Department of Lesser Amplification

Monday, 13 January 2014 00:41 Read by 12624 Peoples

Music communicates from one human body to another through vibrations in the air.  Anything which intercedes in this connection can only serve to pollute and demean the potential of this communication.  In the light of this observation, the current practice of placing electronic amplification between performer and audience must be understood as interference.

Arguments are often put forth which seem on the surface, to refute this one.  “We are bringing the performer closer to the audience through electronic magnification.”  “We’re only adjusting the imperfect balances in the acoustic output of voices or instruments.” “ We’re only adding a little.”  “We will set it and leave it.”  The fallacy in all of these arguments and rationales is that while some of what they contain may be true, (though it is usually not) they leave out the observable fact of what the amplifying process removes.

It is common practice to ignore the lack of those elements removed by the filter of “sound reinforcement”, but this ignorance results in an impoverishment of the musical experience. The ubiquity of this phenomenon is part of what obscures its faults. There is acceptance by audiences for the despoiling of potentially beautiful sound along with the political momentum generated by investments in sound equipment and staff salaries, tending to make musicians complacent.  Bucking such an entrenched system requires both stamina and the clarity that comes from believing one’s own ears.

This is the protest of an unwilling victim.

Amplification has probably had a more detrimental effect on classic jazz music than on any other.  Some kinds of music remain relatively unscathed by these practices.  In spite of the economic pressures which induce us to put performances of “classical” music in halls which are demonstrably too large to be acoustically practical, it is rare that one encounters the suggestion that the low register of the flutes ought to be made to balance the trumpets by the “judicious placement of a couple of microphones and the application of a little amplification in the hall.”  Instead we have established a tradition of actively engaging the listener’s mind and body and insisting on a level of participation which rewards both listener and performer with the benefits of shared activity.

The value of this mutual activity has remained apparent over a long tradition of trained performer/audience relationship; a tradition deeply enough ingrained to remain unshaken by technological seductions.  It is important  to recognize that this stability is based on long developed training in the benefits of this relationship on the part of performer and audience alike and that its qualities would be unlikely to endure without such tradition.

In the short history of jazz, the relatively early introduction of this diversionary and destructive technology has thwarted the development of a similarly solid acoustic tradition.  The “acoustic” tradition in jazz has been distorted to mean, “acoustic instruments whose sound is destroyed by amplification.” 

Lest there be misunderstanding in  this matter, let me state unequivocally that in more than 35 years as a professional musician, I have never heard a sound system that didn’t ruin some aspect of the blend and balance that could have been achieved by acoustic adjustments among the performers.  Never, ever!  And most of those circumstances were in the hands of sound mixers who had at least heard live instruments and voices once or twice.

The complexity of acoustic sound and its spectral balance is only the second thing to suffer at the hands of amplification systems.  The first thing to go is the communication resulting from the audience’s perception of the nuances of  physical strength expended in the performer’s efforts.  Human bodies respond in sympathy with other human bodies.  The addition of electricity diminishes this communication.  A performer reaching to communicate with a person at the back of a 2000 seat hall exerts a palpably different effort with and without microphones. With amplification, dynamics and nuances are raised in amplitude while contrasts are reduced and the ability of the performer to engage the listener’s active participation by drawing attention to low level sounds is virtually eliminated.  By seeking to improve intimacy by “bringing the performer closer to the audience” through amplification, the possibility of intimacy is, in fact, destroyed.

Jazz audiences, never having the chance to experience anything else, are inured to this.  These habits are hard to break.  Telling the sound crew to pack up its equipment and go home becomes a political as well as an esthetic question.  Some people will be put out of work.  (Perhaps more performances in smaller venues would result in increased employment for musicians!)

Is this case too strongly stated?  Where ought a line be drawn?  Can the human voice balance a jazz band?  Probably so if it’s main background is supplied by a sensitive rhythm section in a small room with judicious interjections by the horns.  Could we develop jazz singers who could be heard in proportion to sensitive accompanists in somewhat larger halls?  Probably.  Will it happen?  Unlikely.

