Tag Archives: Listening

Entering Flatland

I encourage live-audio humans to spend lots of time listening to studio monitors.

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.

Do you work in live-audio? Are you new to the field? An old hand? Somewhere in between?

I want to encourage you to do something.

I want you to get yourself a pair of basically decent studio monitors. They shouldn’t be huge, or expensive. They just have to be basically flat in terms of their magnitude response. Do NOT add a subwoofer. You don’t need LF drivers bigger than 8″ – anything advertised to play down to about 40 Hz or 50 Hz is probably fine.

I want you to run them as “flat” as possible. I want you to do as much listening with them as possible. Play your favorite music through them. Watch YouTube videos with them passing the audio. When you play computer games, let the monitors make all the noises.

I want you to get used to how they sound.

Oh, and try to tune your car stereo to sound like your studio monitors. If you can only do so coarsely, still do so.

Why?

Because I think it’s very helpful to “calibrate” yourself to un-hyped audio.

A real problem in live music is the tendency to try to make everything “super enhanced.” It’s the idea that loud, deep bass and razor-sharp HF information are the keys to good sound. There’s a problem, though. The extreme ends of the audible spectrum actually aren’t that helpful in concert audio. They are nice to have available, of course. The very best systems can reproduce all (or almost all) of the audible range at high volume, with very low distortion. The issue is over-emphasis. The sacrifice of the absolutely critical midrange – where almost all the musical information actually lives – on the altar of being impressive for 10 seconds.

I’m convinced that part of what drives a tendency to dial up “hyped” audio in a live situation is audio humans listening to similar tonalities when they’re off-duty. They build a recreational system that produces booming bass and slashing treble, yank the midrange down, and get used to that as being “right.” Then, when they’re louderizing noises for a real band in a real room, they try to get the same effect at large scale. This eats power at an incredible rate (especially the low-end), and greatly reduces the ability of the different musical parts to take their appointed place in the mix. If everything gets homogenized into a collection of crispy thuds, the chance of distinctly hearing everything drops like a bag of rocks tied to an even bigger rock that’s been thrown off a cliff made of other rocks.

But it does sound cool!

At first.

A few minutes in, especially at high volume, and the coolness gives way to fatigue.

In my mind, it’s a far better approach to try to get the midrange, or about 100 Hz to 5 kHz, really worked out as well as possible first. Then, you can start thinking about where you are with the four octaves on the top and bottom, and what’s appropriate to do there.

In my opinion, “natural” is actually much more impressive than “impressive,” especially when you don’t have massive reserves of output available. Getting a handle on what’s truly natural is much easier when that kind of sonic experience is what you’ve trained yourself to think of as normal and correct.

So get yourself some studio monitors, and make them your new reference point for what everything is supposed to sound like. I can’t guarantee that it will make you better at mixing bands, but I think there’s a real chance of it.


The Power Of The Solo Bus

It’s very handy to be able to pick part of a signal path and route that sound directly to your head.

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

Need to figure out which channel is making that weird noise in the midst of the chaos of a show? Wondering whether your drum mics have been switched around? Wish you could directly hear the signal running to the monitor mix that’s giving people fits? Your solo bus is here to save the day!


Sounding “Good” Everywhere

This is actually about studio issues, but hey…

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.

My latest article for Schwilly Family Musicians has to do with the recorded side of life. Even so, I thought some of you might be interested:

‘Even before the age of smartphones, “translation” was a big issue for folks making records. The question that was constantly asked was, “How do I make this tune sound good everywhere?”

In my mind, that’s the wrong question.

The real question is, “Does this mix continue to make sense, even if the playback system has major limitations?”’


Read the whole piece here.


First, Do No Harm

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

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 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.


Hard Surface Blues

The Acoustical Environment: It matters.

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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On the 30th of December, 2015, my (previously) regular gig hosted its final show. The building is going away, and we had to be out. We had already done the final mainstage show in the downstairs venue, but we had to have one more blowout to celebrate as many of our musician friends as we possibly could.

The show was six and a half hours in length.

The show was also upstairs.

As the night went on, and also afterwards, I was relieved to hear that people were pleased with the way things sounded. I was relieved because, for most of the night, I was standing at the console with my metaphorical head in my hands, saying, “This is not working. This is NOT working. It’s all a garbled firestorm of reflections. This is not working.”

