Ron Pellegrino's Quest for Audio Excellence Audio Report 4

The Event:

Saturday, August 24, 1996
Ali Akbar Khan, sarod with Swapan Chaudhuri, tabla
Classical North Indian Music
St. John's Presbyterian Church, Berkeley, CA

The Space:

Modern open church with moderately reflective wood surfaces. 4 musicians seated on a low stand with microphones galore.

Ali Akbar Khan is with good reason generally recognized as one of the world's finest musicians. I've been attending his concerts since 1973 when he often performed at the seminal Center for World Music located at the old St. John's Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, California, a sound space as sweet and intimate as they come. His performances in those days elevated me into musical realms that defied the gravity of everyday existence. His music and much of what was heard at the Center for World Music in the early and mid 1970s was truly inspirational. In contrast, his concerts during the past few years have been painful to the ear and somewhat depressing to the spirit; and this concert was no exception.

What has changed? In the 1970s Ali Akbar Khan performed without electronic sound reinforcement; his natural acoustic performances had the full dynamic - read expressive - range of a master musician performing on a highly evolved traditional instrument. In the 1990s his performances are clouded, distorted, and fouled by the insensitive use of electronic sound reinforcement.

Who was the audio engineer? Tim White, Ali Akbar College of Music sound engineer, ran the show. Mills College is the drop on his email address; so the loud, fast, frenetic, and hyperactive aesthetic of the Mills music technology group over the past 10 years is part of his history. On the metering surface of his equipment everything looked OK but in audio engineering looks are just the beginning. His equipment showed no flashing LEDs or any other warning signals. But the sound the audience hears is shaped and judged by their ears. If it isn't right for the ears of the audience, the audio engineer bears much of the responsibility.

Who's ultimately responsible? Ali Akbar Khan bears full responsibility for the music from his soul's ear through the ears of the audience. He and any other musicians choosing to use electronic sound reinforcement need to come to terms with the nature of the sound reinforcement beast. At some practical, working level they need to understand the complete physical nature of their sound and how that relates to human auditory reception. The sound reinforcement system is part of the instrument that the musician is playing. It directly effects the dynamic range, tone color, and balance of the instruments creating the music.

What can Ali Akbar Khan do about it? A musical sound check before every performance. Of course everyone routinely does a sound check before performances. What that normally entails is a check to insure that all the equipment works, that no warning LEDs light up, and possibly a bit of perfunctory equalization. But that's not a musical sound check. Musical sound checks should always be done by the leading performing musician, never by audio engineers. Ali Akbar Khan should give his sarod to a trusted student to play while he tests various locations in the space (back, front, sides, middle), all the while asking the student to play passages of varying dynamic, textural, melodic, and frequency material. To simplify the matter, he and his students could agree on a set of test passages appropriate for musical sound checks. That would be a good ongoing class project for his College of Music. The problems of sound reinforcement are not going away; they beg for attention and solutions.

Recently I heard separate concerts in Herbst Theatre in San Francisco by Art Farmer, the great trumpeter, and Max Roach, the great drummer. Herbst is a world-class acoustic recital space; not only is sound reinforcement completely unnecessary in that space, it always undermines the musical experience when it's used there. The Farmer and Roach concerts were both damaged by the poor and unnecessary use of sound reinforcement. Most older musicians performing in today's electronic sound reinforcement environment grew up musically in an earlier period of purely acoustic music; they are not faring well with electronic sound reinforcement. If they insist on using it, their first step toward mastering the new electronic environment is to admit to themselves that they need to become students of the new audio age, understand its principles, apply its techniques, and integrate mastery of that new audio medium with their public performances. Ali Akbar Khan is the leader of his own college of music, so he's in the perfect position to create a new class, a new learning environment for himself and his students to understand the medium, create solutions to the problems it poses, and to serve as a model to other musicians who are moving from the tradition of a purely acoustic world into today's electronic world.

What I heard that needed fixing: The fundamental frequencies of the voice of the man who made the introductory remarks left a ringing auditory trail that smeared and muddied his auditory wavetrain - his words. Whenever the tabla produced tones with fundamentals in that same frequency band, they also were muddied. Those fundamental frequencies happened to coincide with some of the church's resonant frequencies. The audio signals from the speaker's microphone and the microphone that picked up the tabla should have been routed through their own particular channels on the mixing board with appropriately lower equalization settings to compensate for the natural amplification frequencies (resonances) of the space. Every space with reflective surfaces has resonant frequencies that taken together create that space's unique audio signature. The resonances may be subtle or they may be exaggerated. Reinforced sound that pumps too much energy into already exaggerated resonant frequency bands will induce ringing or booming; it also runs the risk of producing feedback. Compensating for a space's natural resonances is a basic audio engineering task. It definitely was overlooked at this event.

Ali Akbar Khan's occasional remarks were barely comprehensible due to booming and the overemphasis of his sibilants. He's a person whose music and thoughts should be treated with the utmost respect and attention. Instead, his speech was rendered barely intelligible and his music was cranked to grating and buzzing levels.

The lower half of his dynamic range was completely missing. What would normally be expressive nuances were pumped up to dynamic levels that changed their musical meanings. A soft touch became a press. A brush became a rake. Watercolor became neon. Those inflated levels deprived the audience of the transcendental and mystical experience of inspired musical subtlety, his gift to the world.

Quiet, contemplative sounds were pushed into the middle dynamic range, and that drove excited passages into the realm of distortion. Standard procedure is to allow headroom for excited performers. Whenever Ali Akbar Khan's playing became loud, fast, and complex, the sound turned into shifting bands of colored noise. That beautiful sarod of his morphed into a cheap overdriven synthesizer module. For three decades my love has been technology and music. In some contexts I find shifting bands of colored noise infinitely fascinating. But not when I attend a concert of North Indian music.

According to the audio equipment that had meters, the noise was not in that equipment. The noise could have been produced in the speakers by overdriving them with amplifiers that were simply too powerful; but it didn't sound to me that the speakers were breaking up. It seemed that they were simply creating overly high levels that overdrove the ears to create noise. This experience was on the threshold of being painful. In the Fall of 1994 Ali Akbar Khan's concert at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco was so poorly engineered that after changing seats a half dozen times we still couldn't find a spot in the hall that wasn't painful, so we just left.

Reduced dynamic range equals reduced expressive range. What a waste of a rare opportunity for one of the world's finest musicians to enlighten an audience in search of mystical moments. What's even sadder is that a whole generation of listeners subjected to electronic sound reinforcement is being denied an authentic experience of North Indian music by one of the world's greatest musicians.

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