To Amplify or not to Amplify?

Part of the classical guitar’s charm is in its quiet but colorful voice. The dynamic range of the guitar works wonderfully in a small performance space creating an intimate experience for the performer and listener. In the last century, however, the classical guitar has been presented in larger and larger concert venues and the ability to hear the instrument has become an issue for audiences. Even with chamber and orchestral music that is carefully sculpted to allow the guitar to be heard the instrument still struggles with issues of balance. In response to this problem many performers have taken advantage of amplification to project more volume to improve the balance in chamber music settings or simply to fill out a large hall.

Amplification has improved dramatically in the last decades and the recreation of the tone and tambre of the instrument is becoming ever more convincing. However, the process of amplification will always alter the sound of the guitar to a certain degree, if nothing else then by volume.

There are many staunch opinions on the use of amplification in performance and there are many first class performers who believe that it is a good solution to a real problem.

Some arguments for the use of amplification include:

  • It is more important for the guitar and the music to be heard than to retain the original sound quality
  • The guitar is often overwhelmed in chamber music and concerto settings and needs amplification to even be heard
  • Performances are more engaging when the sound projected is louder
  • Subtle amplification can give the volume boost that is needed without sacrificing the tone
  • Modern amplification systems are advanced enough to create an authentic sound reproduction
  • Recordings are using manipulated sounds so why do we accept that process of sound processing and not the live equivalent?

Some arguments against:

  • The sound of the instrument and the performer is lost through the process of amplification and these aspects are integral to the quality and enjoyment of the music.
  • The classical guitar can project enough to be heard above orchestras and other instruments. It is up to the performers to make sure the balance is right.
  • The personal and intimate nature of a guitar recital is lost by using an amplification system.
  • The un-amplified sound of a classical guitar is one of its defining features. Once we start distorting that aspect we lose the essence of the instrument itself.

Here is what John Williams had to say on the matter in the John Williams Interview

I feel that subtle amplification overcomes most of these problems, but it seems ironic that many makers are now aiming directly at producing much louder instruments. I feel that the wide range of options available today for amplifying the guitar means that you can focus on the warm, intimate sounds of the guitar even in a large auditorium. The end result will be musically much more satisfying than trying just to produce a large, possibly unmusical, sound output, even if it is totally natural.I know that to some critics any form of amplification is musical heresy, but I think that we have to go one step further. The guitar played in a large hall is not heard at its loveliest for most people in that hall; ideally, the guitar should not be played in a large hall if we want to experience the full range of its tone, because it doesn’t sound the same at a distance of 20 meters or more. This is because it’s a partly percussive instrument, and the percussive aspects carry more than its other dynamic and tonal qualities, so what we’re hearing is not really a true guitar sound. So it’s not whether you can hear a guitar at the back of the Sydney Opera House, but what you hear that counts. I find that amplification helps in that regard, but obviously it has to be well done.

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6 Responses

  1. In an ideal world guitarists would only perform in small to medium size rooms with excellent acoustics. Of course this isn’t always the case and we’re confronted with the problem of being heard in the back of a large auditorium never designed for acoustic instuments or a room filled with people eating, drinking and talking.

    The latter can be solved with an acoustic amp and mic or using the house PA with your mic. After trying many amps and a few mics, I settled on the medium size Ibanez Troubadour and a Sure 57 mic placed about 6 inches from the lower bout so it’s not too obvious but still sounds good. The older Troubadour that I have sounds better than the new ones but they reproduce the sound of a classical guitar better than anything else I’ve heard. Sometimes I don’t even realize I have it on.The proper EQ and reverb makes a huge difference.
    You will need an adapter going from your XLR plug of your mic cable to your 1/4 inch input on your amp. Get a good one. I bought a cheap one at radioshack that sounded terrible, used it once and never again.

    Now the more complex and contraversal issue. Amplification in large halls. I have rarely used an amp or the house PA in large halls but I’ve played in movie theatres, large auditoriums and the outdoors where it would have been helpful. As a performer I think the biggest problem of being in a large space is that you try to compensate by playing too loudly. This can distort the sound as much or more than some form of good amplfication used modestly. The hands become tired and the range of dynamics too narrow. I’ve heard performers play in these situations with and without amplification and I always preferred amplification if it’s done well. Especially for concertos. I’ve seen small amps on stage for concerts but I find it distracting and think a house PA with a good and not too obvious mic works best at low volumes,with a good EQ.

    There will possibly never be an end to this debate, which I think is a good thing. We get to hear the classical guitar in it’s natural state and with all degrees of amplification. An unamplified maestro is still more enjoyable to listen to than a loud novice, but a little more volumne with that maestro may sometimes be a good choice.