See, I was very much used to mixing in the mainstage room. That venue had a pretty fair amount of acoustical treatment to the stage area, yielding a “live-end, dead-end” sort of design that worked pretty nicely. With a mainstage show you still had plenty of monitor wash, but a LOT of on-deck audio really was soaked up before it started banging around the room like a rabid ping-pong ball. This was also helpful for the FOH PA, because a lot of its spill was also absorbed. Combine that with the live part of the room having a pretty-darn-okay “short, rock-n-roll reverb,” and it really wasn’t too hard to wrangle audio in the basement.

But the upstairs, oh my goodness…

The picture up there tells quite a bit of the story. No acoustical treatment. A flat, glass, upstage wall. All hard surfaces everywhere. Oh boy.

There are two things I want you to get from this.

Thing 1: The Acoustical Environment Has A Tremendous Impact On Your Show

Decent gear that’s right for the application really does matter, but in the end, the room acoustics make a lot of highly consequential decisions that are – shall we say – “tough to appeal.” The flattest, most sonically neutral PA and monitors in the world are still subject to whatever environment they’re fired into. A beautiful-sounding PA that’s being used in an acoustically hostile room is ALWAYS going to be a beautiful-sounding PA being used in an acoustically hostile room.

Room acoustics are so important, and have such a huge influence that there are pieces of music which were written specifically for certain BUILDINGS. As in, “we can play this organ piece on almost any decent pipe-organ, but it won’t actually sound right unless the organ is in this one church.”

Soviet reverb adjusts YOU, comrade.

Anyway.

When you drop a performance into a different room, the performance is going to sound different. Maybe wildly so. There are all kinds of things that can happen to you, but in general, be aware that more reflectivity tends to play greater havoc with music that’s fast, and/ or built on a “dense” arrangement. In order for that kind of music to work nicely, you have to be able to discern where different sounds begin and end. Reverberation works against that; It lengthens the decay-time of sonic events, causing those events to “smear” across themselves and each other. Don’t be surprised if you have to pull back on “supporting” sounds in order to provide adequate separation for critical, detail-driven audio (like vocals). With the room-sound filling in lots of small spaces that would otherwise provide some contrast, you may have to exaggerate some proportions in order to keep things intelligible.

And notice that I said, “pull back.” In a tough space, the answer is not to start at the usual volume and push the lead parts even higher. You may very well run out of PA, or monitors, or audience tolerance, or all of those before you arrive at a workable destination. Start quietly so you’ll have room to get things separated. “Headroom” is not just a term for electronics, you know.

Thing 2: No, You Can’t Fix Acoustics With EQ

Please realize that you CAN alleviate certain acoustical problems with EQ. Also, please realize that, in many situations, EQ will be the only tool you can meaningfully use to help deal with some room issues.

I’m not saying that EQ has no place, and not to use it.

What I AM saying is that EQ can’t actually fix acoustics.

I used my “flagship” console for the upstairs gig. My flagship console has more powerful and flexible EQ than any other mix-rig I’ve ever used. Believe me, I was making use of that power and flexibility for the show. The show would have been much worse if I hadn’t used the tools at my disposal…

…but the problems weren’t truly fixed. They were just made more tolerable.

Acoustical problems are “time” issues. A sonic event becomes a longer event, whether by audible, discrete repetition, smooth reverberation, or something in between. Equalization is a tool for changing magnitude. Yes, equalizers precipitate those magnitude changes by way of manipulating the time domain, but they are not a tool which is useful for managing time.

The best you can do with an equalizer is to get a troublesome reverberation buildup to drop into the “noise floor” faster. This is not because you’ve managed to fix the acoustical problem, but rather because your input to that acoustical problem has been reduced. The reverb time at, say, 500 Hz has not changed in any way. What you may have succeeded in doing is to make the events at 500 Hz a few dB quieter, such that their decaying intensity becomes less audible against everything else more quickly.

In some rooms that can be enough, and it can be done without making the rig sound truly strange. At some point, though, the problems are so bad that getting the reflections to disappear into the noise floor via EQ creates bizarre results. A PA with a giant chasm torn into the midrange may not cause a huge buildup of reverb in that bandwidth, but it will also be painfully obvious that the PA has had all that midrange tossed into the abyss. (Reverberation is not the creation of sonic events at a certain frequency, but rather the lengthening of them. Kill all the bottom end in a PA to deal with a boomy room, and the sound will be very thin. Room acoustics don’t fill in what isn’t there. They combine with what is.)

To truly fix a problematic room, you either have to alter the room’s acoustical characteristics or find a way to avoid interacting with them. All that is beyond the scope of this article, so just walk away with this in mind: Venue acoustics matter a lot, being louder doesn’t help, and electronic processing may or may not be enough for you to reach the sonic destination you want.


