Tag Archives: Subjectivity

No, Analog Isn’t Better

Analog gear does look cool, though.

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.

Although the fight isn’t nearly so pitched as it once was, some folks might still ask: “Is analog better than digital?”

Analog audio gear does indeed have one major advantage over its number-crunching counterparts. Especially with the right lighting, it often looks a lot cooler on Instagram. Other than that, I’ll take digital over analog any day of the week, and twice on Sunday.

Everyone’s got their own opinion, of course, and I can respect that. I believe that I can back mine up pretty convincingly.

“Back in the day,” you could make a case that analog sounded better. I maintain that this was because both analog and digital grunged up signals to about the same degree, but that digital grunge is generally perceived as being less pleasing. We’re in the 21st Century now, though, and those problems were fixed a good while back. Today’s digital is clear, hyper-accurate, and pristine, even with all manner of gain-changes piled on and low-level signals being passed. Along with that, digital gear is compact, lightweight, flexible, cheap, and feature rich.

Analog, on the other hand, is large, heavy, inflexible, expensive, and feature-limited. It also does not sound “better.”

What do I mean?

Let’s take the example of a modern, digital console, like an X32 Core. Such a console is the ultimate expression of digital’s strengths:

First of all, the setup is tiny. With six rack-spaces handy, you can have 32 X 16 I/O, plus a separate console for FOH and monitor world. Of course, the system has no control surface, so you’ll need a laptop or tablet to act as a “steering wheel.” Even so, the whole shebang could fit in the trunk of a small car. A similar analog setup would necessitate a good-sized SUV, truck, or van for transport.

This also factors into the lightweight aspect. I don’t know exactly how much the above system weighs, but I know it’s a LOT less than two, 32 input analog boards. Even with no other accoutrements, the old-school solution will put you into the 80-pound range at a minimum. Add in a traditional multicore and stagebox splitters, and…well…it’s a lot to carry.

The flexibility argument comes next. Although everything has a design limit, gear that runs on code can have updates applied easily. As long as any new functionality falls within what the hardware and basic software platform can manage, that new functionality can be added – through a simple software update – for as long as the manufacturer cares to work on the system. Front-end control is just as malleable, if not more. If it turns out that the software portion of the interface could do things better, an update gets written and that’s that. Equipment that operates on physical circuits either has no path for similar changes, or if it does, accomplishing the changes is a task that’s profoundly difficult in comparison.

Cost and feature-set dovetail into one another. At the very bare minimum, you can purchase the mixers for a dual-console analog system for about $2800. That’s not too bad in the grand scheme of things, until you realize that a similar investment in the digital world can also get you the stagebox and snake. Also, the digital system will have tons of processing muscle that the analog setup won’t be able to touch. Twelve monitor mixes, fully-configurable channel-per-channel dynamics, four-band parametric EQ, a sweepable filter, EQ and dynamics on every output, plus eight additional processing units? Good luck finding that in an integrated analog package. Such a thing doesn’t even exist as far as I know, and anything even remotely comparable won’t be found for less than tens of thousands of dollars.

So, what about my last point? That analog doesn’t actually sound better?

It doesn’t. No, really. It may sound different. You may like that it sounds different. I can’t argue with personal taste. The reality, though, is that the different sound (especially “warmth” or “fatness” or “depth”) is the product of the gear not passing a clean signal. Maybe the circuitry imparts a nice, low-frequency bump somewhere. Maybe it rolls off in the highs. Maybe there’s just a touch of even-harmonic distortion that creeps in at your preferred gain structure. That’s nifty, but in any objective sense it’s either a circuit that’s inflexibly pre-equalized or is forgiving when being run hard. That may be what some people want, but it’s not what I want, and I’m not going to label it as “better” when a pleasing result is precipitated by a design limitation. (Or only appears when the gain is set just-so.)

Analog isn’t dead, and it isn’t going to die. Our digital systems require well-designed analog stages on the input and output sides to function in real life. At the same time, there are good reasons to make as much of the signal chain digital as is possible. Digital sounds great, and holds too many practical advantages for it to lose out in an objective comparison.

