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Focus On The Knobs? Making Technology Transparent In The Quest Of Art
Getting past technology to figure out what works, get really good at it, and make music...
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At one time or another, all of us who have sat behind a mixing console at a show are asked “do you know what all those knobs do?” Of course the answer is “yes”—or at least it should be.

What they don’t ask is “do you know anything about acoustics?” or “do you have a handle on power and grounding?” because these subjects are not nearly as interesting or obvious to the novice observer. Maybe the real question is along the lines of “do you know how to bring out/enhance the art using the tools in front of you?”

So what about all those knobs? I often wonder if we can relate them to the concept of “if you’re a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.” In other words, if we know what all those knobs (and buttons) do, does it mean we’re compelled to twist the knobs and push the buttons? In many cases I’m afraid it’s true, and yet, we can miss something in the process.

Practice Makes Perfect
As an amateur photographer growing up in the days of film and mechanical cameras, I always found it useful to practice with the equipment empty before putting real film at risk. In those days, every exposure cost money, and frankly, I didn’t have much to spare.

But more importantly, I wanted to always get past the awkwardness with the gear and get on to the whole point: capturing good images. My friend Pat Moulds, a retired professional upright bass player, used to say that “the point of practice is to get to where you can play a passage without hesitation.” In other words, the technique becomes transparent and the art comes through.

Back to our business of sound. Knowing what every knob and button does, and how the sound system is put together, is obviously important as long as the end result is kept in mind. The audience probably won’t know if you used an actual LA-2A leveler or a plug-in equivalent on the vocals. But they know when they can’t hear the words or if the bass is overwhelming the mix.

Adopting new technology into a system should not be about trying to find ways to use it so we get our money’s worth. Instead, it’s about having the new stuff integrate so seamlessly that we almost forget it’s there, except for whatever benefits it brings to the table in terms of better sound, smoother workflow, or faster set-up time.


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