Tag Archives: Flexibility

Halfway Perfect

If people are happy with the music, it can be okay if everything isn’t “just so.”

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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The Video

The Summary

I did a private show with a band that usually does a lot of production. We ended up with vocals only and half the PA out of the picture. People LOVED it anyway.


Failure To Failure

Break, fix, break, fix, break…

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.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

Churchill once said that “Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”

That’s also one of the best descriptions available for live sound and live music in general.

If you’re going to ever relax and enjoy the process of mixing a real show in a real room, I can tell you that you MUST embrace not getting everything right (especially not on the first try). This does not, in any way, negate my persistent insistence that you must plan and prepare carefully. What all the planning and prep does is prevent the inevitable failure or misstep from being catastrophic. It gets you closer to being exactly right on the first try, but it will rarely (if ever) actually take you all the way there and drop you off at the curb.

To be a live-sound mix-creature means living a life of screwing up and fixing that screw up, iteratively and in real time. Eventually, you get the mix to a place where you can live with it. You may even settle the show’s sound into a state where you love it. Those moments are sublime, and the more you combine a dedication to your craft AND working with great players, the more of those moments you get. It’s just that there’s always a bit of a journey to go on to reach that little bit of paradise, show to show. The process isn’t necessarily painful – sometimes it’s as simple as pushing a few faders up, unconsciously realizing that the channel level isn’t quite right until you reach the correct blend.

Of course, at other times you’ll be sitting there, wielding a parametric EQ like a sledgehammer as you try to figure out why the weird resonance in the stage-right acoustic guitar just won’t go away.

Not everybody finds it easy to accept this. I was dragged in kicking and screaming. For those of us who like to plan everything out neatly, the tendency of live shows to twist and squirm their way out of our carefully created holding pens is monstrously disconcerting.

At first.

After a while, though, you get used to the idea that the plan will get you started, and then you’ll throw it out almost as a matter of course. Figuring it out as you go becomes almost routine.

This also applies at the macro level. I just launched Concerts By Danny, a site that’s a platform for presenting shows that I’m either producing or just working for. There are public and private “sides” to the site, with the private side being a platform for managing the various logistical pieces that go into making a concert happen. As a whole, the thing is unfinished. It’s a classic case of jumping off the cliff and building a plane on the way down.

And I’m scared that the whole thing will blow up in my face. It’s very easy to fail at live music, especially when it comes to putting on shows of your own. The whole idea might be a complete boondoggle. There are times when I feel utterly stymied, thinking about all the ways the entire idea could go completely wrong and be a huge waste of time. To this point, though, I’ve managed to push past the fear and continue moving forward.

I tell myself, “The worst that can happen is that everything will completely suck, and it’s unlikely that absolutely everything will crash and burn, so…whatever. Let’s see what happens.”

And interestingly, that’s about the worst thing that can happen to the mix of a live band. So, what do you do? Well, you try to figure out which thing is causing you the most trouble, and then you try to correct it. And then you do that for the next problem, and the next problem, and so on. Eventually, you get something that works – or you realize that you’re on a dead-end street, and you cut your losses.

The point is to keep moving and to stay interested, from fader move to fader move, EQ change to EQ change, and from show to show.


A Long, Strange Trip

The story of an adventure with Mokie, our local Grateful Dead tribute.

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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I was finally having a bit of relaxation after the show. We had pulled it off. By the grace of God, and with a lot of help and hospitality, we had made the show work. Everybody had seemed to be very pleased in the end.

Even so, I was not enjoying my turkey sandwich and Sun Chips. Not really, anyway. It’s not that they were bad, just overpriced. It was about the same story for the…well…I guess I’ll call it “Gatorade” that I was having. I was enjoying that even less, because it was tasteless.

Positively unflavored.

Well, I guess it was unflavored. I’m assuming it wasn’t. I didn’t actually taste my drink as it went in, due to its point of entry being an artfully administered puncture wound in my left arm.

As places to have an unplanned afterparty go, the Emergency Department at St. Mark’s is not on the short-list. The staff are great, and the place is REALLY clean, but it’s just not a place you want to be, you know?

More on this later.

The Safety Factor: 1:00 PM – 4:00 PM

Webb A/V is a show-production force in this town because they are GOOD at what they do. Obviously, they have the technical chops and the gear to pull off their contracted events, but there’s more to it than that: They seem to instinctively get that this business is about being a service industry with an excellent safety record. If you are the client, you will be taken care of, and everybody will leave with all the body parts that they brought with them.

I walked up to the stage, with none of the onsite crew knowing me from a hole in the ground, and I was instantly treated with accommodation and courtesy. All I had to do was figure out my own plan of attack. The crew leader, Tom (I think it was Tom, the day kind of turned into a blur) was on top of everything necessary – the first thing being power.

“Hey man,” he said, holding up an electrical quad-box, “you guys are going to have your own, 30-amp circuit for stage. I’m going to give you the X-phase, and we’ll use Y and Z for the PA and lights.” (If you’ve never encountered it before, multi-phase power is common for shows with bigger electrical requirements.) Webb was ready to go, they were ready for us, and the deck wouldn’t have to share power with anyone. That’s a pretty good way to start things off. The provided FOH rig was a “4 over 2” QSC KLA, which sounded pretty darn nice as DJ, the Webb A1, started dialing it up. This left the band and me to do our own thing on deck, which kept things moving along nicely.

Life would have been perfect, except for the weather. The great outdoors has great acoustics, but it also has a great many ways to wreck your gig.

