Interview with Edward Tetreault: Amplification and Classical Guitar, part 5
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/
Ed Tetreault, manager of the Recording Arts & Sciences department of the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University, shares some of his valuable expertise in sound reinforcement, which includes working with many of the world’s leading guitarists. He also shares some of his recommendations on monitors, amplifiers, microphones, and other sound reinforcement equipment.
JW: Tell me a little bit about your background, and what you are teaching at Peabody?
Edward Tetreault: I’m a faculty member in the Recording Arts and Sciences Department at Peabody in Baltimore; this is year number 16 for me, so I’ve been doing it a while. In my role there I manage all facilities, I’ve built all the rooms there, manage the day-to-day operations, teach several classes within the curriculum as well. We have both an undergraduate and graduate program in Recording Arts and Science, so bachelor’s degree and master’s, and it’s kind of an intense program. Our undergrad students that major in recording have to do a performance major as well, so it’s a dual degree program. It’s a kind of a rare program; there are not too many like it. We typically have about 40-50 students total, roughly 35 undergrads and 15 grad students.
JW: I’m glad you could talk to me about this particular issue, because I’ve been getting the perspective of different guitarists, and it’s great to have the insight of a recording and sound professional.
ET: Yes, there’s all kinds of different approaches to it, and I think a lot of it does it ties in with the style of music that you’re playing, and the situation.
JW: So let’s talk a little bit about your personal approach or philosophy, and your thoughts about how you adapt to the guitarist philosophy and approach.
ET: First, I come from mainly a recording background, and in the studio our goal is always to keep things as natural as possible. When you’re recording acoustic music that’s the goal. When I’m recording, I always think in terms of perspective, what kind of perspective am I presenting to my listener? And I feel that live sound reinforcement should have that kind of mentality as well. Say it’s a solo classical guitar recital in a really large space. The guitar, as you know, is not designed to project to a huge concert hall, so the challenge becomes how to present the instrument as it’s meant to be presented, in a space that it wasn’t meant to be performed in. There’s a tie-in between the way we record and to the way we should amplify. Trying to get the most natural type of sound in a performance space is absolutely key. There’s a few different ways to go about that, but at the end of the day the most important thing is that you have a natural experience, like you want your audience to not know that it was amplified.
JW: Does the approach to amplification differ if you’re in a large concert versus a smaller performance space?
ET: I don’t think it defers at all, from my perspective. I think I think the approach should be the same in either space, just to varying degrees.
JW: What sorts of conversations do you have with the guitarist? Do you usually talk to the guitarist a few days ahead of time, or the day of the show?
ET: I’ve worked with several different guitarists, and they all have their own approach, so I usually defer to them and their preference. For example, I worked with Sharon Isbin when she came to Baltimore, and she definitely had her own idea of what the setup should be and exactly how it should be set up, and that’s fine. The common approach is putting a couple speakers behind the guitarist, at varying angles, pointed in toward the guitarist and pointed out towards the audience. That can work really well, and that was that was kind of her setup. I spoke with her ahead of time, and I used high fidelity studio monitors for that concert, not standard PA speakers, trying to get the most accurate representation of the guitar that I possibly could. Typically, when people do live sound, they tend to think more in terms of coverage—like, how do I cover every seat in the house—but that kind of mentality does not work in this situation, because it detracts. A good example is the guitar concerto with orchestra. I’ve seen this done where you’ve got the guitarist next to the conductor, and then you’ve got speakers on sticks way on the outside of the orchestra, and to me that kind of defeats the whole purpose. But it’s problematic. That’s an example of where the live sound person is thinking of coverage, how do I get fire sound to every seat in the house, but that doesn’t work, the natural balance of the guitar with the orchestra is destroyed, and also the artist doesn’t hear it naturally, so that’s a big problem. The most natural way to approach a situation like that is just to have a single speaker right next to the guitarist, and the funny thing is, too, that you realize very quickly you don’t need that much amplification at all; you need a lot less than you think you do. There’s the term sound reinforcement; we want to reinforce the natural ability of that instrument as cleanly as we possibly can. Especially in the case the guitar concerto, we want to our listeners to localize the sound of the guitar from where it’s coming from; we don’t want them to localize it on either side of the orchestra. That’s disorienting. The goal is to get as natural a balance between the guitar and the orchestra, or between the guitar and the hall, as you possibly can.
