Ron Pellegrino's Quest for Audio Excellence Audio Report 8

The Event:

Thursday, September 17, 1998
San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
Zakir Hussain, composer/percussionist, working with Alonzo King's LINES contemporary Ballet

The Space:

San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts houses a medium theater that's a popular venue for local and touring dance companies. Normally the dance companies work with recorded music and more rarely collaborate with live musicians.

Zakir Hussain, easily one of the most exciting living musicians in the world, is a classical tabla master who excels musically on any percussion instrument. His work as the composer/performer of the music for Alonzo King's Who Dressed You Like A Foreigner? was the reason I was attending this event. Because I was so much looking forward to enjoying what I expected to be an inspiring musical experience, I was hoping for a good night's work on the part of the audio engineering crew especially since percussion instruments are notoriously difficult to reinforce electronically while maintaining their spectral and dynamic integrity.

My experiences with past performances of the audio engineering at Yerba Buena were generally positive though occasionally audio levels were pushed right up to the beginning of and into the low end of the pain threshold band. The notion of pain threshold band in the audio engineering sphere tends not be very well understood because it depends on so many intersubjective variables whereas most audio engineers use only themselves and their personal preferences as references for making audio judgements. The human pain threshold is actually a band of levels that takes into account a variety of acoustic and psychoacoustic factors. The pain threshold should not simply be pegged mechanically to a single specific decibel level as is often seen in textbooks. The notion of a pain threshold band is far more accurate musically because it takes into account the acoustic variables of frequency, spectrum, texture, iteration, instrument type, and reinforcement system clarity which are crucial factors along with the psychoacoustic variables characteristic of individuals in the audience such as age, musical experience, temperament, health, and aesthetic preference. The best audio engineers know that their highest levels should be kept below the pain threshold band. Any sound levels that enter into the pain threshold band will inflict physical pain on the audience and distort the music.

Nevertheless, the audio engineering work for Zakir Hussain's performance was outstanding. Hussain's music reached out into the soundspace, took the audience and the dancers by their ears, and gave us all a sense of what it's like to fly in the higher aesthetic realms. And the audio engineering played its part perfectly by serving the music and never intruding or jerking us down to earth. Kudos to the Yerba Buena house staff of Cedric Lathan, Audio Engineer/Technician, and James Jones, his assistant, for jobs very well done.

After the concert I congratulated the audio engineers and talked to them about the procedure they used to achieve their excellent results. On the face of it the setup was fairly simple: In the pit Hussain arranged his percussion instruments in a semicircle facing the dancers on stage; at the center of the arc, a standard dynamic vocal microphone was used for Hussain's percussive singing; on both sides (quarter-circles) of the dynamic microphone, two condenser microphones floated over the top of each quarter-circle of percussion instruments. Of course, especially with percussion instruments, the appropriate choice and placement of microphones was crucial to that special performance. However the key to the high quality of this event was the musical judgement that went into achieving the spectral tuning (equalization settings) and the level settings so that the true sound of the instruments filled the space without overpowering it. When I asked about Hussain's involvement in the process I could sense some irritation on the part of the audio engineers. Unfortunately, like most institutions, performing arts venues tend to be highly departmentalized (with specific individuals responsible for specific functions) resulting in attitudes that diminish the spirit of collaboration and undermine the art process. In fact Hussain (as all musicians should and unfortunately few do) insisted on being involved in the soundspace tuning process. In the final analysis it was the collaboration of Hussain and the audio engineers that led to the excellent results.

Hussain would do the music world a great favor if he were to consult with his sometime musical collaborator, Ali Akbar Khan, and urge him to get involved (as Hussain does) with his electronic sound reinforcement at the same level that he is involved with his music. Hussain should convince Khan to think of the sound reinforcement as a direct extension of his sarod performance, an undistorted line of musical communication from his instrument to his audience. Unfortunately the audio engineering of Ali Akbar Khan's concerts is so horrible that I can no longer attend his performances. For many of us who've attended his concerts for over two decades, avoiding them is a serious loss of musical inspiration and bad audio engineering is responsible for that loss. For more information on the subject see this review of an Ali Akbar Khan concert.

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