Friday, August 29, 2008

The Great Equalizer

The last couple of years, I've given much thought to the effect of microphones on singing, and our ability to judge good singing.

Katarina and I went to see Tosca at Opera På Skäret. An experience in itself, this performance also offered the rare treat of hearing a real Big Voice live. It was Stuart Neill singing Cavaradossi, and suddenly, the difference between "loud" and "big" became very clear.

We had discount seats in the back of the auditorium, but Neill's voice could not only be heard easily - we could feel his voice. This is an experience that a recording can never give you. You can learn to recognize a big voice and imagine what it would be like to hear it live, but such occasions are unfortunately rare.

Listen for example to this clip. You can hear that Neill has a lush beautiful voice, but the recording is unable to convey the feeling of being immersed in his sound. One of the reasons is that you want to place the mikes so that you capture the direct sound from the singers, and not let the ambient sound dominate too much. But the Big Voice becomes part of the ambient acoustics, and fills the auditorium. The recording becomes to the live performance as a photograph of a majestic scenery is to the experience of being there in person.

I can recall many conversations where I've come to understand that most people don't know this difference when it comes to singing. Apparently, quite a few people think that opera singers wear microphones, just like in the musical theater. And I've had friends who've told of their great disappointment when some famous pop singer was unable to make herself heard without a microphone when singing solo with a choir - she who sounds like she has so much "bite" in her voice.

With amplification, most singers sound pretty much equal.

This is bad news for singers who have worked hard to acquire this Big Voice quality (yes, it's an acquired skill- it's just that few know how, or have the patience to acquire it). They should be wary of concerts where microphones are called for. The microphone will erase much of the advantage of the Big Voice, to the great benefit of the singer who lives by the mike.

Katarina recently gave a concert with pianist Hans-Ove Olsson. They did both opera and jazz in the same concert. Jazz can be sung with a Big Voice - that's how it used to be - but at least here in Sweden, there are very few such singers left. I had the pleasure of hearing Katarina and Hans-Ove rehearse in the auditorium at Klockargården, Huddinge, he at the grand piano and she beside him, making the whole room vibrate with the sound of their music. The actual concert was on an outdoor scene, however. It was windy, and Hans-Ove had to make do with a quirky electrical piano. It was about as good as could be expected, but much of the magic from the rehearsal got lost somewhere between the amplification and the wind. Actually, at least when I was turning sheets on the stage (a small gazebo), I experienced the magic. That little gazebo reverberated with the sound of her voice and his playing. If only the 100 people in the audience could all have crammed inside that gazebo... Then they would have been in for a real treat.