Sound Check

Here’s an odd thing. The New York Guitar Festival includes a Guitar Marathon in the 917-seat Kaufmann Concert Hall at the 92nd Street Y, an all-afternoon-and-after-a-short-intermission-all-evening event that throws every kind of guitarist at the audience until even the most desperate guitar addict leaves feeling as if he’s just about had enough for now, and maybe he’ll go home and lie down with a cool cloth on his face and listen to some Enya.

The odd thing is that, even though the marathon is almost inhumanly long, the sound check is longer. At the 2004 NYGF, the Marathon lasts about seven hours, including brief onstage interviews and song intros; the sound check lasts about nine. Nine hours.
Or perhaps I should say "sound checks," because they take place in three chunks: one, mainly for acoustic guitarists, runs from 10 a.m. until nearly 2 p.m. on Saturday; another acoustic sound check runs from 9 a.m. until about 1:30 p.m. on Sunday; and between the two halves of the Marathon, say from 5:30 p.m. until almost 7 p.m., the electric guitarists wheel out all their heavy gear and start plugging in the cables and slapping down the duct tape.
Something very strange is going on here, but it’s not apparent at first because everyone’s so accustomed to sound checks. First up are Abdoulaye Diabate and Banning Eyre. The two play duets of music from Mali, where the guitar is finding a place in traditional music between the traditional kora (harp) and ngoni (lute). In the 92nd Street Y, though, they plug in. Banning Eyre has a cord as long and thick as a garden hose.
Dennis Koster, playing a flamenco guitar, delivers a series of strums like rolling thunder to demonstrate the high-end volume of his program. Flamenco, both as a style and as a version of the Spanish guitar, evolved to generate as much attack and volume as possible, and Koster sits regally through the sound check, his leonine head erect, as if he could blow the doors off the hall all by himself, if necessary. 
I miss Dominic Frasca, but see David Starobin, playing a nineteenth-century program by Fernando Sor, sit through his sound check patiently, as if being fitted for a suit he doesn’t really like but is obliged to wear. 
Paul O’Dette is playing a renaissance lute, and it goes without question that in a hall this size he’s going to need some amplification: the lute is a neat, chirpy little instrument--on which O’Dette is an acknowledged master--but for the lute, this hall is Shea Stadium, and the sound check equipment list for O’Dette runs as follows: 
AKG-535 talk 
Schoeps stereo mic left
Schoeps stereo mic right
Schoeps cardioid guitar top
Schoeps cardioid guitar bottom 
Plus an additional note for the crew: 
"The stereo mic would be a few feet in front of the guitar for a more natural recording sound."
The last guitarist of the day is the Brazilian Vinicius Cantuaria. He’s also the only electric guitarist of the day, and in a sense he does his own sound check, playing with a knob or two, then sits there as if wondering what all the fuss is about, taking the opportunity to run through a few sequences with his spidery fingers. Joe Pass is supposed to have said that the electric guitar enabled him to play more quietly. Vinicius plays so quietly that at times the guitar sounds as if it’s breathing. He has a Yamaha hollowbody archtop electric with gold hardware like the fixtures in Louis XIV’s bathroom. He holds the tremolo arm delicately between his fingertips and gives it an experimental waft back and forth, waiting to be told he can go.
When the actual show comes around, Vinicius says that when Brazilians play outdoors, the way they cope with the sound issue is a method that would never occur to us, in our tech-happy medium: they use more guitarists!
No, it isn’t until the Sunday morning sound checks that all these strangely-shaped pieces start coming together and it becomes clear what a strange set of illusions are being created here.
First to sit down among the small thicket of microphones, like desiccated black cacti, is Bob Brozman, the internationally-traveling slide player. And Brozman introduces the key player in the sound check, a party who has been present all along, but unnoticed: Ryan, the sound guy.
Ryan is up on the balcony, far enough back that, like everyone on the lower floor of the auditorium, I can’t see him. In my mind he becomes Invisible Ryan, whose job is to be heard but not seen, to create a product that can be heard but not seen, using a series of devices that for the most part can’t be seen either: the mikes are as unobtrusive as possible, the cables carrying the output up to him are buried in the fabric of the building, the tall house speakers on each side of the stage are as camouflaged as they can be against the walls and the room’s decor. In short, he is an illusionist.