While this particular bout of “Utah overcast moodiness” was hardly a mid-Atlantic storm, it was still producing some noticeable forces. That is to say that, for our situation, the gustiness was tremendous – the problem being wind-related. The various light and sound trees were all firmly weighted down with sandbags, but even so, the crew leader was concerned enough to keep the masts in their lowered positions as much as possible. Air currents would die down, and then whip up with authority.

Did you know that cable-tub lids make excellent gliders? Did you know that ride cymbals are very effective as both kites and boat-sails? Did you know that plastic crowd-barriers LOVE to skitter across parking lots? These are things that we found out.

At some point, a wind advisory was issued. It was issued at roughly the same time the swirling air found some loose dirt, whipping it across my face and arms with an accompanying sensation of being stabbed with a hundred small needles.

On the upside, all the dry skin I had exposed was neatly removed. (Ladies, I don’t know what those fashion mags tell you about skincare, but I’m pretty sure that all the oils and spa-treatments in the world are NOTHING compared to good, old-fashioned sandblasting.) The downside was that things were clearly getting out of hand. About a minute later, the crew lead walked up.

“We’ve got to pull the plug and take all this down.”

…and that, right there, was the ultimate expression of professionalism. The expense and effort involved in putting up a show-rig is non-trivial. As such, there is tremendous pressure to “tough out” any situation. In the end, though, screwing up on the side of safety is always the correct choice. People in this business have died because the drive to keep the show on has overridden a healthy sense of danger. The chances of things not ending well were plenty high, so it was time for Webb to pack up and go.

What followed was a scramble for the band and me to yank down our more-than-halfway set deck, and run everything indoors. As we did so, there was one nagging problem: We really didn’t know what we were going to do once we got inside.

The Hospitality Factor: 4:00 PM – 9:00 PM

Especially when I’m in someone else’s house, I try to assume as little as possible. In this case, I was in The Rock Church’s house, as they were providing the indoors part of the whole equation. What we were met with when we walked in was a stage that was already set and ready to go – for someone else. The church band was that someone else.

To me, the answer was clear. We were going to set up around what was already there. We would use all our own boxes (which we had brought for monitor world) to handle both the stage and FOH. I would use my remotable console as a stagebox, and run things off a laptop with a network connection. We were going to have a show, and we weren’t going to muss up anyone’s hair in the process. The only problem was that I didn’t have any speaker stands with me.

Thinking quickly, I spied a couple of tall, cafe tables out in the audience. I could put a couple of speakers on those, and the result might not completely suck. I grabbed ahold of (who ended up being) Steele, the pastor, and asked if we could “appropriate” those bits of furniture.

“You can have anything you want!” Steele declared, emphatically.

He and another gentleman pulled the tables over to the stage.

“What do you want these for?” Steele asked.

I related my plan to get a couple of boxes up to ear level.

“Man, you should just use our system. Hold on, I’ll give Tim a call, and he’ll get you set up.”

In the space of about 30 seconds, we had gone from piling together a disaster-mitigation rig to being first-class citizens on a system every bit as good as what we were originally slated to use. On top of that, it was all hands on deck, on short notice. Tim came down at full-speed, patiently ran me through the system setup, and then yanked the existing patch entirely so that I would have a blank canvas to use. Everything was at our disposal, and the up-center drum riser was cheerfully removed to make room for Mokie’s two-kit percussion ensemble. They even lent us the church’s uber-rad, SVT bass rig.

On top of it all, Foster hurried down and – with patience as great as Tim’s – worked up an honest-to-goodness light show for both the band AND a hip-hop dance group. In record time. I would later go on record as saying that “Foster’s” is Australian for “beer,” whereas “Foster” is Australian for “killer light guy.”

Now, in my mind, I don’t think that Mokie and I are tough to work with. At the same time, the show (and all our needs) were basically dumped, last minute, on all the folks at The Rock. For that reason alone, they get a massive “Thank You” from me for “putting up with our crap.” Everybody in that building embodied hospitality, and the show happened because of it.

I must not fail to mention another couple of elements: The supreme importance of having a sanely-tuned, sanely-patched system to work with, and the equally supreme importance of having a great band to work with. Mokie is an ensemble that knows how to actually be a band. They would still basically sound like themselves with no PA and no monitors. While it would not be the most fun gig for them, they could pull it off. Because of this, the audio system doesn’t have to work any magic to “fix things.” Rather, the PA is able to act in its best capacity, which is to translate the already cohesive band into the audience. When you add that to an FOH and monitor setup ready to do real sound reinforcement (by sounding nice while being “unhyped”) what you get is a show that can be run effectively in a crisis.

I normally use EQ and compression on my FOH channels in a manner reminiscent of a sledgehammer. I normally have a separate, virtual monitor world. There was no time for any of that on this gig. We had to throw-and-go…and we were fine. I didn’t have all the flexibility I could have used, but that’s just the final layer of varnish anyway. For what was going on, I was able to run my channels surprisingly flat – and get away with it pretty handily.

The Hospital Factor: 9:00 PM – 3:00 AM

As the gig hit set break, Mokie’s fearless leader, Chip, walked out to FOH.

“It sounds GREAT, man. Some of the folks are even saying it’s the best show we’ve ever done.”

“Well,” I said, “clearly this means that the way to do these shows is to set up halfway, tear down and reset in a blind panic, and then just go for it with no preparation.”

