Micing A Saw

Contact transducers are really nifty, but take some doing to use.

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The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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You may eventually be asked to transduce the noises produced by a saw. I’m not talking about sound effects for film, here. I’m talking about music. A handsaw with a sufficiently manipulable blade can be played very effectively with a violin bow. The resulting emanations are what I would call “a wood-shop Theremin.”

I have effectively captured these sonic events with regular microphones. As with anything else, a unit that basically sounds like the thing it’s pointed at will generally be fine. The troublesome element really is that saws don’t have the kind of body that creates a lot of output. Their resulting lack of SPL can pose a challenge when they’re put into an ensemble, because almost anything else is going to be much, much louder.

As a result of the above, I have, (for years) wanted to try using a contact transducer on a musical saw. I finally got my chance a couple of weeks ago. I was very pleased with the outcome, because I could actually hear some of what the saw was doing in the context of a very busy band.

The key to the whole thing was a Dean Markley Artist Transducer. It’s essentially a gussied-up piezo, with the element potted in some kind of polymer that sits in a wooden surround. The bottom of the pickup has that poster-tack Silly Putty applied, so you can temporarily stick the thing to a surface. As with any piezo-based transducer, you’ll want to connect it through an active DI box; The ultra-high impedance of the op-amp will stop you from loading down the pickup.

Contact micing lives and dies on placement, even more so than regular microphones. Parking the transducer in a bad spot can get you very strange results, but there’s more to the story: The pickup’s physical contact changes the vibrational behavior of the surface that it’s connected to. As such, you want to find a spot where you’ll get good transfer of the instrument’s movement, while avoiding a placement that dampens that same vibration. With a saw, that means that you’ll probably want to search for a place that’s as close to the handle as possible. This serves the dual purpose of keeping the transducer and cable out of the way, while also allowing the blade to move freely.

You will also want to make sure that you have the ability to DRASTICALLY reduce the high-frequency output of the saw channel. (A freely sweepable low-pass filter is the best case.) I’m starting to form a theory that vibrating surfaces and air create a sort of acoustical inductor – a device that impedes high-frequency output. Take away the transition to air-carried waves, and a lot of information that you’re not used to hearing comes into play. The bow scraping against the blade is hard to hear with traditional micing, but a contact mic really brings that sound through. We ended up rolling the filter down rather far…like, 1 kHz far, before a result was created that wasn’t too jarring.

All of this takes some work and planning, certainly, but the end result of much, much, MUCH improved gain-before-feedback can be tremendously helpful. Consider getting a contact transducer for your box-of-goodies. It might prove to be a highly handy tool one day.


Listening To El Ridiculoso

Playing music over a system that’s been tuned as flat as possible is very illuminating.

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The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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I now have El Ridiculoso all finished and set up at home. Mario put this gorgeous coat of epoxy paint on the boxes, lending them a lightly textured and glossy blackness that I love. After getting all the individual enclosures hooked up, I tuned the system to be as flat as I could get it. (El Ridiculoso’s final form is pretty darn linear from about 40 Hz to 15 kHz, with a good amount of usable information beyond even that.) With my tuning in place, I started doing some listening.

I’ll start off by saying this. Music played over a flat-as-you-can-get-it system is music examined under an electron microscope. It’s an image with the sharpness dialed all the way up. There is no escape from anything, no glossing over of this or that. It’s a sonic reality that plants itself an inch from your face, and then starts waving madly. Music with a lot of “traffic” – a lot happening at once – can almost be an overloading experience for your brain.

If it’s there, you WILL hear it.

You might be surprised at what isn’t there, by the way.

You might expect, for instance, that a modern, “rock-mix” of a band like Rush would have a lot of thundering bottom end. That’s not really the case. Even some pop-dubstep really isn’t that heavy “down there.” Overwhelming LF isn’t what makes the mixes work; What the mix stands or falls on is the absolutely crucial midrange. If you get, say, 250 Hz – 5 kHz wrong, you may as well forget about everything else.

…and that reality feeds into points I’ve been making about live audio for quite a while. It feeds into points that other people have been making for ages: The low end does matter, yes, but not as much as you think it does. Balancing the bottom to the rest of the audio makes for the best overall experience, but the first priority is to get the mids to be musical. There’s no substitute for that, and trying to cover up a debacle in the midrange space with a lot of *BOOM* just makes for annoyance. Real punch is the interplay between LF thud and higher-frequency definition. Clarity is a real thing that you really need, and scooping a mix hollow KILLS clarity.

Maybe a bigger subwoofer pile isn’t what you need. Maybe some more time sorting out the firestorm of aural data that lives above the bass range is time better spent.


