Natural Sound vs. Amplified Sound
Bob McCarthy

   By Sloane   Categories: Audio EquipmentMastering Audio

Which is better, natural sound or amplified sound?

Most people can answer this question without the slightest hesitation: natural sound, of course. The conventional wisdom is that the “unnatural sound” of speaker systems is something that we put up with in those cases where natural sound is not feasible. Natural sound, however, would be the first choice. But in actual practice, the opposite is the case. The principal market for exclusively “natural” sound is limited to extremely small venues or those cases where “unnatural” sound is forbidden by tradition. Natural sound can only thrive when the program material, the sound source and the acoustic space are in perfect harmony, e.g., symphony music in a symphony hall, opera in an opera house or spoken word in a small conference room. Take any of these acoustic signals out of their scale-matched, form-fitted environments and their vulnerability becomes immediately apparent.

If natural sound is so superior, then why has it lost 99% of the market share in the last century? If it is the first choice, then why do so few choose it? Wouldn’t we be shocked if 25 people were gathered together to hear a speech and there were no loudspeakers? What would be the answer if we asked people around the world to name the most famous classical music event they heard in their lifetime? The most likely answer would be “The Three Tenors” concerts, which were performed in stadiums through gigantic sound systems. Certainly, none could argue that seeing the three famous tenors singing without a sound system in one of the world’s great opera houses would be far preferable as a patron. The stadium venues were chosen for their superior gross revenues, not their acoustics. Nothing personal. Business is business. An optimized loudspeaker can beat optimized natural sound 99 times out of 100. If you are a sound engineer and don’t believe this, I would suggest you rethink your career choice.
Consider the following: we have been handed the sound design contract for the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Carousel. The production will be performed at the 1600-seat Majestic Theater, which is highly rated for its excellent acoustics. This is the very same Broadway stage of Carousel’s 1945 debut. The orchestra will have the same assembly of instruments in the same pit. Costumes and sets will be done in keeping with the traditional look of the show. There will be no ocean of noise coming from moving lights. This will be the revival to end all revivals. How about the sound system? If we believe that natural sound is best, then we would be obliged to resign the project. There is no need for an amplification system. The original show was composed and staged for natural sound. How could we presume to improve upon this? The following problems arise: the director hates it, the performers hate it, the audience hates it, and the critics hate it. The show closes in three nights and we will never work on Broadway again. Why? What has changed? Our expectations. Audiences today do not expect natural sound. We expect magic sound. Sound that arrives at our ears without the slightest effort required on our parts. We are sonic “couch potatoes.” Get used to it. This is not just a fad. This is not just the audience either. The performers also want magic sound. They want to whisper, and yet hear themselves on stage and be heard at the back. That takes strong magic, but this is our job. We will not get the job done if we don’t get realistic about the prominence of “unnatural sound.”
Why does this matter? Am I just trying to provoke a fight? No. Acousticians, please put down your acoustic pistols. Our work toward the optimized design cannot move forward if we are working under an inapplicable construct. Submitting to the collective groupthink of natural sound superiority does nothing to advance our position. When it comes to the sonic experience of audience members at a pop music concert, the sound system performance will be the decisive factor, as long as the acousticians (or whoever was responsible for the building design) have not created a hall totally unsuitable for us. A successful outcome is much more likely if we can express our acoustic requirements realistically, i.e., based on our need for amplified sound.

About the Author

Bob McCarthy specializes in the sound system optimization and design as the president of Alignment & Design, Inc. He is the foremost educator in the field of sound system optimization and has conducted training courses worldwide for over twenty years. Bob’s clients have included esteemed companies such as Cirque Du Soleil and Walt Disney Entertainment, as well as, many of the world’s best sound designers, such as Jonathan Deans, Tony Meola, Andrew Bruce, and Tom Clark, among others.

Excerpt from Sound Systems: Design and Optimization by Bob McCarthy © 2009 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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