I Expected A Different Future

What we thought was going to happen didn’t happen.

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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Back when I was in recording school, everything was going to be different.

It was, of course, already different back then, too. The digital console revolution was still pretty much off the radar, but the “triumph of the amateurs” was definitely in force. I still sort of cared about linear-access media. I recorded my final projects on Tascam DA-series decks. They used Hi-8 tapes to record digital data. Tapes! You had to rewind and fast-forward. And it was digital! I checked out the mobile Pro-Tools rig so I could quickly loop over the tom hits I was obsessing about, running the line-level outputs through an SSL G series console the size of a family car. I mixed down to a DAT tape that the whole class shared. It was uphill, both ways, in the snow, and it was glorious.


Sixteen-ish years ago, the production landscape was a very different piece of terrain. We were all getting ready to be fired off into the yonder, and I knew what I was going to do: I was going to be mixing rock-records in surround. That was going to be the new thing that would fill the careers of us young bucks. DVD audio was going to keep the music business relevant and moving forward.

Well, we can all see how that turned out.

Physical media still exists, of course. The really retro stuff has a big following, and a sort of cachet. Sure, the streaming files will get released, but the BIG fans will buy the thing on limited-release vinyl. Hey, there’s nothing like inconvenience and fragility when it comes to music playback. The struggle makes the guitars sound better, or something. I do have fond, childhood memories of a Sesame Street LP that sounded great on my Dad’s “Allegro” system.

“La dee da dee dum, la dee da dee dum, what’s the name of that song?”

We were convinced that physical media would be around forever. The original iPod wouldn’t ship until months after I graduated from The Conservatory, and even that thing still counts as a form of physical media in my mind. It might blow your mind a bit, but you have to realize that we had NO IDEA it would be common to stream music over wireless networks to wherever your phone is. The battle was between inconvenient, high-quality playback that required a lot from the user, versus insanely convenient, acceptable-quality playback that required almost nothing from a listener.

Tough call, right? (SARCASM!)

In my mind, it’s the same for live music. If we’re trying to get patrons of the arts to do something inconvenient that requires a lot of effort, that’s perfectly fine (just like vinyl). That’s a choice we can make, and it has legitimacy. At the same time, we have to realize that we are limiting the audience to the “hardcore fans,” especially if we’re short on ways to make the live experience compelling. I’m no fan of unnecessary frippery, but if we’re going to ask people to drive out of their way, fight for parking, and cough up a bunch of dough for admission, the show had better be worth it. We may not have every possible production toy ever invented (I certainly don’t), but we have to strive to take pride in our craft.

People don’t tolerate crap, and the definition of crap involves multiple, interlocking variables. Good quality but difficult to get is crap. Horrifically bad quality that’s delivered to your door is also crap.

But basically okay and really easy is NOT crap, and thus people are okay with it.

I’m convinced that this is not about flash and who can spend the most money. What I am convinced of is that, if a live show isn’t quickly recognizable as being better than just listening to playback at home, nobody owes us the courtesy of showing up.

Back in the day, music was hard enough to come by that going out to hear it was a necessity. Now, it’s entirely optional. This may not be the future we expected, but it’s a future where we’re invited (by necessity) to do the coolest stuff we can think of. That’s pretty daunting at times, but sitting here typing this, I feel like it’s also a fun challenge. I guess we’ll see what happens.

Virtually Unusable Soundcheck

Virtual soundchecks are a neat idea, but in reality they have lots of limitations.

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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Before we dive in to anything, let’s go over what I’m not saying:

I’m not saying that virtual soundchecks can never be useful in any situation.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try them out.

I’m not saying that you’re dumb for using them if you’re using them.

What I am definitely saying, though, is that the virtual soundcheck is of limited usefulness to folks working in small rooms.

What The Heck Is A Virtual Soundcheck?

A virtual soundcheck starts with a recording. This recording is a multitrack capture of the band playing “live,” using all the same mics and DI boxes as would be set up for the show. The multitrack is then fed, channel-per-channel, into a live-sound console. The idea is that the audio-human can tweak everything to their heart’s delight, without having the band on deck for hours at a time. The promise is that you can dial up those EQs, compressors, and FX blends “just so,” maybe even while sitting at home.

