Sound Pressure Levels in Live Versus Recorded Music.

I prefer acoustic music played without amplification – particularly the human voice without microphones and PA. Luckily, we all listen to spoken voices every day and have learned from childhood what is natural and what is added (or lost). Luckily get to hear acoustic music played without amplification quite often.

Shaw Edwards at BWAC’s UnPlugged in Red Hook.

UnPlugged in Red Hook is a music series in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn where I live. It is produced by the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition (BWAC pronounced B-wack). The concerts have no affiliate with the old MTV series. BWAC was founded in 1978 to present work by local artists in “borrowed” spaces, initially in DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), then in Williamsburg (home of the NYC hipsters) and now Red Hook. I have been an active exhibitor and volunteer for over twenty years (for a decade as president). We have always had music at openings and extended the program to each weekend of our shows with UnPlugged. As the name says, we ask the performers to play unplugged, acoustic music and to sing without amplification. The performance space was initially in a corner of the 25,000 sq. ft. gallery and the listeners usually sat within twenty feet of the performers. Ohm is a sponsor of these events.

We would record the event and give the performers the un-altered master recordings for their use while we played back the performances on Ohm speakers throughout the gallery when there were no live musicians. I also used a copy to play back in the factory, my home and friends’ homes while developing new Ohm speakers. These recordings were done in the simple x-y technique developed by Alan Blumlein. We used a RODE NT-4, stereo condenser microphone going to various ADC and digital recorders. I still attend most performances and have enjoyed many events immensely. I often come back to the factory and audition the recordings on our speakers. Usually, I far prefer the live event; but sometimes I get goosebumps from the life-like recreation. These are my best live versus recorded experiences.

BWAC was severely damaged by Super Storm Sandy with six feet of water filling the ground floor portion of our gallery. Luckily, we had moved all the artwork to the second floor before the ground floor was destroyed. We had the help of hundreds of Sandy volunteers to remove all the internal partitions, gut the space back to its granite walls (built in the 1860s), and rebuild.

We expanded storage space upstairs and enlarged the performance space.

We now allow electrified performances; especially during show openings when there are many people that come just for the art. Two weeks ago, we had Trio Amalgamate with two electric guitarists (one on an 8-string bass) and a drummer. Being leery of the potential sound levels I started listening about eighteen feet back. When any member played a solo, it was loud but detailed and clear. When the guitars drowned out the drummer (except for his cymbals), I moved to the very back of the area. Still loud, still the guitarist overpowered the drummer. But, with no noticeable distortion. Afterwards, I bought their CD and played in on our new Walsh 4900s. I was able to play at their “live” levels with the recording being far better balanced than the “live” performance. I am confident the performers would agree. Maybe if BWAC had a sound engineer in the audience that set the levels…

The only pure acoustical performance (and this was outdoors) that drove me far away was an 11-piece steel drum band. Their dynamic range was phenomenal: from a single plonk to the whole ensemble playing at once. They were loud and sounded great when I got far enough back that my ears we not distorting! I hope the performers were wearing ear protection.

Last weekend Unplugged presented an All Baroque Concert featuring Shaw Edwards, cello and Vilija Naujokaitis, piano (BWAC has a baby grand on the stage). Shaw had had his ninth birthday on Saturday and is quite a prodigy. He has already performed three times at Carnegie Hall. Vilija, an internationally recognized pianist performed several solo pieces in addition to joining Shaw in several duets. Shaw played two of the Bach Cello Suites. He has a growing music career as well as being a fourth grade student at P.S. 230 here in Brooklyn. I was able to sit just ten feet from Shaw and could hear every detail. Stunning! Old music, young performer. And nothing between the actual sound of the played instruments and my ears. Sound reinforcement may – and probably does – have its place (for more on that, see our post on sound reinforcement sound reinforcement), but that place is nowhere in the vicinity of music conceived to be heard with no electronic help or alteration.

And I say that as a man who has made a living designing and selling devices to deliver the most accurate translations of the original sound. That’s just one man’s opinion, but it is strong and it has been reinforced for many years.

See ya on the 27th

‘Til then, Enjoy & Good Listining!


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John Strohbeen Author

John Strohbeen was the President and Chief Engineer of Ohm Acoustics from 1978-2023.

John Strohbeen

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