Further Response to
"Amplification is killing live music" by Bruno Kavanagh
- A Seshan

January 24, 2009

I thank Sasikala Mani for her note pointing out what appears to her to be factually wrong in my write-up on the menace of loud amplification. I give my clarifications below. It has taken quite some time for me to work further on the matter and interact with other experts since she had raised important issues in her critique.

Harmonics of Veena and Guitar
Sasikala cites http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veena to point out the conclusion of C V Raman that the frets of veena have much more curvature than any other instrument and this design produces more harmonics than any other instrument.

I was already aware of the finding of the Nobel Laureate who had done considerable research on the physics of the sound of the Carnatic music system. His brother S Subrahmanya Ayyar was a well-known musicologist in his days and a member of the Board of Studies, Indian Music, University of Madras. He had conducted scientific experiments in relation to music and musical instruments. I had gone through his two books, viz., "The Grammar of South Indian (Karnatic) Music" and “Acoustics for Music Students” long ago. In the former book, he says: “Re: the acoustical effect of the 'jeevadhara' of the tambura and the curved bridge of the Vina, the reader is referred to the paper on 'Some Indian Musical Instruments' by Sir C V Raman, F.R.S., N.L in Vol VII (1921-22) of the Pros. Indian Assn. for the Cultivation of Science, Calcutta. These instruments give out powerful overtones, or partials having a node at the plucked point.”

Incidentally the above-mentioned website of Wikipedia says that evidence is needed to be cited for the statement attributed to Raman. I have provided the citation above. But the problem is,` it is a secondary source. I am not able to access the primary source, viz. the article by Raman. There are two points that would justify my statement. I compared the harmonics of veena with that of guitar and it was in the context of amplification. I do not know whether Raman's experiment included guitar also. If so, I withdraw my statement. My hunch is that it was not so and it is likely that he confined his work to the music instruments that were popular in his time. Guitar was not well known in those days in the South. My extensive search on the web reveals that Raman studied the vibration phenomena of the piano, veena, violin, nagaswaram and sitar; and the harmonic overtones of Indian drums like mridangam and tabla. Guitar is nowhere mentioned as having been included in his experiment.

I made my observation as a rasika with some exposure to veena through formal training and having listened to guitar music. I do not question the harmonics of veena. But is it comparable to that of guitar in relation to the need for amplification? I hope some reader with knowledge of both may be able to offer his comment to put an end to the controversy.

Amplification in Music Concerts
Sasikala Mani says: “Regarding the amplifier-free auditoriums. I know that some excellent auditoriums are built even in India by foreign specialists http://www.soundwizard.net/).” I had said that the problem in India was that we did not have an auditorium built with a design to dispense with amplification. I believe she is referring to auditoria with natural acoustics in India, the point at dispute. I looked at the website cited by her in support of her statement. It is put up by Sound Wizard, a company in Auroville near Puduchery. It specialises in auditoria with natural acoustics; some of them are home theatres. The big ones they have constructed are at Bharat Niwas, Auroville, and Amrita Institute, Coimbatore, with capacities to accommodate 800 and 500 persons, respectively. Bruno and I were talking about auditoria in US and Australia with capacity three to four times more. In any case I studied the web pages for these two of the auditoria. It raised a few questions. My correspondence with the company is reproduced below for general information.

On October 5, 2008, A. Seshan wrote to Sound Wizard:
(Quote) I have read your website with interest. It is good to know that you construct auditoria with natural acoustics, i.e., without any loudspeakers or a sound system. I have seen such places abroad, notably the one in the Sydney Opera House, which can accommodate 2,679 persons in the largest of its auditoria. I need some clarifications.

Among the projects you have done, Bharat Niwas at Auroville has the largest seating capacity at 800. The Amrita Institute at Coimbatore can accommodate 500 persons. In both cases, despite being equipped with natural acoustics, there is a reference on the relative web page to the sound system. For example, in the case of Amrita Institute, it is said: "We used psycho-acoustic tricks to create an impression that the sound comes from the stage and not from the closest loudspeaker." It talks about "fully moveable panelling system on stage....without the need of the sound system." However, there is a para on "Sound System" with its specifications. I have two points to be clarified.

1. In both the auditoria, is it really the case that the mike and loudspeakers are absent, as one would expect in a natural acoustic system? If so, what is the role of the sound system referred to on the webpage? The citation above on "psycho-acoustic tricks" sounds contrary to what one would expect in natural acoustics.

2. In both the instances what has been the experience of the audience? Is there any feedback available? Incidentally the Public Relations Office of Sydney Opera House informed me that though it had natural acoustics it had provision for an artificial sound system in case any performer wanted it. But such occasions are reported to be exceptions.

Mr. Didier Weiss of Sound Wizard was kind enough to take time to clarify the points as quoted from his mail below.
(Quote) 1. There are many topics mixed together in your question, quite difficult to answer simply. In short: What we try to do is for SOME of the applications (theatre plays, light music, some conferences) try to get the natural acoustical response of the space allowing the performance to happen WITHOUT sound system amplification. In all the other cases it will be with sound system, for example when required for a higher impact (SPL) result.

