observations from NYC concert trip

Over the past weekend I made a trip to the NYC/New Jersey area with old friend Andy Wimsatt, who has interesting Twitter and Instagram feeds.   We went to two shows: Opeth/Gojira/Devon Townsend at the Starland Ballroom in New Jersey, and Japanese Breakfast/Slowdive at Brooklyn Steel in Brooklyn.

It was my first trip to NYC, so I hit as many tourist attractions as possible, and posted a bunch of pics about that to my Facebook feed.   The only attraction I really wanted to get to and didn’t, was Troma headquarters.

The most important thing I learned on this trip was the secret instructions that sound engineers use to mix sound for opening bands.  The process is this:

  1. Turn up the bass drum until it’s the loudest instrument, regardless of genre of music.  When the PA speakers start to break up, boost the 30 Hz another 6 dB and leave it alone.
  2. Turn up the vocal until it’s almost as loud as the bass drum.
  3. Roll off everything below 60 Hz on the bass guitar and turn it up almost as loud as the bass drum, so the bass is a muddy mess with no discernable pitch.
  4. Roll off any part of the guitar and keyboard frequencies that provide pitch information and mix them 20 dB below the bass drum and vocals.
  5. Only turn up the guitar if it’s a solo, then turn it back down.
  6. If there are backing vocals, mix them 20 dB below the lead vocal so you can sort of tell that someone else is singing.

For the headliner, actually try to do a good job.

I found myself watching the staff and crew at the Starland Ballroom as much as I was watching the show.  It’s a 2500 seat place, extremely well run.  The pre-show slides included an IHOP ad that caused everyone to cheer wildly each time it cycled through (Andy captured on Instagram) and a venue map that showed where all the exits were for evacuation.  Because it was a metal show, there was moshing and crowdsurfing.  Their staff did a great job handling crowdsurfers.  They had one security guy designated as the “dismounter” (call him Bigfoot) and whoever was surfing would get passed that direction.  “Bigfoot” would help the person down and send them out a cleared path back into the pit.  At one point someone’s phone was dropped and recovered, held up and passed back to staff.  During lulls in the mosh, staff were using SureFire or other “all the lumens” lights to check status in the pit making sure nobody was down.  They had on bright orange shirts, radios, bright lights, very visible presence but behavior was much more safety than security.

After particularly intense songs, the crowd would chant Holy Shit! Holy Shit! like they do in WWE.

After the show, the staff did a great job of getting people out. Big signs, staffers directing people to multiple exits.  When I worked for TEEX I managed a couple of the  “sports and special events” courses and took several classes in that series.  The operations at the Starland would make a great case study for one of those courses.

By comparison, the show at Brooklyn Steel showed the newness of the venue and the staff.  Safety/security types were hard to identify, much less active, and crowdflow problems, such as the merch line blocking access to the bathrooms, happened.

As for the music: Devon Townsend is a great singer, would have enjoyed a longer set. The crowd loved Gojira, but the horrible sound mix made it hard to enjoy.  Opeth sounded great and was everything I expected.  Japanese Breakfast suffered from opening band sound mix problems.  Slowdive had a great light show, and was well received by the large crowd.  To me it seemed like every song basically had the same sound and same tempo, and at one point the female singer was at least a quarter note off key. As Andy pointed out, when the tonal instruments are drowning in reverb it can be hard to find the pitch.

Due to a timely post on Bill Crider’s blog about unusual sights to see in Manhattan, we made an unplanned stop at the Houdini Museum which is a tiny little place with no signage outside the building it’s in.