There are two ways of seeing an audio mystery—as an unsolvable problem or as a challenge. The challenge area, that’s where we live whether we like it or not. We work in the realm of wireless microphones, high-end electronics, and frequency manipulation. In this world, audio mysteries abound.
Our mysteries are things like why there’s suddenly wireless interference after having a stable system for three years, why a single rechargeable battery appears to have died in the middle of the sermon even though it was fully charged two hours ago, and why a sound appears to hang in the air long after the drummer hit his tom. These mysteries are part of audio production.
We don’t get the option of claiming a problem is the result of an unfathomable unknown or a little evil audio imp, though I’ve often considered the “imp” possibility, myself. No, we’re handed a mystery and, like a great detective, we must figure out the motive of the murder (murdering your fantastic audio production). Once that’s done, we must take this a step further and figure out how to avoid it in the future.
The First Mystery
Let’s begin with the first audio mystery ever to come my way. Everything about it is unusual. The hardest part, in retrospect, is knowing the reason for the mystery was right in front of me the whole night long.
The group of parishioners was expected to be small. Christmas Eve service at this church was typically a subdued affair. You might say so small and subdued that the pastor didn’t even need a microphone.
I walked into the candle-lit sanctuary at 6:45 pm. “Fifteen minutes to go before the service, that should be enough prep time,” I thought. I saw Pastor Dan and he said, “Thanks for doing sound tonight. I’m not going to bother with a microphone. I figure we’ll only get about 20 people.
“Oh,” he added, “I do need you to play this VHS tape when I ask for it.”
Before I could say anything else, he said, “don’t worry about checking the video, I checked it in the system earlier this week. It’s cued up and ready to go.”
There are two important parts of the story I should now mention:
1) Pastor Dan did know the basics of the audio system, so I took him at his word.
2) I, with limited wisdom and experience in my early days of audio production, assumed that nothing can go wrong if no one touches the equipment between services.
The Christmas Eve service was almost over when the pastor said, “Roll the video.” Have you ever talked to a dog, and the dog looked at you and turned its head to the side as if to indicate, “I’m confused.” I think I did the same thing as the video rolled. The characters in the video drama were talking but they didn’t sound right.
What do you think when I say the audio to a VHS tape didn’t sound right?
1) It’s a VHS tape, it’s probably old and worn out.
2) Check the cabling (don’t we say that for everything?)
3) The channel EQ was probably jacked so just fix it.
The audio lacked clarity. The words spoken were audible but not entirely comprehensible. This was going to feel like a long video clip.
Step 1: Look at the pastor. I figured if he knew the tape sounded like this, he would watch the video. As I looked up, he was looking back at me. Uh oh.
Step 2: Check the cabling. Cabling checked!
Step 3: It must be the channel EQ! (Did I mention this was a mystery series?) The EQ settings were all at the default positions. I tried boosting the mids and the highs because I’d realized that’s what was absent. No difference. This was an analog board, it’s not like there was a hidden setting.
Or was there?
The video clip ended, the service ended, and sanctuary emptied, and I was left looking at the mixer thinking, “what did I miss?”