This is a great idea. Brilliant, even.

But it’s flawed.

Flaw 1: Home is not where the show is.

It may be possible to make your headphones or studio monitors sound like a live venue. You may even be able to use a convolution reverb to make a playback system in one space sound almost exactly like a PA system in another space. Unless you go to that trouble, though, you’re mixing for a different “target” than what’s actually going to be in play during the actual show. Using a virtual soundcheck system to rough things in is plenty possible, even with a mix solution that’s not exactly tailored for the real thing, but spending a large amount of time on tiny details isn’t worth it. In the end, you’re still going to have to mix the concert in the real space, for that EXACT, real space. You just can’t get around that entirely.

As such, a virtual soundcheck might as well be done in the venue it concerns, using the audio rig deployed for the show.

Flaw 2: Live audio is not an open loop.

A virtual soundcheck removes one of the major difficulties involved in live audio; It opens the feedback loop. Because it’s all driven from playback which the system output cannot directly affect, it’s immune from many of the oddities and pitfalls inherent with mics and speakers that “talk” to each other. A playback-based shakedown might lead an operator to believe that they can crank up the total gain applied to a channel with impunity, but physics will ALWAYS throw the book at you for trying to bend the rules.

The further implication is that “going offline” is about as helpful to the process of mixing wedge monitors as a house stuffed with meth-addled meerkats. In-ears are a different story, but a huge part of getting wedges right is knowing exactly what you can and can not pull off for that band in that space. Knowing what you can get away with requires having the feedback loop factored in, but a virtual check deletes the loop entirely.

Flaw 3: We’re not going to be listening to only the sound rig.

As I’ve been mentioning here, over and over, anybody who has ever heard a real band in a real room knows that real bands make a LOT of noise. Even acoustic shows can have very large “stage wash” components to their total acoustical output. A virtual soundcheck means that the band isn’t there to make noise, and so your mix gets built without taking that into account. The problem is that, in small venues, taking the band’s acoustical contribution into account is critical.

And yes, you could certainly set up the feeds so that monitor-world also gets fed – but that still doesn’t fully fix the issue. Drummers and players of amplified instruments have a lot to say, even before the roar of monitor loudspeakers gets added. This is even true for “unplugged” shows. If the PA isn’t supposed to be drowningly loud, you might be surprised at just how well an acoustic guitar can carry.

As I said before, the whole idea is not useless. You can certainly get something out of playback. You might be able to chase down some weird rattle or other artifact from an instrument that you couldn’t find when everything was banging away in realtime. Virtual soundchecks also become much more helpful when you’re in a big space, with a big PA that’s going to be – far and away – the loudest thing that the audience is listening to.

For those of us in smaller spaces, though, the value of dialing up a simulation is pretty small. For my part, the whole point of soundcheck is to get THE band and THE backline ready for THE show in THE room with THE monitors and THE Front-Of-House system. In my situation, a virtual soundcheck does none of that.

Why I’m Excited About The New X32-Edit

Alternative interfaces are best when they actually leverage the power of being alternative.

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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Even if you don’t use X32-Edit, the remote/ offline software for Behringer’s X32 series of consoles, I think you should keep reading. I say this because the point of this article is not to “dig deep” into the feature set of X32-Edit. Rather, I want to speak in (fairly) general terms about what console-remote software can get right, and not so right.

So, anyway…

I’m a publicly avowed fan of Behringer’s X18. I’m especially a fan of the control software, which I feel absolutely nailed what console control software should be. The ironic thing was that I felt the X18 application was markedly BETTER than the remote control/ offline editor for the X32 – and the X32 is the higher-tier product!

But why would that be?

Well, rather like the gentlemen of “Car Talk,” I have a theory – or, more correctly, a hypothesis. My guess is that the X18 software was better because it was free, from the very beginning, to act purely as a virtualized interface. The X32 series is solidly founded on consoles which have a real control surface, the only true exception being the X32 Core model. An X18 and its cousins, on the other hand, are built on the idea of having almost no physical controls at all.

