Where to Stand at a Festival for the Best Sound
You bought the tickets, got the time off of work, and you look fly in your favorite dance-floor apparel. You waited patiently in line, and threaded through the crowd like a ninja, two drinks in hand and boo in tow. So where to now?
There are several ways to think about where to stand to watch the band. Maybe you play in a band yourself and want to be close enough to see the musicians do their thing. Maybe you just need a clear space to rock out and dance. Maybe you don’t like the hustle of a packed crowd, and want to chill back and contemplate the visuals (of the lightshow, man).
Or perhaps you’re an audiophile like me, and you are hunting for that special sound. The Sweet Spot. That magical place in the room/hall/arena/forest where every tone is perfectly balanced. This coveted space can make the difference between a good time and a truly transcendent musical experience.
There’s just something about a good mix that allows us to commune intimately with the artist and what they've come to convey. A bad mix on the other hand keeps me strangely insulated from the artist, no matter how loud it gets (volume can often be a part of the problem, as I discussed in my last post).
So how do we find the Sweet Spot? The challenge is, quite simply, because sound is weird. The physics of sound, of how loudspeakers reproduce the countless, interactive, and codependent frequencies we call music, is endlessly complex. Every variable changes where the Sweet Spot might be. Because of these variables, it would be impossible — or just bullsh*t — for me to say just where you should stand at tonight’s show. But I can give some general advice to help you make the call.
Stand Near the Mixing Board
The best tool the sound engineer has is his or her ears. Their mixing position is set such that it represents an acoustic average of the environment (often the center of the space). If they think it sounds good where they are standing, you probably will too.
Avoid Reflective Surfaces
Standing next to a wall, in front of a column, or under an overhang is almost always a bad move. The sound waves will bounce off any flat surface, breaking apart as they careen and ricochet (sound waves will essentially knock each other out of the air) through the atmosphere. If your left and right ear are dealing with these echoes in an acutely imbalanced place, the mix will sound lopsided and lose clarity. Any overhang is an obstruction that will keep some waves from reaching you, most likely the higher speakers carrying the higher frequencies. Because the subs are almost always the lowest part of the system to the ground, standing in such a spot will tend to be whoofy and muddy. Standing near a rear wall will allow the waves to reverberate and cause unwanted slapback.
Highs, mids, and lows all travel through the air with different characteristics. Lower tones require much more energy to push than highs, such that higher frequencies essentially move faster (trippy, right?). Modern sound systems involve a sophisticated series of microsecond delays to account for this, so that most of the sound hits most of the crowd as a coherent blend (get on with it, professor). Think of it like a bottle of fine wine: You want to give it some time to open up. If you are too close you might just notice a lack of clarity. If you are too far back, you would be correct to expect the opposite problem: that the waves have flown valiantly through the air like angels bringing music to your ears. After a certain distance air friction and wave interaction causes them to dissipate, but at different rates of decay. That's when sound is thin as well as being unclear.
Another thing to consider is the way the sound system is designed. Are the speakers ground stacked or “flown?” Are they arranged just as left and right groups or are their any speakers filling the center of the crowd? These kind of questions have everything to do with your experience of the mix. For years I have struggled to balance my love of the energy of the pit with my knowledge of its acoustic limitations. Next time you are in the pit look at the speakers. You will likely notice that they aren’t pointed at you. The designers had a whole room to balance, and the engineer can’t mix for the front row. So there I was after a Flaming Lips show complaining that I couldn’t here Wayne Coyne’s voice, and I overheard somebody say the vocals were way too loud!
It’s a daunting task to find the Sweet Spot. Sometimes it’s almost impossible. But it’s always worth it. Keep looking, because it’s worth a few moments when you’re choosing your seats or cruising through the crowd.