Interview with Benjamin Verdery: Amplification and Classical Guitar, part 3
My article in Classical Guitar magazine discusses strategies, techniques, and equipment for amplifying classical guitar. I interviewed several world-class guitarists and researched a number of amplifiers and other sound reinforcement products. In this series of blog posts, the full interview transcripts with classical guitarists are presented, including Diego Barber; Xuefei Yang; Ben Verdery; and Manuel Barrueco, as well as Ed Tretreault, who manages sound and teaches recording at the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University. The article “Amplification and Classical Guitar: The Search for Natural Colors – Classical Guitar” is available online at https://classicalguitarmagazine.com/amplification-and-classical-guitar-the-search-for-natural-colors/
Benjamin Verdery, renowned for his innovative and eclectic approach to nylon-string guitar, shares his thoughts on amplification for classical guitar in a variety of settings, including his recommendations on pickups, amplifiers, and other sound reinforcement equipment.
JW: What is your general approach, or philosophy, toward amplification for classical guitar? Is it, at times, a necessary evil? Or is amplification something that can help shape the guitarists’ message to the audience? Or a bit of both?
Ben Verdery: I encourage all of my students to have some sort of amplification for their classical guitars. Meaning they should have a microphone they know works for them and their guitar, a low stand for it and some sort of trustworthy amp that they can transport. Being young professionals, they get asked to play in chamber music settings where they need to cut through or should be able to if needed. Of course, it depends what is called for in the music.
I recently premiered a fabulous new quintet by Bryce Dessner with the St. Lawrence String Quartet, during which I used a new system and set up I adore. Bryce wrote it with a special tuning where the 6th – 3rd strings are tuned an octave higher. I believe it’s called Nashville Tuning. This was so that it would cut through the strings and have its own quality hence the name, Quintet for High Strings.
On the same concert we played the famous Boccherini Quintet no. 4, “Fandango.” You could argue that in both pieces the guitar would be heard and not need to be amplified. I would generally agree, but I still think it is better for not just the audience, but your fellow musicians. They feel they can play out and not hold back which is important.
One amplifies to be not just heard but understood. Meaning when you’re playing a certain passage, in this case with the quartet, you want those passages not just to be heard but to be understood and comprehensible.
The real answer to your question is that it is not evil to or not to amplify. It is what it is and it has consequences either way. I believe a young guitarist today should educate his or herself and be prepared, so that if and when amplification is necessary he or she will be in control and knowledgeable for what works best for them, their instrument and the piece itself.
John Williams was a pioneer in amplifying the classical guitar, as you know, and he felt strongly that he wanted everyone in the hall who were perhaps not guitar aficionados to hear him and not strain. He worked arduously to get the best sound he could. I remember some loving it and others hating it. I think he helped the instrument in the long run by doing so.
JW: How do you approach amplification and sound reinforcement when you will be performing in a large concert hall or festival? What sorts of conversations do you have with the sound engineer? For example, do you contact the engineer in advance, or day of the show? What is involved in the soundcheck?
BV: I find out prior to the concert what equipment they have and alert them to my needs. If you are playing with an ensemble, it is really helpful send the sound people recordings of the piece. The more they can know up front about your instrumentation, your equipment, and your music, the more time you save.
I am not the best judge of the sound that is going out into the hall, given that I am on the stage performing. So, before the sound check I tell them what kind of sound I like, and the equipment I like, and proceed trusting the sound person to get the most “natural” balanced sound they can. It’s important to remember they are pros and have a lot of experience. When they get the sound they like, I can alter this or that if need be.
JW: What are some positive, and negative, experiences you have had regarding amplification?
BV: Let’s start with the negative. The worst is, and I know many will agree, is when you spend all of this time doing a sound check and start the concert off with it all sounding completely different! Of course, people in the hall change the sound, but I have had a few times, mostly all in ensembles, where I felt the sound check was an illusion, a dream, it never happened nor should it have!
I have been in a situation where one of the band members treated the sound man with great disrespect from the get go! Ugh! Not a great idea, as they get the final word, and can make or break your concert in some ways. So, I would say, be kind to your sound person!
That having been said, more than not I have had great sound people, who really know how to trouble shoot and get a clear beautiful sound both in the room and in the monitors. They make it easier for us all to hear each other.
JW: What level of “control” are you able to exert in these situations, when you are touring? How does this compare to situations where you are on your home turf, such as your guitar festival?
BV: Having your own sound person who knows your music and your musicians, knows how to mic all instruments and blend them, that is pure heaven! Knowing the acoustic of a hall you have performed in several times, of course, is going to make for a better sounding concert.
JW: Do you use amplification in smaller settings. such as smaller recital halls?
BV: That entirely depends on the hall. Intimate halls, I usually don’t amplify except when I am playing, for example, a piece like Ingram Marshall’s Soepa. But if it is an intimate hall that has particularly dry acoustic, a wee bit of amplification with a slight touch of reverb can help one play and sound better.
JW: How do your strategies toward amplification differ when you perform in an ensemble, such as with a percussionist, with an orchestra or chamber group, or with other guitarists?
