Acoustics preferences in recordings and live

January 9, 2018, 2:24 PM · When I'm recording, I always love to throw on a ton of reverb (echo, for those that don't know what reverb is). I think it makes the violin sound so much more profound.

This is also my preference when playing in real life. In the past, I've driven to parking garages just to play in the reverb-heavy acoustics there.

It's my opinion that the violin is designed to fill a large, reverby space with sound, and not so much designed for smaller spaces with less echo. When I take my violin to a large space with lots of reverb, it's like I'm plugging an electric guitar into an amp for the first time.

Meanwhile, you have someone like my luthier, who seriously cringes at the slightly hint of reverb in a recording. He wants the deadest, carpetiest, most "honest" sound in a recording. We get in actual fights about this.

My theory on this is that he's looking at it from an analytical perspective, trying to hear the instrument itself, and nothing else. He values accuracy over beauty in a recording, whereas I am trying to hear the beauty of the sound and wanting to let the power of the violin "breath" in a nice big space.

You also have recordings like the ones done by "Strings Magazine" in their sessions, where the sound is totally dead, and they don't add post-recording reverb. All of the players there are excellent and playing on great violins, and yet the sound isn't terribly beautiful to me because it sounds utterly dead. So I'm assuming the editors there must prefer that form of sound.

Anyways, what are your preferences, both live and in recordings?

Lush, expansive reverb? Or dead, playing-in-a-snowy-forest acoustics?

Replies (16)

Edited: January 9, 2018, 4:10 PM · I think its why people like to sing in the bathroom.

I remember two really dead acoustics. When we move from the East Coast to the California desert in 1962, I remember the last morning of our drive: down the hill from Kingman AZ and crossing the Colorado River in the dark - as the sun rose, I stopped the car, got out and yelled into the Mojave desert at the top of my lungs - and the sound just vanished. About a year letter, the Desert Community Orchestra that I joined performed a concert at the visitors center in Death Valley - a couple of hours to the east - again - orchestra sound just sucked away from us - and it was dark and cold!!

I like a nice live hall, but I don't like artificial reverb.

I remember, back in high school when I had a violin solo coming up I would find a way to try it on the stage of our 1,100 seat auditorium. I loved hearing the sound come back to me. NOW - IF THAT IS REVERB _ GIVE ME MORE!

The worst concert I remember - on a business trip back to Washington D.C. around 1965 I learned that the Tokyo String quartet was giving a concert at the National Cathedral. I stayed through the Haydn, but I knew I could not stomach the Brahms that was to follow. This is what I remember: I heard the first measure of the Haydn, nice and clean - then I heard it again overlaying the 2nd measure, and then again over the 3rd and 2nd measures - and so it went until the final measure ----and again--- the final measure ---and again--------and again! Fortunately it was a free concert, but I still did not get my money's worth.


I think acoustic design is a tricky and difficult thing as evidence by the great music halls that have had to be modified to be suitable. I know I don't like to play in a room with hardwood floors, and bare walls and windows - but I don't like to play in rooms with acoustic tile either or an anechoic chamber.

January 9, 2018, 4:42 PM · I get what you like as there are times when added effects give some tracks a cool sound, but for the majority of music I prefer it neutral,as close to the original recording as possible. I wouldn't call sitting in front of Hilary Hahn during a live performance "dead" sounding, correspondingly neither would an accurate unenhanced high bitrate recording using quality speakers or cans to listen to it with. It would be neutral or flat, as the artist intended.

That is how I prefer my music. I've invested in quality speakers and cans, as well as quality players that support lossless codecs for that reason. Not only do I not want the artifacts and lack of nuance detail associated with poor or compressed recordings, I don't like my music "colored" or enhanced for specific sounds or effects. A quality recording with quality listening devices will give accurate soundstage, instrument separation and vocals in the proper position as the artist intended. It will be far from "dead" in my opinion. To me the beauty is in the original organic sound. That's me.

I see your side and preferences but what you are asking is subjective and personal with no right or wrong, just personal preference.

January 9, 2018, 5:43 PM · Andrew then there is Willie Ruff's recording of Gregorian chants on French horn which he recorded in St. Mark's. Sounded really good.
January 9, 2018, 7:26 PM · "but for the majority of music I prefer it neutral, as close to the original recording as possible"

I would say that statement is kind of an oxymoron :) I'm assuming what you meant is that you prefer the recording to be as similar as possible to how it would sound ~live~. BUT, the thing about this is that it depends on where you're sitting in relation to the performer, and the acoustics of the hall it's being recorded in. So, a violin will sound vastly different if it's being recorded from the performer's head area (as evidenced by the "player's curse" of hearing bow noise) as opposed to being recorded 10 feet away, or perhaps 100 feet away. The farther away the mic is from the player, the more of the "room" you're going to hear as opposed to the "player."

