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Readers chime in on sound quality in local clubs

There’s more to it than connecting a few speakers, grabbing a cheap mixing board and cranking it up.

Sound engineering is a science, and the quality of sound in a concert club or bar can vary widely, greatly impacting the experience for the audience. How many times have you gone to a show and left feeling a little bit ripped off because the sound quality made it close to impossible to get into the music? Conversely, how often have you gone to a show and been blown away by the crisp, clean quality of the sound?

There are many variables in play when it comes to creating a pleasing sonic experience in a club or bar. Right off the bat, the sound engineer is dealing with the fact that most of these rooms were not designed with sound quality in mind. Large, cavernous rooms with high ceilings and lots of concrete are a soundman’s nightmare. Often, the live music aspect is treated as an afterthought.

We are seeing a change in Buffalo clubland regarding the sound experience, however. Several area establishments have set the bar rather high in this regard, to the point where anyone who wants to have a stake in the game needs to address the issue of quality live sound. This means more investment on the club side – newer, in many cases better PA equipment, perhaps some acoustic tiling or baffling in the room, and most significantly, a full-time sound engineer who knows the room, knows the equipment, and knows how the two will (and should) intermingle.

I took an informal poll of Buffalo News readers via Facebook over the past few weeks, and threw the sound quality issue out there. The response was impressive, both in terms of quantity and quality. This is an issue that regular attendees of concerts in clubs and bars feel strongly about. I asked readers to pick their favorite club for a positive live sound experience, and explain why this club had an advantage over others, from their perspective.

Of the several hundred responses, one club emerged as the winner by a significant margin. The Sportsmen’s Tavern (326 Amherst St.) was mentioned in nearly every response I received as a club that is handling the sound issue most effectively. Recent investments in remodeling at the club have been matched by the attention to sonic detail, and the result, according to readers, is a pristine sound quality that is clean, loud without being obnoxiously so, and well-mixed. My experiences at the club back up this notion. The Sportsmen’s does indeed sound great. That said, the club does tend to present artists falling within the roots music niche, many of whom play at lower volumes, and are thus more inclined to mix themselves, so to speak. Music played at significantly higher decibel levels presents its own set of unique challenges for the soundman/woman.

Bearing this in mind, it makes sense that the next two most popular clubs cited in the reader responses were the Tralf Music Hall (622 Main St.) and the Town Ballroom (681 Main St.), both of which routinely present heavy rock, alternative and electronic music shows at near-arena rock volumes. Reader response suggested that both of these concert clubs have figured out the formula necessary to balance high volume with a pleasing mix that suits the room.

I’ve had great experiences at the Tralf over the years, ranging from a heavy outfit like Adrian Belew’s Power Trio or King’s X, to the trippy nuance and ornate detail of jam-tronica pioneers Ozric Tentacles, or the broad dynamics by a band led by jazz great Kenny Garrett. All of these shows boasted live sound that was pretty close to flawless.

I have never heard better live sound in a Buffalo club than during Sunday’s Steven Wilson show at the Town Ballroom. It was pristine and broad in dynamic range, loud enough to be powerful, but never overwhelming.

The newly opened Waiting Room is a surprisingly good sounding space. It’s long and deep, and there are plenty of reflective surfaces for the sound to bounce off. However, at the recent grand opening celebration at the club, I was impressed by the sound quality. It was loud, but clear and well-mixed.

Your thoughts on this topic reveal the significance of sound quality, and how the issue in some cases has been a decisive factor in which clubs you choose to patronize. Many responses suggested that the most important person in the room is the soundman – that these professionals can make less-than-perfect equipment sing beautifully, overcome flaws inherent to the available space and strike the perfect balance. A shout-out seems in order for the sound professionals at the clubs you voted for.