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Why They Call it "Sound Reinforcement"

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Date: Sat, 5 Jan 2013 Time: 6:58 PM

By Fred J Roger

A live "sound reinforcement" system (like the ones used in concert venues, churches, and music festivals) is a collection of electronic components that allow sound waves to be converted into electrical signal, amplified, and then converted back into audible sound, usually at a much higher volume level. If operated correctly, a good system will recreate and amplify the original sound with clarity and accuracy.

If desired, the original sound's characteristics may be enhanced or altered by the system's various features, such as equalizers and effects processors. The more features a system has, the more versatile it becomes. However, these features are also double-edged swords, and when used incorrectly, they may help to destroy the sound quality of a singer's voice or musician's instrument rather than to enhance it.

One important thing for beginning sound engineers to remember is that a public address (P.A.) or sound reinforcement system is not truly a source of sound. It is merely an amplification device that takes the original source of sound, such as a human voice, and amplifies it to a much greater volume level. The original source may be enhanced by the system's controls and various audio treatments may be applied, but the human voice, instrument, or other component still remains the true sound source. That is why the most common term for sound system application today is "sound reinforcement." The operator is using the equipment to reinforce an existing sound rather than to create a sound.

This is important because many sound engineers erroneously think that they must completely overpower the original sound and allow the listener to only hear the sound of the PA system. This creates an impossibly loud and irritating audio environment that is usually plagued by feedback and annoying acoustical problems.

It is true that stadium rock concert sound systems may require operation at a level that is many times greater than the sources of on-stage sound (the performer's instruments). However, this high volume level is only necessary when trying to provide sound for thousands of people. In addition, these big systems are designed especially for such applications. In a smaller venue, a more subtle approach is the only way to achieve a good quality mix.

This is where some good common sense is helpful. When an engineer listens to a group of musicians performing, he or she should pay careful attention to both the big picture as well as each instrument's sound quality. A sound engineer is a painter who must paint an "audio picture." Like a good painter, one must step back and look at the overall canvas yet somehow simultaneously maintain a close, almost microscopic view of the details.

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