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A Twist Of The Knob: Techniques To Stay Focused On The Matter At Hand

Getting the most from our finite attention spans in an era of multitasking.

As a young man, I fell in love with motorcycle racing – a full-on obsession which, luckily, I couldn’t afford. While studying the minutiae of my new obsession, I came across a book titled “Twist of the Wrist: The Motorcycle Roadracers Handbook,” by Keith Code. Long considered the racer’s bible, this in-depth book dissects and distills the techniques required to ride these dangerous machines.

One of the book’s concepts resonated with me so much that I mindfully practice it every day, especially while mixing: as thinking human beings, we have a finite amount of attention. Code uses the metaphor of currency to explain how our fixed amount of attention can be quantified and budgeted for expected use.

Using his example, let’s say I have $10 worth of attention. That’s the total fixed amount of attention my brain can provide under full concentration. To accomplish all of my job, I must budget that attention so that each individual task is properly monitored and controlled while still keeping an eye on the multitude of things that could go wrong, or that might benefit from a bit of fiddling.

Code writes about spending his $10 worth of attention on maneuvering motorcycles at high speeds and hurling them through chicanes and hairpins without making contact with the 40 other people who covet your spot. His budget consists of things such as spending $1 on his tachometer, 50¢ on the asphalt conditions, $1.25 on the motorcycles around him, $2.25 on his tire adhesion, $3 on the next braking marker, and so on.

Every single thing we look at, listen to, analyze, or compare requires attention. We can’t create additional attention, we can only utilize what we have and make the most efficient use of it to help accomplish the job.

Code used his metaphor to reinforce his observations about the brain’s limited ability to multitask. We tend to think we can always “keep up” with just one more detail. That our brains are elastic enough to fit more data points or musician monitor mix requests into our attention span.

But time and again, laboratory experiments and real-life experiences show that our attention span is finite. We each have a personal maximum of data points and details we can manage, some more, some less, most dictated by circumstance, some by ability. If we overload our attention, we will miss something. Sometimes that thing we miss can be show stopping.

Juggling Act

Modern advancements in live audio have made mixing a more complicated challenge than it was just 10 to 20 years ago. More inputs, more outputs, more screens, more levels of control and the incessant inclusion of virtual “gear” insertable into our mixes as digital plugins.

In my early club days, I had fewer than 24 channels input and six channels output – including monitors – from FOH. Now I have 64 or more input channels and six to 12 output channels nightly, as well as multiple recording paths to manage.

While I’ve trained my brain to keep up with a few more data points, the same problem still applies. Everyone eventually reaches a point where our ability to keep up becomes overwhelmed and we miss something. We all suffer from too much multitasking.

It’s an inherent necessity in live audio, but it’s also our worst enemy. A busy monitor engineer juggling dozens of pieces of vital mental information simultaneously while still keeping up with mix requests is just one example of how our job can overwhelm us with a multitude of open-ended decisions and possibilities.

Which brings me back to Code’s point. We must budget our attention. Some things make our job easier. Clear labeling is probably the most important detail benefitting our attention budget. Physical things like microphone cables, subsnake boxes, rack panels and cases certainly, but also virtual things like digital console output buses and in-ear monitor transmitter labels can alleviate having to keep those details in your attention budget.

Using a real-time analyzer to monitor frequency response and level reduces the need for our brain to keep guessing where the frequency issues are. Building screen layouts on digital mixers so that we can quickly and efficiently keep up with what our inputs are doing and how we should react. When possible, using scenes to automate repetitive tasks as well as employing a SPL meter to help keep show levels in check to avoid mixing too loud. Arranging the patch list and channel layouts to minimize confusion when troubleshooting a problem (i.e., minimal soft patching).

The latest few generations of digital consoles have incorporated the use of colors to organize and identify input and output groups. Matching subsnake labeling to use the same colors will make the patching of those groups easier to identify and troubleshoot.

Practicing Conservation

By creating an organizational system requiring minimal amounts of attention to process, we can stay on top of issues with reduced fuss and distraction. Any effort made to get organized before things go wrong can greatly improve our ability to troubleshoot problems because we’re less likely to squander our most precious resource: our attention.

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