Live Sound

I believe that it is very rare for people to sit in close proximity to a well trained voice and hear it acoustically. I think most people in our society hear amplified voices. There’s nothing wrong with this, especially if the equipment is good and the venue has good acoustics, but it is not the same as hearing one human being filling an opera house or theater on his or her lung power. When the sound is coupled with intention and meaning and it is vibrant, clear and vital, there is nothing to compare to the experience of listening to that sound live and in person. NOTHING.

The great singers whose names and reputations have been passed down since the beginning of recordings (and before that those who were not recorded but written about) have lasted in our collective consciousness because of the vividness of their sound and the deep impression it made on those who heard it.

I wonder then, when an audience hears a voice that is not only manipulated physically by the singer, but is also manipulated by the sound equipment or engineer or both, do the people listening have any clue as to what the vocalist would sound like in their own living room, up close? Probably not. They most likely have no clue as to what they are missing.

Singing students may not have this opportunity, either, and that is awful. Since we learn to speak by the time we are about two years old, primarily by replicating who and what we hear, we often learn to sing by listening to the teacher. If the teacher can no longer sing or sings poorly, how is the student to know what kind of sound he or she is trying to learn to do? That leaves us only words to describe both the sound and how it should be made. Without coupling the words with sounds, the young singer or beginning adult has little to help him judge or measure against. On the other hand, if the teacher is an opera singer who can only make operatic sounds and the student wants to learn to sing jazz, listening to the operatic vocal production of the teacher isn’t going to help the student find a jazz sound that is comfortable and appropriate. That’s probably one good reason why many CCM vocalists have declined serious study. They just didn’t want to sound “operatic” or even “classical” but that was the only aural model available in a formal training session.

I would surely love to go back to the days of Vaudeville when there was no amplification and the bands or orchestras had to play in a way that would not cover up the voices of the singers. I would like to have the opportunity to find out who would last and why. It would be interesting to see what things would change if we all had to accommodate acoustic sound. One thing that would go on Broadway immediately is facing at ninety degree angles to the audience in a duet. You had to “cheat” out to be heard…..that’s gone. Another thing would be singing way upstage. You often came downstage to sing because it carried better. That’s been gone for a long time, too. Another thing would be that the conductor would have to find out how loud the orchestra could play for each vocalist without drowning him or her out. That might happen once in a while, but not too often. Mostly the singers have to crank out a lot of sound or they won’t be heard. It’s one reason why we have mostly very big voices (in very big people) now in mainstream opera. You can’t survive without a big, loud sound.

Sure, rock would sound weird, and all the CCM styles would suffer in whatever way they rely upon electronic support once it was removed, and I am not suggesting that it would be an end in itself to drop amplification. What I am suggesting is that we need to stay in touch with the human aspect of singing and the power of the human voice to do what nothing else can do in the same way, and that is communicate emotion through words and music.

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