During my career I have performed in far more than one thousand concert halls. I have conducted in some of the best in the world and in some of the worst in the world. This is not the place to discuss the acoustics of halls, but suffice to say I have learned a lot from my experience.
My early personal experience includes several years when I had been invited by the Conn Instrument Company to participate in a committee to determine what is a good saxophone tone. As one might expect this topic came to no conclusion (it turned out the attack made all the difference) but in the course of the three years of working with the committee I had an extensive education in acoustics. Among other things we rented a concert hall and placed recording devices all the way down the center of the hall on each row. We then recorded various instruments and discovered very interesting results. For example, we found that only in the case of the trumpet did the sound move through the hall from stage to back row unchanged. The French horn was curious: the low tones seemed to roll off the bell of the horn and lie on the floor of the stage. This explains, for example, why if you sit behind the horns on stage they their sound is so different from that which is heard from the audience.
My curiosity having been aroused, I spent one semester with my ensemble in Los Angles beginning each rehearsal with a few minutes of experimentation with seating. I would in advance design a seating plan, giving them names like “the winged T” so the players could remember them, copy one and pass it out to the players. We would perform something in our normal seating plan and then run to “the winged T” and perform the same music again. This was valuable not only from my own learning perspective as a listener, but also from the comments of the players and how they felt acoustically in the new design. In this regard I might add here that I once had the experience while in the US Air Force Band of performing in the great hall in Salt Lake City. That hall, famous for its acoustics, has acoustics so clear and so “present” that sitting in your chair you could hear every other player in the group as if they were sitting next to you. It was distracting beyond belief!
Next, my own experience has been that most earlier band conductors just followed some picture of band seating which they saw in some magazine. More recently many have followed a picture of the seating of Fred Fennell’s Eastman Wind Ensemble, which is basically several long rows forming a wide rectangle. Fred privately confided to me that there was no particular theory behind this seating plan, it was just something which sounded good in Eastman’s Kilbourne Hall. I might further add that after guest conducting several times in Kilbourne Hall I found that everything sounds good there, a rare achievement in design! I have guest conducted a high school honor band there and it sounded like the Eastman Wind Ensemble. (The same thrill as conducting in the great hall at the University of Illinois. Put a high school band on stage and you think you are hearing the Chicago Symphony, who used to record there.)
After many trials with Fred’s seating plan, and from my experience as a listener, I do not recommend it. First, the distance across this rectangle is too great; the person on the right end of the first row really cannot hear the person on the left end of the last row. Worse, I have found that with the result of too many people in each row, there is a noticeable loss of the sounds of the middle register due to the people sitting so close together. The sound is not only muddy, but often you cannot hear the middle lines of the score. I am always astonished in such cases, wondering why the conductor cannot hear this.
The Two Fundamental Principles of Wind Band Sound Production
First of all, is there such a thing as a “natural” band sound? The answer is yes. A natural band sound is one which observes the inherent natural law of the overtone series, because the overtone series has been in place as long as creatures have had ears. This natural ensemble sound has therefore been the guiding principle in organ construction for several centuries. We are accustomed to unconsciously hearing the effects of the overtone series in everything we hear in our daily life. I will address the importance of this in terms of band sound below because it is the same principle which governs the well-known “pyramid principle.” At the moment I can just promise that the seating plan I recommend below helps create a natural balance according to the laws of the overtone series, resulting in a naturally pleasing sound.
The First Basic Principle
The first basic principle is that winds need space. Orchestras have the great advantage that the majority of instruments are basically wooden boxes and they are all in the same key. As such they actually cross-resonate, their sounds naturally resonate with the wooden boxes around them. Consequently, they sound great in ensemble.
An ensemble of wind instruments is different in two important ways. First, they are all in different keys, based on different fundamentals. Second, for some acoustic reason, the individual wind instruments need an envelope of space for their tone to “come together” before it leaves the stage. And this point where the tone “comes together” is individually different according to the instrument, as I discovered in my Conn trials. In the alto saxophone, for example, this “coming together place” is not at the end of the bell of the instrument (a surprise for the instrument looks like a gun), but for reasons I cannot explain the point is 45 degrees to the right of the instrument. Thus, if you are recording the instrument as a solo instrument, that is where you place the mike, not in front of the player.
Now, in the example I just gave, what if in your band you have another player, wearing heavy clothes, sitting on the “magic spot” where the alto sax player’s sound comes together? The saxophone player’s tone will be weak and not sound well. The player, sensing this, will be uncomfortable and tend to hold back. In the other extreme, an inexperienced player who favors “hiding” in the sounds around him, will, upon hearing his sound at its best, have the psychological encouragement of becoming a more forward and productive individual member of the band.
So wind bands need space! This means a good band seating plan needs depth, not width, and more shorter rows to allow this space. If the players are sitting close together, the clothes of the nearby players absorb critical overtones before they have a chance to travel off stage to the audience.
Try using your present seating plan, having someone else conduct so you can sit in the audience, or at a distance, so you can hear the difference. Have the players move more closely together and perform some music they know, even a school song. Then have them quickly move apart, keeping the same plan but moving apart until there is nearly one empty chair distance between players and play again. You will be astonished! The difference will be greater, and better sounding, than anything you could have imagined! You will be embarrassed that no one ever told you about this!
