The sounds an audience hears – who’s responsible?

It was once so simple…

The Greek lyre player would pluck away, and the listeners in the olive grove – I nearly wrote “ancient olive grove” there but back in the fourth century BC it was probably just a youthful olive grove – would have the sound enter their ears processed merely by the Aegean sea breeze.

It was relatively simple for the baroque flautist – yes there were the particular acoustic properties of the room or hall in which the sound of air passing through wooden tube reverberated, but that was about it. And the player had no control over the building they were booked to play in.

Fast forward to 2016 and it’s all so much more complex, isn’t it? We’ve got the instruments themselves, which may be acoustic or electronic, we’ve got the environment in which they are being played, whether building, tent or open air stage, we’ve got the mixing desk and PA system that is amplifying the music, we’ve got the sound the musicians are hearing on stage from foldback monitors, and we’ve got the sound the audience hears, and then perhaps the audience at the front is hearing something different from the audience at the back, or in the centre, or at the sides.

Which is why, on Saturday evening, upon trudging in despondency from the Jazz Arena, part of Cheltenham Jazz Festival’s Montpelier Gardens entertainment site, and getting into my car for the hour and a bit drive home, I had much on my mind.

Omar Sosa

Omar Sosa – disappointing

As I mentioned in my review of Saturday at the Festival HERE, I had been looking forward to the Cuban pianist Omar Sosa’s Quarteto AfroCubano concert, but the sound I heard was so far from what I wanted to hear – and what I think the band can and should sound like – that I left long before the end. The bass of Childo Tomas was still stalking me with now muffled threat as I got to the edge of the site, 150 yards and another tent away from the uncomfortable row I had left back there in the Jazz Arena.

I’ve written in the past and probably ad nauseam about poor sound at jazz concerts, so instead of whining on, I thought as I drove up the M5, let’s try to figure out where the ultimate responsibility lies.

Now I realise there is the side issue here of the environment – of jazz in tents. For the record I’m not a fan, which is why at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival I choose where possible to go to gigs at the Parabola Arts Centre which has lovely acoustics. But, that is not really my focus here, and anyway, as you will read, it’s by no means a cut and dried thing with me.

Back to who’s responsible. I have in the past gone along with the idea that the man (or woman, though it is usually a man) at the sound desk is the one holding the can(s). But actually, isn’t it the musicians on the stage, specifically the band leader, who ultimately must take the brickbat – or the bouquet? After all, who has most to lose if things go wrong – and most to gain if they go right?

Ute Lemper - impeccable

Ute Lemper – impeccable

When I worked at the Lichfield Festival we had Ute Lemper and her small band booked to play in Lichfield Cathedral. A gothic cathedral might be perfect for plainchant but it is a notoriously difficult space in which to present amplified music. The festival employed a sound engineer who knew the building well and generally did a pretty good job with it. I hope he took his afternoon spent with Ute Lemper the right way, because it would have equipped him even better for his task in the future.

It was probably pretty exhausting for him at the time. The singer spent a good hour at her sound check walking between the rows of audience chairs, wireless mic in hand, singing, talking, whispering, rigorously testing just how her audience would hear her that evening (and, I’m certain, taking into account how the sound would change once those seats were filled). Here was someone who understood fully that it’s not sufficient to hone one’s skill just as a singer, a musician and a band leader; there were further stages in the communication process between her mouth and our ears, and she needed to gain mastery of as much of that process as possible.

Which brings us back to Omar Sosa. Yes, I realise it’s a lot more difficult at a festival with lots of other performers in the same venue and quick turnaround times. And therefore bands are more reliant upon the festival’s sound engineers. But one must assume the band had time to soundcheck. Judging by their faces they were happy with the sound onstage. The audience seemed to be enjoying it, but then audiences are inclined to try to have a good time. Maybe it sounded better to them? Maybe I was sitting in the only dreadful sound spot in the whole venue – no, that can’t be right, not judging by the bass volume outside the tent. It’s a complex business.

