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Higher Ground: Zen & The Subtle Art Of Giving A Darn

For all the fancy equipment, fun tools and technological advances that we enjoy in the modern era of sound system design, it’s often the basic (and essential) elements that are so often overlooked.

The last time my written output graced this fine publication, I discussed what I refer to as The Magnitude Fallacy, which describes the human tendency to focus disproportionately on All The Small Things. In the weeks since, I’ve come to realize that this concept also readily describes my views on the general state of sound system engineering.

Lately, my schedule has seen me working a number of fly dates, one-offs, and festivals under the employ of an artist. In such situations, we’re not carrying our own PA system but using a system provided for us by the venues, local or regional production companies, and so forth.

Working for an established artist means that our production has a significant ability to specify or at least guide the design and deployment of the system, and my role as the artist’s systems engineer is to take that system from whatever state it’s in when deployed and optimize its coverage, consistency, and tonality to the maximum extent practical to meet the needs of the performance.

Playing The Odds

Since no one likes to be surprised, our audio requirements are clearly documented and communicated well in advance of the performance date so that all involved parties understand the goals and the specific requirements of our show. In theory this is simple enough.

But in practical terms, it ends up being a grab bag of possible system deployments. I estimate that out of 10 systems we’re handed, one or two of them are already designed, deployed and tuned close enough to our specification that we need to make only minor adjustments to overall tonality (our show’s preferred target curve), frontfill timings, array shading and so forth.

Approximately four out of 10 are at a functional starting point but need some loving. Typically, this means zeroing out the processing and starting over from the ground up to tune it to our requirements. Some changes to the physical deployment might be in order, usually moving or re-aiming frontfills or adjusting splay angles on the mains. In most of these cases, the prediction and design we advanced didn’t trickle down from vendor management to the “boots on the ground” techs deploying the rig – not their fault, for sure.

The remaining 40 percent or so are where the real issues manifest. In these cases, the advancing documentation has simply been ignored or has been altered or adjusted by the local vendor without any communication with the artist’s party. In some cases, I’m told, “We’ve been hanging this rig in here for years and we’ve never done a prediction.” (Side note, never hang a sound system you haven’t predicted even if coverage is not a concern – the rigging load safety checks performed by the prediction software are essential.)

In some cases, the vendor has deployed a system that has serious issues (blown drivers, cabinets wired incorrectly, etc.) that they’re not aware of because they haven’t taken the time to verify or measure their equipment. In other cases, the systems are simply not at what could be considered a functional professional level despite any assurances to the contrary during the advancing process. These are systems that are visibly asymmetrical (Left and Right trim height are unmatched), or audibly asymmetrical (Left and Right don’t sound the same, four frontfills that all sound different), or were not verified (Left and Right reversed, dead boxes in a hang, etc.).

Because the artist is signing my paycheck, it’s my job to do whatever I deem reasonable and responsible to get the system as close to an optimal state as possible for the performance. The approach I’ve adopted is to advance our own front-end DSP (my current tool of choice for these applications is a Meyer Sound Galaxy) that allows me to do as much work as possible on any system we walk up to without needing access to system-specific controls.

In the circumstances where the vendor can’t provide the processor, I carry my own with me on the plane. This wasn’t a trivial investment, but the presence of my preferred tool allows me to operate with efficiency and accuracy, and in that sense, it’s paid its own rent many times over. And it just leaves the vendor’s processing to perform anything proprietary, such as loudspeaker presets and array shading.

Maintaining Standards

You may be wondering how The Magnitude Fallacy ties into this discussion. What I’ve come to understand is that a significant number of vendors seem to focus too much effort on the wrong things and not enough effort on the right things.

The best example I can provide is the vendor who was concerned about rotating the front-grille logo icons on the frontfills so they were all right side up – but had just handed me a system where main Left and Right were not at the same trim height, didn’t sound the same, and had several dead boxes on one side. Priorities!

This isn’t a conversation about gear – it’s about standards. Although there are many deep technical rabbit holes to jump down about the more subtle points of line array behavior, beamsteering and loudspeaker design, it would be unreasonable of me to expect that vendor audio techs across the country all have a deep, indexical knowledge of these topics.

However, making sure trim heights are matched doesn’t require any of that – in fact, I’m reasonably certain many random people off the street could figure it out. It takes a few minutes with a tape measure or laser disto to get it right.

The only reason someone is handing off a system to an artist’s mix engineer that has Main Left and Main Right cross-patched is because they didn’t bother to check. This doesn’t require measurement equipment, prediction or any type of advanced knowledge, only about 15 seconds of time and enough professional concern to bother checking.

For all the fancy equipment, fun tools and technological advances that we enjoy in the modern era of sound system design, it’s these basic elements that are so often overlooked. Handing off a system with Left and Right swapped or sounding different is the cardinal sin of a systems engineer. It immediately informs the mix engineer that not even the most basic level of concern was paid to the deployment and signals to them that they better go through the rest of the system with a fine-toothed comb because who knows what else they didn’t check.

This is about attitude, not gear. My artist once played a headline slot at an all-day music festival at a venue where hundreds of seats had been sold outside the coverage of the main hangs.

I was informed that there was no budget for side hangs, so I asked for extra monitor wedges, speakers on sticks – something! – so we could deliver some coverage to those paying seats, and was met with the response, “Whatever, it’s just a 45-minute set.” This is not technical inability – it is apathy. And I wonder – if not 45 minutes, what is the performance length that warrants actually covering all the paying audience members with the sound system?

Experiences like these remind me why an artist deems it a worthwhile investment to pay a systems engineer to look after the sound of their show. If I don’t speak up – who will?

Winning Proposition

What I would like to see is simply a higher level of care overall. If large portions of seats are unable to look down the grille of any loudspeaker, it’s a good indicator that they’re probably not going to hear the show and some changes need to be made.

If the main hangs are clearly asymmetrical when viewed from 90 feet away, why not spend a few minutes rectifying that? Six inches of trim difference isn’t likely to drastically degrade the sound of the show, but it is likely to cause visiting engineers, other professionals, and people who view photos or videos of our work to cast doubts upon our level of competence.

Much as this isn’t a tech issue, it’s also not about a particular show or a particular artist. It’s about ourselves, as professionals and individuals, taking pride in the work we’re doing, in our level of competence, and remembering why we do what we do. We should strive to be able to feel good about our own work and stand confidently behind it.

I’m convinced that if a little more awareness is paid to the basics, the overall quality of work in our field would increase – as well as our levels of professionalism and respect.

If a system I’m handed passes the basics – it’s hung reasonably well and pointed in approximately the right direction – I feel optimistic that the tech and I will work together to have an easier, more enjoyable day, put on a great show, and hopefully develop a long-lasting professional (and perhaps personal) relationship based on our successful collaboration. But if I’m handed a system that’s carelessly deployed, it’s hard to avoid feeling like this person or company doesn’t care about the work they’re doing, or about me or my artist, and alarm bells start ringing.

Let’s try to take the 10,000-foot view, focus on getting the basics right, lead with our best foot forward, and raise the tide a bit – and all our boats along with it

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