Friday, May 8, 2009

Live Performances, Over Amplification, and Hearing Loss

This past St. Patrick's Day, Bruce and I went to see Celtic Woman up in Baltimore. Other live performances that we have seen lately are Cats, in Charlottesville, and Cirque du Soleil, also in Charlottesville. Before that, we had been going to the Opera in Philadelphia.

In our minds, one of the reasons to go to a live performance is to hear the artists without the mediation of electronics. As any audiophile can tell you, there is a loss in sound quality when you convert between analog and digital. Unfortunately, except for the Opera, too many performers are relying upon electronics in their performances. The primary form of this electronic assistance is amplification. This amplification generally leads to two basic problems - the performance is too loud, and the different instruments (including voice) are not well-balanced. So at Cats, for example, the accompaniment tended to overpower the singing. At Celtic Woman they had both problems. The performance was too loud for the space (the Hippodrome) and the different instruments were not always well-balanced.

This is a very disappointing situation to encounter. Why don't they have competent sound engineers help them set up the sound system for the space? And why do they think that cranking up the volume is going to give us a better experience? Don't they realize that too much amplification just results in distortion? Here you have performers with lovely voices, but we can't appreciate them because they are over-amplified. This is a disservice to both the performers and the audience. It makes me not want to go to live performances, which is a shame.

I just wish that the people responsible for setting up the sound systems would actually go sit in the theater and listen and tailor the sound to the space. I'm not even sure how much amplification you need in these theaters. They were designed, after all, to amplify the acoustic energy naturally.

Sound systems cranked up too loud are also why I don't like going to movie theaters anymore (well, that and the sticky floors). I've also noticed a tendency for the soundtrack to overwhelm the dialogue, another balance issue. Wouldn't it be wonderful if, when you were watching a movie on DVD, you could control the sound track separately from the dialogue?

And while we are on the topic of noise, why do some restaurants play their sound systems so loud? Before the show we had dinner at Oliver's up in Baltimore, a recently opened Brew Pub. It was a nice place, good food, reasonable prices, and great beer, but it was too noisy. They had the stereo cranked up so loud that you couldn't hear each other talk unless you shouted. How does that make your dinner an enjoyable occasion? It's also hard on the wait-staff, because they have a hard time hearing us and we have a hard time hearing them. So, not only is the pub making their jobs harder, but it is also probably causing permanent hearing damage.

It just doesn't make sense to me.