Why music fans complain about AT&T Stadium’s sound

Overview of AT&T Stadium with Asleep at the Wheeel on stage during the George Strait farewell tour June 7, 2014
Overview of AT&T Stadium with Asleep at the Wheeel on stage during the George Strait farewell tour June 7, 2014 Special to

AT&T Stadium, standing sentinel in an ocean of asphalt in Arlington, was built for one reason: football.

The building is, as much as any sports venue can be, a temple to the excess of American consumption, the enduring appeal of a brutally beautiful game and the maniacal passion engendered by the Dallas Cowboys and the team’s billionaire owner, Jerry Jones.

The stadium, with its vast trove of modern art, high-priced hamburgers and mammoth video board, is many things to many people. But what it is most assuredly not is a place where music fans — many of whom will be there to see the British group Coldplay on Saturday — often find satisfaction.

“If the quality of your listening matters, especially if it’s a concert that you paid a lot of money for and waited a long time to see, then you will be disappointed,” wrote JanieB_11 on TripAdvisor in 2012. “I’m sure the football is fun but concerts should NOT happen here.”

“The sound sucks at AT&T Stadium!!” tweeted Tracie Deason during the Academy of Country Music Awards ceremony last year.

“Only problem, the sound was very bad!!!” wrote a user by the name of “View” on Ticketmaster after Kenny Chesney’s June gig at the stadium. “Music was too loud and you could not hear when anyone spoke or sang the words.”

AT&T Stadium has played host to a great many A-list acts over its seven years (see sidebar, Page 13C), but the biggest gripe — more than the pricey parking or the miles-long trek to seats — is always how poor a concert sounds inside the 2.3 million-square-foot space.

(Even the movies aren’t immune: There were reports earlier this year that many left the world premiere of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi because of poor sound quality.)

In my experience, I have found the sound quality to be hit-and-miss.

I’ve been in the building for just about every major concert, and depending on where I was sitting, I’ve experienced surprisingly clean sound — Paul McCartney in 2009, George Strait and Beyonce and Jay Z in 2014 — as well as more muddy, unpleasant sound (U2 in 2009, One Direction in 2014, Guns N’ Roses just a few weeks ago).

As I’ve often told those who reached out to vent after one AT&T Stadium show or another, the quality of the sound depends a great deal on where you sit. The lower in the bowl (the 200 level and lower) a person sits, the greater the odds of being able to mostly see and hear without significant issues.

The higher up a person sits — the 300 or 400 level — the dicier it gets, as now you’re seated nearer to all that exposed steel, concrete and glass, which do not play nice with sound waves. They cause murderous echoes and, occasionally, distortion.

(In an effort to get a real-world understanding of what it sounds like during a concert at AT&T Stadium, I sampled the opening acts during Kenny Chesney’s June concert from every level of the stadium except the floor and recorded what I heard.)

It is a stubborn problem, and one which, despite all the persistent complaints, probably won’t be rectified any time soon — if ever.

Listen to audio from each level below

Welcome to the echoplex

It was inevitable that big-ticket concerts would be part of AT&T Stadium’s repertoire. After all, the Dallas Cowboys use the space just ten days a year for home games, leaving another 355 days that must be filled.

Certainly, the stadium has not been shy about going after a great many high-profile events: The Super Bowl, the NBA All-Star Game, WrestleMania, the PBR Iron Cowboy, and several soccer and boxing matches have set up shop inside AT&T Stadium.

But it is crucial to remember: AT&T Stadium was built for sports, not sound. The room is designed to enhance the raucous cheers of thousands of football fans, not deliver crystal-clear sound from a musical performance.

“In my experience, it does not sound good there,” said Micah Hayes, senior lecturer about the music industry at UT Arlington.

Hayes talked about the direct-to-reverberant ratio, using the example of a concert hall and a person standing onstage playing a trumpet. If you’re a foot away from the trumpet, you’re hearing more direct sound than reverberation, as the louder volume masks any echo. If you are 100 feet from the trumpet, you end up hearing more reverberation than direct sound, which results in an echo-chamber effect.

Therefore, the closer you are to the source of the sound — in the case of AT&T Stadium, that would be the speakers — the more clearly you will hear whatever is coming out of it.

Such theories can be illustrated in the acoustically sensitive environs of Bass Hall or the Winspear Opera House, but only magnify the sonic shortcomings of a cavernous space like AT&T Stadium. As Hayes notes, “this venue is not built for music. Even the best they could do is not great.”

There was a moment, during the stadium’s initial construction, where it might have been possible to salvage an enjoyable sonic experience from something other than a football game, but Jerry Jones reportedly decided otherwise.

