Technology Invades the Acoustic Stage

It has been my observation, when people are gathered together for a conversation in an open space, they naturally move towards a circle or semi-circle to facilitate eye and ear contact with each other. It would be quite unnatural for a group of five or six people to arrange themselves in a straight line facing one direction to have a discussion.

In the 60’s, when an acoustic group performed with a single mic, they stood in a semi circle, maintained eye contact, they read each other’s hands (chord changes); they could clearly hear each other. It was possible for them to play spontaneous sessions on stage and to give a visually interesting performance because of this interaction.

To get their concerts started, the acoustic musicians tuned up, walked on stage, located the house microphone, did a brief sound check, and started playing. The only amplification available for them was the house PA system. Often the house PA was an old Bogner 35 watt amp with speaker cabinets loaded with a hand full of 8 inch speakers. If there was no house PA, then they just went un-plugged (sing and play with no amplification).

As the 60’s came to close, mixers and monitors began to appear as tools to help musicians hear what they were playing and hear what the other musicians were playing. The additional stage equipment delivered a radical change in the quality of live performances.

Acoustic groups quickly tried to adapt to the need for volume in the larger venues, they transitioned from a single mic for a five-piece group to at least two mics for each player (one for the voice and one for the guitar). Musicians were stationary, bound to the mic’s. The sound tech with the mixing board set their volume, equalized their tone, and balanced their voice and guitar with the rest of the group.

This new approach usually caused the group to be arrayed in a straight line. They had little lateral eye contact; if the monitors were not properly set up, they had little understanding of what the rest of the group was doing. Monitors helped reinstate the ear contact if the sound tech was extremely skilful setting levels. However without the eye contact to see what the other musicians were doing (hand positions on the instruments), true spontaneous improvisation was difficult. The acoustic bands had lost the dynamic control of their music and the lost control over the volume on the stage to the sound tech.

The new technology was a two edged sword. While under the direction of a good sound tech, a group could achieve greater volume, and high quality music; but spontaneity suffered and the musicians were no longer in complete control of their performance.

“So I played the acoustic guitar and harmonica and stomped my foot and I think I was right in assuming that Greenwich Village would be the best place to perform my own material and possibly get some attention, move on to making records and all”. -Steve Forbert