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Words and the Amplified Voice

by John-Ivan Palmer


When John Edwards announced his candidacy for president to an audience of 300, he found himself standing before a dead microphone. People complained they couldn’t hear, even in the front row. There are those only recently deceased who could remember when there was no such thing as a microphone. They gathered in numbers far exceeding 300, and speakers addressed them by voice alone. Curiously, there appear to have been no complaints of being unable to hear. In fact, their hearing seems to have been pretty good.

The word “microphone” was first used in 1683 to describe a horn-like instrument held up to the ear to magnify a sound beyond its natural intensity. It had little practical value. In 1878 the first modern microphone was used in the telephone to carry words beyond hear­ing range for one ear at a time. To reach multiple ears, a device for addressing gathered ears had to be invented. That came in 1906 with the vacuum tube, which led to the first primitive sound amplifiers. By the Roaring 20s, so-called carbon mics were combined with vac­uum tube amplifiers, and linked with the new technology of radio, a person with no special voice skills—or even anything worth say­ing—could push their words into millions of ears simultaneously. By the 1960s, when transistors replaced vacuum tubes, nearly one bil­lion microphones—which should have been called macro-phones—were manufactured each year.

Not only was there a time when microphones did not exist, but neither did ears. The three small, delicate bones in the hearing cham­ber of all mammals evolved 125 million years ago from the jaws of reptiles, giving deeper meaning to the term “sound bite.” With the invention of the microphone, there began to enter an unnatural loud­ness into those atavistic chambers. At concerts multiple 10,000-watt amplifiers stack up like gun turrets in front of crowds begging for the acoustical mow down. Rock bands increased the volume calibrations on their equipment from the standard 10 (highest) to 11. It quickly jumped to 20. Then the Marshall JCM900 amplifier appeared with a knob reading of “infinity.” Numerous groups have claimed to be the “loudest band in the world” out of sheer acoustical hubris. The ear-destruction band known as Manowar manifested the prehistoric jaw-ear connection in 1994 by aggressively chewing out 130 decibels, equal to cocking your head close to the tail of a fighter jet taking off with full afterburner thrust. Loud has become synonymous with power as in “Capitol Hill’s loudest voice for the bombing of Iraq” or “I profess with the loudest voice the truth of God.”

The loudest sound ever produced was from the now obsolete Bell-Chrysler air-raid siren. A mechanical rather than electronic device, it made itself heard at 134 decibels. When the triple-blasting Kockums 575 steam horns on the HMS Queen Mary reach 126 deci­bels, they project 50,000 watts of overall acoustical power and may actually produce more total sound, an indication that volume and wave pressure are two different measurements. There is also a psy­chological dimension to sound as Dr. Ingo R. Titze points out in Prin­ciples of Voice Production. “The fact that we can turn the radio up and down and still hear whether a vocalist sings loud or soft is evidence that loudness is a psychophysical rather than a physical measure.” Titze has written me personally that “the voice is very inefficient, so the radiated power from the mouth is a small fraction of the raw power, usually 1-10 milliwatts. Nobody has ever reported as much as 0.1 watt, but it may be possible.”

Here’s the paradox: if John Edwards could not project his one tenth of a watt as far as the first row of 300 people, how did Abraham Lincoln deliver the Gettysburg Address to twenty thousand people, using nothing but the wind that came out of his body, and no one shouting, “CAN’T HEAR!”? More broadly, how did actors at the The­ater of Dionysus in ancient Greece project their tragic nuances—without microphones—to 17,000 sets of ears, some as far away as 260 feet? How did the actors in Shakespeare’s Globe Theater perform to audiences of 3,000? Explain how Charles Dick­ens—without amplification—read to a similar-sized crowd at St. James Hall in London, or Oscar Wilde addressed over 1,400 at Chickering Hall in New York, or Grover Cleveland made his first inaugural address to a “vast assemblage”—all on no more than one tenth of a watt.

