The End of an Era
Written by Simeon L. Sandiford
Thursday, 21 July 2011 22:26


1999 was the first occasion since 1987, that I was unable to record Amoco Renegades’ Panorama composition in their panyard. The extent of this loss will be revealed only in the fullness of time. However, another challenge presented itself – Panorama live at the Queen’s Park Savannah. I have always been against this type of recording for good technical reasons, but felt that the finished product might form an integral part of the O’Trinidad Series of live recordings.

At the semi-final and final stages of the competition I installed one central pair of cardioids flanked on either side by two high-intensity omnis, directly behind the judges and symmetrically placed about their central position. Microphone outputs were mixed passively and the resulting stereo output was amplified and fed to the Pacific Microsonics Model One HDCD® encoder. Proceedings were monitored through a pair of Sennheiser HD 580 headphones. For the first time, therefore, I had a completely neutral and unerringly accurate reference system, totally oblivious to irregular human syndromes such as listener fatigue, which could be used for technical auditing of the judges’ results. In short, to borrow a now famous phrase from the lovely game of cricket, I was the third umpire.

Subsequently, results of both semi-final and final-night performances were compared with panyard recordings of Fonclaire, Exodus, Birdsong and Starlift steel orchestras. The sonic differences were so amazing that I felt compelled to revisit the criteria currently used for evaluating Panorama renditions of conventional steel orchestras and modify them accordingly. My results have been divided into three sections, one each for the arranger, the instruments and the performers, respectively. On comparison with the existing criteria currently used by the judges – Arrangement, General Performance, Tone and Rhythm, I came to the inevitable conclusion that insufficient attention is given to the Soundstage Presentation of each orchestra, an audiophile perspective and essential pre requisite for high quality performances and recordings as demanded by the global music industry.

A Soundstage may be defined as the apparent physical size of the musical presentation under review. When we close our eyes, we should see the musicians. A Soundstage should, therefore, have the physical properties of transparency, width and depth in three dimensions, producing a palpable sense of size and space to the listener whether it is a live performance or a recording.

Soundstage presentation overlaps with imaging, the way instruments appear as objects hanging in space. In the case of steelband performances and recordings, a proper Soundstage is even more important than that of a conventional orchestra, in which strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion present four distinct voices. A steel orchestra’s voices are distinguished only by the size of the notes on various instruments. However, a good Soundstage of 100 or more of these musicians played back at realistic levels should be huge and filled with nuances and inner detail. This is most evident when the music is played at coasting speed.

Listening to the playback of the live Panorama performances, it was painfully evident that the majority of orchestras paid insufficient attention to the micro detail of setting up their instruments to present a proper Soundstage to the judges, the audience and ultimately the listener at home. Perhaps, this is why foreigners usually describe steelband music as cacophonous. I have, therefore, suggested a modified system of performance criteria, which will certainly address and hopefully alleviate this problem.



· Expansion of the Melody – Introduction, verse and chorus, reharmonization, motivic and melodic development, modulations, changes of key, changes of rhythm, “ runs ”, jam sessions, dynamics, ending

· Innovation – Introduction of new and aesthetically pleasing musical ideas

· Coherence – Integration of all musical parts into a seamless whole

· Musicality –Overall satisfaction provided to the audience both in the short and long term – a measure of the “timelessness” of the arrangement


· Tone – Ability of individual pans to blend well in sections and to integrate into the whole orchestra

· Transparency – Ability of the orchestra to present the music as a collection of individual images floating in space as opposed to one homogeneous, congested sound. Instrumental voices must be clearly delineated in three dimensions across the soundstage

· Rhythm Section – Instruments must be unobtrusive, well balanced and aesthetically pleasing


· Tempo – Must be maintained with metronomic precision

· Cohesiveness – Ability of musicians to play together as a unit

· Execution – Degree of precision coupled with the amount of physical exhilaration evoked from the audience. “Panmanship” must be discernable from “pan beating”.

© 1999 Simeon L. Sandiford