Ron Pellegrino's Quest for Audio Excellence Audio Report 5

The Event:

Saturday, October 19, 1996
Herbst Theatre, San Francisco
Chanticleer (a 12-man vocal ensemble), The Don Haas Trio, and Ettore Stratta conducting a fine San Francisco all female pick-up orchestra performing Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael, Thelonious Monk, Kurt Weill, and others with arrangements by Gene Puerling, Clare Fischer, and others.

The Space:

San Francisco's treasure of a performance space. Naturally wonderful acoustic setting for every sort of chamber music. Home to San Francisco Performances, recitals by many of the world's finest musicians.

Phil Dunaway´s audio engineering was very good, not perfect, but very good given the conditions of one rehearsal with a group that normally sings a cappella doing a live miked concert with the Don Haas jazz trio and a lushly arranged female orchestra. To add to the complexity, the concert was being recorded for a radio broadcast. Phil Dunaway was the audio engineer for the concert by San Francisco´s gift to the universe, Chanticleer, an uncommon group of 12 male singers who commonly create long periods of sublime musical beauty usually in a strictly acoustic setting. Their recordings, fine as they are, do not do them justice. Hear Chanticleer live in concert in person. The experience will be a high point in your musical life. Hear them often and you´ll have many high points and a richer life to boot.

Each of the 12 singers worked with their own hand-held FM microphone. Considering that this is a group unaccustomed to working with sound reinforcement, much less a microphone in the hand of each performer, they did amazing well in maintaining their signature blend, balance, and attention to dynamic nuance. They had the typical bank of monitor speakers in front of them set on the stage, but that´s a very different auditory world from the straight acoustic realm, the one in which they normally work. It´s a testament to their elevated musical instincts that they were able to relate so well to their microphones adjusting the microphone-to-mouth distances with natural ease.

Apparently some or maybe even all of the singers didn´t "know" what they were doing in the academic sense. In the course of talking to some members of the group at a gathering after the concert, I discovered that they thought the audio engineer was responsible for the blend. There is no way that could happen or that an audio engineer should even attempt to make it happen with 12 singers each holding their own microphone. Good musicians, especially acoustic musicians, do all their tuning (pitch, color, dynamics, blend, ensemble, etc.) by ear and a good audio engineer does not mess with the music. The audio engineer should set initial levels, tune the overall sound to the space, and stay out of the way of the music.

No surprise, miking the piano was the weakest part of the audio engineering performance. The problems, small but audible, were readily apparent when that fine jazz pianist, Don Haas, spun out his always engaging solos. Even minimal ringing on notes in the middle of piano will always irritatingly blur the fine lines of subtle and transparent music. Even low level insistent ringing functions like an attention sink and draws the ear away from the musical flow. Every audio engineer seems to have a personal formula for electronically reinforcing the acoustic piano. A good formula based on the right acoustic principles is always a good starting point, but there is no substitute for a knowing musical ear and sufficient test time when it comes to creating the best reinforced sound for a particular piano in a particular space. A good audio engineer needs to develop a thorough understanding of the fluidity of spectral space, to cultivate an ear that´s sensitive to the slightest spectral gaps or resonances, and to have the confidence to make the equalization adjustments artfully and on-the-fly.

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