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A Teachable Desire To Improve: Sorting Out The Stuff That Really Matters

I'd love to tell you I learned all of this without making any horrible or expensive mistakes. Yeah. That would be nice...

What would you say is the most valuable skill in our industry?

I recall a top mix engineer saying that he wants to work with sound team members that have an innate understanding of signal flow and a good attitude. I agree. Absolutely. But, I’d like to add another highly valuable skill: simply, a teachable desire to improve.

The definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. A mentor long ago taught me these three laws of knowledge:

1) All you know is all you have learned.
2) All you know is not all there is to know.
3) Some of what you know is wrong.

It’s bad to not know. It’s even worse to not know that you don’t know. It’s tragic to pretend you know when you don’t. Arrogant and unteachable is a fatal combination in this business. Admit when you don’t know. Everyone else already knows if you don’t.

We all make mistakes. That’s how we learn. Good judgment comes from experience, experience comes from bad judgment. No problem. Just don’t have the same problems week after week. Learn and move on.

The first real PA system I ever installed (with the help of some fellow neophytes) was comprised of mostly used gear. That’s probably a very generous way of saying it. It was actually gear that had been retired after a long and meaningful life. Some of it was older than me. But, miraculously, it was functional. Even though we managed to make noises come out of it, we didn’t really know what we were doing.

We pieced that pile of junk together with ancient, unbalanced cables. Hung big loudspeakers from ceiling joists by eye hooks and cheap chains. Stabbed the channels randomly with no idea about what made sense. Moved knobs and faders until something made a sound. We were quite proud of ourselves.

We were also lucky we didn’t kill anyone or burn that place down. We didn’t even know that we didn’t know what we were doing.

I’d love to tell you I learned all of this without making any horrible or expensive mistakes. Yeah. That would be nice. But I did. I would love to tell you that I was one of those smart guys who listens and learns the first time. I wish I could speak only of my successes instead of my failures. But I can’t.

I learned most of it the hard way. I found out the value of a properly installed and adjusted crossover by destroying a pair 18-inch subs. That was a $1,900 education.

Lessons Learned

Here’s some other stuff I figured out along the way. Perhaps, for those of you just beginning in the business, it will save you some grief as you make your way in the world of pro audio.

All equipment operates on magic smoke. If you let the magic smoke escape, nothing works. When you make a fatal error during installation or operation, the gear will let you know by blowing out a magic smoke cloud. Fortunately, most gear has fuses somewhere. Unfortunately, it’s often inside the box or a specific type of fuse that no one has in their kit. Make sure you know what fuses you need and where they are. Keep extras.

The main reason I don’t like to use 1/4-inch plugs is because they enable fatal errors. I once saw a (relatively new) guy who plugged the output of one amp into the input of another amp because of a mix-up on those cables. The result was a hole larger than my wedding ring through the circuit board. Poof. Magic smoke.

Then there’s the story of a another relatively new guy who pushed a system too hard without first making sure the crossover was in line. Full-range music running wide open. For about five minutes, it was magnificent. Then it stopped. Then he smelled magic smoke. Then $2,000 magically disappeared from his wallet.

Flipper, the screaming dolphin, lives in your monitors. Point a microphone at the front side of a monitor, and Flipper will probably scream dolphin curses at you. Turn the mic up until the monitor is louder than the source being amplified, he screams again. Keep doing it and he’ll scream until the monitor gets permanently quiet.

If I told you that the majority of churches are running stage monitors without EQ, would you believe me? But I’ve worked in a whole lot of churches and have found it to be true. So many churches suffer through horrible stage mixes week after week because nobody knows better. Even the cheapest EQ from the local music store will make life better.

Stabbing a live channel will kill a system. Surges destroy gear. So turn off the channel, and turn down everything in its path, before plugging or unplugging anything.

One time I was at a church to repair a system we’d recently installed because some of the high-frequency drivers had stopped working. It was Vacation Bible School week, and about 300 kids were on hand for the festivities.

Facing a barrage of hostile questions and defensive statements, I was trying to inform the church staff as to the reasons why drivers blow up. While talking, I watched a guy unrolling a mic cable toward the house mixer. As someone was declaring how it was impossible for anyone at the church to have damaged the system, the guy stabbed that cable into a live channel.

Boom! The whole building shook, every light in the room flickered, and 300 kids hit the floor. Yeah. Stuff like that will do it. Turn off those channels before changing connections. Manufacturers are funny about honoring warranties on this type of damage.

If you want unlimited power, you better have unlimited budget. My guess is that for 99.9 percent of all systems installed, there’s at least one person waiting to blow it up. Someone, hiding in the shadows, can’t wait to get that new system all to themselves so they can play their favorite music at ear-bleed level.

It doesn’t matter if the client spent $500 or $50,000 on the rig, someone will have to find the breaking point. The assumption is that because it’s new and better than the last one, it has unlimited headroom. Find this person and lock him in a closet.

Once. Only once in all of my years in designing and installing church systems did a pastor tell me that he didn’t care what it cost. He wanted the ability to have concerts in his main room every weekend. He wanted enough power to make everyone listen to his services for miles. Well alrighty then!

That system had virtually unlimited power. You couldn’t make it distort or clip without getting to the pain threshold. Really enjoyed that one.

But opportunties like that are rare. We usually end up compromising somewhere, and that’s exactly where our training becomes important. What do they really need versus what they think they need? What is really critical to their needs? What is absolutely necessary and fits the budget?

We can’t guess about that stuff. We better know before gambling with someone else’s money. We must learn to ask the right questions. And the same questions apply to all of our applications, whether it’s a church, theatre, live gig or whatever.

Another mentor once noted that the only difference between who we are and who we will become are the books we read and the people we spend time with. If we want to be good at something, we have to put in the time to learn it.

So…do you have a teachable desire to improve? That’s the type of person that gets hired and steadily climbs the ladder of success.


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