January 11, 2013, by Karl Winkler
Recently, I was subjected to a strikingly dull conversation with a top touring mix engineer. He really didn’t seem to be into his job, or anything else for that matter.
Apparently, being behind that quarter-million dollar console out in an audience of thousands, mixing shows for that totally hot female star that everyone knows, just wasn’t cutting it for this guy. What? Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? Of course.
We’re blessed to belong to an industry that attracts passionate people from all walks of life. And interestingly, these friends, colleagues, mentors, idols, employees and industry stalwarts tend to have extracurricular pursuits and hobbies, too. Things they do that bring out almost the same level of passion from these folks as their work.
We all know of Dave Rat, of course. But did you know that he’s seriously into surfing? Even if not, this doesn’t come as a surprise, does it? It’s also obvious that he’s passionate about life in general, and looking at his professional success and that of his company, he’s an inspiration, right? Or how about Robert Scovill? I wonder how many of us could keep up with his physical training regimen. It’s truly a labor of love.
My point is that this industry needs people like Robert and Dave, and fortunately, they exist in spades, even if we don’t always know their names.
The In Crowd
Who wouldn’t want to be one of us, anyway? How many times have people stopped by the console and asked “Do you really know what all those knobs and buttons do?” Maybe they’re curious, and certainly they think they’re being funny and original. But really, a lot of them are in awe.
And what about the music itself? And the energy of the audience? It’s intoxicating. There’s a certain rush that happens just before the show starts. And that rush never gets old.
Sure, there’s tons of work (sometimes literally) behind the scenes, and extended periods of days, weeks, months and years on the road. But the payoff is pretty nice.
There’s something more to the equation, isn’t there? Why do so many people in our business have a fondness for fast cars? I think part of it has to do with a love of the power with precision. Doesn’t this also define a well-conceived sound reinforcement system? Enough power for a massive explosion, but coaxed by our careful ears, minds and hands into delivering to the masses one of mankind’s best products: music.
So what’s involved with being “all in,” audio professional style? First, we have to be ready to absorb and understand quite a few important basic concepts. And many of them are counter-intuitive or at least not obvious on the surface.
Take decibels. for example. It’s one thing to understand the concept, but have you ever tried explaining it to a lay person? Or the inverse square law, for another quick example.
We’re also challenged with being able to visualize the signal flow through the system, along with that nagging issue of gain structure.
Surely there has to be an easier way, some kind of “wizard” application that simply makes everything work, right? It’ll probably be a while before we see truly automated tools of that type for professional audio.
But that said, there are some really smart people working on it – folks who are “all in” – so it’s just a matter of time.
There’s also the grueling hours the job can require. It would be rare to find any among us who haven’t cursed their lot from time to time as things don’t go well at setup, leading to sweat and tears (and sometimes blood) as we struggle to make it all work as best as possible.
But still we stay faithful to our chosen craft. The clients may not know or care, the audience may not know the difference, and sometimes we don’t even know why we do it. But we do.
End Of The Day
The question has often been raised: is audio production a form of science or art? Of course the answer is “both.” We can’t have one without the other.
There are math, physics, engineering and other scientific aspects to what we do. Not only in the design and construction of the products, but in the use of those products to create the resulting sound for the audience.
The art comes into play when we’re required to make judgments about just how we’ll do these things. Would the funk in this song be enhanced if I bring out more hi-hat? No machine can decide that. And so we must be “all in” on both sides.
What does it mean to be an artist? I’m not sure if true artists even know the answer to that question. To me, at least, it starts with dedication on a level that few can manage. A common statement I’ve heard with regard to artistic endeavors is “If you can imagine yourself doing anything else, then this isn’t for you.” Certainly it’s true of audio production.
But there’s more to it than that. To be a successful artist we must learn our craft. Another great quote: “A worker uses his hands, a craftsman uses his hands and his head, and an artist uses his hands, his head, and his heart.”
In other words, we must love what we do, simple as that.
It’s not always easy, is it? Passion often doesn’t come easy or with nearly the rewards we might expect for the level of work required. I’ve heard it said many times: “If I were in this business for the money, I’d have left a long time ago.”
Ours is a small industry. But it’s an exciting one – a business that the many of the world’s “wannabes” dream about. We get to live it.
What do we “owe” for this privilege? For starters, humility. It’s something I’ve seen in many of the best in our business. They’ve paid their dues, worked their way up, and don’t act like everyone is there to serve them. They also don’t blame the equipment when things go wrong, unless it really is an equipment problem.
Next is dedication, which comes in the form of constant learning. Not only do we all have plenty to learn, but the learning curve never ends.
And finally, giving back. We’re so fortunate to have people ahead of us who paved the way and gave us invaluable tips and advice, if not an outright education.
So to truly be “all in,” we need to pave the way for the next generation to make sure they’re as well prepared as possible for that ever-steeper learning curve coming just up ahead.
Karl Winkler is director of business development at Lectrosonics and has worked in professional audio for more than 15 years.