MUSICSCAN: Sound of equipment that suited musicians so well in those days.

In the preceding two articles in this column (April 9 and 23), while finding fault with the overall quality of amplified sound in Carnatic music circles, I had mentioned the intriguing fact that the public address system and the audio channels even in the most modern airliners seem to be universally unsatisfactory. This is not a casual impression arising in the course of some occasional flights, but a consistent one obtained by me over a period of 40 years of frequent flying within India and abroad.

It's an extremely surprising phenomenon, because the quality of amplification of sound within small enclosed spaces had constantly become better and more sophisticated during the past century, in keeping with the never-ending progress of technology. But what is even more surprising is the fact that the quality of amplification of sound in large enclosed spaces such as concert halls -- as well as out-door settings -- seems be getting worse and worse, almost in inverse proportion to technological progress. This impression, again, is not a casual one, but has been obtained by me cumulatively over the past several decades. In fact, even lecture halls and conference rooms in scientific organisations don't seem to be exceptions to this perverse trend. Our devoted Sabhas and other earnest organisers of Carnatic music, who seem to find it so frustratingly difficult to cope with the persistent problem of imperfect sound, can perhaps find some consolation in the fact that they're in the good company of the scientific community itself!

Let me cite a specifc case, to stress this point. In the mid-1980s I happened to be working as Financial Adviser in the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in New Delhi, which had a network of 40 laboratories and institutes spread all over India. I took part in many meetings, seminars and conferences in the CSIR set-up as well as in allied scientific circles; and almost invariably I found the audio systems quite unsatisfactory. And not even my occasional jokes about withholding vital funds could make my eminent scientist-colleagues come to terms with the problem, whatever it was! Even where they tried to upgrade the high technology, the situation hardy ever improved.

Ancient models

Just compare with this the ancient models of powerful loudspeakers, shaped like a bell or a horn, which were the standard equipment used in out-door locations as well as in large enclosed spaces such as concert or wedding halls. They used to amplify the sound of speech or music a hundredfold without any distortions! It's only when advanced models of powerful loudspeakers began to be encased in huge box-like containers that the deterioration also began to materialise in our concert halls and even in out-door venues.

Probably one of the main reasons for this has been the mis-matching of specific items of sophisticated equipment and the actual settings and conditions in which they are used. But even so, one can't help wishing that our Sabhas would look back to the much better sound we used to hear in the good old days, and bring those good old 'horn' speakers back in our concert halls! After all, what exactly is the degree of sophistication and refinement we actually need in the case of Carnatic music? Obviously not as high as required in the case of a western symphony orchestra!

Traditionally Carnatic music has never been heard in pin-drop silence, since earnest rasikas are a gregarious lot. A certain amount of ambient and surrounding noise has always been an inherent and inevitable feature of any performance in our temples or even concert halls; and it only adds to the authentic quality of the music. So far as Carnatic music is concerned, what we mean by 'high quality of amplified sound' is only that there should be no jarring distortions, that's all! It doesn't mean that there should be perfection and super-sophistication in the process of amplifying the sound.

Given this basic fact, why de we have to wrestle so ineffectively with user-unfriendly high-tech products? Why not just restore the low-tech equipment which seemed to suit our needs much better? But, of course, that may not be a practical idea, because such old-world equipment may just not be available today. And there are several other relevant factors also. So let us analyse the precise reasons for the jarring distortions, and try to find some useful answers!

(To be continued)

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