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ProSoundWeb

Subjectively Rational: Some Things I’ve Noticed About Working With Sound…

The tireless pursuit of the craft of audio and never getting lulled into thinking that we know it all...

As with politics, it can be very difficult to be rational when we think, discuss and make decisions about sound. Of course, much about sound is subjective, even if there are plenty of quantifiable aspects to what we do.

No matter how it looks on Smaart or SysTune, the end result has to be something that satisfies the audience, or at least satisfies us – and we should (hopefully) be the toughest customer of our own product.

Opinions Vary

The first thing that came to mind while thinking about all of this is that microphones seem to be one subject about which people have more passionate opinions than just about any other piece of kit. I was reminded of all this when perusing forums like ProSoundWeb or GearSpace, noting that of all the questions asked, the ones that get the most responses are along the lines of “What’s the best vocal mic for a female singer?” or “What’s the best choice for guitar cabinet mic?”

In other words, opinions are like microphones, everyone has at least three favorites… Maybe this is because there are so many microphones, and even models that have been on the market for 50 years or more are still being used today.

But I suspect that it is also because mics are where sound gets magically changed into electrical impulses, and thus there is such a huge opportunity to get things “right” or “wrong.” People seem really polarized about this and count me among them.

There’s just something about the fact that microphones are the focal point where art meets technology. The emotive sound of the human voice becomes electrons moving on a wire.

The beautiful sparkle of that pre-war Martin moves the air, which moves a diaphragm and coil, and somewhere a meter moves in response. And then a loudspeaker changes the final resulting signal into a much louder version so thousands can hear that sparkle, but it all starts at the microphone.

To me, the right choice of mics and the knowledge of where to put them makes such a huge difference in the final result. It makes mixing much easier and reduces the need for EQ or other tweaks at the console, which is where we tend to get ourselves in trouble.

With modern DSP-based consoles, this is less of a problem, but still an issue. Why add 6 dB at 10 kHz when we can just use a brighter-sounding microphone at the starting point? Why add that plug-in for “Character”?

One last thought: The choice of mics has evolved along with other changes in the PA world. The use of in-ear monitors (IEM) and the fabulous loudspeaker systems of today mean that you can choose mics based on the way they sound, rather than just simply to avoid feedback or to overcome the loss of highs in the mains.

In my opinion we should become familiar with these microphones and trust our own ears on your artist’s sound rather than relying on what anyone else says. Of course, it can be useful to see what others might recommend in order to narrow the choices.

But beyond that, it’s up to you.

Everyone Notices

Picture without sound is surveillance. You’ve heard that one, right? And sound without picture is radio… you get the idea.

But my point is that sound is so critically important to any type of entertainment, and yet it seems to be an afterthought in so many cases. When things go wrong with sound, everyone notices.

Ever had massive feedback at one of your gigs? If so, then you know what I’m talking about. Or how about a loud hum? Same thing – people notice. But I would be willing to bet that if one of the banks of lights didn’t work at a show, very few people would complain.

Unfortunately, we’ve probably experienced the fact that there seems to be a universal mistrust of the “sound tech” or the “techie” or whatever semi-derogatory phrase might be used in a given culture. It refers to “those nerds around here that screw up the sound.”

Why does the event producer, sometimes the corporate client, festival organizer, city cultural officer, or other “person in charge” always seem to take offense when it is brought up that the budget for the PA is not even close to adequate for the event at hand? Meanwhile, why is there always plenty of money for decorations, the hotel ballroom, spokesmodels, door prizes, etc.?

Sometimes I think it’s because they’ve seen too many movies, and not only that, but Hollywood so often gets it wrong. They have created the illusion that A) Whenever someone walks up to a microphone, we should hear feedback, and B) loudspeakers aren’t visible but everyone has great sound, and maybe C) when they show sound reinforcement in the 1950s, despite the horrible mics of the day and incredibly limited PA systems, sounded just like the records of the day (in other words, great).

The result is this disconnect between how people imagine an event and what it really takes in terms of budget, logistics, sightlines, and AC power to really make things work. How do we fix this?

Of course, it helps to be confident, competent, and be ready to give references. Maybe even talk to a few of your past good clients (if you haven’t already) and prep them that future potential customers may be getting in touch with them. Nothing says you are the right provider like past successes.

