Speakers of the House

Speakers of the House

Last week it was nice to get a discussion going about amplification, especially in a chamber music context—blending acoustic and electronic instruments. Needless to say, my solutions would not be right for everyone, but hopefully they offer some guidance or ideas for possible approaches. It also goes without saying that we all often toil under circumstances that are less than ideal. Only the topmost artists can demand perfection from their hosts. Be flexible within reason, but don’t be afraid to have a non-negotiable point if it really is critical to your concept or the success of your performance.

When it comes to amplification, my overarching advice would be: Try to keep as much under your own control as possible. I bring my own laptop, obviously, but also my own audio interface and mixer. If I could afford to provide my own PA I would do so, but it is impractical and unaffordable. And my overarching advice aside, it probably wouldn’t really solve things, because each venue has its own requirements for coverage and so on. I’m planning to start bringing my own DIs though, because quality has been an issue with some of the ones I’ve been provided with in the past. Anyone got any tips for high-quality DIs that I could include in my portable setup?

Composer Tom Hamilton wrote me offline with some thoughts on my column and made some good comments about monitors and other things. Come on, Tom, don’t be shy, drop by the Comments section here and share with everyone. Also, Tom pointed out that conventional loudspeakers are part of the problem in blending acoustic and electronic sounds due to dispersion issues and mentioned the use of hemispherical speakers. I’ve seen these overseas, mostly in France where they seem to love oddly shaped transducers, but like Tom, I have not been fully convinced. Have any of you experimented with different speaker array shapes?

Daniel Wolf wrote from his outpost in Germany about a performance he heard of Gordon Mumma’s Rendition Series, for piano and laptop, where the problem of blend was attacked head on by actually placing small loudspeakers inside the piano, a nice solution that invokes Cowell, Crumb, Kosugi, Zappa, and others. His key point is “the assertion of the presence of each sound source as unique and localized,” which I generally agree with, but his context of unamplified performance in chamber music settings is a bit too limiting. For better or worse, my performances of Lauburu have taken place in venues ranging from standard-issue chamber halls to gymnasia to late-night clubs, where to be unamplified would have been unthinkable. Anyway, what if we don’t have a piano…maybe a Karlheinz-esque solution? Use your sounds to drive a tam-tam!

Matt Sargent tells us about his difficulties working with performers wearing headphones, and the resistance he got asking them to follow what I will call, for sake of brevity, the Ghost Karaoke technique. I’ve been lucky that all the players I have worked with have been game to try new things—I suppose that’s why they commissioned me in the first place. But performers wearing headphones, whether to deliver tempo indications or any other information, can itself be problematic for various reasons. Have others of you out there run into this? What solutions can you share, if any?

I look forward to hearing from you all. Once again, my email box is open, but if you’re writing me to further the discussion about what I’m posting here on NewMusicBox, I’d really like to encourage you to put your thoughts in Comments, so that everyone can have the benefit of your ideas. Until next week, keep buzzin’!

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

8 thoughts on “Speakers of the House

  1. colin holter

    I think PLOrk uses hemispherical speakers. They’re supposed to sound way better than typical unidirectional cabinets, but I can’t speak from personal experience. The Bose L1 column speakers do sound noticeably more natural than your average bear; it’s certainly not a quantum leap, though.

  2. sarahcahill

    loud speakers
    Carl, the title of your column reminds me of a story which Daniel Lentz swears is true: Years ago, for a festival in Holland, he requested six loudspeakers, and when he got there, he was met by six hefty men with big voices, but no actual sound system. Do you know if that’s true?

  3. carlstone

    I heard that story years ago from Gary Eister, who was on tour with Lentz at the time, and he says it was true. Apparently, yes, the technical rider that Lentz sent in advance requested a certain number of loudspeakers, and the cross-cultural hilarity began.

  4. Lisa X

    Carl, forget the DI and join the rest of the performers on stage. For me electronic musicians really do best when they use their own amp that sits near them on stage. This gives you control and doesn’t create some odd power dynamic where some sounds are in stereo from above and some are vibrating from individual people. If you or anyone else needs support in a large room the sound guy can throw up a microphone. In an all miked situation it really helps singers and some instrumentalist to have a very simple monitor mix, usually the amp on stage will suffice for your monitoring leaving the actual monitors for people who might be concerned with things like intonation that can be tricky without an ideal monitor mix.

    I’ve seen one of the Bay Area’s best – Tim Perkis – do it this way. It was so much better than the disembodied PA approach that I’ll never go back.

    Also, I really think with electronic music (guitarists know this) that the speaker is part of the instrument, maybe the most important part. After all it is the thing that actually sends sound vibrating off. Just to go straight in with a DI is trusting a complete stranger with half your instrument every night.