In an interview given to Front of House Online in 2009, Kevin Day, an associate principal with audio-visual consultant firm Wrightson, Johnson, Haddon & Williams Inc., which began work on the stadium’s audio system in 2005, explained the thinking behind doing away with any acoustic treatments on all that steel and glass, which would have helped reduce the amount of echo and provide a little more clarity. (Day did not respond to multiple interview requests from the Star-Telegram.)

“We did a lot of audio simulation using the 3D model that we built to simulate the difference between having the roof open and the roof closed, putting up the acoustic treatment or not putting up the acoustic treatment, and even the difference between whether the audience was in place or not,” Day told FOH Online.

“We predicted that deleting any acoustic treatment was going to make it difficult to understand the spoken word, and I think the key point that they really tied onto was even their advertisements, even their sponsors’ spot would not be understood,” he continued. “We ended up with Mr. Jones saying, ‘There’s gotta be an option.’ 

To their credit, Day and his team anticipated such problems, but the man writing the checks did not heed their advice.

“We said to Mr. Jones, ‘When you bring in those acts, they’re going to want to use their system and point it up to the upper deck. It’s going to hit all that glass and the steel and it’s going to be very challenging for them,’ ” Day told FOH Online. “Mr. Jones acknowledged that and moved forward with the directive to drop the speakers [lower] and delete the acoustic treatments. Sure enough, the different acts that have come through here have had a tough time of it.”

Dialing in the room

Now to pause for a moment and explain what seems to be a common misconception. The criticisms leveled against AT&T Stadium imply that every touring act that comes through town is simply relying upon the existing stadium sound system, and it is the fault of the stadium if a show sounds good or bad.

While the musicians are using the existing speaker arrays, every large-scale tour — certainly any act playing rooms the size of AT&T Stadium — packs its own sound equipment, which is to say, it’s bringing its own engineers, mixing boards, microphones and so on.

It is up to the tour’s sound personnel to “dial in the room,” in the parlance of the trade, and find an acceptable level where the band can hear itself performing (through monitors placed on stage) as well as making sure the audience, or at least most of the audience, can also hear and understand what is being sung and said.

“The most obvious challenge is the inherent inevitability that it will sound great in some spots and terrible in others,” said Joshua Jones, sound engineer for Fort Worth’s Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge. “The amount of reflection in a stadium environment means necessarily there is a bunch of ‘extra noise.’ There isn’t really a way to compensate or ‘remove’ all of the extra reflections. This is the characteristic ‘stadium rock’ effect.

“Multiple speaker arrays help get the first impulse to the ears of those in the back, but by then, it has some early reflections of the stage arrays washing around. … If you are trying to create a uniform experience for all your listening audience, I don’t know how that’s possible.”

To hear Guns N’ Roses production manager Dale “Opie” Skjerseth tell it, AT&T Stadium was merely a puzzle to be solved. (I would argue they didn’t quite figure it out.)

“The challenge in working in a room this size is you’re inside,” Skjerseth told me during a press conference at the stadium earlier this month. “For a sound engineer, it’s a tough thing. He’ll spend the evening tonight working it out, and the roof won’t be open and the sound won’t be able to release … but he’ll spend this evening and work on it, and make it right because it bounces around, so that’s your only challenge here.”

Aware of complaints

For its part, AT&T Stadium is fully aware of how many patrons feel, and its staff says the chronic problem is being addressed. (As for the two promoters that have booked the vast majority of the concerts at the stadium — Live Nation and AEG Live — they did not respond to a query and declined comment, respectively, when asked if they had fielded any complaints.)

“AT&T Stadium is the largest fully enclosed room in the world,” Gary French, audio engineer for AT&T Stadium, told in 2014. “It is oval-shaped and built entirely of concrete, glass and steel, with no acoustic treatment on any of the surfaces, other than thin panels on the under surface of the roof and the turf on the field. That poses significant challenges — which we continue to address and improve since our opening.”

UTA’s Micah Hayes argues any tweaks will not necessarily improve upon AT&T Stadium’s sound.

“Any venue that’s not built for music specifically from the beginning is not going to be that great, no matter how much you try and change it,” he says.

So as Coldplay prepares to take the stage Saturday for the last scheduled AT&T Stadium concert of the year, there will be a renewed attempt to make sure the show sounds as good as it looks (the disuse of the enormous video screen for concerts, another sticking point for many fans, will likely be in effect).

And after all the confetti is swept away and Coldplay and its fans have departed, AT&T Stadium will roll out the turf and prepare for a return to its reason for being: The Dallas Cowboys’ 2016 season kicks off Sept. 11, against the New York Giants.

Preston Jones: 817-390-7713, @prestonjones