On The Identification and Fixing of Live Show Arrangement Problems

An article I wrote for Schwilly Family Musicians.

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.

From the article:

“…In other words, arrangement quality is INVERSELY proportional to the musical corrective action required of the sound tech. Great bands with great arrangements don’t require me to fix anything. I just have to translate the songs through the PA – and actually, that’s a pretty good analogy. With a bad arrangement, I have to go beyond just helping the “onstage language” interface with “audience language.” If I’m able, I also have to correct the original grammar, fact-check, rewrite for clarification, and THEN translate.”


Read the whole thing here, for free.


Simple Fixes For Simple Problems

Letting a person change lanes is easier than building them a faster car.

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.

(I forgot to put this up last week. Whoops…)

On ProSoundWeb, a thread was started about harmonica feedback. The thread lasted for two pages, and one topic swerve. All kinds of suggestions were made.

But not a single suggestion was made that maybe, just maybe, the rest of the band might EASE UP A LITTLE and give the harp player some space.

The simple, free solution was drowned in a storm of trying to engineer a way out.

I have been guilty of this. I will probably be guilty of it in the future. Still…

Can we stop this, please?


Where’s Your Data?

I don’t think audio-humans are skeptical enough.

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.

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

If I’m going to editorialize on this, I first need to be clear about one thing: I’m not against certain things being taken on faith. There are plenty of assumptions in my life that can’t be empirically tested. I don’t have a problem with that in any way. I subscribe quite strongly to that old saw:

You ARE entitled to your opinion. You ARE NOT entitled to your own set of “facts.”

But, of course, that means that I subscribe to both sides of it. As I’ve gotten farther and farther along in the show-production craft, especially the audio part, I’ve gotten more and more dismayed with how opinion is used in place of fact. I’ve found myself getting more and more “riled” with discussions where all kinds of assertions are used as conversational currency, unbacked by any visible, objective defense. People claim something, and I want to shout, “Where’s your data, dude? Back that up. Defend your answer!”

I would say that part of the problem lies in how we describe the job. We have (or at least had) the tendency to say, “It’s a mix of art and science.” Unfortunately, my impression is that this has come to be a sort of handwaving of the science part. “Oh…the nuts and bolts of how things work aren’t all that important. If you’re pleased with the results, then you’re okay.” While this is a fair statement on the grounds of having reached a workable endpoint through unorthodox or uneducated means, I worry about the disservice it does to the craft when it’s overapplied.

To be brutally frank, I wish the “mix of art and science” thing would go away. I would replace it with, “What we’re doing is science in the service of art.”

Everything that an audio human does or encounters is precipitated by physics – and not “exotic” physics, either. We’re talking about Newtonian interactions and well-understood electronics here, not quantum entanglement, subatomic particles, and speeds approaching that of light. The processes that cause sound stuff to happen are entirely understandable, wieldable, and measurable by ordinary humans – and this means that audio is not any sort of arcane magic. A show’s audio coming off well or poorly always has a logical explanation, even if that explanation is obscure at the time.

I Should Be Able To Measure It

Here’s where the rubber truly meets the road on all this.

There seems to be a very small number of audio humans who are willing to do any actual science. That is to say, investigating something in such a way as to get objective, quantitative data. This causes huge problems with troubleshooting, consulting, and system building. All manner of rabbit trails may be followed while trying to fix something, and all manner of moneys are spent in the process, but the problem stays un-fixed. Our enormous pool of myth, legend, and hearsay seems to be great for swatting at symptoms, but it’s not so hot for tracking down the root cause of what’s ailing us.

Part of our problem – I include myself because I AM susceptible – is that listening is easy and measuring is hard. Or, rather, scientific measuring is hard.

Listening tests of all kinds are ubiquitous in this business. They’re easy to do, because they aren’t demanding in terms of setup or parameter control. You try to get your levels matched, setup some fast signal switching, maybe (if you’re very lucky) make it all double-blind so that nobody knows what switch setting corresponds to a particular signal, and go for it.

Direct observation via the senses has been used in science for a long time. It’s not that it’s completely invalid. It’s just that it has problems. The biggest problem is that our senses are interpreted through our brains, an organ which develops strong biases and filters information so that we don’t die. The next problem is that the experimental parameter control actually tends to be quite shoddy. In the worst cases, you get people claiming that, say, console A has a better sound than console B. But…they heard console A in one place, with one band, and console B in a totally different place with a totally different band. There’s no meaningful comparison, because the devices under test AND the test signals were different.

