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Building A Better Monkey

The latest and greatest technology will never completely eliminate the need for properly trained humans.

By M. Erik Matlock June 14, 2019

Image courtesy of Lothar Dieterich .

After several years designing and installing sound systems for small- and mid-sized churches, I discovered an unobtainable goal that we tend to pursue, even though we know it’s a mirage.

I’m referring, of course, to the concept of idiot-proofing.

A recent trade show visit had me concerned about the way a lot of gear is being marketed.

At least to me, it appears that most manufacturers are working to eliminate the human element in purporting to design equipment that simply “does it all” for us.

That’s not all bad, if you consider gear to be tools for accomplishing a mission. Better tools—in the right hands—should logically lead to a better end result. However, an untrained monkey with nothing more than an attitude and a stick can cause a lot of problems.

Giving that monkey a better weapon usually leads to more extensive damage.

By the way, if you’re offended at the thought of being called a monkey, don’t act like one. Get some training and apply it, or move into another field.

In a perfect world, people make a conscious decision to understand things that they’re involved with. We read manuals. We take lessons. Maybe we even re-arrange our lives to go back to school in order to learn to do our jobs better.

But the world’s not perfect. Not all of us do this. Some are content to make excuses and survive with whatever limited knowledge they have. Hence the need for more elaborate forms of idiot-proofing.

I was guilty of pitching installed sound systems as idiot-proof for a while. Convinced that I was fully capable of assembling the most magnificently simple and user-friendly designs, I patted myself on the back over my own brilliance. I was quite sure I could add in an hour or two of training and get even the most non-technical person ready for a flawless first Sunday service.

After being assigned to create a system for a large multipurpose building, my theory of a potentially idiot-proof system was put to the test.

It was a church-owned gymnasium that served as a youth facility as well as a fellowship hall for larger events. The challenge was to cover the floor completely, with specific emphasis on the stage end. As best I can remember, we installed two large front mains and eight smaller boxes distributed the length of the room.

Not cheap stuff, either. This was a nice system. We used some of the best processors available during the dark ages of the mid-90s.

The rack was detachable with a few connections and could fit into a storage room for security or when not needed. It had full processing for every conceivable situation. It was a completely self-contained solution that worked beautifully. I was incredibly proud of my own genius.

The project included full training with everyone who would use the system. The pastor even made it mandatory for all volunteers to be trained. I didn’t wrap up the training until everyone assured me they had a complete understanding of the operation.

Less than two weeks after the job was completed, the church called to complain: “It sounds awful in here.” “We can’t understand a thing anyone says.” “You need to get back up here and fix this junk.” Great.

Upon arrival, I found a church knee-deep in Vacation Bible School, hosting several hundred kids under the age of 12. I felt like Chewbacca visiting the Ewoks.

Within seconds, an irritated church member did the “assertive walk/stomp thing” in quickly escorting me through Munchkinland to the audio team, who were waiting to pounce on the jerk who designed the system. They were furious over how bad it sounded and said nothing they did was making it better.

“O.K. Let’s play something through it and let me see what it sounds like,” I said after putting my hands in my pockets as casually as possible.

It only took a quick walk to the center of the room to realize that every single high-frequency driver in the building was blown. Literally, all of them. I was at a loss as to how they’d managed to do it.

After informing them that the highs were completely blown, they demanded an explanation. How was it possible for these brand-new loudspeakers to fail? The general tenor was that they were sure I’d ripped them off with cheap junk.

These particular church members, who’d been my dearest friends in the world only two weeks ago, were saying terrible things about me and the system. I began to fear that my diplomatic skills weren’t going to get me out alive.

I tried explaining the possible causes. The most likely scenario was that the system was surged with some kind of power spike. That set them off with a volley of defensive arguments about how responsible they were and how careful they’d all been with the system.

While they were talking over each other about how delicately this system had been lovingly cared for, I noticed someone walking toward me. Just not soon enough.

It was a VBS volunteer who’d been unrolling a 100-foot mic cable in our general direction, and he’d reached his target—the house console. One end of the cable was connected to a direct box on stage, taking a feed from a DVD player on stage that was currently playing a movie. And before I could stop him, he stabbed the other end of that cable into a live, un-muted channel with the gain over halfway up.

About 300 kids screamed and dropped to the floor as the shotgun blast rang out through the building.

Slight pause for effect. Everyone goes silent, and then the church techs slowly turn back to me… “Yeah. Something like that could blow all the speakers at once,” I dryly pointed out, trying to remain diplomatic and almost pulling it off.

Sure, we can create better systems and tools to manage them. We can push the boundaries and make systems that evolve, constantly acclimating to specific applications and venues, literally tuning themselves and eliminating many of the issues we struggle with. We can accomplish technical perfection using the latest and greatest of what’s available. We can also develop better safety nets to avoid damage and embarrassment.

But what we can’t do is eliminate the human aspect. We have to learn our trade and take ownership of our systems. Learn them, learn to operate them, learn to maintain them, and learn to protect them.

Just keep this fact in mind: there is no such thing as idiot-proof. Systems and tools are only as good as the people operating them. Don’t be a monkey.

About M. Erik

M. Erik Matlock
M. Erik Matlock

Senior Editor, ProSoundWeb
Erik worked in a wide range of roles in pro audio for more than 20 years in a dynamic career that encompasses system design and engineering in the live, install and recording markets. He also spent a number of years as a church production staff member and Media Director, and as an author for several leading industry publications before joining the PSW team.


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Jeff McLeod says

Funny & informative article, Erik; well done!

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