Monday, June 14, 2010

More on Sound…

As some of my previous posts attest, as a saxophonist I'm becoming more and more concerned with the idea of sound production. My daily practice (as well as my work with private students) continues to reinforce as well as renew the basic fundamentals that we are taught from the beginning of our musical journeys as instrumentalists.

However, a few recent concert experiences have caused me to think about how these ideas extend to the way a band or musical ensemble produces sound and how that sound is often the victim of poor reinforcement and amplification in concert settings. In most small clubs this is not such an issue although any time a PA system is employed it does change the way the musicians play and respond to each other and not always for the better.

This is something I've been aware of for quite awhile actually. I've come to feel that the more amplified sound that the listener hears (as opposed to acoustic sound) the less "live" the experience is for them. In considering the degree to which amplification has become the norm, practically taken for granted in even the most unnecessary settings, I have the feeling that listeners probably do not even realize the effect that this has on their listening experience. For a lot of years when touring with my own bands I took the attitude that I would not utilize a PA system nor would I use a microphone on my saxophone except in situations that would not be viable without amplification, which was in fact almost none. And in many instances I was thanked by members of the audience who heard the difference and appreciated a more personal concert experience. They realized that they were being drawn in and not pushed back. But given my aforementioned concern with "resonance" I decided that the effect of this often strenuous playing was deleterious to my tone. So I have been using a microphone so as not to have to strain when playing with bands that include electronic instruments or loud drums. I accept this as a compromise and do my utmost to try and make sure that the sound is not overdone. I must say however that the most rewarding playing experiences I've had of late have been ones in which the dynamic level has been rather soft.

I'm not trying to create any aesthetic divisions with respect to loud and soft. What I'm realizing is that this is more about resonance at any volume, loud or soft. Certain volumes are more conducive to revealing the fullness of sound of any given instrument and those levels do vary. Achieving a desirable balance among instrumentalists is part of the art of blending, a necessary skill for any good band. In order to accomplish this we might realize that the room in which we are playing can in fact be considered part of one's instrument. We understand that soft sounds must project to the back of the room and that loud sounds have a threshold beyond which there is a point of diminishing returns that undermine the very intentions we may have in attempting to create more musical energy through increased volume. I'm not sure every band I hear understands this.

However, no band stands a chance when all too often the sound engineers do not understand how to balance and amplify a band in proportion to the room that they are performing in. To be fair, many situations do not afford enough time for a proper sound-check. But very often when it comes to jazz or improvised music the sound engineers take a default "rock" approach which is usually not appropriate to the music. With the advent of mis-fit jazz/improv bands (which describes most of my own projects) performing in rock venues this is often the case. Some engineers seem to think that the bass drum is the "lead" instrument in the band. And it can be hard to disabuse them of that notion.

As a listener I can think of too many situations in which I felt that the musical presentation was ruined as a result of these issues. But what really surprises me is that audiences will allow themselves to be subjected to the most egregious examples of over-amplified and unbalanced music. Our ears do adjust and adapt to most situations but I'm convinced that over decades of increasing stage volume in all types of music we are becoming a bit numb to the very sounds that we seek out. Having thought about this over the years I can more easily imagine what the optimal sound would be when attending a concert and realize how much is being missed. Again, loud is fine. But balance ought not to be forgotten about. Too often I have witnessed gigs in which my fellow saxophonists are completely drowned out or there was a lack of clarity in the overall sound or the low end was too muddy or the high end too harsh and abrasive. And in most of these cases the musicians have little control over the sound coming out into the room.

These issues are especially of concern in jazz and improvised music since I know that the majority view is that this music thrives on the live experience. And yet I can think of many situations witnessing musicians standing on stage playing instruments where I could not hear the sounds coming from their instruments because they were being drowned out by the amplified version of the sound coming out of the PA system. For example, I was very excited at the prospect of hearing Wayne Shorter perform at a festival in Europe a few years ago. I did enjoy the concert. The sound was not terrible. I could tell what was going on and I walked away feeling better than when I had come in. But in no way can I say that I heard Wayne Shorter (or anyone else on stage) play live. I did not hear the sound out of the bell of his horn. In some cases that may be necessary and that just is what it is. But we should not confuse it for something that it is not.

An analogy might be in order. As we seem to be an increasingly visual society we would not put up with going to the cinema and sitting though a grainy or blurry picture. And you would likely be disappointed if your new television did not deliver the degree of high definition advertised. And yet we accept concert sound that is often so unclear that if it were speech it would be largely unintelligible. That just amounts to too many missed opportunities.

Something to think about…


  1. Hi, Ellery,

    You're so right with this. A particular club in my home town (max. capacity 300) could be the poster child for this issue. I remember in particular seeing Tony Williams there, so highly amplified that there were times I could barely hear the *trumpet*. (To be fair I think Tony liked it that way.) But I also saw Henry Threadgill play there to a crowd of maybe 20 people, at ear-splitting volume. Ruined it. Recently I saw Ron Carter's trio there. Mulgrew Miller's piano sounded like anything but a real piano--it was artificially bright, trebly, harsh. He was playing well but I still wonder what the piano might have actually sounded like.

    By contrast, in a concert hall in Dublin, I saw Stan Getz play with no amplification. It sounded gorgeous and I knew I was hearing Stan Getz's horn, from the bell to my ear uninterrupted. It's a precious memory.

    I'll be checking out soon in Paris at the Sunside/set. Hopefully the amplification will be minimal!

  2. Hi Tom,
    I look forward to seeing you in Paris, it's been awhile…

  3. Excellent post Ellery.

    I love walking into a club and seeing minimal amplication.
    Last year Michael Bisio's completey acoustic bass blew me away - huge, resonant, natural sound.

    Too many times I have left a gig wondering how it would have sounded with no P.A. (Last night in fact).

    As a musician I feel that playing with amplification too often can really hinder musicianship. The "If you can't hear the piano/bass just plug it in/turn it up" way does nothing to help musicians learn how to balance an ensemble sound.

  4. Adam,
    Yea, it's great when it happens. Was reminded how good it can be when visiting the Vanguard recently. A great room like that helps too...

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  6. I'm very excited to have stumbled upon your blog just now. I'm as excited by your thoughts and writing as by your music, which is to say a lot. This post on sound reminded me of an interesting TED Talk by deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie on how to really listen:

    Anthony G