  2. Hausers/Bose/Ribbon mics
    When I first started giving concerts about fifteen years ago I was using amplification whenever it was available. I didn’t see the point One very important concert I the sound guy forgot to come…I had to play unamplified. It was great! The sound felt as though it was coming from my belly, and the audience was more concentrated than ever. I stopped using amplification then. I eventually got a Hauser which is noted for its ability to amplify its crystal clear tone in large space. I played cathedrals without amplification and had little problem with the sound carrying. But more and more I became aware of the massive amount of electrical noise in most venues. Buzzing lights, humming electrical circuits, cars…I would be five minutes into a show and suddenly hear some really irritating noise which had been unnoticeable before! This was great for making people aware of their environment, but not so great for their enjoyment of the music.
    I started a long period of research into amplification systems, inspired by my experience in the studio with vintage ribbon mics. What i cam up with was a very small and discreet ribbon mic – the Beyerynamic M160 (no hype, no glassy high end, no EQ necessary) plugged into the recently developed Bose L1 Compact.
    Unlike most amplifiers or house PAs the Bose sits behind the musician and is a single source of sound pointing in multiple directions. Its designed for singer-songwriters but it REALLy works for the concert guitarist. You can fill a big hall with a huge sound without that disconcerting sensation of watching an apparently silent musician play while sound mysteriously emerges from speakers placed many metres to either side of the stage.
    The other bonus with the Bose is that the musician really does here the sound that the audience hears. So there is no need for another person to do your sound.
    Most ribbon mics reproduce the sound of the guitar very accurately, so it is almost impossible to hear the difference between the amplified sound and the guitar’s original tone. The Beyer is small and discreet and much more rugged than other studio ribbons. Its German handmade…say no more.
    Due to the ribbons low output I initially had to have the Bose up pretty loud (at 8) so i included the AEA ribbon preamp which is a dedicated ribbon pre with no digital anything, just a box of great circuitry that gives a whole lot more gain. I now run the Bose just below 1 and have absolutely no noise from the speaker. So a silent system with a sound big enough to fill a 500 seat hall with a HUGE sound – even with the mic about three feet from the guitar.
    Sometimes I still think about unamplified concerts as being the IDEAL. But this system I am using does address the issues of playing concerts in bad acoustics, noisy rooms, and large halls, without compromising any of the intimacy of the guitar’s sound. PLus you can actually hear the subtle sounds of the guitar, which are part of its charm – the grit that makes the guitar a different instrument from…well the harp or the piano!
    An added bonus is that since the AEA and the M160 are top studio gear you can just unplug the Bose and reroute to a recording device and you’ve solved most of your recording problems too.
    Its a little expensive to put together, but it is far better than even the best large scale PAs (when I play on a great big PA I always miss my own system). Plus you can walk into the gig with guitar in one hand, Bose in the other and mic and mini stand slung over your shoulder. The whole thing sets up in less than ten minutes.
    Let me know if you even give it a try. Would be interested to see if anybody agrees. Or come to a show.
    Derek Gripper (South African guitarist/composer specialising in music by Great African Composers)

  3. Ron Murray says:

    The Bose L1 series is certainly the very best choice available for “portable” sound for the acoustic guitar, be it classical, folk, Flamenco or jazz. For those, like me, who play jazz on the nylon-string guitar, a nice mid-priced Flamenco guitar outfitted with the RMC pickup system put through a high-quality effects processor then to the Bose system is about as close to ideal as you’re likely to get.

  4. Ben Schenstead says:

    I’ve played engagements with both the Bose L1 (model II with ToneMatch engine) and with the Fishman SoloAmp (also a tower speaker) and found that Fishman is better at delivering a natural classical guitar sound with more projection. It could be the material the tweeters are made from, but whatever the case, the Fishman delivers a very well defined and natural tone, with an utterly smooth and convincing high end. I used this on many occasions, including solo recitals in large spaces as well as smaller halls, and also with a string quartet.

    The Bose system is fine (I own two of them) but the tone in the very high end has certain “ping” to it that brings out overtones that I don’t like for classical guitar tone. This could be the electronics in the ToneMatch engine (the reverb perhaps) but could also be in the materials used in the speakers. I’ve also found that while the dispersion is great, the Bose have limited projection, which might be an issue when playing in a large space or when you compete with other instruments running through conventional speaker systems. Whatever the case, steel string guitars sound great through the Bose, but if you considering an amplifier system for the classical guitar, I would suggest looking at Fishman.

    BTW, I have an installed K&K Sound Classic pickup system, but also have used Neumann KM184 mikes with the Fishman. Guitar by Daryl Perry.

  5. Chan Joe says:

    This is an issue I have struggled with for years, the most annoying being the scratching sound of my nails on the strings I get when playing amplified. The problem is that the scratching sound is not heard by the audience. Nevertheless, I hear it and it affects my technique as I try to adjust my technique on the fly to get a better tone. I would be interested in knowing if any other guitarists out there have had this problem and how you’ve dealt with it.

  1. April 8, 2010

    […] Over at the Classical Guitar Review, there was a discussion on this matter.  To further view points that people have on this subject check out the post “To Amplify or not to Amplify?“ […]

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