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Silly Talk: Sometimes We Say The Darndest Things

Responding to ridiculous statements with diplomacy, wisdom, and occasionally... physics.

I’ve heard many really silly things in this business, some that I’ve had to respond to over the years. After all, our jobs are mostly about getting it right, making the client happy, retaining our integrity, and hopefully learning a few things along the way while ensuring that events of all types sound as good as possible.

The statements I’m going to list here have been somewhat generalized, with names and specific places removed, but they are literal. Hopefully, we can all catch ourselves before uttering things along these lines; too often they’re not even remotely helpful, and in some cases, they hold back the quality of our product. (No doubt some of you have a list of your own!)

1. Representative from venue: “Our house system is world class – you won’t even need to bring your PA off the truck.” I’m sure it’s no surprise to anyone who’s been working in pro audio for a while that many house systems are a mixed bag.

One particular instance that comes to mind was an auditorium in Texas, where the house sound tech insisted that we’d be wasting our time unloading our PA. Well, as soon as my favorite test CD was playing, I walked the room and started to hear some serious problems. One loudspeaker had a blown driver, another seemed to be out of polarity with itself. Coverage was quite uneven, of course.

I’m not one who wants to do work where it isn’t needed, but we unloaded the truck, set up our own rig, and dialed it in as usual. The payoff came when that same house tech walked by during the show and said, “Wow – it’s never sounded so good in here!” No kidding…

A variant of this goes something like “Our proprietary (a.k.a., magic) loudspeakers are way better than your Brand X boxes, so just leave yours on the truck.”

When I was touring full time, we ran a premium rig, top to bottom, and it was quite well optimized, thank you. On the rare occasion where we accepted the invitation to use someone else’s “magic” boxes, it was invariably disappointing. This isn’t to say that there weren’t then, or aren’t now, a wide range of excellent alternatives available, only that there are some folks pushing smoke and mirrors way too often.

2. Guitarist: “I like your wireless system for my guitar; the only problem is that there’s more latency the farther away I get from my amp.” (I really wish I was making this up.)

I think what happens is that when folks who are accustomed to short-range wireless and never go further than, say, 20 feet from the receiver, don’t notice the propagation delay of sound through the air. But once they get a chance to use a system that provides more range, their perspective shifts and they’re looking for an explanation for the obvious delay – and apparently, they missed the high school physics class where it was explained that electromagnetic radiation travels at the speed of light while sound moves at a mere 1,130 feet per second.

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3. Trumpet player: “The big band before us had a microphone on each trumpet, and even then the trumpets couldn’t be heard clearly. So, we definitely need a mic on each trumpet!”

Some background: When I was a full-time front of house engineer for a big band jazz group, I placed a mic between each two trumpet players and between each two trombone players. My reasoning was that I wanted the off-axis sound of the brass instruments because it was much more full and warm than what was coming directly, plus I never liked the “spitty/gritty” sound of trumpets closely miked on axis.

I received plenty of compliments on the “big natural sound” we were achieving, but the funny part was the logic of the trumpet player: what was done before didn’t sound good, so let’s do the same thing. No thanks.

4. Engineer: “Don’t worry, we’ll fix it in the mix (or with plugins).” Most of us know that what’s broken at the source – for whatever reason – usually can’t be fixed downstream. Rule of thumb? If you’re putting your favorite plugin on everything, maybe it’s time to reevaluate how you’re doing things.

Please note that I’m not against the use of plugins or of newer technology in general. But talk to any of the great live and recording engineers and they’ll all say the same thing: get it right at the source and everything becomes much easier.

5. Person of some authority (sound company owner, venue manager, production manager, etc.): “No one else does it that way” and its variant “Everyone else does it this way. Why don’t you just do it this way?”

Of course, there are time-tested methods and well-known tools and processes that are absolutely proven. But I don’t agree that this means we shouldn’t be pushing things forward and trying new ways to improve. Or should we still be using the mixing consoles, amplifiers and loudspeakers from the 1970s?

New methods and ideas have to come from somewhere, so why not here and now? Granted, if what we’re proposing will introduce needless risk, add a great deal of cost, or take up too much time, we probably shouldn’t do it. But what if it’s something that hasn’t been tried before and doesn’t take significantly more time and/or money? Why not give it a shot?

6. A person contacts me because something isn’t working with a system and wants my help. After providing my input, including a gentle explanation of why something is not set up correctly, here’s the reply: “But I’ve been doing it this way for 40 years and it’s always worked until now.”

Hopefully, we all know that just because something has been done a certain way for a long period of time doesn’t mean it’s correct. That said, many times something will work despite problems with aspects like design and/or configuration, and further, sometimes the only way we find this out is to introduce a new variable, such as a different piece of equipment.

What often counts most in this type of situation is diplomacy: just as there’s a right way to set up a system, there’s a right way to tell people that they’re making a mistake so that the problem gets solved and they (hopefully) learn something in the process. We don’t want to toss out tried-and-true methods, but if we’re not growing and learning, then we’ll be surpassed. It’s a balancing act.

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Then again, you’ve never said anything along these lines, right? Uh huh, me neither.

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