Some experiences may shed light on this phenomenon.  I have heard and enjoyed a recital by Andre Segovia from the upper balcony of Carnegie Hall and one by the singer Janet Baker from a balcony on the side.  I have played the bass violin without an amplifier with Bill Evans and Larry Bunker in recitals in the 2000 seat ORTF hall in Paris and in the larger Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.  No one complained.  The audience listened harder and this concentrated effort increased its participation and appreciation a thousandfold.

By contrast, I have arrived to play concerts with a jazz sextet in 300 to 500 seat halls, only to find an array of loudspeakers and sound equipment sufficient to overwhelm a football stadium “just to bring the performers a little closer to the audience.”  Folks, don’t you get it?  The audience must exercise its ears and the performers must make their music balanced and articulate in order that those listeners whose active participation is engaged be rewarded with intelligible communication.

Microphones and monitors prevent performers from listening to each other.  It cannot be “gotten in the mix” any more than one could assemble a cogent representation of an ensemble theatrical performance by a group of actors relating to each other through an audio/video monitoring system.

This may seem to be mean spirited carping by one whose sound has occasionally been enhanced by a recording engineer (though it’s been degraded more often), but the indoctrination of listeners by the pandering style of commercial recordings has corrupted the judgement even of those who claim a higher esthetic goal.  

I have been in recording studios, highly regarded ones, in which the engineer never ventured out of the control room and into the studio to hear the individual sound of the instruments or the balance and blend the musicians achieved in the room.   It would be one thing if the results of that omission were acceptable, but they aren’t.  Pianos are tinny and disembodied with the upper partials over emphasized by too close miking. Basses are often either muddied or overly bright and almost always over balanced. Saxophones and brass suffer from loss of the fundamental body of the sound and the addition of an overly metallic quality that comes from the reverb used to make up for dead studios. Drums are usually recorded as if the listener had five ears, each of which was poised within inches of each part of the drum set.  The havoc that this wreaks on the sound of sensitive players is so great that it’s a wonder that any musical effect comes through.  The sound of commercial records played through TV and car speakers has become so much the norm that otherwise good engineers, some of whom have studied music, cannot get this sound out of their heads in order to listen to music.  The marketplace is a powerful thing and mass marketing can sweep away variety and nuance faster than you can say MTV.

Sometime in the early 60’s I played on a recording with JJ Johnson and 5 other wonderful trombonists along with the great pianist Hank Jones and the drummer Walter Perkins.  The recording was made at the old A&R studio on 48th St. in NY above Jim and Andy’s famous musician’s bar.  Phil Ramone, now a successful pop music producer, was the engineer for the session.  JJ had written extraordinary arrangements of some Broadway show tunes and the sound of those trombonists-Urbie Green, Lou McGarity, Will Bradley, Paul Faulise and Dick Hixon, if I remember correctly, was glorious in the studio.  Absolutely accurate, in tune and full bodied.  It was belly shaking sound, deep and sonorous.

Phil Ramone is a good engineer.  He is one who uses the studio to create a sound that never was there before, as a skillful cinematographer might create visual imagery that is somewhat super-real, but beautiful.  I can listen to that recording now with some pleasure.  The arrangements are beautiful, JJ’s sound is like a polished steel cylinder and the other guys play marvelously, but I remember that my disappointment in the playbacks was profound.  The fulsome richness of that trombone choir was lost in the close miking and in its place was a sound of brass and metallic echo without the thick movement of air that was in the studio.  The result is not wholly unsatisfying, but it’s pale by comparison to what was heard in the room, and we’ll never get that back.  No, it’s not true that “we’ll get it in the mix.”

This was a recording of limited success but it was a miracle of beauty compared to a close miked recording with string quartet made in Berkeley, CA, some years later.  The sound of a bowed string instrument is modified by the friction in the air molecules as it travels from the instrument to the listener’s ear.  Small air movements (high frequencies) are rubbed off the sound and turned into heat while the larger air movements carry further and are more evenly distributed.  This gives the sound the character we associate with a violin, viola or cello.  If you place a microphone mere inches from the surface of those instruments, you get an overwhelming preponderance 

of high frequencies in the sound along with a close up of every finger and bow noise made by the player in the natural order of projecting the sound he or she expects to have arrive at the ear of a listener at least a few feet away.  What you get then is the sound of a violin starting from scratch.  Screech city!

