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The Sound Of Sound: Analyzing Acoustic Versus Amplification

Keeping sound in perspective and mixing accordingly...

By Karl Winkler January 31, 2019

Image courtesy of Pexels

What makes acoustic sound sound acoustic?

I got to thinking about this once when I attended a performance of Wozzek by Alban Berg at the Santa Fe Opera. Like most top opera companies in the world, the SFO mounts most of their performances 100 percent acoustically.

The exceptions are when the composer calls for effects on the vocals, or for one of the orchestral instruments to be highlighted with reinforcement.

Even in those rare cases, the goal remains to present the performance as an acoustic event. Wozzek does not involve any effects, and was presented without any reinforcement. Once again, I was struck by the differences in this kind of sound when compared to when reinforcement or amplification is used.

Dynamics & Frequency Response

Anyone who has heard a direct comparison between a live microphone feed and a recording of the same source played over a high-resolution system can tell you that there’s a difference.

Part of the reason is that the recorded signal faces restricted dynamic and frequency range. While today’s super-high quality recording systems, particularly those with 24 bit (or greater) resolution, can serve to minimize these restrictions, this is still “something” missing from recorded playback.

I was at an interesting demonstration many years ago, involving a pair of Sennheiser MKH800 microphones (with an upper end response out to 50 kHz), as well as True Systems microphone preamps, Bryston amplifiers and PMC loudspeakers. A performer played acoustic guitar and sang, joined by a piano player.

The setup was carefully done so that we in the audience would be able to compare a live mic feed with 16 bit/44.1 kHz and 24 bit/96 kHz A/D and D/A digital conversion, with no recording taking place.

Speaking for just about everyone who was there, we could hear the difference between all three modes of transmission. The live mic feed sounded, well, live. The two digital conversion formats sounded different than the live mic feed – and different than each other – with (of course) the higher bit rate/sample rate version sounding closer to the live mic feed, but not exactly the same.

Loudspeakers In The Mix (Or Not)

Back to the opera. Here are the specific things I noticed about the sound.

First, especially with the singers, there was no bass. Sure, there were bass notes from the bass and baritone singers, but there was only what was coming from these performers’ mouths and bodies.

It really struck me that there is something very artificial about having a lot of low frequency content coming from a voice. There is a combination of (usually) some proximity effect at the microphone, and then EQ in the system.

Even if the voices aren’t going through the subwoofers (and they usually aren’t), there is much more bass in the vocals coming out of the loudspeakers than was originally in the voice itself.

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About Karl

Karl Winkler
Karl Winkler

Vice President of Sales at Lectrosonics
Karl serves as vice president of sales/service at Lectrosonics and has worked in professional audio for more than 25 years.


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Charlie Post says

Another excellent article, Karl! I always have trouble with other live sound engineers who don't roll off the low end, play a system too loud, and commit some of the crimes you've mentioned. I feel like so many of them treat all music as if it were rock and roll. I believe if you're going to do well at balancing an amplified vocalist with an orchestra, for example, being a musician will help you. Would you agree?
By the way, I've been reading your articles consistently since you spoke at a local AES meeting I hosted at my university when you were still with Neumann. Cheers.

Karl Winkler says

Charlie, thanks for the kind words! I do agree it helps to be a musician, and, if it is acoustic music, then it helps even more to be an acoustic musician of some kind. That said, I've seen and heard many audio engineers who are excellent yet they are not musicians. I suppose "it depends" to quote Pat Brown. Great to hear from you.

Tom L. says

This is a fine dissertation and I agree with your a point. Your premise would appear to be that the acoustic experience is the undisputed reference standard for the appreciation of certain types of performances. I would ask, "which seat?" and "what venue". Certainly there are differences that can be measured and quantified. What if the best seat is not in the audience? Certainly the experience of sitting WITH a string quartet, or John Jorgensen's quintet is superior in all aspects to ANY seat in the house. If that quality of experience is then our standard, then the PA system, complete with its faults, could be the better experience for most listeners.

Karl Winkler says

Tom, valid points. I remember reading, years ago, that German conductor Herbert Von Karajan wanted the Berlin Philharmonic recordings to sound "like it does on the podium" and it is hard to argue against that being the best seat in the house. That said, I think my main point is that often, what is ostensibly "acoustic music" comes across as very much "boosted" or worse. To have it sound "acoustic", certain things should be done, including gain structure with ample headroom, careful mic placement, perhaps conservative EQ. I'm all in favor of things sounding "good" and giving people a memorable experience. But, the "rock and roll" approach to mixing isn't the right solution for much of acoustic music.

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