How often have you paid good money to hear a band live, and ended up wishing you had stayed at home and listened to their records on a decent hi-fi system? Not because the live sound wasn’t loud enough to fill the room. But because what Humphrey Lyttelton called an ‘amateur Marconi’ had made it too loud – and distorted.
Let’s start with a basic technical fact, or what’s popularly known as a “law of physics”. Most musical instruments can generate louder sound than all but the best microphones, amplifiers and speakers can comfortably handle. So, anything other than a high spec amplification system in skilled and sympathetic hands is just going to add distortion to live music. The rock world, and upmarket theatres, learned this decades ago. They use good – and expensive – audio equipment which has too much power for the job. So it can be run in ‘cruising mode’, with none of the controls set to 10 (or 11). Think of cruising audio as a Rolls Royce purring on a motorway at speeds far below those that the engine can deliver.
When amplifiers and speakers are pushed to the maximum they overload and ‘clip’. The smooth waveforms of the live sound are sliced off at the top and turned into square wave pulses which jar the ear. Rock systems can deliberately add this for effect. But it is not what you want for subtle sax, piano or brass.
For many years I have written about hi-fi, but perversely preached against the use of music amplification, except where it really necessary – in big venues and for announcements, singers, guitar and bass – and always in moderation. I’ve been to gigs all round the world, in small clubs and big halls, and always been interested in how they handle the sound.
All in all, I’d now say that the biggest compliment you can pay a place is that if it uses amplification, you don’t know it. If there are mics on stage you can’t work out whether they are switched on, or perhaps being used only for recording or broadcast.
The best big hall I ever ‘heard’ was Symphony Hall in Boston. It’s the shape of a giant shoebox, with the warm audio ambience that comes from just enough sound reflection from the walls and ceiling, but not enough to create cavernous echoes. Most famously echo used to be the curse of London’s Albert Hall. Then someone smart employed someone smarter to sling sound-diffusing fibreglass saucers overhead. Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw is another wonderful shoebox hall, but I’ve never heard jazz there, just glorious orchestral sound.
The worst live audio I ever heard was at a church in Camden Town where Sir Willard White performed for charity. The organisers had not provided even a slight raised stage and echoes from the dome above generated several Sir Willards for the price of one. We couldn’t see him and his chat and song lyrics were unintelligible.
But when Sir Willard performed at one of the two excellent shoebox (sorry, that word again) halls at Kings Place, King’s Cross the wood-clad walls added warm life to the sound of subtle amplification. The newish Milton Court hall near the Barbican has similar design and is a good place to listen to the concerts put on – at very nice seat prices – by the Guildhall School of Music over the road.
Bear in mind that even a fine hall can sound horrid if the amplification is not well handled. Sometimes the in-house Marconi is a rocker or what used to be called a ‘long hair’ who really only likes string quarters. They know nothing and care less about jazz. I’ll never forget, for all the worst reasons, a big band event with a Squadronaires tribute and Eric Delaney ‘engineered’ by a lady rocker.
When they know what troubles they will face at some venues, bands bring in their own engineer – if the venue permits it and the band can afford the extra overhead.
I had always dreamed of hearing jazz in Carnegie Hall in New York, but when the Rev Al Green performed there as part of a JVC NY Jazz Festival, the truly nasty sound sent me back to my hotel before he’d finished.
Other well-sounding halls in the London area include the Cadogan in Chelsea, where drummer Richard Pite and the ubiquitous Pete Long re-create classic concerts such as the Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall milestone, with the very minimum of amplification. The Royal College of Music, near the Albert Hall, has a fine-sounding theatre which sometimes features jazz. So does the Royal Academy of Music in Marylebone.
Ronnie Scotts now has an excellent sound system, tastefully used. So does the Crazy Coqs cabaret room at Zedel near Piccadilly Circus. The Parish Church in Pinner is a winner, too. And the three jazz-promoting Pizza Expresses at Dean Street, Holborn and the Kings Road Pheasantry all have super sound and beautifully kept grand pianos. I always wonder how they got them down the winding stairs…
The tide seems to be turning, away from bad sound. The places and bands that are doing the turning deserve recognition and encouragement. So, perhaps readers of this site would like to share news and views of their own favoured rooms and halls. And I’ll be happy to report, when appropriate, on the best (and worst) sounding gigs and gig-places I’ve been to.
In addition to running a website (www.tekkiepix.com) about historic technology, Barry Fox writes regularly about new electronics and music in specialist magazines and sites Hi-Fi News and Practical Electronics.