On July 5, 1981, Dire Straits played on the Werchter festival in Belgium. The concert was broadcasted on the radio and on TV and is one of the very few soundboard recordings from the 1980/81 On Location tour.
There is one thing that always strikes me about that recording: Mark’s guitar sound was what I’d call ‘strange’, and completely different from all other recordings of the same tour we have (and there are many…). It had a very different, harsh kind of treble. To my ears it sounds like a direct out of the amp, and not like the mic’ed guitar speaker you would expect here.
You will probably know that a typical guitar speaker is a ‘woofer’, a loudspeaker aimed mainly at low and midrange frequencies. It has a pronounced treble roll off, which means it hardly produces high treble frequencies over maybe 6 kHz. For this reason it strongly colours the sound; it automatically filters out unwanted harsh, crisp frequencies. Without the guitar speaker especially a distorted guitar would not sound as we all expect it to sound. For this reason there are – unlike in a PA system – no tweeters (high frequency speakers) in a guitar cabinet.
What is strange about the Werchter guitar sound is that I feel to hear exactly these frequencies that should not be there. How is this possible, as we know that Mark of course used guitar speakers on this tour, Marshall 4 x 12″ cabinets to be precise? And on all other recordings from the tour the sound is not like on this one.
It seems unlikely to me that they had a completely different setup for this day – especially as Mark’s live sound required a full effect rack that is not easy to substitute. And even if a guitar speaker suddenly fails, you can simply put the microphone in front of another one – there are four of them in each cabinet! The only theory that makes sense to me is that there was a second signal path involved, one without the guitar speakers. This ‘direct out’ was blended with the signal from the microphones/speakers. One possible reason to do so might be that this way you have more high end and low end to enrich the ‘normal’ sound of the speakers to a desired extend.
I guess for the radio/TV broadcast the concert was mixed separatedly from the PA mix, most likely by engineers of the broadcasters . This is not unusual, you normally want to mix to a much wider stereo signal than you’d do for a PA system. And the sound guys responsible for this mix simply used the direct signal rather than the mic’ed speakers signal, they maybe did simply not know why there were two different sources and what to do with these.
Interestingly the youtube video of this concert includes a few songs that were missing on the radio/TV broadcast. These came from an audience recording in bad quality (see video description), but you can clearly hear that on these songs the sound is very much as it is on all other recordings from the tour, not as thin and trebly as on the radio mix!
Of course this is speculation but if I am right indeed it tells us something about the way Mark created his stage sound on this tour (or even on others, too ??) .
Hi there Ingo
Great site you got, I always enjoy your articles.
I know it’s possible not the case, but to me the “ugly sounding guitar reminds me of the sterile sound from early active pickups.
Yes, active pickups can create a similar sound, also from having higher treble than wanted for the particular sound. Mark has the passive Duncans SSL-1 here in the red Strat, and the sound is similar with the sunburst Strat on Tunnel of Love that has the tapped Schecter pickups. As mentioned, the sound over the PA was as like always on that tour, listen to the few songs from the audience recording, so it must be something with the radio mix. I doubt that simply turning up the treble control on the mixing console would give this sound, that is why I came to this theory here.
I have very little technical expertise to add to the discussion. However, the sound in this recording, to me, is strongly reminiscent of the guitar sound of the Alchemy live recording. As such, I do not find it horrible. I would simply have attrtibuted the tinny-ness to the poor recording quality. But in both cases the tone reminds me of how a Strat sounds when played through an accoustic guitar amplifyer (trebly and a bit brittle), and I wondered if the trebly/slinky clear tone is a characteristic of the Music Man 130 and/or of the SSL-1’s. Anyhow, I had tried to duplicate the Alchemy tone by playing through a blues junior and a accoustic amp simultaneously and blending them together by varying the respective volume levels. So your take on the parallel signal paths make me wonder if i was on the right track….
Yup, I’m sure you’re right Ingo, and I know also it’s not active picks, it just really reminded me of that ugly 80’ies active pickup sound 🙂
thanks for this explanation Ingo 🙂
the silver pressed CD bootleg was one of the firsts I bought, and the first recording from On location tour I heard.
At first listening I indeed found Mark’s guitar sound very thin, but I thought it was due to super light strings like you talk about in an article.
But now, it seems indeed more relevant to think it’s due to this strange mix.
what I like with this blog is to still continue to learn new things year after year. 🙂
I was wondering… What if the cause of the guitar sounding that way at this show is related to the accident that spilled a bottle of wine or some other drink on the band’s equipment just as the show was about to start, Mark says something about the lights that they’re running low, but at the beginning of the video there’s a subtitle with information in dutch I suppose, what if you’ve damaged something on the band’s PA and that’s causing the kind of sound you get at this show…? Just a hypothesis.