[Dixielandjazz] The Sound Problem - Jazz at Carnegie Hall

Steve Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Sat Jun 24 07:57:57 PDT 2006

Amplification (at least in Carnegie Hall) is apparently a much more complex
problem than just blaming it all on the sound man. No doubt Mad Dawg will be
glad to read this. :-) VBG

Note also the $75 ticket price for single JVC Jazz Festival performances
there. Damn, that an "all events" badge price at some OKOM Festivals.

I'll bet Kenny Davern played acoustically there earlier this week.

Steve Barbone

Spotting Carnegie's Problem With Jazz

NY TIMES By BEN RATLIFF - June 24, 2006

The next time you're about to spend up to $75 on a ticket to a JVC Jazz
Festival concert at Carnegie Hall's Isaac Stern auditorium ‹ Carnegie's
famous, old 2,800-seat hall, as opposed to the smaller Zankel Hall beneath
it ‹ you might ask yourself a few questions first.

Does the artist have a band that tends to play loud? Is there a lot of
activity below middle C in the pitch range of the music? Does the artist
have a sound engineer unreceptive to the suggestions of concert producers
and stage managers? Are the artist and the engineer first-timers at the

If three or more of the answers are yes, perhaps you shouldn't spend the
money. There: a rule of thumb. But why on earth would you, the typical
concertgoer, know all these things? And why should you care?

Because without such knowledge, you could well have gone to several worthy
and expensive shows at this year's JVC Jazz Festival (which ends tonight)
and come away infuriated by sound problems at the hall.

The performances in question were by the saxophonist Ornette Coleman, the
trumpeter Roy Hargrove and the blues singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi. And
the problems weren't simply audio-specialist minutiae; these were basic
impediments to hearing: get-up-and-leave problems.

"Honestly, I used to go insane about the sound in Carnegie Hall; I used to
tear my hair out," said George Wein, the founder and president of Festival
Productions Inc., which produces the JVC Festival. "Now I sit there and get
used to it." 

He moved the old Newport Jazz Festival to New York in 1972, and since then
has used Carnegie Hall because it's a renowned central site with which he's
had an otherwise positive relationship. "If people like the show, they like
the show," he argued. "Certain things may or may not belong in Carnegie, but
people don't seem to care."

Opened in 1891, the hall has a large proscenium designed for unamplified
music; the room's natural acoustics enable sound to travel both back and
forth across the stage and outward into the audience.

Today roughly a fifth of the performances at the hall each year have
amplified instruments ‹ often jazz shows put on either by JVC or other
outside producers ‹ and in those cases the hall's natural strengths become

A band playing there should know this and be able to control its sound,
amplified or unamplified, Mr. Wein said. Bands unaccustomed to only light
amplification for their stage monitors ‹ the small speakers at the lip of
the stage facing the musicians ‹ often turn them up beyond the room's
capacity to handle the volume, creating sonic havoc.

Similarly, bass and drums can be hard for the room to handle. Tones in that
pitch range take longer to decay, and in a room that already has a lot of
natural reverb, like Stern, low-end music can become a jumble. Likewise, the
high frequencies of cymbals, played above a certain volume, can create a
caustic sound through the hall.

During Mr. Coleman's show last week, the first few songs were marred by an
indeterminate wash of low-frequency noise. There were three basses in the
band (one electric, two acoustic), and the notes ended up running into one
another, making a soup.

During Mr. Hargrove's set last Monday, the vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson
served as a guest performer with the band. During his solos, he either
couldn't be heard at all, or his instrument created feedback through the
microphones. Too bad, because Mr. Hutcherson is one of jazz's best
improvisers. And in Ms. Tedeschi's set, opening for Etta James on Tuesday,
the band's monitors were so high that Ms. Tedeschi's singing was drowned

"We spend so much energy and time talking to artist and sound guys about the
hall," said Dan Melnick, senior producer for Festival Productions. "We find
that when the artists are willing to listen to us, it's great."

Mr. Melnick said the sound problems weren't only the fault of Carnegie
Hall's staff, which mixes the live sound, or of the outside company hired to
help with some of these concerts, Audio Incorporated, of Garwood, N.J. Like
Mr. Wein, he said he believed that many of the problems originated from the
stage: bass amplifiers too loud, drummers too unrestrained.

But these problems are continual. If a band is known to be on the loud side,
couldn't the problem be helped by acoustical baffles or banners or drapes,
those sound-absorbing things that are sometimes rigged at the back of a
theater's stage? 

The back walls are already padded, says John Cardinale, the head sound
engineer at Carnegie Hall; this was done around the same time in the
mid-1990's when a layer of concrete was removed from the stage floor, also
for acoustic reasons. Stern is currently in its third sound-system
iteration, and about to make changes again.

But Mr. Cardinale doesn't think partial baffling would be helpful. "It's
spitting in the wind to put a drape against the black wall," he said. "You
will not cover a big enough percentage of the area that's sonically
reflective. You'd have to cover all the walls, and that would be impossible
to do for one event."

He is looking forward to the day when in-ear monitors become standard ‹
small earplugs for the musicians that carry the full stage mix and make it
possible to do away with stage monitors altogether.

What makes concerts like the JVC shows especially difficult is that not only
are the bands using amplification, but there also tends to be more than one
band in a single show. The sound system has to be reconfigured between acts.
And each act has its own sound requirements. It can be a good thing if an
artist brings his own sound engineer, but only if the engineer knows how
sound works at the hall.

"You can't control the performer," Mr. Cardinale said. "Some acts say, 'I'll
do my thing, and I don't care what you say it's going to sound like.' " (He
added that this was not the problem with Ms. Tedeschi's group and sound
engineer, who had reached a reasonable understanding with the house crew
about how loudly to play and how to mix the sound. And still ...)

If in-ear monitors don't come soon enough, you could at least hope for more
consistent oversight of sound during multi-act performances, whether that
comes from the JVC Festival or Carnegie Hall. The festival's contracts
stipulate "mutual control" over production aspects between producer and
performer, Mr. Melnick said. Perhaps the control should be a little more
one-sided, on the part of the producer.

Tonight's JVC show at Stern ‹ the last evening of the two-week festival ‹ is
a special show revolving around the Cuban bassist Israel (Cachao) López.
That's right: a bassist. With three percussionists. You have been warned.

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