With the X32, then, it was very easy for the software designers to choose to closely emulate the look and feel of the physical control surface. In the case of the X18, there was never any surface to copy – and the control implementation benefited greatly as a result. The software was always meant to be a connection to something abstract; DSP and digital console commands have no physical form that they are required to take. With this being the case, the presentation of the controls could be built to fully embrace the nature of a display device fundamentally decoupled from the console. The control layout can be rearranged to best leverage whatever screen size and geometry is available. Actions can be streamlined, contextualized, and made more powerful with the recognition that a user can apply multiple control gestures (click, long-click, double click, right-click, etc) on a single element. You can easily have a console overview that provides a ton of information, yet remains interactive.

The X18 software took great advantage of the above, which meant that I immediately recognized it as the way that X32-Edit SHOULD have worked. To be both clear and fair, the previous iterations of X32-Edit weren’t poor or unusable. What they were was “conflicted.” They sort of took advantage of what a large, decoupled view device could do for console usage, but they also often limited their behavior based on the limitations of the physical control surface’s display. Why make something less capable than it can be? In my mind, yes, there is a point in having familiarity – but getting powerful usage out of a console is more about understanding the concept of what you want to do than memorizing the button presses to do it.

Also, the old X32 remote implementation never showed as much overview as it could have with all the screen real-estate that was available, and it couldn’t really “flow” itself into different screen shapes and resolutions either. It had a basically fixed size and aspect-ratio, and if that didn’t take advantage of what was there…tough.

Thus, I am very, very happy with the new X32-Edit. It acts like a beefed-up version of the X18 application, taking all kinds of advantage of being a virtual window into the mixer. Everything seems to be more immediately accessible, and the display offers real customization in terms of what you’re looking at. The software isn’t trying to be a copy of the control surface; It’s trying to be a replacement for it.

And that has made X32-Edit into the software that it always should have been.

Double Hung Discussion

It’s not magic, and it may not be for you. It works for me, though.

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 heels of my last article, it came to may attention that some folks were – shall we say – perplexed about my whole “double hung” PA deployment. As can be the case, I didn’t really go into any nuance about why I did it, or what I expected to get out of it. This lead some folks to feel that it was a really bizarre way to go about things, especially when a simpler solution might have been a better option.

The observations I became aware of are appropriate and astute, so I think it’s worth talking about them.

Why Do It At All?

First, we can start with that logistics thing again.

When I put my current system together, I had to consider what I was wanting to do. My desire was to have a compact, modular, and flexible rig that could “degrade gracefully” in the event of a problem. I also had no desire to compete with the varsity-level concert systems around town. To do so would have required an enormous investment in both gear and transport, one that I was unwilling (and unable) to make.

What I’ve ended up with, then, is a number of smaller boxes. If I need more raw output, I can arrange them so that they’re all hitting the same general area. I also have the option of deploying for a much wider area, but with reduced total output capability. I wouldn’t have that same set of options with a small number of larger, louder enclosures.

That’s the basic force behind why I have the rig that I have. Next come the more direct and immediate issues.

The first thing is just a practical consideration: Because my transport vehicle isn’t particularly large, I don’t really have the necessary packing options required to “leave gear on the truck.” If I’m getting the rig out, I might as well get all of it out. This leads to a situation where I figure that I might as well find a way to deploy everything all the time. The gear is meant to make noise, not sit around. “Double hung” lets me do that in a way that makes theoretical sense (I’ll say more on why in a bit).

The second reason is less practical. I have a bit of a penchant for the unconventional and off-the-wall. I sometimes enjoy experiments for the sake of doing them, and running a double hung system is just that kind of thing. I like doing it to find out what it’s like to do it.

Running double hung is NOT, by any means, more practical than other deployments. Especially if you’re new to this whole noise-louderization job, going with this setup is NOT some sort of magical band-aid that is going to fix your sound problems. Also, if you’re getting good results with a much simpler way of doing things, going to the extra trouble very well may not be worth it.