I was feeling pretty good about what Chip said, but I can’t say that I was really feeling good in general. I wasn’t incapacitated, but I was definitely wondering what was wrong with myself. I had this weird aching in my upper chest and the top of my back. Even with the show settling into a basically comfortable groove, my heart wouldn’t slow down to a normal pace. I hadn’t done a strenuous gig in a long time, and the sudden call to maximum performance was not treating me kindly.

“Don’t be anxious,” I thought to myself, “because being anxious just makes it worse.”

As the show wore on, the good news was that I didn’t feel worse. I was able to smile through my discomfort and get things done. The bad news was that I wasn’t getting much better. As we ended things and tore down the show, I figured that I just needed to go home and go to bed.

Three-quarters of the way back to the house, on the I80 – I215 collector, it happened. I was barreling along with a vehicle full of gear, when the unmistakable feeling of being about to pass out hit me like a ton of bricks. What seemed like a white-hot lump fell into the bottom of my butt. My stomach felt like it would readily wrench its entire contents out my backside, given half the chance. I pulled to the shoulder and slapped the button for my emergency flashers. I wasn’t thinking clearly. Instead of yanking my brake, I moved the gear-selector to “Park.” The transmission made a howling grind of protest as the parking pawl ratcheted against a still mostly-highway-speed transmission. My hands were tingling.

In a daze, I sat drenched in sweat. A few cars tore by me. I wondered if I was having a heart attack. I thought about what it would take to get my phone out and call 911. I didn’t know if I could get my phone. I figured that I had about two minutes to decide.

Slowly, I started to feel better. The pain in my upper body was mostly gone, actually.

Half of me just wanted to drive home and forget the whole thing. The other half of me knew that treating such an event lightly was not to be filed in the “Smart Ideas” drawer. My more cautious half won the argument, and I drove to St. Marks instead of the house.

At the ER, the various goings-on began to…go on. No, I hadn’t had dinner. Oh…yes, why I DID have a bit of a sunburn. I did feel better now that the episode had passed.

The various tests were ordered, and my aforementioned sandwich was ordered. The nurse obligingly stuck me with an IV so that I could have a big drink without actually drinking anything. I sat, craning my neck to watch my vitals monitor.

That heart rate looks a little high.

Is that ECG trace normal?

Don’t be nervous.

That doesn’t seem right.

Don’t be nervous.

The MD was ultimately satisfied that I was not about to die. She was also, somewhat surprisingly, just fine with the idea of putting me back in control of 3000+ lbs worth of metal, glass, fuel, and audio gear. She sent me out the door with a stack of papers talking about things like dehydration and near-syncope. I was told, in no uncertain terms, to take it easy the next day. I was happy to oblige, being tired from the whole thing.

The irony, of course, is that I was all set to be “100% for safety” when it came to things like wind and water, but I failed to take care of myself. A few bucks worth of actual Gatorade might just have kept me out of the ER. I have no idea how big my bill will turn out to be – I’m insured, thanks to my mom being very keen on that whole issue – but no matter how much money I end up owing, it still contributes to my final, self-administered diagnosis:

Don’t be an idiot next time.


We Are Water Flowing Downhill

If you’re stuck, try to go around.

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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One of the most lethal threats to successfully pulling off a show is getting stuck.

Or, rather, agreeing to remain stuck when you don’t have to be.

We’ve all seen it happen. You’re setting up and dialing in, and something won’t cooperate. The entire flow of show-prep suddenly diverts towards making that thing cooperate. Minutes pass as more and more resources are devoted to solving the problem. An hour goes by, and you’re still stuck, and you look up, AND IT’S 15 MINUTES TO DOORS, HOLY CRAP!

I’ve been there. I’ve been there (and been guilty of perpetrating it) when a snag has brought an entire production – even a decently planned one – to a grinding halt for far too long. So what do you do?

One thing you can do is learn the lesson of water flowing downhill.

Zen And The Critical Path

Consider the stream flowing down a rocky bed. The current has a destination which it must reach, yet there is impedance to the flow of the liquid. The rocks are obstacles. Snags. The water cannot flow through them.

Yet the water is untroubled. It merely flows around the rocks, acknowledging the stones by slowing – yet not stopping. The water continues down the critical path, and thus overcomes the rocks without overpowering them. The current strives against the impedance without effort.

The water does not confuse an obstacle in the path with the ending of the path.


Too often in troubleshooting, we make the assumption that we can not move onto solving the rest of a problem until we have solved each piece of the conundrum in some arbitrary order. However, this is rarely the case. Many shows are inherently “parallel” in nature. The lead vocal has a route to the PA, and the kick drum has a route to the PA. Those routes are very likely independent of one another until they are summed into an output path. If the kick drum’s independent route fails, but the lead vocal can still make it, you have a workable show. It may not be the exact show you were hoping for, but you still have a show.

The critical path is getting whatever MUST go through the audio rig to go through it. Everything else is a bonus. The vast majority of small-venue shows can come to a workable conclusion with nothing but the lead vocal working. Like I said, that may not be the best possible show – but it will still be recognizable as a show. If you hit an obstruction that you can’t quickly clear, take a moment and think: “If this can’t be made to work, is it truly the end of the show?”

If you answer in the negative, you are snagged on something that is NOT on the critical path. Flow around it. You can always come back to it later, but for now, you need to focus on arriving at the minimum viable product. In many cases, people only get stuck on a technical problem because they “assent” to being stuck. They decide to stop and bang away at the issue when there is no physical reason that other (actually more critical) issues could not be addressed first. The longer they consent to remaining obstructed, the more that the effort required to handle the rest of the show is concentrated into a shorter span of time. At some point, a threshold of panic is reached. This is a bad scene.

