A number of email correspondents have inquired about the motivation for my Quest for Audio Excellence. In a nutshell, I prefer music of any sort to be a transcendental experience; lousy audio is always a deflating experience.
The following letter marks the beginning of my public Quest for Audio Excellence. After years of being tortured in just about every audio venue by deaf audio technicians seemingly operating in a stupor I decided to embark on a public audio consciousness raising campaign targeted at the people who present music concerts and those who give them, attend them, and review them. It's amazingly slow going considering that I'm appealing to the population's top one per cent in audio sensitivity. It seems to be improving or...maybe I'm going the way of the audio technicians - deaf. The truth is that I avoid events that use sound reinforcement and I always carry ear plugs of one sort or another.
Mr. Robert W. Cole, Director
101 Zellerbach Hall
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720
Dear Mr. Cole:
We´ve been subscribers to Cal Performances for many seasons because we believe UC-Berkeley and especially your organization are wonderful intellectual and artistic resources for the entire Bay Area. However during the past few seasons we have been so pained by your audio technicians and their mishandling of their sound reinforcement duties that we almost stopped being subscribers. I´m a composer and researcher in acoustics and the electronic arts and my wife is a lifelong musician. For 25 years I have included psychoacoustics in my teaching and professional work. For the past 10 years I´ve taught Physics of Music for a university physics department. I´m considered an expert in the field and I attend and produce concerts all over the Bay Area and around the country that depend heavily on reinforced sound.
Your sound people are among the worst I´ve encountered. Most sound technicians have badly impaired hearing in the high part of the mid-frequency range (1.5 kHz-5 kHz) because most of their popular engagements call for cranking up the audio gain. Normal ears are most sensitive in that frequency band and that band is where the ear is most easily damaged. Your audio technicians boost the gain until they can hear in that band. Of course it causes pain in normal ears; if normal ears are left unprotected, they too will become impaired. Whenever your audio people are involved, we have to stuff our ears with cotton and that leads us to question the wisdom and sensitivity of the people who run Cal Performances. I´m certain that you will agree that it´s a strange thing to be forced to do after spending $25-$30 a ticket and driving for an hour to attend a concert.
During the past few years every concert we´ve attended in the Cal Performances series that required sound reinforcement was spoiled by distorted and unrefined sound. Overamplified sound generates tone colors that lose their unique acoustic patina and instead assume an electronically-driven color quality. The human ear is capable of an immensely broad range of amplitude sensitivity and all good musicians intuitively use the full dynamic range for expressive purposes. Excessive amplification flattens the dynamic range and robs music of much of its subtlety. And that is a horrible injustice to music, musicians, and the audience.
At the last concert we attended on April 10, 1993, just before the event began, your sound people had a throbbing high amplitude low frequency sound coming out of the speakers for no good reason. That sound combination makes people sick to their stomachs; it has actually been designed into a weapon. I felt queasy and so did others around me. When I approached your audio people about the sound and its effect, they treated me as if I were denying them their right to use the sound system as they saw fit. Finally I informed them that if their sound made me sick, the mess would be all over their audio equipment. The message registered and they removed the offensive audio, But why should the responsibility for their supervision fall on the audience?
During the past season I discussed this issue with a number of composers whose work was included in your programs. They all came up with the same negative assessment of your audio people. Your organization won´t hear any complaints from them because they would like to included in your programs again in the future. As a test of the validity of what I´m saying here, try a Customer Satisfaction survey with your subscribers and include questions about the performance of your audio technicians.
UC-Berkeley should be a beacon of intelligence in our society, not an instrument of perceptual impairment. The noise pollution in our time is out of control. We do not need it in the concert hall. Someone with an undamaged musical ear should supervise your audio people to insure that they do not distort the music and damage the ears of the audience.
Despite our misgivings we decided to subscribe to the 93/94 season but we did our best to avoid any event that might include your audio people. Your organization should consider this matter seriously and accept the responsibility for protecting your audience and providing high-quality sound as well as the best performances possible.
There was a Response to the Audio Prayer from an official at Cal Performances.
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