Articles for Audiophiles by Steve Deckert
AUDIO PAPER #010
by Steve Deckert
The music of the Nutcracker Ballet was composed by Perer Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Born in the Ural mountains of Russia, he dedicated his life to music.
1850 to 1859, he attended the school of Jurisprudence and studied piano. In 1861, he attended classes with the Russian Music Society. In 1862, he entered the Saint Petersburg Conservatory.
Beginning in 1866,Tchaikovsky taught at the Moscow Conservatory while composing many of his concertos and symphonies.
In 1892, Tchaikovsky composed the Nutcracker. Last night on 11/27/97 this man rolled over in his grave thanks in part to a presentation of the Nutcracker here in the Peoria Civic Center Auditorium.
Yes, folks, he rolled over in his grave on this occasion when he found himself being paged by the stringent mental beacon I sent out during my 3 hours of suffering last night while I attended the ballet in order to watch my daughter perform.
Eight musical pieces that support this ballet were brutally assassinated while trying to be reproduced through .... I'm sorry, I'm just without words for it.... I guess I was the P.A. system?! See Figure 4.
One of the problems with small towns (cities) like Peoria IL. where I live, is the absence of real culture. Years ago an attempt to bolster downtown development materialized into a project called the Civic Center. In this massive building there is a full size arena, a theater, and lots of general meeting spaces. The idea was to attract concerts, ice shows, truck pulls, and cultural things like that (as they put it) to bring more money into the economy.
I've always looked at Peoria as a wanna be city with delayed mentality. Tonight was a perfect example of what I mean. I checked out the theater when the thing first opened hoping for something special and didn't find it so it has been probably 10 years since then before I returned last night to watch my daughter's performance.
Being more attuned to acoustics since my last visit, I was looking forward to watching my daughter and dreading everything else I would have to suffer through (like the rest of the performance).
I walked into the auditorium and found my seat in row L. I was number 39. It was hot, and the place was packed. It seems that no one there understands that when you fill a room with 500 people in the course of 30 minutes that the BTU increase generated will make it impossible for a quick temperature recovery so everyone baked.
Frankly I would love to experience the Nutcracker, but I don't see it every happening around here. To me experiencing such a performance includes marveling at the acoustically inert architecture and the ornate attention to detail that shows we care - is as much a part of it as the real orchestra. After all it is the dynamics between the room, performers, and audience that makes it a production. When I sat down and looked around the auditorium I was coldly reminded at how much we really don't either care or don't really get it.
The architecture was full of right angles and flat surfaces. It was more contemporary styling... a side effect of building construction when steel studs and drywall are used. It had employed some acoustic considerations, those that you might expect to see come out of our local sound contractor/engineering pool. Public address specialists with no clue what good sound is.
They framed the stage with a rectangular expanding louver that was built with plywood, 2X10's and 4" PVC pipe cut in half lengthwise and glued on in a fan shaped pattern for decoration. Then the entire abortion was spray painted gold! ...Now isn't that special. Needless to say this was no opera house. I didn't see any musicians, no pits, no hope. Then I looked up and saw this welded angle iron frame with 4 of the ugliest speakers I ever saw strapped on it. These too were spray painted gold!
I knew I was in trouble now. I was getting warmer and stuffier by the minute, and I had to break out a breath mint so I wouldn't keep smelling everyone else's bad breath.
I can't stress enough how important architecture is to civic functions. Every time I walk into a place like this, or a recently built church, or even just looking at the new construction, a part of me dies. I find it so sad, even though economic changes are to blame it is a sign of our instant lifestyles that I frankly am embarrassed to be associated with.
Suddenly the lights dimmed and this 3 hour ordeal is about to begin. Of course while everyone else was waiting to WATCH the show, I was cringing with anticipation. As I lookup up at this monaural gold plated birds nest waiting to hear if they were actually going to use it... the damn thing came on! There were some road gear type speakers on either side of the stage pointing directly at the foreheads of those seated there and I thought those would be used. No such luck.
Five minutes into the production I had to overcome a strong urge to escape. In my mind I screamed "what is wrong with you people?" Let me describe the sound for you...
Picture your grade school gym with a school play being sound tracked by a cassette deck playing into a microphone through steel P.A. horns. See Figure 4. Picture the sound of sandpaper going through a meat grinder with a lisp.
Beside the fact that several of the cones were ripped and fluttering, the SPL was down so low (actually thank God for that) that the sound of the dancers socked feet hitting the hollow stage was louder, making the free floating ballerinas come off as fat thumping amateurs.
The crescendos compressed down to a signal to noise ratio of around 3 dB and literally made me jump around in my seat. I wanted to turn to the women sitting next to me and exclaim how pathetic this is, but I didn't.
Over the next 3 hours I had one fantasy after another. They alternated. The first one was about finding the people responsible for this sound system and scold them to tears. The next one was about how I would design and integrate speakers to project a sound field that surrounded the performers. Those poor dancers couldn't feel the music, and I'm certain that they barely could hear it. My next one was how the dancers, audience, and anyone who wants to join in could find and mob the people responsible for this sound system.
I have to say that it was the longest three hours of my life. When the glorious moment arrived - the end- my pounding head had fatigued to the point I just wanted to go home instead of take any kind of action.
The room cleared out a bit now that it was over, everyone had the warm glow of just seeing a show. This amazed me more than anything else. The audience as a whole seemed to enjoy it. Reminded me of a bunch a cattle. Why could they possibly think it was great? I can only conclude that because it sounded like their disposable solid state "digital ready" stereos at home they found no fault in the presentation.
Am I being over critical, this audio guru who was just sonically assaulted says no. No I'm not. If our culture in these smaller communities understood the true intent of Tchaikovsky's work and understood that fidelity is the hallmark of that man's work, the people who designed this theater and sound system would have been laughed out of town.
None that saw the production last night or who will see it tonight will have had even remotely close to the intended experience.
While waiting backstage to see my daughter I saw this little man walk by with a CD. I followed him to a table where some maintenance man sat with a 3 channel mixer and a Sony Walkman CD player. Boy here was my chance. I could execute fantasy # 17 that occurred during the end of the first scene of the second half...climbing up to the speakers and cutting the wires. I was going to put one of those mattress tags on the back of each speaker that reads: Inserting speaker wires in these speakers is punishable by law.
Well, as I looked at what was before me, I knew it was hopeless so I kept my mouth shut, found and kissed my daughter and went home.
I had a similar experience to this in a new church where some sound contractor over killed a mono birds nest with a 64 channel mixer and 8 Crown Marco Techs. Everyone in the church will tell you they have the best sound system because it cost $80,000. I could have, in that particular room, used a pair wooden horns and a 12 watt tube amp and had better sound that was plenty loud enough.
I guess if you were a doctor it would be like going into a hospital where all the surgeons just used their fingers, and everyone died, but they thought they were doing a good job!