And finally, be diplomatic. Sure, there are times when it’s appropriate to simply drop the job, but usually there is a professional way to nudge those involved to consider just how important sound really is. Maybe the thing to do is make a short video that starts out with no sound at all, then when the sound comes in, it’s distorted, then clears up a bit but there’s a loud buzz.

Then, at last, the sound is clean and clear. Ask the client at which point the sound became acceptable and then explain that you are the vendor that can provide them with quality sound because you know how important it is to them. The #soundisessential online campaign from a year ago had some great examples for this!

All Roads Lead To… Wireless?

This last muse is on a topic to which I’m very close, since I work for a manufacturer making wireless microphone products. But my observation isn’t about being a supplier, it’s about the fact that whenever I’ve been around a show, and anything, I mean anything goes wrong with the sound; the first blame gets placed on the wireless microphones.

Let me relate a story about that…

I was providing the wireless microphones and backline wireless for a show in San Diego. Between comm, IEM, microphones and backline, we had about 45 channels of wireless on the stage – certainly not a system where you would want to “guess” the frequencies. To coordinate everything, I used IAS software from Professional Wireless Systems and meanwhile kept a spectrum analyzer running the whole time.

During rehearsals, one of the main guitar players in the house band was having problems and he mentioned to me that his level was going up and down, sounding “weak,” etc. Note that he came to me first – and that’s the point of this story. I proceeded to swap out his transmitter and receiver and put him on a different pre-coordinated frequency, thus eliminating any one of the three things that could have been causing the problem IF the wireless was at fault.

Guess what? The same problem persisted. He was very understanding and realized that it probably wasn’t the wireless, although he didn’t know what to check next. Meanwhile, the stage manager started giving me a hard time and no amount of calm explanation or logic on my part would sway him. He was simply convinced that it was the wireless causing the problem.

I knew that the actual cause was likely the guitarist’s pedal board, seeing that it was the most complex part of the chain and had the most opportunities for intermittent connections, etc. I made a note of this and worked in a quick trip to Radio Shack during the lunch break. There, I got some contact cleaner and then ran across the street to a hardware store to get some Scotch Brite.

After I got back, I went through that pedal board with a fine-toothed comb – cleaning all the quarter-inch plugs and jacks, and DC connectors – and then put it all back together. From then on, it worked perfectly. I was there to provide RF, but I was the only one convinced that the wireless had nothing to do with the problem and thus set about to find a solution.

After that, the stage manager seemed to have more respect for me. And I think this is one way that we can all improve our standing when handling wireless mic systems – know your system inside and out and be prepared for anything.

A lot of people still seem to believe that wireless systems are run on voodoo because they don’t understand the fundamentals involved. But planning, math and physics are what determine success in the RF world.

A quick side story is that one of the house IATSE folks at the venue told me that just a few weeks before, he’d had a show in that same theater with all kinds of problems with the wireless. When they called the manufacturer for help and described their location (downtown San Diego), they were told, “You’re basically screwed,” because of the heavy use of the spectrum by TV broadcasts.

I was pretty shocked to hear that and invited the house tech to listen to some of my channels. Not a blip, hit, dropout, nothing. He asked how this was possible, and I explained that we had done careful frequency coordination, had proper RF gain staging, and set the antennas in the right places.

Another related bit is that the monitor engineer told me that he wasn’t surprised that the wireless mics worked so well, but he wanted to know, “How come the IEM system seems so solid?” His experience had been that wireless IEMs were usually prone to problems.

Again, I explained that we had done a good coordination and band plan thus we would be able to count on all these systems to work – end of story.

The Bottom Line

All these issues are inter-related, and to me they point to the fact that we really must know our craft inside and out. I’ve said it before, and here it is again: We should never stop learning and never think that we know it all.

We can’t assume that what worked before will necessarily work again, although it is often a good starting point. And we should study our systems and the underlying technology to stay current. As we have firmly moved to digital consoles, wireless mics and IEMs, there is no excuse not to master these systems.

Things are constantly getting more complex, but at the same time, the possibilities for excellence are ever more available to us. Don’t forget to rely on your quality resources – the good manufacturers are always there to help.

And the basics of physics never change – until scientists and mathematicians tell us they do. Until then, have fun and make some good sound.

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