So a "natural" sound is sort of a fallacy, I think, because it all depends on where you'd sit in relation to the live player, and the building they're playing in (as andrew noted, some buildings have far too much reverb, even in person, such as cathedrals.... with that said, I think certain pieces can sound proper in a room with huge echo, if they have enough time between each note).

Edited: January 9, 2018, 7:37 PM · I prefer to practice in acoustically neutral, relatively large spaces. My music room, where I practice (and where I usually rehearse chamber-music with people), is about 600 sqft, with a 9-foot ceiling, and carpeted with thick padding. It's a space in which you can hear yourself accurately, and the sound is pleasant.

I prefer to perform and listen to music in venues that are lively, but not echo-y. There should be some bloom to the sound, but nothing more. Some people like the "singing in the shower" effect, and it can sometimes be fun for, say, solo Bach, but it's terrible for anything involving more than one instrument. You can't properly hear each other, and the audience gets a muddle, if there's too much resonance.

My current violin has no problem filling a good-sized space with sound, and my teacher focuses on getting ring and resonance to the tone I'm producing, so all I'm looking for in a performing acoustic is something that's got some life to it, without echo. I'm just as comfortable in playing in a 100-seat chamber-music hall, as in a 300-seat church, or 1000-seat auditorium.

I prefer my recordings much like Skip F does -- something that reproduces the natural sound of the hall, from a "good seat" in the audience. In attending concerts, though, I tend to sit in the first few rows, because I prefer to hear my live music more closely to the way that the conductor and orchestra-members hear it.

The natural sound of a good violinist, playing a good-quality violin, is not at all dead. It's got a significant amount of resonance to it.

January 9, 2018, 8:35 PM · Lydia, I agree that practicing in a dead room is the best way to accurately assess flaws in playing, and to work on the natural resonance of the instrument without "coloring" affecting our perceptions.

It's also true that more reverb works better with a solo player (but I almost always play by myself).

On a separate note, it's funny how being a player affects the way we prefer our recordings.... Personally, I like a close-miced violin because I'm used to the way my violin sounds from behind it. I like the bow sound and "grit" because it's familiar to me. But many people try to mic super far away because they only want the clean sound that they traditionally associate with a violin (since they aren't players, they've only ever heard violins from somewhat of a distance).

January 10, 2018, 2:46 AM · It all depends on the nature of the music and the environment it was intended for. It goes without saying that most church music sounds best given the kind of reverberance that makes chamber music very difficult to listen to. Reverberation can be tailored according to the speed of harmonic progression and the density of fast detail.

It's nice to play in a "grateful" acoustic but when trying out a violin it's important to know how it sounds without acoustic assistance. Several violins that sounded good in the showroom have practically died when I got them home, whereas others I found to have an inherent richness which comes across even under acoustically dry conditions.

Also when recording I think it's useful to initially take it straight and add the reverb later. Recent versions of Audacity have a much improved reverb function.

Edited: January 10, 2018, 10:41 AM · The problem with reverb is that, sooner or later, one gets a "porridge effect". It is not selective as vibrato or other ornaments could be - just plain echo, cho, ho, o....

Acapella spiritual music is sometimes recorded in an empty church - it sounds terrible and was never meant to be performed with no audience (whose very presence absorbs the sound).

Edited: January 10, 2018, 4:02 PM · As part of his farewell concert with Bristol Chamber Orchestra in April its conductor Dennis Simons will be performing Marcello's D major violin concerto. This seems to be a relatively unknown and performed piece so I tracked down online a recording of it by Steven Staryk in order to get a feel for it for our first rehearsal this evening. The first movement is virtuoso quick, as befits Steven Staryk, but unfortunately the acoustics of the recording venue (sounded like an empty hall or church) and microphone setup were such that the many very quick sixteenth-note passages were so muddied by the acoustics that individual notes could generally not be distinguished - Rocky's "porridge effect" coming into play - thereby ruining the recording. On the same label, a performance of a concerto grosso by Torelli suffered much the same acoustic fate.

I was able to get a better idea of how the Marcello should sound just by reading the score online.

PS. I hope it was not a recording engineer's idea to "improve" the recording at the editing stage by adding in resonance, and over-doing it!