  5. William Osborne

    My wife and I always travel with our own 600 pound quadraphonic PA system. We’ve performed in over 140 cities in the last years, so I’ve done a lot of hauling and loading-in. Ugh. Our setup: Soundcraft mixer, RME multiface sound card, two high quality reverb units, power conditioner, two QSC 2000 amps, 4 Peavy SP2 speaker cabinets, a rack on wheels, and a Ford van to haul it in. In fact, we have two complete systems, including even the vans, one for America and one for Europe.

    For our first tour back in the 90s we did not have our own sound system and used those provided by our hosts. We used 13 completely different sound systems and it was a nightmare. A PA system is in effect a synthesizer. It totally reshapes your sound. We never knew what we were going to end up with or how it would sound. We bought our own system and store it in the States along with our van.

    Using 13 systems was helpful in one respect, because we were able to try out a lot of different equipment. That is what sold us on the Peavey SP2 speakers. They sounded the best, even though they are relatively economical. (Alas, the new Peavey SP2 speakers are not nearly as good and I do not recommend them.)

    Since we use surround sound for all of our performances, we have thought a lot about sound dispersion. We have found that the best solution is to use speakers with treble horns than have 90 degree horizontal dispersion and 60 degree for the vertical. We can then focus the speakers to create a good sized “sweet spot” in the center of the hall. We also instruct the ushers to seat the people in the best places for the quad sound.

    We have found that many systems belonging to halls have the speakers bolted down and you can’t even focus the speakers. (And they usually don’t even have quad capable systems.) Halls come in many sizes and shapes with many different kinds of acoustics. It is essential to be able to focus the speakers, and to really know the equipment you are using and how it reacts to different halls.

    One of the errors I often see in quad setups is that the front speakers are placed too far apart on stage, thus creating a “hole in the middle” of the sound. Also, people on the sides of the hall hear only one speaker. This happens even if the speakers are angled inward. The front speakers should not be too far apart.

    For our work we have also found that 15 inch woofers are essential. Generally, loudness is not the issue, but rather sound pressure. It is sound pressure, or the amount of air you move, and not loudness, which gives the music body. With four 15 inch woofers and two powerful amps (70 pounds each) we can rumble just about any hall.

    We have found that we can adjust our sound system to fit halls of most any size ranging from living rooms like at CNMAT or the Deep Listening Foundation, to about 1500 seat concert halls. Our amps have a wide range of adjustment.

    It a huge amount of work traveling with our sound system. (We also are increasingly traveling with our lighting system since our work specializes on music theater.) We seldom do one concert run-outs, but focus on tours where we typically play about 15 cities at a time. That makes touring with our own system much more practical.

    Next week Abbie has a concert in Finland and will be doing a 50 minute quad work of ours for video, tape and trombone. I can’t go to Finland so she will be using their sound and video system (rare for us.) I have tried corresponding with them about the system we need. They haven’t even answered (even though it is a world famous music festival.) Another reminder of why we always travel with our own sound system. It is our instrument.

    As for DI boxes, I do not use my laptop’s sound card, but rather a $900 dedicated 8-channel sound card made by RME. It sounds fabulous and also does great recordings.

    William Osborne

  6. Chris Becker

    “Also, I really think with electronic music (guitarists know this) that the speaker is part of the instrument, maybe the most important part.”

    I agree. You know, I was just thinking that we’re talking about at least two different ways of performing using a laptop. William and his wife’s PA set up isn’t all that different than how this sort of music making was done back in the 70’s. Whereas Lisa’s description of the laptop as being a part of a band (ie. using a single or a pair of amps on stage just like an electric guitarist) is a more recent practice.

    I would go further and say that it is possible (and I’ve seen/heard it happen) for laptop artists to confuse these two approaches when presenting their sound. The confusion resulting in the laptop sounding disembodied from a “live” ensemble or not being audible at all. You have to determine in advance what you’re trying to do – i.e. blend with a band or create an installation like environment. Or do something in between those two ends of the spectrum.

  7. William Osborne

    I agree that it is best when each member of electronic ensembles use their own speakers. A few years ago I recorded Abbie and Tim Perkis doing an hour long improve session in in the Mills College recording studio. Electronic musicians are often recorded by taking a feed straight out of their instrument to the recording mixing board, but Tim insists that a mic be placed in front of his speaker. I reviewed a group with Tim and others each using their own speakers. You can see it here:


    When Abbie performs with our electronics we work for a very different effect. She plays entirely accoustically, but in an electronic sound environment. When you work with a well-known acoustic performer, people want to hear the meat.

    William Osborne

  8. philmusic

    I think we are getting to a discussion about the difference between a “distinct”electronic sound, which rock/jazz/pop/other musicians use which would include individual amp brands and instruments V.S. an “accurate” sound preferred by electronic types which might include the same sound profile for all.

    Of course with amp modeling and antares machines might make this all moot.

    My own electronic set up evolves as I try new real time effects-I don’t use, as yet, any prerecorded materials, and only analog sounds at that. As an upright electric bass player I want a unique sound – so a sound “inaccuracies”
    can be most nteresting.


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