The worst sound engineering in the world, part 3504

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of

Monday November 20, 2006

It's amazing how a ballet performance by a company such as the Moscow City Ballet can pack out a theater. But as always in show business - and ballet, opera and classical music are just show business - the show has to make a profit.

Profit equals ticket sales minus costs, so presuming that the house is full and the tickets are sold at the highest prices the market will stand, the only way to increase profits further (or increase the chances of breaking even!) is to reduce costs.

In theater, the major cost is wages. The more performers, the higher the wages bill. So if the promoter can reduce the number of performers, costs will be reduced significantly. For a ballet, reducing the number of dancers would not exactly be a good idea, so the next option is to reduce the size of the orchestra.

The natural candidates for a reduction in numbers are the string instruments. Why have twenty violins when six will do? Actually they won't do. The sound won't be as thick and it certainly won't be as loud.

But sound reinforcement can help. Simply mic up the string section and raise the level to what it should have been if a full complement of musicians had been used.

In a recent performance by the Moscow City Ballet, this didn't work too well. The engineer had miked up all the strings sure enough, but he had miked up the woodwind and harp as well.

Now a single clarinet is considered loud enough without amplification in the Royal Albert Hall, capacity 7000, so it is perfectly good for a 1000-seater auditorium. Same with the harp - it is not a loud instrument, but it is loud enough.

So with the additional unwanted and un-needed amplification, the sound was pretty poor all round. But to add to that it was too loud - much louder than a full size orchestra would have been in that theater.

It gets worse. The music featured violin and cello solos. Where six violins need amplification to make them as loud as twenty, a solo violin does not need amplification because it is already as loud as it should be. But of course it was amplified and sounded pretty awful. PA loudspeakers do not treat string instruments kindly.

Later in the performance the engineer started to get carried away with the level, particularly of the single double bass. The speakers were struggling and the bass was extremely resonant.

That the audience were pleased was mainly thanks to the quality of the performance, which was indeed good and full of the character expected of a Russian company. Also, being a provincial theater, the audience in the main does not have ready access to full-scale unamplified performances. So although they couldn't possibly have enjoyed the sound, they probably didn't realize.

But there is a higher standard to be reached in sound engineering. And remember that not everything has to be loud.

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