At the same time, though, the reality of making this kind of deployment happen is not really all that complicated. You can do it very easily by connecting one pair to the left side of your main mix, and the other pair to the right side. Then, you just pan to one side or the other as you desire.

System Output And Response

Up above, I mentioned that running my system as a double hung made sense in terms of audio theory. Here’s the explanation as to why. It’s a bit involved, but stick with me.

I haven’t actually measured the maximum output of my FOH mid-highs, but Turbosound claims that they’ll each make a 128 dB SPL peak. I’m assuming that’s at 1 meter, and an instantaneous value. As such, my best guess at their maximum continuous performance, run hard into their limiters, would be 118 dB SPL at 1 meter.

If I run them all together as one large rig, most people will probably NOT hear the various boxes sum coherently. So, the incoherent SPL addition formula is what’s necessary: 10 Log10[10^(dB SPL/ 10) + 10^(dB SPL/ 10)…]. What I put into Wolfram Alpha is 10 Log10[10^11.8 + 10^11.8 + 10^11.8 + 10^11.8].

What I get out is a theoretical, total continuous system output of 124 dB SPL at 1 meter, ignoring any contribution from the subwoofers.

At this point, you would be quite right to say that I can supposedly get to that number in one of two ways. The first, simple way, is to just put everything into all four boxes. The second, not simple way is to put some things in some boxes and not in others. Either way, the total summed sound pressure should be basically the same. The math doesn’t care about the per-box content. So, why not just do it simply?

Because there’s more to life than just simply getting to the maximum system output level.

By necessity of there being physical space required for the speakers to occupy, the outer pair of enclosures simply can’t create a signal that arrives at precisely the same moment as the signal from the inner pair, as far as the majority of the audience can perceive. Placed close together, the path-length differential between an inner box and an outer box is about 0.0762 meters, or 3 inches.

That doesn’t seem so bad. The speed of sound is about 343 meters/ second in air, so 0.0762 meters is 0.22 ms of delay. That also doesn’t seem so bad…

…until you realize that 0.22 ms is the 1/2 cycle time of 2272 Hz. With the outer boxes being 1/2 cycle late, 2272 Hz would null (as would other frequencies with the same phase relationship). If everything started as measuring perfectly flat, introducing that timing difference into a rig with multiple boxes producing the same material would result in this transfer function:


Of course, everything does NOT start out as being perfectly flat, so that craziness is added onto whatever other craziness is already occurring. For most of the audience, plenty of phase weirdness is going on from any PA deployed as two, spaced “stacks” anyway. To put it succinctly, running everything everywhere results in even more giant holes being dug into the critical-for-intelligibility range than were there before.

Running double hung, where the different pairs of boxes produce different sounds, prevents the above problem from happening.

So, when I said that I was running double hung for “clarity,” I was not doing it to fix an existing clarity problem. I was preventing a clarity problem from manifesting itself.

Running absolutely everything into every mid-high, and then having all those mid-highs combine is a simple way to make a system’s mid-highs louder. It’s also a recipe for all kinds of weird phase interactions. These interactions can be used intelligently (in an honest-to-goodness line-array, for instance), but for most of us, they actually make life more difficult. Louder is not necessarily better.

More On Output – Enough Rig For The Gig?

For some folks reading my previous installment, there was real concern that I hadn’t brought enough PA. They took a gander at the compactness of the rig, and said, “There’s no way that’s going to get big-time sound throughout that entire park.”

The people with that concern are entirely correct.

But “rock and roll level everywhere” was not at all what I was trying to do.

The Raw Numbers

What I’ve found is that many people do NOT actually want everything to be “rock and roll” loud over every square inch of an event area. What a good number of events actually want is a comfortable volume up close, with an ability to get away from the noise for the folks who aren’t 100% interested. With this being the case, investing in a system that can be clearly heard at a distance of one mile really isn’t worthwhile for me. (Like I said, I’m not trying to compete with a varsity-level sound company.)

