Ron Pellegrino's Quest for Audio Excellence Audio Report 10
Sunday July 4, 1999
Les Brown & His Band of Renown
Miller Genuine Draft Pavilion
Marin County Fair 1999
Large open-sided tent at a county fair
What a treat! A big swing band with a great history sounding authentically powerful, tight, and sweet while playing a string of beautiful jazz standards. You could tell from the opening sound that someone, namely Les Brown, has strong convictions about the effect of sound quality on his music. The electronic sound reinforcement was completely in tune with the style and the nature of the music. Just like all those big jazz bands I heard live in my youth (the 1950s) - Basie, Ellington, Kenton, etc. - the only truly amplified microphone was in the front of the band for the use of the vocalists and the leader's introductions; and on this day that microphone was tuned to perfection. In fact, there were a collection of microphones scattered around the band but their levels were musically adjusted to just slightly reinforce the sound of soloists in ways that always supported the acoustic nature of the instruments.
No feedback squeals, no strident sounds, and no auditory pain. This event was a rare musical experience in this age of thumping, thwacking, booming bass and over amplified everysound. Just as people did in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, you could actually dance in front of the Les Brown band and comfortably enjoy the acoustic sound of their instruments. A large dance floor was set up in front of the band which was flanked by the speaker stacks that were pumping out relaxed sound (the expression used by the audio engineer). Par for today's music course the same speaker stacks were mostly badly misused by the other bands on the fair's schedule of events. And as you might expect it was especially true of a band called WAR whose sound could be could be heard clearly two blocks away from the pavilion. Imagine the effect that had on the hearing of audio engineer even with ear plugs. Multiply that effect by years of such audio jobs and it's easy to understand why audio engineers are the enemies of our ears.
After the event I congratulated Les Brown's son (who played and sang with the band) on the great sound of the band and asked how they managed to get it given the quantity of electronic sound gear at the venue. His reply was that they told the audio engineer to turn off all the electronic gear. Of course that didn't really happen but Les Brown's son makes a good point in an exaggerated way - just keep the electronic gear out of the way of the music. I also talked to the audio engineer about the sound and his first reaction was somewhat defensive until I made clear to him that I thought the sound was great. He initially gave the impression of being a bit embarrassed at the minimal use of his gear but quickly came around to express the notion that this audio performance was about a relaxed sound through sound reinforcement, not sound amplification. Now there's a meme that needs to replicate itself in the professional worlds of music and audio. Younger musicians, like Wynton Marsalis of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra whose big band sound aesthetic seems to emerge from recorded music, would do well to learn about the use of audio in big band swing from older musicians like Les Brown with direct connections to the original acoustic roots of big band jazz. Les Brown knows from experience how the music should sound and he knows how to get that sound from today's audio engineers. And that's the mark of a musical leader in our currently overamplified music world.
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