Sound Reinforcement and Noise

From: Ron Pellegrino<>
Subject: Re: Amplification
Date: 12/10/97

The email message that Alden Jenks sent to the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music about their distorted use of audio amplification rang all my bells. In sympathy and complete agreement with Alden Jenks I´m including a copy of a letter that I wrote to Ali Akbar Khan and a review of the sound reinforcement used at the particular Berkeley concert that triggered the letter. For those who find the review of interest, related material can be found on the Quest For Audio Excellence section of my website.

Copy of a letter that I wrote to Ali Akbar Khan:

September 5, 1996

Maestro Ali Akbar Khan
Ali Akbar College of Music
215 West End Avenue
San Rafael, CA 94901

Dear Maestro Ali Akbar Khan:

I´m writing to you as a longtime fan and admirer of your contributions to music and humanity. In the early 1970s, when I was a composer on the faculty of the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, I was instrumental in arranging to have you visit and perform on campus; we met at a small gathering after your concert. I have been attending your concerts in the Bay Area since the early 1970s. Lately I have been greatly troubled by the flawed nature of your electronic sound reinforcement. The enclosed review goes into more detail on the subject.

I´m hoping that you take my observations in a positive fashion and use the ideas and suggestions to make the improvements in sound reinforcement for you, your students, and all of us who look forward to your public concerts. Audio engineers are messing up our most treasured musical experiences. Musicians of the highest ranks, like yourself, must take a leadership role in enlightening the public and serving as a model on how best to work in the new electronic audio environment.

Ron Pellegrino

Review of the sound reinforcement used at the Ali Akbar Khan concert:

Audio Report 4
Ron Pellegrino, September 1996

Ali Akbar Khan is with good reason generally recognized as one of the world´s finest musicians. I´ve been attending his concerts since 1973 when he often performed at the seminal Center for World Music located at the old St. John´s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, California, a sound space as sweet and intimate as they come. His performances in those days elevated me into musical realms that defied the gravity of everyday existence. His music and much of what was heard at the Center for World Music in the early and mid 1970s was truly inspirational. In contrast, his concerts during the past few years have been painful to the ear and somewhat depressing to the spirit; and this concert was no exception.

What has changed? In the 1970s Ali Akbar Khan performed without electronic sound reinforcement; his natural acoustic performances had the full dynamic - read expressive - range of a master musician performing on a highly evolved traditional instrument. In the 1990s his performances are clouded, distorted, and fouled by the insensitive use of electronic sound reinforcement.

Who was the audio engineer? Tim White, Ali Akbar College of Music sound engineer, ran the show. Mills College is the drop on his email address; so the loud, fast, frenetic, and hyperactive aesthetic of the Mills music technology group over the past 10 years is part of his history. On the metering surface of his equipment everything looked OK, but in audio engineering looks are just the beginning. His equipment showed no flashing LEDs or any other warning signals. But the sound the audience hears is shaped and judged by their ears. If it isn´t right for the ears of the audience, the audio engineer bears much of the responsibility.

Who´s ultimately responsible? Ali Akbar Khan bears full responsibility for the music from his soul´s ear through the ears of the audience. He and any other musicians choosing to use electronic sound reinforcement need to come to terms with the nature of the sound reinforcement beast. At some practical, working level they need to understand the complete physical nature of their sound and how that relates to human auditory reception. The sound reinforcement system is part of the instrument that the musician is playing. It directly effects the dynamic range, tone color, and balance of the instruments creating the music.

What can Ali Akbar Khan do about it? A musical sound check before every performance. Of course everyone routinely does a sound check before performances. What that normally entails is a check to insure that all the equipment works, that no warning LEDs light up, and possibly a bit of perfunctory equalization. But that´s not a musical sound check. Musical sound checks should always be done by the leading performing musician, never by audio engineers. Ali Akbar Khan should give his sarod to a trusted student to play while he tests various locations in the space (back, front, sides, middle), all the while asking the student to play passages of varying dynamic, textural, melodic, and frequency material. To simplify the matter, he and his students could agree on a set of test passages appropriate for musical sound checks. That would be a good ongoing class project for his College of Music. The problems of sound reinforcement are not going away; they beg for attention and solutions.

Recently I heard separate concerts in Herbst Theatre in San Francisco by Art Farmer, the great trumpeter, and Max Roach, the great drummer. Herbst is a world-class acoustic recital space; not only is sound reinforcement completely unnecessary in that space, it always undermines the musical experience when it´s used there. The Farmer and Roach concerts were both damaged by the poor and unnecessary use of sound reinforcement. Most older musicians performing in today´s electronic sound reinforcement environment grew up musically in an earlier period of purely acoustic music; they are not faring well with electronic sound reinforcement. If they insist on using it their first step toward mastering the new electronic environment is to admit to themselves that they need to become students of the new audio age, understand its principles, apply its techniques, and integrate mastery of that new audio medium with their public performances. Ali Akbar Khan is the leader of his own college of music, so he´s in the perfect position to create a new class, a new learning environment for himself and his students to understand the medium, create solutions to the problems it poses, and to serve as a model to other musicians who are moving from the tradition of a purely acoustic world into today´s electronic world.