ITRD

It’s the room, dude.

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The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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It’s the room, dude.

You’ve mixed this band before. They were great. Now you’re somewhere else, and it’s just awful. You can’t make anything out; The intelligibility is somewhere south of “I can understand every fourth word, sort of.”

It’s, the room, dude.

You’ve used every EQ you have in a manner that could best be described as “neurosurgery with an artillery weapon.” The input channel EQs are carved up. The output channel curves look like the Himalayas. You’ve also inserted graphics on the outputs. The settings are not something you will share on Instagram. The show will NOT behave.

It’s the room, dude.

You’ve moved the speakers. You’ve tilted and twisted them, trying to miss the walls and ceiling just a little more. You could get a job as a civil engineer who designs bridges, because of your working knowledge of bizarre, load-bearing constructions. The system still sounds like the entirety of World War II being fought in an airplane hangar.

It’s the room, dude.

You’ve bought every toy and tweaker that the good folks at the gear retailer could sell you. You’ve got automatic feedback filters, frequency-dependent compression, wild-donkeyed gating, and a rack full of boutique, 500-series thingamabobs. It still sounds like you can’t mix your way out of a paper bag that’s been sitting outside in the rain for a month.

It’s the room, dude.

The lead singer gets your attention as soundcheck draws to a close. “Could you please pull down the reverb?” they ask. Nothing is going to any reverb processor that you have available.

It’s the room, dude.

The musicians are pretty happy. You have the monitors wound up to a level that frightens small children. You have the FOH mid-highs high-passed at 1 kHz. (I have done this in real life.) The sound in the seats is still a sort of indistinct, muddy garble.

It’s the room, dude.

Once you have tens or hundreds of arrivals of a single sonic event, you will never get the transients unsmeared. Once the low-mid builds into a seconds-long reverberant mash, you will never dig your way out. Once monitor-world hits that nice, huge, flat backstop behind the players, you will never get monitor-world out of FOH. Once the vocalist’s smashing crescendo slaps that back wall and starts racing home to their face, you will never stop them from getting walloped right in the chops with the world as it was 200ms ago.

It’s the room, dude. It’s the room.


Graphic Content

Transfer functions of various reasonable and unreasonable graphic EQ settings.

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The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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An aphorism that I firmly believe goes like this: “If you can hear it, you can measure it.” Of course, there’s another twist to that – the one that reminds you that it’s possible to measure things you can’t hear.

The graphic equalizer, though still recognizable, is losing a bit of its commonality as an outboard device. With digital consoles invading en masse, making landings up and down the treasure-laden coasts of live audio, racks and racks of separate EQ devices are being virtualized inside computer-driven mix platforms. At the same time, hardware graphics are still a real thing that exists…and I would wager that most of us haven’t seen a transfer function of common uses (and abuses) of these units, which happen whether you’ve got a physical object or a digital representation of one.

So – let me dig up a spare Behringer Ultragraph Pro, and let’s graph a graphic. (An important note: Any measurement that you do is a measurement of EXACTLY that setup. Some parts of this exercise will be generally applicable, but please be aware that what we’re measuring is a specific Behringer EQ and not all graphic EQs in the world.)

The first thing to look at is the “flat” state. When you set the processing to “out,” is it really out?

In this case, very much so. The trace is laser flat, with +/- 0.2 dB of change across the entire audible spectrum. It’s indistinguishable from a “straight wire” measurement of my audio interface.

Now, we’ll allow audio to flow through the unit’s filtering, but with the high and low-pass filters swept to their maximums, and all the graph filters set to 0 dB.

The low and high-pass filters are still definitely having an effect in the audible range, though a minimal one. Half a decibel down at 45 Hz isn’t nothing, but it’s also pretty hard to hear.

What happens when the filters are swept to 75 Hz and 10 kHz?

The 3dB points are about where the labeling on the knobs tells you it should be (with a little bit of overshoot), and the filters roll off pretty gently (about 6 dB per octave).

Let’s sweep the filters out again, and make a small cut at 500 Hz.

Interestingly, the filter doesn’t seem to be located exactly where the faceplate says it should be – it’s about 40% of a third-octave space away from the indicated frequency center, if the trace is accurate in itself.

What if we drop the 500 Hz filter all the way down, and superimpose the new trace on the old one?

The filter might look a bit wider than what you expected, with easily measurable effects happening at a full octave below the selected frequency. Even so, that’s pretty selective compared to lots of wide-ranging, “ultra musical” EQ implementations you might run into.

What happens when we yank down two filters that are right next to each other?

There’s an interesting ripple between the cuts, amounting to a little bit less than 1 dB.

