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"Why not amplify them?"
Technology for the Twenty First Century

(Originally published in Seen&Heard August 2002)

- - Do you support our campaigning against distorting (and often unnecessary) amplification (Editorial S&H November 2000, PGW)

Reviewing the recent performance at the Royal Albert Hall of Schoenberg's gargantuan Gurrelieder (Prom 13) Rick Jones (formerly the Evening Standard's provocative music critic, and one time contributor to Seen&Heard) noted in The Observer, as did some other reviewers, that some soloists, who were provided with individual microphones for the radio and TV audience, were drowned by the large orchestra. He asked "Why not amplify them for the live listeners as well? It seems folly to resist when the technology is there for the asking."

This prompted returning to thoughts about how listening, and listeners' expectations, might develop in our new century, and whether identifiable tendencies should be encouraged or resisted. The temptation to make concert going an ever louder, and supposedly a more powerful, experience has often been indulged, and its dangers were raised in Strictly Off the Record before S&H existed. There was a short-lived experiment a decade or so ago at the South Bank Centre, with amplified orchestral concerts of classical music (a Beethoven symphony and The Firebird etc) given by The Electric Symphony Orchestra, directed by Richard Gonski. Those were heady days! London concertgoers who attended the concerts will certainly recall how the musicians were made to kneel on special orthopaedic chairs, purported to prevent back troubles - an exchange for the likely damage to their hearing that they risked from the high volume. Gonski writes on the web about ' - - the musical revolution that occurred in the second half of the 20th century with the advent of electric and electronic sound generation transformed the way we compose, perform and listen to music - - ', this article accompanying excerpts from his compositions constructed of samples to explore the sonic potential of various acoustic instruments.

Many relevant themes have been discussed repeatedly in S&H since its inception; language titling (-sur, -sub and -side) and translations will be returned to once again below.

Searches in S&H under Amplification and Enhancement could make a good start to discussing Rick Jones' "folly to resist" - it is essential to distinguish between those two at the outset.


The usual amplification risks seriously unnatural balance and - worse - distortion. Although the technology available for live amplification is now superb, it is often crude as experienced in actuality - e.g. Opera North's Sweeney Todd and many Indian music concerts. In the latter the musicians themselves (who may be badly placed to judge) can often be observed to ask for the volume to be raised. Is it the spread of pop that has made it rare to be able to hear the true sounds of Indian instruments and voices, which are not trained as are our Western opera singers? It is a comparatively recent development that Indian classical music has been enjoyed in the sub-continent by huge audiences of thousands, often out of doors. Recordings, and the CDs made at most concerts, have encouraged an appetite for instrumental detail, and - artificially - for volume and power, as expected elements to heighten appreciation, a road to perdition that has been resisted for the most part in western chamber music (but q.v. recent appearances of the Kronos String Quartet!).

Indian classical music was conceived quite differently in ancient times and has continued to be transmitted through the generations in its purity, though now innovation and 'cross-over' are attracting younger musicians. Nowadays, all too frequently, the ubiquitous amplification is crude and excessive - the reductio ad absurdum we have experienced was a recital on the gentle vina before a tiny audience at the smaller of the Blackheath Halls, with the controls in the hands of someone more used to pop concerts. I have had to remonstrate with the 'engineer' when an Indian bamboo flute was made to sound like a trumpet.

More widespread acceptance of Rick Jones' recipe may lead to an insidious blurring of the different experiences between live and recorded/filmed music. The equipment is indeed 'there for the asking' - at a price - but its use by engineers ( many of them not trained musicians) risks their taking over a chief responsibility for balance from conductors and subverting composers' intentions, especially for concertos and orchestral works with singers, when the controls may be entrusted to recording professionals who habitually listen to music on earphones or high quality monitor loudspeakers, some of them aiming that a soloist's every note should be heard clearly, which cannot be so in the concert hall.


My bench mark is Michael O'Gorman, the brilliant Irish sound engineer responsible for the sound design of Riverdance, who had explained his key aimto me, at a memorable choral concert by Anuna in the chapel of the former Royal Naval College in Greenwich.

The objective is to enhance the tone without making this apparent, essentially by increasing the volume minimally, and by introducing 'delay' to create an illusion that the sound is heard as if coming entirely from the singers themselves, not from the loud speakers.

In Munich those principles served brilliantly to fill a vast space with amplified sound which preserved clarity and drew you in - no mean feat, in contrast with, for example, the crudity of a painful Aida, which we did not survive to the end, given by a visiting company in the Albert Hall with excruciating distorted amplification. But it can be done in the Albert Hall too; I have a wonderful memory of an all-night Prom of Indian classical music with the musicians in the centre of the arena and the volume level just right to create a magical feeling of intimacy.

Perfect enhancement/amplification needs state-of-the-art equipment and sensitive musicianship from its operator; the best ones deserve to earn as much as conductors.

