A synthesizer driven low frequency sine wave voice, doubled by the celeste player was added to the traditional orchestra in my “Symphony: Venus and Vulcan in America“.
The orchestra is an extremely flexible sonic organism – capable of sounds yet unheard. The addition of low, pure tones were not added because I felt that the orchestra needed it; nor did I add them because this little techie gimmick made up for some kind of sound-palette boredom. It’s only because I am in love with sound itself and tested the following hypothesis to see if others feel the same:
People love low frequencies when they are the basis of musical harmony.
Low frequency tones provide a sense of foundation and solidness when the frequencies support harmony as a primary fundamental. When low frequencies are not the foundation of harmony, or chaotic/noise in make up, they trigger a warning deep in our brains: thunder, earthquake, something large in motion – that incites fear.
Consumer driven economics brought low bass into our lives. I was introduced to it as a young man through Rhythm and Blues and Country songs playing through a hi-fi at my father’s apartment. Those two genres pushed the low end before rock and pop did by recording clean, direct signal straight out of an electric bass, (maybe a long-necked Fender in RnB – or a 6 string electric bass doubled by an acoustic bass in country) directly onto tape instead of miking the speaker cabinet, band or acoustic bass in the studio. The studio engineer could keep the levels high in comparison to the other musical parts because of the advent of a device called a compressor. A compressor makes loud parts softer and soft parts louder of whatever is sent through it. The louder finger pluck of a bass became the same volume as the body tone of the note – and the volume of the entire note would be the same – the compressor amplifying the quiet parts of a long sounding note – the pure tone. Though that sound was not able to be reproduced in live shows without expensive equipment, it could be reproduced in the better home stereos of the 70s. Up until that time period, too much bass would be a source of complaint and returns from consumers with average record players because their needles might jump out of the groove, and their playback would be significantly quieter because so much of the available signal volume was required by the low frequencies that their system could not reproduce.
Many advances in technology opened the door for better sound reproduction in recorded music. Music studios had moved to multitrack formats by the early 70s which allowed the bass to be recorded separately – the isolation protecting its purity and thus usability. Car radios began to reproduce low frequencies because of the development of cheaper, more powerful amplifiers transistors driving larger speakers (the new norm being a single 6×9 speaker in the middle of the dashboard) and a move towards the better sounding signals from FM radio. For stereo lovers at home, the “acoustic suspension” speaker design became popular because it was able to produce low frequencies with the new amplifiers, replacing of the huge Voice of the Theater style speaker boxes previously used by audiophiles in the 50s and 60s. What was mono was stereo. Turntables had to improve to reduce low frequency rumble that was for the first time being heard. Stereo vinyl LPs required sophisticated pickup systems. Reel-to-reel tape machines
The orchestra has quite a few instruments that reside in the sub bass frequencies, the bass drum being the most important. It is the most powerful instrument in the orchestra by a long margin and it is used for dramatic power since the early 19th century. However, the bass drum produces less pitch than noise (non-periodic fluctuations) inciting fear, excitement and power. The reason that we don’t hear strong low frequencies from the winds and strings is because the acoustic powered instruments which produce that frequency region (string basses, tuba, contrabassoon, contrabass clarinet) cannot produce their fundamental frequencies with power. Most of the sound in their lower register is harmonic content: multiples of the low frequency. For example a piano playing the lowest A of 27.5Hz has very little of the actual 27.5Hz in that sound. Instead the multiples of that frequency (55Hz, 82.5Hz, 110Hz, 137.5Hz, etc are heard – each called a “harmonic”. Our hearing ‘fills in’ that fundamental pitch based upon the harmonic structure – we think it’s there – but it is not (at least it is very quiet in comparison). Much of our perceptions are similar: the brain ‘fills in’ the blind spot in our vision automatically.
There’s a scientific reason for not getting much pure fundamental low frequency from an acoustic bass instrument: they are simultaneously hard to create and hard to hear. Musicians don’t have the lung capacity or bowing power to make low frequencies loud enough to hear or feel through those limited soundboard mechanisms or resonating tubes at the heart of the instruments. We don’t have the arm power to activate the acoustic bass if it could. We’d run out of wind very quickly. The chart to the left graphs how well humans hear at different loudnesses. Low frequencies are on the left side and high frequencies on the right. The closer the line is to the bottom, the more sensitive our ears are to that frequency. Each pair of lines represents a certain loudness level. Modern loudspeakers and amplifiers can make low frequency sounds as loud as we like in order to overcome the lack of sensitivity low frequencies. For “Venus and Vulcan in America” this was done by delivering a sine wave generated by the tiny Roland JX-3M analog synthesizer to an amplified subwoofer system.
The sub/pedal part is doubled by the celeste player and placed next to it in the score. For the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra Premiere I received two OSC subs from ShowSystems Inc (thank you !). These units produced a solid sound over 32 Hz. To give me a bit more under 32Hz, the excellent Bob Carr sound crew added the subs from the house system corrected for the 43 feet 5 inch timing delay. This allowed us to easily present the required pure low sine waves to the entire house at low relative levels. The house subs were at the far left and right stage edges – the OSC subs were placed center up stage against the back wall, stacked. This proved to be well balanced and not too loud at any seat. The goal was to make it present and felt – but not noticed.
The result? I received many comments on the dramatic power of the sound. Those who knew about the subwoofers loved what they did to the music.