Study Hall

Rising To The Occasion: Using Restrictions & Limitations To Your Advantage

Unless this really is your first rodeo, the excuses run out pretty fast. Every gig, installation or session should enable us to do it better the next time.

A recent conversation with another engineer got me thinking about experiences that shaped my skills. While in the trenches, certain restrictions and limitations were aggravating and occasionally provoked real anger. However, in hindsight, those same events were actually beneficial to developing my skills.

Budget Restrictions. Many years working with churches teaches one incredibly important skill: making do with what you have. Most churches don’t have the ability to throw money at every problem. Old gear has to be repaired. Drivers are replaced, rather than boxes. Cables are repaired when new ones aren’t an option. Systems have to be reconfigured, not replaced.

Those very challenges led me to a better understanding of the gear and how to make the most of it. It wasn’t always something to be excited about, but it became an invaluable skill.

Level Restrictions. One big issue in the world of festival sound is keeping system bleed from shutting down shows. For almost seven years, I regularly mixed shows for RV rallies. The predominant audience for these events was retirees. It was not uncommon for the entire audience to stand up and walk out if the volume became uncomfortably loud.

Those gigs were aggravating at first, but they taught me how to manage a stage. Learning the art of diplomacy when balancing monitor levels and negotiating with performers saved my hide repeatedly. Keeping the stage under control is critical for keeping house levels balanced.

One particular show will forever stand out. A popular swing band with its own sound crew was hired for an arena gig, bringing its own sound crew. I was the system tech. Sound check turned into a rehearsal, with levels pushing well over 100 dB.

As diplomatically as possible, I informed the crew that the audience would walk out and they’d never be hired again if the levels didn’t back off. They (literally) laughed at me and played the old “this is who we are and what we do” card, but during pre-show announcements, they seemed to clue-in to my advice.

“These folks pay a lot of money to be here,” I told them. “This is their world. I’ve been mixing their shows for years under these restrictions and it taught me something. Any idiot can push levels until the system maxes out, but it takes legitimate skill to build a solid mix at controlled levels. It’s made me a better engineer by demanding that I keep it under control. You can push it a little as the show progresses, but if you hit them too hard on the first song, it’s over.”

Apparently, it worked. The show fired off at about 92 dB and eventually crept up to around 95 dB. But by then, the audience had acclimated to it. The band got more gigs and the show was hailed as a great success.

Time Restrictions. The clock was against us on festivals and concerts. The time restrictions forced me to find better and faster ways to do almost everything. Sloppy planning can make the difference between a profitable show or crying about it later.

This concept was drilled into me during years working outreach concerts at prisons. It didn’t matter if I was setting up in a rec room for a dozen people or a larger venue for thousands, I rarely had much more than an hour to unload a system and be ready for sound check.

As a result, the crew put together the racks and cases with surgical precision. Solid, well-labeled cases with good casters made load-in move quick. Clearly labeled, properly serviced equipment that worked flawlessly 99 percent of the time.

These people knew their business and were an example of professionalism. They understood that time is money and didn’t waste either. They showed me how to turn the time restriction into an opportunity to improve efficiency.

Unless this really is your first rodeo, the excuses run out pretty fast. Every gig, installation or session should enable us to do it better the next time.

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