Bob runs his sound check with the almost fanatical precision and focus of one who has had his sound messed up on five continents. He knows the sound he wants, the EQ settings he wants, and he’s even brought his own mike, a Neumann KM-150, not made any more. To give Ryan an indication of the range of sound to expect, Bob bangs the top of his National with the heel of his right hand, his forearm, his thumb, his knuckles, zips a pick across the strings above the bridge and generally carries on--then sets that guitar aside, picks up his Weissenborn, then his charango, a small-bodies ten-stringed instrument formerly made from the shell of an armadillo. "Fastest sound check in the East," he says, thanks Ryan, marches briskly off.
Ed Gerhard also takes his sound very, very seriously. He even has his own preamp, though it isn’t doing what it should. "I could try reversing the phase on this," he calls tentatively up to Ryan, sounding like Scotty from Star Trek. There’s a pause, then Ed says sheepishly, "I’ve got it plugged it in the wrong way round."
He and most of the other acoustic guitarists treat Ryan with the greatest respect, several asking his name and addressing him by his name. During the show, four of them will thank the sound crew, two mentioning Ryan by name.
Then Ed gets down to playing a few notes and listening. He knows as much about tuning the sound of his guitar as the pitch. 
"I ‘m adding a little bit around 220--not to be too thumpy, just to add some cohoneys," Ed says. "This song needs buttloads of ‘verb...Let’s get a little more pre-delay." He asks Ryan if there’s sound coming from under the stage. "Sometimes they have subwoofers under the stage and when they kick in it’s like getting a deep colonic."
Ed is by far the most scrupulous about his sound--because he is going to depend on it more than any other player. The jazz critic Whitney Balliett has said that the trouble with guitarists is that they play too many notes. Ed has taken this advice to heart: he plays fewer notes than anyone but a triangle player on karaoke night. Each one is played to be heard--to take shape like a colored bubble and float out into the auditorium, just so. 
Is this gorgeous, rich sound really the sound of a guitar? He’s playing a good guitar, but in a sense he’s also playing the mixing board. Rick Davis, the guitarmaker, says later that when he knows that a guitar he’s building will always be played amplified, in a sense he makes it less well. He aims for a drier and cleaner sound, with less richness and fewer overtones to overload the mike, and then leaves it to the sound guy to fatten it up.
Patty Larkin, also an expert in graphic equalization, comes on and sings up and down the range of her voice, picking out dry or raspy spots in the response like an elevator operator checking floor by floor. While she’s doing this, Ed Gerhard and Bob Brozman swap sound-check horror stories. Ed says he lives in mortal terror of the church basement sound check guy who refers to the mike as "the acoustic." Bob tells the story of one of the rock guys meeting the sound guy, describing the sound he wants in every possible synonym of full, rich, fat, and so on. "Got it," the sound guy sez, turns round to his buddy and calls out "Crispy!"
Now the classical guitarist Michael Newman starts his sound check, and all the intriguing paradoxes of the situation follow each other out like a series of ascending diminished-seventh chords. 
Michael will play a set on his own and another set with his wife Laura Oltman, and as Michael settles in his chair onstage and Laura takes a seat about ten rows back in the auditorium to give him feedback--so to speak--on how he sounds, we get the first signs of discord.
The discord arises because Michael and Laura make it clear right away that they’re purists. They want only a natural sound. They won’t use monitors, and as soon as Laura hears any output coming from the tall house speakers set in the walls on either side of the stage, she complains that it sounds "canned." 
In almost the same breath, though, Michael asks if Ryan can take down the high end to minimize the sounds of string squeaks and nail clickings. Invisible Ryan, ever affable, says sure. The process of tailoring the sound has begun.
Up among the gods, as they say in opera, Ryan starts playing with the sound output. "That’s good!" Laura says suddenly. "It sounds as if nothing is coming out of the speakers at all." As far as I can tell, nothing is coming out of the speakers. But by now the seed of doubt has been sown onstage, and Michael is wondering whether, if they have no amplification at all, they’ll come on after someone who’s been really beefed up, and they’ll sound fatally weak.
Ryan answers this question in the best way: after a few seconds, the sound of Villa-Lobos comes out of the main hall speakers, and it is warm, rich, yet delicate, neither tinny nor brassy, as politely assertive as a butler’s discreet ahem. "That’s good!" Laura says, and she’s right. It’s the perfect facsimile of a well-recorded guitar. 