Obviously, something has changed. Through the ages voice pro­jection was taken for granted. Unlike us, people of the past had noth­ing with which to make a comparison. Speakers and listeners simply proceeded in the way it had always been. The Emperor Augustus built an amphitheater in the first century with an open-air seating of 10,000, using the best-known sound design of his day. It’s been claimed that his obsession with the theater’s acoustic qualities was because he had a weak speaking voice, meaning he probably could only address a mere 500 people.

A common assumption has been that the sound reflectivity of outdoor backgrounds, or indoor walls, made addressing large audi­ences possible. Another assumption has been that the mouth opening of an actor’s stage mask functioned as a megaphone. The outdoor Lost Colony Theater in North Carolina has attempted to duplicate these conditions. Even with careful design of the theater’s stage and seating on a smaller scale, serious problems arose with temperature, wind, humidity and the rustling of trees negatively affecting the actors’ lines. It was also found that stage masks, far from acting as megaphones, only amplified the voice inside the mask, a feedback obstacle the actors could not overcome. Eventually, they cheated with hidden body mics.

Though the evidence is scant, there’s enough to suggest that the means of training for voice projection has not changed over time. Julia Cummings-Wing, in Speak for Yourself: An Integrated Method of Voice and Speech Training, gives the same advice as Thucydides: exer­cise the facial muscles by opening the mouth as wide as possible, hang out the tongue and flutter the lips to practice “expression of the artic­ulators.” Other voice coaches teach volume projection with tech­niques from antiquity, like enunciating at increasing distances, or exercising vowel phonation by wrapping the lips around a cylinder and volumizing phrases like I eat owl eyes ogling you.

C. Clifford Turner, in Voice & Speech in Theatre, talks about exer­cises to build “rib-reserve” and shout from the stomach, as Nero did by speaking with sheets of lead on his chest. Plutarch advised orators to practice growling, trilling and bellowing continuously anywhere, even in places of public lodging, and ignore those who might laugh at them. Cicero insisted that one’s voice should be manly and come from “the army, or the wrestling pit,” an unintended gesture to the evolutionary connection of jaw bite and sound bite. In spite of this macho approach, some women managed to make themselves heard too. Hortensia spoke on women’s rights in 42 BC, and two unnamed female orators were mentioned by the Roman historian Valerius Maximus. They might have followed the same training as their male competitors, or perhaps had methods of their own that have been lost to history.

According to Thucydides, the Greek orator Demosthenes over­came his weak voice by first shaving one side of his head to ensure his withdrawal from society, then devoted himself to running up hills reciting speeches with his mouth full of rocks. Evidently it worked, because the erstwhile wimp with a pipsqueak voice is still known after twenty-three centuries for addressing the Athenian Assembly in sentences long enough to cover one side of a sheet of paper and be heard by upwards of 6,000 people.

All this mastery of voice projection still does not completely explain how large audiences managed to hear speakers putting out their words at a mere one tenth of a watt. One answer might be that before microphones words were helped on their way to minds through heightened language and highly stylized utterance. There was amplification by gesture. Seldom mentioned is the secondary process of words relayed to the back rows by trained heralds and the dissemination of written texts, the equivalent of cheating with body mics. Most importantly, hearing was not a passive process like it is today, but actively goal directed. People wanted to hear, however imperfectly, because until microphones publicly spoken words to an audience were relatively scarce and therefore had more value. Philos­opher and social critic George Steiner has stated that “noise amplified to the pitch of madness…is the bubonic plague of capitalist popu­lism.” Much, much more has become much, much less. “Tune out” is a post-microphone term.

Despite billions of mics and amp calibrations of “infinity,” there is an upper limit to sound itself, around 190 decibels. Beyond that, continuous sound as we know it ceases to exist and is perceived as a series of explosions—the nuclear kind, perhaps, being the loudest (around 210 decibels). In that case, whatever would be so important to amplify could finally be said in a single terminal blare-out. The ultimate sound of the nuclear explosion would create an electromag­netic pulse shouting down all other means of transmitting an audial signal, except for the mechanical steam horn and air raid siren. After that, all we’d have left would be the ancient declamation of words at one tenth of a watt, assuming there’d be any voices left to speak, or ears to hear.