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Discussion Starter #1
How was the state of amplification in the 50's?

Let's take a typical piano, bass, drums and sax quartet band in a club setting. How did the bass get heard? How about the pianist playing on an upright piano? How could the drummer not overpower everyone in the band?

I'm just curious as it seems live music played on acoustic instruments without ridiculous amplification is a dying art (as suggested by the recent ffff rant thread).
 

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I would've been a tween and then a teen. I played in acoustic bands then, both R&R and jazz. The only "electronics" would've been a vocal mic.

The adult professional bands that I heard were mainly in club settings but even in large settings their situation was the same as I described. Thing is, players had huge acoustic sounds. A bass player could rattle your teeth, for example, not with loudness, but with fullness, presence and projection. I heard Basie's band live in a HS auditorium and the only mics I saw, not saying there weren't any others there, but the only ones I saw were the solo mics up front. And the band filled the place with sound.
 

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Interesting that you bring this up as I'm currently reading the autobiography of bassist Pops Foster (1892 - 1969). There's one passage in the book where he brings up the issue of volume saying something to the effect that a bass player's biggest problem was drummers. He liked Baby Dodds. Others not so much. And there are a couple of passages in the book where he says that in the early days they played "soft and hot" and that it was often so quiet you could hear the dancer's feet sliding along the floor.

As for the '50s, I wasn't around but you can hear from recordings that rhythm sections played differently back then. Drums less loudly and certainly with less density. Horn players delivering a melody were presented pretty much like a singer would be, everything built around them. I think one day I'm gonna do a record like that…where everybody plays all soft! In fact, there's one band I play in (sax, bass & drums) where the bassist plays without an amplifier.

I think there's a lot of sonic territory inherent to the saxophone that has been kind of eliminated over the decades as volume and power become more and more desirable. Makes me like Pop's comment about "soft and hot" more and more...
 

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How was the state of amplification in the 50's?
That's a very interesting question. I can't see much evidence of amplification in this well known 'photo. Only the guitar and vocals. The other players, as Gary has said, had the skill to fill the room with sound unaided.

 

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Discussion Starter #5
Looking at pics is a great idea.













It seems there was some sort of amplification but it didn't go beyond one or two 'room' mics, most probably ribbon or condensers. No dynamic mics here.
 

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The thing to remember is that PA is not to make a band louder. It's to put the sound where you want it.

In the fifties, PA's were for vocals and solos. Nothing else was put through a PA. If you listen to an old altec lansing A7, which was on of the most common PA speakers, you'll understand why.

PA design didn't really start to get modern until Woodstock. Even the Beatles concert at Shea stadium was a bunch of tiny PA's tied together. I have it from a few sources that no one could hear the music anyway, the crowd of screaming fans were too loud. I think that audiences inability to keep quiet was what mostly drove the volume of PA systems for several years.
 

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I would love it if bass players played acoustically today. It would make the drummers play quieter.
On a few occasions I had the pleasure to play with unamplified bassists, it just creates a natural balance.

When I talk to sax players who were around in the 50's over here, they say that the common practice in those days was to hire a trio without bass, sax-piano-drums.
 

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Well, as long as you're showing 50s band photos. The Tikis, ca 1958. The guy on the far right actually played piano but it wouldn't fit in the photo.

 

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Well, as long as you're showing 50s band photos. The Tikis, ca 1958. The guy on the far right actually played piano but it wouldn't fit in the photo.

The piano?
 

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The piano?
I don't understand the question. He played piano like Jerry Lee Lewis - but he left the 13 year olds alone. :bluewink:. There wasn't enough room physically to squeeze the piano into the photo frame, so he grabbed a guitar (which he could also play).
 

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I have read elsewhere that drum kits may have become louder over the decades, at least partly due to the use of different wood materials.
 

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Discussion Starter #12
I have read elsewhere that drum kits may have become louder over the decades, at least partly due to the use of different wood materials.
Yes this is true. The design of the skins and material used (from calfskin to synthetic by the end of the 50's), of the cymbals (thicker and heavier) and the transition from rounded to sharp bearing edges just made drum sets the monsters they are today. I bet it was physically easier to play quiet on these vintage setups for the simple reason the drum set was quieter, less percussive and had far less overtones. As far as I'm concerned, I would be delighted to jam with a drummer playing that kind of set.
 

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I just watched "Anatomy of a Murder" and saw Duke Ellington in a cameo playing his own music. You get the live band scene here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeKp1Mq25kc

The problem with watching bands on movies is that they rarely, if ever, recorded them live. In fact, all movie musicals, including the vocals are pre-recorded. I think there are one or two exceptions in the 60s, where they did a production number live. What most folks don't realize is how freaking LOUD film cameras are. If you tried to record a band, and had two or three cameras rolling, you would hear too much camera noise.

