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Amplification--starting trouble

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Jerry Friedman 20 Aug 98 - 07:38 PM
Jon W. 21 Aug 98 - 01:15 PM
Big Mick 21 Aug 98 - 02:47 PM
Jerry Friedman 21 Aug 98 - 03:24 PM
Alice 22 Aug 98 - 12:02 AM
Alice 22 Aug 98 - 12:09 AM
Alice 22 Aug 98 - 08:01 PM
Charlie Baum 23 Aug 98 - 02:54 AM
Alice 23 Aug 98 - 11:06 AM
Paul Honeycutt 26 Aug 98 - 02:16 PM
dick greenhaus 26 Aug 98 - 06:20 PM
Big Mick 27 Aug 98 - 01:58 AM
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Subject: Amplification--starting trouble
From: Jerry Friedman
Date: 20 Aug 98 - 07:38 PM

Here's a recent discussion from a mailing list I'm on--first comments from an acoustic-music fan named Mark Schaeffer, and then my reply. Any thoughts?

>There's a club I like to go to in Berkeley called the Freight and Salvage, >which is dedicated to the "preservation and performance of acoustic music." > And yes, the musicians (whether folk, jazz, or whatever) play acoustic >instruments -- but they're amplified up the wazoo by the club's >state-of-the-art sound system. I can see how that's sometimes a necessary >evil, but only as a last resort. There have been plenty of times when I've >been there on an off-night, when there are ten or twelve people in the >audience, and yet the amplification is going full-blast. On those >occasions I've occasionally approached the musicians at intermission and >said, "Since there are so few of us here, why don't we all move closer >together, get rid of those microphones, and let us really hear the >beautiful sounds of your voices and instruments?" And invariably, they >respond to me like I'm some kind of weirdo, like I'm asking them to perform >without their clothes on.

I think this is too bad--without believing in healing energy or disliking recorded music, I enjoy the idea that the performers are making the very sound waves that hit my ear. And the sound is nearly identical, as I said above, but not absolutely (certainly not in volume). However, I'd like to point out that unamplified singing can be hard on the voice, especially if the singer doesn't know the techniques that have been developed to reduce the strain. Also, many singers rely on certain effects that are possible only with a mike, such as singing pianissimo near the mike and relying on the amps to make the sound audible. Finally, a group that's used to balancing the loudnesses of the instruments and voices using mikes and amps may not be good at doing so acoustically.

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Subject: RE: Amplification--starting trouble
From: Jon W.
Date: 21 Aug 98 - 01:15 PM

I was at an outdoor concert last night with the great Irish band Altan. The amplification was definitely necessary and unfortunately evil. They had the lower frequency mixed in so high it sounded like the guitar was an electric bass. Part of the problem was the (very large) crowd. Half were major Irish music fans but half were there to see and be seen and hear and be heard. Most of the subtle nuances of the performance were completely lost where I was standing. But I have been to some concerts where the sound "reinforcement" was unobtrusive and certainly I think it's better to be able to easily hear the music (we're not talking about rock volume here) than to have to strain to hear it. But in a small intimate setting, the really talented folks should be able to do without microphones. Unlike me.

Jon W.

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Subject: RE: Amplification--starting trouble
From: Big Mick
Date: 21 Aug 98 - 02:47 PM

How about talking about some of the techniques that prevent voice strain when playing unamplified. I think it would be very useful.


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Subject: RE: Amplification--starting trouble
From: Jerry Friedman
Date: 21 Aug 98 - 03:24 PM

I just know (or am pretty sure) they exist, Mick. I should study them, as my voice gets strained in my teaching job. Maybe Alice or someone else knowledgeable will help out.

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Subject: RE: Amplification--starting trouble
From: Alice
Date: 22 Aug 98 - 12:02 AM

Hi there. I remember a couple of threads about singing in which this discussion was carried on. I'll do a forum search to find them and refresh. If I can't find them, I know there is good info. at the bottom of this page:

Suzanne Gorder

Opera singers have always sung without mikes, and they have to be heard over entire orchestras, and sing demanding parts that go on for hours!! There are valuable techniques to be learned from a GOOD teacher who knows the bel canto technique, no matter what style of music you want to sing.

Good vibes, (in your vocal chords..) everyone!!

alice in montana

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Subject: RE: Amplification--starting trouble
From: Alice
Date: 22 Aug 98 - 12:09 AM

For those who are not squeamish, you can see photos of vocal chord nodules, cysts, etc. at the University of Pittsburgh Voice Center website. They also discuss reflux and other causes of hoarseness. Photo page is

The U.of Pittsburgh Voice Center also has a page of Dos and Don'ts for Singers.

