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What Is Real? Seeking A Path To Higher Audio Awareness

Ruminations on what makes people, gear and procedures stand above in professional audio.

Something that’s been on my mind lately is the concept of what is “real” in terms of professional audio gear, people and procedures. What do I mean?

Let’s start with gear. I think there comes a point in anyone’s career when they realize what kind of stuff the pros are really using. The shocking part is usually based around what that kind of equipment costs.

The same is true for photographers, musicians, graphic artists, and so on. Really good tools, no matter the trade, cost good money. But what are the thresholds separating real from the “wanna be” tools?

First, why does most real gear cost so much? Probably the most obvious way to tell if gear is meant for true professional use is that it wasn’t made specifically to meet a price point.

Instead, it’s made to meet requirements for performance, durability, and usability. Further, it’s sometimes simpler (in certain ways), because reliability is one of the most important aspects of pro gear.

Complexity can not only add cost, but it also tends to reduce reliability. Want some hyper-expensive gear? Just get the complex, reliable stuff. Ask the military about that…

That said, in some categories, pro gear must have most, if not all, of the latest features. For instance, a digital mixing console meant for top-level touring must have the details, functionality and features needed and desired by the house and monitor mixers running those kinds of tours.

This brings up another criteria: real gear must have a certain amount of flexibility so that pro users can set it up and use it the way they work, rather than working around a rigid, limited format.

What about simple stuff like microphones? Real microphones are almost always tough, ready for the road, consistent between units (that is, before they get a lot of dents) – and – the manufacturer must support the product in the way that touring professionals expect.

So whether or not the gear is “real” depends not only on the product itself, but the type of company behind that product.

Resulting from that, real gear is often specialized to certain markets. For instance, in the wireless microphone world, to which I’m pretty close, there’s one brand that has long been known as the touring brand, another as the theater brand, and yet another as the brand for TV and film production.

Of course there is major crossover, as each brand has a significant foothold in the other markets. But these companies have deep roots in their main markets of interest, and the products and company philosophies reflect this.

Let’s briefly explore what makes certain equipment “not real.” For starters, it’s easy to see that the very low-budget stuff isn’t particularly suited for pro touring. Products made for a basement retail price point are great for getting started, but lack many of the criteria noted above.

I remember trying to do a show on a supplied mixer that was aimed by it’s company of origin at a very narrow market segment, specifically musicians playing coffee houses. The hoops I had to jump through in order to meet certain requirements for the functionality and sound I wanted still gives me shudders.

I could go on and on when it comes to these types of products – and I’m sure many of you can as well. Suffice to say that they have their place, but let’s be real (pun intended) and leave them at home when we’re heading on the next tour or renting out a sound package.

The Human Element
O.K., so what kind of audio people are real? First, I’d say that they know the difference between equipment that is real and that which isn’t.

Second, they know their limitations and have a plan to overcome them. No matter the topic, we all know blowhards, braggarts and know-it-alls – folks who are often less than knowledgeable but are full of bluster. They might work at a music store, or they might be on a major tour, or they might just be king of certain Internet forums.

The bottom line is that they aren’t likely to do much advancing until they understand that they don’t know much and need to get an education.

Becoming real is a process for all of us. There’s always more to learn, and humility helps us get there. Sure, if you’re a mix engineer on a major tour, there may be scant reason to be humble, but I’ve met plenty of top mixers, as well as system techs, guitar techs, and so on, and the vast majority are friendly, willing to learn, and willing to help. It’s one of the reasons they are where they are.

As I’ve pointed out in previous articles, real knowledge and wisdom come from a variety of sources, all the way from book smarts to the school of hard knocks. Successful (real) people have it all, in spades, in their backgrounds.

Best Practices
Another aspect of being real in this business comes from having procedures in place that serve clients with a truly professional product.

For starters, the practice of cleaning and checking all cables when they return to the shop from every job. Further, having a bin available for bad cables, so that when they’re discovered during a show setup, they have a place to go and then be fixed later.

The same goes for loudspeakers, microphones, FX racks, stands, rigging hardware, AC distro equipment, trucks, etc. The more professionally these seemingly mundane aspects are handled, the more real the company.

What about marketing and billing practices? One of the less fun aspects of any business is, well, business. We have to keep our books in order, pay taxes, strive constantly to stay profitable, and take care of employees. These things are not easy, but then again if they were, anyone could do it.

The same goes for “just being a mixer.” Stay organized, have a consistent process, keep up to date on the latest tools and techniques – and never forget to use your ears.

Fortunately, there are sources of education for all of these things. SynAudCon, for example, offers excellent audio training courses. Most trade shows, particularly AES and InfoComm, provide a wealth of papers, classes, seminars and discussions.

Local colleges offer business classes, accounting classes for non-financial managers, human resources classes, and so on. As we move up through the chain in our (or any) industry, these things become more and more important.

You likely have your own criteria for what makes people, gear and procedures real – and you should. You might even have a plan in place for constant improvement of yourself and the services you offer.

If so, great! If not, think about it. The slower times of the year are great for planning for the future. May the real be with you.

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