As a result, listening tests produce all kinds of impressions that aren’t actually helpful. Heck, we don’t even know what “sounds better” means. For this person over here, it means lots of high-frequency information. For some other person, it means a slight bass boost. This guy wants a touch of distortion that emphasizes the even-numbered harmonics. That gal wants a device that resembles a “straight wire” as much as possible. Nobody can even agree on what they like! You can’t actually get a rigorous comparison out of that sort of thing.

The flipside is, if we can actually hear it, we should be able to measure it. If a given input signal actually sounds different when listened to through different signal paths, then those signal paths MUST have different transfer functions. A measurement transducer that meets or exceeds the bandwidth and transient response of a human ear should be able to detect that output signal reliably. (A measurement mic that, at the very least, significantly exceeds the bandwidth of human hearing is only about $700.)

As I said, measuring – real measuring – is hard. If the analysis rig is setup incorrectly, we get unusable results, and it’s frighteningly easy to screw up an experimental procedure. Also, we have to be very, very defined about what we’re trying to measure. We have to start with an input signal that is EXACTLY the same for all measurements. None of this “we’ll set up the drums in this room, play them, then tear them down and set them up in this other room,” can be tolerated as valid. Then, we have to make every other parameter agree for each device being tested. No fair running one preamp closer to clipping than the other! (For example.)

Question Everything

So…what to do now?

If I had to propose an initial solution to the problems I see (which may not be seen by others, because this is my own opinion – oh, the IRONY), I would NOT say that the solution is for everyone to graph everything. I don’t see that as being necessary. What I DO see as being necessary is for more production craftspersons to embrace their inner skeptic. The lesser amount of coherent explanation that’s attached to an assertion, the more we should doubt that assertion. We can even develop a “hierarchy of dubiousness.”

If something can be backed up with an actual experiment that produces quantitative data, that something is probably true until disproved by someone else running the same experiment. Failure to disclose the experimental procedure makes the measurement suspect however – how exactly did they arrive at the conclusion that the loudspeaker will tolerate 1 kW of continuous input? No details? Hmmm…

If a statement is made and backed up with an accepted scientific model, the statement is probably true…but should be examined to make sure the model was applied correctly. There are lots of people who know audio words, but not what those words really mean. Also, the model might change, though that’s unlikely in basic physics.

Experience and anecdotes (“I heard this thing, and I liked it better”) are individually valid, but only in the very limited context of the person relating them. A large set of similar experiences across a diverse range of people expands the validity of the declaration, however.

You get the idea.

The point is that a growing lack of desire to just accept any old statement about audio will, hopefully, start to weed out some of the mythological monsters that periodically stomp through the production-tech village. If the myths can’t propagate, they stand a chance of dying off. Maybe. A guy can hope.

So, question your peers. Question yourself. Especially if there’s a problem, and the proposed fix involves a significant amount of money, question the fix.

A group of us were once troubleshooting an issue. A producer wasn’t liking the sound quality he was getting from his mic. The discussion quickly turned to preamps, and whether he should save up to buy a whole new audio interface for his computer. It finally dawned on me that we hadn’t bothered to ask anything about how he was using the mic, and when I did ask, he stated that he was standing several feet from the unit. If that’s not a recipe for sound that can be described as “thin,” I don’t know what is. His problem had everything to do with the acoustic physics of using a microphone, and nothing substantial AT ALL to do with the preamp he was using.

A little bit of critical thinking can save you a good pile of cash, it would seem.

(By the way, I am biased like MAD against the the crowd that craves expensive mic pres, so be aware of that when I’m making assertions. Just to be fair. Question everything. Question EVERYTHING. Ask where the data is. Verify.)


EQ Or Off-Axis?

A case-study in fixing a monitor mix.

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 really interested in monitors. They contribute immensely to the success (or crushing failure) of a show, affect musicians in ways that are often inaudible to me, and tend to require a fair bit of management. I wrote a whole article on the topic of unsuckifying them. Some of the most interesting problems to solve involve monitor mixes, because those problems are a confluence of multiple factors that combine to smash your face in.

You know, like Devastator, the Decepticon super-robot formed by the Constructicons. The GREEN (and purple) super-robot. From the 1980s. It was kind of a pain to put him together, if I remember correctly.

Sorry, what were we talking about again?

Monitors.