January 10, 2018, 11:14 AM · [Quote] "I would say that statement is kind of an oxymoron :) I'm assuming what you meant is that you prefer the recording to be as similar as possible to how it would sound ~live~. BUT, the thing about this is that it depends on where you're sitting in relation to the performer, and the acoustics of the hall it's being recorded in." [End quote]

Yes, somewhat. If it was recorded in a studio setting with no mixing or board work, then I want the recording to capture that as accurately as possible. If a performance is recorded in a hall or large enclosed venue, of course position of the recording mics has a definite effect on the sound, especially if close stage mics are used, which reduce imaging and soundstage. If that's the case, so be it. I would still prefer to hear the original organic recording.

The previous owner of the company I work for had a professional grade recording studio and while I'm not in that business, I had the opportunity to experiment around quite a bit with recordings and mixing and was surprised to find how much enhancing or altering a recording in various areas did in fact have some effects on other parts of the recording after completed, whether intended or not. Reverb, whether added or a result of the recording environment will in fact effect the ability in some cases to hear certain overtones and nuances of the instruments. I realize a good engineer or board guy can then bring forward those masked or disturbed sounds but then you are going down the road of loosing the original sound for the sake of effects and where does it stop. Sorry, just a personal preference with me. In the end, it's what you enjoy, right?

January 10, 2018, 11:28 AM · Personally, I think I prefer a room with little reverb. I think it gets in the way of the sound.
My larger concern is the "Frequency" response of a venue.
My favorite is the Barbican center in London. The major auditorium really supports the low frequencies. You can hear the basses, and cellos very clearly, whereas in other halls I've been in (Symphony center in Chicago, Royal Festival hall in London), just don't provide that level of sound. The Civic opera house in chicago and Kennedy center in Washington are somewhere in the middle. So for the most part i've been in a relatively small number of major venues
Edited: January 10, 2018, 11:43 AM · I'm not really interested in people post-processing acoustic music, although probably almost all the non-classical music I listen to has extensive post-processing, and a lot of it isn't even really played live, so I guess that's the context for me. With that said, I often record myself playing at church and it doesn't exactly sound flattering as if I were recording myself in a bathtub or something, but it actually sounds pretty decent in the church if you are hearing it, so really it's an issue with miking and equipment.

Echoing what Rocky said, I had an experience not too long ago rehearsing with my church choir in the empty sanctuary and getting the distinct impression that I sounded terrible, and I was dreading playing for the service, and then when I played for the service full of people, I sounded much different (to my relief) - The damping from the people completely changed the acoustic.

I found a very impressive student on youtube with various recordings of playing, and there is some stuff played in a big church, and the sound of the violin is pretty thin, but I know from other clips that she has a very good sound, without any sort of post-processing, so the acoustic space you choose for recording is important, and you probably won't really capture it in certain spaces unless you know what you are doing recording.

Of course, there's the issue of my playing and tone production, but for the sake of argument, let's ignore that...

January 10, 2018, 12:29 PM · When it comes to a quality recording, there's no doubt that the cleanest one will be produced by recording in a completely dead room, and then adding supplemental reverb artificially afterwards, as is necessary. In my own recordings, where I sometimes record 10+ tracks for an orchestral sound, too much reverb muddles the overall sound way too much and it starts to sound really crappy.

On the other hand, when there's a solo track, it gives it a much more "cinematic" feel to have fairly sustained reverb. It really just depends, in the case of recordings.

I agree that a "natural" acoustic is generally preferable, assuming that "natural" means a concert hall acoustic. But it's important to recognize that different concert halls have vastly different acoustics!

January 10, 2018, 1:50 PM · For of all the wonders that can be achieved by artificial post-hoc processing, I'm a great fan of early (1950's and 60's) stereo orchestral recordings which were obtained using simple microphone setups in natural acoustic settings, without the aid of artificial reverb. Somehow to me the instruments sound more present than in most recent recordings. When sounds emanating from particular instruments are mixed from multiple microphones the element that gets lost is the precise timing or phase of the frequencies. This is particularly important in how the source is perceptually localized on the sound stage by the time difference between sounds arriving at the two ears. When interaural time difference information is sacrificed we are left with just the left-right difference in sound intensity. This is the predominant factor for frequencies above about 1.5 kHz but much less influential at lower frequencies.
Edited: January 10, 2018, 2:26 PM · We will play differently in different venues: more or less attack, legato, contact point. We play not just our instrument, but the room!
January 10, 2018, 2:33 PM · So true, Adrian. This is my problem when recording: if I record with reverb already on (so I hear my echo in real time), I play totally different. More space between notes, more distinct bowings. Then, if I decide to "change the room" with a different reverb setting, I have to re-record the whole damn thing. And visa verca is true as well, if I record totally dead, trying to fill the silence with sustained bowings and a ringing tone, and then having it be muddled when I add reverb.

Steve, I couldn't agree more. Sadly, people like me don't have access to performance venues to record whenever they feel like, so we have to make do with the dreaded artificial reverb.

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