Sounds Around Us by Paul M. MacDonald

IT'S ONLY 80 YEARS SINCE MUSICIANS stood around a big horn to cut the first recordings of fiddle music. Here we are in the '90s; digital technology has given us DAT and hard disk recorders and of course … the CD format. CD is not simply a great commercial format to release music on. New CD recorders present archivists with a convenient and practical format, offering random access at the touch of a remote.

The practice of 'acoustics' is as old as the practice of Lutherie (instrument making). Throughout history, the science of Acoustics has been studied by students of architecture, physics, philosophy and music. From the time of the ancient Greeks, this science has been used to amplify sound and to create natural reverb in performance theatres.

Since the advent of electricity (the same invention that brought us digital technology) this practice has been lost to architects and interior designers, sure, they are still building great theatres, churches, studios and other performance spaces, but the 'traditional' environment of the Acoustic musician is often overlooked. Many acoustic musicians are unaware of the fact that their surroundings directly affect the performance of their instrument and consequently their own performances.

Carpet is one of the worst acoustical offenders. It can suck the life right out of the fiddle, the player, and the listener too! If you play the fiddle at home, and you find that you get disgusted and frustrated, and your wife and kids are leaving every time you take the fiddle out of its case, then chances are it's not just your playing, but it's also the room acoustics that cause the fiddle to sound shrill, cutting and lifeless. A poor room can quickly steal away the sonority and soul that the fiddlemaker spent so much time developing. You have to really struggle to play the fiddle! Combine that with a room full of noisy people and you have a battle!

Carpet, foam, suspended ceilings, fiberboard, wallpaper, foam furniture... this stuff is all used extensively in modern buildings and homes. Such materials cause sound to be absorbed and reflected unevenly. The result is a sound from the fiddle that is lacking in low and mid frequencies with louder high frequencies that are rough, shrill and cutting. This type of fiddle tone can trash the human ear in a very short time and extended playing can result in severe ear fatigue. At this point nothing sounds good!

If you want to hear the pure tone from your fiddle, take it outside and play it. Air absorbs sound's component frequencies and harmonics more evenly than any material. Although you will hear a dry sound with zero reverb time, playing the fiddle outdoors can reveal hidden secrets in its tone that perhaps you haven't heard before.

We can look to tradition for solutions to these acoustical problems. A walk through any of the classic old homes in Cape Breton can reveal practical and suitable acoustic design. It's also important to consider what is a practical space for the performance of music. A church may have a lovely sound for choirs and orchestras, but for fiddle music something a lot more intimate is required. A smaller room with hard plaster in combination with a generous coverage of wood creates a lively space for the fiddle. Plain wooden furniture is a better choice for playing music. A hardwood floor is nice and bright but a softwood floor is just as suitable. Most of all though... throw your carpet out. (If you have an asthmatic kid then that's all the more reason, too.) Your fiddle will sound much better ... even your radio will sound better!


by Paul MacDonald

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last upddate 8/6/98