtyard area, one can let the dynamics of a full wave run across the audience area and just that ability to run uninhibited across a venue, will let the low frequency wave sound good on its own. There is tonal quality in there even within the electronics if we don’t overdrive them. Electronics and speakers today, it appears to me, can produce as much audible distortion as they do sound energy. All in all the bass response was fairly tight and clean. There was just a little too much behind the gain and attack of the bass notes for the equipment to handle and produce a sonic balance that could be heard and felt in the audience.
I do not know why professional amplifiers used in sound reinforcement scenarios have such bad sounding mid ranges. It is in the middle frequencies that our vocals lie and this is where the emotional connection to the music occurs. Every venue I go to has this same no tone quality to the mids. Is it the engineer’s settings on the board? Is it the quality of the electronics used? Is it the room or venue itself? What causes this one dimensional tonal quality to the mids in small live venue settings; this harsh bite instead of timbre and tone. I suspect it is a combination of at least the amplifiers and speakers.
Is It The Amplifiers?
My best guess is that the power source or amplifiers are part of the problem. I originally started in the Hi-Fi world and tonal qualities of the middle range are actively designed for by the engineers that make Hi-Fi amplifiers. Mid range clarity, with separation and tone are what Hi-Fi amplifiers are all about. I do not hear this same tonal quality in professional amplifiers, especially in the middle and high frequencies. I just don’t hear the same tonal qualities present in professional amplifiers when I compare them to Hi-Fi amplifiers. I just don’t and I don’t know why.
Maybe the reason lies somewhere in in the cost/sound quality/maintenance paradigm. Professional amplifiers must be moved and transported around, especially live venue amplifiers. They must be made durable, rugged, and capable of with standing shock from impacts and constant positioning and storage location changes. It must be difficult from a design perspective to build quality sound into an amplifier and make it durable enough to with stand the rigors of live performing. I would like to see more design attention paid to the mid range output in professional amplifiers used in all types of professional use from monitoring and mixing to playback.
Is It The Speakers?
If it isn’t the amplifiers, is it the speakers? I think sometimes that professional speakers are plagued by the same maladies as amplifiers. They all appear to have the same middle frequency disorder. The mid ranges are clean and crisp, but lack any timbre or tonal quality. Professional speakers reproduce sound, but most of the time it is difficult to hear and feel the music. When they are over driven, all of these issues become more pronounced. Most professional speakers I have heard in live venue formats sound thin and emaciated.
I would like to see more sound quality exhibited in our professional amplifiers and speakers. Lets figure out a way to have durability and sound quality built into the same product. Hi-Fi amplifiers have good middle range tone and definition. Hi-Fi speakers have this quality. Harbeth is a British company that has been making speakers for years. They are known for their luscious mid range and emotional connection with the middle range frequencies. Are there professional amplifier and speaker companies that can say the same thing?
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