So, my regular gig picked up a “rescue” show, because another venue shut down unexpectedly. A group called The StrangeHers was on deck, with Amanda in to play some fiddle. (Amanda is a fiddle player in high demand. If she’s not playing with a band, she is being recruited by that band. I expect that her thrash-metal debut will come shortly.) We were rushing around, trying to get monitor world sorted out. When we got to Amanda, she jumped in with a short, but highly astute question:

“The vocals are loud, but I can’t really make them out. They sound all muddy. Is there a problem with the EQ, or is it something else?”

Indirect

Amanda’s monitor was equalized correctly. The lead vocal was equalized correctly. Well…that is…ELECTRONICALLY. The signal processing software acting as EQ was doing exactly what it should have been doing. Amanda’s problem had to do with effective EQ: The total, acoustical solution for her was incorrect.

In other words, yes, we had an EQ problem, but it wasn’t a problem that would be appropriately fixed with an equalizer.

One of the lessons that live-sound tries to teach – over and over again, with swift and brutal force – is that actually resolving an issue requires addressing whatever is truly precipitating that issue. You can “patch” things by addressing the symptoms, but you won’t have a fix until you get to the true, root cause.

What was precipitating the inappropriate, total EQ for Amanda could be boiled down to one fundamental factor: She wasn’t getting enough “direct” sound.

To start with, she was “off-axis” from all the other monitors she was hearing. Modern loudspeakers for live-sound applications do tend to have nice, tight, pattern control at higher frequencies. As the frequency of the reproduced content decreases, though, the output has more and more of a tendency to just “go everywhere.” Real directivity at low frequencies requires big “boxes,” as the wavelengths involved are quite large. Big boxes, however, are generally not what we want on deck, so we have to deal with what we’ve got. What we’ve got, then, is a reality where standing to the side of a monitor gets you very little in the way of frequency content that contributes to vocal intelligibility (roughly 1 kHz and above), and quite a lot of sound that contributes to vocal “mud.”

Another major factor was that the rest of what Amanda was hearing had been bounced off a boundary at least once. Any “intelligibility zone” material that made it to Amanda’s ears was significantly late when compared to everything else, and probably smeared badly from containing multiple reflections of itself. Compounding that was the issue of a room that contained both people and acoustical treatment. Most anything that was reflected back to the deck was probably missing a lot of high-frequency information. It had been heavily absorbed on the way out and the way back.

Figuring It Out

This is not to say that all of the above snapped instantly into my head when Amanda asked what was wrong. I had to have other clues in order to chase down a fix. Those clues were:

1) Before the show, I had put the mics through the monitors, walked up on deck, and listened to what it all sounded like. For the test, I had a very healthy send level from each vocal mic to the monitors that were directly behind that microphone. Vocal intelligibility was certainly happening at that time, and although things would definitely change as the room changed, the total acoustical solution wouldn’t become unrecognizably different.

2) Nobody else had complained. Although this is hardly the most reliable factor, it does figure in. If the vocals were a muddy mess everywhere, I’m betting that I would have gotten more agreement from the other band members. This suggested that the problem was local to Amanda, and by extension, that a global change (EQ on the vocal channel) would potentially create an incorrect solution for the other folks.

3) On the vocal channel, the send level to the other monitors was high in comparison to the send level to Amanda’s monitor. This was probably my biggest and most immediate clue. When other monitors are getting sends that are +9 dB in relation to another box, the performer is probably hearing mostly the garbled wash from everything OTHER than their own monitor. If the send level to Amanda’s wedge had been high, I might have concluded that the overall EQ for that particular wedge was wrong – although my encouraging, pre-show experience would have suggested that the horn had died at some point. (Ya cain’t fix THAT with an equalizer, pilgrim…)

So, with the clues that I had, I decided to try increasing the send level to Amanda’s monitor to match the send levels to the other monitors. Just like that, Amanda had a LOT more direct sound, everything was copacetic, and off we went.


Regarding Arrangements and Audio Humans – A Letter

A guest-post for Schwilly Family Musicians.

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.

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

Yes, that’s me in the picture up there.

Anyway…


‘It has come to my attention that some of you have, often by accident, placed more responsibility in my hands than might be prudent. This may have come from many things: A misunderstanding of how our roles intersect, an overestimation of what physics will allow me to get away with, misplaced hero-worship, or other such thoughts.

What I am referring to specifically is the idea that your song arrangements are best managed by way of a sound person wielding a tremendous chain of signal transduction and processing equipment. You’ve seen and heard concert setups that have impressed you, and you’ve thought, “This gear, in the hands of a competent tech, will make us sound good.”

My dear Bands, I don’t wish to be combative or contradictory, but I cannot agree with you on that concept.’


Read the rest (for free!) at Schwilly Family Musicians.