First, Do No Harm

Doing nothing is perfectly acceptable when the alternative is to wreck something.

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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 attend a church which throws parties on occasion. Those parties feature the tunes of The Joshua Payne Orchestra, a group that emanates (what I call) Wild and Wooly Jazz Weirdness.

To date, we have not run a PA system for the event. The JPO has brought in equipment that does playback, a bit of fill, and some announcements, but that’s it from the reinforcement side. Even this last winter, with the church’s PA sitting close-at-hand in the Impact Hub basement, we didn’t “do sound” for the band.

And I’m not upset about that.

After the party, Josh asked me about what I would do for them, soundwise, if I was to do something. I answered him as best I could in the moment, which was that I really didn’t know if I SHOULD do anything. That’s not to say there would be nothing I could do. It would be entirely possible, for instance, to “get on the gas” with the midrange of Josh’s guitar; There were times when his parts got just a touch swamped for my taste.

But I still wasn’t sure if I would be ready to jump right in and make that change.

The Holistic Experience

I’ve said before that I think live-sound is not actually about the best sound as divorced from all other factors. Rather, I hold that live-sound is all about getting the best show. It’s how the gestalt comes together, and the whole experience is more than just checking off a bunch of boxes. You might think that getting the best guitar sound ever, plus the best vocal sound in history, plus the coolest snare in the known Universe (and so on) would get you the best show, but that’s not guaranteed.

In the case of JPO, the theoretical question I had to put to myself was, “Will fixing this detail ruin the whole?”

Integral to the party atmosphere was the music being prevalent, but with room to socialize. That was definitely working out without the addition of a full-on FOH mix going on. The music was in pretty much exactly the right place.

Now, remember that live audio is an additive business. If I want to change something, I have to make things louder.

The problem, then, was that making a desired change might have created an overall experience which was always in balance…but a little too loud. If it’s a little too loud, people stop focusing on the nice balance and start to notice that they’re not enjoying themselves as much. That’s not what you want.

There’s also the issue that The JPO is an extremely professional set of players who construct non-standard sonic experiences. They’re used to listening to each other, and do not need “help” to pull off the music at a gig. Even more than with other bands, you can’t be sure that you know precisely what their intent is for a particular tune. This isn’t 4/4 rock in the pattern of verse/ chorus/ verse/ chorus/ bridge/ verse/ chorus. It’s not like the basic rules of music don’t continue to apply (they always do), but an engineer faced with an unconventional sound is best served by NOT being cocky about their knowing how the music is supposed to come across. Diving right in and changing everything in a frenzy isn’t likely to get you the correct results.

Without having a more intimate feel for what was going on, I didn’t want to say “Yeah, we should totally do this, and this, and this, and…” It was very important to recognize that the band was executing their craft beautifully, and that my first reaction to that on-point execution should be one of respectful observation.

Don’t Confuse Action With Effectiveness

I sometimes call this craft “Selective Noise-Louderization.” The more of it I’ve done, the more the “selective” part has felt important. Rather like music, a lot of the success in live-audio can come from what you refrain from doing. This can be a very tough part of the discipline to internalize, because there are TONS of internal and external expectations that we should be “doing stuff” with all the gear we have handy. We have systems that can melt faces, and consoles with highly capable processing built in – and that makes folks (and us) think that our job is to change things.

That’s not the case.

Our real job, our real discipline, is to do just enough to make the show do what it’s supposed to do, and then STOP. For certain gigs, this means being very hands-on. For others, this means touching almost nothing. Fiddling around with every possible knob and switch on the rig is easy; Figuring out what’s appropriate to do is hard.

We even face professional expectations to “just go for it.” I was once mixing a show where we were having some feedback problems in monitor-world. We had backed ourselves into a bit of a corner, and I was trying to maneuver back to stability without just hacking away at everything. A fellow tech was in the room, and this bothered him. In his mind, I should have been making huge changes to monitor mixes, yanking levels down, and just generally being active. My calmness looked like apathy – but I had good reasons. I wanted, as much as was possible, to preserve the on-deck mix and be as unobtrusive to the players as I could be. To my thinking, flailing around dramatically actually disturbs the performers more. Lots of “doing” can look impressive, but it can actually push the show farther off the rails. Making a non-emergency into an emergency is a bad idea.

Sometimes you have to do something deliberate. Sometimes you have to do something dramatic. Sometimes you have to resist the urge to do anything. The point is to not make things worse in the name of “showing up.” If you’re on station and paying attention, you already have showed up. If what the show needs is to be left alone, then just stand back and enjoy the music. Everything will be fine.