STAND UP TO THE MIKE, JACKIE EVANCHO
– commentary by Brian Bain
Brian Bain is a sound technician and videographer. He worked in
Chicago and Sacramento providing sound for many musical acts,
including Johnny Cash and Diana Ross.
“Opera Singers don’t use microphones!”
So say Jackie Evancho detractors who wish to discredit her talent. It’s a specious and easily countered charge.
First, it’s not true. As you can see from the image of Kathleen Battle (we could easily supply more examples) Opera singers do use microphones in certain contexts. When singing in an opera in a major opera house? No. But more on that later.
Second, it’s a moot point that Jackie uses a microphone. Jackie Evancho is not an opera singer. She is a Classical Crossover singer. It’s simply not relevant to a discussion of Jackie’s talent that she uses a microphone. I can find many examples of classical singers using a microphone; I can’t think of a single popular singer who chooses not to use one.
Why hold Jackie Evancho to a different standard? She isn’t pursuing a career in classical music, opera or otherwise. She’s a popular singer.
Of course microphone technology did not always exist. In times past singing, orchestral music, and the venues in which musicians performed addressed the limitations of a non-technological age. Audiences, too, conditioned by the circumstances of their age, had expectations that differ greatly from the audiences of today.
The development of popular music in concert
Opera singing evolved in the 1600s. Unlike folk singers, who, before the modern era, generally performed before small gatherings, opera singers mostly performed before fairly large audiences, usually in specially designed opera halls.
Being able to sing without amplification in a large hall with the expectation of being heard in the loft is a remarkable feat, impossible without special training. Techniques improve a singer’s ability to amplify and project sound without injuring her voice over time.
It’s interesting to consider, if sound systems were available in the 1600s would the techniques we associate with opera have developed? I can’t imagine they would have. There is no particular reason a singer should spend years training her voice for operatic projection when the same benefits can be gained by turning the microphone on. (Some no doubt disagree.)
Besides the beauty of the music and the remarkable singing, an appeal of opera is spectacle, the grand costumes and staging. Popular audiences enjoy spectacle as much as do opera aficionados, so, in the nature of things, opera found its popular correlative, in operetta (staged musical melodrama). The late-nineteenth-century plays of Gilbert and Sullivan are typical of the form.
In the early twentieth century operetta was replaced in England by Music Hall entertainment and in America by Vaudeville performed in moderate-sized venues. Why moderate sized? Because Music Hall and Vaudeville entertainers could only sing or yell so loud and no louder! They were not about to spend years of training before the commencement of their careers to learn to project like an opera singer.
Even sophisticated entertainment, concert singing and orchestral music, continued to be played indoors in relatively small venues. With no sound amplification, a room with excellent acoustics was needed that could contain and project the sound evenly throughout the hall.
Before the development of electronic sound amplification, then, staged musical entertainment required powerful voices, great acoustics, and venues of moderate size. The average seating capacity of a Broadway theater designed before the invention of sound amplification is 1,230, less than many modern concert halls.
Until relatively recently, outdoor musical performance before large audiences was rare to non-existent. An important development in the evolution of mass-audience popular music is indeed the movement from small indoor venues to the out-of-doors. Under the open sky, even a moderate breeze will disperse the sound. In those conditions, music will be heard only in the first few rows.
At least one singer also tried to overcome the challenge of out-of-doors sound projection, the popular entertainer Rudy Vallée. Arguably the first pop singer — his character and image were as attractive as his music — Vallée attracted large audiences to his band concerts. He sang beautifully, but his soft, romantic voice did not carry. He solved that problem, up to a point, by using a megaphone, a large cone.
Then came sound recording and, with it, sound amplification. Now Rudy Vallée-type singers, men and women with lovely but not strong voices, could sing before large audiences.
With the advent of recorded music, types of music that once had only local exposure gained wider audiences, music such as jazz and the blues. Too, new types of singing developed, such as crooning and what was then called ‘legitimate jazz’ .
A crooner such as Frank Sinatra , with his intimate style of singing, needed a microphone to amplify his voice in open-air venues and in large halls. This was especially so because he had to sing over the swing-era Big Bands that he accompanied.
In the first half of the twentieth century, singing and orchestration developed in response to the invention of sound recording and amplification. Microphones were now the norm.
As sound recording became more advanced, the listening audience changed their expectations of live performance. In a parallel development, new recording techniques changed how music was written and arranged.
Composers and songwriters experimented with combinations of musical instruments. Through the use of technology, a relatively muted instrument, such as a harp, could anchor a musical performance even when accompanied by louder wind and string instruments and even in a live performance.