How about one of the classic graphic EQ abuses? Here’s a smiley-face curve:

Want to destroy all semblance of headroom in an audio system? It’s easy! Just kill the level of the frequency range that’s easiest to hear and most efficient to reproduce, then complain that the system has no power. No problem! :Rolls Eyes:

Here’s another EQ abuse, alternately called “Death To 100” or “I Was Too Cheap To Buy A Crossover:”

It could be worse, true, but…really? It’s not a true substitute for having the correct tool in the first place.


The Stars Too Distant

The big stuff is the small stuff, just more of it.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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“Are the stars too distant, pick up the pebble that lies at thy feet, and from it learn the all.”

– Margaret Fuller


What worries people about new technology in the audio business is the thought of constantly having to retrain. What worries people about making the jump to bigger and more complex applications of audio technology is basically the same thing.

I say, stop worrying. Once you get beyond a certain level of fundamentals, you already know what you need to know to find out what you’ll need to know.

Huh, you say? Okay.

Audio production is a physical science. The laws that govern it are the same at all scales and in all situations – at least on this planet. The only things that change are specific implementations. Just as I would say on the topic of mixing consoles, the important thing is to know what you want to do. If you know what you want to do, you can start asking the questions about how to get that thing done in a particular situation.

The problems come when you get through shows by way of memorization. If you don’t know why you’re doing something, you won’t have any ability to recover from an unexpected situation. If you DO know why you just connected “Thing A” to “Thing B,” then you’ve got the foundational experience necessary to bypass “Thing B” if it fails.

I was once sitting in a meeting where I was half-seriously asked if I wanted to take another guy’s spot on a tour for Someone You’ve Heard Of™:

“Would you be able to handle an M7CL?”

“It’s a mixing console, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but they all have their own quirks…”

I sat there, thinking, “An M7CL is a major console with significant market share, which means it can’t be some exotic, crystalline entity. Give me the hour or so necessary to figure out where Yamaha put the various major features, and I’ll be fine forever after.”

I mean, if the system’s engineer has the rig set up with any kind of reasonable I/O patching, the nuts and bolts of mixing a show come down to whether or not you can switch in the EQs and dynamics processors you want, and then get your channels connected to your desired outputs. Consoles generally make this pretty easy – it’s in the manufacturer’s best interests!

Of course, experience does matter. If you’ve only ever mixed two-channel gigs, and then you get dumped into a 20+ channel situation, you’re going to be in for a bit of a shock. The mental organization required is certainly greater…but the point is that the show really is NOT fundamentally different. All the same rules and limitations apply, but now your limitations have to be spread across many more inputs. Don’t memorize the sequence of events; Look for the patterns instead. The patterns will repeat themselves, with variations, at all scales. Once you start to recognize the patterns, the rules that govern audio production, the experience is rather like being able to “see the code in the Matrix.” You reach this point of being far more confident, because the unexpected is no longer devastatingly surprising.

The big stuff requires more effort than the small stuff, because it’s a lot of small, familiar stuff that has to be wrapped up into a larger package. But it’s still small stuff! The difficulties come in managing all the interactions. Practice counts, and experience at specific tasks is helpful – I’m not saying the opposite!

I’m also saying, though, that if you can plug in 3 channels you can learn to plug in 30.


That Fibber, Myself

I was never going to buy wireless gear again. Until…

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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There is a taxonomy of falsehood. For instance, a particularly awful and hurtful falsity might be “a lie from hell.” Slightly less severe versions might be “a fib from heck,” or “a half-truth from West Jordan.” “Tall-tales from Hyrum” never really hurt anyone, as is the case for a “whopper from Utah County.”

In any case, I thought I was telling the truth when I said – to many people, repeatedly and emphatically – that I would never again put my own money into wireless audio. I was adamant. Determined. Resolute now to defend fair honor upon the glorious field of contest, I say to thee, Knights of the West, STAND!

Yeah, well, you can see how that turned out. Maybe what I said was “a fiction from Erda.” I’m not really sure.

Here’s what happened. I subcontract for a local production provider. A New Years Eve show had been on the books for quite a while, only for it to suddenly vanish in a cloud of miscommunication. The provider scrambled (thank you!) to find a show for me to do, so that I’d have a job that night (thank you!). Normally, we’d have time to handle some coordination for the show advance, but this was a situation where haste was demanded. The provider thought that I had a couple of wireless handhelds available. The show was specced, booked, and advanced. About a day and a half before downbeat, I got the input list.

A strict requirement was at least one wireless handheld. Eeeeep!