Some composers, for whom technology is an essential part of their creativity, handle amplifying equipment marvellously (Stockhausen often sits at the control desk himself). But the ever-present risks and uncertainties are nicely illustrated by the cover CD with the September 2002 BBC Music Magazine; a coupling of two concerto studio recordings, made by the same engineer/editor only a few months apart, both with the same orchestra and at the same Manchester location. The two soloists are slightly enhanced for the Brahms double concerto, but are in close contact with, and actively in relationship to, the conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier. I enjoyed it, but found its companion, Beethoven's 3rd piano concerto with the equally fine conductor, Vassily Sinaisky, unlistenable to. There the balance is upside-down, as if one is almost under the piano lid with Ashley Wass, whose recital career S&H had been following with considerable pleasure; he might as well have been in a separate hall from the BBC Philharmonic!

Microphone placement is crucial, and balancing afterwards equally so. I have this difficulty with all too many concerto recordings on CD - BBC engineers in live broadcasts, especially from the Proms, often do far better to my taste, which is based upon a lifetime of attending concerts live.

Seating positions

Musical experiences in concert halls and opera houses differ greatly according to seating positions. It can be illuminating to know where a critic sat, and I sometimes try to move at the interval to check how it sounds for others in less expensive seats. Audibility is affected by positioning in most halls, greatly so in the Royal Albert Hall, less in some state-of-the-art purpose built halls such as those designed by Russell Johnson at Birmingham and Lucerne.

Rick Jones appears to assume that the same microphones might serve the live audience as the radio/TV audience; that this is far from so is exemplified by my account of the complexities of Decca's live filming of L'elisir d'amore for DVD and its subsequent recording for CDs in the same venue, quite separately straight afterwards, aiming to achieve a different and more appropriate aural perspective - and surely no-one would want the present-day veritable forest of microphones on the concert platform to be further proliferated, indeed doubled!

Texts and Titles (Sur-, Sub- and Side-)

It is not long since surtitles in the opera house were anathema, but now they are widely accepted and people have got used to looking at them or not as they prefer. No longer do average opera-goers (not to speak of visiting tourists) have time to purchase and study libretti in advance, as was usual in the 19th century. Films in English shown in the cinema and available on DVDs, not infrequently have optional titling to help those who may have some difficulty (our local cinema advertises which screenings will be sub-titled.. There is a strong movement urging provision of texts for opera in English (provided for Billy Budd at Covent Garden, but this is still resisted at ENO, where audibility varies between poor and worse). There is all the difference between picking up a few words from time to time and being able to follow their full import in context easily, thereby freeing more attention for the music.

Today's opera lovers have had their lives transformed by high quality sound and pictures on DVDs, which routinely provide the option of subtitles for those who like them, those in the original language or translated into one of several languages of choice. These capabilities are sure to influence live opera going too. Another innovation is to be found on the new DVD of Tamerlano, a rare Handel opera. It allows a novel option, useful for studying baroque opera performance conventions, in which pages of the original score pass before your eyes whilst the singers continue to be seen behind the music, as fainter ghost-like images!

Long having accustomed myself to read parallel texts comfortably in CD booklets when they are set out properly, and grateful for venues such as the Wigmore Hall that always provides them, I wonder if there is any technical obstacle to offering dual translations on DVDs, ideally that of the sung language above another chosen by the viewer - together with the ability to switch them off completely, which is not always an option?* We have experienced dual language texts offered in Antwerp's opera house, easily ignored if you wish.

* The new EMI Tristan & Isolde does exactly this on its admirable "bonus DVD" packaged with the regular CDs. [PGW December 2005]

Technological take-over

Finally, some lateral thinking for sports loving musicians to ponder! The Guardian (7 August) signalled The end of grand prix because Juan Pablo Montoya's controller in the pits decided to lift briefly the restrictions on his rev-limiter: "to enable Juan Pablo to get past Kimi Raikkonen on lap 11 we gave him even more revs for a while". The writer found this so portentous and disillusioning as to have reduced grand prix racing to 'little better than a game of Scalextric; all Montoya had to do was to 'hold the steering wheel while some guy on the pit wall provided him with a temporary advantage' - adjusting a few minor things that the drivers (q.v. musical performers) shouldn't have to trouble their heads about; in actuality, the boffins co-driving the cars. In every aspect of life, 'technology there for the asking' is the thin edge of a wide wedge.

Peter Grahame Woolf

(PGW has embraced technology in his enthusiasm for hyperlinks, scattered generously through this article; supplying those in his report from the Cheltenham Festival brought him a gratifying and generous mail bag , confirming their usefulness to readers - MB)

[Go to http://www.musicweb-international.com/SandH/2002/Aug02/amplify.htm to access the original hyperlinks, which have not been carried over into this copy - PGW]