Study Hall

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An Audio System Race To The Bottom?

The consequences of settling for the lowest common denominator.

Admittedly I don’t do a lot of live sound work these days. My day job and playing music at various gigs around town keeps my hands away from the knobs for the most part.

Every so often, though, I’m asked to fill in, consult on a project, or mix a show.

One disturbing trend I’ve noticed over the past few years is that the “race to the bottom” with substandard gear is really taking its toll on all of us: clients, performers and sound staff.

The Local Scene…

Recently, an occasional client of mine moved its events from one location to another and had the opportunity, finally, to customize the space acoustically for its purposes.

In the process, the client asked about installing a house sound system and wanted my input. I happily obliged, but told them that the best bet was to have me bring in a real pro integrator/installer who could catch things that the rest of us might miss.

Will Hartley from Sound & Signal, here in Albuquerque, was happy to come down to the venue and draw up a proposal or two.

Of course, a “real” system costs “real” money, even if it for a small space. We wanted even coverage, decent fidelity, something that would last a while, and adequate power to cover the entire the space. The client was unfortunately shocked by a preliminary quote of about $10K, even though based upon my experiences, it was very reasonable, particularly in terms of being able to meet the desired performance goals.

The Problem With Expectations…

In addition to the stated goals, another objective was a system that would be easy for me and other audio people to use while also being pleasing to performers and the audience. Any time we have to fight against the house system, our job gets more difficult.

Even though we’re professionals and qualified to “do anything with nothing,” as the saying goes, the end product ultimately suffers. Further, if performers can’t hear or are hearing lousy audio, their performances (and attitudes) can suffer. And if the audience is getting lousy audio and/or coverage isn’t even, complaints and bad reviews are the result (especially in our present online world), and this can also impact ticket sales.

Anyway, back to the story. As we were discussing the rough initial price estimate, one of the guys from the venue was swiping at an iPad, eventually walking over to show us what he’d found at an online retailer’s web store. “What about these active speakers? They’re only $600 each. We’d only need two, right?” he said.

My heart sank, because there’s a huge (and usually justified) gulf between $1,200 and $10,000. It wouldn’t matter that the original quote included professional installation, wiring, system calibration, service and training. Nor would it matter that the results would speak for themselves if “most people” allegedly wouldn’t recognize the difference.

Cheap Is, Well, Cheap…

Sadly yet predictably, the client pretty much ignored the “pro” option, choosing instead to string together a system with some leftover PA cabinets and a mixer that had to be among the cheapest ones on the market. And while the wiring was done fairly well, there are some hum problems that I’ve had neither the time nor inclination to try to solve. But I’m not much involved with that client any more.

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The Last Gig…

The combination of the above events coupled with a gig the client subsequently hired me to mix is what, in many ways, has me now pretty much retired from live mixing. The specific show was more technically involved than most presented in the space. Chiefly, the challenge was that the headliner was going to bring in his own gear, along with a computer and specialized software.

“O.K., no problem,” I thought. I’ve done hundreds of shows, with any and all gear, for several decades now and I was pretty confident that this one would be no different.

Well, I was wrong.

At rehearsal, the talent explained to me that they’d “recently had to re-build their whole computer OS and re-install the software due to interface issues with one of their main pieces of equipment.”

I probably should have walked out the door right at that moment, but as a professional, I’d already committed to the job. And I was pleasantly surprised that everything worked beautifully for the rehearsal. The client was happy, the performer was happy, and I was happy.

Then came the performance.

Right at the end of final sound check, with only a few members of the audience having shown up early, the system crashed. Not the house system, mind you – that’s one good thing about all-analog, older gear that’s been around a while. There are fewer things to go wrong.

Nope, what crashed was the talent’s system. Suddenly, after working out all the routing issues, getting a mix finely tuned, and having the performers able to hear themselves and each other, we weren’t getting anything out of this box at all. Meanwhile more and more people were showing up and the tension was mounting.

The show kicked off with the opening act while the headliner and I were stuck right next to the stage trying to get his gear to work. With minutes to spare, I suggested a workaround that, while it would get the job done, would reduce our flexibility by half and compromise the house sound, although not to a significantly noticeable degree. (Still, I knew and it bothered me.)

Anyway, I returned to front of house in time to start the headliner’s set, with the two of us yelling back and forth to each other to get certain settings finalized. I also noticed that our old friend “Mr. Hum” had decided to make a visit to the house system.

I quickly inserted a ground lifting audio adapter on the offending line output, and our friend took his leave. From there, the set went off without a hitch, other than losing years off my life and vowing to never get into that situation again.

The Bottom Line…

After that episode it’s crystal clear to me that the risks involved with using substandard gear just isn’t worth it, and that none of us needs that kind of stress in our working lives. As we all know, there really is no stress like that when things are going wrong and all eyes are on you.

I’m really not sure as to a solution, other than vigilance. It’s always in our best interest to remain calm and professional, but in the backs of our minds, we have to know that making heroic efforts in helping a bad show “survive” actually perpetuates the problem. The plethora of inexpensive “wonder gear” on the market sets an unattainable expectation for clients, musicians, and perhaps even some audio people.

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That said, it’s certainly a pleasure to work with people who know the value of quality equipment and experienced professionals, even when things cost more. Fortunately, as we advance in our careers, it gets easier to turn down the cheap stuff.

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