JW: You mentioned using high end studio monitors; are there any particular brands or types of monitors and microphones that you favor?
ET: I’ve used several types over the years and I find that most of the studio monitor speakers that are out there today are quite good for amplifying guitar. I’ve used Dynaudio BM 15As, Mackie HR824s, Genelec —I know that’s one of Manuel Barrueco’s favorites—the thing that those all those speakers share is that they have a very natural, flat response. Another type that I’ll mention: in recent years QSC has released their K2-series speakers; those are very good, I’ve been really impressed with them. They have a flat setting that works really well, so that can be a more affordable alternative. One of my favorite microphones for this kind of application, or for recording, is the Sennheiser MKH-40. It’s more of a high-end recording microphone, but it sounds very natural if you put that in front of the guitar with a slight bit of amplification.
JW: Are you usually using two mics, or just one?
ET: Just one. Again, we’re just looking to reinforce the guitar. We’re not trying to make the sound of the guitar come from the speaker; we’re trying to combine the natural acoustic properties of the instrument with a little bit of help.
JW: What are some of positive and negative experiences you’ve had with amplifying classical guitar?
ET: I’ve had some interesting ones, for sure. I worked with a guitarist that came through with the Baltimore classical guitar Society and we didn’t have much communication beforehand, but I was fully prepared to do a very natural setup like I’ve been describing. And we found out very quickly that he didn’t like that. There was a PA system built into the hall, with speakers along the walls—it was really more of a lecture hall—and he ended up preferring that. It highlighted that there is a range of preferences for this kind of thing. His mentality was “I want a big sound; I want sound hitting the audience from every direction.” Okay, cool. Another great experience was in a small recital, in pretty reverberant space, but it did need a bit of amplification, so we set up a Fishman Loudbox acoustic amplifier right next to the guitarist. And what was fantastic about it was getting comments afterwards like, “Geez, you know, we saw the amplifier up there but why wasn’t it turned on?” But it was, of course, so that’s the kind of thing I’m looking for, because you know you got it right when you get that kind of reaction from the audience.
JW: Yeah, I’ve had somebody tell me that. I do quite a few house concerts, sometimes with 30-40 people, sometimes with a percussionist. And I use the Fishman Loudbox Mini, a pretty small amp, and I don’t really need it, but I like to play soft and have people be able to hear that, and when I play more loudly, I wanted to have more dynamics. And I’ve had more than a couple people say, “Do you just bring that just in case? How come you didn’t use it?” And I tell them “Yeah, it was on, actually.”
ET: That just means you’re doing it right. The way I think about it is, in recording there’s a technique that we use called parallel compression, where instead of compressing the peaks down, we bring the bottom up. We’re leaving the peaks in place but we’re bringing the bottom of the dynamic range up. That’s the way I think about sound reinforcement. Bringing up the quieter sections, so you’re supporting those, but you’ll leave room to expand and get louder. That to me is like the best possible way to go about it; it sounds very natural. I also consider psychoacoustics, which is the way that we perceive sound. It’s very hard to fool the human ear, so that’s why speaker placement, having it right next to you, maybe a little bit behind, and blending it, is so important. It makes your audience localize the sound of the guitar from where it’s coming from. The common mentality is the rock band approach—speakers on sticks—that comes from that whole idea of coverage, of how do you get the sound to cover everybody, and that’s not what this is about.
JW: You see that a lot in coffee houses, too. So, how is your strategy towards application differ when you’re amplifying a guitarists in an ensemble, with an orchestra, or with other guitarists, as opposed to solo, or is it essentially the same approach?
ET: It’s essentially the same approach. I’ve done a couple of ensembles where we a string quartet with guitar, and percussion, and things like that, and the approach is exactly the same, using that little bit of amplification with the speaker right next to the guitarist within the ensemble. Applying just enough amplification to get the balance right with the other instruments. Giving the guitar a little boost, because the guitar just cannot compete with violins, and cellos, and percussion, or whatever else.
JW: I’ve been playing lately with an awesome Brazilian percussionist, so yes, the amplification helps.
ET: You need it in that situation, just to get that balance. The thing that that sometimes gets me is when people over amplify. Do you use a microphone, or do you use a pickup in the guitar?
JW: I have a pickup in the guitar, an LR Baggs Anthem SL Classical, it’s a blended system with a mic in the guitar and a piezo pickup under the bridge.
