Why do you need a Sound System?


The purposes of having a sound reinforcement system to begin with are manifold. In almost any indoor auditorium with over a few hundred seats, sound amplification may be required-- for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the auditorium in question is simply too large for one in the audience to hear someone speaking on stage. Perhaps the speaker can't project beyond his or her feet. Maybe the acoustical characteristics make it impossible to hear very well (the preferred solution in this instance is several hundred kilos of C4 or a wrecking ball; take your pick).

At the same time, technology was developing nicely and along came the gramophone, the radio, the television, etc., etc. The pieces were there, and some enterprising young lad (or perhaps lass) put a couple of speakers on sticks on the sides of the proscenium, stuck a microphone in front of the guy you were supposed to be listening to, and viola!. Sound amplification.

There was also a need to listen to prerecorded music, now available commercially on vinyl platters and later on magnetized plastic ribbons. More loudspeakers were added, along with their necessary complementary pieces of equipment, and you had more amplification. Rock-and-roll music was developing, and bands discovered that their musical instruments were insufficient in making sure that everyone could hear every last note. Guess what? More loudspeakers. It soon became commonplace for orators, lecturers, bands, and slowly-but-surely, theatrical musicals to use some sort of sound amplification. Whether it was a valuable addition has been the subject of many a heated debate; classical music and opera tend to eschew the use of sound amplification-- while it is by no means standard, it is becoming more and more commonplace.



Yes, folks- rock 'n' roll. The advent of bastardized classical instruments such as the electric guitar in the 1950s, and partially the need to make sure the music could be heard over the horde of the screaming audience, helped spur on the development of the rock 'n' roll system. Until the early 1970s, no system was exactly "quality," and it usually involved some crapped-together loudspeakers with the brother-of-the-girlfriend-of-the-guitarist operating the system. Large stadium systems, even, sounded bad. It was, stunningly enough, the Grateful Dead and a few enterprising people in California at McCune Sound, who really pioneered loudspeaker and sound system technology, influencing us all. The word "intelligible" came into use as an adjective to describe sound systems.

Ironically enough, many bands these days (often lumped into the "industrial music" category) find it necessary to insert false distortion into their music / lyrics. So much for intelligibility.

Live band reinforcement should operate under the principle that everything should be heard, and everything should blend well together. To achieve such a goal is a cooperative process between the sound system, the operator, and the band itself; remember that louder is not necessarily better.


And then there's the dance-club. I'm sure it started similarly to rock 'n' roll, with some crapped together equipment and a few turntables (remember those?). I suppose somewhere in the 1970s, as dance music (er, "disco") and club scene took off, it was important to have a decent sound system. The vague principle behind such systems is to effect a great state of musical euphoria in the listeners; in the old days this was achieved by illegal substances, i.e. cocaine, methyl blah-blah-blah, and lysergic who-gee-what's-it. This often translates into "loud," which does not a decent sound system maketh (see previous discussion re: "intelligibility"). Loud and clear is a good goal; using good equipment in good positions and tuned to the room will help achieve these goals. For a good example, go to Heaven (it's a club), in London; you know, the next time you happen to drop by that particular city. Tresor (it's a club) in Berlin is a good example. I have heard, secondhand, that the Sound Factory in New York has a sound system by which all other club sound systems are judged. One of these days I'll get my butt over there, but right now I'm too busy rewriting this darned handbook.


Theatre sound. Where did we go wrong? Gone are the days of Ethel Merman belting a tune clear across the theatre from the back of the stage to the back of the orchestra section, sans microphone. Theatrical sound designs for musicals rival those for popular rock 'n' roll bands in terms of complexity. What happened? The answers are manifold and complex, and there's no reason to go into them at this point. There is one semi-standard goal of theatrical sound reinforcement (note that we said "reinforcement," not "amplification")-- make everything be heard, but don't be heard. Make everything said or sung on stage, and everything played in the pit clear and intelligible, but let's try to avoid letting the audience know we're there. The best theatre sound systems are the ones you don't notice.

