<From: david Wozmak
<To: ronpell@microweb.com
<Subject: your page on audio horror -- tuning a "soundspace"
<Date: Wed, 1 Apr 1998 23:01:25 -0500

Hi David:

Thanks for your message. I´m glad you found my essay, An Audio Horror Story, amusing because in retrospect so do I. But while I was in its midst it was a perplexing and not so enjoyable place to be.

<Dear Mr. Pellegrino:

<I have just read your amusing little treatise on audio, "An Audio Horror

<...and I must admit I was amused. You must understand, as a matter of
<course, that the audio, lighting, and video technicians available at a
<university are by nature either interns, or simply "the guy that knows
<where the power switch is".

RP - For the first two decades of my touring life what you say was true; and they weren´t very good at finding the power switch either. However all that changed during the past decade and today all the audio techs at universities have college degrees in the audio field or a closely related field. Plus many of them have professional field experience. However I´m afraid that many of them aren´t that much better than their predecessors; they simply have more book learning, a more expensive array of gear, a head full of half-baked formulas, and ingrained bad audio habits. A working understanding of musical fundamentals and related audio principles continues to be clearly lacking in the majority of audio engineers whether or not they´re associated with the academic world. I must admit that on ocassion I do find some fine audio collaborators out on the college circuit and when I do I feel like I´m in heaven.

<The proceedure you described so disparagingly is certainly widespread in
<the industry, but only as a preliminary process, to "put you in the
<ballpark", so to speak. Obviously you were dealing with a neophyte, who
<had watched the manufacturer/dealer work when the system was installed,
<thus didn´t know what he was doing. No mystery there!

RP - My experience is (and I worked to make that clear in my essay) that rather than putting you "in the ballpark" that procedure takes you "out of the ballpark." The ballpark is the soundspace that you´re working and, of course, there is no such animal as a perfect soundspace. The problem with the procedure is that those who use it think they´re creating the perfect soundspace. What they end up doing is making of it a monster. Far better to let the soundspace be its quirky self and then use your basic audio technology (speaker distribution and the features of the board) to "tune", via a knowledgeable ear, the audio to sound as good as possible in the space.

<The fact that it took you two days to "find the culprit" is very telling.
< A competent audio engineer (especially a deaf one :-) would have located
<the problem within minutes.

RP - If you reread that section of the essay you´ll discover it wasn´t the audio tech who solved the problem. He created it by not informing me that, using the procedure, they had "perfected" the soundspace before my arrival. Unfortunately for me, they positioned the hardware partially hidden off in corner where it didn´t come to attention until I killed all the lights in the space. And there were all those little yellow LEDs of the offending equalizer staring at me from across the space.

<A simple fact of the matter, also, is that loud sound has certain
<psychological properties, as compared to a similar sound at a "naturally
<occurring" volume. Some people use this as a tool in their performances.
< Some people simply don´t have a clue. Some people are purists, and can´t
<"understand" why someone would want it to sound "different" than it would
<have, had it occurred naturally.

RP - It´s true that reinforced sounds that are louder than their natural counterparts do change the psychological impact of the sound (that's an psychoacoustic area worthy of extended study). Unfortunately when that happens the source or natural sound morphs and becomes distorted in a way that turns it into an electronic sound with the spectral characteristics of the audio system; the upshot is that the sound loses its natural patina plus a wealth of expressive nuances transmitted spectrally. Many in the audience attend a live concert to enjoy music created with the special sounds that only high quality professional musicians can make. One of the most common errors committed by audio engineers doing sound reinforcement is overcranking the levels so the music sounds like it´s coming off a CD or tape played at a high level. Insensitive audio engineering tends to turn the subtlety of acoustic music into a gross mishmash of recorded disembodied electronic sound.

<I also believe that you should not injure your audience...to do so is
<ungracious. I´m sure, though, that sound reinforcement allows, for
<example, a soft voice (which has it´s own peculiar features and
<characteristics) to be perceived throughout a large hall. In days gone by,
<a singer had to really belt it out, to reach the rear seats. Now the
<singer can concentrate on nuance, rather than power. Good thing.


<p.s. -- Obviously there are many incompetent sound engineers...almost as
<many of them as incompetent composers and musicians.

RP - Except in classical music the sound of a singer has been electronically reinforced for a good part of the 20th century. With rare exceptions popular singers of any style need electronic sound reinforcement just to be heard in the front seats. It has always taken a vocalist with operatic training to even dream about projecting out to the back of an auditorium. The technology may make it possible for a "singer to concentrate on nuance, rather than power" but it remains an exceedingly rare event when one does. Bad thing.

It may be that the distribution of incompetence is relatively equal among sound engineers, composers, and musicians but incompetent composers and musicians are likely to be somewhat quiet (they won´t be involved in that many performances and when they are, they tend to be weak in every way) whereas incompetent sound engineers are likely to melt your ears at first meeting; it´s such a tempting exercise of power to crank up those pots. For what it´s worth, during much of the 80s into the early 90s I taught an upper level university Physics of Music class; composers were always among the best students, instrumentalists were usually in the middle of the class, and recording students were always among the weakest.

Ron Pellegrino

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