Written by 4:13 am News

Sometimes Live Sound Sucks!

Steven Stone visits a very bad sounding opera house that hopefully will never stage a real opera

Some live music can sound so bad that it makes you long for even a mediocre Bluetooth speaker – and I’m not talking about the genre, as in “I hate rap” (which I do not) but the quality of the sound itself.

AR-mormon3.jpgLast night my wife, her parents, her sister and husband, my niece and I all went to the opening night of The Book of Mormon at the Ellie Caulkins opera house, which is part of Denver’s Center for the Performing arts in downtown Denver. The venue is exactly nine minutes from my door. For convenience it even has a large multi-story parking lot that sits directly beside the complex and only charges $10, making the complex the closest (and easiest to attend) concert hall in all of Denver. That was the good news.

The hall itself, which is called an “Opera House”, is not an opera house in the traditional sense that it is an acoustically benign hall designed to support opera. No, the Ellie Caulkins is more accurately described as a “Broadway show venue” complete with sound reinforced EVERYTHING via three curved phase-array loudspeaker arrays dangling from the ceiling.

Our seats were in the second row of the Lodge, which in this venue is the third balcony. We were near the center, which offered a nice view of the whole stage. The sound, however, was worse and more abrasive than anything I’ve heard at any rock show. And why was the sound so bad? Chalk it up to the system’s equalization.

AR-mormon4.jpgI measured the SPLs during several dynamic peaks and while the sound was loud, peaking out around 102 dB, it was the quality of the sound, as opposed to the volume, that made it so execrable. Although I was not privy to seeing the room’s equalization curves, I’m absolutely positive that if I had seen them there would have been a large boost of at least six dB at frequencies between 2000 and 4000 Hz. I understand why some one would want to do this – boosting this frequency range usually improves dialogue decipherability.  Perhaps the dialog was easier to understand during quiet passages as a result of this boost, but every time the volume levels climbed above 95 dB the sound got not merely hard and peaky, but thoroughly and painfully NASTY.

I bring earplugs everywhere. The first four measures of the overture had me reaching down into my pockets for my -30dB pair. I was so glad I had them. Unfortunately, I only had one pair, so my wife had to experience the show at full volume. Every time there was a dynamic peak her hands went up to cover her ears. Yes, I felt badly for her, and if I was more masochistic and I didn’t make a living with my ears I would have given her my pair. But Sir Walter Raleigh I ain’t.

AR-mormon1.jpgIn the end I enjoyed the scatological nonsense that passes for entertainment in The Book of Mormon but I doubt I will want to attend another “musical” at this particular venue. It’s just not that much fun to be forced to use earplugs so that I can stay in the room and watch the show. But still, I’m so glad that I had a pair of plugs on my person, otherwise I would have been forced to spend the entire evening in the lobby.

And what’s the takeaway from all this? Always, always, bring earplugs with you whenever you are planning on attending any public event. You never know when you will find yourself marooned inside a hall containing an overly loud and badly equalized sound system, even in what was supposed to be an “opera house.” 

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