Interview with Diego Barber: Amplification and Classical Guitar , part 1
My new 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, I will include the full interview transcripts with classical guitarists including Diego Barber (from the Canary Islands, Spain, but currently residing in NYC); 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/
The first post is my interview with Diego Barber, which is presented in English as well as the original Spanish. (Translation from Spanish by the author.)
Q: 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?
Barber: Well, the general approach, or philosophy of amplification, I think depends on the type or style of music that is played with the nylon guitar, in my case the classical guitar. It has for me a lot to do in the kind of music that is going to be played on classical guitar, and the ensemble, considering that there is no amplification in the world that can match the sound that we classical guitarists have with our nails ... filing our nail 24 hours a day. So, considering that classic mentality, which I also have, it is a lesser evil, really. I’ve thought about it a lot and I’m very happy now with what I’ve achieved with my amplification, but if I can avoid it, I will.
Obviously even when you play chamber music in a classical context, the guitar a pretty poor instrument in terms of dynamics, a sound that’s not even what a violin, a cello, let alone what a piano can produce. The classical guitar has a sound that projects and diminishes very quickly, so even in chamber groups, amplification is usually needed. Not to mention in other styles, which in my case, is often jazz, it is always needed.
Q: You perform in styles and settings that are not strictly “classical,” such as merging jazz, flamenco, and classical, while still performing mainly (or frequently) on nylon string guitar. How does this shape your approach to amplification?
Barber: Yes, completely. I always start from the foundation that if I can avoid amplification and play with my natural sound, all the better, but that’s for classical guitar concerts, exclusively. And not even in all locations, because they’re not always concert halls or churches with a lot of reverb, though it is true that even with “dry” rooms, larger or smaller, having a good classical guitar, you can play without amplification. The problem comes with any other group setting. Now I am very happy, but previously I’ve been very anxious about amplification, always disappointed, never getting the sound I was looking for, or the sound I had worked so hard on. Now it’s clear, whenever I play jazz, whenever I play with groups, I go with my amplification set up. And the truth is, that after trying many things I am close to what my sound should be. I always consider the ensemble and what the room will be like, thinking about whether or not I should take my amplification, which is in fact almost always, at this point in my career.
Q: 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?
Barber: I try to ensure that not just my sound, but the sound of the amplification, is as similar as possible in every concert, and that is so difficult. The room is different, the sound changes, it may be humid, or dry, because of course, the classical guitar is basically like a human being, affected by humidity, affected by anything. I try to do all the work I can do at home, have it done before I give it to the sound engineer. Without judging the engineer, because it’s true there are some who offer great ideas, but there are so many concerts and opinions that I just say “Here’s the cable coming out of my equipment, just plug it in without putting anything on it. Please.” Because once the engineer starts to touch things, you’re depending on a different person at each concert. I know there are people who can help, maybe even improve the sound at a given concert, but I prefer not to risk anything, because I’ve been through so many things. One thing I dream about, which is impossible, is to have a long enough cable that I can go where the audience would be and listen to myself play. Because although I’ve had my friends play my guitar with my set up, in order to try to listen, they don’t have my same sound. It’s so complicated, really. I’m very happy now, but before I was so anxious, I was unhappy, knowing that every time I played a concert I could not get my sound accurately. Basically, now I try to talk as little as possible with the sound engineers, and I don’t ask for a thing, because I carry everything with me. I don’t risk using a direct box (DI) that is not mine, or a cable different from mine, I take everything and I always tell them, “take the cable and do not touch basically anything.”
Q: Some of the more traditional classical guitarists, let’s say, might depend on the engineer for the concert’s amplification, but you bring your own equipment and say, “please put this into the mixing board or PA.”
Barber: Exactly. Of course, that means you have to take everything. We’ll talk a bit about equipment, but if the sound of the unamplified guitar changes in the room, then even more if you imagine playing with drums, saxophone, bass, it is too risky to experiment every time you play. So, I prefer it that way, not speaking poorly of engineers, because they’re professionals, it’s simply trying to control as much as possible.
Q: Besides, the nylon string guitar is especially difficult to amplify, and many sound engineers don’t have as much experience with these guitars. That’s part of the problem.
Barber: Yes, that’s partly it. Before I knew exactly what I wanted, they would sometimes put any microphone in front, and suddenly a guitar worth 16 thousand euros becomes a guitar worth 200, in a heartbeat. And you have to play so hard just to be heard, you sound like a beginner.