Instead, what I do is to deploy a rig that’s in close proximity to the folks who do want to listen, while less interested people are at a distance. Because the folks who want more volume are closer to the PA, the PA doesn’t have to have crushing output overall. For me, the 110 dB SPL neighborhood is plenty loud, and I can do that for the folks nearby – by virtue of them being nearby.

Big systems that have to cover large areas often have the opposite situation to deal with: The distance differential between the front row and the back row can actually be smaller, although the front row is farther away from the stacks in an absolute sense. With my rig, the people up close are probably about three meters from the PA. The folks far away (who, again, aren’t really interested) might be 50 meters away. That’s more than a 16-fold difference. At a bigger show, there might be a barricade that’s 10 meters from the PA, with the main audience extending out to 100 meters. That’s a much bigger potential audience, but the difference in path lengths to the PA is only 10-fold.

Assuming that the apparent level of the show drops 6 dB for every doubling of distance, my small show loses about 24 decibels from the front row to the folks milling around at 50 meters. The big show, on the other hand, loses about 20 dB. (But they have to “start” much louder.)

That is, where the rubber hits the road is how much output each rig needs at 1 meter. At the big show, they might want to put 120 dB SPL into the front seats. To do that, the level at 1 meter has to be 140 dB. That takes a big, powerful PA. The folks in the back are getting 100 dB, assuming that delays aren’t coming into the picture.

For me to do a show that’s 110 dB for the front row, my PA has to produce about 119 dB at 1 meter. That’s right about what I would expect my compact setup to be able to do, with a small sliver of headroom. At 50 meters, my show has decayed to a still audible (but not “rock show loud”) 86 dB SPL.

That’s what I can do, and I’ve decided to be happy with it – because the folks I work with are likely to be just as happy with that as I am. People don’t hire me to cover stadiums or have chest-collapsing bass. They hire me because they know I’ll do everything in my power to get a balanced mix at “just enough” volume.

The Specifics Of The Show

Ultimately, the real brass tacks are to be found in what the show actually needed.

The show did not need 110 dB SPL anywhere. It needed a PA that sounded decent at a moderate volume.

The genre was folksy, indie material. A 110 dB level would have been thoroughly inappropriate overkill. At FOH control, the show was about 80 – 90 dB, and that was plenty. There were a few times where I was concerned that I might have been a touch too loud for what was going on. In that sense, I had far more than enough PA for raw output. I could have run a single pair of boxes and been just fine, but I didn’t want to get all the speakers out of the van and not use them. As I said before, I chose “double hung” to use all my boxes, and to use them in the way that would be nicest for people’s ears.

If you’re curious about running a double hung setup, I do encourage you to experiment with it. Curiosity is what keeps this industry moving. At the same time, you shouldn’t expect it to completely knock you off your feet. If you have a good-sounding system that runs everything through one pair of mains, adding another pair just to split out some sources is unlikely to cause a cloud-parting, ligh-ray-beaming experience of religious proportions. Somewhat like aux-fed subwoofers, going double hung is a taste-dependent route to accomplishing reinforcement for a live event. For me, it solves a particular problem that is mostly logistical in nature, and it sounds decent doing it.

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.

The Sublime Beauty Of Cheap, Old, Dinged-Up Gear

Some things can be used, and used hard, without worry.

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 really do think that classy gear is a good idea in the general case. I think it sends a very important signal when a band walks into a room, and their overwhelming impression is that of equipment which is well-maintained and worth a couple of dollars. When a room is filled with boxes and bits that all look like they’re about to fail, the gigs in that room stand a good chance of being trouble-filled. In that case, musician anxiety is completely justified.

In the past, I have made updates to gear almost purely for the sake of “politics.” I don’t regret it.

At the same time, though, “new n’ shiny” equipment isn’t a guarantee of success. I’ve had new gear that developed problems very quickly, but more than that, new and spendy gear tends to make you ginger (in the timid sense). You can end up being so worried about something getting scratched up or de-spec’d that you forget the purpose of the device: It’s there to be used.

And that’s where the sublime beauty of inexpensive, well-worn equipment comes in. You’ve found a hidden gem, used it successfully in the past, will probably keep using it successfully in the future, and you can even abuse it a bit in the name of experimentation.