The psychoacoustic tricks are based on the Haas effect and are applicable when using a sound system, but acoustically one gets the sound system as invisible as possible.

The bottom line about natural acoustics is SILENCE first. An extremely silent place is a prerequisite to developing any architectural transmission of the sound.
See this article (not reproduced here).

Hope that clarifies your doubts.

2. The topic is very much subjective and the feedback varies greatly from the expectation of the performer on one side and of the audience on the other side. Natural acoustics is one option only and cannot be the only answer to any type of performance, far from it.

After reading the discussion in narthaki.com, Mr. Didier was good enough to clarify what he called some blatant misconceptions. His comments are as follows.

(Quote) The increased distance from source to a microphone has no relevance to the quality of the sound. In fact for stage purposes, it is INDEED closer that is the better and that doesn't lead to any distortion, muffling or any described artefacts. Instead it brings clarity by removing a lot of unwanted noise, it brings transparency by not being on the verge of feedback with the monitor or main sound system. The microphones are well designed to handle the sound pressure level (SPL) and, if the result sounds bad, it surely is coming from other causes. The examples of Frank Sinatra & co are just describing a system that was actually sounding quite terrible.

- The maximum SPL (what some call a 'too' loud sound output) is confused with the dynamic range of a performance, that is the difference between very low and very high level sounds within a performance. I suspect that the actual unease with today's performances is mainly coming from the lack of lower parts, from the fact that all levels are aligned to the top. A symphonic orchestra gives FFF that are difficult to match in level by most sound systems but nobody complains about it, on the contrary.

There are also many other debatable stands over this discussion. It happens that I have been involved for 30 years with all sides of sound engineering, recording - concerts FOH - concerts monitoring - live recordings, western classical, pop, rock, Indian classical, fusion, etc... and now fully into acoustics. By merging all these experiences I can assure you that any person who says 'good' sound is always this way or that way doesn't have the full picture.

Also after 30 years as a professional, I am still wondering if there is anything like good or bad sound, it is more about being appropriate or not. (Unquote)

It is clear that the auditoria in India that Sasikala Mani has mentioned in her rejoinder are not comparable to the ones in developed countries to which Bruno and I referred. So my statement stands.

Seminar in Mumbai
Recently (January 10-11, 2009) the ITC Sangeet Research Academy (West), National Centre for the Performing Arts and Music Forum organised their annual winter seminar attended by both Indian and foreign delegates at the Experimental Theatre at the NCPA in Mumbai. The theme was: “Reconsidering fundamental issues in Indian art music.” Interestingly one of the sessions related to “Acoustic environment – relating to performance and listening (auditoriums, halls and the use of amplification system).” It was addressed by experts on amplification and recording. There was a lively discussion with good participation from the floor. A number of points emerged. The following are the ones relating to the subject under discussion.

1. Our auditoria are multipurpose in nature catering to the needs of music, dance, public speeches, drama, etc. Each one of them calls for specific acoustic and amplification requirements that are not met currently. This writer pointed out the instance of the Sydney Opera House campus having different auditoria for different types of programmes. Equally important is the fact that every musical instrument has its own acoustic needs which the person in charge of the sound system in a concert should be aware of.

2. The stereo system installed in auditoria is not appropriate. They are relevant only for homes.

3. Many artistes would like to hear their performances as heard by the audience. The feedback they get from monitors does not satisfy them. In the West, artistes use in-the-ear monitors to take care of this problem. In fact, if such monitors are used, then the artistes are not likely to ask for raising the volume of their music for the obvious reason! The limitation is their cost. A pair may cost anywhere around $200 (approximately Rs 9,800 at the current exchange rate). At least those who go on concert tours abroad frequently can afford to make a permanent investment in such an audio accessory.

4. This writer pointed out that a few years back in another lecture on the same subject the speaker had pointed out that keeping two mikes, one on each side of mridangam, neutralises its sound thus defeating the purpose envisioned by the artiste. The experts at the seminar confirmed this outcome of two mikes. One of them, a recording engineer, said that he keeps the mike in front of the centre of mridangam because it is from where sound emanates.

5. Often discarded loud speakers are kept in front of the artistes as their monitors resulting in a poor quality of feedback. The general experience is that in many auditoria the quality of sound system is not satisfactory as the administrators do not realise its importance and are hesitant to spend money on equipment of high quality.

6. This writer pointed out that till about the second quarter of the last century the music concerts held in the temples of South India had no amplification arrangement. He had seen large gatherings in the huge outer prakara (passage) of Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple listening to singers in pin-drop silence. The absence of the cacophony of the modern-day road traffic also helped in the matter. The experts on the dais agreed with his suggestion that the acoustic properties of the mantaps and open air passages/auditoria in the temples should be studied to draw useful lessons in the context of the current debate.

Mr. Didier was once again kind enough to react on the following lines.