A sensitive player, upon hearing playbacks in the studio, will make adjustments in order to minimize the damage to the sound made by the close miking, with the result that the playing will then be under-energized in the interest of not sounding gross.  Certainly close miking of an instrument can serve the same purpose as a close-up shot in a film but there’s such a thing as too close.

Do you really want to hear Bill Evans or Glen Gould with each of your ears suspended two inches over the piano strings - one over the trebles and another over the bass strings?  Is the bass and treble designed to be perceived as coming from different sides of your head?  Must stereo disintegrate music?  Is there something wrong with the sound of a piano from a few feet away, even as it blends with the sounds of other instruments?  Have we lost the ability to make the adjustment in performance and in listening which will allow us to preserve some beauty of sound?

Sometime in the late 60’s I was working in Broadway theater orchestras as a bass player and sometime conductor, when I took a job in a a Neil Simon, Burt Bacharach show called “Promises, Promises” .  Phil Ramone had been hired to be the sound consultant/engineer and a decision was made to apply recording technology to a theater for the first time. The attempt was to “control” the sound by covering the orchestra pit and miking the orchestra.  Four women were hired to sing in the pit where they could concentrate on producing beautiful sound without dancing and acting to distract them or drain their energy.  Their voices were then amplified and directed through loudspeakers to support the sound of the stage chorus.  The thought was that this new method was going to revolutionize musical theater sound  and many productions since then have followed suit to one degree or another to the overwhelming detriment of the live theater experience.

Once the commitment to the use of this technology is made and the natural acoustics thwarted by the necessity of covering the pit, there seems to be no way to restore a semblance of balance to the elements that make up the complete acoustic picture.  The sound of the orchestra is distorted and pinched.  In the interest of making sure that the bass violin is heard in a balance that resembles what people are used to in popular music recordings it is over amplified and bloated, putting what should be the foundation of the music into a disproportionately dominating and distracting position.

Expensive and complex equalization was applied to the sound system in order to avoid the resonances that occur in any enclosed acoustic situation.  None of this seemed to help.  The musicians continued to control balances among themselves according to the limited perspective available to them from within the isolated environment of the nearly covered pit.  From within the pit the stage voices were subdued by the covering and any attempt to monitor the stage sound by feeding it into the pit would have produced uncontrollable howling from feedback.  Everyone was isolated but the sound engineer in the theater who did his best to reassemble disembodied sounds into some kind of acoustic whole.  That  such an attempt should prove less than successful should be no surprise.  That the attempt continues to be made in present day theatrical productions in the face of such disastrous results is at least unfortunate and wasteful.  Good sound engineer/musicians with good ears like Phil Ramone continue to work in circumstances like these but their perspective seems to get skewed and their normal judgements disturbed by the continual struggle to dominate an obstinate and misapplied technology.  

Much of the motivation for these experiments comes from the economic considerations involved in trying to recoup investments in expensive productions that must be installed in theaters big enough to promise the possibility of sufficient financial return but too big to provide a practical acoustical environment.  Much the same situation exists in contemporary orchestra halls and opera houses.  If they are big enough to house an audience which can pay its share of the expenses of the concerts, they are too big to provide an environment where those performances can be heard well.

Recordings are wonderfully useful artifacts in modern life.  Technology has its benefits; all the more so when it is understood to be what it is in comparison with the reality that exists in its absence.  A film of a sunset reproduces  a limited memory of the event, not the experience.  A recording of the sound of an orchestra, received through microphone diaphragms, reduced to electrical impulses (no matter whether analog or digital) and squeezed through wires and circuits to be later reassembled in the air through loudspeakers, can only be a distorted representation of reality.  When it is useful to store as many elements of the event as we can in a recording, all of those technological devices become necessary.  When the actual event is taking place, it is ludicrous to believe that the horrendous distortions inherent in even the best “sound reinforcement” devices can be used to improve communication.  Would we chose to substitute a loud kiss over the telephone if a soft real one were available?

Chuck Israels

Last modified on Monday, 13 January 2014 17:43

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