Saturday, February 27, 2010

Acoustic Music Is Dead

A few weeks back, I ranted about a godawful Minnesota Orchestra pops “concert’ I suffered. This week, I recorded an electric/acoustic act that had pretensions of acoustic-ness that they didn’t bother to live up to. I mean, they didn’t attempt an acoustic sound.

Years ago, my partner and I rented out our sound company to a couple seasons of bluegrass festivals. We had a very high fidelity sound system with plenty of power to provide audio to several thousand outdoor rock and rollers and enough stage monitoring to keep most lead guitarists and screaming metal-head vocalists happy. With that capacity, we always found ourselves short on the necessary acoustic power to satisfy solo banjo pickers and the rest of the characters who qualify as “entertainers” on the bluegrass circuit.

The sound of a banjo picker whacking on the vocal mic, saying, “Can you hear this out there? I can’t hear a damn thing” still haunts my memories of doing live sound in that venue. Led Zepplin has nothing on a bluegrass quartet, when it comes to stage volume. Their hearing defect is the core to the problem with acoustic music. Fragile egos, hearing impairment, or ordinary poor taste has convinced almost every musician that deafening stage volume is a necessary component of every performance. With that as a given, delicate and sophisticated tonal character is sacrificed for the God of Gain over Feedback. A microphone doesn’t have a chance in hell of picking up a usable tone from an acoustic instrument in the midst of that atonal racket.

The problem is that tone and volume do not co-exist. Sound companies have been proving that for more than 50 years and the evidence is better today than ever. Every musician makes a choice before every performance, “Do I want to sound good or do I want to be loud?” The answer to that question goes to the heart of a musician’s reason for selecting a particular instrument, for practicing and perfecting technique, and for being a musician. The answer, too often, is the one that drives guitarists to select a pickup over a microphone or performing without amplification.
That was 30 years ago. Today, acoustic music is dead. I miss it and I doubt that it is resting in peace.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a folk, classical, or jazz solo guitarist who didn’t bring more amplification to a small club than would be needed to thoroughly overwhelm a small auditorium. Not only do they carry this crap to every living room jam session, but they feel compelled to use it.

It’s one thing to be an electric guitarist who happens to like the feel of a full-bodied acoustic instrument. It’s another thing to pretend to be an acoustic guitarist while depending on a few hundred watts to blast every audience into submission. Sometimes I suspect the real reason musicians pick acoustic instruments is that it gives them an excuse to sit while they play. It sure isn’t because they like the way an acoustic guitar sounds because nothing coming out of an overpriced faux-hi-fi amplifier supplied with the signal provided by a Mickey Mouse rubber band “guitar” pickup.

When I try to position a microphone in front of an acoustic instrument, the claim I almost always get from a guitarist, violinist, or bassist sounds a lot like, “You don’t need a microphone, my pickup sounds great.”

I can think of one instance that I found that claim to be half-true. Otherwise, I think all acoustic instrument pickups belong in rock and roll bands where sound quality is the dead last show concern. They no more sound like acoustic guitars than does a Les Paul plugged directly into a console through a DI. That’s the nicest thing I can say about the lot. Most piezo pickups make an objectionable sound that only a deaf modern musician could love. Their magnetic cousins just turn an acoustic guitar into an oversized electric.

The sound of the acoustic guitar pickup is one that I’ve been trying to find a home for in the mix for 40 years. Usually, the best thing that can be done for that tone is to treat it like a jazz guitar and bury it in delays, chorus, and behind every other instrument in the mix. Otherwise, it just sounds like that miserable noise Al Di Meola has been making since Ovation purchased his soul.

This is coming from someone who loves acoustic guitars. A well-mic’d acoustic guitar is one of my favorite musical instruments. An acoustic guitar, left to its own devices, with no electronics between its output and my ears is up there with any musical sound made by any instrument or voice. Pickups and guitar amplifiers just don’t have anything resembling the nuance to reproduce the instrument. I hate what they do to my favorite instrument and don’t have a lot of love for musicians who can’t hear the difference.

I’m no more fond of those abominations on violins, basses, or mandolins. They are just fine on banjos because there is no way to screw up the tone of that instrument. I guess it doesn’t matter, though. Musicians don’t have the ear, patience, or audience for acoustic music in almost every venue, so let’s just agree that acoustic music is dead and quit pretending that playing something with a hollow body is in any way similar to an acoustic instrument.


Guy said...

Haha!! I like the comment about "acoustic" musicians being able to sit down!

However, last year I had a bluegrass band in the studio, the singer played a Martin d-28 with a K&K transducer/mic combo. Believe it or not, the guitar sounded great! Sat in the mix perfectly and really sounded like a guitar.

The problem is people don't really LISTEN to music anymore

Thomas Day said...

I'm not convinced that anything in human behavior ever changes in less than a few hundred thousand years. It has been difficult to get the average dude to sit down and listen to music for all of my lifetime. Fortunately, there is an excess of human beings and a few of them have always been interested in art, music, and literature. One of the side benefits of having worked for a music college for 12 years is that I have been fortunate to get to know a surprising number of young people who listen with as critical an ear as anyone I've ever known.

If you cater to the lowest common denominator, you'll get what you've asked for. If you aim higher, you'll reach a smaller audience, but a smarter one.

Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.