Let's not forget playback, used more extensively in straight plays rather than in musicals. A crash here, some rain over there, some thunder over yon; in the old days these sorts of effects were done live using rain-sticks or thunder-sheets or crash-boxes-- and then came the advent of the turntable and play-back-able sound cues. These systems too have become increasingly more complex; computer-controlled playback is becoming the rule, rather than the exception.


Bands are amplified. Electric guitars are amplified. Live singers and orchestra pits, if it is absolutely necessary to have a sound system, should be reinforced. It is a subtle difference-- let the performers on the stage and below it provide as much of the acoustic energy as possible, and merely fill in the theatre with amplified sound. Think about it- when was the last time you went to a rock concert in a small club venue and heard the direct sound from the singer itself? Right. You didn't. You heard it from a cluster of speakers. That's amplification. So when you went to see that Broadway musical the other day, did you really notice the sound system? Right. You sorta did, but only because you were really paying attention because you want to learn more about this crazy industry, and the mixer didn't feel very well that day and missed a couple of pickups. Let's help the performers on stage with our system; let us not make them dependent on it.


One small subcategory of a sound system are those systems used in theatres and yes, opera houses, that are specifically installed and tuned and programmed for a specific space with a specific goal. These systems are far more unobtrusive than a theatre reinforcement system- many patrons don't even know they are in operation- and are designed to augment a hall's intrinsic acoustic characteristics using an array of microphones connected to a computer connected to an array of loudspeakers. Theoretically, if it was wanted, a system could be tuned so that a very dead concert hall would suddenly have five seconds of cathedral-like ambience. Theoretically.

There has been some uproar as the public becomes more and more aware of these systems, especially when they are used in opera houses or chamber music concerts; purists maintain that the natural acoustic sound of voices/instruments in a given hall should not be altered; others maintain that some halls have such bad acoustics that it is absolutely necessary to use some form of enhancement; yet others believe that halls that have bad acoustics should succumb to the C4 or wrecking ball mentioned above. Whatever. It's another topic.

In fact, I wrote an article for Entertainment Design magazine about Acoustic Enhancement. Since the copyright to the piece technically belongs to them, I will merely provide a link to the article on-line. Here it is: <http://industryclick.com/magazinearticle.asp?releaseid=5643&magazinearticleid=66853&siteid=15&magazineid=138>.


Other categories of sound systems are simply not pertinent to this discussion. Sorry. Go somewhere else to discuss your home-theatre system.


The responsibilities of a sound designer are manifold. Depending on the type of show in question, the designer's responsibilities range from creating aural soundscapes through the use of playback cues, emphasizing elements within a show with sound effects (crash! bang! boom! rain rain rain), and/or amplifying (reinforcing) the performers. [In the United States, it also falls within the designer's responsibility to put together a video and intercom package suited to the needs of the show. In other countries, it is Someone Else's Problem.] The sound designer has a great duty, both due to the scope of his or her activities, but also because sound reinforcement is so unquantifiable. Everyone wants to hear something differently. The sound of the show can change within seconds-- so many factors can influence the propagation of sound from Point A to Point B: humidity, temperature, full house versus no audience, tired operator, warm electronics, a singer having an off-day, a sub in the pit, etc., etc., whilst other departments have somewhat more quantifiable parameters under which they operate. Scenery might be at Point A, Point B, or somewhere in between, and it will travel from A to B in a given duration, but there aren't many factors that can influence it greatly, short of some catastrophic automation failure. Lighting instruments are predictable beasts, as well; granted, voltage drops and old filaments can vary the quality of light projected from an instrument, but for the most part they turn on to the intensity set by the designer on the computer and stay that way. Sure, a bad data line can wreck an entire show very quickly, but that's why we have backups. Humans who control the button-pushing on the electrics desk can influence the look of a show, too, but not so drastically as a sound operator. Let's not forget that sound is a relatively new participant in theatre, and is often greatly misunderstood.

Thus, the designer must not only justify his or her design and equipment, but appeal to the wants of many-- the director has an idea of the way the show should sound, and so does the designer. Let's not forget the music director, the orchestrator, the dance arranger, the producers, and the choreographer. Then the cast needs to hear onstage. Then the orchestra pit members need to hear in the pit. Then the costume designer doesn't like look of so-and-so's microphone. Politics plays a large and important role in the designer's life. To paraphrase something a Broadway designer once told me, "Anyone can draw up designs and do equipment lists; the key is to getting other people to do what you want them to." Theatre is a collaborative effort, and no one knows that better than the sound designers.


