What is real?

So yesterday I listened to an album of Harpsichord pieces and now a percussionist who plays many instruments from around the world. Yesterday I didn’t know how loud to play the recording as I realized I have never heard a harpsichord played live, and today I am listening to instruments I’ve never heard as well. How loud should I play this recording?
Paul has said a player should sound life size, all well and good for a singer or guitarist but what of the Oud or the Harpsichord or anything I have not encountered before. I want to hear these things as they sound in the wild and without a reference point I am a tad lost. I get not playing things to harmful volumes or so soft it loses something.
What is your solution to this? Any thoughts?
Thanks in advance, Jim

I’d refer to the treatise by MacRitchie and Nuti on “Using historical accounts of harpsichord touch to empirically investigate the production and perception of dynamics on the 1788 Taskin” published in the 2015 v 6 issue of Frontiers in Psychology.

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I have always cautioned myself against attempting to use the volume control as compensation for the fact my listening space can 1) never be the same as that of the performer and 2) is in general nowhere near the physical volume of the acoustic space the performer plays in. My guide for volume when listening to a recording of an instrument I may never have heard live is simply to keep it limited to what I find enjoyable and that doesn’t push my system into distress. In short, I recognize there are limitations to my attempt to recreate the event whether it is an instrument I’m familiar with in live performance or not. That is a fundamental limitation of reproduction of music that wasn’t recorded in my home acoustic in my home acoustic. The interesting thing about the Front Psychol paper is it seems (as I read it) to be targeted more to the performer who might want to play an 18th Century instrument in a manner consistent with how historical accounts suggest it was played than targeted to how it should be recorded for reproduction in the home. But that’s just my take on a very unique (to me) paper on a subject I would never have imagined would appear in a psychology journal. Thanks to terzinator for pointing it out.

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I’ve only ever heard one harpsichord live in my life, and it was in the home of a University of Chicago professor, where some friends and I were staying overnight. It was louder than I would have imagined from the recordings I’d heard. But then that was in a parlor/sitting room kind of setting, where most any instrument would seem loud just from proximity, except maybe a lute. :wink:

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I’ve heard harpsicord live in the concert hall. That is ‘real’ but even then the question of how loud it is in the wild depends obviously on where one is sitting in the hall.

A harpsichord is quite loud heard as a chamber instrument in a chamber. It also depends on the given instrument. A big one has an impressive presence. I had a small harpsichord and one could easily hear it through the house, although it was not loud in any sense.

I would not worry about the specific dB at which one is listening. Instead, I would keep turning the volume up until the recording sounds no better and is merely getting louder. (I hate loud stereos.)

All live music, even just solo guitar and voice is actually pretty loud when you are within twenty feet or so.


Reminds me of “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.” Creepy. :wink:

I had to look this up and learned it is a movie. It looks to be pretty good from the description.

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When I was a kid, Bette Davis was on the downhill side of her career, and was making schlocky thrillers, like “The Nanny.” “Charlotte” was a half-step better than most of them.

The question, although a perfectly reasonable one, has a touch of the ‘how long is a piece of string’ to it. If you are listening to a harpsichord in an ensemble with 2 violins playing you will have difficulty hearing it. Throw in a viola or a cello and it will be practically inaudible. The harpsichord lost out to the piano for concert use because it wasn’t loud enough (and the piano allowed the player to add expression to notes, of course).

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In my original question, the piece was solo harpsichord so nothing was obscuring it. I was wondering how best to re-create a sound I had no reference for. If one was in the room with a Harpsichordist playing at normal volume, which as I understand is not determined by how hard one hits the keys, what volume should I have the rig at to reproduce it. I guess in decibels maybe? I ended up by just playing it at my usual volume for music or 80’s in db.

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My two cents come in two points, a cent a piece.

First, I can not stand the sound of cembalo. It just hurts my ears. Therefore, any volume setting measured in infinitesimals is about right.

Second, IMHO the whole ‘authentic concert experience’ is fairly meaningless. The audio industry likes to convince us otherwise but the high end audio experience is different from a live concert experience and there is no use trying to equate the two. Turn the volume to a level that sounds good to you at the moment and don’t worry about how it would sound somewhere else. Concert halls can handle vastly different ranges of volumes than a typical listening room and a sound system gives you the freedom to adjust the volume to a level that fits your space (and the current mood).


Peter Schickele: “Now, the interesting thing about this lineup of instruments is the problem of balance. When the bagpipe is playing, you can’t hear anything else, whereas the lute is such a soft instrument that if there is simply another instrument in the room with it, you can’t hear it, whether it’s being played or not. So the problems of combining these into one work are tremendous, as you can imagine, and they are problems which PDQ Bach found no solution for whatsoever. But the lute looks nice, and I think that in this day of recording that’s something we’ve forgotten, the visual aspect of a concert. It’s a very nice lute, and we hope you enjoy it. Think of it while you’re listening to the bagpipes.”

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Unfortunately I have never measured the sound level of a solo harpsichord. My guesstimate is that if you are 3 or 4 metres from it then it would be about 70dB or less.

OMG, I’m old enough to remember that one. Saw the movie when it first came out.

I am surprised by that, it’s always portrayed as louder in the media where I have seen it. May just be my bias of course.

~ 70 dB at listening distance makes sense for a small instrument.

A larger instrument with choirs of strings and coupled manuals is a good deal louder.

I last heard the harpsichord live just over a month ago - Mahan Esfahani playing Bach. He’s a bit of a talker and he was explaining that the pieces would mostly have been played privately on a clavichord, which is far too quiet to be used in performance.

The fortepiano went through very rapid development at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, notably by Bosendorfer, extending range and volume. Kristian Bezuidenhout, for example, who I hear a lot, most recently with Rachel Podger in September, chooses to play a reproduction of an 1805 fortepiano, a balance of authentic sound and volume. He has made many fine recordings, but in a small chamber orchestra the sound is largely drowned out by 10 rows back, so the balance is changed in recordings. In a large piece, for example I heard Trevor Pinnock conduct Handel’s Messiah from the keyboard last November, the harpsichord is almost inaudible throughout.

For harpsichord recordings the main issue is the hardness of the sound, rather than the volume. I find Leonhardt’s records quite hard. I much prefer a warmer sound, like Pinnock’s recent Well Tempered Klavier Book 1. A middle path would be Gilbert’s classic recording from 1984.

I like listening to the oud, Marcel Khalife comes to mind, but rarely hear it. Last time was with the Silk Road Ensemble. I was in row E (I’m always in row E). There is no trouble hearing it.