Through the use of technology, such a combination might accompany even the most intimate voice. The resulting sound, manipulated on a sound mixing console, would fill a hall or be heard in the back ranks of an outdoor concert.
Rock music gives us good examples of how developments in technology changed what singers and bands could deliver and how those changes conditioned audience expectations.
In 1971, the progressive rock band Yes recorded a hit song called Roundabout. The recorded song begins with Steve Howe playing acoustic guitar in a classical style. Now rock instruments take over. On the record, because of sound mixing the louder rock sound does not overwhelm the guitar. But what about in a rock concert setting?
In the 1970s sound amplification had not developed to the point where recording studio effects could be replicated in a rock concert setting. In trying to overcome the problem of projecting their sound, rock bands used electric guitar and drums and not much else; there was no possibility of using acoustic guitar in combination with rock instruments. But the audience, wishing to hear what they heard on record, were disappointed. The stage sound did not match the recording.
By the mid-eighties, sound amplification technology had improved to the point where an acoustic guitar could be miked in such a way that it could compete with the loudest rock instrumentation.
Each development in music recording and audience expectation created a change in the nature of popular music, including the music of Broadway.
Broadway musicians and singers are now miked. Modern audiences would think there was a problem if in a Broadway musical the instrumentation was muted so the singers could be heard. They expect and are given the experience of listening to a well-mixed studio recording. Now the power of the orchestra is unleashed, the singers use microphones, and the engineer manipulates the sound balance via a mixing console.
Broadway singing styles have evolved because of sound amplification. Broadway songs no longer need to be sung at full volume in the style of Ethel Merman. Nor does the orchestra have to fall silent when the singer lowers her voice. These days, Broadway singers are miked with miniature Sennheiser microphones in their hair. They can sing in a whisper while accompanied by music and still be heard in the back row.
In times past, microphones created aesthetic and practical problems on stage. Singers placed the microphone on a stand and were anchored in place. Or if they held the microphone, they were tethered to a snaking cable.
Wireless microphones and head-set mikes have swept those problems away, making it possible for a more dynamic stage performance.
One problem does remain. Singers who use a hand-held microphone must place it close to their face. ‘Eating the microphone’, some mistakenly think, is a fault. Does the singer have a weak voice, they wonder? Is she hiding behind the mike? I’ve repeatedly read complaints and queries along those lines about Jackie Evancho. Even some fans are puzzled; why does she let the microphone obscure her face?
The issue, really, is a technical one. Until recently, the most popular type of sound amplification in concerts was the type still commonly used in schools and office buildings, the Dynamic mike. Putting one’s mouth too close to a Dynamic-type mike causes feedback and creates sound distortion, a cringe-inducing squeal.
To overcome this problem, more advanced (and more expensive) microphones were developed for professional use. The new type is called the Cardioid (so-called because the sound spread pickup is shaped like a heart). The Cardioid is a unidirectional microphone designed to be held close to the mouth.
Even when a singer increases her volume, she must hold the microphone directly in front of her mouth. If she holds the microphone to the side or even an inch or two in front, the sound range is much diminished and her voice will be lost in the sound mix.
In Classical Crossover concerts, pop, rock, and folk concerts, the singers and musical instruments are miked so that the sound can be balanced by the sound engineer. Because of sound from the instruments, unless the singer has the benefit of a speaker, she cannot hear herself sing. In a public performance you’ll see the singer wearing an earpiece or a set of speakers will be on the stage at her feet. Because they are in proximity with other sound amplification devices, to avoid feedback singers use a Cardioid-type unidirectional microphone.
Now, we’ve come full circle, back to the world of opera. Opera singers sing without microphones, at least in opera houses. True? Well, not necessarily. Some opera houses have quietly introduced Acoustic Enhancement systems. When opera fans found out about this development, not a few reacted angrily. As a result, some opera venues, particularly the prestigious houses, removed the systems. Still, there are opera houses that continue to use the technology to eliminate dead spots in their theatres.
In the world of opera, singing without a microphone is a tradition, not a necessity. Singing popular music with a microphone in a modern concert hall is unavoidable; singing without it would be a mistake. The venue requires it. The audience demands its benefits.
Jackie Evancho uses a microphone. Out of weakness? Of course not. Her audience expects to hear a sound that resembles her studio recordings; meeting that expectation requires state-of-the art sound-balancing equipment, a mixing console and, yes, a unidirectional microphone.
Jackie is a 21st century popular singer. This is not the 17th century.