Reverberation decay of concrete structures, as applied to hair metal

In 1988, I saw the Monsters of Rock tour at the Seattle Kingdome. For the most part, the bands that performed were hair metal at their finest: Kingdom Come, Dokken, Scorpions, Van Halen. Metallica also played a set, which was good in a non-ironic sense.

What wasn’t good about the show: the sound. The Kingdome was notorious for having horrible acoustics, with a HUGE reverb decay – I have seen it estimated at between 9 and 10 seconds for low frequencies. This is roughly comparable to a large stone cathedral, or to Eos at its longest setting. The enormous reverb decay turned all the guitar solos into sonic mud. Eddie Van Halen’s solo spot, where he played “Eruption,” was blurred to the point of inaudibility.

Looking back on that show after 22 years, it strikes me that this was the first time that I had considered how music could be suited, or poorly suited, to an acoustic environment. The fast riffs played on that day were lost in the acoustics of the building. Granted, it is unfair to expect any type of music short of Gregorian chant to be able to adapt to the Kingdome. The footage of Led Zeppelin playing there in 1977 is cringe inducing:

The huge reverb time in the Kingdome undoubtedly shares much of the blame. Can’t rule out heroin as a problem, either, but I digress.

Nevertheless, any band that is regularly performing in front of 60,000+ people is going to be playing in venues with longer reverb times than your average small club. I would argue that the stylistic changes of many bands that reach huge levels of success can be seen as a response to the different acoustic situations they are faced with.

For example, Metallica’s “Masters of Puppets” era speed metal seems like it was designed around smaller clubs or arenas. Here’s Metallica in Seattle, probably at the old Coliseum (now Key Arena), which seated about 15,000 at the time:

Put the same songs into a much larger venue, and the fast riffs are washed out by the reverb. Metallica’s 1991 “black album” had a MUCH slower tempo overall, with the songs simplified and the drum beats greatly reduced in complexity. My friends and I all thought “sellout” at the time. A few decades later, it seems like a natural response to their own success, and the stadiums that they were starting to fill. The 1988 Kingdome show was sonic soup, while the Metallica show I saw in 1991 in Oakland Stadium seemed much better suited to the large venue.*

Over the next several posts, I will be exploring the history and prehistory of music in highly reverberant spaces, and how music adapts to fit its acoustic setting. The posts will probably be heavier on theory, and lighter on hair metal.

That being said, RIP, Ronnie James Dio. Here’s his video for “Holy Diver.” If you can figure out what the hell is going on in this video, please let me know.

* My wife, upon reviewing my post: “Do you have any examples of Metallica’s Black Album you could put in there?”

Me: “No. I FUCKING HATE that album.”

Old grudges die hard.

About the author:

Sean Costello is the "algorithmic reverb plugin wizard" [citation needed] at Valhalla DSP.

Comments (2)

  1. That whole album (Holy Diver) seemed a lot like that video. The meandering, pointless, generic songs were all kinda thin. Last in Line, his followup solo album, while way more commercial, had more meat on the bones and at least had some groove to it, and some incredibly crunchy riffs throughout.

    Holy Diver, from front to back, just seems like a totally generic rock album to me– like something you’d hear on an instructional video somewhere.

    …And you raise a fair point about the Black Album, but I have trouble believing that the gradual direction to that great Bon Jovi sound they nailed was in any way geared toward sounding good in large venues. It is possible to sound good in large venues without compromising your studio album. Lars has dollar-signs for eyeballs, don’t you know.

    I mean, didn’t they go country at one point? Christ.

  2. Yeah, but that video from the Last In Line video was pretty fucking lame, even by my teenage standards when it came out:

    [youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NmMhAdtzheE”]

    And I agree that the suckage of the Black Album was probably more due to commercial goals, plus the influence of Bob Rock, than the influence of reverb on their performances. But that wouldn’t really work with the theme of this blog, which is more about the science of this stuff, as opposed to the aesthetics of hair metal over time.

    To my original point, I think that plenty of bands do change their sound in order to carry in larger spaces. Monster Magnet, for example, used to rely on the Big Muff for their distortion, but then switched to a more generic tube amp distortion when they made it bigger. In my opinion, the sound suffered, but the fact remains that it is really hard to hear any actual NOTES when playing a Big Muff, and a big reverberant space only exaggerates the problems. Same thing with Smashing Pumpkins – used Big Muffs on record, and some kinda whiny ADA preamp live – but the tone from the preamp allowed for the music to carry better in a live situation.

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