Author: Daniel, Bert

Microphone Ballet
 

The hard working sound engineer may be one of the most under-appreciated people in Bluegrass music. Most people go to a Bluegrass event and enjoy the music without even thinking about how much work it takes to make the listening experience clear and accurate for everyone in the audience. Lots of us only notice the sound engineer when they havenít done their job quite right. Like if a feedback problem blasts our ears with a loud buzz. Then we see a guy or a gal slink up to the stage and adjust a cable or a mic or something. If a song is in progress, they often crawl around as low as possible to get the problem fixed.

Thatís one version of the microphone ballet. But my favorite form of microphone ballet is completely different. You rarely see it these days. Itís becoming something of a lost art and Bluegrass is one of its last strongholds. The poetry of motion involved with this vanishing skill makes for a very entertaining stage show. And it reminds us, as we watch, of the traditions and history of the Bluegrass genre. After all, the microphone that is the focus of this ballet played a huge part in the popularization of Bluegrass and Old Time music.

Iím talking about the condenser microphone. After Bell Labs invented it in 1916, it took off and allowed radio and record listeners to listen to bands like the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, etc. etc. When the bands played out on tour they hooked up a single microphone, connected it to an amplifier, and wowed audiences with the fabulous new technology. The band members huddled around the single microphone like a warm fire and if a couple sang a romantic duet, they had to be cheek to cheek in order for the audience to hear both of them properly.

For a Bluegrass band, the lead singer would stand closest to the microphone but would make way for an instrumentalist to play their instrument right into the microphone when it came time for a solo. Three part harmony required three carefully placed singers sharing a single electronic conduit.

Nowadays condenser microphones are pretty much just used for studio recording. Theyíre so sensitive to sound that most stage bands prefer to use dynamic microphones with monitors (for the musicians to hear the mix of their fellow musicians). Each musician and instrument is individually wired with a pickup or mic and the sound engineer pushes dials up or down to get the right mix. At least thatís about as much as I understand about it. Anyone who has ever played in a band and tried to set up their own sound for a gig understands how difficult it can be to get a good sound with all the complex variables involved.

Trust me, itís much better to be out there in the audience hearing all that sound than worrying about it! I appreciate good sound mixing. If I can hear the softer sounds of the guitar on a solo, thatís good. If everything is too loud and my ears can barely stand it (an all too frequent occurrence), thatís bad. You wouldnít believe how many times Iíve heard loud audio in a room the size of a shoe box. Come on, these are acoustic instruments! If someone could hear Pavarotti without a mic at La Scala, why do I need to hear a banjo at 120 decibels when I could probably hear the whole band just fine with no amplification?

The stage choreography involved with using a single mic is complicated too, but oh, so much fun to watch. With a condenser mic, you don't need a speaker monitor for each musician. They hear each other just as they would if they were playing in a jam at the bass player's home. These are acoustic instruments after all! And it's a good thing they don't have the monitors because that would just get in the way of the ballet.

The last time I saw single mic live sound mixing done well was by the Del McCoury band at the Raven Theater here in Healdsburg about five years ago. Those guys worked their tails off to dance up to the microphone on cue at the right time. They played every request I heard called out from the audience, whether it was their own tune or not. And the musicians did their own mixing just by using their body positioning. Iíve never heard any better sound. Old school. Microphone Ballet.

 
Posted:  4/13/2014



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