Can High-Performance Audio Help the Performing Arts? (TAS 218)

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Can High-Performance Audio Help the Performing Arts? (TAS 218)

Have you ever attended an “amplified” live performance by a symphony orchestra, opera, or musical theater company, a dance troupe, choral group, or jazz band, and been completely underwhelmed by the overall sonics, even when you were in a terrific hall and had some of the best seats in the house? I’m not talking about concerts featuring unamplified performers in great acoustic venues, but rather those where microphones sum the sounds of instruments and voices and blast them through the hall’s PA system, destroying their natural timbral profiles and spatial characteristics. All too often, when microphones and amplifiers are used in concerts, I find myself thinking, “I get better sound than this at home!” It’s a shame, because there are few things in my experience that can rival the breathtaking sound of an unamplified live performance by first-rate musicians in a wonderful concert hall.

Amplifying performers may be an unfortunate consequence of using fewer musicians for live performances, and it cuts across all the performing arts. Several outstanding dance companies, like the Smuin Ballet in San Francisco, have typically eschewed the use of musicians in the pit altogether, using recordings fed through the house PA instead. Admittedly, many orchestras are limited in expanding the number of strings by the physical dimensions of their stages or pits, their increasingly constrained budgets, and/or the available pool of local talent. The sad reality is that unless these smaller string sections are amplified, they are drowned out by the brass, the large choruses, and the percussion on larger, more dynamic works. Some companies that avoid using amplification to reinforce their orchestras may also avoid the larger, more popular works that need more string players, resulting in smaller audiences and fewer ticket sales.

Given the necessity in some venues to amplify performers on stage and in orchestra pits, might high-performance audio components be skillfully employed to bolster the orchestra without adding deleterious colorations and destroying the string section’s angular displacement, the timing differences, the ratio of direct-to-reflected sound, and the constantly changing pitch and bow strokes that naturally occur in a live performance? While substituting better speakers and electronics is certainly one element of the total solution, it does not address the fundamental problem of preserving the natural timbre and spatial characteristics of the orchestra when traditional mix-and-amplify solutions are applied. As we’ve seen in other areas, like room correction, the application of DSP technology to this problem offers some real hope. Gabriel Sakakeeny, the founding Music Director of American Philharmonic-Sonoma County, has developed a remarkable system that approaches the amplification problem in an entirely unique way. Many of you may be familiar with Magnepan’s recent advertisement in TAS asking, “What are Magneplanars doing on stage?” and adding that Maestro Sakakeeny has “invented a unique digital signal processing system to enrich the string section of an orchestra.” The ad claimed that professional musicians had no idea that a reinforcement system was in use when listening to the American Philharmonic Orchestra. Furthermore, in earlier discussions with Gabriel, he suggested to me that the system “could make the string section sound as if it had three times the number of players.” Now, that’s quite a claim! I decided to put this system to the test, and also give myself an excuse to enjoy a romantic weekend in the California Wine Country with my wife, Bethany. We recently traveled to Santa Rosa, and I spent an illuminating afternoon with Gabriel in advance of a terrific evening concert by the American Philharmonic.

Prior to the concert, Mr. Sakakeeny explained the purpose of the string reinforcement system. “What we are trying to accomplish is to emulate the power, timbral profile, rhythmic and spatial characteristics of a large string section.” He added that his string reinforcement system was born out of necessity. While the American Philharmonic is composed of accomplished, professional musicians, they donate their services to bring classical music to audiences. As the conductor and Musical Director of the orchestra, Gabriel wanted to perform the power music in the orchestral repertoire, but he needed far more than the 30 to 40 strings he had at his command. Indeed, most large symphony orchestras use 70 massed strings on the power repertoire, and some, like the Berlin Philharmonic, use a total of eighty-two to send shivers down the spines of the audience, as well as to balance the brass in sonic output. However, as an all-volunteer orchestra, Maestro Sakakeeny couldn’t field such a large troupe without sacrificing the overall quality of musicianship.

Though it did not include the power orchestral works of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, or Stravinsky, on the night I heard the American Philharmonic its program featured some stalwarts of 20th century American music: Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide; Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings; Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring; as well as the West Coast premiere of Bernard Herrmann’s thrilling Moby Dick, a cantata for men’s chorus and orchestra. The latter work certainly qualifies as power music, with its large male chorus, and multiple fortissimo sections where the brass seemed to be playing at the top of its lungs and the percussionists were swinging their mallets or crashing their cymbals for all they were worth. As the American Philharmonic only sported 30 string players in total, it would have been quite easy for them to have been sonically overwhelmed by the chorus, brass, and percussion—but they were not! Sakakeeny’s groundbreaking Orchestral String Instrument Reinforce-ment and Enhancement System (OSIRES) helped keep the relatively small number of strings in balance with the rest of the orchestra and large chorus without screwing up the orchestra’s natural timbre, inner detail, and soundstaging. It was an amazing feat!

With so many god-awful mix-and-amplify systems in use on stages and pits today, why hasn’t anyone, besides the American Philharmonic, offered a better solution? For a start, they haven’t been able to tap the eclectic talents of Gabriel Sakakeeny. He is not only an accomplished conductor, composer, and musician, but also a cutting-edge software developer and a talented audio engineer. Gabriel was one of the founders of Jupiter Systems, a pioneering audio DSP software company that produced the world’s first multiband dynamics processor implemented in software, the first third-party software plug-in (a compressor/limiter) for Digidesign’s Pro Tools, and the first DSP-based speaker-and-room-correction plug-in.