Q: What are some positive, and negative, experiences you have had regarding amplification?
Barber: The negative is that I have what is, for me, the best possible equipment for amplification, but there’s a small problem: it can break at any time. The equipment consists of three things together: the guitar, the cable, and the amplifier. If one of the three is twitchy, the concert is ruined. Nothing should happen, but when something does happen, it’s over. It is not like the amplifier is troubled so I pull out another one, the equipment is the sum of its parts, so the negative aspect is that I am always afraid something may fail. So it’s not only your guitar, but the range of possible flaws among the three. And the positive, was the first time I realized I could be playing in a jazz club in New York, with other jazz musicians, playing my guitar at a volume level where I didn’t have to force it, but able to make a lot of dynamics. I remember that the first time I said, “Wow, I can even play quietly and be heard.” That was when all my anxieties about amplification disappeared. I arrived in New York thirteen years ago, and I already aware of this equipment, which is designed for guitarists who play with orchestra. The amplifier is a very small thing and the volume it offers is like a piano. In one of the first concerts I gave with Ari Hoenig, on drums, and Johannes Weidenmueller, on double bass, suddenly I realized that I could use dynamics, I wasn’t just playing to see if I could be heard.
Q: Do you use amplification in smaller settings. such as smaller recital halls or (if you perform them) house concerts?
Barber: If I can, I play without amplification. At present, I perform at times an exclusively classical repertoire, or my own music, or in various group formations. I have played private concerts, or in tiny rooms holding 20 people sitting on the floor. And at times I’ve played without amplification with double bass, or with percussion, with musicians who control the dynamics know perfectly the limitations of my instrument. But that’s only the ones who know me and my music well, so I almost always bring my amplification, even for small rooms. You know, the clubs in New York, there are some bigger ones, but mostly they’re small clubs, one of the delights, for me, of New York. So, it’s unusual that I don’t bring any amplification. If I’m giving a solo guitar concert, and I know the hall or church, I’ll go just with my guitar. I’ve never played at Carnegie Hall, but I’ve played in large rooms, with both my guitars I produce a lot of sound without amplification, enough to fill Carnegie Hall. Not at a large volume, but it reaches everywhere, because they are powerful guitars with great projection. But the moment that it’s a chamber group or other group formation, all that disappears.
Q: Personally, I play quite a few house concerts, and I bring my amplification equipment, but I keep it very low. Not knowing how it will be, I like to have a little reinforcement.
Barber: Yes, reinforcement. And as you mentioned, it also allows you to play using more dynamics, because to be playing almost without hearing yourself, we’ve all done too many times. You ask people and they say, “no, no, you could hear it,” but you’ve been playing so hard there are no dynamics, no pianissimo, you have to be continually thrashing the guitar without any dynamics other than to play as loud as possible. And that’s one of the features, too, of our instrument, the dynamics it possesses. It’s an instrument with such dynamics. I heard a quote, I don’t remember what composer said it, that the guitar sounded like a baroque harpsichord, but with dynamics, and I like that expression. The guitar has impressive dynamics, like most stringed instruments. Clearly, if reinforce yourself with a bit of amplification, if there is any noise in the room, or street noises like cars going by outside, which has happened to me, raising the volume a little bit you feel more at ease. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I am a better guitarist with good amplification. And when it’s bad, it’s like a thousand hours of practice have been taken from me.
Q: What kind of amplification equipment do you use regularly, either when touring or closer to home? For example, an acoustic guitar amplifier, pedals, certain favored microphones, etc.?