These days, even dialogue is 'looped' (recorded after the fact to replace the 'live' dialogue).
 

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I still play in 50's style big bands and occasionally with acoustic bass. Mike placement varies. Very often only 1 mike in front of saxes and one for the vocalist. The drummer was always way back. Bands were set up to balance. Saxes front, trombones behind saxes, trumpets behind trombones. Bass players developed very strong calloused index fingers and could be heard. In large ballrooms or in recording studios more mikes were used. Things were simple then. There were only a few brands of mouthpieces or reeds to choose from. Brilhart mouthpieces were $7.00 and everyone used Rico Reeds in the brown box. 25 reeds in the box and most of them played.
 

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Some bass players put the strings higher off the fret board and pulled hard. A bass player friend told me he saw Scott Lafaro play live and was sitting next to the bandstand and could not hear him at all because his action was low and he played so lightly. The same guy studied with Ray Brown at Oscar Peterson's School of Music in the 1960's and said Ray never used an amp at that time and always was easily heard.
 

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Discussion Starter #18
Some bass players put the strings higher off the fret board and pulled hard. A bass player friend told me he saw Scott Lafaro play live and was sitting next to the bandstand and could not hear him at all because his action was low and he played so lightly. The same guy studied with Ray Brown at Oscar Peterson's School of Music in the 1960's and said Ray never used an amp at that time and always was easily heard.
The thing with bass is they used gut strings which allowed for higher actions without too much string tension or too much risk of injury. Gut is more gentle on your fingers, and more stretchy than metal. It also sounds so much better.

everyone used Rico Reeds in the brown box. 25 reeds in the box and most of them played.
Those good old days are sure gone...
 

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martinm5862 said:
everyone used Rico Reeds in the brown box. 25 reeds in the box and most of them played....
Those good old days are sure gone...
Did most of them play or were most of them made to play?

In this age of instant gratification, most players I see go into seizures if a reed doesn't play right out of the box. When I was a teen, the older players seemed to be able to either work around the idiosyncrasies of a reed or they whipped out a blade and whittled some adjustments to the reed until it did work.
 

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Don't put too much stock in the old pictures with microphones either - sometimes the mics were only for a radio broadcast. I can speak to the scene in the early days for local rock bands and various combos/stage bands. No PA system. Nothing at all for the combos/stage bands unless there was a guitar or electric bass. Rock bands only had instrument amps and the singers plugged their mic into their guitar amp. I bought myself a Silvertone (Danelectro for Sears) piggy-back amp with six Jensen Special Design 10" speakers just to play sax through. I later got a Fender Super Reverb with four Jensen 10" which was easier to get around. I used a Shure PE55S with these. That was the most-used mic of the '50s and '60s and is usually shown backwards in 'retro' pictures made recently.

This looks like it would be omnidirectional but is actually very unidirectional. To play sax in it you raised it up then bent it down to point to the bell. The design of it with all the openings was not to let sound in - it was to let it out for cleaner sound. This original mic had a huge diaphragm and really worked well for voices and horns. I still swear by Shure and use a Beta 57A.
As things progressed into the '60s, the band I was in in '65 still had no real PA. We had a 50 watt Bogen 'suitcase' PA with two speakers that clamshelled together with the amp inside for carrying. It wasn't until '66 that I got into a band that had a column PA, like a Kustom or Electrovoice. However, going back to about '61, I was seeing bands that had rudimentary PAs consisting sometimes of a Fender Bassman head with a dual-15" cabinet on each side. Also, there was a very odd Electrovoice system with what we called 'banana' speakers - a narrow, curved speaker housing with a row of small speakers that was deployed vertically, and they were even a yellowish beige color! They actually sounded good and were easy to transport. I was not in a band with big box speakers and a sound board until '74, although obviously these systems existed well before that. The 'Voice of the Theater' A7 cabinets were extremely popular at that time and many local and certainly regional acts had a sound man and used a snake for remote board location. By that time everything was mic'd including drums.
Sax players played differently then - it was all about volume. The Selmer MK VI came about mainly as an answer to the new volume/projection requirements because of increasing amplification/electrification of previously acoustic instruments. Every week there was a new mouthpiece, and everybody was going 'metal'. The Berg Larsen and Brilhart Level Air were hot. In other words, it was getting busier on stage and the older more mellow horns were not cutting it. Now we have come full circle and amplification is taken for granted on every level, so sax players don't have to get hernias trying to keep up with guitar amps - so now we are after the deeper, more mellow sound again and everybody is making a 'vintage' line of saxes.
This has been great for me - I have learned to play easier and concentrate on tone and warmth; but I have not given up my MK VI tenor or Guardala King Curtis - I just learned to make them speak in a better voice. Great horns and mouthpieces are like that - they can be anything.
 
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