But my most surprising discovery was that Gabriel Sakakeeny came out of high-performance audio, having designed some legendary preamplifiers and amplifiers in his days as Chief Designer and Vice President of Operations at Precision Fidelity, including the C7 and C7A preamplifiers and M7 and M7A hybrid power amplifiers. I have owned an updated M7A for decades, and it still sounds glorious when mated to Quads (or the tweeter/midrange panels of the Infinity Beta and RS-1B speakers, in their day). Contrary to popular folklore on the Internet, Gabriel Sakakeeny was not murdered, nor did he get stabbed in the parking lot of Precision Fidelity several decades ago, causing that company’s demise. I can attest that he is currently alive and well and continuing to push the intersection of music performance, DSP software, and audio engineering.

Mr. Sakakeeny brought this unique range of expertise and experience to bear in the creation of the OSIRES, first introduced in 2000, to transparently multiply the apparent number of string instruments in a live orchestra. He has continued to evolve the algorithms to better emulate the power, timbral profile, and rhythmic and spatial characteristics of a large string section. His current prototype system accommodates live inputs from twelve stringed instruments to thirty-six loudspeakers. The system chain starts with a small omni-directional microphone placed one millimeter from the body of the stringed instrument between the bridge and the tailpiece, then proceeds to HHB Radius 10 tube preamps and an undisclosed DSP stack for A-to-D manipulation via DSP algorithms and subequent reconversion from digital to analog. The analog signal exits to massive Crown power amplifiers and finally to the Magnepan MMG speaker arrays, arranged precisely on stage in groups of three panels, each angled at 120 degrees (except for the bass panels which are arrayed in acoustically coupled triads). During the concert, eight stringed instruments (4 violins, 2 violas, and 2 string basses) were electronically reinforced, with the output of each instrument being sent to three Magnepan panels. The twenty-four black MMG speakers were unobtrusively placed in front of the large chorus and had the look of sound treatment panels. I doubt anyone in the audience knew they were an integral part of the performance.

Admittedly, it helped to have someone with Gabriel’s ears balance the system during rehearsal. Initially, the violins were too present, whereas the violas were too reticent. After several adjustments via a Peavey MIDI controller, the Maestro was able to balance each of the reinforced string players with the respective sections and with the rest of the orchestra. Since the cello section had a full complement of players and didn’t require any electronic reinforcement, this made for a great sonic comparison. From my seat in the hall, I could not detect that several of the violins, violas, and all of the string basses were amplified, and that the cellos were not. Closing my eyes, I thought that there were a lot more string performers on stage, as the string sections not only sounded fuller and richer, but also extended further back on the stage. I was amazed that two string basses sounded like a full section and that the system sonically reinforced the violins, violas, and basses without distorting their natural timbre, pitch and rhythmic characteristics, inner detail, and soundstaging.

As one might expect, it initially took some experience with OSIRES to win over the orchestra. Principal second violinist Krisha Montmorency was somewhat intimidated at first, since she was now playing as if she were four violinists instead of one. “Now I don’t worry about it at all,” she explained. Besides, when she is called upon to solo, she merely has to put her foot on a pedal to defeat the system and let her violin sound alone, without any reinforcement.

Mr. Sakakeeny already has a design for a 2.0 version of the system that will accommodate up to 32 inputs/64 outputs, is more rugged and portable, and uses better electronics plus a laptop to control the system via WiFi from the audience (or sound booth). While dipole loudspeakers, with their figure-eight dispersion patterns, mimic the radiation pattern of string instruments, the system can also be used with other types of speakers, with a change to the DSP algorithms. Indeed, Maestro Sakakeeny envisions a version for an orchestra pit where small speaker arrays are placed next to each string section and point up to the ceiling.

In a perfect world, both symphony and pit orchestras would be able to employ a full complement of string players without the need for any external amplification solutions. However, the practical reality is that more and more live performances are “amplified,” and could really benefit from Gabriel’s remarkable OSIRES, which stays faithful to the acoustic properties of unamplified strings, maintains their rhythmic and spatial characteristics, and offers compelling sonic advantages over traditional mix-and-amplify systems. A system like this could help coax more people back to the concert hall, stimulate the performance of larger works, and help sustain more live music. I eagerly await the day when this system is in production and replaces all those mix-and-amplify systems currently in use. Bravo, Maestro Sakakeeny—now what about giving high-end audio some of your attention?

About TAS Publisher Jim Hannon

TAS publisher Jim Hannon has extensive experience listening to the sound of live, acoustic instruments, as both a performing artist, choral conductor, music teacher, and frequent concert-goer. Jim started playing the piano at the age of five and won a scholarship at age 10 to study with famed teacher, Ernesto Berumen, at his Carnegie Hall studio. As Berumen studied with Theodor Leschetizky, Jim can trace his piano lineage from Leschetizky’s teacher, Carl Czerny, to Ludwig van Beethoven. Hannon gave annual NYC recitals in Carnegie Recital or Judson Halls, and won a Lincoln Center Student Award for piano at age 17, performing an all-Liszt program. He worked his way through Stanford University teaching piano, continued his piano studies with Busoni award-winner James Mathis, and subsequently served as the Director of Cornell University’s Risley Residential College for the Performing Arts. Jim started singing professionally at an early age as a soloist with choirs and with big-band jazz groups, was a soloist with the West Point Glee Club, performed in leading roles in several musical theater and nightclub productions at Lake Tahoe, sang the Verdi Requiem at Carnegie Hall with the New York Choral Society and the Berlioz Requiem and Mahler’s Eighth, among others, with the chorus of the San Francisco Symphony. He also has played music in all genres, from jazz trombone and vibes, rock organ and electric keyboards, to church organ and carillon, and ran a music production company that composed original music for feature films, television, and commercials. Jim continues to sing professionally with choral groups in the Bay Area and currently serves as an assistant choral conductor.