Worst sound yet

February 16, 2017
 by Paul McGowan

The 2017 Grammys was by far the worst sound quality yet, and not just by a little.

I record the Grammys each year so we can watch them later, skipping the commercials. It wasn't until last night we cranked up the system in the home theater and settled in for an evening of "live performances". I was very disappointed. Music was compressed, over-limited, bass shy. Not as bad as Sirrus Radio, but close.

Last year was entirely different from a quality audio standpoint.

As disappointed as I was with the audio quality, I am in awe of what these 200 plus people on the audio recording side are trying to pull off. Theirs is an impossible task, moving smoothly between the many live acts. I am always impressed there are as few errors as there are: a microphone that doesn't function, the wrong levels, etc. Completely understandable.

What isn't understandable is failing to achieve good sound. One would hope the audio quality would improve year after year, not the opposite.

The Grammy's is supposed to be the gold standard. It is the most difficult and demanding live recording gig in the world.

They pulled off everything except what really matters to us, the final product, and that is a shame.

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36 comments on “Worst sound yet”

  1. It's not shame, Paul. They simply are guided by the most important principle today: profit maximization! It's most expensive and time consuming to set up an audiophile microphone array and recording. A good example is a recent direct-to-disc recording of the Berlin Philharmonics done with a single pair of microphones. You have to pay some 600$ for the vinyl records of this concert.
    I doubt the majority of music lovers listening to music via earphones or Bluetooth based speakers is willing to pay for a good sound quality.

    1. "It’s most expensive and time consuming to set up an audiophile microphone array and recording."

      So, a single pair of microphones feeding a disc cutter, with (I assume) minimal electronics in-between, vs a multi microphone setup with mixing desk, racks of outboard processors, and a multi-track recorder, plus the additional time and expense of further mixing/processing/editing in the studio. Sorry, I don't get why the former should cost vastly more?

    2. I am not convinced of that. They spent a bloody fortune getting what they considered good sound. 200+ people and millions of dollars in equipment to capture what their engineers considered to be "the gold standard" for sound quality in the industry.

      I just think that today's standards for great sound lean towards over compressed with limited frequency extremes.

  2. What do you think of the CMA Awards - sounds pretty good on my home system. Also - Country Music folk can certainly play and sing live! (Although I'm not entirely convinced by some of the schmaltz.)

  3. I recall thinking the same thing about some other music based programs in the past. "American Idol" comes to mind. Some of the performances sounded so terrible yet the judges raved. I saw an interview about the sound one time and it was pointed out the sound live was different than what one is sent via broadcast.

    I think what we get at home is dynamically boosted and compressed in order to be heard through the tiny crappy speakers built into most television sets. I don't know the percentages but I am convinced that the vast majority of people watch a program like the Grammys just using the built-in speakers, or the local electronics big box store loss leader sound bar. In my real estate business I show hundreds of homes a year and can count on my hands the number of homes that have anything in them beyond this. Most of the time in the properties I get into, even if they have a surround the system it's always tiny little cubes into too large of a room, or the speakers are laying on their side or next to one another on top of the entertainment system or somesuch nonsense. Listening on any of that junk you would never hear the difference in sound quality.

    Even though I have an extensive home theater set up of my own I admit to not utilizing it for some of these programs only so I don't end up disappointed. At least my big screen has the built in speakers pointed toward the listening position as opposed to being on the back or sides of the cabinet like many.

    There was a story on one of the entertainment websites about James Hetfield's (Metallica) microphone not working when he was doing the duet with Lady Gaga, so he had to share Gaga's mic, and how he had a meltdown backstage about it. I am sure there are many such instances in any live performance like this.

  4. When working out in my basement, I have a really crappy cheap TV hooked up in front of my cross-trainer. What I find in practice is that if the sound isn't dynamically compressed as far up the wazoo as they can get it, the quiet parts get drowned out by the combination of background noise and the limitations of the TV's electronics and speakers, and it becomes surprisingly hard to follow.

    So I guess the people who engineer the sound of the Grammys broadcast have to decide who the audience is, what sort of equipment they are listening on, and in what sort of environment. My guess is that high-end home theater was not considered to be the most representative setup. So, they wind the compression way up to account for crap in-TV speakers, and roll off the bass to stop it distorting at higher volumes.