Do not confuse an obstacle in the path with the ending of the path. We are water flowing downhill.


Eggs, Baskets, And Such

If all your eggs are in one basket, and that basket seems to be going nowhere, it might be time to escape the basket.

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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I’m not exactly the biggest fan of the financial industry. The prevailing culture at the high levels of that business just rubs me the wrong way. However, this does not mean that applicable philosophies can’t come from them. To wit: Diversification.

Diversification of investment helps to shield you from market misfortunes. If you have all your money tied up in a traditional media company, and traditional media tanks, you’re going to be in real trouble. If you have some money in traditional media, some in tech, some in bonds (and so on), traditional media getting hammered won’t sink you outright.

It’s the same in terms of a music career. If absolutely everything is riding on a single, narrow specialization, you can face metric-tons worth of frustration and misfortune if that specialization isn’t “the in thing.” On the other hand, being able to fill multiple roles provides a bit of insurance. The more the roles differ from each other, the more insurance you have – and the currently fashionable skilset may just subsidize an unfashionable one.

Sometimes Problems Are You, And Sometimes They Aren’t

A barrier that some of us have to understanding this (I certainly have it, so I’m preaching to myself here), is the idea that things will always get better if we keep our heads down, do the work, and just wait things out.

You might want to ask how the horse-drawn carriage business is doing with that mentality.

Sure, there are still horse-drawn carriages, but they’re nothing more than a curiosity when compared to mechanized transport. It’s not a problem with cyclical fashions. It’s not a problem with horse-drawn carriage builders not having a great work ethic. It’s a problem with very few people needing or wanting a horse-drawn carriage anymore.

If our eggs are in some sort of metaphorical basket, a real bit of smarts is being able to determine when that basket just isn’t going to travel anymore. If the basket’s going nowhere, and it’s not in our power to make the basket go somewhere, we need to seek a different basket.

For example, I don’t think the “major, flagship, music-only recording facility” basket possesses any real momentum anymore. This is not to say that large studios for music production won’t continue to exist. They will, but they will continue to become more and more a luxury curiosity. With much of their capability having been computerized and miniaturized, the big studio with the large-frame console is far less necessary than before. This is why I personally don’t want to invest much in a large-studio-centric career. It’s not a good bet on average. The industry’s need for flagship music studios has dropped dramatically, and no amount of hustle, advertising, or longer work hours will change that.

This kind of thing also happens with bands and musicians. There are players out there who are locked into niche specializations:

“All I play is black metal.”

“We never do covers.”

“No solo projects allowed.”

“If we can’t be as loud as we want, we won’t play.”

These are just archetypes, of course, but you get the idea. I think you might also be able to see the potential problems.

If people in the area don’t want to go to black metal shows, it doesn’t matter how much you practice or how much marketing you do.

If there’s a great gig that would make your band real money, but requires covers, you’re outta luck.

If band members can’t pursue their own projects, and the band just isn’t “sparking,” they’re being denied other opportunities to have real careers in the business.

If the band is only really appropriate for enormous venues and giant festivals, you’re missing out on all kinds of other places to play – and this is a big deal if you’re not yet super-famous.

In contrast, the folks who are able to do lots of different things, at lots of different times, and in lots of different places are much less limited. I’m not suggesting that everybody has to be good at everything, but I am suggesting that it’s good to find a variety of things that your natural talents connect to. Even though the actual disciplines can be surprisingly different (like live-audio and recording), a lot of the basic concepts and terminology can transfer. Diversification isn’t trivial, but I don’t think it always has to be a monumental struggle, either.

We’re all limited, but imposing additional, artificial limits on ourselves can make us overly reliant on the world being in tune with exactly how we are. If we can diversify, we probably should.


I Blame Theater

High-school theater solidified my production-tech habits.

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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I like being told that I’m doing a good job. I’m not saying that I’m good at getting compliments – I do try to say, “Thank You,” but there are also times where I just shrug, “Aw, Shucks,” and scratch the back of my head. I still enjoy them, though.

I recently had the occasion of being praised by Rylee of Advent Horizon. He was very appreciative of my staying behind the console and actually listening to the show for the entire duration of the event. This is, apparently, not an attribute shared amongst all audio-humans. It seems that there are a good number of sound craftspersons who dial up a band and then completely check-out. Even at the physical level. They just “bail,” and that’s it.

I find that almost shocking.

I also find it bewildering that more small-venue production people don’t help with loading in and out. It’s just bizarre to me. If you’re sitting there, ready to rock with nothing else to chase after, and gear is moving, why aren’t you facilitating the moving of that equipment? If the gear gets in, the show goes on, right? The show has to go on!

Anyway.

The comment made me think about where the differing attitudes toward production might have come from. In my case, I think the “blame” can be set squarely on the shoulders of high-school theater.

Serious Enough

I got into theater (drama class, actually) by way of a scheduling accident. What I mean is that all freshman at my high-school had an elective class, which you had to carry so as to complete your schedule. You couldn’t choose to have free time, but you could indicate a preference as to what those final few credit hours would be. I wanted art, but my request apparently wasn’t recorded properly, so I was hurriedly stuffed into Tom Delgado’s drama class.

