Interview with Manuel Barrueco: Amplification and Classical Guitar, part 4
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/
Manuel Barrueco, the legendary Cuban-born classical guitarist, who performs throughout the world and teaches at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, shares his thoughts on amplification and classical guitar. In 2011, Manuel Barrueco received the United States Artist Fontanals Fellowship for Artistic Excellence. Thanks also to his wife and manager, Asgerdur Sigurdardottir, for her assistance with the interview.
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?
Manuel Barrueco: Ideally, it would be best not to amplify, as it will probably color the sound and most likely in a negative way. Having said that, the public must hear the music, and comfortably, if not, what’s the point? Just as important, we, the players, must feel like we are being heard, otherwise the performance becomes a struggle.
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?
MB: The amplification should strive to make the amplified sound as close as possible to the player’s sound, and ideally it should not be so loud that it sounds obviously amplified. I am lucky to have my wife Asgerdur travel with me and help me with the sound, as it is impossible, at least for me, to know what it sounds like out in the audience from the stage. My conversation with the engineer is a simple “do as she says, she knows exactly what I want.” Whenever I run into one of these guys that tries to explain to me all these great ideas they have about amplification, I think to myself “oh, boy, here we go!” I’ll listen carefully and say “Great! Now please listen to her, she knows what I want!”
Any previous conversations with the engineer would be about the speakers we feel work really well with the guitar, positioning of the speakers, and of course the microphone. It would be surprising what even in some prestigious venues they call ‘speakers.’ I mean, they can be awful! So, it’s best to bring your speaker and microphone, and I do exactly that whenever possible, but much of the time this would be impractical. I do carry, however, my own microphone whenever I think I might need it, when playing with an orchestra or in a large hall.
JW: What are some positive, and negative, experiences you have had regarding amplification?
MB: When the amplification is great, it’s fantastic for the player. All of a sudden you have more dynamics, you feel like you can be heard, and it widens the range for expression. There’s more sound and therefore more that you can do. Would it be better if it were an instrument that did not have to be amplified? Yes. But if you are in a big place and you’re not going to be heard comfortably by the public, then this is a much better choice. As long as it’s of the highest quality. It’s horrible when you have bad amplification, and it doesn’t matter what beautiful sound you might be able to produce, it’s going to get screwed by the amplification. Even if you have the most expressive instrument in the world, when you amplify it, the amplification becomes an extension of your instrument. So, to feel that the audience is hearing a sound that is of less quality than you can make, it’s very disturbing as you’re playing. Also, it can sometimes be a challenge to work with the sound people, who have all these buttons and they want to push them and turn them. Sometimes you get a very creative one who wants to do all these things and it can be a problem. That being said, some people think the eq should be left flat. I don’t think that’s necessarily true at all. I think what we’re trying to do is make the amplified sound as close as possible to the way I sound. In that sense, the amplification needs to be equalized sometimes. It’s not as simple as to just put a microphone and that’s it. We’re ultimately trying to get the amplified sound to sound as closely as possible to the non-amplified sound.
Sometimes things happen that can be heartbreaking. I did the premier of Spectral Canticle, a Toru Takemitsu concerto for violin, guitar, and orchestra, that was written for myself and Frank Peter Zimmermann, a German violinist who in my opinion is one of the best violinists in the world. It was conducted by Franz Welser-Möst who is one of the most prestigious conductors right now. The piece begins with an introduction by the orchestra, and the amplification was run by this genius who decided we were going to have speakers everywhere, so when the guitar came in it was very loudly amplified. It was a knife through my heart, because it ruined the intent of the piece and therefore the piece in general. But you live and learn. I didn’t know then very much about amplification, but because of that experience, I learned a couple of things, and that hasn’t happened again since.
JW: How does the level of “control” you are able to exert when you are touring compare to situations where you are on your home turf, such as at Peabody?
MB: Once I became convinced that your amplification system is an extension of your instrument, I made sure to have my own equipment. The speaker is a studio monitor and delicate to travel with, especially by air. After 9/11, traveling with it became a pain in the neck because TSA would take it apart, unscrew the back of the speaker to see inside I guess, and they would often unplug or rip out some of the wiring. I remember one concert where my wife had to be soldering wires right before the sound check with an orchestra. It became such a pain in the neck to travel with it. So now I have a second one that I can take for touring, and it’s still very good, but not as good as the one I can use around Baltimore, or anywhere I can go driving distance.
JW: What is some of amplification equipment that you use regularly, either when touring or closer to home?
MB: For amplification, my ideal equipment is a Genelec 8050 studio monitor. We used to travel with an older Genelec, and it got broken so often after 9/11, we had TSA people actually unscrewing the back of it and thus pulling out and disconnecting the wires and screwing it back together, and we wouldn’t know until we got to the concert if it still worked! So, we stopped traveling with that one and started traveling with a Meyer UPM-1P, which fits in a cabin-bag and we can take on board. However, it’s super heavy and not as good as the Genelec. I use a Neumann microphone KM-84. We have a small preamp that fits in Asgerdur’s purse, a Symetrix SX202, but they don’t make it any more. We bought another one before they became unavailable just to have as a back-up if I ever needed it.
JW: 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?
MB: Yes, when you are on your own you don’t have to think about the mix, it’s only you. When I perform with a quartet, I like to have the amplification either right in front of me or right next to me. I want the audience to hear the guitar (amplified) sound from where I am. Then it depends on the piece how much sound is needed. Sometimes it has to be adjusted between pieces. Daugherty’s “Bay of Pigs” needs more sound than the Vivaldi as an example. Funny enough, in Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, you don’t need all that much amplification, except for a couple of moments in the first movement, It’s sort of magical how it works, and it has to do with the way you orchestrate a piece. But sometimes when you’re playing with an orchestra you may have to go past that point where it now sounds amplified. Hopefully not too much. Also, a good conductor will not want you to sound too amplified, so he or she will control the orchestra so you don’t have to get so loud. It depends on a lot of things, the piece itself, some pieces have loud moments and you have to deal with that. But the basic idea is the same, you want to avoid pushing the amplification beyond the point it sounds too amplified.
JW: How does your approach to live amplification differ from your approach to studio recording?
MB: When you get in the recording studio, you can easily spend an hour or more trying to get the microphone placement just right to get the perfect sound. So likewise, when you amplify, it’s not just a matter of just sticking the microphone in front of the guitar, and that’s it. You need to spend time with your equipment, to know it, because something as simple as the placement of the mic will make a huge difference. The same equipment with a different mic placement, and you get a totally different sound.