    Not sure I would have done it differently 🙂

        1. So I guess Twitter erupted over this as well, with even those with cheap speakers noticing it. Here is an article I cut and pasted from "the wrap" site.

          The 2016 Grammy Awards got off to a shaky start when the second performance of the night, Sam Hunt and Carrie Underwood, appeared to be plagued by audio issues.

          People on social media were immediately annoyed. “And the Grammy for the worst sound quality in a live Grammy broadcast goes to…” tweeted one user.

          “Who is mixing the audio at the Grammy’s? Kinda got the vocals low on two performances so far,” said another.

          No reports of sound problems with The Weeknd’s performance, other than some fans saying the “I Can’t Feel My Face” singer sounded like a “bleating goat.”

          But complaints came back in full force following Adele’s performance of “All I Ask” when the audio on the British singer’s performance cut out momentarily. Audio issues throughout the performance had viewers on Twitter in a rage.

          “Dear Sound Guy at the #GRAMMYs. The one time you can’t mess up is when @Adele is performing,” one user wrote.

          1. So as anyone with a keen eye will see, my cut and paste referred to the 2016 Grammy awards. I found however many similar posts about the 2017 awards but the sites that report these things are so full of ad-popups and slow loading content that I didn't want to waste anyone's time here going to them. Just suffice it to say they were noticed by many.

            From what one site said the organizers keep apologizing each year for the bad sound, then seem to do nothing about it, unless they simply don't know what good sound is supposed to be like 🙂 To a modern engineer I am afraid good sound is not what we would consider good sound.

      1. In today’s digital marketplace content is king. Perhaps they
        (cbs & the academy) are attempting to further monetize the performances from last Sunday evening and intentionally dumbed down the audio.

        CBS knows how to mix great audio for television, the David Letterman show was consistently high quality audio broadcasting in the later episodes. Wireless microphone failures occur for a myriad of reasons and orchestrating the various set’s and the performance artist changes are a challenge.

        I’d be surprised if many of the folks here found very much artistic merit in the performances. Gotta love the way Lady Gaga jumped in and tramped along with Metallica, she is one of the most versatile artist’s out there today and is not afraid to experiment, take chances and fail from time-to-time.

      2. From my son whom I forwarded your post on to read: What he needs to understand is that he is never ever ever ever ever going to get a clean and uncompressed sound. In fact it may continue to get worse. And this has nothing to do with the live mixer or engineer. This has to do entirely with the computers and machines that broadcast the signal out through to your cable provider. The audio being sent out has to be compressed in order to meet what's called an LKFS measurement in compliance with the ATSC loudness standard that was passed as a law on congress which is known as the CALM act. It basically forbids dynamic range in broadcast. Its supposed to prevent huge jumps in volume from movies and tv shows and commercials so that you're not constantly reaching for the remote. Obviously it's not a perfect standard because we still do but it's better than it was. How they measure it is all really nerdy and technical stuff with a lot of math involved but that's beside the point.

        The point is by LAW it has to be compressed to meet that standard and then the broadcaster AGAIN compresses it send it over the air in as narrow a bandwidth as possible before its re-decompressed by your tv or receiver in order to play it.

        So unfortunately the goal of getting an uncompressed and beautiful sound from anything ever recorded over cable is a non-possibility. The only way he could get anything like that would be if he personally knew the engineer and they would have to be coincidentally recording the material before hitting that compressor and I'm guessing its already hitting that compressor before its laid down for air. The LKFS standard was developed by Bob Katz one of the leading mastering engineers in the world.
        Q: I asked about streaming and on demand which sounds good to me at home in my HT. A: Actually I don't believe the streaming is affected in the same way because it's not affected by the ATSC standard. Its only for content that is broadcast out live on a channel with commercials and such.

        On demand, Netflix, Hulu, etc are not affected.

        Sorry Paul!!

        1. From my read on the CALM act (which I applaud) the idea was to make sure commercials don't exceed the same average loudness as the program material - not the opposite.

          So, while your observation may be correct, the law does not regulate loudness or dynamic range of program material, just the commercials that accompany it.

          The CALM act was passed in 2012. The 2016 Grammys were dynamic and good. PBS has excellent dynamics.

          So, a good theory and I appreciate you bringing it up, but I don't think this applies.

    1. The newest AppleTV offers that as well. You can hit the microphone icon on the remote and say "what did they say" and it jumps back 30 seconds or so and turns on the subtitles.