It was too late to cross-rent from one of our shared connections. My favorite place to buy or rent “right now” items was closed for inventory. I grabbed my credit card and drove to The Geometric Centroid of Strummed Instruments. (Think about it.) I was in and out in a jiffy, carrying with me a Beta58 Shure GLXD system. As much as the 2.4 Ghz band is becoming a minefield, I went with a digital system; If I was going to spend the money, I did NOT want a unit operating in a part of the spectrum that the FCC would end up auctioning or re-apportioning.

I could have gotten something significantly cheaper, but I wouldn’t have been as confident in it. My imperative was to bring good gear to the show. If I brought something from the bargain-bin, and it ended up messing the bed, that would be hard to excuse. If a better unit misbehaved, I could at least say that I did my due diligence.

In any case, the show had to go on. I’m still not a fan of wireless. I still don’t intend to add to my inventory of audio-over-airwaves devices. Even, so, you sometimes have to bend yourself around what a client needs in a short timeframe. It’s just a part of the life. Of course, after the show, my brand-new transmitter had lipstick embedded in the grille, but that’s a whole other topic…


The Pro-Audio Guide For People Who Know Nothing About Pro-Audio, Part 3

Onward to the microphone preamp…or trim.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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“Signals at mic-level may require large, positive gain changes to correctly drive downstream electronics, and so a jack that can be connected to a microphone preamp is needed in that case.”

Read the whole thing, free, at Schwilly Family Musicians.


All I Want For Christmas

Yeah, some of it’s gear, but…

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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Dear Santa,

I’ve been a good boy this year. Well, sort of good. Marginally good. Good was involved at some point. Good intentions.

Actually, do you have a credit system?

Anyway.

Here’s my list for this Christmas, in no particular order:

1) FOH mid-highs and monitor wedges that peak at or above 130 dB SPL @ 1 meter. I don’t really want to be that loud, but at least I can say that they’re in the inventory.

2) Subwoofers that play flat to 20 Hz, weight 20 lbs. a box, and are no bigger than 18″ cubed. I know that’s physically impossible, but those elves at the North Pole do know some magic, right?

3) A little more room for gear in the transport. Because I’m always running out of room. Because I’m always getting that one more piece of gear.

4) Related to #3, an effective 12 Step program.

5) Please ignore #4.

6) More people that want to do shows! But in a nice, even distribution, please, because I’ve had to turn people down over scheduling conflicts. Why does everybody have to want the same weekend?

7) A gear-hauler with enough interior height that I can stand up normally while working inside. I get nervous when I can still feel a show in my back after a day or two.

8) Venues where I can maneuver and park the aforementioned gear-hauler. (Seriously. The two most important features of a venue might just be adequate electricity and an honest-to-goodness lot for vehicles.)

9) Venues that can answer their email. I’ve let go of the whole “promoter” experiment, but I still want to do the occasional show…and it’s depressing that folks won’t communicate. Especially when it’s a rental; Come on, I’m trying to give you money, and you’re making it difficult!

10) Venues that can follow-up as promised. Six months after being promised a proposal “by the end of the day,” I still haven’t seen anything from that one place I was talking to. Of course, I don’t really care anymore if those specific people get back into contact. It’s the principle of the thing!

Oh, and…

Thanks for everything so far. I get worried sometimes, but I’ve had a lot of opportunities, and I’m trying to have a better sense of gratitude.

Best regards,

Danny


The Turbosound Milan M12

A nice box, but flawed.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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When I was adding onto my system last year, I chose Turbosound Milan as the product line for FOH. Since putting those boxes into service, my feelings have been mixed. The most mixed of those feelings have been reserved for the mid-highs I chose, designated as “M12” by the manufacturer.

I do like the compact nature of the package. Other powered 12s that I carry are similar in weight, but inefficient in their use of bulk. The Milans chew up less space, and yes, they have a monitor-angle on both sides. You can properly book-match a pair of the little darlings, which is something I appreciate.

I also like the overall fit and finish. Yes, they’re plastic boxes, but it’s the kind of plastic that can take some wear gracefully. The controls and connection points seem to be reasonably well-engineered, with slide switches that clearly indicate where they’re set. (Push-toggles are fine if they unambiguously show their state, but plenty of them don’t – so, kudos to Turbosound on this front.) I often work with other boxes that really are just fine…but feel “cheap” when it comes to XLR connectors and back-panel interaction. The Milans are a definite upgrade there.

M12s do seem to be tuned pleasingly at the factory, which is a big help for throw-n-go gigs where you have to make things work out tonally without a lot of prep time. Your mileage may vary, of course, especially since just about anything can be whipped into shape these days.

