The curse of the PA

The theme of this post is one that has really bothered me for some time and just how to get into has meant delaying its publication for some weeks. On the surface it appears a rather trivial subject but the more I examine it the more I think it of importance and long neglected as a topic. As I have said before, I am interested in room elephants and this is a big hairy one. A real mastodon.

For those unaware of what a PA is, it is not in this case a Personal Assistant but a Public Address system. You all appreciate them when they work well and enable a voice or a musician to be heard clearly but you also know immediately when they go wrong or are misused.

When you last winced at the screeching microphone feedback at the last public meeting or event you went to, did you bother to think how many times you had experienced such a thing. On the other hand how many times have you heard the cry from the back “speak up we can’t hear you!” I thought a little research was necessary after a recent visit to Morocco where it seems in the last ten years everyone has gone PA crazy and which has really prompted this investigation. The very first use of a public address system (PA) was as long ago as 1915 in San Francisco USA. Here’s what happened and why.

It was October 1915 and it appears that the new Civic Auditorium in San Francisco was about to be dedicated and “Magnavox” equipment was installed to reinforce the voice of the Speakers. Governor Hiram Johnson was supposed to be present, but was unable to attend in person due to a severe cold. It was therefore arranged to run a special line between the Governor’s home in Green Street San Francisco and the Auditorium, in order to transmit the message. Hiram Johnson, in front of a microphone, sitting in front of his fireplace at home delivered his speech which was heard in the Auditorium some miles away. This may have appeared as a great step forward for mankind but 86 years later I just wonder if it really was. Read on.

I was in Fes, Morocco in June last year (2010) seated directly in front of eight of the Fes singers, some of Morocco’s greatest exponents of Andalusi singing, under the direction of Muhammad Bennis, who were doing what they do a lot of, and that is the celebration held 40 days after a funeral. It was staged in a large courtyard with an audience who, for part of the event, were eating cous cous. These are quite common events in Morocco and singing for these is how many of  the professional singers in Morocco make a living. The Fes singers are truly some of the best singers you will ever hear sing in this style but I do have a gripe.  A big gripe. Despite two hours of the most sublime singing from a selection of the Burda, the Hamziyya and the Fiashiyya and much else from their enormous repertoire, they had made the mistake in my opinion of employing a really powerful PA system. It was just like an old rock concert in fact in its painful amplified acoustics. I have tried to understand why, and even sympathise with their plight, but I’m afraid my conclusion is that it was a monumental mistake to have introduced PA systems into this most intimate of vocal performances.

OK, they need to be heard and sure enough this is one way of doing it except that Moroccans more than anybody do not need amplification, as they almost universally have natural megaphone voices. But in this case each singer had his own microphone and use them they did with an almost Tom Jones type of microphone technique. But the effect of amplifying the voice in this way seriously distorts the voice and robs it of its unique acoustic quality which is what best affects the listener – voice to heart with no intermediary. It was also ear-splittingly loud for those unfortunate enough to be near the loudspeakers and tainted as well by a really crude electronic reverb. What’s more, the polyphony of the performance, i.e. the ability of the listener to locate the origin of each voice, is lost entirely. With all this it is hard to try and see the benefits of amplification, but some there must be. But in this case its intimate visceral beauty was utterly lost.

For centuries this kind of singing worked absolutely fine in the riyad courtyards, the mosques and zawiyyas of old Morocco with no amplification at all. So why has the PA become necessary? Weren’t the beautiful reverberating spaces of these old buildings enough? Clearly it is in part because it is just there, and the temptation to amplify is too difficult to resist. Also there is definitely an element of fashion about it but no consideration of the aesthetics of it at all.

PA systems have been around the developed world for some time but relatively recently in the third world. And I know few people who really like them although the majority just accept it rather in the same way that people accepted strip lighting in homes, offices and mosques even though it was harsh and ugly in every way. But it was the fashion and just part of the modernist package that had hitherto only invaded European cultures. Audio reinforcement had actually become quite a sophisticated science over the last 50 years with big auditoriums like the Festival Hall in London utilising very high quality and almost imperceptible audio amplification. Nothing like the crude PA systems of rock concerts amplifying already electric music to deafening levels from which it seems the Moroccans have taken their cue.

