Study Hall

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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.

I first started reading Live Sound International magazine 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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My mantra for dance gigs is “stay out of the way.” This applies not only to my work process (I stagger my meal breaks with the rest of the production, so I have a couple of “empty-room” periods in which to do what I need to do), but also to my setup itself: absolutely clean stages, no visible loudspeakers or cables, no gear blocking the wings where the dancers enter and exit, and I’m usually not even visible to the audience myself.

I work from the lighting booth, since I have no live mics and need to call cues for the rest of the crew based on the playback timer. At the booth I can also communicate freely with the lighting team without distracting the audience by hollering into a headset.

Suki had a 2U rack of solid state media players (bonus point to Suki – I don’t trust CDs, either.) So I helped her patch into the console and built a custom fader layer so that she could run the show without banking to the output layer. (For dance, I like to have easy access to the monitor bus master fader, so I can pull a fade-out without having to run the monitors post-fader.) Suki borrowed my board tape and labeled her faders in Japanese (cool!).

Working Together

Down on the stage, we looked at placement options for the side fills. This is a tricky aspect of dance audio – you can’t obstruct the wings where the dancers pass, you can’t block the lighting booms or the sides of the stage, and it’s also unlikely they can be flown because the “pipe end” or “high side” position is prime lighting real estate.

We decided on a placement behind the first set of legs, and Suki asked through gestures if it would be possible to add another pair of fills further upstage. I nodded, pointed to my watch and held up two fingers – “Give me two minutes.” I went to a storage room to get extra wedges and cabling, and when I turned around, Suki was there with two dancers to carry the gear.

Normally I’d feel like a slacker if the talent is on stage carting wedges around, but these guys and gals were adamant about helping as much as possible. They placed the wedges, bowed, and hurried off. I cabled up the wedges while Suki applied a liberal application of white gaffers tape for high visibility in the dark wings.

Side fills sorted, I hovered in the background while Suki tested playback levels and recorded them on a notepad to the tenth of a dB. I’d periodically give an “everything good?” gesture, and she’d respond with a thumbs-up. She needed her director to translate only once: a question about gain structure and noise floor in the main amp rack. Good luck communicating that with hand gestures! After the show, the whole group signed a T-shirt for me.

Common Experience

The reason I share this is the same reason I remember it so well: Suki and I didn’t understand a word of each other’s language, but we had absolutely no trouble communicating. Signal flow is signal flow, decibels are decibels, and amplifiers are amplifiers – no matter your word for them. As Shakespeare might have said if he were a sound engineer, “A system matrix processor by any other name…”

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This is quite silly, but what’s cool is that Suki and I actually did have a language in common, the language of pro audio. We both shared a passion for music and sound, a passion driven by what is heard, not what is spoken. This is astounding to me when I stop and think about it – live audio gave us so much common ground that we literally did not have to speak to each other to put on a show together.

And that, I think, speaks for itself.

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