Barber: My set up is basically two guitars, one made of cedar, and the other of palo santo, both made by Paco Santiago Marín. I use a very small amplifier, a system by Stephan Schlemper. It’s amazing, you go to his house outside of Bremen, Germany, on a Friday and leave on Sunday with everything assembled. His workshop in his home, you stay in the guest room, and he puts everything together. There are times he makes you leave the workshop, you know how some luthiers are, there are some things they don’t want you to see. He also makes guitars. Of course, it’s a pretty expensive system, 4-5 thousand euros, so it has to be a good guitar. Another problem is that he makes a tiny hole in the guitar, where it hurts the guitar least, but you have to know that you lose a small percentage of guitar’s potential sound, only with that little hole. The good thing about this amplifier, however, is that it’s made for classical guitarists. The first time I saw this system, I was living in Athens, studying with Costas Cotsiolis and at the Athens Conservatory. He was the first person I saw using this amplification and it was impressive. Schlemper built the system for classical guitarists to perform with orchestras, and as a luthier he respects, let’s say, the paranoias of a classical guitarist. You hear the noise of the nail when it is not well filed, when you change positions of your fingers, and the dynamics, it’s truly amazing. That’s why I think this is a very interesting topic, because I imagine there are people in the world suffering a lot because of this, because really, I had some concerts in New York that I just didn’t want to do, concerts with famous people, and I didn’t want them to hear me perform with a kind of sound that wasn’t mine. That doesn’t happen to other instrumentalists. Well, it may happen, but not to this extent.
The system has an amplifier, a special cable, and then a microphone in the body of the guitar, and a piezo pickup placed under the bridge. So there are two controls: for the piezo under the bridge and another for the mic in the body. And then, as sometimes concert rooms are very dry, I take a reverb pedal, which is from TC Electronic. It’s a very natural reverb that makes the room sound a little larger. And I use a DI box, a Kv2, which is very important to me. They are not specifically for guitarists; they use them for concerts, for the Cirque do Soleil. It is an incredible DI, which lets me to give the cable to the engineer and tell him “do not touch anything.” It ensures the sound from my amplifier is going to be reproduced with 100 percent accuracy. If I can, I ask for the monitor in a large concert hall to also be from Kv2. If my amplifier provides the audience with superb sound, but the sound I’m hearing from the monitor is bad, I’m a poorer guitarist.
Q: Have you used any sound processing devices or equipment in live amplification, such as digital delays, “loopers”, or other effects?
Barber: I’ve used loopers, several years ago in my concert, when I liked having several guitars going at the same time, and I think they can fun to play with. I was using, if I remember correctly, a Boss looper. Now I’m working on an album that’s more electronic in nature, and I’m experimenting a little more. But I prefer, let’s say, the traditional classical guitar sound, and in fact, I bring my reverb to use just in case, because it is true that sometimes the room is so dry it’s absolutely necessary. My music doesn’t need those effects for now.
Q: How does your approach to live amplification differ from your approach to studio recording?
Barber: It’s a bit like comparing apples to oranges, of course. For example, in the studio I know exactly the microphone with which I am going to record. It is not a lottery, like in every concert, where the engineer comes to you and says “let’s go with this.” You know perfectly the distance from the microphone to the guitar. You know the acoustics, you control the humidification of the room. I sometimes like to leave the guitars overnight with the cases open, so that they are not adjusting to the humidity in real time, and also for tuning. So everything is utterly controlled in the studio. It’s totally different live, where you are at the mercy of the situation, if it is windy, if you’re playing inside or outside, what the engineer believes, what cable and speaker are available. In truth, in a studio you can have everything very controlled and you can still have some surprises, but they are very small. Until very recently my live concerts were like a coin toss: heads, marvelous sound; and tails, horrid sound. It was like that. As good as it is, I would never use this amplification system to record an album, because it’s not to the level of those studio microphones that cost a fortune, with which you can even hear the beating of your heart.
Q: I’ve listened to your records. They have variety of instrumentation, and the classical guitar sounds very natural.
Barber: That’s what we’re looking for, nylon string guitarists, whether on a flamenco guitar or a classical guitar. That’s why we play on nylon, for the naturalness that we’re after. I’m very pleased with the sound on my albums, and I’m very happy with my producer, Pete Karam, who has been the engineer for Pat Methany, among others. I have recorded several albums with him.
Q: When do you plan to make your next album?
Barber: I’m currently working on two projects. First, I’m recording an album of 20 Scarlatti sonatas; 10 sonatas I’ll perform solo, and the other 10 sonatas for guitar and voice. I’m going to record the album with Theo Bleckmann, a well-known singer. A friend, who has more expertise in Baroque music than I do, is doing the arrangements for me. I’m recording in a church in Spain that has amazing, natural sound. And then, for the other, I’ve embarked on an electronic album where I barely play any guitar. I’m risking a lot with that, but I’m very excited about this record. While it’s frightening to do an album without my greatest strength, which is guitar, I also feel I’m learning a tremendous amount. In the end, you try to be open and faithful to whatever emerges, right?