A contracting firm usually specializes at installing systems, and many also offer system design services. However, be aware that this does not necessarily mean that they’re qualified to design systems.
Some have invested time and money in modeling and optimization training and equipment, and also have the necessary experience in using these tools and others to do successful design work.
But others, even with training, may be lacking the necessary design skills, whether it’s due to lack of experience and/or other factors. (Do you really want someone learning how to design when it’s your system?)
In other words, just because someone shows you a technical document on a computer screen - and goodness, it does look complicated - does not mean the document is providing any salient information that will translate into a better sound system design. Or, that the person doing the showing knows much more than you.
This is a common sales tool that is used to show off and “wow” the customer, when in reality, there might be little depth of knowledge and understanding behind the “dog and pony show.”
Further, contracting firms are increasingly focused on selling total audio-visual (AV) system packages, encompassing not just sound but also lighting and video. As a result, the emphasis is not just on sound, with staff members sometimes not likely to possess deep knowledge on the subject.
Like retail outlets, no single contracting firm can carry all lines of audio equipment, and they’re also bound by agreements with manufacturers to sell certain amounts of each brand they carry.
They’re also not prone to attend your project meetings without additional fees, and other than a complimentary site visit, they’re also not likely to budget time for programming and design development. They usually don’t make provisions for the focused, useful training of volunteer sound operators on aspects such as the “how and why” of live sound, as well as mixing, politics and so on.
Better contracting firms will have licensed engineers on staff, and they make it a practice to send staff members to seminars, workshops and other continuing educational endeavors. Further, these firms belong to respected trade organizations such as the National Systems Contractor Association (NSCA) and the Audio Engineering Society (AES).
There is one caveat to be pointed out. Some contracting firms offer true system design-build services, and they employ qualified designers, either on staff or via a business arrangement. This approach and structure has proven successful in some situations.
The bottom line is to understand what a contactor can and cannot do - again, if you simply ask the right questions.