While I can’t prove it, I believe we’re living in the golden age of live audio, with loudspeakers, consoles and processing that’s better than ever. Never before have we had such ability to accurately reinforce live music, and moreover, it’s never been easier to alter, shape and tone said music.
What used to require racks and racks of expensive gear can now live on a laptop or rack-mounted server and can be had for a few thousand dollars. It’s all truly wonderful – and terrible – that this considerable processing power has made it easier than ever to create music that is nearly unlistenable.
This was highlighted a few weeks ago when I was searching for new recorded music to enjoy. I’d heard about a few artists that I wanted to check out, so I looked them up. While all of them had a cool sound, and were clearly talented, I gave up after a few tracks due to the excessive and abusive compression that had destroyed any and all signs of life.
Continuing my wanderings through the musical world, I cued up Van Morrison’s Moondance, a superb album. Recorded in 1970, it’s lush, rich and full of life. It’s also simple. This back-to-back contrast was startling and also served to remind me of what often happens at many churches each weekend.
You Can’t Buy Skill
If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me what plugin I suggest for this or that, I’d be living in my retirement cabin in the woods. When I attend mixing seminars, the focus is often on using a certain plugin or technique for a vocal or drum sound. And that’s all fine.
But what I often see at front of house at many churches is gain structure that’s not even in the ballpark of correct, and often, sound techs standing there with their hands in their pockets (or worse, taking pictures of their plugin rack to post on the ‘gram).
I advocate that instead of searching for the latest and greatest plugin, microphone or console, learn to mix. Zero out the EQ, turn off the compression, bypass the plugins and simply mix. Learn to make it sound great with nothing other than your skill as a mix engineer – and hopefully some decent musicians.
We like to debate 48 kHz versus 96 kHz, whether console X sounds better than console Y, which preamps are the best, which audio transport system is the most pristine, but those things are all the last 10 percent.
The bulk of the sound comes from the ability to simply put together a good mix. A tech with a lot of skill and mediocre equipment will always sound better than one with low skill and the best gear.