Case Study: Regular Kick Mics Are Boring

I’ve used spendy kick mics, and I’ve used cheap kick mics. They’ve all sounded pretty okay. The spendy ones are pre-tuned to sound more impressive, and that’s cool enough.

…but, you know, I find the whole “kick mic” thing to be kinda boring. It’s all just a bunch of iteration or imitation on making a large-diaphragm dynamic. Different mics do, of course, exhibit different flavors, but there’s a point where it all seems pretty generic. It doesn’t help that folks are so “conditioned” by that generic-ness – that is, if it doesn’t LOOK like a kick mic, it can’t be any good. (And, if it doesn’t COST like a kick mic, it can’t be any good.)

I once had a player inquire after a transducer I used on his bass drum. He seemed pretty interested in it based on how it worked during the show, and wanted to know how expensive it was. I told him, and he was totally turned OFF…by the mic NOT costing $200. He stated, “I’m only interested in expensive mics,” and in my head, I’m going, “Why? This one did a good enough job that you started asking questions about it. Doesn’t that tell you something?”

Anyway, the homogeneity of contemporary kick mic-ery is just getting dull for me. It’s like how modern car manufacturers are terrified to “color outside the lines” with any consumer model.

To get un-bored, I’ve started doing things that expose the greatness of “cheap, old, and dinged up.” In the past, I tried (and generally enjoyed) using a Behringer ECM8000 for bass drum duty. Mine was from back when they were only $40, had been used quite a bit, and had been dropped a few times. This was not a pristine, hardwood-cased, ultra-precision measurement mic that would be a real bear to replace. It was a knock-around unit that I had gotten my money out of, so if my experiment killed it I would not be enduring a tragedy.

And it really worked. Its small diameter made it easy to maneuver inside kick ports, and its long body made it easy to get a good ways inside those same kick ports. The omni pattern had its downsides, certainly. Getting the drum to the point of being “stupid loud” in FOH or the drumfill wasn’t going to happen, but that’s pretty rare for me. At an academic level, I’m sure the tiny diaphragm had no trouble reacting quickly to transients, although it’s not like I noticed anything dramatic. Mostly, the mic “sounded like a drum to me” without having to be exactly like every other bass-drum mic you’re likely to find. The point was to see if it could work, and it definitely did.

My current “thing” bears a certain similarity, only on the other end of the condenser spectrum. I have an old, very beat-up MXL 990 LDC, which I got when they were $20 cheaper. I thought to myself, “I wonder what happens if I get a bar-towel and toss this in a kick drum?” What I found out is that it works very nicely. The mic does seem to lightly distort, but the distortion is sorta nifty. I’m also freed from being required to use a stand. The 990 might die from this someday, but it’s held up well so far. Plus, again, it was cheap, already well used, and definitely not in pristine condition. I don’t have to worry about it.

Inoculation Against Worry Makes You Nicer

Obviously, an unworried relationship with your gear is good for you, but it’s also good in a political sense. Consternation over having a precious and unblemished item potentially damaged can make you jumpy and unpleasant to be around. There are folks who are so touchy about their rigs that you wonder how they can get any work done.

Of course, an overall attitude of “this stuff is meant to be used” is needed. Live-audio is a rough and tumble affair, and some things that you’ve invested in just aren’t going to make it out alive. Knowing this about everything, from the really expensive bits to the $20 mic that’s surprisingly brilliant, helps you to maintain perspective and calmness.

The thing with affordable equipment (that you’ve managed to hold on to and really use) is that it feeds this attitude. You don’t have to panic about it being scuffed up, dropped, misplaced, or finally going out with a bang. As such, you can be calm with people. You don’t have to jump down someone’s throat if they’re careless, or if there’s a genuine accident. It’s easy to see that the stuff is just stuff, and while recklessness isn’t a great idea, everything that has a beginning also has an end. If you got your money out of a piece of equipment, you can just shrug and say that it had a good life.

Have some nice gear around, especially for the purpose of public-relations, but don’t forget to keep some toys that you can “leave out in the rain.” Those can be the most fun.

