Zen And The Art Of Dialing Things In

Good instruments through neutral signal paths require very little “dialing in,” if any.

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Not long ago, Lazlo and The Dukes paid me a visit at my regular gig. They were coming off a spectacularly difficult show, and were pleased-as-punch to be in a room with manageable acoustics, a reasonably nice audio rig, and a guy to drive it all. We got settled-in via a piecemeal sort of approach. At one point, we got Steve on deck and ran his dobro through the system. He and I were both pretty happy within the span of about 30 seconds.

Later, Steve gushed about how I “just got it all ‘dialed up’ so fast.” Grateful for the compliment, and also wanting to be accurate about what occurred, I ensured Steve that he was playing a good instrument. I really hadn’t dialed anything in. I pushed up the faders and sends, and by golly, there was a nice-sounding dobro on the end of it all. I did a little experimenting with the channel EQ for FOH, wondering what would happen with a prominent midrange bump, but that was pretty optional.

In terms of “pop-culture Zen,” Steve had gotten dialed in without actually being dialed in.


Step 1: The Instrument Must Be Shaped Like Itself

The finest vocal mics I’ve ever had have been the ones in front of terrific singers. The very best signal chains I’ve ever had for drums have been the ones receiving signals derived from drums that sound killer. I’ve hurriedly hung cheap transducers in front of amazing guitar rigs, and those rigs have always come through nicely.

Whatever the “source” is, it must sound correct in and of itself. If the source uses a pickup system, that system must produce an output which sounds the way the instrument should sound.

That seems reasonable, right? The first rule of Tautology Club is the first rule of Tautology Club.

Especially with modern consoles that have tons of processing available, we can do a lot to patch problems – but that’s all we’re doing. Patching. Covering holes in things that weren’t meant to have holes. Gluing bits down and hoping it all stays together for the duration of the show. Does that sound like a shaky, uncomfortable proposition? It does because it is.

But, if the instrument is making the right noise in the room, by itself, with no extra help, then it can never NOT make the right noise in the room. We can do all kinds of things to overpower and wreck that noise by way of a PA system, but the instrument itself will always be right. In contrast, an instrument which sounds wrong may potentially be beaten into shape with the rest of the rig…but the source still doesn’t sound right. It’s completely dependent on the PA, and if the PA fails to do the job, then you’re just stuck.

An instrument which just plain “sounds good” will require very little (if any) dialing-in, so long as…

Step 2: The Rig Is Shaped Like Everything

Another way to put this is that the instrument must be filled with itself, yet the FOH PA and monitor rig must be emptied of themselves. In technical terms, the transfer function of the PA system’s total acoustical output should ideally be flat “from DC to dog-whistles.”

Let’s say you want to paint a picture. You know that the picture will be very specific, but you don’t know what that picture will be in advance. What color of canvas should you obtain? White, of course. The entire visible spectrum should be reflected by the canvas, with as little emphasis or de-emphasis on any frequency range. This is also the optimal case for a general-purpose audio system. It should impose as little of its own character as is reasonably possible upon the signals passing through.

At a practical level, this means taking the time to tune FOH and monitor world such that they are both “neutral.” Unhyped, that is. Exhibiting as flat a magnitude response as possible. To the extent that this is actually doable, this means that an instrument which is shaped like itself – sonically, I mean – retains that shape when passed through the system. This also means that if there IS a desire to adjust the tonality of the source, the effort necessary to obtain that adjustment is minimized. It is much easier to, say, add midrange to a signal when the basic path for that signal passes the midrange at unity gain. If the midrange is all scooped out (to make the rig sound “crisp, powerful, and aggressive”), then that scoop will have to first be neutralized before anything else can happen. It’s very possible to run out of EQ flexibility before you get your desired result.

Especially when talking about monitor world, this is why I’m a huge advocate for the rig to not sound “good” or “impressive” as much as it sounds “neutral.” If the actual sound of the band in the room is appropriate for the song arrangements, then an uncolored monitor rig will assist in getting everybody what they need without a whole lot of fuss. A monitor rig that’s had a lot of cool-sounding “boom” and “snap” added will, by nature, prioritize sources that emphasize those frequency ranges (and this at the expense of other sources). This can take a good acoustical arrangement and make it poor, or aggravate the heck out of an already not-so-good band configuration. It also tends to lead to feedback problems, because the critical midrange gets lost. Broadband gain is added to compensate, which combines with the effectively positive gain on the low and high-ends, and it all can end with screeching or rumbling as the loop spins out of control.

The ironic thing here is that the “netural” systems end up sounding much more impressive later on, when the show is a success. The rigs that sound impressive with walkup music, on the other hand, sometimes aren’t so nice for the actual show.

So – an audio-human with a rig that is acoustically shaped like nothing is in command of a system that is actually shaped like everything. Under the right circumstances, this means that a signal through the rig will be dialed in without any specific dialing-in being required.