A comment from Gordon Cumming, bookbinder, jazz fan and pianist:
I was present in the Queen Elizabeth Hall for Kenny Wheeler's 75th Birthday Big Band Concert, and experienced a clear example of what is getting to be a rather common occurrence - the over-amplification of a live band.
In this case the sound was controlled from a console taking up a good chunk of the best seats in the stalls. Every instrument was mic'd. In particular, the piano, a superb Steinway, was made to sound more like a third rate electronic portable, the guitar (not listed in the programme) was far too prominent, and the overall level was such that it was at times actually painful to listen to. I have never experienced anything quite as bad as this, anywhere. At the interval I spoke to the man in control and it was obvious that he had no idea about the pain he was causing.
This is deeply damaging to the artists and exceedingly tiring and frustrating for the audience. It does jazz no good that audiences seem willing to accept such poor quality results, but sadly, and in my experience over the past two years or so in different locations, it is not uncommon. Please, please can all those in control of amplification systems listen to what they are doing and have a big re-think about why they are doing it. Amplification should only be used where necessary. It is far, far more preferable to hear the actual acoustic sounds, especially piano, bass and drums. I recall listening in big halls to the Count Basie and other big bands in the 1950s without amplification, and the sound was superb. We seem to have now gone to the other extreme of using amplification as a matter of course, because it is there. It is a very difficult technology to get right, and it is best left alone by amateurs.
Critics could all help by refusing to accept sub-standard performances, and I appeal to them to make this so.
The sub-standard use of technology as presented at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 14th January is deplorable and totally unacceptable.
Gordon Cumming, Wendover, 05th February 2005.
A comment [September 1994] from Michael Garrick, jazz pianist and composer:
How many others like me have been repelled at concerts by the inept and inappropriate work of "sound men"?
They preside, tin-god like, centrally placed in venues such as the Festival Hall or Barbican, with ugly stacks of road-tarnished hardware towering threateningly on either side of the stage, and - they muck it up. Yes, they do. Not that sometimes that don't get it nicely right - but this is, I fear, exceptional.
I have suffered at their ineptitude many times, to the extent that I now attend far less concerts than I'd like to: the risk is so seriously high, particularly at the indoor Capital Radio Festivals (outdoors at Alexandra Palace was wonderful). But I'm choosing my illustration from August 21 at the Barbican.
Total strangers and acquaintances as well as friends were, in the interval, filled with despair. A piano, bass and drums trio had been communicated to us as a continuous drum feature. A clanging noise of the quality of old fashioned dustbins (what do they call those large loudspeakers?) from time to time broke through: it was in fact a nine-foot Steinway grand being superbly played in fortissimo double octaves. In addition, there were muffled scufflings from the double bass.
Quite often I sit and suffer. Not this time. Introducing myself to the Sound Man before the second half I told him his balance was, frankly, awful: no detail whatever from the piano, for example, except when it had been totally solo.
On came a big band. And what was my reward? A piano sound so elephantine it all but trampled over and squashed flat the entire ensemble, even when merely comping. I concede that by the third number or so, he (our apprentice) had gradually begun, two-thirds the way through our ticket price for the evening, to almost get it right. Soloists stood up in full view and played. Four or eight bars later, we were hearing them. Not so the hapless bass player who was not allowed to emerge decently the whole night.
Let's make an end of term report for the Sound Man. What do you reckon, C-? "His work showed some improvement?" But the question really is - what was this gentleman doing in charge of professional music which was no less than Grade A from the very first note?
Who are they, these anonymous potentates of the indiscriminate wattage? Heady with easy power, their confidence in the superiority of their version is unshakeable.
Any answers? Yes. Each and every concert programme and review should not only name the Sound Man but also award him billing near equal to the artists themselves. In this way one could hope he will attract the critical attention appropriate to his horrendous responsibilities.
Michael Garrick, Berkhamsted, September 1994.
A comment from Paul Sparrow [Sound Engineer]:
back to previous page