June 30, 2014

Acoustic Revolution

I don't like amplified music. At least not as much as acoustic music. Generally speaking, instruments sound fuller and richer and meld with other instruments better when they are not amplified. Voices likewise sound more human and individual when there is no mic in-between the singer and the audience.
Now there are times when amplification is an absolute necessity; the audience can be so large there is no other way to make the show work or an instrument just may not be able to play loud enough to fill the space being used for the concert. Outdoor concerts can be especially problematic for guitars and singers. And since most of our favorite music today is centered around guitars and singers, it is no wonder we assume that music must be amplified. But this is not always the case.
I have played shows in small art galleries that a single singer could easily have filled that still used massive sound systems. The result tends to be a tinny sound, lots of feed back and volume so high that the audience leaves after two songs just to give their ears a rest. Many instruments actually carry an extremely long way when played well. Flutes are famous for this and have been used historically for long distance communication. Brass instruments are so loud that when I see them amplified, I often flee the location before they can even begin to play and damage my hearing.
It startles me how often people assume I will need amps and mics when I am playing an indoor show. Walls in my experience are more than enough amplification on their own. Even (or sometimes especially) in big rooms. This is why cathedrals were used for music so often. Everyone could hear the music no matter how quiet the instruments or how far from the musicians you were. And the reverb in large halls is an entirely different sound than the sound engineered reverb done in audio labs. It holds onto the tiny nuances of sound while echoing out into silence. Some of my favorite places to play with no mics are simple rooms with high ceilings where the flute can take off and fly from corner to corner without any fetters.
Then of course there is playing outdoors without electrical support. This frightens many musicians because their sound seems to be swallowed up or vanish into the horizon. All the little "flaws" in their playing become more noticeable, especially any tone issues, when there are no walls to throw the echos around. One of my teachers actually encouraged me to play outside for exactly this reason; to hear precisely what I sounded like with no interference or distortion. It is something of a humbling experience at first if you have only played in rooms with generous acoustics. But the more you play in settings that allow you to hear your true sound, the easier it is to both improve your sound and to MATCH your sound to your environment.
Music in the Green
I suspect one reason people overuse amplification is they don't take the time to hear and work with the sounds of the space they are playing in. If you sit and listen to the sounds in the place for 5 or 10 minutes and THEN play, you actually will sound different than if you just start playing the moment you have your instrument put together. The changes are subtle but highly informative. Can this be done with amps and mics? Of course! But if you depend on amplification all the time, it is much harder to learn this listening skill. And if you use the amps primarily to be "loud enough," you likely will have a terrible time hearing the natural sounds. And worse, so will your audience. So if you are going to use amps, I'd suggest setting them as low as you can at first and listening to how the amped sound interacts with the world's sounds. Only once you have a feel for that mixing and cooperation of sounds should you increase the volume. And be careful about how loud you go! Loud doesn't equal good and in fact can make something that once was good, very unpleasant and painful.
The trick is maintaining that level of listening to the sounds of the world around you while you are playing your show. It does take practice to stay aware of the many layers of auditory reality at once. It's a little like listening to three different conversations at a long lunch table at once; you won't always catch everything but with patience, you can stay in touch with each one with relative ease.
Taking the time to understand how your sound will interact with other sounds is what creates a performance that works in the space. This, rather than volume, is what makes a show worth attending for me; a musical sound that doesn't destroy other sounds but instead works with what is available and adapts to changes. This creates a live show that will be different and personal for every audience which is, to my mind, the magic of live music.