What I heard that needed fixing:

The fundamental frequencies of the voice of the man who made the introductory remarks left a ringing auditory trail that smeared and muddied his auditory wavetrain - his words. Whenever the tabla produced tones with fundamentals in that same frequency band, they also were muddied. Those fundamental frequencies happened to coincide with some of the church´s resonant frequencies. The audio signals from the speaker´s microphone and the microphone that picked up the tabla should have been routed through their own particular channels on the mixing board with appropriately lower equalization settings to compensate for the natural amplification frequencies (resonances) of the space. Every space with reflective surfaces has resonant frequencies that taken together create that space´s unique audio signature. The resonances may be subtle or they may be exaggerated. Reinforced sound that pumps too much energy into already exaggerated resonant frequency bands will induce ringing or booming; it also runs the risk of producing feedback. Compensating for a space´s natural resonances is a basic audio engineering task. It definitely was overlooked at this event.

Ali Akbar Khan´s occasional remarks were barely comprehensible due to booming and the overemphasis of his sibilants. He´s a person whose music and thoughts should be treated with the utmost respect and attention. Instead, his speech was rendered barely intelligible and his music was cranked to grating and buzzing levels.

The lower half of his dynamic range was completely missing. What would normally be expressive nuances were pumped up to dynamic levels that changed their musical meanings. A soft touch became a press. A brush became a rake. Watercolor became neon. Those inflated levels deprived the audience of the transcendental and mystical experience of inspired musical subtlety, his gift to the world.

Quiet, contemplative sounds were pushed into the middle dynamic range, and that drove excited passages into the realm of distortion. Standard procedure is to allow headroom for excited performers. Whenever Ali Akbar Khan´s playing became loud, fast, and complex, the sound turned into shifting bands of colored noise. That beautiful sarod of his morphed into a cheap overdriven synthesizer module. For three decades my love has been technology and music. In some contexts I find shifting bands of colored noise infinitely fascinating. But not when I attend a concert of North Indian music.

According to the audio equipment's meters, the noise was not in that equipment. The noise could have been produced in the speakers by overdriving them with amplifiers that were simply too powerful; but it didn´t sound to me that the speakers were breaking up. It seemed that they were simply creating overly high levels that overdrove the ears to create noise. This experience was on the threshold of being painful. In the Fall of 1994 Ali Akbar Khan´s concert at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco was so poorly engineered that after changing seats a half dozen times we still couldn't find a spot in the hall that wasn't painful, so we just left.

Reduced dynamic range equals reduced expressive range. What a waste of a rare opportunity for one of the world´s finest musicians to enlighten an audience in search of mystical moments. What's even sadder is that a whole generation of listeners subjected to electronic sound reinforcement is being denied an authentic experience of North Indian music by one of the world´s greatest musicians.

From: Ron Pellegrino<>
Subject: Re: Amplification
Date: 12/10/97

I was pleased to see the posting by Alden Jenks. How many others in the WFAE have communicated their concerns about audio problems and suggestions for solving those problems directly to the source of the problems? Could enough communications of this sort be gathered into a report or a book that could be used as a resource and leverage for consciousness raising and positive change?

Ron Pellegrino

  On 12/10/97 Alden Jenks said:

»Hello everybody ---

»I am passing on an e-mail I sent to the Ali Akbar Khan College of (Indian) Music in which I make some comments about the amplification used at their concerts. If anyone thinks I am being a crank about this matter let me know (I am unlikely to change my opinions but might stop bothering nice people about how they run their concerts). On the other hand if you agree with me, particularly if you attended this concert or have attended other concerts of Indian music in which you were annoyed by the amplification they use, it might be helpful for them to know that. The e-mail address I sent this to was:


»Here is the text:

»I was at the concert at the Palace of Fine Arts last weekend. It is always a thrill for me to hear Ali Akbar Khan. He is a figure virtually without equal in the world today. I have learned a great deal from him and the grand tradition he embodies.

»At the same time I felt --- and I think probably everyone did -- something amiss in the concert, something beyond the difficulties with tuning, breaking strings, and the maybe uncertain role of Aashish Khan in the proceedings. I think that problem was acoustical; and I think it was due to the amplification.

»Let me put the matter quite simply. The music began at a level I would describe as Loud. This is at the beginning of the alap. The tanpuras and the sarod´s resonant strings are already being heard at a level that they would never be heard at traditionally. The music then grows in intensity from this Loud beginning. The tablas enter, and they are also being amplified at an artificial and unnecessary level. By the end of the raga everyone is playing Very Very Loud --- and the resulting combination is really just a mess. The proper proportions of the different elements is entirely lost. The sound is aggressive and unrelenting. I was cringing in my seat, and kind of wishing the piece would end.

»Under these conditions Quietness is eliminated as a possibility altogether. And without quiet as a floor, there is no dynamic range left for the sound to move through, no way for it to become, to seem to be, loud. And the deeper problem is, that we lose contact with the ultimate floor of music, which is silence. When I hear Indian music, especially when I hear the tanpura, I have always felt as though I am being brought back in contact with the origins of music, the origins of sound, growing out of silence itself. With aggressive amplification, as is becoming the norm at your concerts, this contact is lost. It all becomes surface noise, mere entertainment.

»I strongly suspect that a musician was not at the controls last Saturday (this is very often the case), and it was apparent that the controls were off-stage, where no reasonable judgements could be made in any case. I am sorry to see that the musicians themselves seemed unaware of the problem. They even seemed to want the amplification increased. I can only suppose this is because they have never sat in the audience and undergone the experience.

»Normally I would just keep such concerns to myself. But when it involves music and musicians about whom I care so much, I cannot convince myself that it´s "none of my business". Somehow it is my business (and actually, as I am a composer and sound engineer, it really is).

»Please accept my thanks for your attention, and for your efforts on behalf of the tradition of Indian music.

»Alden Jenks
»San Francisco Conservatory of Music

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