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.