Of course it was not only musicians who saw the benefits of the PA system and how you could reach ever larger and larger audiences with the vastly increased box office receipts. Politicians and religious speakers realised they could preach their message to larger and larger audiences. The Third Reich also realised this was useful way of imposing itself in a big way on a lot of people before television could do the same with less bother. Mr Hitler used the microphone to win over friends and influence people in a big way as we all know and the Nuremberg Rallies (pictured above) were the clearest demonstration of this. The PA at the political rally was a symbol of power as it inflated the presence of the speaker till he was like some thunderous Divinity addressing the human race. But in a way it was cheating. Stories of old indicate that orators could miraculously reach hundreds or even thousands of people with no artificial assistance. The oratory style of religious speakers from the subcontinent of this time (as well as their frock coats) were modelled on the pre-PA oratory techniques of British Victorian politicians. But put that in front of a microphone and you have a frightening and deafening result. For the prophet Jesus, addressing the 5,000 was for sure an acoustic affair but now the audiences at religious conferences are assaulted with several thousand watts of amplified power. I’m not sure this is a good thing. The Nuremberg precedence is not a good one and even if the intention is a good one there is an inherent danger in the form of this kind of meeting with the speaker on a podium addressing the people with his voice greatly amplified. Add to that the giant video screens and you have a pretty deadly mix. Traditionally in the Islamic world , for very good reason, meetings would be on the same level with men seated in a circle or clustered around a teacher or a speaker. Sometimes the speaker, like an Imam or a teacher, would be slightly raised on a chair. But the artificially amplified voice, is like a kind of artificial podium high above the audience where there is no equality, rather like the theatrical stage, from which all manner of drama could be enacted and something open to abuse.

But for the political rally, audio quality was not as important as it was to music. As long as you could depict the words that was enough. Orchestral and choral concerts need no amplification as they are loud enough already. Even soloists both vocal or instrumental, never really need amplification – although nowadays subtle reinforcement is more than likely in a large venue. But this is a long way from the crude use of amplification that has invaded traditional cultures like Morocco. I sincerely believe this technology is corroding these old cultures whether it be in the mosque, at a musical celebration like a wedding or at a funeral celebration. But I might just be a lone un-amplified voice in the crowd!

The effect of  unadulterated acoustic voices on the human organism is central to its efficacy in expanding the heart and healing the body. Amplification interferes with this subtle process mostly for ill. Despite having ears on either side of the head the human organism can comprehend sound from a 360º surrounding sphere, above, below, right, left, front and back. The highly amplified blast denies this and effectively dumbs down the experience to just a one dimensional homogenised vibration. When stereophonic recorded sound was made possible it took advantage of that fact that we are naturally able to place the source of a sound if given enough information to reconstruct the stereo picture in our heads. But we are capable of much more. Many attempts have been made to create wrap round reproduced sound but has only really utilised in cinemas and home Dolby systems. In theory this could be a life enhancing experience but it would have to be so subtly executed.

When I was studying architecture in London in the late 1960s my fifth year thesis experimented with some of these ideas. I envisaged a kind of geodesic dome covered with an acoustic skin of canvas. Inside the dome were suspended many very high fidelity sound monitors through which sound could be projected and gently manipulated in many ways. It took advantage of what I described above, of our ability to perceive sound coming from a multitude of directions. The resulting environment could be used for theatre, musical performance, singing, exhibitions…almost anything comes to mind. With the kind of control of amplified sound that we now have the result could be truly stunning with subtle atmospheric directional reverberation, delays, movement and so on. It was called an Electronic Sound Space Synthesiser. Sadly this never came about even though at the time, pre-computers, it was all technically feasible though very expensive. My point is that the idea of Public Address could be used creatively and beautifully – but that in truth it all sadly gets reduced to a low common denominator – the over the top rock concert amplified over-kill. Maybe this is inevitable with all technology. It is of its very nature to sink to its grossest manifestation.

Is this the inevitable price we have to pay for modernism? To see all traditional forms dumbed right down till they are just one dimensional entertainment. Or is it not too late to try and bring some awareness of how this technology could be used to enhance rather than destroy. Or is abandoning the PA the only solution. For Muhammad Bennis and his singers I think it would prove a tough challenge to change.

In a future post I want to gather what I can about music therapy and the maqamats as it is intimately related to what has just been discussed. Sound can heal the human organism and it can kill it. A weapon of peace or a weapon war! And its time us, the long suffering public, fought back. I want to free Morocco from the curse of the PA. (and Spain come to that). Anyone with me? I feel the odds are against me!

You can read all about the history of PAs here:

About Ian Whiteman

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