So you've got your classical Spanish or Flamenco hand made guitar and you've given it a polish and put on your best suit and it looks as good as you can get it. Tune up and it sound beautiful, a delicate and subtle sound unlike any other instrument. A few single notes can evoke the warm Spanish sunshine or the rolling hills of Tuscany.
Then a few people arrive and you can barely hear the guitar any more..Part of what makes the classical guitar sound so good is also what makes it hard to hear. The tone is soft and frquencies in the higher middle range of the spectrum are attenuated even when compared to an acoustic guitar. The overall level is lower and all of the frequencies that help to project the sound are not there. With more than about 50 people it becomes completely inaudible!
Ok, it is a guitar so I reach for a guitar amp and a microphone, a fairly good one say a Shure SM58 or 57 and plug it into a transisitor Marshall amp valvestate 20..sound is terrible. Even with the volume turned up almost full there is very little sound awful hissing way too much bass and angry feedback. Why?
You need a pre amp. Whatever system a microphone uses whether it is the flexing of a physical cone linked to a magnetic induction coil, the movement of the two plates of a capacitor or the vibration of piezo electric crystals the current is small, a few micro amps. The cunning sytem designed to transmit this voltage is known as line balancing. The voltage is split and one side is sent in the reverse phase so that the two signals pick up noise equally. When the signal arrives at the other end a differential amplifier reverses the phase on one channel and recombines the voltages. Roughly speaking in laymans terms of course.
Enter a pre amp, Edirol UA-5. Looks awful and not the best sound still very bass heavy and not much detail. Try a better microphone AKG CS100, great improvement but we are now totally spoiling the classical elegant look I am trying to achieve. I felt it was time to pull out the bigger guns and switched the amplifier to a Mesa Boogie F-30 and M-Audio DMP3 preamps and also an AKG 414 XLII microphone. It's all got very expensive but it looks better and sounds pretty good.
At this point, I used this set up at quite a few venues and would often find myself asking the staff if there was a table I could put my amp on so that the sound projected better. I was at Clearwell castle when this sytem broke down as none of the available furniture was suitable, it being of an antique and valuable nature. I wondered if there was such a thing as an amplifer stand and there is. What an amazing piece of kit! There is no need to bring a giant amplifier to almost any performance when you can put a smaller one on a stand. If only the heavy rock bands at my local pub could agree.
There was still a lack of detail and none of the warmth present in the sound that I was looking for. Further research into the way the Spanish guitar produces it's sound lead me to discover one of the causes. The figure of eight shape of the instrument produces two lobes of sound which tend to cause wave interference at a range of frequencies. This means that the guitar sounds different depending on where you are relative to it.
To record the sound more accurately you need two microphones. I also began to realise that a PA would be better than a guitar amp (some people might have spotted this sooner) since the guitar amp is designed to work well with the signal from an electromagnetic coil and even with the valve response adding the famous warming frequencies, a PA simply works better with microphones in most cases. Altough you will need a mixer to add reverb.
There was a brief interlude provided by the Dean Markley acousitc 'sticky' pick up which did allow for a louder level without feedback but produced at best a hard and somehwhat lifeless sound. Even when placed at the best position which was unfortunately right on the face of the guitar. Quite a subtle system, but not right. Still usefull for other applications such as live grand piano (with the aid of gaffer tape) in combination with a condenser microphone.
For larger performances I was trying to find a way to get the sound produced to a high quality without feedback. I had begun to realise the difficulty was in the design of the guitar (again). The body is made in such a way as to generate and resonate the sound in the room to naturally or acoustically amplify itself. When a microphone is used and a voice coil the sound is produced from another source which the guitar then picks up and sends out again causing a coupling of the two sytems. The sound of the guitar and the sound of the microphone and speaker become fused together and it becomes impossible to get above a certain level of volume without changing the quality of the sound.
By now I was using a compbination of microphones, 414 and AKG 451 two full range PA speakers, Alto PS4LA, and a mixer for stereo panning and reverb. With the Martin acousitc guitar plugged in via a jack lead to the Fishman rare earth pick up. A microphone for blending, 320kbps mp3 backing track support from a phone the set up was looking similar to something a full band would need even though it was sounding great!
Enter the Bose L2 line array and tonematch T1 mixer. A couple of thousand pounds worth of kit but simply the best PA I have ever heard. Also the best looking. Very discreet and with a sleek design and the 'wow' factor. This solved the problem of the awkward looking PA and produces a sound which travels better than a traditional system. When I first bought the Bose I brought it home, sitched it on and went into a blind panic. Where was the hiss? The healthy telltale hiss that lets you know a PA is switched on, it was not working. All that money and it was broke! No, it was fine. Unlike any other PA I have ever heard the background noise is practically inaudible. So it was well worth buying a Neumann KM184 microphone to go with it just to make sure ;)
The finally piece of the puzzle has come to me recently, having worked with concert pianists and harp players who are often trying to achive the same goal as me. How to be heard but preserve the traditional look. Easy, stop miking up the instrument and mic up yourself!
I have used transmitter sytems before but my experiences with the classical guitar have taught me that you might as well go in at the top end if you want to stand a chance. The sennheiser G3 wireless sytem was bought and I feel I have finally solved the problem. The first wedding ceremony that I played at had a minstrels gallery. I lugged a speaker up there and clipped the tiny mic to a fold on my trousers. a brief panic ensued as I realised I had not brought a pre amp, having got used to there being ones in my mixers. Then relief as a I plugged in the receiver and discovered it had an integrated preamp. It is a slight sacrifice of sound quality compared to the Neumann but surprisingly little. I put this down to the sennhesier receiver and pre amp being tailored specifically to work with sennheiser lavalier microphones for optimal sound.
And there it was, the classical Spanish look with a high resolution sound at a decent level with totally invisible amplification!
I bought another wireless sytem the following week. This allows me to set up the Bose in a separate area for the drinks rception or wedding breakfast well before the day begins while I simply pick up my guitar after the ceremony, discreetly switch the channel on the transmitter to the other system and play somewhere else entirely without being seen lugging a load of wires and kit around the guests and spoiling the laid back style that I like to try and portray.
Happy days. I won't buy anymore equipment ever again, I promise ;)
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