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Pet Peeves: It Can Never All Be Just Fun & Games…

In audio, as with everything in life, there are always a few situations or moments that slightly spoil the mood and get under our (or at least "my") skin...

To me, audio is utterly satisfying – it excites, intrigues and fuels me. The entire field, from music creation and production, studio work, and live sound mixing to just enjoying a great piece of music is something that constantly fills me with joy and energy.

But as with everything in life, it can never all be just fun and games – there are always a few situations or moments that slightly spoil the mood and get under my skin. Nothing drastic or severe, just more of a nuisance.

I’m sure others working in this field might not even notice the things that bother me, but likely have their own things that cause them to grind their teeth and mumble inaudible expletives. Here’s my current list of “pet peeves” in the audio world. Note that these aren’t constant; they’ve changed over the years.

Marketing claims that “sound is easy.”

Over the past decade or so, we’ve witnessed a revolution in audio, especially in the live world. The sheer number of sophisticated tools accessible to the masses (i.e., affordable digital mixers, DSP loudspeakers, software and apps) is vast.

Every channel we work with nowadays has the option of parametric EQ, dynamic processing, tape emulation, studio grade plugin – whatever we might need, it’s right at our fingertips. We route and patch complex signal paths with a touch of a screen instead of fiddling with cables, effects come with different flavors and characters, and to top it off, we can save, load, change and recall settings within seconds.

The marketing for this modern gear consistently claims that attaining quality sound reinforcement is easier than ever, pointing at things like presets for specific microphones on specific instruments, readily available channel strip configurations and automated processes for loudspeaker alignment, and more.

However, these assertions, while true on their face, forget one very importing thing: the laws of physics, electricity and electroacoustics remain unchanged. A misplaced mic will still cause feedback, a loudspeaker will still propagate sound according to its directivity pattern, and there’s simply no amount of processing that can fix rookie mistakes (like trying to use condenser mics without phantom power).

No, sound did not get “easier” – we just have more tools at our disposal, and more tools inherently mean that more knowledge is required, not less. It also means that just about any show can be on par with large-scale concerts if we possess the ability to make it happen.

A multitude of formats and lack of standardization.

Sometimes I envy the lighting folks. For years they’ve had the luxury of the same data transfer format (DMX) across all their devices, no matter what brand. Even more recent formats like ArtNet seem to be picked up faster and supported by seemingly all major brands.

Audio, on the other hand, has no such luck. Try marrying a console using (Audinate) Dante with a MADI-connected stage rack, and then distribute that signal to an AES50-networked monitor board. There is a lot of IT knowledge, additional gear and often cost involved in trying to make these proprietary formats work together seamlessly, and sometimes it just can’t be done.

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I have a dream that one day I might wake up in a world where all audio components will have the ability to talk to one another in a way that is simple to set up and performs all signal transfer and data control without additional conversion modules, interfaces and downright odd configurations. (A guy can dream, right?)

Suspicious looks when I use measurement tools.

About six months ago I worked a relatively small gig at a local venue. Hired by the artist, I got in touch with the PA provider and told them that I would be arriving about an hour before the act arrived to make sure all was in order with the system.

When I got there, I quickly looked over the setup and then went to front of house to unpack my gear. The moment I took out my measurement microphone, the engineer from the local sound company said, “I never rely on those things – I trust my ears more.” The statement was followed by nods of approval from the rest of the crew. It was as if using a measurement rig means you’re leaning on a crutch because your ears aren’t “golden” enough.

I responded that I agree that the final call should always be done after critical listening, but that I use my measurement rig primarily for time alignment between the elements. So I proceeded with my measurements, adjusted the timing and a few EQ parameters, and in short order attained a fairly flat response after turning down the subwoofers by almost 20 dB.

The local crew thought I’d gone mad, commenting that I’d “choked” their system. However, the band put on a great show and it sounded exactly the way it should, so all’s well that ends well – except I couldn’t shake the feeling that in this day and age, it’s amazing that so many are still so reluctant to embrace useful technology and disregard solid system design principles because “it’s not how we do things.”

Note that I don’t really take issue with their approach, I just find it aggravating when folks make sarcastic comments about others who are simply doing just a bit more, trying something else, going the extra mile. I truly believe that technology will be coming at us at an increasingly faster pace. Those who don’t embrace the fact that we have to learn more (and more quickly) just to keep up will be left further behind. I know which group I want to belong to.

Maybe I’m just getting older and these types of things bother me more. Whatever the case, I remain vigilant about not letting them lessen my excitement or take away my joy. And I wish the same for you.

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