Harmonics of Veena and Guitar
(Quote) Point 1- comparison between veena & guitar. I am actually not sure about the exact topic studied here; I lack the background of your earlier discussions on this. If it is about need of amplification in both cases, obviously an instrument with richer harmonics content will be easier to grasp at equivalent sound pressure level (SPL). Also there might be a substantial difference in SPL between veena and guitar. But, from my point of view, this whole discussion of amplified/natural instruments exists ONLY because of the usual utterly bad quality of the amplified result. It is actually very possible to have the comfort and pleasure of a concert at a higher SPL without any feel that it comes from a sound system. In this case the debate seems totally irrelevant.

I can think of an analogy with light: a beautiful object would remain in the shadow and not being properly seen in its full glory because of the fear of a bad tube light with powerful white light that will destroy all its charm and colours. But, with a carefully chosen light source at proper intensity and proper colour, we would enhance the vision without destroying the essence of the object. (Unquote)

Points mentioned in the section on Seminar in Mumbai

(Quote) point 1: I 100% agree.

Point 2: I don't fully agree, though a system cannot be stereo in the SAME sense of a HIFI system, having some Left and Right option of placement, or even better Left - Center - Right can enhance the soundstage and remove the artificial result of a monophonic loudspeaker system. Mono signal is one of the aspects that is often overlooked and that actually makes the amplification less transparent.

Point 3: In-ear monitoring can be a plus for sure, but traditional floor / side field monitoring PROPERLY DONE has done wonders all around the world so far. In-ear can be the way to go around the problem of an incompetent sound engineer.

Point 4: another misconception! The sound gets neutralized (summing 2 signals out of phase) if the signal is exactly the same on both ends; that is absolutely not the case. A simple exercise is to switch the phase on one of the 2 microphones and see if there is a noticeable difference; that is rarely the case. And if so, let us use the phase switch!

Point 5: 100% agree

Point 6: My earlier point on SILENCE FIRST is very valid there. About using mantaps' acoustical properties somewhere else, why not, but that can only be applied to a similar type of music that fits this specific environment. So, it is just another special case. (Unquote)

Ancient auditoria in India with natural acoustics
While doing research, this writer came across a reference to Sangita Mahal in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, described by the late P Sambamoorthy, the eminent musicologist, in South Indian Music, Book IV, 1982, pp 360-62. It was built more than three and a half centuries ago. He pays a tribute to the acoustic richness of the hall where brilliant vidwans performed during the 17th to 19th centuries. It is rectangular in shape with two balconies on the two sides of the first floor from where ladies in purdah could see the performers and listen to their music without themselves being seen. The lower octave notes of a singer can be heard with absolute clearness even at the farthest end of the hall. He says: “Even though the hall is large and can easily accommodate more than a thousand persons, there is no need for mike. The audience can listen to the delicate touches, nuances and shades of notes without straining their ears. Though the ceiling is lofty, there is not the slightest trace of any echo. The peculiar shape of the interior of the ceiling is responsible for this happy result…The amplified resonance of this hall reminds one of the 'Gewandhaus' concert hall in Leipzig, Germany. The acoustics of the Gewandhaus is enriched by beams which transmit the vibrations of the orchestra sub-structure to the wooden lining of the building. Without any such aids, one can listen to the music in the Sangita Mahal in all its natural beauty and charm.” Later he says that “the construction of nritta mantapas (dance halls) and the sangita mahals (music halls) in ancient temples and palaces prove beyond doubt that the ancient architects had a correct knowledge of the acoustic requirements of such halls. These halls provided an adequate seating accommodation. The music was heard perfectly in every part of the hall and defects like echoes and excessive reverberation were absent.”

In Book VI of South Indian Music, Sambamoorthy provides information on some acoustic marvels of different types from ancient India still existing. On page 189 he says: “In the Sangita Mahal, there seems to have been an aqueduct underneath the floor which facilitated the transmission of sound from the stage to the extreme end of the auditorium; but no trace of this exists now. In this hall even the faint notes rendered on the vina could be heard clearly at the entrance at the other end.” In Book IV, referred to above, there is also a description of an open air theatre before the Tiger Cave on the beach in Mahabalipuram near Chennai where 600 persons can listen to music emanating from the cave without amplification (pp. 189-91). It was built during the time of Narasimha Varman II (8th century AD).

Summing Up
It is evident that there are areas of disagreement even among experts. The subject is too important to be confined to the pages of a website. It is desirable that a national seminar is organised to get a grip on the problem and find lasting solutions. It should have representative participation of all stakeholders, viz., musicians, dancers, sound experts, office-bearers of music sabhas, and, last but not the least, rasikas, who are literally at the receiving end of the amplification of music. The setting up of auditoria with natural acoustics, given the costs, is a long-term objective. In the meantime attention should be directed towards improving the existing arrangements for amplification.

This writer hopes that the discussion on the basic issue of loud and unpleasant amplification at music and dance concerts does not go off the track due to other peripheral issues being brought in. Of course, corrections of wrong statements are always welcome to keep the record straight. He has a suggestion to deal with the menace of noisy amplification at concerts. Music sabhas can take the help of experts to determine the comfortable maximum decibel level for amplification for the audience and modify the sound system in such a manner that it does not exceed that ceiling. Then the artistes may be told in advance that, if they want, the amplification could be at the maximum level but technically further changes can be made only in the downward direction during the performance.