Leave Springsteen Alone: One Scientific Reason Why No One Should Be Outraged Over The Super Bowl Backing Tapes

noah | February 6, 2009 10:00 am

So, people are really upset about the idea that backing tapes were used during Jennifer Hudson’s and the E Street Band’s (separate) performances at the Super Bowl on Sunday, huh? I guess the idea that the biggest annual event in America is a heavily planned event that leaves very little to chance is still something that outrages Americans who need to be mad about something between election seasons. Anyway, yesterday I was trying to find a professional to weigh in on why these live performances might need a little enhancement—honestly, who here hasn’t bitched about the crappy sound quality of, say, a Saturday Night Live musical performance this year?—and I was alerted to a post by Fall Out Boy‘s Patrick Stump on the subject:

I’m hearing a lot of flack going the way of Jennifer Hudson, Faith Hill, and now Bruce Springsteen‘s legendary band for not performing live but miming their performances to pre-recorded music. And while I myself have made it a point never to lip-synch for any reason I have to say that, like the Christian Bale/Director of Photography debacle, uneducated people should mind their own business. Why is this trivia? Cause I’m gonna get vaguely technical:

Stadiums are built in large ovals or in circles and in some cases are built with the express purpose fo amplifying the crowd to dangerous volumes (this is said to “Inspire” sports players). Indeed, American football players have a high instance of hearing loss due to daily exposure to loud noise. Now add into that the shape and location of the speakers for stadiums. The problem is that in the case of music, any performer is going to be contending with the “Slapback,” or natural delay of the sound.

Think of sound like a distance runner. Now imagine that you’re playing music in a small club and the little runner has to sprint from your guitar to your amplifier to the mixing board to the PA speakers to the walls of the club and then run back to you. Sound travels very fast so in a small club this happens almost instantaneously and isn’t noticed by the human ear. But think of how big a stadium is. Now imagine that same runner having to perform that same sprint on the scale of a football field. The runner will be arriving later than they would if they were in the small club i.e. the sound is getting back to you well after you make it. As I’ve said before, this is called delay. Now, in some stadiums delays can be whole seconds which can seriously throw off a musician’s rhythm. Plus pitches can arrive late as well, making it hard to hear what key you’re in or even what note you’re singing. Plus you may be hearing two sounds at ones, the note you’re playing and the note you played. That can be confusing. Of course you could use “in-ear monitors,” like headphones that pipe in your mix to you. But even then, the isolation you’re getting isn’t enough to counteract the dangerous volumes bouncing from the crowds. The plain truth is that stadiums aren’t built for musical performance and are not suited for it…ever.

At any rate, these artists were asked by the Superbowl to “Perform,” for something they’re probably support (what were the Nielsen ratings for the Superbowl? Yeah there’s a good chance they’re football fans) and they wanted to give a good performance. Having heard the horror stories in the past of stadium shows going terribly wrong, they probably opted to be pre-recorded or partially pre-recorded. It was likely a tough decision to make but they decided to pros outweighed the cons and they went for it. And they are not alone. Most half-time shows performed by pop artists are pre-recorded whether or not attention is drawn to it. To blame Bruce Springsteen and his pit perfect band for the acoustically feeble architecture of a stadium is unfair and childish. The internet would be just as mean if they performed it off track, couldn’t hear themselves, and sounded bad. Springsteen is a legend and deserves a little respect. I know the internet was only invented so you can talk about how much you hate things in a disconnected attempt at scene points, but lighten up.

Not that this will necessarily put this particular nontroversy to bed, and I’m sure a just-as-technical counter-counterpoint to this counterpoint will come up soon (whee, arguing on the Internet)—but you have to admit, he does have a point about the whole “someone out there would steer the narrative about Bruce’s performance toward some sort of complaint, because being negative on the Internet always equals pageviews” argument.

Patrick Vaughn Stump [Official site; HT icecreamhdaches]