It is some people's claim that we have gone too far with sound amplification in previously un-amplified situations. However, it is interesting to think about the reasons why we have traveled so far from Ethel Merman to miniature radio-stations no bigger than a pack of cigarettes on every single cast member. Technology itself is to blame; let's face it, we're all slaves to it; I can't go a day without checking my e-mail and I feel naked without my mobile telephone. If you're reading this, you've bowed down to technology, too. Back in the early twentieth century, we didn't have television, where color pictures appeared before your very eyes and the newscaster seemed to be talking directly to you. We didn't have "digital" telephone systems; back then, if you were talking to someone in Europe, it sounded like you were talking to someone in Europe. Technological innovations made things louder. Car engines, jet engines, heavy industry- it's all so loud. The home hi-fi system. Stereo. Quad. Surround. Dolby 5.1. The iPod. People have come to expect loud. Rock music. Nine Inch Nails. Rammstein. Powered home subwoofers. The Matrix on DVD. It's all loud. Rock 'n' roll musicals- Jesus Christ Superstar. The Lion King. They need to be loud. They're orchestrated to be loud. They're designed to be loud. People want loud. It's sad, but true. And, to a great extent, performers are not being trained to project as much as they used to be; in the old days of classical dramatic training, students were taught to use their voices well, to be able to get words and notes out to the very last row of the audience. Nowadays, unfortunately, film and television have usurped this necessity— there's a boom microphone hanging just out of the shot, so why bother projecting, and why bother teaching it? Very few people can belt a tune out to the rear of the balcony without some assistance. So, that's where we come in. To be heard, but not heard.

There is also the omnipresent problem of environmental noise. It appears that the newer generations of concert- and theatre-goers are far more immune to ambient noise, because they've been so used to being able to simply turn it up. Some newly-constructed theatres pay no heed to the noise that an air-conditioning unit makes, or to the amount of street noise that seeps in through poorly-designed outer doors. Then there are noises associated with the production— moving lights, color scrollers, fans on lighting equipment, stage automation, set pieces, and the like— that all contribute to the overall noise floor in a given venue. The usual and somewhat maligned solution? Just turn it up; make the show louder to compensate for the rest of the noise in the venue. Sound designers have a responsibility to educate the unwashed masses. Simply turning off the air-conditioner in key points of the show can provide greater intelligibility without the need for abusing the sound system.

Modern stage directors are just as bad. Again, our ultimate goal is to reinforce, rather than amplify. Reinforcement relies in some small part on the natural acoustic sound delivered by a performer from the stage to the audience in order to provide imaging cues to the listener. Nevertheless, directors these days have a tendency to stage actors in such a way that may lookbetter but sounds far, far, worse. Why face upstage when singing a ballad? Why speak lines from behind a set-piece? Why tell the performer to whisper his or her line? Because the sound people can just turn it up. And this, naturally, sounds worse.

Then there are the composers, orchestrators, and music directors. Some are extraordinarily talented and understand the key concepts of sound design for the theatre, but others are horribly guilty of misusing the sound department. Instead of turning down the electric guitar line that is right on top of a vocal line, they just assume we can turn it up. Good orchestrators know when to write double-forté and when to tacet instruments that can interfere with the lyrics of the song. Good music directors know how to control their orchestra, how to internally balance each and every instrument by pulling back as well as pushing. Composers must understand that sound is only one part of a very fallible chain— just because the guitar solo wasn't as loud tonight as it was last night is not necessarily the fault of the sound department. Maybe there was a sub. Maybe there was a mouse in the pit that distracted the guitarist. Maybe the music director forgot to cue the guitarist in the proper place. A sound team can react only so quickly to the challenges of mixing a different show night after night.

Return to the Sound Index. Continue to Basic Sound Terms.

Comments, Questions, and Additions should be addressed via e-mail to Kai Harada. Not responsible for typographical errors.
http://www.harada-sound.com/sound/handbook/intro2.html - © 2005 Kai Harada. 07.11.1999. 08.02.2005.

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