Strings Music Festival: Sound matters
- Friday, July 7, 8 p.m. – Chatham County Line (bluegrass)
- Saturday, July 8, 7 p.m. – The Emily Bear Trio (jazz)
- Monday, July 10, 4 p.m. – The Bazillions at the Library (free, at Bud Werner Memorial Library)
- Tuesday, July 11, 11 a.m. – The Bazillions (youth)
- Wednesday, July 12, 7 p.m. – Parker Quartet (classical)
- Thursday, July 6, 12:15 p.m. – Music on the Green: Perry Mansfield (free, at the Botanic Park)
- Thursday, July 13, 7 p.m. – David Gonzalez – Sleeping Beauty (family)
- Friday, July 14, 8 p.m. – Mandy Harvey (jazz and blues)
- Saturday, July 15, 7 p.m. – Ben Sollee & Kentucky Native (classical, blues, bluegrass)
In a concert hall like Strings Music Pavilion, the audience experience engages all the senses. A walk through the gardens stimulates the eyes. The grills at the catering tent send airborne notice that good food is at hand. A sip of wine from the bar tickles the taste buds. The rumble of the timpani curls up behind the ribs, a musical thunder felt right beside the heart.
Lovely experiences, all. But ancillary.
The primary sense engaged in a concert hall is, of course, hearing.
For acoustic-only concerts, the architecture of the hall is designed to transmit the onstage sound in a way that allows the music to bloom and envelop the audience at every seat, or to leave the quietest chord hanging in the hall long after the last key is struck.
In acoustic-only cases, the sense of sound relies on the integrity of three parts: the talent of the artist, the quality of the hall, and the perception of the audience. If any one of those things is lacking — for example, if your ears are blocked from congestion — then the quality of the concert experience is diminished.
But when it comes to amplified concerts — the Different Tempo series, for example — we introduce two more variables: quality of equipment and the talent and skill of the audio engineer.
These are two variables that Strings can rarely control. Touring artists usually travel with their own sound equipment that plugs into the house system, their own instruments and their own audio engineer. Strings’ audio staff provides guidance on the house system and advice on best practices for the hall, but often has little control over how the sound is presented to the audience.
Between these two camps — visiting audio and house audio — is the Shangri-La of Happy Medium, where each variable is in alignment and all equipment works as designed. The reality is that visiting and house audio are each responsible to accommodate the onstage artist’s wishes and provide a good audience experience, they’re each at the mercy of variables they cannot control and they are approaching the Land of Happy Medium from opposite perspectives.
Visiting audio engineers know the complexities of their artists’ music, the desires of their artists — add reverb to this song, leave this piece dry, boost the banjo here — and the relative fiddly-ness of their traveling equipment.
But the Strings audio engineers know the space. They know how the size and shape of the hall affect the physics of sound waves traveling through the room, they know the capacities and vagaries of the house equipment and, most importantly, they know what a Strings audience wants to hear and how loudly they want to hear it.
A million things can affect how sound fills the hall, like weather changes, humidity shifts, the number of people in the hall, what those people are wearing (500 giant winter parkas will dampen sound more than 500 breezy summer dresses and cotton shirts), the balance of highs and lows directed through the house speakers, if the doors to the hall are open or closed, if the artist didn’t sing out full voice during sound check but gets suddenly inspired to belt the high note, if a cable fritzes out mid-show, onstage monitor volume as related to house speaker volume … and the list goes on.
When visiting audio and house audio are in agreement as to how to present a performance, all is well in the land. When they differ, the sticking point is usually volume, with Strings audio encouraging less volume and visiting audio pushing the envelope. In these conversations, the Strings technicians take their responsibility to speak for the audience very seriously, advocating for a clear, dynamic presentation with reasonable volume levels.
We know that we can’t control all the variables that go into a performance and that we may have artistic differences with our talented guests, but the Strings staff is committed to providing the best possible concert experience at every show.
Ali Mignone is the stage manager for Strings Music Festival, among other things. When she’s not telling roadies and musicians what to do, you can find her hiking, biking or skiing around the Yampa Valley and blogging at thequirkyquill.com.
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