The Stars Too Distant

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

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

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

– Margaret Fuller

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

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

Huh, you say? Okay.

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

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

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

“Would you be able to handle an M7CL?”

“It’s a mixing console, isn’t it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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