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The Newest Latest: There’s No Magic Device That’s Going To Do An End Run Around Reality

An experience many years ago with an RTA that turned out to be more of a confidence booster than the opposite – it just took the author a while to figure it out.

Sometime in the early months of 1980, the band I was working for was playing in a roadhouse in Montreal’s West Island. On a break, a guy from a local band came up to me to talk shop. It didn’t take long for him to start winding me up about this magical new device that they had incorporated into their rig, a real-time analyzer (RTA). I may have heard of such a device by this point, but I’d never seen one and had definitely never used one.

In the course of this conversation, this fellow, who I never knew whether he was in the band or the sound tech (judging by his Bon Jovian bouffant he was probably the former) said to me: “We used to be known as a band with good sound. Since we got the RTA, we’re known as a band with great sound!”

Well, hearing that, as an 18- or 19-year-old, mostly self-taught sound person, I felt kind of intimidated. In fact, as the saying goes, “My heart died within my breast.” I just thought, “How am I ever going to be able to compete with a machine that tells you exactly how to EQ a PA?”

I don’t recall there being any discussion at all about what my band sounded like, nor do I recall any thoughts of “maybe I could get an RTA, too!” Mostly, I just felt doomed.

I carried my secret fear around with me for a couple of months, all the while mixing my band six nights a week. Eventually, we found ourselves back in Montreal, with a night off. And, Mr. “Great Sound’s” band was playing at the same club that we’d had our first interaction.

I don’t remember exactly what I was anticipating as we made our way out to the club. What I do remember is as we walked in, mid-set, is the sound. Which was, at best, really average.

The second thing I remember is walking further into the club to behind the front-of-house position and looking at the outboard rack to see this wonderment in action. And there it was, a 2U, half-rack 10-band RTA, snuggled up against its mate, a 2U half-rack 10-band EQ.

Now anyone who spent time in the trenches back then already knows that there was precious little you could actually do with a 10-band graphic EQ in the way of “sculpting sound,” never mind fixing any of the many acoustic issues the average bar band PA had back then.

Besides that, the devices were a brand of gear that in subsequent encounters in various club and rental systems I never, not once, moved a slider or turned a knob that made me think, “Yes, that’s what I was hoping to hear!”

So, this initially painful exercise was a lesson. In what, it’s hard to say more than 40 years later, but I feel like what I came away from it with was some, or all (eventually) of the following:

• Trust your ears.
• Trust yourself and your abilities.
• Don’t get too hung up on the hardware and the surrounding hype.
• Take the input of others, especially strangers, with a grain of salt.
• Sound systems, and the humans supporting them, involve a lot of complex interactions. There’s no magic device that’s going to do an end run around that reality.

Ultimately, this whole episode turned out to be more of a confidence booster than the opposite, it just took me a while to figure that out.

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