Yesterday [2016 February 20] I attended a Sound Technician training session at my mom and dad’s church in Waxhaw, North Carolina. The leaders were a professional pair of Christ-followers who go all over the country primarily to instruct churches how to mix and control the digital sound systems, but also give presentations to businesses. I felt like I was at a college lecture, which means I enjoyed myself! They taught the fundamentals of sound theory to about twelve participants, with half of those being current volunteers with knowledge of operating the church equipment. The idea was to get everyone on the same page in order to produce a consistent sound quality from week to week and month to month, no matter who is running it.
I loved learning about sound frequencies and decibels and so forth. During the course, one of the instructors mentioned that Jesus was the ultimate sound mixer because he knew that the best way to project his voice to thousands in the distance was from a boat, so that the water surface would amplify his voice. The lead “pastor” and musician said, “Well, of course he knew how to do that; he is the one who materialized sound and the ear in the first place.”
I also met a high school boy who is a pianist and seriously interested in film scoring. One of the main points of our lesson was that if we have done a good job mixing the sound, and remain “invisible” (no one knows we did anything at all), then we have done our job well. Everything went smoothly and the best sound it could be if the effort remains unnoticed. So I mentioned that film scores are similar to that: most people just pay attention to the story and the action, and don’t even notice the drama and mood created by the film score. But if you took away the film score, probably 75% or more of the meaning would be lost. The boy appreciated this observation.
I also learned something about low frequencies “going through” or being absorbed by porous surfaces, such as human bodies, but higher frequencies reflect back off. I got a feeling in my abdomen after sitting in my apartment back in Bristol at the same time as the guy who had moved in below me. The rumbling was caused by a bass booster (a.k.a. sub-woofer), which is a low frequency. It was not my imagination that hours of that made me feel nauseated. The instructor of the course said that a guy’s intestines once ruptured from listening often to loud, low frequency sound. So I wasn’t just being a jerk after all!
Not to mention the effect on the inner ear’s membrane from the strain of high decibels and the increased vibration, which wears out the membrane faster than consistent healthy sounds levels. A moment of loud decibels is enough to do equivalent damage all at once, such as from firing a pistol without wearing ear protection.
The other part that interested me is that pop music has no dynamics. The goal of sound mixing, currently by way of digital audioboards, is to get all of the sounds within a certain close range of frequencies. I mentioned that listening to most classical music is impossible to do while you are driving in a car because of the dynamics, where pop music works fine. Also, that I wouldn’t listen to Verdi’s Requiem, which resembles opera, in my apartment because I would have to constantly be adjusting the volume up and down or else risk disturbing my neighbors. For this reason, I am excited at every opportunity to go to live performances of the Requiem.
Which brings to mind a memorable performance by the Hartford Symphony. I had checked on tickets and found that I could pay about half price simply for being under 40-years-old. On a summer evening, I arrived at the Mortensen Hall early enough for the pre-show lecture with Edward Cumming. Afterwards, I found the seat matching my ticket, one of the few last minute remainders, but it was fairly central and fairly level with the stage. I was pleased. I bubbled over with the delights of anticipation (to borrow a phrase from Anne of Green Gables).
Just before the music came to life, a young woman in a long skirt hurried into the seat next to mine. At some point, she removed her shoes. I had seen that she wore ballet flats without socks. As I already mentioned, it was summertime. Well, I spent the bulk of the concert trying to breathe through my mouth. The stench of those sweaty feet beside me soaked up all my enjoyment of the first part of the performance. My lack of self-confidence prevented me from speaking to the either the girl or else to an usher. I have never gotten over this.