The Second Basic Principle
I am sure every conductor has heard of the pyramid principle. This has been discussed by conductors for centuries, as for example by Michael Praetorius in book III of his Syntagma Musicum of 1619. The problem is that the ear tends to hear upper partials louder than lower partials. Today we know the reason. The human brain actually “turns up the volume” for sounds in the octave above third space C, treble clef. The brain has learned to do this over thousands of years (probably beginning with hearing the tiger outside the cave) in order to help with hearing the consonants of language. As a result, the listener in a concert actually hears something the ensemble did not perform. In order to counteract this, the conductor must artificially balance the ensemble with creating more bottom, less top. The conductor’s goal is to create an illusion under which the listener thinks he heard what the composer wrote on paper. This is critical with a wind band, for if the conductor does not do this, two things happen:  the band sound is top heavy and strident like a calliope, and not an organ-like sound (organ-like meaning like the overtone series) and  the audience does not enjoy being bombarded by high partials for two hours. It is unpleasant.
I use the principle in other ways, first and foremost in tuning! Tuning, for example, is very difficult when we ask a student to match an identical pitch. This is true even for professional musicians, as Solti found when he first arrived in Chicago and discovered that the principal oboe and principal flute, who sat next to each other, had, over a dispute of pitch, not spoken to each other in six years! But all students learn easily to hear and compare their pitch against the chord beneath them. The oboe must give the desired pitch, for me A = 440, because of all instruments its short reed has the least amount of adjustment possible. Then I have the tubas tune to the oboe. While they hold their pitch I add other instruments, working up the overtone series in order of tessitura. This is very old information. Benedetto Marcello (b. 1686) wrote, “the double-basses must be used for tuning.” [“Il treato alla mode”]
I also use this principle in matters of internal balance in the ensemble. When you have a melody which is doubled in octaves, no matter how many players are on either line, my rule is to make the bottom octave ⅔ of the sound and the top octave ⅓ of the sound. If you do this, the listener hears them as 50–50%. If they actually play 50–50%, the listener thinks he hears ⅔ top and ⅓ bottom.
I also use this principle for the endings of long tones, as in a composition that ends with a whole-note. Instead of giving a gesture that makes everyone stop immediately together, I give a long slow gesture with the arm and tell the players to stop according to the instruments place in the overall tessitura. That is, the flutes and first clarinet stop as soon as the arm begins to move, horns, lower clarinets and sax halfway along, and the last instrument to stop is the tuba (with a little diminuendo “tail” to help blend in with the total sound). What the listener hears is a beautiful, resonant release and the listener hears the full chord. If everyone stops together, what the listener hears is a chord with no bottom (the ear tries to hang on to the upper partials). Instead of hearing a full final chord you hear especially in this ancient tradition of the heals clicking together in a military march, the equivalent of the major stepping on the toe of the delicate lady, a screaming upper sound. At the other extreme, Michael Praetorius goes so far as to recommend that the cadence sounds great if the bass continues for as much as four beats after everyone else stops! But, of course, he was thinking of the sound in a great cathedral. There, it would be a great effect.
There is another related problem here. Because the brain hangs on to the upper partials the listener will also hear a little acoustic “tag” that appears to go up (say “mamma” with the last syllable being a higher pitch). This is something created by the brain hanging on to the upper partials and is not actually there. That is, you will hear it but you will not see it on an oscilloscope. But it is an important principle. My rule with a wind band on any kind of last note in which the band is notated to end together: Let us resolve to never end together. Ironic!
My recommended seating plan for a wind band
Wind bands sound better if the seating plan is deeper, and not wider. Many bands use only four rows. I recommend six rows, even with an ensemble of fifty players. This only means the percussion must go on one or both sides and not in back, which is fine because they will be closer to the rest of the players for ensemble contribution and still be visible to the audience. They look good in back but let us remember that in Music we are concerned with the ear and not the eye. Placing them in the back prevents the band from having a seating plan that sounds good. Also very important is that by having a seating plan that has depth, rather than width, it makes possible more space between the individual players.
If the tubas (and euphonium) are centered in the last row, with the trombones centered in front of them, then a combination-tone effect takes place which makes the bass notes of chords centered, more beautiful and more clear and focused. This never happens if the tubas are on the same row as trombones. In that case one only hears the individual instruments, never a unity of the sound. The same principle applies to the tenor and baritone range instruments: bassoons, tenor and baritone sax, bass clarinets. They can sit anywhere, but they must be in a block together if they are to serve to clarify the tenor-baritone sound of the chordal structure.
Rows of flutes and clarinets must not face each other. Angle straight rows so that the rows point slightly toward the audience, as if aiming at some point just behind the conductor, and not at each other. If they face each other, their upper partials clash above the band, before traveling to the audience, giving a brittle sound to the entire band.
My personal seating plan recognizes the above principles and at the same time is a personification of the overtone series. The central core is in straight rows. These are, counting from the back row, moving toward the conductor, still with more space between players:
tubas and euphoniums
bassoons, low clarinets
I put trumpets on my right, behind the flutes. This is so they can blow across the ensemble. The trumpets are the most directional of all wind instruments and the only instrument of the band whose tone quality (overtone structure) does not change from stage to the last row of the hall. By filtering their sounds through the players’ bodies, rather than pointing at the audience, it allows them to fill the instruments and play with a full sound and not have to worry about over balancing the band. The trumpets must never be in a straight row facing the audience!
Because this plan is based on depth instead of width, there is now room to allow the conductor to move into the ensemble a bit which allows him to feel like a member of the ensemble, rather than looking like an animal trainer standing before a line of trained seals.