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Lost In Translation?

Pro audio has a language all its own. Beyond terms and jargon, there is a form of communication based on our passion for the craft.

By Jonah Altrove October 30, 2018

I first started reading Live Sound International during high school (literally, during school), and I distinctly remember feeling frustrated by the professionals’ jargon.

To that point, the sum total of my experience was “guess/test/revise” with whatever gear my school had lying around. I understood some concepts, but not the terms for them. I knew how to ring out a monitor, but I had no idea that process was called “ringing out.” I just knew it was a thing you were supposed to do with monitors.

Flipping through my first issue of LSI, which I found in a crate in the school’s tech booth, had me feeling as though there was a whole wealth of knowledge just beyond my grasp. I could understand the concepts if I could only understand the language.

As professionals, we often don’t realize how terminology-laden our dialogue is until a lay person points it out. (“What is polarity/XLR/HPF/PFL?”).

When we hear “58” our brains sort of “autocomplete” and pull up a mental database entry for “Shure SM58, a cardioid dynamic handheld vocal microphone,” which is a big concept to communicate just by saying “58.” If we could visually externalize this mental “unpacking” process, I imagine it would look a bit like the Heads-Up Display inside the Terminator or Iron Man’s helmet. Usually, though, this happens so fast we hardly notice it.

With such “information density,” a small error can become a big error, so precision is required. A simple typo can turn a spec for a D5 digital console into a D6 kick drum mic, or an S16 digital snake into an S10 loudspeaker or a Qu-16 mixer. Clearly, a high degree of accuracy is required in our technical language. (This extends to numbers, too – a misplaced zero or decimal point on an invoice or rigging weight estimate can lead to a big problem.)

Greetings & Salutations

Engineers who can rattle off specs and model numbers are said to be “speaking our language.” What I’m more interested in is the literal sense of it: what if another sound engineer is not speaking our actual language?

I experienced this first hand while working as a house engineer for a college. As part of a cultural programming series, the college was bringing in a traditional Japanese Taiko drumming and dance production. The troupe consisted of about 40 Japanese college students who had flown to the U.S., accompanied by an instructor who was also their director, production manager, and the only member of the group who spoke English. He introduced me to Suki, the troupe’s sound engineer, who greeted me with a smile and formal bow, which I attempted to return. I must have looked ridiculous because she laughed and held out her hand for shaking. Introductions made, the director departed to work with our lighting crew.

There’s a wonderful harmony here because dance gigs are pretty unique in terms of their audio requirements, so they can seem a bit foreign to engineers who haven’t worked in that capacity before.

For example, it’s primarily a visual medium so lighting is paramount, and hours are spent tweaking, focusing, and programming. Audio is largely a support role: usually playback only, so my job was to ensure that everyone could hear what they were supposed to hear, at the proper volume.

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About Jonah

Jonah Altrove
Jonah Altrove

Veteran Live Audio Professional
Jonah Altrove is a veteran live audio professional on a constant quest to discover more about the craft. Send him your "Ask Jonah" questions at [email protected]


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