Ron Pellegrino's Quest for Audio Excellence Audio Report 6

The Event:

Thursday, February 19, 1998
Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley's Cal Performances
The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, the premiere big jazz band of the late 20th Century led by Wynton Marsalis, the brightest blessed star in today's musical firmament

The Space:

UC Berkeley's main venue for Cal Performances, a series with a rich tradition of bringing the entire performance world to the San Francisco Bay Area. The audience is as diverse and sophisticated as the program offerings. Unfortunately electronic sound reinforcement at Zellerbach has a checkered past. In the 26 years I've attended concerts in Zellerbach, electronic sound reinforcement has rarely been good; in fact, it's mostly horrible so these days I normally avoid electronically reinforced events.

The work of a fine audio engineer, David Robinson (hire him if you can (713-522-4266)) of Houston, Texas, graced The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra´s (LCJO) concert at UC Berkeley´s Cal Performances last night (2/19/98). The sound of the concert was a rare treat given that Cal Performances has a long history of very poor audio engineering, a track record normally attributed to in-house staff and sometimes to local "professionals" or audio engineers traveling with touring groups. Even most past performances of The LCJO on Cal Performances have been badly marred by strident, unbalanced, overcranked electronically amplified sound. On this tour The LCJO is traveling with an audio engineer who´s assuming the only role that makes sense in a musical context, he´s playing his audio instruments like another member of The LCJO. Through the reinforced sound you can hear him thinking and listening; most of the time it´s very subtle, but his thought and listening process were always present in the sound; and that is an exceptional state of audio affairs.

In my youth I had the pleasure of hearing the live unamplified big band sounds of Ellington, Basie, Kenton and others in big clubs and dance hall settings. Until the final piece of the concert (formula-cranked to generate excitement and closure), what I and the audience heard was the full, rich, delineated, undistorted sound that reminded me of those past big band experiences. With the exception of the rhythm section which was always mixed to fill the entire stereo field, when band members soloed, it seemed as though the sound was coming directly from their instruments wherever they happened to be on stage; such delineation is a rare accomplishment in an electronically amplified setting. To achieve that end requires creative microphone placement and a sensitive experienced ear on the part of the audio engineer.

What follows are some of the principles that David Robinson used to achieve that high level of delineated sonic realism:

Any set of principles is just a point of departure and certainly David Robinson would add to the above list as well as further fine tune it. Nevertheless, based on The LCJO concert in Berkeley what sets David Robinson apart from the vast majority of practicing audio engineers is his creative idiomatic approach to reinforcing the sound of a big jazz band. He never got in the way of music; he just filled the space with balanced delineated idiomatic sound. The LCJO is fortunate to count him among their number.

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