A Whisper That Roars

By Wayne Shevlin

I’d like to celebrate the microphone and the revolutionary impact it has had on music.

A-Collection-of-Twelve-American-Modernist-Microphones-ca.-1925-1946-est.-25000-35000[1]

As technology, the microphone is a marvel: converting into electricity the invisible, minute air pressure waves – what we in our mind’s ear perceive as sound – so that the very essence of sound can be captured and AMPLIFIED.   Yet, however fascinating the technology, history and development of the microphone; however crucial its role in the very existence of audio recording, these are not the aspects I want to explore here.  What I am interested in is the fundamental way in which the microphone has changed music in artistry, aesthetics and style.

In the beginning, the microphone was used merely as an extension of the ear.  It was placed where an ear would normally be, essentially hearing on the ear’s behalf.  But soon, microphones became pioneers, exploring sonic landscapes – going where ears could not go, capturing sound from unusual perspectives and contexts.  From these unique vantage points the microphone creates new sounds and new ways of hearing sound.  It allows unnatural sonic relationships to exist.  With a microphone, the most delicately quiet sound can be highlighted, isolated and elevated to soar above the loudest cacophony.   The microphone allows a whisper to roar.

Without the microphone, naturally quiet sounds require turning down the volume of the surrounding soundscape to be heard.  This directly affected the way music was composed prior to its invention.  In a Mozart flute concerto, the orchestra must lower its volume when the flute plays lest the flute be drowned out.  Mozart deliberately arranges the instruments so that the flute will be heard.  Perhaps the brass cease playing and the violins go pizzicato – maybe it’s a good time for a harpsichord accompaniment.  Flute themes in classical music are seldom set against a thunderous accompaniment because the physics are simply against it.

Even on one leg, Ian Anderson suffers no such impediment because he plays his flute through a microphone.  His lone flute can soar above the bludgeoning onslaught of 120 decibels of electric guitars and drums (which are also amplified using microphones with a resulting change in musical impact) .  With a microphone, Ian Anderson can write music for flute, not as a sweet sound set against light accompaniment, but as a screaming banshee wailing through a maelstrom.  The microphone gives his flute a new character, elevates its sonic relationship with the rest of the band and he writes a different style of music as a result.

Singing has been even more profoundly impacted by the microphone.  In the past, when the fat lady sang, she was attempting to reach the upper stalls of the opera house on the strength of her natural vocal power alone.  This requires a style of singing that, by necessity, must have a high degree of concern for projection.  That’s why opera singers sing that way: larynx wide open, deep from the diaphragm.  They need to reach the gallery.  Power, volume, projection: to be heard above the orchestra (which, must still tone down) – these are the key qualities for opera singing.  And the operatic style reflects this.  It is instantly recognisable. Nuance and delicacy are, to a great extent, sacrificed for power and volume.

And before a clutch of opera buffs huff and puff that, “damn it, opera is full of nuance and delicacy”, please consider the singing style of Billie Holiday.  That’s the kind of delicacy I’m talking about:  a whisper – a vocal teardrop – a sigh that shimmers above the hot brass.   The microphone allows the most intimate vocal style – normally only appropriate for the smallest of spaces – to fill the grandest hall.

When a mother sings a whispered lullaby in her baby’s ear, it has a particular sonic impact.  The relationship between the sound and the baby – the distance between mother’s mouth and baby’s ear – is natural and appropriate.  Filling Wembley Arena with exactly the same sound, but at the volume of a jet engine, changes the sonic impact on the listener and the meaning of the lullaby. The medium is the message.  A whisper heard as a roar acquires new meaning – and becomes a new kind of music.

The microphone creates an unnatural relationship between the listener and the original source of sound. If the microphone is considered an extension of the listener’s ear then it is worth noting that the microphone may be less than an inch from the singer’s mouth and captures the nuance of the voice in that aural space.  Sound is air pressure waves in motion and the sound emanating immediately from a singer’s mouth is high pressure indeed.  Other than babies listening to their mothers’ lullabies, we do not typically listen to singers at such a close proximity.

Singers are aware of the unnatural relationship between their voices and the listener and have developed specific techniques to avoid – and take advantage of – the sonic peculiarities resulting from, effectively, placing the listener’s ear directly in front of their mouths.  Good singers play their microphones like an instrument.  They take advantage of the increased bass when the microphone is close but avoid sibilance (ssssssss’s). They use the detail the microphone captures for dramatic effect.  They vary the distance of the microphone from their mouth to achieve consistency in volume – so that belting out the chorus and humming the softest verse are equally loud.  The microphone has created a new style of singing that is as demanding and specific as that of the opera singer, but completely different in perspective and technique.

A sonic impossibility that we have all come to take for granted is the sound of the drum set.  Today, drums are routinely amplified by placing microphones directly against cymbals and inside the drums.  Though these are mixed to create a holistic drum set, nonetheless the actual sound is completely artificial.  We do not normally listen to drums by simultaneously sticking our heads directly next to the crash cymbal and inside the bass drum.  However, nowadays, this is what we expect drums to sound like.  A drum set mic-ed as we would normally listen with ears – at least 10 feet in front – would sound empty and hollow.  Without the artificial mic-ing technique, heavy metal would simply not have the requisite weight to satisfy the righteous head banger.

Music has always been a reflection of and an adaptation to the available sound producing technology of the time.  The evolution of musical instruments from hollow logs to brass tubes to digital synthesisers has, on the one hand, been a response to the needs of musicians and yet, on the other, has set the limitations on the sounds they could create.  This, in turn, defines the style of music created.  This is a quality not generally associated with the microphone; that it is not merely a passive receiver, but creates sound as much as does a saxophone; that it has changed the course and style of music.  That it is an instrument in its own right.

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One thought on “A Whisper That Roars

  1. Without the creation of the microphone, how long would the music industry have lasted? Acoustic horn recordings always had their limitations; the practical inability to feature more musicians or singers than could gather round its opening. Once the novelty of recorded sound had worn off, these limitations would have brought it to an early grave. The microphone changed and sustained recorded music ever since its invention, and you are correct, it is an instrument in its own right

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