AMPLIFYING YOUR ACOUSTIC GUITAR: AN OVERVIEW

By Harvey Reid (1990)



Because their instruments make no sound without amplification, electric guitar players seem to have an easier time than acoustic players grasping the fundamental issue of sound reinforcement: when you perform with amplification, your instrument and your sound system are collectively your musical instrument. Jimi Hendrix really drove that idea home­p; he played his amps almost as much as he played his guitar. Whenever you use a sound system, you are doing the same thing to a lesser extent. People in your audience hear the speakers, not your instrument. A guitar really is just a mechanical, wooden speaker and amplifier system that imparts certain tonal characteristics to the sound of your strings. Likewise, a speaker cone is a paper instrument that sounds a lot like your guitar as you play through it, though you can never expect the two to sound identical. The speaker is much louder than your guitar, and sounds surprisingly like it, and just because it doesn't sound identical doesn't mean you have to abandon the whole idea of using a sound system. That would be like refusing to talk on the telephone because the person's voice you were talking to didn't sound exactly the way it does in person.

A PA system is a tool to propagate your sound into a larger environment than it normally exists in. In enlarging it and dispersing sound, it is necessary that it will be changed in some ways other than just volume. When you watch a football game on TV, you are experiencing the phenomenon of a football game in a very different way than you would if you were in the bleachers at the game on a windy fall day. When a photograph is dot-screened and printed in a newspaper, it has been transformed and projected to people who were not at the scene of the event. Certain types of photos reproduce better than others, and certain feelings don't come across as well when you try to capture them in just a single black and white photo. The same sorts of things are true of the whole process of recording, transmitting and amplifying music- an electronic "image" of the sound is created, propagated, amplified, and reconverted back into sound by a speaker. It is a credit to modern engineering that the finished product sounds as much like the original as it does.

Unless you are lucky enough to only perform for quiet groups in acoustically excellent rooms, you will have to use a PA system. Even concert halls that have been built specifically for music listening tend to be designed for operas or symphonies, and are really too large (in spite of what anyone says), for a truly effective performance with just an unamplified acoustic guitar. Those of us who play and enjoy music must learn to cherish those times when we have a great acoustic setting­p; at home, at a party, at the beach or at a bluegrass festival out in a field with the bass thumping through your feet and the sound of all the instruments and voices projecting through the air like magic. We must learn to accept all the shortcomings and trade-offs that come with the use of a sound system. Only a few people can crowd around the bluegrass band in the field before the sound that reaches outer listeners becomes muffled and changed. With the use of amplification and recording, many more people can share in the experience of the performance. Although a recording can never capture the true spirit and content of the music, it captures something that can be enjoyed. Every person who performs or enjoys music must decide how picky they wish to be on matters of "purity" and reproductions. Some people can apparently enjoy a concert on TV as much as being there, since the enjoyment of actually being there to experience the music is outweighed by the problems of transportation, parking, tickets, and crowds. They are willing to give up some of the magic of the setting for the convenience and comfort of watching a TV and not having to leave home. Some people are happy just listening to a small kitchen radio, while other people have compact disc players in their cars and are still unsatisfied. If you've never been in a small room with a skilled musician playing a quality instrument, you've missed something. But it also is undeniably fun to listen to your favorite song on your Walkman as you walk through the woods. So what if it isn't a perfect reproduction of what the musician sounds like in person? If it makes you happy, then it is arguably of value.

What we want when we amplify music is just a way to have an acoustically bigger version of the same thing. (Unfortunately, the only totally "natural" way to have a bigger acoustic guitar sound is to have a huge guitar played by huge people.) But there is a mood created when you play a guitar in a small room with good acoustics; when you play in a kitchen or a stairwell your instrument sounds glorious. It is not possible to just isolate the "sound" of the instrument or to just enlarge the whole experience to a hundred times the size while keeping everything else the same. Just the presence of hundreds of people in a room will automatically change the nature of the performance, since they will be breathing and coughing and going to the restrooms in proportionally larger numbers. To sit in a small room with just a candle, looking at a painting by Renoir is a very different experience from being in an auditorium with a giant version of the same painting on the wall with 1000 people observing it at once. Certain art forms necessarily exist in a certain size, and do not have the same effect when they are magnified. Imagine a 2-story china Hummel figurine, a 10-foot earring, a vase of flowers 100 feet tall! Things in real life often come in only one size and intensity. Some thoughts are best expressed when spoken quietly or whispered; shouting the same words would change their meaning. And so it is when you try to take the experience of hearing a guitar played on a porch on a summer night and transform it into something you do in a stadium with thousands of people watching. It will be a different experience. Not necessarily a bad experience, but necessarily a different one. Looking for "natural" sound is not really the point; what you are looking for is good sound. When you amplify what you do, you need to think hard about which parts of the performance will be amplified when you are louder and which parts of your art are only communicable in their smaller, real-life size. Subtle facial expressions you might make when you play or jewelry you wear are invisible to people who are even 50 feet away, for example.

Sound systems, recordings, photographs­p; these are just modern tools and vehicles that transmit something of an artistic performance to another setting. If you want to be heard outside of the small, perfect settings, you have to be amplified or recorded. And you might as well do your part to ensure that you are amplified or recorded well. Ignoring the problem doesn't make it go away. Musicians who spend years learning to play their instruments often don't realize that it is of almost equal importance to learn to use the sound system when performance time comes. Choosing not to deal with the issue is still making a passive choice, and if you don't use your PA properly, it still makes a statement to the audience, just as you make a fashion statement when you dress sloppily. If you are careless with photography, you are likely to get a picture that is overexposed or out of focus; likewise, if you are careless with a sound system your audience will not hear what you intend them to. You might be playing great music or speaking deep truths, but if the mikes are feeding back and the tweeters are blown in your speakers the effect of the truth and music may not be felt. Another performer with a great sound system and less truth is likely to connect better with the same audience.

The more that you the musician yourself understand what is coming out of the speakers, the more effectively the whole music will come across to the audience. Artistic decisions underlie all the technical talk, and artists should make them. If you care enough about your music to spend all those hours and all that emotion learning, creating and performing it, you owe it to yourself and your listeners to spend some time and care learning how to make yourself heard properly. In future articles in this series we will look at the specifics of how to choose the right equipment for your needs and how to use it to your best advantage in various performing and recording situations.

Harvey Reid has been a full-time acoustic guitarist since 1974. He lives in Southern Maine, and is currently (1990) working on release of his 12th solo album for Woodpecker Records.

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