Last weekend, when the Motown tribute band Spectrum joined the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra for a Pops concert, some folks from the audience joined in. And they weren’t singing along.
“We can’t hear you!” they yelled.
It seemed we had heard this song before. A few weeks ago, when Wynonna Judd appeared at Kleinhans Music Hall, kicking off the BPO’s Pops season, the sound system distorted and garbled her lyrics. The problems improved as the night went on, but were never fully corrected.
Meanwhile, Three Dog Night joined the BPO for a concert that News Reviewer Dan Herbeck praised as a great show – except for the “muddled, sloppy sound.”
“At times, the drums were so loud, you could hardly hear anything else,” Herbeck wrote.
“I know there was an orchestra on that stage. You could see them sitting behind Three Dog Night, and they looked like they were playing their instruments. But for most of the first half of the show, I could barely hear them. The band just drowned them out.”
How could Kleinhans, with its famously faultless acoustics, be the scene of such problems?
It was whispered that it had to do with changes in the carpeting. Recently, Kleinhans removed carpeting beneath the seats in the main hall, an area that had been carpeted since the 1950s.
The move did not seem to affect the sound when the orchestra was playing by itself – the BPO still sounded fine. Pop listeners, though, wondered if the change was to blame for their problems at shows that use electronic amplification. Herbeck mentioned the possibility in his review of Three Dog Night.
Dan Hart, the BPO’s executive director, said the orchestra personnel have been alarmed by recent sound troubles, and were working to correct them.
“Obviously this is of great concern to everyone,” Hart said. “We’re going to meet with some of our sound people and operations people, have them come to the table and identify some of the problems.”
He doubted that the removed carpeting was to blame.
“Obviously it’s making change to the hall. It’s adding clarity to the orchestra, so that’s a good part. How much it’s affecting amplified sound, that’s still a question mark,” he said. “We’ve been doing this for a long time, and, generally speaking, things have gone pretty well.”
The hall’s architects, Eliel and Eero Saarinen, took the science of sound very seriously. Ted Lownie of HHL Architects, who has overseen Kleinhans restoration projects over the years, points out that they were friends with Serge Koussevitzky, the famed music director of the Boston Symphony. They worked closely with an acoustics expert and left nothing to chance.
Acoustics, Lownie points out, require a balance between reflectivity and absorption. Materials at Kleinhans were chosen with that in mind, from a paper-thin wood from South America to a particular kind of stone from Minnesota.
“The ceiling is all plaster, not acoustic plaster, it’s hard plaster. It’s designed for good strong reflectivity,” Lownie said. “The floor was originally carpeted only in the aisles, and all the area under the seats was hard surface. So you’ve got seats that are upholstered so they act the same way, in terms of absorption, whether the seat is occupied or not.”
Jim Sommer, chief engineer at Loft Studios, works with a lot of musicians, from rock to Nickel City Opera. He has never worked at Kleinhans, but he has attended many concerts there and studied the hall.
He was at the concert Three Dog Night gave at Kleinhans in 1970, and regretted missing the band’s recent gig there. From what he had heard, he, like Hart, declines to blame the carpet change for the problems.
“The review said the drums were too loud,” he said. “That would have nothing to do with the rug. That is strictly a bad mix. Or the drums could have been too loud. You could have told the sound man to turn down the drums, and he might have said, ‘I’ve got the drums shut off.’ You could have a hard drummer.”
That’s a common problem, he says, when a band appears with a symphony orchestra.
Years ago, he heard the BPO with the Who, and sensed trouble. “It was right on the edge of the orchestra being too quiet,” he recalls. “I thought, how are they going to have a band in here? ’Cause the band is going to drown out the orchestra – any normal band. It doesn’t have to be blaring loud. If you get a good, strong drummer, it’ll drown out the orchestra.
“Most likely that’s what happened at Three Dog Night. They probably had good strong drummer, and he set the level of how things were. If they had floor monitors (for the band members to hear themselves), that makes it worse, because now the floor monitors are amplifying the stage volume.”
Sommer’s comments play up a rocky truth: Balancing a band with an orchestra is still a relatively new frontier. That the BPO has been doing it more does not make it any easier.
Sound technicians, he says, have to be alert. “Where the sound guy is, it might sound great. But if the sound guy doesn’t walk around the room, he’s not going to know what’s going on in different parts of the room. He might have a sweet spot, so it sounds good to him, when in fact the guitars are too loud. Usually the guitar’s too loud,” he says, and laughs.
Ear monitors, rather than speakers on the floor, could be a useful innovation. Sommer’s band, Cock Robin, uses them. “If you watch singers, they have a wire coming down by their ear,” he says. “That was a major breakthrough.” The absence of reverberations, he says, help musicians modulate their sound better.
Whatever the challenges involved, the adventure continues. As the BPO welcomes more rock bands, the musicians and technicians working with them are sure to develop new skills.
“The pop shows, they bring their own technicians,” Hart said. “It’s sort of a partnership with them. We work with them and give them advice. It adds an element of uncertainty,” he admitted. “The issue is the clarity. Can people hear lyrics? To me, it’s really an issue of highlighting the vocalists, letting the orchestra and band turn down a little bit.
“It’s just a different world. There weren’t rock bands playing in Kleinhans when it was built.”