ET: I’m familiar with those; I play acoustic guitar as well, and I have that same system on my acoustic guitar, and it does sound good.
JW: One thing I’ve found that helps is to use a preamp—it’s not absolutely necessary, if you go from the guitar into the Fishman it works, but it’s a little brittle. I’ve recently tried a new LR Baggs product called the Align Series, it’s a suite of pedals, originally four pedals, and they just released two new ones that I haven’t tried. You should check them out. I used them recently when I played with the percussionist, and I’m going to use them again in a couple of weeks. It’s four separate pedals: one pedal is for compression; the second is an equalizer; the third is for reverb; and the fourth is a DI, to go into a PA system, and also works as a mute switch. They are just coming out this month with new ones for delay and chorus.
ET: Wow, this is all from LR Baggs? That’s cool.
JW: They are really for acoustic guitar, not classical, necessarily. I’m sure classical must be a tiny market for them. If you look at their website, like at the artists they seem to sponsor, it’s all acoustic guitarists. They Anthem and, I think, the Lyric system, they do a separate version for classical guitar. I’m not sure what the difference is, but you would probably know.
ET: It’s probably a different frequency range that they kind of emphasize. Most classical guitarists shy away from pickups anyway, because they are bright and brittle most of the time. Have you tried the Fishman Aura pedals? They’ve been out for a little while now, and are very interesting. They’re modeled on a DI box, but what Fishman is doing is using impulse responses and convolution to basically kind of like blend your pickup sound. An impulse response of a similar guitar that was miked with a certain type of microphone. They have a bunch of generic presets, like a dreadknot style, or parlor style guitar, miked with a certain type of microphone, and you can dial through and see which one works with your pickup in your guitar body. It’s actually kind of cool. They do have some nylon string settings as well, so I use I use that live and it has a really nice tone.
JW: Do you perform around Baltimore very often?
ET: Yes, though not I’m not playing as much as I used to do, that’s for sure, but I’m still getting out there when I can.
JW: It’s rewarding to perform, definitely. So, have you worked with any classical guitarists that, how shall I say this, kind of get out there with amplification, like using sound processing, delay, loopers, or anything like that?
ET: (laughs) So, you know, the classic guitar set that dive into that stuff are few and far between.
I have been working with Zane Forshee, who’s on the guitar faculty at Peabody. I’ve done a few interesting things with him, though most of the work that I’ve been doing with Zane has been with electric guitar. We’re working on an Electric Counterpoint, by Steve Reich, doing a different approach, where we’re taking directs off different amplifiers and using impulse responses to model the microphone and speaker cabinet. Something I don’t think anybody has done yet.
JW: That piece would be interesting on nylon string guitar.
ET: It would probably be pretty frickin’ cool.
JW: Any other thoughts? This has been super helpful.
ET: Cool. I think one thing to emphasize, which is important, is the use of a microphone. This gets overlooked quite often, especially for classical guitarists. We’re so ingrained into using pickups, and you’re just not going to get the same kind of effect. You’re not going to get that magic like, “oh I didn’t know it was amplified.” With a pickup, as great as they are most the time, even if they have, like your Anthem system that does have a microphone with it, that microphones inside the guitar. So it’s picking up a completely different perspective. When I do any kind of blending, between a microphone and a pickup, I’m usually doing a percentage of about 70 percent microphone and 30 percent pickup. Honestly, most of time I feel like you can get away with a good microphone alone. The Loudbox allows you to blend like that; it has a mic input and the high impedance input for the pickup. For a minimalist setup, you can use a clamp-on microphone. The DPA dvote Core 4099 for guitar is great. It’s small, clamps on the on the body, has a little gooseneck that comes out in front of the sound hole, so you don’t need a stand, and it’s great if you’re a player who moves around. That mic with a full range loudspeaker, and as I said, with the placement of the speaker close to the performer, right next to the guitarist, is really key. I like to have the amplifier right next to the guitarist, maybe at the most like a foot behind the actual guitar itself, really close. If the guitarist wants to hear more of it, just angling the amp in towards the guitarist works well. You don’t need a lot of amplification, just so the guitarist can feel it.
JW: Great, thank you so much yeah, this has been very helpful.
ET: Glad I can help out, this was cool.
Ed Tetreault is currently the manager of the Recording Arts & Sciences department of the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University, and has extensive experience in the field of audio recording. https://peabody.jhu.edu/faculty/ed-tetreault/