Acoustical Archaeologists Solve the Mystery of the Doge's Stereo System

By Veronique Greenwood | November 3, 2011 12:25 pm

Saint Mark’s basilica was where many Venetian polyphonic works had their debut performances, but the reverb presented a puzzle for historians.

Ah, the Renaissance—lots of deep thinkers, gorgeous art, busty maidens, fried dough on a stick (if Ren faires are to be believed), and the liveliest music this side of the Middle Ages. But when you compare the elaborate, up-tempo harmonies of late Renaissance polyphony to the churches where they would have been performed, a serious discrepancy pops up. Giant Renaissance churches like Saint Mark’s basilica and the Redentore, both in Venice, have way too long of a reverberation time for those tunes to sound good. It takes a full 7 seconds for a note to fade after it’s played or sung, and that means that songs, especially fast ones, blend into a giant muddy mess.

A physicist and a music technologist, who presented their work at the American Acoustical Society on Monday, wondered if the churches, when packed full of people and hung with heavy draperies during holy festivals, might have sounded much better than they do today. Working with architectural historians, they calculated the chairs, drapery, and audience members’ ability to absorb sound. With a computer model of the churches, they were able to show that with full-on holy regalia and a crowded audience, the reverberation time was cut in half. They took their analysis even further to see if the small pergoli, or balconies, installed by an architect in Saint Mark’s would have enhanced the experience of a person sitting in the Doge’s throne when a choir was split between them (all the rage in Renaissance Venice). Indeed, they found that with a split choir in a fully decorated church, the reverberation time at the Doge’s throne was reduced to a mere 1.5 or 2 seconds, which is the gold standard for modern concert halls.

To hear the Doge’s stereo system for yourself, click here and scroll to the bottom of the page.

[via ScienceNOW]

Image courtesy of Andreas Tille / Wikimedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Technology
  • Scott Belyea

    I suggest that there’s a small bit of basic research missing here, both on the part of the authors of the paper and on your part for accepting what they say uncritically – have there been modern “studio recordings” in San Marco, and if so, how do they sound?

    A trip to the basement produced 2 late 60’s/early 70’s Columbia LP’s – Vol. 1 & 2 of “The Glory of Gabrieli – Music for Multiple Choirs, Brass, and Organ,” featuring E. Power Biggs and a host of others.

    First, they sound fine to my ears, and one can find reviews on-line complimenting the sound and making no references to “muddiness.”

    Second, the liner notes make no mention of serious acoustical problems when recording.

    Third, no mention is made of restoring heavy hanging draperies or simulating a full audience (and I doubt whether that could have been afforded).

    And fourth, the ablility to adjust sound was certainly crude in 1967 by today’s standards, and no mention is made of post-production twiddling.

    It’s an interesting article with an unsurprising conclusion, but I sense a strawman of some stature here …

  • Scott Belyea

    And one additional comment from the liner notes –

    “.. when his nephew Giovanni joined him as organist in 1584, the music of Venice had not only lost its Flemish polyphonic character but had taken on a more vertical chordal style that was very emphatic in its voice leading in order to meet the need for clarity in the reverberant acoustics of the building.”

  • Veronique Greenwood

    @Scott, you bring up some good points!

    First of all, just on the topic of how “good” this music sounds in modern recordings in churches, I think that the average listener is more likely to enjoy the effects of reverb than a hardcore audiophile is (I definitely like a little myself). We’ve gotten used to hearing this stuff performed in big open churches, with that long reverberation time, and tend to think of it as a signature of early music. It’s what makes it sound “old,” right? But that’s probably not how the music was intended to sound, given the intricacy of Renaissance polyphony. When you have that many notes, changing that quickly, clarity is important, at least from the composer and performer’s point of view.

    Secondly, if you’ve ever recorded a concert in a church (I used to perform regularly in a chapel that had so much reverb we called it “the bathtub”), you know that where you put the mics makes a big difference. In the case of the recordings from the 60s, I would guess that whomever set up the recording equipment put it in the chancel, where the Doge’s throne would have been, and where the researchers found that even without the draperies and such, the reverb was cut to about 4 seconds.

    Our sense of many types of music is influenced by how they are micced–take the Chinese guqin zither, for instance, which, unamplified, is so quiet as to be inaudible to people sitting more than a few feet away. Yet it is always super-loud on recordings, because the mic is placed right under the strings.

    Thanks for the food for thought, and kudos to you for digging out the LPs!

  • Scott Belyea

    Veronique, I agree with much of what you say, but there are a couple of sentences that seem to me to go badly off the rails, and on which I think I should pick. :-)

    “We’ve gotten used to hearing this stuff performed in big open churches, with that long reverberation time … But that’s probably not how the music was intended to sound… ”

    Well, in the case of the sort of music under discussion, that’s precisely the environment for which it was written.

    “… tend to think of it as a signature of early music. It’s what makes it sound “old,” right?”

    Well … no in both cases. If your view of “early music” is Gabrieli in San Marco with lots of reverb, you have a lot waiting for you to discover. And I have no idea what you mean by “sound old,” I’m afraid. To my ears, one of the delights of much Renaissance music is how “new” and refreshing it sounds. Well, no accounting for taste.

    “…, given the intricacy of Renaissance polyphony. When you have that many notes, changing that quickly, clarity is important, at least from the composer and performer’s point of view.”

    Two points – your comment describes only a subset of Renaissance music. And as I said, I hear no lack of clarity in the 40+ year old recordings referenced.

    I simply think that the article referenced was not particularly well thought out, and that neither it nor the post here quoting it are particularly supportable, given my admittedly amateur knowledge of the music being discussed.

    But I’m now up on you 2 comments to 1, and there’s little sense in going on indefinitely. So … I suggest 1 more from you (if you like) and then we’re done!

  • Pandora

    Don’t forget all the big funny hats they were wearing. I’m sure that cut down on the reverb too.

  • Barry Johnstone.

    Interesting that the old town hall in Wellington, (New Zealand) has a longish reverb time, and is much more suitable for music with simpler textures (i.e. pre 20th century) than the adjoining Michael Fowler Centre – which has a much shorter reverb time, and therefore much more suitable for the performances of newer music with more complex and far busier textures

  • Chris

    Surely the obvious thing to do here would be to actually go and hang the drapes, fill the building with people, etc, and then compare the sound before and after?

    I mean, mathematical modelling is nice… but how about doing some actual…. you know…. science, instead?? :-)

  • Anita

    Please listen to “Queen” and their recording of “We Will Rock You”. Song was written by a band member who is also a physicist, and constructed to exploit the reverberation qualities of a U.K. cathedral. It is a modern classic designed to showcase the effects of architecture and materials on reverberation. Discussion of how it was conceived and produced carried on NPR (National Public Radio), Fresh Air, Terry Gross moderator.


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