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...

July 08, 2014, by Karl Winkler


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.

Visualize (Auralize?)
Another photography analogy: Ansel Adams espoused the idea of visualizing the result you wished to have when viewing a scene, to imagine how you would want it to appear in a photographic print.

Then, using the technology at hand and the technique to go with it, achieve the desired results. One of the challenges is that a natural scene has levels of light and dark, i.e., dynamic range, that cannot be captured or reproduced with photographic equipment.

First, Adams suggested exposing the film in order to ensure that there were details in the shadows (above the noise floor). Then he gave pointers as to how the film should be developed in order to prevent the highlights from blowing out (headroom).

Finally, he formulated a precise method of printing so that—although the real-world levels of light and dark could of course not be reproduced—the relative levels could be kept intact, providing the viewer with the impression desired by the photographer in the original vision. With the tools of the day, this was a very involved process, with lots of smelly chemicals and expensive equipment, and it required a whole lot of patience and discipline while stumbling around in the darkroom.

Sound is not that different. For one thing, the real dynamic range of many instruments or ensembles is greater than what can be reproduced through loudspeaker systems. And yet the listener generally wants to have a bit less than reality for the sake of comfort, especially when it comes to things like vocals. Thus, dynamic compression is routinely used for this purpose.

However, let’s get back to the main point: cultivating a vision about the desired end result. What kind of music is it? Do the performers have an idea of how they want to be presented? Is there a recording we’re trying to match or to which the audience is comparing our efforts? All these things affect our choices in technology and technique. That is, if we’re paying attention.

Wherefore Art Thou, Reverb?
What are some other examples of using technology to achieve a “vision” in the mix? Application of reverb to create space, for sure. Applying delay to enhance the rhythmic elements of the music or to create “size” by panning a delayed copy of a source. Drawing on distortion to supply “color.” And certainly, using EQ to carve out space for each instrument or voice, draw attention to or away from an element in the mix, or to create vertical “size.” All these approaches are certainly valid, and there are dozens (if not hundreds) more.

One way to learn these and other creative uses of technology is to carefully analyze recordings and performances with disciplined listening. One of my best audio teachers in college would start every class with an analytical listening exercise, where we would make a chart with the relative levels of each instrument or voice, what effects were used, panning and space, etc.

After months of doing this with dozens of songs, it was very eye-opening because we realized how each different producer and engineer had exploited the available technology to achieve certain results, thereby enhancing the musical experience. Once in a while we’d also notice the bad examples where some aspects of the recording or mixing techniques got in the way of the results, and even ruined the recording.

One final thought: it’s easy to get caught up in the technology itself. But really, our jobs are to get past that, figure out what works, get really good at it, and make music. After all, that’s what it’s all about.

Karl Winkler is director of business development at Lectrosonics and has worked in professional audio for more than 20 years.

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Focus On The Knobs? Making Technology Transparent In The Quest Of Art