BV: Playing in my former group Ufonia was problematic in that it was always best for me to be next to the percussionist. When I used a mic, the sound of the percussion bled into my mic and it was difficult for the audience and the rest of my bandmates to hear me. That all changed for the better when I got a B-Band system put into my guitar. I was then mostly playing, I think, a Chris Carrington guitar and it was terrific. The bleeding of the sound was not an issue and I could control the sound much better.
In most ensembles I use amplification. That said, there are several composers that orchestrate in a manner where the guitar can be heard and amplification is not always necessary. You could make a case that it is a piece-by-piece decision.
I always amplify in concerti, and when playing my Garrett Lee guitar, I plug into the house system and I use a mic. Blending the two is fabulous. I always have a monitor in front of the conductor so the rest of the orchestra can hear me loud and clear.
When I did the International Guitar Night tour, we had two nylon string guitars and two steel string guitars. We all played amplified acoustic guitars and it worked out well. If any of us used just a mic, it might have been problematic.
I learned much playing and recording with Bill Coulter. Besides being a master at what he does on the guitar, he really knows how to get the best sound from the steel string and the classical. In those concerts, we used a combination of mics and electro-acoustic guitars. Concerts and recording with him is always pure joy because he is so knowledgeable about how to blend the two beautifully. Never mind the way he plays!
JW: Do you have amplification equipment that you use regularly, either when touring or closer to home? For example, an acoustic guitar amplifier, pedals, certain favored microphones, etc.?
BV: Currently, in New York City and local concerts, I use a DPA mic, which needs phantom power, so I go through a Scarlett preamp into a K-Array 102 System. I use one half of it as I don’t need two speakers. I adore it! This was, for me, a pricey system but it has been worth every penny. It’s not for everyone but young players should at least know about it. I have been extremely lucky to have, for years, my dear friend Lou Manarino of L&M Sound & Light, based on Staten Island, to guide me.
I also am a big fan of a good directional mic. There are a few out there that are not so expensive.
For many years I have had the B Band system installed in my guitars. Chris Carrington installed one in the guitar he made for me years ago. Chris was the first to educate me, as he had been on the frontline years back when he played concerts with Al Di Meola.
The second guitar of his, which I still have, uses a different system, where there is a pickup under each indivisible string in the saddle. That guitar was essential when Andy Summers and I performed because I was using delay and loops at quite a loud volume. There I plugged directly into the DI and let Andy’s sound man Dennis work the EQ.
The B-Band system has to be installed very precisely. Garrett Lee has installed them beautifully in the various guitars of his I have played over the years. He said he will do the same for the new one I am getting in March. Having the B-Band system in my guitars does not affect the acoustic sound of the guitar. I think, unfortunately, they are no longer in business.
I am very excited to have the K&K Sound Trinity Pro System installed in my new Garrett Lee guitar. K&K Sound also make the Pure Classic pickup which I hear is excellent, and the Meridian external guitar microphone.
I encourage all of my students to have a system installed like the K&K system. It really came in handy when I played with Andy Summers. You can plug it in direct and work out the EQ with the sound person as you see fit.
I also recommend the Fishman Aura Spectrum DI preamp. It’s imaging technology that can substantially warm up and “naturalize,” for lack of a better word, your sound.
If you are playing in a lot of gig situations, having a factory-made electric classical is advantageous for any working guitarist. Takamine, Kremona, Goodwin’s, and Kenny Hill’s Crossover guitars, in which he instills a system, are ones that I have used in certain situations and have liked. I’m less up-to-date on new acoustic electric guitars, but am always interested to see who is making what.
For amps, I have mentioned AER and Schertler. I have used the Bose PA Towers and liked them for their clarity and projection. There are several acoustic guitar amps that have been available for some time now; I’m less versed in those but have heard great things about them.
I love the idea of a small sound system, meaning a modest mixing board and two good speakers. I have used that type of set several times as it allows stereo and panning etc.
Finally, it is helpful when amplifying, and of course depending on what music you are playing, to consider the strings you are using. I have found electro-acoustic guitars can exaggerate the string squeaking. In this case I love the D’Addario Recording strings or the D’Addario lightly polished.
JW: How does your approach to live amplification differ from your approach to studio recording?
BV: Recording is an entirely different situation. In the recording studio or hall depending, I almost never use an amp except when I am playing loud electric guitar. But with classical it is always done with the engineer’s mics directly on the guitar. If it is an ensemble, we have used isolation booths and gotten a good mix in the headphones and that has sufficed. I will occasionally plug into the board, again with the B-Band system, to get a bit more low end or to slightly enhance and fatten the sound, but often we end up not using it in the mix.
JW: Any other thoughts on the topic?
BV: In the last 40 years people have devoted a lot of time an energy into trying to solve the various problems of amplifying acoustic instruments. I applaud all of them and thank them.
I can understand anyone who feels that the classical guitar is constructed in a way that it really should only played in intimate settings, in rooms made of wood and stone with a high ceiling… or only in halls like the legendary Wigmore Hall. I have often felt that way.
That aside, amplifying the instrument so that it can be heard in a larger ensemble and even with an orchestra, allows us access to a larger musical community. It frees the composers to write what they hear for the instrument and not worry that a certain texture will not be heard. It allows young players to form ensembles that include piano and violin and percussion for example. This is only positive.
I do think that young players, if they go in this direction, need to think of amplification as a critical extension of their instrument. I urge them to take the time to experiment and be educated. If they do many new and exciting musical experiences await them.