Saturday, September 7, 2013

Bigger is Always Better?

new console I had a weird confluence of audio technology moments this past week. #1 One of the guys who has haunted my Minnesota audio life was amazed at the fact that Behringer and Presonus make “under $5,000” digital consoles. He was raving about the fact that he never imagined he’d be able to buy a 24-channel digital console for his budget in his lifetime. #2 The school where I used to teach bought an Avid D-Show console and one of the kids who will use that system on a regular basis posted a picture and mini-rave about the features available on his new toy. #3 I heard one of the worst sounding shows from one of the best bands ever butchered by a sound system in an outdoor venue that had no excuse for being anything but terrific. That show was “mixed” (to abuse the term) on an Avid D-Show. #4 A guy who I respect a lot advertised his upcoming analog audio class with the claim “once we master the discipline of 4-tracks, we'll do some 24-track sessions.”

When I replied to the first guy’s rave about being able to buy a “large scale” console for less than a grand, I said something along the lines of “you get what you pay for.” 24 full-featured channels with automation, dynamic processing, EQ, and other toys for less than $1,000 means some really cheap and unreliable components have been used in the design. Like it or not, great faders still cost about $100 each and pretty good motorized faders (digital or analog) are still $40 each in quantity. Do the math and you’ll see that nothing in the “pretty good” category can be used in the product we’re discussing. He replied with a rant about how I’m not only a motorcycle “bigot” (for considering cruisers and big, blubbering twins to be the awful engineering botch-up they are) but an audio bigot because I have some quality standards there also.

I always take his insults with a block of salt because he is about as close to stone-deaf as a human can get and still carry on a conversation. Still, his fascination with more gear than he can figure out how to use was a reminder of how goofy the live sound business has become. Pretty much everyone has to have a 24-or-more channel digital console to call themselves “professional” and hardly anyone knows how to do a guitar-and-songwriter folk act in a small coffee shop without fucking it up.

Which leaps us to #4 above. The idea that anyone living today is capable of mastering “the discipline of 4-track” recording is laughable. Mastering anything is a lifetime accomplishment and spending a few hours watching someone else play with a 1/2” tape deck won’t get students anywhere near being basically competent, let alone in the master territory. The same goes for these large-scale, over-featured live sound consoles. If you can’t do a decent simple show, you have no chance in hell of doing any better with more equipment than you know how to use. My deaf friend, for example, wouldn’t know where to start in creating a balanced mix if he only had to balance a voice and an acoustic guitar (very much like the deaf guy who is in charge of screwing up the sound at First Avenue). Adding dynamics, time-based processing, and dozens of channels and signal-path options would only make anything these guys do . . . worse.

So, I think it’s safe to assume that live music is only going to become more of a punishment than entertainment and the only revenue stream available to modern pop musicians will dry up like recorded music sales. Someday, I can only hope that musicians will discover that “less is more” in the sound reinforcement world, just like it is everywhere else in human activity.

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Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.