A couple of months later, Mr. D let us know that there would be opportunities for us to become “techies.” Being fascinated by lights and sound, I jumped at the chance. There was no turning back. Hopelessly addicted, I spent the rest of my high-school career either being backstage or wishing I was. It’s good that I had a huge dislike of being in trouble, because I otherwise would have skipped every class possible in order to spend more time either on stage or in the booth.

When asked about how long I’ve been in audio, I include my high-school experience. Although some folks might regard student theater as “amateur,” I didn’t find it to be so. It’s probably one of the reasons that I stayed so engaged: Tom’s program took us seriously, so we took IT seriously…and it was all serious enough to be real, honest-to-goodness experience in production. Sure, we didn’t have every possible tool and toy (although we did have a lot of gear and a nice facility), and yes, we weren’t perfectly disciplined in every area (we yakked over the com system like talking was going out of style), but we got stuff DONE, DANGIT! Stuff that was plenty big and complex, requiring deliberate, multi-step preparation as well as grace under pressure.

There are a bunch of people floating around the world today who learned how to handle the idea of executing a big project to plan, as well as how to just shrug their shoulders and “deal” when the plan inevitably goes out the window, because they were Tom D’s techies way back when.

Rewards

I mentioned that Mr. Delgado’s program took us seriously. He also took us seriously at a personal level. “D” encouraged and expected professionalism. Folks that took pride in their work and were fascinated by the whole production, right down to the screws used in the sets, were given the choice assignments. If you were just RABID about the whole thing, you’d get the nod.

And rabid we were.

If it was Saturday, and we were going to have a workday starting at 1 PM, we’d show up at 11 AM just to be in the vicinity of the building.

If it was time to move a bunch of heavy stuff around and clean up, we were on it.

If the order of the day was carpentry, we were on deck with drills, speed squares, and pencils, eagerly translating the design-drawing into physical reality. The miter saw was stupidly fun to use, as I recall.

If there was painting to be done (and there always was), we’d suit up in some overalls and get moving.

Time to hang lights? Just give us a minute to find the wrenches. And a ruler. What’s the scale of the drawing, again?

Time to redo the counterweights for the fly system? We can get up to the grid, unlocked ladder or not.

And if it was time to get some hands-on with an audio or lighting console, we were definitely interested. (So interested that I think it got unhealthy. I personally had a death grip on the lighting computer. I think I actually managed to hobble the program for techs down the line, because I was always jumping in to run the thing. Sorry, guys. I couldn’t help myself.)

The point is that everything was part of the show, and you were expected to do everything as much as was actually practical. If you wanted a shot at driving a console in the booth, you also had to be willing to get dirty and do some lifting. In a very real sense, the path to FOH control was the path of moving gear. If you wanted to get to FOH, you had to do your bit at the not-FOH stuff. If you wanted to “stay in the booth,” you had to keep being available for other tasks.

In the same vein, failing to be present during an actual show was…unthinkable. The whole environment of the live production was such that nobody had to be explicitly told that they had a job to do, and they had to be in the appropriate spot to do it. Being on-station and being ready to act were just the way things were. There wasn’t a sane alternative. If you weren’t engaged, the show wouldn’t work. The idea that you’d dial up a mix and then NOT “watch the store” for the entirety of the night would have gotten you some very strange looks from our crew.

So, when I’m lucky enough to do things differently from other live-show techs, it’s because I went into high-school theater not knowing any better…and I came out not knowing any better even more.


Let ‘Em Get Away From It

Maximum coverage isn’t always appropriate for small venues.

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.

arrayWant to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

I love the idea of a high-end, concert-centric install.

It excites me to think of a music venue where the coverage is so even that every patron is getting the same mix, +/- 3 dB. Creating audio rigs where “there isn’t a bad seat in the house” is a point of pride for concert-system installers, as well it should be.

Maximum coverage isn’t always appropriate, though. It can sometimes even be harmful. The good news is that an educated guess at the truly necessary coverage for live audio isn’t all that hard. It starts with audience behavior.

What Is The Audience Trying To Do?

Another way to put that question is, “What is the audience’s purpose?” At my regular gig, the answer is that they want to hang out, listen pretty informally, and socialize. This is an “averaged” assessment, by the way: Some folks want to focus entirely on the music. Some people barely want to focus on the tunes at all. Some folks would hate to be stuck in their seat. Some folks wouldn’t care.

The point is that there’s a mix of objectives in play.

This differs from going to show at, say, The State Room or, even more so, at Red Butte Garden. My perception of those events is that people go to them – paying a bit of a premium – with the intent to focus on the music.

At my regular gig, where there’s such a diversity of audience intent, perfectly even coverage of all areas in the room is counterproductive to that diversity. It forces a singular decision on everyone in the room. It essentially requires that everybody in attendance has the goal of being primarily focused on the music as a foreground element. This is a bad thing, because denying a large section of the audience their intended enjoyment is likely to encourage them to leave.

If they leave, that hurts us, and it hurts the band. As much as possible, we should avoid doing things that encourage folks to vamoose.

So, I’m perfectly happy to NOT cover everything. The FOH PA is slightly “toed in” to focus its output primarily on the area nearest the stage. The sound intensity is allowed to drop off naturally towards the back of the room, and there’s no attempt at all to fill the coverage gap off to the stage-left side. People often seem to congregate there, and my perception is that many of them do it to take a break from being in the direct fire of the PA. They can still hear the show, but the high-frequency content is significantly rolled off (at least for whatever is actually “in” the audio rig).