If you explore all the links I gave earlier, I think there are descriptions of warm-up techniques. If you have never sung in front of a full length mirror or watched yourself sing on video, then it would be helpful to look in a mirror and check your posture. Since your whole body is your instrument, there are lots of muscles involved in producing and supporting and affecting the sound. Your posture should be balanced and relaxed, not rigid and tense or slumped over. Relax your face and neck muscles. Massage them if you have to. Drop your jaw and let it go slack, roll your head around to relax your neck. Loosen the tension in your lips. When you take in a breath, your shoulders should stay down and relaxed. If you are holding down the muscles of the floor of your abdomen, more air can expand down there, and you will see your belly expand out, and your ribs and chest expand as the air comes in. Training those muscles to support your air flow will help alot in keeping the vocal chords healthy. The air going through the vocal chords is what makes the sound, so if you can control the airflow, then you won't be straining and blasting air when trying for more volume or a longer note. Start in the speaking range (the note you make when saying a hummm of surprise) and begin singing by humming or singing 'oooh' or 'aaaah' in short scales. Your face muscles, forehead, jaw, etc. should remain relaxed, not tense. Start an easy song, not loud, and then build to songs with more range and volume. You can do this in the car on your way to your sing-along or choir practice. Alot of information is on the links I provided above, but there is no substitute for a GOOD teacher.
alice in montana

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Subject: RE: Amplification--starting trouble
From: Alice
Date: 22 Aug 98 - 08:01 PM

Hi, Mick, I have left some messages with info and links to even more detailed information about warming up techniques, how to project your voice without straining it, etc. on the discussions titled: "Vocal strain prevention" and "Help! My singing voice is dying!"


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Subject: RE: Amplification--starting trouble
From: Charlie Baum
Date: 23 Aug 98 - 02:54 AM

If you breathe properly, you should be able to project, without vocal strain. It's a skill of stagecraft that drama students learn (or used to learn). I usually sing without amplification; soemtimes it's with fairly large choral groups, though I've had to give announcements for songs in very large halls (2000+ seats) without benefit of microphone--and it can be done, if you're careful and skillful.

Singing with other people, I prefer not to use amplification, nor to rely on monitors. Sometimes I've sung Balkan stuff, and when we hit the interval of a second in real life without amplication, it sounds like distortion--the difference tones beat against each other and set up vibrations that are amazing to hear. You can't get your cues for this sort of thing from a monitor--all it sounds like is distortion, and you can't tune to that. I also sing with other groups and when we're in truly tight harmonies, we produce overtones octaves above. In good acoustic situations, we've been know to play the building--finding out what tones resonate with the stonework and using the building's architecture to amplify the naturally occuring overtone series we're producing. I wouldn't want to have to rely on electronics to try to do that.

One more "sans microphone" story--at last June's Old Songs Festival, there was a thunderstorm during the Friday evening concert. Being Old Songs rather than a wimpy sort of festival, we the audience stayed seated in the pouring rain and continued to listen to the performers. (Kat 'n t Seil from the Frisian region of the Netherlands was performing.) They couldn't believe that we would continue to sit in the downpour to listen to them, but we did. Then the lightning started hitting fairly close, and the sound people cut the power to the amplification, for safety's sake. Still, the audience continued to sit and listen, and the stunned performers continued to sing, selecting from their repertoire some songs that could be sung loud without amplification. They picked a chorus song, and the sopping-wet audience joined in. They took pictures from the stage to show back home, because they figured that nobody in the Netherlands would believe them when they told what happened, but this story is absolutely true, and they have the pictures to prove it. So even a festival can be done without amplification. (By the way, during the daytime there are several indoor stages at Old Songs that operate without microphones.)

--Charlie Baum

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Subject: RE: Amplification--starting trouble
From: Alice
Date: 23 Aug 98 - 11:06 AM

Charlie, your message reminded me of how great it feels to sing in spaces that have good acoustics, whether architectural, or in nature. I was in the Lewis and Clark Caverns last week, and I really wanted to sing something and hear the acoustics of the caverns, so at the end of the tour, I stepped to the back of the line to be the last person out of the exit tunnel. I turned around to face the cavern tunnel and sang the beginning of "Vedrai, carino". Just a few people and the tour guide were left to hear. I told her that through the tour, I had been really wanting to sing to hear the acoustics. She would have let me, I just didn't ask while in one of the great rooms. Darn. Next time.

A friend of mine owns a plant store that is in a large, old, high tin-ceilinged room. The acoustics in there are great for singing, also. Stairwells, domes, large old churches, canyons, mine shafts, .... all interesting for the sound.

alice in montana

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Subject: RE: Amplification--starting trouble
From: Paul Honeycutt
Date: 26 Aug 98 - 02:16 PM

As a sound engineer, I try real hard to make the sound system as invisible as I can. But there's something real magical when you sing sans microphones in a space that enhances the sound. I lived in a 100 year old adobe house in Tucson. The living room had the most wonderful acoustics for singing. I visited the house for a Christmas party before I lived there. Singing in that room convinced me to live there. I don't know why some sound people ruin performances with over amplification. I've worked with Altan and can't imagine anyone doing that to them. A lot of sound people come from the rock 'n' roll world where everything has to be louder then the drums and if the bass don't thump there isn't a mix. Those people shouldn't be allowed to do acoustic acts! End of rant.

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Subject: RE: Amplification--starting trouble
From: dick greenhaus
Date: 26 Aug 98 - 06:20 PM

Folk music is, in one sense, a fragile medium. It doesn't stand up well to having foreign objects (stages, amplification, footlights) pleced between the performer and the listen

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Subject: RE: Amplification--starting trouble
From: Big Mick
Date: 27 Aug 98 - 01:58 AM


Thanks for the tips.

Paul and Dick,



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