So what does the orchestra hear?
The magic of good sound starts in the orchestra pit with the musicians. A violinist needs to hear what they’re actually playing—that they’re bowing the right notes at accurate pitch (whether they sound “in tune” or “out of tune”) and rhythm (whether they’re plucking or bowing notes at the right time).
To do this, they also need to hear lower notes from the double bass at the back of the orchestra, and the timpanis thumping along and keeping time in the back row. Naturally, if the musicians can hear themselves and their colleagues, they’ll perform better.
Gunter Engel and Jürgen Reinhold are two of the engineers from Austrian company Müller-BBM that worked on making the JST sound great. “As a musician you adapt to what you hear,” says Engel. “If the room is dry (if there is no natural reverberation), a string player will change the manner of their bowing.”
For woodwinds such as the clarinet, Engel stresses the importance of tonal quality (how ‘rich’ they might be perceived to sound). A good clarinettist may be able to play fast, but it’s often the slow, thoughtful passages that set them apart from an amateur.
By adding extra reverberation (a type of echo) to the hall, sound engineers are able to pick up the subtler textures of sound and bounce it around the hall. The subtle, softer notes that might otherwise fade away like a faint echo are able to be spread through the hall.
Doing this requires the perfect seating arrangement as well as a network of discreet speakers in the pit. “We ask the musicians about how they perceive their own instruments—what their perception of the space in the pit is, especially when we have acoustic enhancements in there. We try to find the perfect settings to make it as natural as possible for them.”
While it’s easy to believe that the instruments are just being ‘amplified’ by computer software, Engel stresses this is a common misconception. “In the pit, we try to improve sound without any noticeable or measurable increase of sound level (decibels, or ‘dB’). We try to bring the impression of a bigger room to the musicians, so they have a better feeling of how it sounds to the audience.”