  5. I didn't watch the show and have no particular insight on this specific broadcast, but what you hear from your local station may be much worse than what the network is sending out. They can add compression and may not be transmitting the best possible feed.
    You can get a little insight in some of the discussion between posts 14 through 21 in the following.

    1. I stopped voting a few years back after the nomination round got to over 600 per category. Major acts would put one item up, and lots of acts no one has ever heard of (and mostly never will) nominated a half dozen tracks from their albums just to get their names in front of voters.

  6. They clearly didn't have their shit together. How about the mic fail during the Metallica, Lady Gaga duet. That went on forever and never was remedied, insane! Where was the grip running out and swapping the mic during a Gaga verse, come on guys, really??

  7. The most annoying thing to me was all the momentary audio dropouts. Maybe it was just Charter/Spectrum cable, but it happens a lot during live music award shows.

  8. I stopped recording the Grammys a few years back because there was so little content. I think the last performance that grabbed me was Amy Winehouse beamed in from London. "They said that I should watch the Grammys, but I said No, No NO!". As for music discovery, if there were any worthwhile performances I hear about them - that's real news in my world. I already knew about Laura Mvula thanks to Craig Ferguson. Anybody else make it on air besides the usual suspects?

    The audio ecology is suffering from multiple interactive epidemics: noise pollution; tiny speakers, circuits and earbuds that cost under $2 to manufacture; bad acoustics; over-production; celebrities that can't play or sing; computerized tracks; trite lyrics over endlessly re-hashed beats, chords and melodies. From where I sit, music as experienced over the last 35,000 years as an essential part of human culture is nearly dead. Mass media control has forced all socially relevant music underground and live acoustic music is an elite .01% cult.

    Now imagine audio engineers working for TV networks. They never hear live music. There are so few live music broadcasts with more than one hit song (talk shows) that even the experienced engineers get rusty in the six to twelve months between gigs, and this takes a dozen engineers in the chain from stage to your home. Just managing the wireless mics and In-Ear Monitors takes many people running around with hundreds of cues, live directorial shifts and no margin for error in time, space or patching.

    Even "Music Reality Shows" are not equivalent. They only switch one or two mics, the entire band is the same for the whole season, and it is all scripted. Yep, Simon Cowell spent hundreds of hours coming up with his put-downs, they are not spontaneous.

    If you go skiing one weekend a year, you never learn how to do it. It takes a five to ten day stretch to improve. There is only one annual show of this magnitude, so there will be no incremental progress except what is achievable through automation - and they are already close to that limit until the microphones and headphones sense implanted chips in the performers.

    Live recordings of musical spectaculars are no problem given post-production. You run two or three 96 channel digital microphone snakes to hard disk recorders, and with that much coverage you can afford to lose a mic or two. Even if you lose lead vocals, you can overdub - which is standard operating procedure!

    If you want to hear Adele sing, try looking up her "Carpool Karaoke" segment with James Cordon, also Bruno Mars. It's a dirty shame that even real performers are squeezed into bad sound boxes for the consuming public.

    1. Cordon's segments are quite fun. Adele doing rap was a highlight of that show. I like how he has, a couple of times, just stopped at a traffic light or something and then a random person gets in the car to startle the guest, with said random person being a singer as well. Very fun TV.

      I just listened to a CD today by Grace Vanderwaal, who was this year's winner on "The Voice". If you go to the YouTube segments of her singing, or even her YouTube channel, the music is not compressed, fresh, barely produced and kind of fun. Listening to the CD was an exercise in torture, dynamically compressed, over produced, over dubbed, maybe even AutoTuned, just terrible. Perhaps this is what the main buying public wants but it sure turned me off to the sound.

    1. I wonder if running the cable audio feed can be improve by the use of a dac. i put the cable boxes optical through my dac and then my tube amp. my wife and i were still disappointed with the sound. i dont make it through these shows, but i wondered if anything can be done to improve broadcasts often bad audio. i sometimes have to explain that it is the feed not my system when my wife complains.

  9. It may be that the bad sound is a result of the cable company using higher compression this year vs previous years so as to squeeze more content in the channel, rather than the fault of the source sound.

  10. Given the quality of what passes for music today, I'm sure that the sound however awful it was, was more than sufficient for the quality of what was being presented.

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