Thinking outside of the “technically-oriented” box.
October 23, 2013, by James Cadwallader
Whenever I’m at the local Guitar Hut, I like to listen to the people who come in and talk with the pro audio sales guy about gear. These conversations are often filled with nebulous audiophilic adjectives like “warm”, “sweet” and “punchy”.
The sales guy has little motivation to be a source of truthful or accurate information. He just wants to make a sale. Meanwhile many of his customers already have their minds made up as to what piece of gear they need, and why.
It’s fairly easy to pick out those who will make a purchase and install it in their system - and then, in time, become disillusioned enough to again pick up the quest for the next piece of gear that promises sonic nirvana.
After more than 30 years of work with professional live and recorded sound, I find it unfortunate that so many are trapped in this scenario. Collectively, we have yet to reach a uniform level of conceptual awareness about sound systems and ways of attaining excellent results because of a fixation with gear.
For many years, I was bound, seeing just individual trees. Fortunately, Bob Brooks helped me to see the rest of the forest.
Bob came up back in the heyday of 1950s broadcasting, has been extensively involved with both live and studio production, and for 10 years owned one of the most successful studios in western Canada, Little Mountain Sound.
I met Bob eight years ago, and wish that I’d met him much earlier in my professional development. A true mentor, Bob has pushed me to hear and think outside the “technically-oriented” box that traps so many of us. We easily fool ourselves into believing that because the technical issues are “technically” correct, the sonic issues are “sonically” correct.
Even when we’re absolutely sure our ears are telling us that something is amiss, we still deny and defend, even to our own demise.
I like gear, but now recognize that if I release my inner Tim Taylor, I’ll end up sitting on the couch in my underwear surrounded by boxes of Class A this, digital that, and tubes galore, giggling like Beavis & Butthead.
Sorry, it’s best not to go there.
Since Bob helped enlighten me, my personal “key” to achieving consistent, reliable and (pardon the lack of modesty) excellent results boils down to this: it’s not what you’ve got, but how you use it.
I’ve learned to be careful in judging the provenance or status of the tools at my disposal., and have discovered that my preconceived ideas have an influence on my own success or failure. That’s not the fault of gear.
So I’ve adopted the view that I can successfully use any piece of equipment as long as it has a sufficiently low noise floor, appropriate headroom and an absence of sonic “funkiness”.
Anything beyond these factors is lagniappe (lan yap), a Cajun word meaning “something extra”.
The problem with lagniappe is that it tends to make us fat, or more specifically, bloats our thinking. Lagniappe promotes the welfare mentality. It leads us to believe that we can’t just make do with the bare necessities, and lagniappe belies the simpler truth: when it comes to producing quality sound, less is usually more, less is usually better. The more we add, the more chance we have of screwing it up.
In early recording and broadcasting, consoles only had one way to control volume on each channel, and that was the gain adjustment. What? Mixing via the gain knob?? Yup. Simple and effective. Either it was right or it wasn’t, and there was only one place to make it so.
Contrast that with modern consoles often providing four or five gain stages that have a direct influence over the level of the output. Sweet. In the right hands. (And conversely scary to the wise.)
The problem is that along the way, yesterday’s techniques for excellence have been lost on so many of us. We don’t come to this field equipped with solid production technique, and then we’re presented with so many choices.
Again: the more we add, the more chance we have of screwing it up.
There’s hope, however. We just need to embrace the dark side. In other words, look at our habits and admit that what we’re doing might not be producing the results we desire. Accepting this fact is the first step to moving on to a much better direction.
The most basic key to building excellence is to learn good technique in simplicity, and then evolve it as things get more complex, and as understanding increases.
I’m betting that at least a few of you are ready to embrace some “revolutionary” thinking and methods. The fun part is that the foundation of this revolution is largely based upon proven and reliable, not new and improved.
Since his start more than 30 years ago on a Shure Vocalmaster system, James Cadwallader remains in love with live sound. Based in the western U.S., he’s held a wide range of professional audio positions, including live mixing, recording, and technician duties.