Engineer Blasts Poor Sound Quality At Local Shows

Josh Webster: "It's as though we are so used to shitty audio that we just write that part of the show off."
Josh Webster: "It's as though we are so used to shitty audio that we just write that part of the show off."
Ryan Anderson

Times are tough, and the current economic state of our nation - never mind the million different ways to illegally download for free - has not been kind to the music industry. Ace Enders told Alternative Press that he would probably no longer tour due to monetary limitations (though, after this announcement, countless fans pitched in to keep him going); Thursday's Geoff Rickly of said that he made less than $10,000 in 2010 through his music; and Haste the Day bassist Mike Murphy went into depth on his band's road diet, or lack thereof, which was almost solely Ramen noodles.

But musicians have been living hand to mouth for a long time, and plenty of other Houston music lovers have found other ways to make a living within the music industry, by recording, mixing, mastering and acting as sound technicians at local venues. But are they any better off?

Rocks Off recently spoke with Josh Webster, a contract monitor engineer and product of Houston Community College's audio-engineering program, who has been a "sound guy" for years. Webster worked for a contractor installing the sound system at House of Blues before it opened, and left the local music scene for a more stable job at a megachurch.

While helping to install HOB's digital console, Webster worked for $16 an hour, a livable salary if not a hefty one. He had some less than kind words for many of the venues around town.

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"I couldn't tell you the last time I went to a local show that actually sounded good," Webster says. "And as a musician, I would say that more often than not, the 'engineers' I work with at clubs don't have a clue what they are doing behind the console, yet I never hear anything about it in the reviews I read of shows. It's as though we are so used to shitty audio that we just write that part of the show off."

Webster, a member of Erase the Virus from 2003 to 2006 and currently the lead guitarist for Snowplow, told us that his band(s) would often hire their own sound guy, and pay him $100 per show. That doesn't include working sound for the other bands on the bill.

"I think bands would do well to bring their own engineer in many cases, but this is only effective if both the band and [the engineer] are willing to get there early enough to spend some time on sound check," he says. "I also like to try and work out a deal with the other bands on the bill to all chip in and pay the engineer for the whole night.

"Even if the house engineer is capable and competent, it might help just to have someone at the console that already knows your band's sound, and as long as you talk to the bar beforehand about it, and bring your guy in early, there should not be any problems. Plus stage turnarounds are usually much quicker with an extra audio guy on hand."

But house sound engineers often don't get paid enough to validate working such late and long hours. A friend of Webster's quit working at Fitzgerald's a month ago because audio engineers were only being paid $75 a day. From his experience, Webster says he feels about $150 a shift is fair.

"You wouldn't want a bartender who would work for $75 a night," Webster says. "For that price, you aren't going to get anyone even close to a professional."

Ed Note: Fitzgerald's owner Omar Afra says the club now pays most sound engineers $150 a night, and has invested nearly $20,000 in new equipment since he and partner Jagi Katial bought Fitz last summer.

An important question is posed: Why has the Houston music scene totally rejected the notion of having professional engineers mix our shows?

  Surely, Webster isn't the only person who feels this way, and we're in the process of talking to more former engineers, too. If you've attended at least a handful of local concerts, chances are you've been to one that was horribly mixed.

But is anyone saying anything? Not to our knowledge.

In 2006, before he began working for the church, Webster sometimes worked as a monitor engineer at Meridian. Back then he collected at least $150 a night, he said, and usually more if it was a national show.

"And that was the Meridian!" Webster says. "Although it was pre-House of Blues, when they still got the Live Nation shows. But when I am hired by sound companies who rent to cover bands, etc... I am never paid less than $100, and then only for a few hours work."

Meanwhile, many sound engineers around town get paid a pittance. Is the music that local musicians are creating not important enough to warrant quality sound? We understand that business is business, and that these venues have to turn a profit, but shouldn't there be a happy medium?

Concertgoers deserve to hear the performance as it is meant to be presented, to the best of the ability of whoever is onstage. But oftentimes, that's simply not the case.

Webster compares the quality of sound at local venues to the quality of food at a locally owned restaurant. If the food's terrible, and you don't say anything but keep coming back, nothing's going to change. But if you speak up and express your dissatisfaction with the finished product, usually the quality will improve - or, if nothing else, that one meal will be on the house.

"I think enough is enough, there are some very talented bands in Houston, and I think they deserve to be heard," Webster says. "Is it too much to ask to have intelligible vocals and for that solo singer-songwriter to not be eardrum-tearing loud at Walter's? Seriously, I would love to see some public demand for quality sound in our scene."

So what do you think, folks? Is the sound quality in Houston that bad, or are we making something out of nothing?


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