“Any industry founded on a particular technology faces the danger that a new invention will render it obsolete.” – Tom Standage, “The Victorian Internet”
When I came across this quote in Standage’s fascinating book about the history of the telegraph, it struck me with such veracity that I just put the book down and stared at the wall for a few seconds.
This is something I’ve occasionally found myself wondering – will the inevitable advance of technology eventually eliminate my job(s) as a system tech and/or front of house engineer?
If you’re paying attention, the answer might appear to be “yes.” It could certainly be argued that developments like the advanced beamsteering DSP that drives certain high-end sound reinforcement systems will turn the tech’s ability to determine array splay angles an archaic skill.
“When I was your age, we had to put the angles in by hand! One pin at a time! Uphill! Both ways! With no shoes on!”
Meanwhile the July/August 2016 issue of the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society describes the work of researchers who are designing an algorithm that can dissect and analyze the creative decisions of human mix engineers.
So it’s not hard to imagine that 20 years from now a reference-mic-equipped drone that will measure the system-room response, optimize the DSP, and then turn the system over to a 1U rack-mount Wi-Fi-enabled automixing processor in a seamless brushed aluminum package with a proprietary power connector. Oh wait, it’ll be powered wirelessly via induction coils. Proprietary induction coils.
Here’s the counterargument: music isn’t necessary.
Put down your pitchfork – of course it’s necessary and valuable in a cultural, societal sense. What I mean is that it’s not necessary in the way that food, water and sleep are necessary in order to continue living. So the fact that we, as a species, continue to create and enjoy music tells us all we need to know.
Ever since the phonograph replaced the saloon pianist, there’s been a fear that technology will put live musicians on the rocks. Over a century later, live music hasn’t gone anywhere, and in some senses, it’s bigger than ever. In a purely utilitarian sense, this doesn’t compute.
Let’s optimize everything – completely automated concerts with algorithmically automixed sound and computer designed lighting and video supporting androids and robots playing procedurally generated music. You might go once, as a novelty, but this is not going to supply the potentially life-changing concert experience that’s the reason each of us got into this business.
In terms of efficiency, the most efficient form of a concert is not to have it, so it’s not about that – it’s something we do simply because we love it. It makes us feel. Therefore, pro audio is not based on any potentially fleeting technology, but on the basic desire of people to enjoy artistic expression, which is a deeply, profoundly human thing that can’t be replaced by technology.
Technology broadens our toolset every day, and these innovations are to help us, not replace us. The way in which we do our jobs – and the way the musicians do theirs – is undeniably shaped by advances in technology. But in order to have that soul of expression, there’s always got to be someone pressing the buttons.
The show looks and sounds the way it does because someone wanted it to be that way. Otherwise, it’d just be noise.