If I knew that almost everybody in the room was primarily focused on the music, I would take steps to cover the room more evenly. That’s not the case, though, so there are “hot” and “cool” coverage zones.

Cost/ Choice Parametrization

Another way to view the question of how much coverage is appropriate is to try to define the value that an attendee placed on being at a show, and how much choice they have in terms of their position at the show. This is another sort of thing that has to be averaged. Not all events (or people) in a certain venue are the same, so you have to look at what’s most likely to happen.

When you state the problem in terms of those parameters, you get something like this:

coveragenecessity

If the cost of being at the show is high (in terms of money, effort spent, overall commitment required, etc.) and the choice of precisely where to take in the show is low (say, assigned seating), then it’s very important to have consistent audio coverage for everyone. If people are paying hundreds of dollars and traveling long distances to see a huge band’s farewell or reunion, and they’re stuck in one seat at a theater, there had better be good sound at that seat!

On the other hand, it’s not necessary to cover every square inch of an inexpensive, “in town” show, where folks are free to move around. If the coverage isn’t what someone wants, they can move to where it is what they want – and, if they can’t get into the exact coverage area they desire, it’s not a huge loss. For a lot of small venues, this is probably what’s encountered most often.

Now, please don’t misconstrue what I’m saying. What I’m definitely NOT saying is that we should just “punt” on some gigs.

No.

As much as possible, we should assume that the most important show of our careers is the one we’re doing now.

What I’m saying is that we need to spend our effort on things that matter. We have to have a priorities list. If people want (and also have) options available for how they experience a show, then there’s no reason for us to agonize about perfect coverage. As I said above, academically perfect PA deployment might even be bad for us. They might not even want to be in the direct throw of our boxes, so why force them to be? In the world of audio, we have finite resources and rapidly diminishing returns. We have to focus on the primary issues, and if our primary issue is something OTHER than completely homogenous sound throughout the venue, then we need to direct our efforts appropriately.


It’s Not Actually About The Best Sound

What we really want is the best possible show at the lowest practical gain.

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.

soundWant to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

As it happens, there’s a bit of a trilogy forming around my last article – the one about gain vs. stability. In discussions like this, the opening statement tends to be abstract. The “abstractness” is nice in a way, because it doesn’t restrict the application too much. If the concept is purified sufficiently, it should be usable in any applicable context.

At the same time, it’s nice to be able to make the abstract idea more practical. That is, the next step after stating the concept is to talk about ways in which it applies.

In live audio, gain is both a blessing and a curse. We often need gain to get mic-level signals up to line-level. We sometimes need gain to correct for “ensemble imbalances” that the band hasn’t yet fixed. We sometimes need gain to make a quiet act audible against a noisy background. Of course, the more gain we add, the more we destabilize the PA system, and the louder the show gets. The day-to-day challenge is to find the overall gain which lets us get the job done while maintaining acceptable system stability and sound pressure.

If this is the overall task, then there’s a precept which I think can be derived from it. It might only be derivable indirectly, depending on your point of view. Nevertheless:

Live sound is NOT actually about getting the best sound, insofar as “the best sound” is divorced from other considerations. Rather, the goal of live sound is to get the best possible holistic SHOW, at the lowest practical gain.

Fixing Everything Is A Bad Idea

The issue with a phrase like “the best sound” is that it morphs into different meanings for different people. For instance, at this stage in my career, I have basically taken the label saying “The Best Sound” and stuck it firmly on the metaphorical box containing the sound that gets the best show. For that reason alone, the semantics can be a little difficult. That’s why I made the distinction above – the distinction that “the best sound” or “the coolest sound” or “the best sound quality” is sometimes thought of without regard to the show as a whole.

This kind of compartmentalized thinking can be found both in concert audio veterans and greenhorns. My gut feeling is that the veterans who still section off their thinking are the ones who never had their notions challenged when they were new enough.

…and I think it’s quite common among new audio humans to think that the best sound creates the best show. That is, if we get an awesome drum sound, and a killer guitar tone, and a thundering bass timbre, and a “studio ready” vocal reproduction, we will then have a great show.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it tends to create situations where a tech is trying to “fix” almost everything about the band. The audio rig is used as a tool to change the sound of the group into a processed and massaged version of themselves – a larger than life interpretation. The problem with turning a band into a “bigger than real” version of itself is that doing so can easily require the FOH PA to outrun the acoustical output of the band AND monitor world by 10 dB or more. Especially in a small-venue context, this can mean lots and lots of gain, coupled with a great deal of SPL. The PA system may be perched on the edge of feedback for the duration of the show, and it may even tip over into uncontrolled ringing on occasion. Further, the show can easily be so loud that the audience is chased off.

To be blunt, your “super secret” snare-drum mojo is worthless if nobody wants to be in the same room with it. (If you follow me.)

Removed from other factors, the PA does sound great…but with the other factors being considered, that “great” sound is creating a terrible show.

Granularity

The correction for trying to fix everything is to only reinforce what actually needs help. This approach obeys the “lowest possible gain” rule. PA system gain is applied only to the sources that are being acoustically swamped, and only in enough quantity that those sources stop being swamped.

In a sense, you might say that there’s a certain amount of total gain (and total resultant volume) that you can have that is within an acceptable “window.” When you’ve used up your allotted amount of gain and volume, you need to stop there.

