5.1 surround concert halls have arrived
The prediction made here yesterday that reshaping the sound is the key to reshaping the future of classical music is coming true faster than I thought possible. Digital Spy has run a story unveiling a new generation of festival sound systems created by audiophile speaker manufacturer Bowers & Wilkins - see photos. The new system combines the range and clarity of a state of the art hi-fi speaker with the power needed to reach thousands of festival-goers. Although aimed initially at the non-classical market, the launch of the new B & W Sound System should be a wake up call for classical music. If reaching new audiences is the name of the game, how can this thinking from B & W's brand director be ignored?
The answer is that nothing beats the rush of experiencing music with others. But there's a catch. Although concerts and live events are responsible for some of our most treasured musical memories, all too often something is missing from the experience; sound quality.A marriage between high end audio and classical music is nothing new. At the 1980 Edinburgh Festival, the Usher Hall organ was deemed unsuitable for a performance of Berlioz’s Te Deum. So audiophile speaker brand KEF - who made the 104AB speakers used in my secondary listening room surround system - installed thirty-six 105.2 speakers in the Usher Hall to reproduce the sound of the organ of St. Mary’s Cathedral a mile away. The audio signal was relayed from the cathedral by an FM radio link, and a video link was installed for organist Gillian Weir. Traditionalists should note that Claudio Abbado, no less, was the conductor, and he judged the mix of natural and electroacoustic sounds to be a resounding success.
Bowers & Wilkins are a respected brand and their speakers are used as monitors in many leading studios, including Abbey Road, and made the Nautilus 803 speakers used in my main listening room. The Digital Spy article reports that the B & W Sound System will be used at the electro-acoustic Womad Festival in July, and that "there are also plans afoot for classical playbacks, letting the speakers demonstrate their full-range capability from scuzzy electro beats to intricate string sections". As I said in yesterday's post, reality is staring us in the face. New technologies have revolutionised the way people listen to recorded music. It is the same technologies that offer the opportunity to beneficially revolutionise the way audiences listen to live classical music. Bowers & Wilkins have seized the opportunity with their Sound System. How long before classical music stops talking about what audiences wear, and starts talking about what they hear.
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I listen to a lot of music on headphones but the whole point of going to see a live orchestra is precisely that the music in the concert does not sound like the music on headphones. If the sound is the same, why bother to go to the concert?
I recall a row of Quad Electrostatics being used to assist Ravi Shankar at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in the 1970s. Not extended to anything else at the time, as far as I'm aware.
Not the most durable or practical sound reinforcement speaker.
The Pritzker Pavilion on Chicago is a case in point. It’s a familiar outdoor/lawn concert venue (with a wicked proscenium) situated downtown amid traffic noise and city bustle. It draws large audiences, many attending for free on the expansive lawn under a speaker array that delivers terrible sound (not that most would recognize the fact). Even in the pavilion’s paid seating up front, I defy anyone to hear sound emanating directly from the stage rather than what’s aimed at them from speaker columns arranged at the sides. The venue is entirely unsuitable for serious listening, much less so even than other similar venues (Ravinia, Tanglewood, Blossom, Wolf Trap, etc.). Audiences respond by not bothering to listen but instead merely soak in the atmosphere, munching cheese and sipping wine. So now the engineers are moving productions indoors to warehouses, arenas, and other unsuitable venues. Blech.
The 'natural' sound we hear in the concert hall is actually artificially enhanced by reverberation. Listening habits now favour a more inclusive sound, and the new digital technologies offer a way to make the sound more inclusive, in the same way as building materials have traditionally been used to make concert halls sound warmer.
Talk of amplified sound is misleading. The proposal is not to raise overall sound levels. It is to make the marginal listening areas in a hall, where younger/newer concertgoers sit, experience the same sound as the front row of the stalls.
The Pritzker Pavilion on Chicago is a salutary case study. But I can counter it with a more nuanced and much more successful case study. I have extensive experience of the acoustic Theatre Royal here in Norwich before and after the installation of the state of the art Carmen sound enhancement system. The results have been revelatory and avoid the directions effects apparently experienced at the Pritzker Pavilion. More about the Carmen installation and the sound it produces here - http://www.overgrownpath.com/2010/10/beethovens-grand-slam.html
There are other possibilities. In the early 1980s (I think it was), the LSO tried to address the old problem of producing the correct orchestral bell pitch without resorting to several tons of heavy and uncontrollable metal on stage. If I remember correctly, they experimented with pickups connected to the strings of a grand piano with some success. It was certainly more satisfactory than the wretched tubular bells normally used.
More recently, the ENO at the Coliseum used suitably impressive electronic bells in their production of Parsifal.
Selective and subtle use of electronics might be the way forward. Certainly my experience of whole orchestra amplification has been appalling and in a direct comparison between a pipe organ and a Thomas 'computer' organ, an easier challenge one would think, the former won hands down as the Thomas had a hardness of tone which became very tiring in a relatively short time. Perhaps the amplification and speakers used were not up to scratch.
As described in an earlier post, the Carmen system only adds non-directional reverberation. But it is an impressive taster of what a digital 5.1 sound shaping system could do without crossing the crucial boundary between natural and amplified sound.
The confusion about whether a sound is natural or artificial is part of the issue here. Some instruments produce their sound through electronic mediation (electric guitar, electronic organ, ondes Martinot, theremin), sometimes even finding their way into orchestral works. Traditional orchestral instruments and voice do not require a plug. To say that architectural adjustments to concerts halls (curtains, shells, reflectors, structures to break standing waves, etc.) renders sound artificial is a stretch, like saying that cupping ones hands to focus yelling across distance is unnatural. Installing speaker systems of any sort, now that’s a line to be crossed only with due consideration. For popular music, knock yourselves out. For centuries-old art music, I’d much rather it be unplugged.
Brutus, let's amicably differ, shall we?
However, I think Pliable has made more than clear the distinction between amplification of the orchestra and ambient sound enhancement. Two experiences in two different venues in Vancouver certainly make it clear to me. The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra plays in the Orpheum Theatre, and I'd rather chew glass than listen to a concert from a seat under the balcony in there. I had to once, in 1986, when a friend bought tickets for four of us to hear Arrau playing the 'Emperor'. Arrau's playing of that concerto was extraordinary in that year, and the only thing that saved the occasion to a degree for me was that I already knew that from listening to a radio broadcast of his performance in Calgary the week before. A little irony in that. If ambient sound enhancement can rectify that problem, I'm all for it.
But then there is the tale of a concert half-ruined, at least. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, I went to a concert by Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Pass, and Oscar Peterson, and it was amplified. What a disaster, and such a senseless one! Ye Gods, whoever had the idea that Basie and Fitzgerald couldn't reach the back of any venue short of a soccer stadium! We were in the front row of the balcony and I just wanted the racket to stop. Sad.
Amplification of musicians dismays me, and in that case gave me a depressing sense of a potentially great occasion missed. But if ambient sound enhancement can help those people who regularly renew their VSO subscriptions for seats under that balcony, it must be a good thing, for many, more likely most, of them have never heard what an orchestra in concert sounds like.