One of the questions Michael asks Ryan has to do with another piece of equipment. Midway between the performers and the front lip of the stage is an ambient microphone, an upright grey metal cylinder that will pick up the guitar’s sound in a broader sense, not just the specific projection from the soundhole but the total package, the guitar gestalt, everything that comes from everywhere, including sound bouncing back off the walls and ceiling, and out off the player’s body. The sound will also reach this ambient mike fractionally later than the sound reaching the closer mikes, so combining the two will fatten the total sound a little. It’s fascinating: if the close-up mikes capture the guitar, the ambient mike can be said to capture the experience of listening to the guitar.
Yet even that is an illusion, because that input, too, goes into the mix, and Ryan comes up with something that has the best of near and far--the sense that we’re much closer to Michael than we really are, yet far enough away not to hear the clicks and squeaks, the human reality of playing. It’s what we want a classical guitar to sound like.
From one extreme to another: David Cullen ambles onstage with a classical guitar--but the first thing he does is grab a cord and plug it into the jack at the butt-end of the instrument. "It’s a Ruck with a pickup," he grins. A Ruck is a classical guitar made by Robert Ruck, one of the top classical luthiers in the country. "Kind of an oxymoron," he adds, grinning, aware of the sacrilege. 
He’s perfectly okay about amplification and sound carving. "I love it," he says, chuckling, shrugging. "We can, so we should. People are used to that kind of sound now." He too has his little mixing box, with knobs on the front and cables sprouting from the back. "I’m sending you the D.I. which is split here by the T.C.," he calls up to invisible Ryan, "and that has some f/x on it." 
Ryan is cool with this. Part of Ryan’s success, in fact, is that he’s cool with everyone.
"Can I hear about 60% D.I. and 40% mic?" David calls.
He can. "Does it sound a little...dark? Can you lighten it a little? Can we have a little shimmer around 15,000-18,000?"
Ryan adds the shimmer. David is happy. When the show actually starts, he tells Ryan, feel free to crank it if necessary. "I’m okay with it being loud. As long as it’s nice and cool and fat."
Last of the morning is Russell Malone, the jazz guitarist. His pianist, Benny Green, is snowed in back in St. Louis. "Good," says a tech, sotto voce: at least the piano won’t have to be wheeled out and given its own mike check, like a paranoid dictator speaking on a parade ground. Russell, like Vinicius, is playing an electric, so he creates his own sound from the almost infinite palette available to electrics, and comes up with a deep orchestral sound, like soft horns. When he plays a cascade of artificial harmonics they sound like lavender rain. His sound has no string buzz, no finernail scrape, no strum-scratch, no sound of his finger running over each fret as he slurs, no sound of strings hitting the fingerboard. He has the dignity of a deacon and a permanent look of mild surprise. He makes the least fuss of all, and waits out his sound check by singing a love song to the blonde on the radio sound crew. 
So for now, we’re done. It must be said, none of these players has taken sound checking to an extreme. Nobody is playing the concealed wireless amplifier/transmitter system used by Sharon Isbin. Nobody has onboard EQ faders on the upper bout of an acoustic guitar. Nobody is playing through a laptop like John McLaughlin. Nobody has a guitar with a Palm Pilot mounted on the upper side like the experimental Martin X series prototype. This is sound business as usual.
As soon as the first half of the Marathon is over, the electric guys are on stage for their sound check. They all have to get power up and sound straightened out between the first show, ending late at nearly 5:30, and the second, starting at 7:00. Fourteen people are on the stage at once, three electric guitarists cranking and wailing, two drummers beating assorted implements, others setting levels, or standing around looking at the equipment like mechanics watching a car with the hood up and the engine revving. The wood floor of the stage has disappeared; the place now looks like a 22nd-century junkyard, or a music store.
In his advance notes, Henry Kaiser has stipulated that his digital rack takes twenty minutes to set up, needs thirty minutes to power up and can’t be moved once it’s been sound checked. 
Yet there’s something authentic about this sight: at least we know what we’re getting. The equipment lugged onstage by the electric guys is like seeing the earthmoving equipment at the construction site: we get a glimpse of just how much effort and artifice is involved in making the music, or the mall. With the acoustic players, the same transformation is taking place, but most of the mechanism is hidden. It’s an interesting feature of the electric guitar, when you think about it, that it has never bothered to try to hide its workings. Almost the reverse, in fact: the famous Marshall stack behind the player became an essential furniture, a point of pride, a demonstration of power like the Russian warhead drive-pasts at the May Day Parades.
