by Darren Mueller & Matthew Somoroff
Live sound technicians—both those working in the auditorium and those who originally designed the equipment—shape our experiences of concerts in many ways, which are subtle if handled well and glaring if handled poorly. Rock bands have the liberty of simply blasting away, but for jazz and classical musicians, amplification is a much more delicate and nuanced affair. To learn more about the current technology and philosophy behind managing electronically amplified sound, we reached out to one who knows. Ken Jacob is Chief Engineer and Director of the Bose Live Music Technology Group, and he kindly answered our questions about the challenges, advantages, and perils of making live music larger than life.
The Thread: First we’d like to get a more specific idea of what you do at Bose. How much of your work fits into the research category vs. the engineering category?
Ken Jacob: My home is in research, but I’ve roamed, over my 28 years at Bose, from basic research into product design and development, and to commercializing products. I went to engineering school at the University of Minnesota and MIT because I had worked from the ages of 13 to 23 in the professional theater, first as an actor and dancer and later as a sound designer, and I wanted to do everything I could to help artists communicate with audiences.
Bose’s slogan is “Better Sound Through Research.” It seems that “better” often means creating audio products in small packages that retain the power, definition, and fidelity of much bulkier equipment. How much does compact physical design figure into the engineering and research?
It’s absolutely huge. I’d say we spend more research and development money on this idea of “big sound from small speakers” than any other design dimension. Many, many patents apply to this area as well. And as the size gets smaller and smaller, the problem gets more and more difficult. It’s far more difficult to take 10% of the size out of a hardcover-book-sized speaker without affecting performance than it is to do the same with a speaker the size of a dishwasher.
As someone whose expertise in sound technology provides his livelihood, do you notice technology at concerts you attend yourself? Are there certain things you like; certain things you get frustrated about?
I suppose I’m like a lot of professionals who, at times, can’t turn off the analytical part of my brain, relax, and enjoy sound the way a layperson might. I compensate by seeing a lot of live music, and by sheer exposure, I still lose myself in the transcendental experience of immensely enjoying music. The analytical part of me is acutely aware of some of the problems in live music amplification.
I think over-amplification is the worst problem. Many performances are far too loud. This can and does lead to listener fatigue, and makes the music sound unnatural. Some may be thinking from this that I only listen to classical music, but the opposite is true. I love rock, pop, jazz, blues, folk, etc. Although there are differences in what I think are the optimal volumes for different genres, my comment is true for all genres where amplification is used: the amplification system is often responsible for loudness much too high for the genre.
The second problem I hear is that when conventional amplification is used, the sound doesn’t come from the musical instrument or singer. It comes from a speaker off to one side of the stage. It is very disconcerting (note the word) to have all the voice and instrument sounds jumbled together and arriving from a single location (the left speaker if you’re sitting on the left, and the right speaker if you’re sitting on the right) that isn’t the location of the instruments or voices. It’s well known in the field of psychoacoustics that this leads to far less clarity and enjoyment.
Finally, I would say that the practice of having musicians hearing one thing on stage through their monitors and the audience another through the PA can lead to tremendous disconnects. The audience may be happy and not understand why a musician is having a terrible time on stage because of monitor sound problems. And conversely, I’ve seen musicians who happily come off stage only to find out later that audience members were hugely disappointed by the sound.
It is important to note that acoustical performances suffer from none of these problems. A few weeks ago, I attended a conference where hundreds of acts showcased for industry professionals such as venue owners, tour managers, and record companies. It’s sort of like South by Southwest for groups that tend to be acoustic-instrument based. In the large hotel ballroom showcases, amplification was used, and in the smaller showcases in the suites, usually no amplification was used. The same acts performed in both situations. The differences were often profound. I found myself falling in love with much more of the music when it was unamplified, and found myself often distracted and annoyed by the sound in the rooms using amplification.
Bose spent over 10 years researching the problems of live music amplification and ultimately came up with a different approach based on a new kind of loudspeaker called the L1 system. When we were in the research phase, we just didn’t know if was possible to replace PA speakers, monitors, and backline instrument amplifiers with a 7’ high, 4” wide speaker placed near each musician. We did a lot of testing, and changed the loudspeaker concept many times before we were satisfied that, conceptually, it could work. Then began about 3 years of product design and development, during which time we also had to figure out how we were going to communicate the benefits to musicians.
The speaker is shaped like a 7-foot flagpole, and one is given to each musician who alone controls its sound. It’s a radical approach that has been very successful for live performances taking place in venues that hold up to a few hundred people. And it uses the unamplified performance as its inspiration. Of course, it’s not for everyone. It’s very difficult, for example, to expect a touring act to play every night through a conventional system (one which they’ve become accustomed to) and then suddenly have to play on a very new kind of system for one night.
Looking through the Live Sound technology that Bose offers, we started thinking about how important flexibility must be to these systems. For example, the T1 ToneMatch Audio Engine presents more than 100 presets for various instruments and, likely, many different genres. Can you talk about some of the perimeters that shift based on those settings? Are the presets primarily directed to the performer, the audience, or both?
Here’s the way to think about it. Imagine that you were a musician and had selected a microphone (or instrument pickup) and loudspeaker that you knew were capable of delivering the coverage you needed and producing the timbre you wanted. Now imagine you could work with one of the best Nashville sound engineers to adjust your tone controls until no further adjustment resulted in any improvement. You said “Thanks!” and he stored those settings in a preset for you. That’s exactly what we do for various microphones and musical instruments that are used with our L1 system. Those presets are stored in the T1 engine. The individual artist can make further tonal adjustments if they’d like, but for sure the starting point is excellent without any guesswork or effort because of the presets.
Audiences are used to hearing music mediated through technology in some way. We’ve talked to audio engineers who often tell us variations on the theme: “If you do your job well, you make yourself and your work invisible.” Do you agree that the ideal amplification system is one that goes unnoticed?
I understand the sentiment of many live sound engineers when they say their goal is to have the sound be “invisible”. I think they mean that the sound should serve the artistic purpose, and no more. I agree with that. However, I don’t think that always means “invisible”. Some artists want the amplification system to be a part of their artistic statement. Some acts use fake guitar amplifier facades on stage, for example, because they want the appearance of having lots and lots of powerful guitar amps.
In other words, it’s an artistic statement that includes the amplification system. And there are many other examples where the amplification system is very much a part of the act. For many other performances—for example, for singer/songwriters, or many acoustic-instrument-based acts, or many (but not all) jazz acts—the goal is to support the music is such a way that the audience is lost in the musical performance and forgets there’s a sound system. In that very important sense, the sound system becomes “invisible”. When that occurs, it’s like nirvana for many of us who make our living in this field.
As research engineers or product designers, we have to choose an approach that is consistent with the acts we are most likely to support. In the case of the L1 system—where each musician (or nearly, since some can share) has his or her own speaker, we chose to be unobtrusive to the audience and to the performer on stage, but elegant and distinctive when examined closely. The L1 system is easy to ignore during a performance, but if you were to scrutinize it (as sometimes happens), we designed it with the hope that you would be impressed with its elegant yet understated appearance.