A Public Decision

The public may or may not treat a place in accordance with what an establishment is called, or what that establishment looks like.

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’ve talked about this before. It’s a theme that I’ve returned to in various places. I’m covering it again because I think that it could do with having its own space. I find it to be especially relevant when the “periodic wave of blaming” comes back around to the idea that venues don’t promote live-music enough. I’ve covered that idea from different angles, with my current favorite approach being to point out that advertising is primarily for people who are already interested in something. (For instance, it makes sense to run broadcast-media ads for cars if you’re selling in the United States, because people in the USA are very likely to be car drivers.)

More to the point is pushing back against the idea that a place which hosts live-music can just decide to be a place where there’s a ton of “walk up” traffic. What I mean by “walk up traffic” is the phenomenon of people going to a public establishment for the establishment itself, rather than because a particular event is taking place at the location. The former is the traditional model for a bar, and the latter is the traditional model for a live-music venue. The point of consternation is the unspoken assumption that the public is magically compelled to abide by whatever label that the establishment has chosen for itself. If the public must accept that label, then the business not experiencing patronage consistent with that label must mean that the business is doing something wrong. If the business is doing something wrong, then getting something different to happen is just a matter of fixing whatever has gone awry. (The attitude seems to be that a proprietor can just advertise their way out of a difficulty.)

But this is not what my experience suggests. Over the past several years, I have come to strongly believe that the establishment’s chosen label is irrelevant in the face of what the public decides. Obviously, a business that is very strongly geared in one way or another will tend to be perceived in accordance with the setup. However, the lines are not always sharp and bright. Especially when an establishment has mixed methods for generating income, it can be easy to misjudge the primary view that the public takes of the business.

Is This A Music Place With A Drinking Service?

In the case of a bar or club, there are two major categories that the public can assign:

1) A place for drinking and socialization that offers music as an additional service.

2) A place for music that offers drinking and socialization as an additional service.

Whatever ends up being the primary pull to get folks in the door is what the establishment becomes. If the public’s consciousness labels a place as being a hangout – a spot you go to because it’s just generally fun to go there – then that’s how the business will operate. People just show up, and so booking live music is an exercise in figuring out what will keep the “walk-ups” in the building for a longer time. Flip that around, and the ballgame is very different. If the public decides that the business is a music venue that just happens to serve refreshments, then booking live music becomes the process of figuring out which bands draw a crowd. After that gets settled, the food and drink equation is worked to maximize what the already-drawn crowd will buy.

Different bands thrive in different environments. Groups that are more about getting paid for musicianship tend to be better served by a “hangout” model, whereas groups that are built on nurturing their own specific audience are more suited to a straight-up music venue.

Research Beats Assumptions

Where this becomes hairy is when assumptions are made. There are plenty of bands out there who are content to accept the designation that was originally applied by the proprietors, or the label that the band thinks is applicable. This can be a kind of self-deception. There are musicians who look at a place with a prominent bar, and immediately assume that the place runs on a walk-up traffic model. Remember, though, that the public has the final say. If the public has decided that the business is a music venue that happens to offer tasty food and cool beverages, they are unlikely to just show up to see what’s going on. Rather, they will stay home (or go somewhere else) until their favored band is booked in the room. THEN they’ll show up.

I suppose that a natural question to answer is how to tell one business from another. One starting point is to try to determine the focus regarding the band. A place with lots of production support (and/ or a stage that makes the band the focal point of the room) has a high chance of being treated as a music venue. A place where everything except music seems to be the focal point has a good probability of being perceived as a hangout. You have to couple this with a business query, though, because it’s possible for an establishment to be set up one way while the public treats it the opposite way. If you ask how many folks show up regularly on a particular night of the week, and get a firm number, then you might just be dealing with a place for drinking and socialization that offers music as an extra. (Geography matters of course, as well as whether or not there’s some kind of “house band” involved.) If your question returns an answer with a lot of variance, or just a general lack of certainty, you probably have a “music venue” on your hands.

In the end, the trick is to know how the public treats the business, and what works for you.

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.

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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.)

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.

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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:


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.


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.