When Steve Kimock plays, he constantly adjusts the volume, the tone, switch positions. The guitar is part of the system. Playing the electric guitar is all about control. An electric guitarist creates his own sound, and the farther he moves from the twang of strings, the less what he’s playing is a guitar--it’s a signal processor with a guitar-style input device. It’s also essential that the player is also to some extent a producer and a mechanic. An electric guitarist who knows nothing about his gear is like a writer who knows nothing about computers: disaster is always just ahead.
Henry Kaiser has what John Schaefer, the emcee, describes as "the wreckage of an electric guitar." Raoul Bjorkenheim, Henry’s partner in crime, plays several instruments including an electric viola da gamba exactly the same shape as a wooden swordfish. He also plays an electric guitar "prepared" by having a flat sliver of wire shoved between the strings above the pickup. He plays the strings. He plays the wire. It sounds like a musical hailstorm heard from inside a shack with a tin roof. At one point there’s a curious gonging sound. I assume it’s one of the guitarists until I notice that the percussionist is actually playing a gong.
Which brings up the question that in a way underlies everything else going on this evening: what is the sound of a guitar?
It’s not just that the electric guitar can now make the sound of any other instrument, or the sound of any other sound. Even the characteristic attack-and-decay shape of the guitar note is obsolete: one trick electric guitarists learned at least three decades ago was to play a note or chord with the sound knob on zero and then turn it up, so the attack-and-decay is reversed, and instead the sound swells.
But even that assumes that one instrument plays one sound at once. How quaint! Lead guitarists often speak of building or constructing a solo; David Torn (a.k.a.splattercell) takes this concept and runs with it until he's so far out in left field that he's no longer in the stadium. Nor is he in real time.
Pioneers such as Les Paul in the electric guitar field and John Martyn in the acoustic field have long played with systems that take a note, hold it and then release it (this is called a delay) or repeat it (this is called an echo) so the guitarist essentially accompanies him- or herself. Les Paul did this in his garage/workshop/studio in New Jersey using tape; nowadays it's done digitally. Torn will play a phrase and then store it, so he can replay it from his guitar/computer/system's memory at will, adding to it, playing off it, reshaping it, distorting it. It's like self-sampling, or collage-in-progress. It means, in fact, that much of the time he's producing sounds even though he isn't fingering the guitar--in fact, pottering around on stage examining his system and playing with the controls, he has the air of an amiable middle-aged painter working alone in his studio. He just happens to be wearing a gunmetal-grey guitar thing that looks disturbingly like an Uzi.
His already distant relationship with the conventional guitar is further stretched by the fact that his guitar has a Theremin patch, which is activated just by waving in its general direction. He doesn't even have to play the strings. The defining features of the guitar one by one are being seen as limitations, to be bent or broken. The configuration of the guitar is useful only in that it is familiar to the musician who has grown up playing it, and can produce notes more fluently and expressively by playing strings on a fingerboard that on a keyboard, say, or a keypad. It's a handy input device, in other words.
The guitar is an intimate instrument: without technical assistance, it can be heard by perhaps a couple of hundred very quiet people or a dozen rowdy ones, but the size of its ideal audience is one. This is why it is the instrument of introverts and seducers.
We’re asking the impossible: we all want that sensual intimacy, all 917 of us in the Kauffman Concert Hall. For the guitarist, these are the modern realities of playing guitars to an audience large enough to pay for a hotel, a plane ticket and sneakers for the kids. Not only that, but we are now an audience that typically hears its music not live, but recorded under ideal circumstances that can’t possibly be replicated tonight. These are the constraints of playing to people who believe in the possibility of perfect sound. 
Ironically, when it comes to the show, it’s the electric guys who suffer from dodgy sound. As one of the tech crew points out, the more devices you plug together, the more vulnerable they become, and the harder it is to fingure out what’s not working. Vinicius does his interview, sits down and finds he has no sound; he turns knobs helplessly, his already wounded eyes looking crushed. A couple of acts suffer through a faint constant hum. When David Torn’s ensemble takes to the stage the sound-equipment thicket is so complex that his bass player spends several minutes squatting on stage amid tentacular cables and foot pedals, trying to fix his silent bass. 
But the acoustic guitars sound perfect. They sound like CD’s.
by Tim Brokes
Tim Brookes has written books on asthma, hospice, hitchhiking, SARS, and life on a dirt road in Vermont. His most recent book is Guitar: An American Life, published this month by Grove Atlantic Press. But he would give it all up in a flash in order to be able to play Limehouse Blues like Django Reinhardt. Bits and pieces of his work can be seen at
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Tim Brookes finger-watching at the 2004 NYGF while pretending to take notes.
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