Live Music Versus the Spoken Word

An inconvenient, but certainly not insurmountable truth: All of the things inherent to the sound of music, the very core components of what we consider musically pleasant, are mutually exclusive to the reinforcement of the spoken word.
When any number of musicians, or a single musician and a reverberant environment, perform together a massive amount of interaction takes place between them. An acoustic guitar played physically next to a piano sounds different than if the two were isloated and mixed electronically. A choir as well sounds breathtaking in concert but often sterile on recordings. While the fidelity of older (1940’s and 50’s) recordings is indeed inferior to those of today, have you ever listened to a recording of “Little Brown Jug” or any early jazz and noticed the perceived depth of the recording as opposed to some modern pop singer with an orchestra “piped in”?

Back in the day, the musicians and vocalists were all literally in the same room and the performance was tracked from start to finish without edit. All of that physical interaction showed up (usually through one microphone, no kidding) on the tape.
In the same era, concerts were held much differently than today. For instance, the singer had a microphone, but the band did not. The venues were designed to sound good, and the physical separation of the band’s instruments and amplifiers blended with the singularly-reinforced vocal to create some serious magic.

Jump ahead fifty years and see that now we do not design really anything with audio in mind. We place musicians in awful locations, place drummers behind plexiglass and separate everyone onto their own little channel. The sound technician then has the job of electronically re-summing all these parts into something that resembles how the venue should have sounded in the first place.

Instead of placing musicians closer and convincing them to manage their stage volume, we give them monitors to increase it. These face backwards of the audience and generally induce an annoying reflection from behind the musicians. If we have the budget, we provide in-ear monitoring for the musicians, allowing them to hear while simultaneously removing them from the acoustic environment. In-ears also allow such an improvement in hearing that they provide a very false sense of security to some as to the actual strength of their vocal abilities.

To correlate to my opening statement, music sounds good because of the interaction between sounds from different locations, and it sounds sterile without that interaction. Conversely, the intelligibility of the spoken word is immediately compromised by any form of interaction with its surroundings.

To correctly reinforce the spoken word and still provide an exciting music portion is certainly possible. Common sense should be employed before any electronics. If your musicians are in a choir loft at the rear of the church, you will need a subsystem up there so that the sound is actually coming from the right direction. If your musicians are near the main service area, afford them the room to set up comfortably. If you have a highly reverberant church (lots of marble, plaster, etc) acoustic drums and tambourines are likely a bad idea.

We can work with you and design a plan that allows the music portion of your venue to sound good prior to reinforcement. Let those instruments interact and fill the venue with the true sound of music and minimize the demand to electronically reinforce it.

This may seem counter-productive to a company that designs sound systems, to say you should reduce the need for one on your music, but indeed it is the correct way. We have years of experience reinforcing live music of all varieties, in all types of venues, a thousand times over. Employ that experience to your benefit and you can have the perfect balance of musical excitement and the articulation of the spoken word.