Interview with Xuefei Yang: Amplification and Classical Guitar, part 2
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/
Xuefei Yang, one of the world’s finest classical guitarists and the first internationally recognized Chinese guitarist on the global stage, shares her thoughts on amplifying classical guitar in performance.
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?
Xuefei Yang: The guitar is by nature an intimate instrument and the sound of the guitar has a different character when you listen at close quarters, compared to listening at a distance. The guitar is perhaps best suited to performing in a salon where audiences can enjoy the beauty, richness, roundness, and nuance of the sound that we hear at close quarters. In larger halls, sometimes the acoustic is flattering and allows many of these qualities to carry over greater distances, which is great. When the acoustic is not so helpful, I believe that modern amplification can help the audience enjoy the beauty of sound and the nuance that we hear close up, and thereby enhance their enjoyment of the performance. It’s a fallacy to think there is a “true” sound of guitar—the sound we hear is shaped significantly by our surroundings. So for me, performing should be about the audience experience, and if tasteful amplification can help, then so be it.
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?
XY: I have a rider that my agent sends to the hall in advance of the concert outlining the nature of amplification that is desired and a suggestion of equipment that can typically achieve this. The more established venues often have some equivalent equipment and we agree to use their system. Other venues hire in specific equipment. For local venues I have my own basic kit that I can travel with that gives a decent sound. For the sound check, I meet the engineer on the concert day and we work together to try and find the sound I am looking for, so the soundcheck consists of playing, listening & making adjustments.
It’s always useful to have someone listen for you from different angles as what I hear on stage is different from what the audience hears in the auditorium. At same time, I have to be comfortable with the sound I hear on stage. Different people, professionals included, have different tastes in term of volumes and tone, and acoustics can change when a large hall is filled with people, so it can be tricky to find a balance. I pay more attention to the sound these days when playing in large halls, as it is a big factor affecting the audiences appreciation of a performance.
JW: What are some positive, and negative, experiences you have had regarding amplification?
XY: Providing that you have decent equipment and a decent engineer, the only other variable is the hall itself. Some halls are very balanced and the sound is basically the same no matter where you sit. In other halls, despite the best efforts of the engineers, the sound varies depending on where you sit in the hall—in these circumstances the amplification won’t be ideal for all listeners. In these situations, it’s about making decent sound for the majority.
Amplifying for concertos can be more tricky than for solo performances; when playing with orchestras, their dynamic can be so large so it’s more tricky to find a level for the guitar—it can be too quiet or too big.
When the amplification is done well, I usually find the majority of the audience enjoys the concert more. When it’s not done well, then both my enjoyment and that of the audience is lower.
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?
XY: When touring on my own, control only exists in the conversations during the sound check. During the performance all the sound system controls are with the engineer—the only control I have during performance is how I choose to position myself in relation to the microphone. I often rely on someone I trust to listen, and ask them to monitor the sound during the concert. If I am playing locally, using my own equipment, I do have a little more control over levels and other variables. At the Changsha Festival where I’m artistic director, we have a good hall for recitals, and only need a bit of sound enhancement, and we have good team doing the sound.
JW: Do you use amplification in smaller settings. such as smaller recital halls?
XY: For me the question of whether to use amplification is not just dictated by the size of the hall. You can get small halls that have poor acoustics, and big halls with great acoustics. In general, if a space has a good acoustic then I don’t use amplification (the biggest I have done without amplification is the 2,000 seat Esplanade in Singapore). If the acoustic is poor or if I am performing a concerto then I tend to use amplification. Regarding concertos, even the loudest guitar can’t really compare with orchestral instruments—it’s not just a question of volume, but also the roundness of sound. Guitars, when played unamplified, can sometimes sound rather thin compared to orchestral instruments. If you push too much to get more volume then you lose tone. So amplification can help here.
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?
XY: Different chamber settings require different approaches for sure—you don’t amplify a guitar to play a concerto with orchestra in the same way as you would playing with a cellist, for example. I don’t have any rules—it’s all about listening and fitting in to the music texture that is required. It also depends on the music; in Vivaldi it is hard for the guitar to be heard when playing tutti even with just a few string players, however in Boccherini it will be easier for the guitar to be heard.
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.?
XY: I think perhaps the most important ingredient is the microphone. I like using good quality condenser microphones that give a flat response. Generally these are provided by the hall, so the brand and model varies from place to place. At home I have my own mics and an adapted AER amp that I can take with me. I’d let the in house engineer at large halls do their job as they know their venue better than me.
JW: How does your approach to live amplification differ from your approach to studio recording?
XY: In terms of playing, I believe playing live and playing for a recording do have some fundamental differences—small nuances can come over clearly on a recording, but may easily get lost on stage. It’s rather like acting; television actors can express an emotion by just raising an eyebrow, whilst a stage actor requires a grander gesture to express the same emotion. Loosely speaking, performing is about conveying the large scale structure and shape—the panorama, whilst in a recording you can see things close up and need to be clearer with the detail.
JW: Any other thoughts on the topic?
XY: There is something very human, natural and fundamentally beautiful in hearing a musical instrument played in its raw state, and if the acoustic of the venue allows, that is always my preferred way to perform. However we live in the real world, and often required to play to large numbers of people in venues that are not ideal for the instrument. We have an obligation to bringing the best of our instrument to the audience—tasteful amplification can help achieve this.
Xuefei Yang: Official website : www.xuefeiyang.com
Watch on YT : www.youtube.com/XuefeiYangGuitar
Listen on Spotify : https://open.spotify.com/artist/0HTpLUNPRxYfmKRrnluHfq