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ISSUE 117 VOL 6 PUBLISHED 10/31/2003

Cantorei sounds make waves

By Ian Anderson
Staff Writer

Friday, October 31, 2003

Last Tuesday, the St. Olaf Cantorei became the first choral group ever to record in an anechoic chamber. They sang for a small group of onlooking scientists from 3M and the Wenger Company, who recorded the choir for the purpose of furthering acoustical studies.

An anechoic chamber is a room that absorbs any echo produced by sound and prevents any form of reverb, creating a entirely static sound. The choir was recorded in this environment so that acoustical engineers can use the very basis of choral music to design concert halls and churches in the future.

"We walked in and it was like you were in a room full of cotton balls; the sound was completely shut off," said Sarah Beisser ‘06. "It sounded like your ears were plugged," Sara Smith ‘06 added. "It was like you just got off of an airplane and your ears hadn’t popped yet."

The choir crowded onto rafters elevated six feet above the chamber floor, with conductor John Ferguson, organ music professor, standing on his own platform. The group sang five songs in a variety of styles from concerts earlier this year, hoping to provide good information for the scientists studying the event.

The room was designed with acoustically absorbent foam wedges that protruded from the walls. "It reminded me of egg crate material," Smith said. She then explained, "scientists can now digitally manipulate sound waves, so they can see how sounds reflect off of certain structures inside buildings. So you can manipulate the angles of the structure to get what you want."

As Ferguson explained, "The surfaces of a room reflect the sound, so you don’t hear just the natural sound, you hear the version influenced by its surroundings. All the sounds we hear aren’t the sounds [as they’re made], they’re the sounds as they are mutated by their environment. The anechoic chamber takes away any influence that the room may have on the sound, so its just pure sound.

"There are no pure recordings without some reverb," said Doug Pierce ‘06. "When we first began singing, we then stopped and there wasn’t an echo. You could only hear sound coming directly from someone’s mouth."

The unique design provided a very interesting environment for the choir. "It was a really cool experience," Smith said. "It was totally dead sound; when I came out I was deafened by regular echoes."3

Originally, the scientists wanted the St. Olaf Choir to sing, but the directors thought Cantorei would be best because they are built on unity – they sing in smaller clumps of three or four members creating a more unified sound.

The absence of reverb made it especially difficult to sing in unison. "When [Ferguson] spoke it was like it was a thin tube of sound coming towards me." Beisser said. "When we were in the room I couldn’t even hear singers from across the room. It was hard to keep intonation and to keep the beat. Our cutoffs weren’t as clear as we had hoped. It was sort of like I was singing alone."

"It was almost impossible to hear the person next to you singing," Doug Pierce ’06 continued. "It was difficult to have the same sort of unity that we are used to."

Despite the inconvenience of not being able to hear the other singers around them, however, the choir performed well enough for the scientists to need only one take.

"We didn’t think we did all that well," Pierce said. "But they loved it."

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