At first, the selectivity of what gets gain applied is not very narrow. For newer operators and/ or simplified PA systems, the choice tends to be “reproduce most of the source or none of it.” You might have, say, one guitar that’s in the PA, plus a vocal that’s cranked up, and some kick drum, and that’s all. Since the broadband content of the source is getting reproduced by the PA, adding any particular source into the equation chews up your total allowable gain in a fairly big hurry. This limits the correction (if actually necessary) that the PA system can apply to the total acoustical solution.

The above, by the way, is a big reason why it’s so very important for bands to actually sound like a band without any help from the PA system. That does NOT mean “so loud that the PA is unnecessary,” but rather that everything is audible in the proper proportions.

Anyway.

As an operator learns more and gains more flexible equipment, they can be more selective about what gets a piece of the gain allotment. For instance, let’s consider a situation where one guitar sound is not complementing another. The overall volumes are basically correct, but the guitar tones mask each other…or are masked by something else on stage. An experienced and well-equipped audio human might throw away everything in one guitar’s sound, except for a relatively narrow area that is “out of the way” of the other guitar. The audio human then introduces just enough of that band-limited sound into the PA to change the acoustical “solution” for the appropriate guitar. The stage volume of that guitar rig is still producing the lion’s share of the SPL in the room. The PA is just using that SPL as a foundation for a limited correction, instead of trying to run right past the total onstage SPL. The operator is using granular control to get a better show (where the guitars each have their own space) while adding as little gain and SPL to the experience as possible.

If soloed up, the guitar sound in the PA is terrible, but the use of minimal gain creates a total acoustical solution that is pleasing.

Of course, the holistic experience still needs to be considered. It’s entirely possible to be in a situation that’s so loud that an “on all the time” addition of even band-limited reinforcement is too much. It might be that the band-limited channel should only be added into the PA during a solo. This keeps the total gain of the show as low as is practicable, again, because of granularity. The positive gain is restricted in the frequency domain AND the time domain – as little as possible is added to the signal, and that addition is made as rarely as possible.

An interesting, and perhaps ironic consequence of granularity is that you can put more sources into the PA and apply more correction without breaking your gain/ volume budget. Selective reproduction of narrow frequency ranges can mean that many more channels end up in the PA. The highly selective reproduction lets you tweak the sound of a source without having to mask all of it. You might not be able to turn a given source into the best sound of that type, but granular control just might let you get the best sound practical for that source at that show. (Again, this is where the semantics can get a little weird.)

Especially for the small-venue audio human, the academic version of “the best sound” might not mean the best show. This also goes for the performers. As much as “holy grail” instrument tones can be appreciated, they often involve so much volume that they wreck the holistic experience. Especially when getting a certain sound requires driving a system hard – or “driving” an audience hard – the best show is probably not being delivered. The amount of signal being thrown around needs to be reduced.

Because we want the best possible show at the lowest practical gain.


Another Schwilly Guest Post

Zen and the art of audience capture.

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.

stevebassettband

If your audience wants your shows to start earlier, the trick is to, you know, start earlier. (The link will send you to the article.)


If It Doesn’t Work, I Don’t Want To Do It

Not doing things that are pointless seems like an obvious idea, 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.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

This is going to sound off-topic, but be assured that you haven’t wandered onto the wrong site.

I promise.

Just hear me out. It’s going to take a bit, but I think you’ll get it by the end.

**********

I used to have a day-job at an SEO (Search Engine Optimization) company. If you don’t know what SEO is, then the name might lead you to believe that it’s all about making search engines work better. It isn’t. SEO should really be called “Optimizing Website FOR Search Engines,” but I guess OWFSE wasn’t as catchy as SEO. It’s the business of figuring out what helps websites to turn up earlier in search results, and then doing those things.

It’s probably one of the most bull[censored] businesses on the entire planet, as far as I can tell.

Anyway.

Things started out well, but after just a few months I realized that our product was crap. (Not to put too fine a point on it.) It wasn’t that anyone in the company wanted to produce crap and sell it. Pretty much everybody that I worked with was a “stand up” sort of person. You know – decent folks who wanted to do right by other folks.

The product was crap because the company’s business model was constrained such that we couldn’t do things for our customers that would actually matter. Our customers needed websites and marketing campaigns that set them apart from the crowd and made spending money with them as easy as possible. Those things are spendy, and require lots of time to implement well. The business model we were constrained to was “cheap and quick” – which we could have gotten away with if it was the time before the dotcom bubble popped. Unfortunately, the bubble had exploded into a slimy mess about 12 years earlier.

So, our product was crap. I spent most of my time at the company participating in the making of crap. When I truly realized just how much crap was involved, things got relatively awful and I planned my escape. (It was even worse because a number of us had ideas for fixes, ideas that were supported by our own management. However, our parent company had no real interest in letting us “pivot,” and that was that.)

But I learned a lot, and there were bright spots. One of the brightest spots was working with a product manager who was impervious to industry stupidity, had an analytical and reasonable mind, and who once uttered a sentence which has become a catchphrase for me:

“If it doesn’t work, I don’t want to do it.”

Is that not one of the most refreshing things you’ve ever heard? Seriously, it’s beautiful. Even with all the crap that was produced at that company, that phrase saved me from wading through some of the worst of it.

…and for any industry that suffers from an abundance of dung excreted from male cows, horses, or other work animals, it’s probably the thing that most needs to be said.

…and when it comes to dung, muck, crap, turds, manure, or just plain ca-ca, the music business is at least chest-deep. Heck, we might even be submerged, with the marketing and promo end of the industry about ten feet down. We need a flotation device, and being able to say “If it doesn’t work, I don’t want to do it,” is at least as good as a pair of water-wings.

