Bluegrass and Sound

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How do you take five not very noisy instruments that cannot be listened to without electronic amplification except in a rather small room and turn their music into something large groups of people can listen to? Add to this problem the fact that each of the instruments has a distinctive native sound that doesn’t necessarily mix well with the others. The mandolin, beloved to Bill Monroe, has little or no sustain and must be played with a tremolo picking style to hold a note. The guitar is a quiet creature which, when played outdoors, can barely be heard. Basses, played at night on a campground when you’re trying to sleep boom through the insulation of a smal trailer, turning the vehicle into a resonator, yet they require an onstage amplifier to be heard in the audience and the band both. The fiddle sings and soars and, through the wizardry of technique also emerges as a percussion tool. Then there’s the banjo, with it’s built in resonator driving it’s metallic sound through groups and creating a twanging sound that turns people into bluegrass adherants…or drives them away. The Dobro, or resonator guitar, is a quirky instrument which few play well and is often either not represented in bluegrass bands or not represented well. Probably for economic reasons, for the space the equipment displaces, and because Bill Monroe figured out a way to dispense with them, drums are not a traditional part of bluegrass bands. Each instrument in the band, therefore, is required to play both melodic and percussive roles. A bluegrass band, given it’s characteristics, probably should never exist off the porch.

But bluegrass music has developed a constituency, first on the radio and in small venues, and later in festivals, concert halls, and large outdoor spaces where the sound of a bluegrass band would not reach beyond the third row were it not for amplified sound. At this point I might say that sound production, mixing, amplifying, and the entire rest of the technology and art of sound reproduction are something of a mystery to me. I understand that the size and shape of a venue makes a huge difference. Wind can move sound around so that people sitting in each seat hear something different. Sound bounces off each obstruction in a building and echoes back and forth between the walls in unpredictable ways. Pitches, vocal qualities and strength vary as well as do other tonal qualities. There’s been a rapid increase in quality of sound made possible by the digital sound, but some people bemoan the loss of vacuum tubes. Microphones and speakers have improved enormously, and the smaller but more powerful sound boards sound people have available to them increase their power to make a band sound wonderful or to diminish their quality until it’s almost unlistenable.

I remember the first time I heard Danny Paisley sing at a festival in the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. His voice sounded harsh and edgy (as well as way too loud) in a fashion that made him, for me, almost impossible to listen to. At other venues, while still edgy, Paisley’s voice takes on a nuanced quality often lost with lesser sound men. At IBMA’s World of Bluegrass last Fall, I sat down with two sound men, Ben Surratt, whose wonderful work in the recording studio has turned out many award winning recordings, and John Holder, who’s rapidly becoming a go-to sound producer for a number of festivals in the mid- and deep South. They discussed some of the qualities of good sound with me, including that there’s only so much a good sound engineer can do with the subject, because every positive element is balanced by a sound cost it incurs. It’s not a zero sum game, but the alternatives aren’t unlimited, either.

Sound, then, its production and subtle management through a complex of high technology equipment in often hostile environments with ever changing condtions is one of the crucial elements making bands sound good at bluegrass events. Combining the ability to mix four, five, or six very different sounding instruments with the skill to mix in voices of varying quality and strength is at least as important as having the ability to produce the vocal and instrumental music in the first place. With bluegrass, it is equally important to understand what the music itself is supposed to sound like and how to emphasize the solo instrument being featured at all times. Of course the skill of individual musicians in “working” the microphones is also crucially important. Why is it, then, that many music promoters often skimp on hiring first rate sound men using up-to-date equipment, trying to save money on their often close profit margins by hiring lesser sound companies to produce inferior sound? The ear of the people at both the house and stage boards as well as their ability to pay constant attention as conditions, instruments, and vocal configuations change are all crucially important and pretty rare. Anyone can purchase equipment and offer sound services. Not everyone can offer it with consistent quality for a bluegrass event. All this is one of the reasons increasing numbers of successful bands carry their own sound person with them. Because they have a consistent sound they wish to have produced, this extra member of the band may be essential. But not all bands can afford such a person who may no longer be a luxury. The need for good sound increases the urgency on the promoter to provide good sound, if they expect people to pay good money to attend. Many people attending festivals may not know why they are having an inferior musical experience, but they’ll know it’s inferior. Meanwhile, woe to the performer who presumes to criticize a sound person, even in private let alone from the stage.

While I know much less than I ought to about the technology and physics of sound including the skills involved in delivering fine music to an audience, I know it remains a crucial component to creating a quality experience. The sound crew is often nearly anonymous at bluegrass events, but they remain perhaps the most important component to delivering a first rate experience for audiences.

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