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Live sound in a recital venue.

There has been a lot of discussion in recent years amongst musicians and particularly orchestral marketing and artistic teams about cultivating a younger and more diverse audience through programming and presenting repertoire in a way that is relevant and interesting.

Tonight’s concert “Music by Steve Reich” (with Reich himself in attendance) at the Metropolis New Music Festival in Melbourne was a successful example of this, and it was an event definitely worth being at. However, it has prompted me to think about the use of microphones and amplification in “classical” and “new” music settings.

This evening’s concert showed all that is good and bad about the issue of amplification. The good was the “Vermont Counterpoint” - big clear sound delivered via a discrete head mic worn by the flautist. It picked up his sound beautifully on the flute, alto flute, and piccolo and was at exactly the right level with the pre-recorded (by him) track. The wireless set allowed the player to direct his playing to different sides of the stage and audience, gently mimicking the choice of instrument. It zinged off the walls and made me feel like I was right in the middle of the sound without it necessarily being “loud”.

The poor example of amplification was “Different Trains” where the string quartet were unbalanced - viola considerably louder than the others, the on-bridge (I think) mics made the low registers woofy and the upper registers strident (people sitting near me were putting fingers in ears). The pre-recorded track was thin and reedy and the text was indiscernible - which might have explained why the players struggled with synchronisation. None of this is their fault; if we are to relinquish control over the important elements of balance and sound, then we need to know that it is in good hands and ears.

An audience who has been raised in a loud world wearing the ubiquitous white earbuds will end up yawning at a tiny and distant sound coming from a stage - especially when sitting at the back of a large modern concert hall. If music is to make an impression on the listener these days, then its impact does indeed need to be physical (i.e., loud), but it also needs to be classy (i.e., great sounding). I am in favour of amplification, but am aware that there is widespread negative reaction to it by musicians and audiences. This may be due to the following:

- microphone placement is incorrect or haphazard with players often sharing mics
- no thorough or adequate soundcheck (resulting in unsatisfactory balance to the extent that an acoustic musician would never allow)
- the sound engineer/s not being an integral part of the artistic team; attending rehearsals, discussing balance issues with the conductor/composer/players, nor knowing the works properly
- lack of suitable or good quality equipment including a FOH system that has been designed and set up properly for that particular venue and/or ensemble

I have had many good experiences working with sound teams who know what they are doing, and who have produced correspondingly convincing results. Some examples:

- mics on a chamber orchestra using only a touch of reverb in the FOH to counteract the effects of playing in a dead acoustic
- performances in acoustically engineered recital halls that have included microphones for the enhancement of the strings (the audience was not aware of this and I recall hearing audience reactions that included the following - “everything so clear”, “beautiful full sound”, “warm but transparent” etc.)
- years of experience in professional musical theatre where orchestras have been miked and amplified with good results
- multi-city tours with “horn sections” in bands where a soundcheck was only necessary at the first venue on the tour, then everything was “spot on”
- having listened to thousands of fabulous recordings of orchestras, where the use of microphones was evidently well executed!
- having been in the audience for beautifully engineered and mixed live sound at outdoor concerts, including those by orchestras

I was fortunate enough to attend some classes presented by Prof Dr Eckhard Maronn while studying music performance at the Hamburg Hochschule für Musik und Theater in the early 1990s. This gentleman’s experience as an acoustic engineer is extensive and his anecdotes very entertaining. He was quick to point out that musicians evaluate acoustics with their eyes - almost always becoming gushingly full of praise whenever a venue is lined with wood irrespective of what type of wood and how it is treated. He also claimed to be an excellent billiard player because of his expertise studying the angles of the still-never-surpassed Victorian shoebox.

I shouldn’t confuse recording with live sound, but examining some attitudes towards recording may help to understand musicians’ resistance to amplification. Classical musicians, when it comes to recording, have an almost universal wish for a “natural” sound. I agree with this, but should this extend to the avoidance of any “processing” - EQ, compression and limiting, reverb, or even mixing? No, because these things are done at all stages during the whole process of making music - whether “organically” by musicians at source and through choice of venue and set up, to the conductor if there is one, then followed by the sound engineer, or even later within iTunes. It gets down again to who is making the decisions, and what their definition of an acceptable “natural” sound might be.

Incidentally, I find that putting a microphone to the side of the bell of my trombone delivers a much more “natural” recorded sound to my ears because it more closely resembles that which I hear when I play!

There was a recent article in the New York Times about a new trend of placing pit orchestras “behind the scenes”, but in my experience this has been going on for at least twenty years with good success. It allows a band more freedom - switching your own mic on and off, adjusting your own headphone or monitor mix, moving around the studio during breaks, avoiding bleed from the stage into pit mics especially in shows with much dancing. Criticisms from audiences about “everything being amplified these days” has, as heard tonight, more to do with the success (volume, taste, and balance) of the end result rather than its deployment in the first place.

I was involved in a recent production of a famous Italian opera that includes a 10-piece off-stage brass section. The conductor was adamant about not wanting any microphones used, though his acceptance of technology seems contradictory by allowing a video camera and TV monitor to transmit his beat backstage, not to mention bellowing through his own microphone during the rehearsals.

I have also heard a performance by a serious professional orchestra of a work that called for a Hammond organ. What did they do? Substituted it with a Roland RD-500, GM patch, and Cube amplifier. This sort of compromise wouldn’t be dreamt of to replace one of the orchestral instruments - no wonder musicians are suspicious of technology.

Oh, but there’s one example of where I think microphones should be banished. I attended a sweet little primary school assembly recently. The 40 or so children were in a small space, but each time someone said something a microphone was passed around. The result - mousy little voices of which you couldn’t discern a single word. That microphone needs to be put away and they need to learn to stand up straight and speak with a big confident voice.
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