Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The problem of amplification

Lisa Hirsch writes about the negative effects of amplification in the Berkeley Rep. I experienced a similar amplified performance when I took my daughter to the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Yuletide Concert. I wasn't bothered by the amplification of the singers, but the orchestra seemed very flat in timbre, dynamics, and emotion. Hilbert Circle Theater is already a problematic performance space, as it was originally designed to be a movie theater rather than an orchestral hall. The auditorium doesn't have enough volume for decent reverberation time, so they had to design electronic "cheats" to give the proper acoustic signature. They turn off these cheats when doing their pops concerts, replacing them with a blanket amplification. The brass, seated way up by the organ pipes, have none of the shock-n-awe that they normally produce, because the amplification normalizes the loudness of every section. Thus the brass is as loud as the strings, or even the bassoons fer chrissakes!

I don't think amplification automatically creates a bad performance experience. But I do think very few sound engineers have the time or knowledge to accurately capture the nuances of a full orchestra.

4 comments:

Hucbald said...

As a guitarist, I've been working with amplificaton systems for over thirty years. When I switched to classical guitar, I really didn't like the lack of volume of the acoustic instrument, so I started experimenting with amplification. It took over ten years to get the sound to where I wanted it, but in a nutshell, if you want to use amplification, you need to take advantage of the imaging electronics that amplification allows you to use. I also worked in many recording studios back in my big-hair R&R days, so it was a natural progression for me, but classical folks in general are totally clueless when it comes to amps, speakers, digital reverberation and the like. To get an orchestra properly amplified you'd really have to pick the brain of a recording engineer who has set up to record orchestras onto CD. I'm guessing it's a nightmare. Just a guess, mind you, but an educated one. Don't try it at home... or on your local orchestra.

Scott Spiegelberg said...

Hucbald, what are "imaging electronics?"

Hucbald said...

Imaging electronics are digital time-domain effects that generate a stereo field from a monophonic source, or simply add a dimension of space to a monophonic source. I'm thinking speciffically of digital time-domain effects processors by Lexicon, who were the pioneers in this field, and who's devices are ubiquitous in every recording studio and in virtually every live concert you hear. Effects generated by these devices which are useful in adding imaging to acoustic instrument recordings and live performances are namely Ambience (A very subtle form of digital reverberation) and Reverb. The tactful use of these effects can add an incredible amount of life to a recording, or to a live performance where amplification is employed (Even if you think the hall has good acoustics: A bit of ambience warms up the sound by making the microphones seem "warmer" and less dry). The device I use for my electric nylon string guitars is a Lexicon MPX-G2, and it can create stunning "virtual acoustic enviroments" (That's what us programmer wonks call our creations). If I were doing live sound for an acoustic ensemble, I'd insist on at least two Lexicon MPX-1's, which are the non-guitar versions of my digital effects devices.

triticale said...

Even with amplified music, proper amplification makes a difference. Decades ago I attended a performance by Hot Tuna, the musician faction of the Jefferson Airplane. The venue was a college gymnasium. They started setup and soundchecks at 10AM for a 9PM performance and the result was that despite the abominable acoustics of the venue they sounded good every place I wandered.