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Misconceptions & Bad Semantics

Seven pro audio pet peeves that just won't die.

I’ll bet you have some of these, too: things people say or concepts they have wrong but won’t change, despite considerable evidence. The pro audio market is rife with some of these things.

There are good reasons for us to keep doing what we’re doing – if it’s been working. (“If it ain’t broke” and so on.) Nevertheless, if we aren’t continuing to learn, grow and change, we’re stagnating or worse.

O.K., let’s start with getting the ones with wireless systems out of the way first, since I work for a manufacturer of those devices and thus hear more about them than anything else.

1. “Wireless systems are voodoo.”

This is brought up almost every time wireless is discussed, and any time there are problems with a sound system, wireless is among the first things blamed – even when the majority of evidence points to other problems.

If you’ve attended the SynAudCon seminar “Making Wireless Work,” you know that as instructors, we work quite hard to dispel this very myth. Sure, if the fundamentals aren’t known or understood, then of course wireless seems like magic, or a dark art, or however you want to label it. But with even basic comprehension of proper antenna placement, frequency coordination and band planning, combined with equipment choices (and a side-dose of experience never hurts either), most of the success with these devices comes from proper planning, math, and science.

Sure, things can still go wrong, but there’s always a concrete reason for the problem, and to blame it on “voodoo” is just lazy.

2. “Powered antennas gives wireless systems more range.”

Yes – this can be true if without powered antennas, the system wasn’t properly designed. But the only reason to insert RF power boosters is to overcome coax cable loss, no more, no less. Just like too much amplifier power fed to loudspeakers can blow the drivers, too much RF into a receiver will definitely degrade system performance.

It’s almost always better to utilize a passive antenna system, even if there’s a loss of a few dB through the antenna(s) and cabling rather than an active scheme that boosts the signal too much. Mainly this is due to intermodulation distortion products being generated in the active stages.

Just as we don’t want audio distortion in the mains (unless it’s part of the sound of a particular artist), the goal is to minimize the generation of RF distortion in the antenna system or receiver front end. Now let’s move along to more general topics.

3. “I’ve been doing it ‘this way’ for 40 years.”

Uh huh, but it doesn’t mean it’s been done correctly all of that time. In addition, tools and techniques have changed and will continue to do so.

The fundamentals of physics are immutable, but the practical applications are not. Who could have imagined 40 years ago that loudspeakers could be completely DSP driven; that consoles would be digital and networkable; and that the U.S. presidential election could be so ugly? (Well, maybe we could have predicted that last one.)

The point is that if we aren’t constantly learning as well as passing along our knowledge to the next generation, we’re doing a disservice to our profession, our customers, and ourselves. This goes double when we’re unwilling to admit that we might be doing something wrong.

4. “I need to tune the room.”

Really? You’re going to measure the acoustics of the space, bring in and install acoustic treatment, and if necessary, change the physical design and characteristics?

This one is more of an issue of semantics, and we probably know what you mean: you intend to tune the system to working optimally within the room. But why not say so? It’s important to be clear and accurate about our intentions so that bad habits aren’t picked up and/or perpetuated.

5. “Let’s change the phase of that microphone to find out if it can sound better.”

This one can be doubly confusing, because instead of “phase,” what’s meant (or should be meant) is “polarity.”

But do we even need to do this? There really is no “phase” switch on the console – it’s a polarity switch that inverts the audio signal. But in a sense, when we want to improve the sound of a mic because it is “phasey,” polarity doesn’t always help, although sometimes it might.

Phase in audio usually has to do with the distance between sound sources and mics. If a person is speaking into two mics simultaneously at different distances, and especially if that person is moving around, the sound can become “phasey.”

Changing polarity will not help; on the other hand, turning off one of the mics will. And if the distance between the source and the mics is constant, then adding an appropriate delay to the nearer mic can help as well.

In other words, be careful not to confuse these issues even if it’s just semantics.

6. “Once a signal is digital, then no additional latency will occur.”

Paging Mr. Murphy! Oh yes, there you are, waiting in the wings… Humor aside, if you don’t know whether or not re-sampling is taking place in a system, then it most likely is. And with any re-sampling, additional latency will be incurred. Whether or not this is a problem depends on the total “round trip” latency (from mic to loudspeakers or mic to in-ear monitors), as well as venue factors and the type of signals going through the system.

If we don’t have a handle on re-sampling, it can (to use a technical term) bite us in the butt. To make sure it’s not happening, utilize a system master clock and check to make sure that every device is running at the same bit and sample rate common for all devices in the entire system, usually 24-bit/48 kHz.

7. “On the job training is better than school.”

There’s no doubt that OJT is indispensable, particularly in our business, where many of the rules are unwritten but cannot be broken if you want to stay in a career. At the same time, learning new skills, conquering new products and technology, and generally becoming better at the craft often requires classroom time.

There’s a growing number of quality classes available to audio professionals, ranging from manufacturer and trade show classes to the aforementioned independent seminars by SynAudCon. The instructors are extremely knowledgeable, and in the vast majority of cases, are successful professionals who know what they’re talking about. Topics and formats are carefully designed for maximum impact.

Further, with the wonders of modern communication, there’s also a range of top-shelf training options available online. The point is that it’s up to us to explore the options and find what works best for our particular needs and situation.

There you have it, my top seven pro audio pet peeves. Most of you likely have your own lists, and perhaps some of mine are on it. Hopefully we can all agree that standing still and resting on laurels is stagnation, and that to move forward in our careers and to advance the art and science of sound reinforcement, we must drop pretense, think deeply about what we’re actually doing and saying, and accept responsibility for our own failures while crediting our teams for success.

The world of live sound reinforcement has improved considerably over the past few decades, but based on our lists, there are still hold-outs. So… See you at the next seminar?

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