Ron Pellegrino's Quest for Audio Excellence Audio Report 2

The Event:

Saturday, July 6, 1996
The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra
Budweiser Pavilion
Marin County Fair 1996

The Space:

Large open-sided tent at a county fair

We love going to music events at Bay Area county fairs. It's festive. It's outdoors in the summer. It's informal. And everyone is there for the party and a good time listening, dancing or both. Blues festivals and jazz events are favorites and often the pop and country bands are great too.

The downside is usually the somewhat deaf audio engineers at the sound reinforcement controls picking up everything that makes the slightest peep and overdriving it into massive distortion. Not so when The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra did their swinging sets at the Marin County Fair on Saturday, July 6; the sound filled and spilled out of the tent with a rich, faceted swingband sound that actually had some dynamic range to it. The brass and reeds had power and punch but when they backed off on the air pressure, they were downright lush. The clarinet solos sounded like polished woody clarinet playing, not like some overly souped screeching reed saw.

Microphones were set on stands and distributed throughout the band. Nowhere to be seen was a microphone sticking in a bell. Ever since FM microphones emerged on the audio scene, audio engineers have been clipping them on and sticking them in every bell in sight. That seems to be an audio engineer's idea of "very sexy." Using only that one microphone location on any instrument with keyholes (read reeds) is a mistake. Keyholes exist to change the wavelength, the frequency, the pitch of an instrument; they also greatly influence waveshape, timbre, tone color. The acoustic energy that makes sound in our ears issues from those keyholes and mixes in the air with the acoustic energy coming out of the bell; if you only pick up one source or the other, the keyholes or the bell, you are creating an inaccurate, distorted reinforcement of that instrument's sound. BUT DADDY, EVERYBODY ELSE IS DOING IT! Wake up! Listen to the sounds; compare the reinforced sound with the original source; make the reinforced sound a fuller version of the original sound, and just full enough to fill the space.

Joe Arnaudon of San Francisco's Sound JK was the artist at the mixer for the Dorsey Orchestra. What I found most fascinating about Joe Arnaudon's performance was the on-the-fly, song-to-song adjustments he was making to improve the vocalist's sound. During her first song her voice was "covered" and somewhat difficult to separate from the composite sound of the band. In other words, her voice didn't stand out and it was hard to understand the words of the song. Over the course of the first three or four songs, her voice became clearer and clearer. What was superior about Arnaudon's performance in fixing the problem was that there was no obvious jerking around in the spectral and dynamic space to achieve the desired result; his adjustments were gradual, subtle, and effective.

Given functioning and perceptive ears, in performance there are a number of ways to solve the covered vocalist problem. One is simply to boost the singer's overall level--seldom an adequate solution. Another is to use an equalizer to boost the frequency bands that contain the singer's formants, those frequency bands that give the singer's sound its unique character--on the right track. Another is to use an equalizer to boost the consonants or high frequency noise components of the singer's sound--this will help too. Another is to "carve out " some spectral space in the band's composite sound to create room for the spectrum of the singer--works better in a studio setting when you have time for spectral analysis. Another is to "carve out" for the vocalist some virtual space in the stereo pan configuration of the band--very useful too.

So? What was it that Joe did that worked so well? He probably did some of all of the above and maybe threw in a few tricks of his own. If you care enough about it, hire Joe Arnaudon to teach you how to do it right or to do it for you. He can be reached at Sound JK, 1425 Davidson Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94124, 415-826-6864.

Get him while his ears are still in good shape. And that may not be for long. That day Joe also worked the Elvin Bishop band, a hard driving blues band requiring the usual visceral shaking levels--risky for your ears but great creative music for listening and dancing. It often helps to position yourself in the space up in the front and centered between the speaker stacks; from there, you're hearing the band almost the way they're hearing themselves. Of course, most of those "loud music" musicians have lost hearing sensitivity too. Today's form of the blues idiom calls for high volume levels--definitely an occupational hazard. If you're not already a bit on the deaf side, stuff your ears with tissue paper; that'll reduce the level enough in the 1.5 kHz to 5 kHz range to save your ears for other types of music. If you're interested in more information on the subject, check out the essay on Why are audio engineers the enemies of our ears

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©1996-2004 Ron Pellegrino and Electronic Arts Productions. All rights reserved.