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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(Another) Welshman invents electromechanical device that converts sound into an electrical signal & calls it mic not dave.

He doesn’t look very happy in this picture, but this is David E. Hughes, former child prodigy harpist turned inventor who was a very successful and significant man. He was born 180 years ago yesterday.

Hughes was a contemporary of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell and paddled in the same new technology waters as them. He made significant contributions to radio (he transmitted electromagnetic waves in 1879; 16 years before Marconi but put it to one side in the face of peer scepticism) and telegraph technology (he invented a printing add on that made his fortune).

Hughes also invented the early microphone and in doing so helped set the modern recording industry on it’s way.

There is a Hughes Medal that was named after him and is still awarded each year by the Royal Society “in recognition of an original discovery in the physical sciences, particularly electricity and magnetism or their applications”. You can hear a strange computer lady talk about it here.

A biography of David E. Hughes, “Before We Went Wireless” was published this year. You can find out more about it here or watch the promotional video:

Absolutely not the last about the King’s Speech….

I’ve been meaning to post a link to an interview with Abbey Road’s Peter Cobbin and Lester Smith on Absolute Radio. Pete recorded the soundtrack and used the EMI Archive Trust microphones to do so. Lester is guardian of the microphones at Abbey Road and looks after the Trust mics as well.

Here is what they had to say from the 45 minute mark on this podcast.

More royal microphones

Following on from our first blog item below about the microphone used in the new film The Kings Speech and in response to the huge correspondence that the blog item stirred up (well I had one email about it), here are some more of the royal microphones held by the EMI Group Archive Trust. Two of them were also used in the film. Here are the royal beauties one by one (and I must thank world famous microphone meister Lester Smith for writing the technical descriptions of these pieces):

This is the HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother microphone (1936) which is the same as the KGVI one in the original blog item, apart from the silver gilt front with the Silver Marks of G.& S.Co.Ltd. and the Lion and Leopard’s Head but no date letter. On the top is also the Royal Coat of Arms. This was used in the film.

The above microphone is the HM King George V piece. Its is a 1925 Marconi-Reisz carbon microphone with marble body made by the Marconi company (a company taken over by the Gramophone Company in 1928). and was used at Silver Jubilee Celebrations in Westminster Hall, May 9th, 1935. This was the third and final microphone owned by the EMI Group Archive Trust that was used in recording the soundtrack of The Kings Speech.

This microphone was built for George VI’s father, HM King George V  in 1923 and is a Marconi-Sykes design – very heavy and impressive with marble body

The final royal microphone in this part of the collection is the HM Queen Mary microphone which is a 1925 Marconi-Reisz carbon microphone.

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This site is developing and we shall be adding improved means of communicating with us in the future.

The real star of The King’s Speech

A major new film opens today, January 7th 2011, in the UK. The King’s Speech is tipped to win a gong or two in the upcoming awards season; possibly even Best Picture at The Oscars. It tells the story of King George VI who suffered from a debilitating speech impediment all his life and the efforts of an eccentric speech therapist, Lionel Logue, to help him overcome his severe stammer so that he can address his people as they stand alone against the all conquering Nazi’s in World War Two.

We are pleased that one of the assets of the EMI Group Archive Trust was used in the film. Our friends at Abbey Road Studios recorded the film score and they borrowed this microphone for use during the recording.

This microphone was specially made for H.M. King George VI by EMI. It is a Reisz type microphone. The silver cone microphone rests on a desk style stand. The front of the microphone is decorated with a silver rose, leek, thistle and shamrock symbolising the countries which make up Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In the middle of the microphone there is a his gilt cypher, whilst on top there is a gilt coat of arms. The microphone also comes with two accompnaying silver plauqes giving details of the occasions on which it was used. It was first used for the opening of the Maritime Museum at Greenwich on the 27th April 1937. it was last used on July 22nd 1938 for the unveiling of an Austrailian memorial at Villiers Bretonneux in France.

The technical details of the microphone are as follows: KGVl is a moving coil permanent magnet microphone based on the EMI PM 201. It has a 15 ohm coil and gives a good output of half a volt. It is attached to a chromium plated stand. On the top of the chromium ‘headlamp style’ body, is the Royal Coat of Arms. The front of the mic has an unique silver grill bearing the King’s insignia in silver gilt and the makers mark of G.& S.Co.Ltd. (Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Co. Ltd.). It is part of our collection of significant vintage microphones.

Here is the trailer to the film: