Ron Pellegrino's Quest for Audio Excellence Audio Report 9

The Event:

Wednesday, March 17, 1999
Masonic Auditorium, a San Francisco Performances event
The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, the premiere big jazz band of the late 20th Century led by Wynton Marsalis

The Space:

The Masonic Auditorium is a 3,000-seat hall located across the street from Grace Cathedral atop Nob Hill in San Francisco. Blessed with beautiful acoustical properties in a semicircular design virtually every seat in the house (orchestra and balcony) is a good seat. Jazz musicians love to perform there because of its great sound and intimate feel.

Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra

Squealing With Ellington in San Francisco

Ron Pellegrino, March 30, 1999

A two-week delay in finishing this article didn´t weaken my indignation at being in the target audience for yet another expensive audio assault. This time it was a San Francisco Performances event in the Masonic Auditorium on March 17, 1999 by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (LCJO) under the leadership of Wynton Marsalis, a musical organization that should be a paradigm of musical sophistication rather than a perpetrator of an audio mugging.

On one mental burner sits a pot boiling with the thoughts of joining the parade of people like Peter Jeffrey, a Princeton University music professor, who is suing the members of the rock band Smashing Pumpkins, the city of New Haven, and the New Haven Coliseum, where their offending concert took place in January 1997. Even loaded with earplug protection, Jeffrey suffered hearing damage after spending only 20 minutes at the concert looking for his son. I´d expect hearing damage to be part of the rock concert territory but in no way should it be part of San Francisco Performances events especially when the performers represent the Lincoln Center.

The fact remains that I don´t want to sue San Francisco Performances. The organization is a cultural pillar of the SF Bay Area normally focusing on acoustic music performances in the best of settings and I depend on them for inspiring moments. Neither do I want to sue Wynton Marsalis or the LCJO; they´re cultural pillars in the global music scene and are normally wellsprings of inspiration. But what will it take to convince them not to join the ranks of those who refuse to assume responsibility for the destructive state of electronic sound reinforcement at public music events? Poorly executed electronic sound reinforcement is destroying the quality of the music, the listening experience, and the hearing systems of the audience for music. And nobody (not the musicians, the presenters, the audio engineers, nor the government) is apparently willing to own up to the responsibility for maintaining the hearing health of the audiences at music events.

The LCJO evening in SF opened with an audio feedback squeal that created pain in my ears that lasted through the concert and into the following days. For over a week the LCJO experience left my ears subject to pain in response to sounds as normal as doors closing. When the LCJO audio engineer added another squeal halfway through the concert, it immediately triggered a pained expression on Wynton Marsalis´s face and eventually led to his mock credit at the end of piece for an audio engineering "solo"; that was followed by his mock concession that "we still love you Ray" (the offending audio engineer).

Add the feedback squeals to an overly amplified evening of Duke Ellington´s music and you have a recipe for audience hearing damage as well as musical frustration. Duke Ellington´s music does not require and does not benefit from electronic sound reinforcement. In my youth I heard Ellington´s band in live performance a number of times. The only musician using electronic sound reinforcement was his singer. To saddle Ellington´s music with electronic sound reinforcement does it a serious injustice; it squeezes out much of its subtlety, finesse, and sophistication and pounds it into just one more gross commercial music product.

Human hearing, in its healthy form, evolved to be extraordinarily sensitive to the fundamentals of sound - frequency (pitch), amplitude (loudness), and timbre (tone color resulting from the changing combinations of frequencies, their amplitudes, and their combined evolutions over time). Healthy human hearing is capable of adapting its sensitivity range to accommodate just about any sound environment whether it´s wide-band such as natural sounds and acoustic music or narrow-band such as electronically reinforced music as long as it doesn´t exceed the threshold of pain. Immersed in a normal acoustic sound environment, human hearing can detect and appreciate amazingly small changes in sound, and therein lies the vehicle for musical expression and inflection.

All electronically processed sound (including both recorded sound and reinforced sound) is strongly colored by the conversion processes that change it from mechanical sound waves to their electrical representations and back again. Today´s heavy-handed approach to electronic sound reinforcement always results in a seriously compromised audio dynamic range; and that leads to a significant reduction of expressive range and the consequent loss of musical subtlety. For no good musical reason Wynton Marsalis and other leading musicians have succumbed to the commercial pressures to be up-to-date and use electronic sound reinforcement even when it´s unnecessary and works against the music. Loud and fast are the watchwords of the commercial music world built on an industrial model that works in the context of mass marketing. The mass production, marketing, and consumption of music in its recorded form has seduced and mesmerized today´s audience and musicians into accepting a filtered, distorted, reduced musical product in lieu of a rich expressive musical experience. The end results are concerts that sound like recordings, often mediocre recordings.

In a public forum in the early 1990s before a LCJO concert at UC-Berkeley when I asked Wynton Marsalis how much his playing was influenced by electronic music synthesizers he recoiled at the thought that there was any influence at all and went into a long tirade about the evils of electronic music instruments. The irony of the current LCJO is that it often sounds in performance like a huge sample synthesizer rather than a band of acoustic instrumentalists.

Leading musicians like Wynton Marsalis should use their positions to educate the public about our precious gift of hearing as well as the music they present. As a leading world-class musician he should feel responsible for protecting the hearing systems required for the appreciation of the music he´s producing. If leading musicians don´t accept that charge, the hearing of all music lovers will be at risk even with prophylactics in their ears.

It´s time for presenters and music organizations to post health warnings on concert promotional materials for programs that might endanger the hearing systems of the audience. And that means that every electronically reinforced program should include a health warning. As ludicrous as it seems, it´s now necessary for an audience to come prepared to wear prophylactics in their ears just as the audio engineers do and even that won´t guarantee complete hearing protection. Although I always carry my own specially designed ear plugs when I attend concerts, I chafe at the idea that audio conditions force me to play my ear plugs all night long to compensate for poorly and dangerously executed electronic sound reinforcement. I rarely see anyone else in an audience wearing earplugs. Surely without hearing protection if they aren´t already hearing-impaired they´ll be well on their way to that challenged state after an evening with excessive electronically reinforced music.

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