Those speakers are for what, now?

Why are many performers using sound systems during their concerts?

I once attended a concert and felt a tingle in my arms.

Not because of a heart-attack, nor because I was cold.

There was a moment of simple beauty.

A “Goosebump Moment” as George Marriner Maull of the Discovery Orchestra calls it.

What causes such music-inspired goosebumps?

goosebumps

A whole bunch of things, really, not least of which is the sheer physical vibrations of the air in the room. At that particular event a series of sound waves puncturing the atmosphere hit me at just the right frequency to cause my physical being to shudder with excitement.

Sound familiar? I sure hope so!

Another concert of exactly the same piece a little while later failed to reproduce a goosebump moment. Why would that be?

A whole bunch of reasons, really, not least of which was the sheer bombardment of sound that neither my brain nor my body knew what to do with. At that particular event the performing ensemble had multiple microphones on stage and an audio engineer in an open booth at the back of the room underneath a balcony ‘balancing’ the sound.

Disturbed and agitated

Even to a trained ear it was difficult to audibly tell the difference between the acoustic version and the version supported by a sound system, other than the fact that one performance felt special and the other felt disturbed and agitated.

There is no need to reproduce live classical music with electronic support! Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of times a sound system is useful in concert, and sometimes necessary, but not as frequently as some folk like us to believe.

For example, how can you hear the Emcee/ MC/ Master of Ceremonies or Conductor talk between pieces? Or how do you hear the recording of nightingales that Respighi calls for in the third movement of his marvelous piece Pines of Rome?

But regular, violin, clarinet, piano or other straight instrument playing or singing should not need supporting through a sound system. Why not?

Here’s what happens with those sound waves:

Acoustic Performances

speakers1

 

Performances with a speaker

speakers2

 

Performances with multiple speakers

speakers3

 

Performances with multiple performers and multiple speakers

speakers4

 

Performances mimicking trendy concert practices with multiple banks of speakers

speakers5

 

How is this enhancing music? I don’t get it. Give me that first speaker-free option any day of the week, please!

Do you think sound systems in classical music are helpful or harmful?

 

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  • Joseph Labuda

    The technician make sure that the audiences are sitting between multiple speakers. This ensure that they will get the ultimate pleasure of hearing the rich tone of all instruments and the singer. If the speakers are not placed correctly, you will get the unbalance sound, the acoustic will be off to the listeners ears.
    If you take away the speakers, your audience will not be able to enjoy the rich sound of the orchestra. The only one who will be able to enjoy it are the one close up to the source of the sound.
    However, if the theatre are small, then the speakers are not needed.

    • A skilled technician is indeed valuable! But you’re still adding a sound source that wasn’t intended, no? Most good composers and ensemble leaders already compensate for the imbalances (it’s why there are often 12 first violins and only 1 first clarinet, for example.) I agree there are differences, I’ve yet to be convinced a sound system actually enhances the whole experience, not just the audio element of the experience…

  • Michael Rojek

    Stephen,

    I’d like to comment on the use of sound systems at concerts that have mostly acoustic instruments. Long before we met at Jacksonville Chapel, I took what I believe is a more thoughtful approach to my sound engineering by way of continuing education. I will try to distill here what I have learned from those who have been successful in applying proper sound reinforcement concepts in professional environments.

    I offer my apologies in advance if what follows seems a bit too technical, long-winded and opinionated. But I believe that as a trained engineer, that I understand the problem, and part of the problem is that many of my colleagues do not use the tools available to them in the best way. To be blunt, if you have had a bad experience with a sound system at a concert, it is due to either a careless or poorly trained sound system operator.

    I would agree that if not used properly, sound systems can distract or detract from any musical performance. But if used delicately and with knowledgeable application of acoustic principles, I believe that sound systems can actually enhance a musical or vocal performance, especially if it is occurring in an environment with less than ideal acoustics.

    If the performance is in a highly reflective room (like a gymnasium), then only a very complicated and expensive multi-unit speaker system (or headphones for everyone?) will be able to help. However, in an outdoor environment or a very dead room with very low reverberation time, a system that is used properly as a secondary ‘Reinforcement’ system can actually enhance a listener’s experience. The important tool that a knowledgeable sound engineer can use is ‘Time Delay’.

    Many complaints about the use of sound systems stem from the listener thinking that the sound is coming from the speakers rather than the performers on the stage. The perception of where a sound is coming from is related to when the sound reaches your ears. If the reinforcement speaker is closer to you than the actual source and it is too loud and not delayed, its sound will reach you first and that is where you think the sound comes from. If the engineer adjusts the time delay and volume of the speaker sound, the ear hears the sound from the stage source first, even if it is very faint, and the listener localizes on that as the source. Later, the speaker sound reaches your ears to amplify and clarify the original sound without changing where you think the sound is coming from.
    The amount of delay and volume is often not something that can be easily calculated, but adjusted in real time by a trained ear. That is where the science of sound engineering becomes an art form. It greatly helps if the engineer is also a musician or vocalist.

    Some may argue that they want no “extra” sound even if adjusted properly, but I contend that you will get that same kind of additional delayed sound in notable rooms such as Carnegie Hall. I can’t recall anyone ever saying that the secondary sounds there are displeasing. So it can also be with properly adjusted sounds arriving at your ears from speakers.

    • Thanks for that very clear explanation, Michael. I agree there are definitely times a sound system is beneficial! You mention Carnegie Hall: I have personally experienced sound testing in that venue by a solo violinist both with and without sound reinforcement. Several of us independently ‘felt’ a difference when the sound system was turned on, although we did not know when it was on and when it wasn’t (most of us in the hall guessed correctly, though!). I had a similar experience in the 80s at the Royal Festival Hall in London – OK, that was much more primitive equipment. Is there something I’m missing that gives listeners a different experience when a sound system is used, however sensitively/ expertly? Really appreciate your commenting.

      • Michael Rojek

        Stephen,

        There are many possible reasons for what you experienced at Carnegie Hall, although the only time I found an acceptable use of a sound system there was to amplify the spoken word. Using a solo violin was probably a great choice to judge the quality of the system, although I feel that using a sound system for music at Carnegie is like asking a world class chef for some condiments to be added to his food. I go there for the natural experience since the acoustics there are amazing even in the upper balcony.

        I will try to guess some of the reasons why you heard a difference. First and foremost is microphone selection and placement.

        If we presume that an appropriate microphone was chosen, there is the issue of how close the artist was to the microphone. All mics add some coloration, especially up close. If one is very close and moves slightly while playing (like all violinists do), the change in microphone frequency response will be greater than if the artist was some distance further away and moved the same amount. If there was a change in the timbre of the instrument due to the microphone, it would be magnified by the sound system.

        Then there is the issue of speaker quality and room equalization. Speakers (not to mention all of the electronics in the signal path) also can add their color to the sound. None are truly flat, but can be ‘fixed’ with proper equalization. And as I mentioned in my previous post, if the time delay is off, you will perceive a difference in sound. Any or all of the above could be attributed to the difference you heard.

        It will always be a judgment call if a sound system is actually needed at any event, and since no sound system is perfect, it will always be a difficult decision for (hopefully) a knowledgeable person to make the least compromise based on location, budget and time.