Beats of burden: Why Hong Kong's music scene is suffering
The city's live music scene is suffering from a lack of good acoustics in venues
We've all been there: one of your favourite bands is going to play in Hong Kong. You gulp at the ticket price but buy one anyway, and spend weeks getting terribly excited. Then you go along, only to find that the songs you love have been reduced to tinny, echoing knockoffs by dreadful acoustics at the venue.
Whether a stadium rock act, jazz legend or an orchestra is playing, acoustics are often lacking at Hong Kong halls. The big arenas - such as AsiaWorld-Expo and the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (HKCEC), which can seat more than 10,000 for a concert - cop most of the flak. At the opposite end of the scale, seating 1,000-2,000 each, are City Hall and town halls around the New Territories run by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD).
The problem is that mid-sized facilities are scarce, so groups that would prefer a venue that seats about 5,000 are basically forced into the much maligned big places.
But the venues themselves aren't really the problem. Hong Kong's big venues are multipurpose, as likely to be used for an exhibition or a convention as a concert, so any audio set-up is temporary and the responsibility of the promoter. Most large venues are essentially massive concrete boxes. So getting the acoustics perfect requires sensitive handling, and that costs money.
"To treat a room properly and effectively is expensive and requires 100 per cent commitment from the venue," says Dan Findlay, a sound engineer who also runs Midnight & Co nightclub in Central.
"There are plenty of options available to alleviate acoustic issues, the only deciding factor is the cost. Why would a multipurpose venue dedicate funds towards music events that only happen 12 to 15 times per year? Financially it makes zero sense when there is no competitive space raking in all the business.
"You can make any space sound amazing, but in business terms, why bother, especially with two-plus-one yearly rent contracts the norm, and unknown but typically insane rent increases thereafter. And an inappropriate venue and an untreated acoustic space are always going to be a headache for installers and a disappointment for a paying crowd."
That puts the onus on promoters to provide the sound quality. "It's possible to do it well with good equipment and personnel," says Clarence Chang, record producer and owner of jazz CD retailer Jazz World. "It's all about how much the promoter wants to spend."
When sound waves hit a wall, they bounce off it, interacting with each other in ways that affect what goes into your ears. That can be good or bad, but when the untreated walls of a massive concrete box are bombarded with sound from all directions, the result is usually a mess. The answer is to treat the walls with acoustic materials to absorb sound, but that takes time and money.
Similarly, the problem of distortion can be solved easily enough by investing in high-quality audio equipment, which, again, comes at a cost. It's no coincidence that Canto-pop gigs at venues such as the Coliseum often offer the best sound experience in Hong Kong: the money is there to do it properly. Spokespeople for both AsiaWorld-Expo and HML, which operates HKCEC, say the venue operators are constantly talking to users about their requirements, and have invested in equipment such as acoustic panelling.
"I've heard good sound at places like AsiaWorld, but you have to have the right equipment," says Skip Moy, a jazz guitarist, audio engineer and concert production manager.
Moy says the best sound he has heard there was for two gigs he went to specifically because he knew the sound would be good: Beyoncé and Jacky Cheung.
He knows from personal experience how good the sound at the HKCEC can be, having produced a 6,000-seat event in Hall Three. "It was for an insurance company. I had a proper budget, and you could hear a pin drop," he says.
Unfortunately, not everyone realises a proper budget is necessary. "Installation companies are forced to bid on contracts, and more often than not, clients assume that all components and all engineers are created equal - far from true. The lowest price usually wins," Findlay says.
"Were there favourable conditions in Hong Kong for a well set-up, privately run, fully licensed venue to exist sustainably, then promoters would not have to rely on temporary sound systems and all the other negative aspects of large, unfriendly exhibition venues. A privately operated venue would have to fight off competition on its merits, and therefore, sound would naturally be a key selling point."
Leanne Nicholls, founder and artistic director of the City Chamber Orchestra, says that similar problems extend beyond the biggest venues and the world of amplified music.
"It's always a challenge with a large venue. The difference between the Cultural Centre or City Hall and AsiaWorld is several thousand seats, and there's nothing in between. Many times we have wanted a medium-sized venue," she says.
"Every time a new venue goes up, I get excited - until I go there. The cost is usually too high. It's not feasible to put on a concert in certain venues, because you just get a shell. We're always under budget and have a short time in the venue. We have to spend a lot of time doing soundchecks, and ... sometimes we have to perform without having rehearsed enough at that particular venue.
"We're never given enough time to balance the sound amid all those issues. It's difficult to strike a balance between making a concert financially feasible and making it the best possible concert. I don't like to have to make that decision."
Although many of the smaller halls have good reputations for acoustics, one government venue derided by many is the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.
Klaus Heymann, Hong Kong-based founder of the classical recording label Naxos, calls the cultural centre "a disaster".
The irregularly shaped internal walls create all sorts of "funny reflections", he says. "It depends entirely on where you sit; the sound is completely different. Also, the musicians on stage can't hear themselves or the other performers."
That the acoustics weren't considered more carefully when the venue was built, Heymann says, is inexcusable.
Chang says he would pay for a seat in the cultural centre only if it was in the first five rows.
An LCSD spokeswoman says that the department has worked with sound experts and clients to identify issues with the venue.
"Several studies revealed excessive sound variations between different seating areas, and the geometry of the Concert Hall may be one of the reasons." Modifications over the years to improve acoustic quality have included extending the performance area and replacing the back wall with diffuser panels, the spokesperson adds.
It's tempting to blame the venues for acoustic deficiencies, but that doesn't tell most of the story. The real problem is money. The amount that needs to be spent to make those venues sound good is rarely available, and that's largely because hiring the space is expensive.
In other words, that bad sound quality you hear at gigs is caused, like everything else that is bad in this city, by murderously high rents.