Also, let’s be honest: My anti-establishment nature has a special place for brands that are less common. Everybody knows JBL, Peavey, EV, Yamaha, and so on, but Turbosound is a loudspeaker marque that’s a little less trafficked in small-format circles. (Turbo’s big-boy boxes are more well known to the folks who work at that level.)

What do I not like? Well…

Milan M12s are a (tiny) bit expensive for what you get – both in money and weight. When JBL marked their Eon 612s down, they really threw the gauntlet at Turbo. Spend $50 less, get a box that has essentially the same performance, and save about 12 lbs.

…and Turbo, geeze, can we please have a real “thru” on the back? Sometimes I just want to chain two boxes together, and I don’t want to have to volume-match them by ear. Especially if I’ve forgotten to do so before the speakers are eight feet in the air already.

But that’s not the biggest thing.

What really put me off with the M12s was how they will audibly distort before they illuminate their clip indicators. It’s not a horribly nasty sound, but its “too obvious” and a little embarrassing. When somebody addresses the crowd at concert level, using a mic that has some low-mid dialed into it, there’s no reason that a loudspeaker of this type should suddenly give the impression of being underpowered. Sure, these units travel with the crowd that peaks under 130 dB SPL @ 1 meter, but so do my Eons and they don’t seem to misbehave when still running “in the green.” I was so unsettled by this quirk of the Turbos that I retired them to moderate-volume-only use – which they are great at, I should mention.

Someone might point out that the Turbosounds could simply dislike my gain structure. I often run powered loudspeakers with the input controls at full-throttle (when it’s practicable), because full-throttle is an easily repeatable setting. Also, I know I can get maximum SPL at around -20 dBFS on my console outputs. I can’t discount the possibility that the M12s fail to handle that kind of use gracefully at the input side, which means that my dislike is user-error. At the same time, though, I have to go back to my JBL Eons; They tolerate being run wide-open without any marked complaint, which is what I expect from a loudspeaker in this price-range.

Milan M12s are good, but they don’t seem to be good enough to spend “more money” on.


The Q2Q Problem

Instead of being arrogant…communicate!

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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Maybe you’ve seen this comic from Q2Q. In it, an unhelpful audio operator flatly refuses to increase a monitor send, and then condescendingly justifies himself by claiming that doing so will make the show sound bad.

To quote The West Wing: “This is why good people hate us.”

It’s been pointed out that Q2Q is a comic about theater, which has different norms for sound reinforcement than Rock And/ Or Roll. It’s been pointed out that the omnidirectional microphones commonly used in musical theater productions aren’t so great for “folding back” into monitor world, because they’re…you know…omni.

I know all that. It’s irrelevant.

What’s on display in the comic is crap behavior and poor attitude that should be unacceptable on any professional crew. Folks, if you are an audio human, your job is TO HELP PEOPLE PERFORM. It is not to get your own definition of the perfect mix at the expense of everyone else, whilst simultaneously acting like you’re the grand ruler of the universe.

If your defense for flatly refusing a change on deck because it will make your precious, FOH mix sound “bad,” I have some words for you: Cowboy the heck up. Work those channel EQs to find a decent compromise. Roll those high-passes up and create an acoustical crossover between the stage wash and the FOH PA. Bus your vocals together and insert an EQ there. Audio craftspersons are paid to deal with the difficulties involved in making as many people – sometimes with conflicting needs – as happy as possible. (Within limits, of course, but the more-monitor issue is 100% within those limits.)

Further, if you are physically unable to make a request happen, I can assure you that treating your performers with contempt for making the request is the wrong idea. Get your butt out from behind the console, and go talk to someone. Take 10 seconds to explain why there’s no more gain-before-feedback available to the system, or that you’re out of sends, or…whatever it is. It’s not their job to know all that stuff by heart – it’s yours.

…and yes, it is your job to be able to interface with the players and kindly educate them when necessary. In other words, you have to recognize them as human beings who are actually capable of understanding what’s going on. If, after doing so, you’re still getting ridiculous demands, you still have to be a professional about it.

After 22-ish years of doing this, I’ve learned many things. One of the most important things is that top-shelf production support is really not about having all the biggest toys, newest whiz-bangs, and being able to say that you’re a crack operator of [insert large-frame console here]. Those things help. They are sometimes necessary. But they matter very little without the basic elements that so many people alarmingly miss: Showing up on time. Doing what you said you would do. Caring about the show. Taking the performers seriously. Being pleasant. Treating people like actual people.

I’ve walked away from shows that I didn’t think went very well with people still being all smiles, not on the force of “mad mixing skillz,” but just being willing to give a thumbs-up and take a crack at whatever was asked for. So, be nice. And if someone asks you for more [something] in the monitors, at least try, please.