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What Makes a Good Venue?

Have you ever considered that those shows that changed your life might have been very different without the soul-touching sound setup, dazzling lighting and the aesthetic splendour of the venue? Let’s deconstruct some of the key aspects that make for superlative live music spaces.

Hammersmith Apollo

Regular gig-goers will be familiar with those transcendent moments when an indescribable merging of the artist on stage, the enveloping sound of the venue’s PA, the collective positive will of the audience and the surrounding grandeur – or intimacy – of the space coalesce. It all leads to a buzzing realisation, that this experience has formed a lasting memory. It’s these types of dizzying hits that keep live music fans religiously coming back to the venues which have garnered solid reputations for excellence.

There’s the allure of those venues that have storied mythologies, playing host to some of the most seminal moments in pop, to the appeal of state-of-the art new gig spaces that bring immaculate sound, astounding stages and more awareness and investment in audience access and security – just a few of the ingredients that can make or break the experience.

For the last two years, the live industry has been dominated by the fraught navigation of the Covid 19 pandemic. It was a situation which raised previously inconceivable barriers, though thankfully, these are now being eased. While we’ve previously looked in specific detail at how the industry is picking itself up from the pandemic, for many who live for the giddy thrills of bouncy, sweaty barriers, the effect of being gig-deprived for so long has elicited an even greater thirst (and appreciation) for regular live music. But, on a technical level, just what are those key elements – requiring the investment of a lot of hard and precise work – that ultimately amount to that special alchemy we mentioned earlier. Let’s take a look.

Nights at Brixton's good venue, The Roundhouse


Perhaps the most widely agreed element on which a music venue succeeds or fails is its sound setup – too loud and inconsiderately mixed and the nuance of the music gets lost in an ear-fogging wash of noise, too quiet and the impact of the performance is neutered. The venue’s Live Sound Mix Engineers are ultimately responsible for wrangling both the sound at two very specific points of the venue.

Firstly, getting the on-stage monitoring just right, so the volume levels that the artist is dealing with doesn’t impede their ability to play with subtlety, or hear the precise aspects of the sound that they need to work with (the rhythm section, for example) is essential. On-stage monitoring placement might not seem like much, but it’s absolutely integral for the artist. While historically, floor wedges and sidefill cabinets were the on-stage monitoring norm, today In-Ear Monitors (IEMs) allow for way more defined aural clarity. The monitor mix engineer (situated on-stage) will work with the artist, and react with speed to adjust the monitor mix for each performer, be it IEM, speaker-based or – more commonly – a combination of the two.

Meanwhile, out in the mid-centre of the floor will be the Front of House engineer. It’s their job to ascertain the correct balance for the sound reaching their position amid the audience. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the venue, or how adept the band, without this essential combination of these two engineers, a live show just wouldn’t be able to happen.

Typically, bigger name acts will have their own touring sound engineers, well-versed in the distinct requirements that their artists need. They’ll work with the venue staff (who know how to work with the space more) to understand its acoustic properties. “Sometimes the room doesn’t lend itself to being a venue and that’s almost always the hardest thing to deal with.” Engineer Ronnie Young told The Prog Space, “You have to do what you can and remember when it’s full of people it’s often going to sound better.”


Of course, some venues have been designed to elicit a similar grandeur to that of the music typically performed within. Think of the Royal Albert Hall and it’s likely you’ll picture it accompanied by swelling orchestral majesty. While these kinds of opulent spaces might lend themselves to one type of music, for others, this type of cavernous space can be an echoey nightmare. The RAH in particular has had considerable redevelopment work done in recent years, to combat its notoriously reverberant sound.

Harnessing the expertise of D&B Audiotechnik to install a new speaker system, and spending around £2 million on acoustic fine-tuning, the RAH is now a prime location for rock, raw punk and nuanced jazz. The natural reverb of the space can be brought under tighter control. “The hall is still a reverberant space, and some concerts benefit from that acoustically,” Explained architect Stephen Stringer in an interview with Wired, “Reverberation is a good thing at the right amount, and with the right tonality. So we treat the reverberation with respect and care.”

Smaller spaces, such as Manchester’s legendary Night and Day or Leeds’ Brudenell Social Club also need some delicate acoustic considerations. Unlike the late sound reflections of larger venues, smaller venues need to contend with sound immediately hitting and bouncing off the numerous reflective surfaces in close proximity to the stage. This can result in a confused sonic picture for the audience, regardless of the hard work of the venue’s sound mixer. The application of sound absorption and acoustic treatment can negate these room acoustic issues. Sound absorbing surfaces can limit the quantity of sounds that are bouncing around the venue – un-muddying the mix. Typically, the best place to put this soft (foam or fibre) material is parallel to the speakers emitting the most sound, and along the side of the walls.

Brudenell Social Club - A good venue in Leeds

While sound absorption is an extremely important consideration for small venues, it’s easy to assume that this is the same thing as sound insulation. In fact, that’s an entirely different kettle of fish. Small venues are often dogged by noise complaints from less than enthusiastic close neighbours. Take the aforementioned Night and Day. Though it’s been a long-standing, and legendary, fixture for new bands on the rise, the Manchester mainstay was hit by a noise abatement order in 2021, shortly after re-opening from a lengthy period of shuttering during the pandemic. Driven (allegedly) by shocked new residents who’d moved into the area during lockdown (when the venue’s nightly buzz was muted), the order caused a whole new heap of stress, particularly coming right after lockdown.

To combat this type of issue arising, sound proofing can keep sound spillage to a minimum. Keeping the area where the live music is performed sealed off from sources of spillage (such as in a basement or lower level area) is a must, if possible. Open windows and doors will allow sound to flow out, and render any sound proofing work utterly moot. So making sure they’re only open when required is vital. Aside from using sound absorbing materials on stage, other small venue considerations include positioning speakers directly at the audience, allowing the tightly packed-in crowd to soak up some of the sound themselves.

Night and Day – a legendarily good venue
Night and Day, Manchester (Taken from nightnday.org)


Aside from those essential sonic considerations, there are of course a salvo of other factors that go into a good venue’s longstanding success. Effective lighting, a stage that lends itself to a band or artist feeling like they have enough room to express themselves, a perceptive DJ/ sound controller who keeps the momentum of the evening running between band changeovers by sculpting the right selection of music, and (thought it’s not exactly in the venue’s control) the engagement and buzz of the audience. All of which is part and parcel of that prized goal – a good night out. With the return of live music over the last 12 months, we’re all valuing that simple goal a heck of a lot more.