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7 December 2016


I have written before about the amplification of music by electronic methods. My opinion has always been that - whenever and wherever possible - musicians should play without artificial amplification. Nothing is better than hearing the tones of all the instruments (and of the 'conversations' between them) in their natural glory. It's the same with chamber music: who would want to hear the sweet notes of a string quartet distorted through an amplification system?

In the street, and in smaller indoor venues, it is usually possible for traditional jazz bands to play very effectively without a microphone or P.A. system in sight.

However, I accept there are occasions when the use of some amplification is unavoidable. Maybe the singer needs to use a microphone in order to be clearly heard. Maybe, in large venues, most of the instruments have to be amplified over a P.A. system, with several microphones in use.

I mention the subject again because a recent conversation gave me further food for thought. A clarinet-player friend of mine, who has been playing traditional jazz for decades, told me the following story about a concert he attended many years ago.

He said Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen were giving a performance and for some reason (maybe a technical problem) they had to play the entire first set without any amplification. My friend said they sounded like a good but ordinary 'amateur' band. But for the second set the powerful P.A. system was working and suddenly they sounded like a different band - very professional - the Kenny Ball Band people knew and loved.

I wonder why that was. My theory is that the audience was familiar with the tunes as recorded through microphones in the studios (Kenny had a number of 'hits' - think of So Do I, Midnight in Moscow, Samantha, The Green Leaves of Summer) and - over the P.A. system they suddenly sounded more like the records fans had been hearing on the radio and buying in the shops. That is to say, the music was complete with the effects produced when electricity was allowed to process it a little. This would be helped by the fact that in public performances the Band virtually always played exactly the same arrangements as it had used on the records.

But maybe I am wrong.