What I do know is it wasn’t the sound of “jazz in at tent” per se that I had a problem with. I thoroughly enjoyed the other two concerts I attended in the Jazz Arena over the weekend, Marcus Strickland’s Twi-Life and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s Stretch Music. Both were loud and Twi-Life tend towards a strong bass as befits the hip-hop references in their music. And, yes, I am aware some had trouble with this sound as well – see the comments on this LondonJazz review HERE.

But I was quite happy with the sound of both. It seemed to be what the musicians wanted it to sound like. Maybe Omar Sosa wants his music to sound the way it did. Maybe he wants me to think “gosh, the drummer could do with being a bit higher in the mix”, or “cripes, that saxophonist really likes to be heard in the background”. Somehow I doubt it. And I’m afraid, ultimately, it’s Omar Sosa’s reputation that has suffered as far as I’m concerned.

Many bands travel with their own sound engineer, especially the Scandinavian ones. I have heard them referred to in end-of-show thanks as “the other member of the band”. And it’s not just the Scandinavians who appreciate the efforts behind the sound desk. Earlier on Saturday Tim Berne had thanked the engineer at their Snakeoil gig in the Parabola Arts Centre. He referred to him as The Assassin. Ironically when it came amplifying the complex sound of Snakeoil, unless we use “killin'” as a compliment, of course.

A final thought: is soundchecking, working with a PA, etc, included in the jazz courses being offered by our educational institutions? If the idea is accepted that the musician is responsible for the sounds we hear, this aspect really should be part of the curriculum.

And it also reminds me that in a post on this site not long ago about the Jazz Promotion Network, Jazz UK and any other infrastructural organisations – it is HERE – a comment from Roger Thomas referred to the part of the jazz community that is never represented on such bodies: the audience, the fans, the listeners. This is one topic on which I’m sure they could have a valuable contribution to make.

As always, your thoughts are welcomed.

Categories: Opinion

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 replies

  1. Anecdotally I thought that the ‘tents’ were much louder this year than previously. I wasn’t at any of the gigs you mentioned but I can point out that Jacob Collier mildly remarked that he was surprised to hear the other venues while he was performing. And it’s not really volume that is the issue, it’s the frequency of sound that causes discomfort and disruption to enjoyment, the soundwaves travelling in unexpected ways. I can’t remember if the sound guys in the Arena then bumped up the volume of Jacob to cover up the freestage but it does seem to be a vicious circle, one band soundchecking nearby causes problems for another’s performance and the poor sound guys are left trying to adjust during the show when the sound was probably perfect for them earlier. I’m not excusing your poor experience, I just can’t find anything specific to blame. I hope feedback like this will be considered for next year.

  2. The sound in the Jazz Arena tent for Mulatu Astatke’s superb Sunday evening concert created no problems: every instrument could be heard clearly, and it wasn’t too loud. I don’t have a particular problem with tents in general, the programming of the free tent is probably more contentious. The Town Hall acoustic for Julian Arguelles, however, I found cavernous with the percussion, I think, muddying the sound. However, it didn’t ruin a great concert with solos even better than on the recording. The Parabola is certainly the pick of the venues,although physically getting into your seat can be an issue. The Friday and Saturday concerts there were excellent, although, as you said,the Tim Berne set was challenging at times and some left before the end. I wonder whether the sound was just a tad too loud. I don’t mind being challenged with a club, but a club with a nail through the end is perhaps too much. I look forward to hearing that one again on Radio 3 to revise my judgement because there was much to enjoy. But was there anything more exciting than the Trondheim Exchange?

  3. What a good, objective post. The tendency to over-amplification is a task bug bear. I too have walked out of gigs because of the sound (I seem to be particularly sensitive to over-loud drummers!)

    Some venues do seem to have particularly good acoustics – the Cadogan Hall in London has always had a lovely balanced sound the few times I’ve been to jazz gigs there: it coped remarkably well with the Maria Schneider Orchestra at last year’s LJF.

    But there is something about tents. The Edinburgh Jazz Festival makes use of two or more “spiegeltents”, set up as venues for the Edinburgh Fringe. The roofs flap in the occasionally strong wind, and there are curious echoes off the mirrored walls that give the tents their names. It depends where one sits, but it can be a disorienting experience.


  1. Cheltenham Jazz Festival – Saturday – thejazzbreakfast

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