The thing is, we’re reluctant to say (and embrace) something so honest, so brutally gentle and edifice-detonatingly kind.

We’ve Got To Do Stuff! Even If It’s Stupid!

I think this problem is probably at its worst in the US, although my guess is that it’s somehow rooted in the European cultures that form most of America’s behavioral bedrock. There’s this unspoken notion (that nobody would openly admit to embracing, even though we constantly embrace it by reflex) that the raw time and effort expended on something is what matters.

I’ll say that again.

We unconsciously believe that the raw time and effort expended on an endeavor is what matters.

We say that we love results, and we kinda do, but what we WORSHIP is effort – or the illusion thereof. The doing of stuff. The act of “being at work.”

In comparison, it barely matters if the end results are good for us, or anyone else. We tolerate the wasting of life, and the erosion of souls, and all manner of Sisyphean rock-pushing and sand-shoveling, because WE PUNCHED THE CLOCK TODAY, DANGIT!

If you need proof of this, look at what has become a defining factor in the ideological rock-throwing that is currently occurring in our culture. Notice a pattern? It’s all about work, and who’s doing enough of it. It’s figuring out how some people are better than other people, because of how much effort they supposedly expend. The guy who sits at the office for 12 hours a day is superior to you, you who only spend 8 hours a day in that cube. If you want to be the most important person in this culture, you need to be an active-duty Marine with two full-time jobs, who is going to college and raising three children by themselves. Your entire existence should be a grind of “doing stuff.” If you’re unhappy with your existence, or it doesn’t measure up to someone else’s, you obviously didn’t do enough stuff. Your expenditure of effort must be lacking.

I mean, do you remember school? People would do poorly on a test, and lament that they had spent [x] hours studying. Hours of their lives had been wasted on studying in a way that had just been empirically proven to be ineffective in some major aspect…yet, they would very likely do exactly the same thing again in a week or so. The issue goes deeper than this, but at just one level: Instead of spending [x] hours on an ineffective grind, why not spend, say, [.25x] hours on what actually works, and just be done?

Because, for all our love of results, we are CULTURALLY DESPERATE to justify ourselves in terms of effort.

I could go on and on and on, but I think you get it at this point.

What in blue blazes does this (and its antithesis) have to do with the music business?

Plenty.

Not Doing Worthless Crap Is The Most Practical Idea Ever

For the sake of an example, let’s take one tiny little aspect of promo: Flyering.

Markets differ, but I’m convinced that flyers (in the way bands are used to them) are generally a waste of time and trees. Even so, bands continue to arm themselves with stacks of cheap posters and tape/ staples/ whatever, and spend WAY too much time on putting up a bunch of promo that is going to be ignored.

The cure is to say, “If it doesn’t work, I don’t want to do it,” and to be granular about the whole thing.

What I mean by “granular” is that you figure out what bit of flyering does work in some way, and do that while gleefully forgetting about the rest. Getting flyers to the actual venue usually has some value. Even if none of the actual show-goers give two hoots about your night, getting that promo to the room sends a critical message to the venue operators – the message that you care about your show. In that way, those three or four posters that would go to the theater/ bar/ hall/ etc. do, in fact, work. As such, they’re worth doing for “political” reasons. The 100 or so other flyers that would go up in various places and may as well be invisible? They obviously don’t work, so why trouble yourself? Hang the four posters that actually matter, and then go rehearse (or just relax).

Also, you can take the time and money that would have been spent on 100+ cheap flyers, and pour some of that into making better the handful of posters that actually matter. Or buying some spare guitar picks, if that’s more important.

I’ll also point out that if traditional flyering does work in your locale, you should definitely do it – because it’s working.

In a larger sense, all promo obeys the rule of not doing it if it doesn’t work. Once a band or venue figures out what marketing the general public responds to (if any), it doesn’t make sense to spend money on doing more. If a few Facebook and Twitter posts have all the effect, and a bunch of spendy ads in traditional media don’t seem to do anything, why spend the money? Do the free stuff, and don’t feel like you have to justify wearing yourself (or your bank account) down to a nub. You may have to be prepared to defend yourself in some rational way, but that’s better than being broke, tired, and frustrated for no necessary reason.

It works for gear, too. People love to buy big, expensive amplification rigs, but they haven’t been truly necessary for years. If you’re not playing to large, packed theaters and arenas with vocals-only PA systems – which is unlikely – then a huge and heavy amp isn’t getting you anything. It’s a bunch of potential that never gets used. Paying for it and lugging it around isn’t working, so you shouldn’t want to do it. Spend the money on a compact rig that sounds fantastic in context, and is cased up so it lasts forever. (And if you would need a huge rig to keep up with some other player who’s insanely loud, then at least consider doing the sensible, cheap, and effective thing…which is to fire the idiot who can’t play with the rest of the team.)

To reiterate what I mentioned about flyering, there’s always a caveat somewhere. Some things work for some people and not for others. The point is to figure out what works for YOU, and then do as much of that as is effective. Doing stuff that works for someone else (but not you) so you can get not-actually-existent “effort expenditure points” is just a waste of life.

There are examples to be had in every area of show production. To try and identify them all isn’t necessary. The point is that this is a generally applicable philosophy.

If it works, you should want to do it.

If you don’t yet know if it works, you should want to give it a try.

But…

If it doesn’t work, I don’t want to do it, and neither do you (even if you don’t realize it yet).