Industry standards are helpful reference points, but are not necessarily the best possible approach.
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.
Remember my article about a patch-scheme for a “festival style” show? It actually raised an eyebrow or two. A fellow audio-human (who works on much, much, much larger shows than I do) asked me why my patch list was backwards from what everybody else does. His concern was that, in the festival situations he finds himself in, my “upside down” patch would monkeywrench things if accommodated. It would just be so much easier for everyone if I followed the industry standard of (I guess?) starting with the drums – “kick is channel 1,” in other words.
My response was that, if I had things laid out one way, and a guest engineer came in who wanted them to be another way, then I would be happy to set up any softpatch desired. What I neglected to add at the time was that, if I was “that one guy” where everyone else wanted a different order, I would be happy to just use the standard patch. It wouldn’t ruin my day at all, and it would make things easier for everybody else.
To be open and frank, though, there was something else I wanted to say. I censored myself because I think there’s a place for diplomacy and courtesy, especially when the conversation venue (Facebook comments) isn’t really good for nuance.
What I wanted to say was, “Because my way is better. Why would you put the drums first? They’re the bottom of the priority list.” (The drums are important, but in a small-venue context they usually need the least help from the PA to be in the right spot.)
What was said and unsaid in that conversation is a microcosm of how I feel about industry standards. There are industry standard mics, techniques, PA styles, stage layouts, and whatever else, and they exist for good reasons. Knowing what those reasons are is a good thing, because it’s part of understanding the craft. At the same time, though, industry standards rarely equate to “the best.” They tend to equate to “works acceptably in a wide range of situations.”
58, 57, IBM
Because IBM was known. Large numbers of people, from the users to the admins, had experience with them. Everybody knew what to expect. They knew that appropriate software would be available, or could be developed by folks that were easy to find. They knew the parts would be there. They knew they could get work done with IBM, even if the computers weren’t revolutionary. They knew that IBM was readily respectable by everyone that they wanted to impress.
In the same way, you could say that “Nobody ever got fired for buying SM-58s and SM-57s.” They’re industry standard mics because they’re built to withstand live shows, basically sound like what they’re pointed at, and literally everybody can get them to work in a reasonable way. They’ve been around forever, and have been used by everybody, their dog, and their dog’s fleas. Even if somebody doesn’t know the model numbers, asking them to draw a picture of a vocal mic and an instrument mic will probably get you an SM-58 and an SM-57.
But they’re not the best at all times. I’ve heard a lot of 58s that imparted far too much low-mid garble to a singer’s voice, and I’ve never once easily gotten as much gain-before-feedback out of a 58 as I have an ND767a. I’ve miced up tons of amplifiers with all kinds of mics that weren’t SM-57s, and I’ve been perfectly happy about 99% of the time. I’ve done the same with drums. If “sounds decent” is the main priority, then I have a bunch of mics that do that AND take up less space than a big ol’ 57. There are other mics out there that work better for me, in terms of the total solution offered.
This isn’t to say that great things can’t happen with the SM series! I once heard an artist in a coffee shop with a keyboard amp and a 58-style mic. It was the most perfect setup for her voice that you could imagine. I wasn’t expecting what I heard, but she made it work beautifully. Sometimes, “industry standard” and “perfect for this particular application” DO line up.
My point is, though, that in a broad sense the “hidden secret” of being industry standard means being “extraordinarily average.” Thoroughly inoffensive. Safe. Something people won’t be fired for specifying and purchasing.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but for people like me…well, it’s kinda boring.
Sometimes You Need To Be Bored
That last sentence might seem a bit incendiary, depending on who you are. It’s very important to note that being un-boring is a luxury that’s unavailable to many in this business.
A good example is what happens when a venue wants to spend time working with acts that regularly tour at the regional level or above. To be acceptable to those acts (especially if they bring production techs but only minimal gear) requires that the PA and lighting rigs be easy to handle by most folks. The personnel working for the house might be excited about the new mixing consoles that lack a physical control surface, but that’s not something that everybody is prepared to accept. There are plenty of audio humans who just aren’t ready for the idea of having no physical controls at all, whereas probably every sound tech is fine with a console that has a control surface. That’s why control surfaces are still the industry standard. The new surfaceless consoles are nifty, but not for everybody, so a bit of “boring-ness” is required in order for the venue to play well with others.
Industry standards are accepted everywhere, which makes them a safe bet. Non-standards are “risky,” because they tend to conform to the desires of a smaller number of people. Risky is often exciting, however, because that’s where innovation occurs. Iterating on the standard makes the standard more refined, but it rarely produces breakthroughs. It’s entirely possible to, say, “bend the rules” on mixing console cost vs. functionality if you’re willing to do weird things (like dispense with a control surface). Some people will get it, and some people will think you’re crazy. Catering to your own brand of crazy is acceptable if, like me, a guest engineer even being in the room only happens about 0.8% of the time. It’s not acceptable at all if a band tech is going to be “driving” on a regular basis.
Why I’m Not Particularly Interested In The Industry Standard
I personally tend to shrug my shoulders at industry standards for the same reason that people shrug their shoulders in general: There’s almost nothing exciting about what’s been done a million times. Since I currently don’t have to meet riders or provide an easy environment for other techs to work in, I have the luxury of basically doing whatever I want as long as it works.
I love giving “upstarts” and bargain items a chance, because it’s fun to see just how far a piece of gear can go if you spend some time with it.
I don’t fight feedback with per-mix graphic EQs, because the idea of hacking up a whole mix to solve a problem with one input seems crazy to me.
I use a homebrew console because I wanted to have a virtual, independent monitor-world, and nobody made a traditional console I could afford that would do that in the way I wanted.
I don’t use a control surface for mixing because I’ve never cared about moving a whole bunch of faders at once.
I’ve never personally owned an SM-58 or 57, because they just aren’t interesting to me.
I’ve stuffed a cheap measurement mic inside a kick drum on several occasions, because I wanted to see how it would work. (It was actually pretty okay.)
And I just generally roll my eyes at how so much of show production, which used to be a kind of “outlaw” business that pushed boundaries and did things for the fun of it, has become a beige, corporatized affair of trying to basically be like everybody else. It’s like cars, you know? They used to be cool, distinctive works of art, and now every car company is essentially making the same three boring-as-dirt sedans, three bland SUVs, and three unremarkable pickup trucks, because it’s all run by “money” people now who are terrified of not being more profitable next quarter and thus will never do anything interesting YOU GUYS LET ME KNOW IF I’M RAMBLING, ‘KAY?
Now, you can bet that, if I ever went to work at an AV company or production provider, I would be willing to conform to industry standards. In that environment, that would be the appropriate thing to do.
But right now, I have the freedom to be weird and have fun – so I intend to enjoy myself.
I’ll say it again. “Industry standard” doesn’t necessarily mean “the best.” It just means “people will accept this about 95% of the time.”