Sunday, November 25, 2012

We've Always Done It This Way

Old ways are the best, this is how we always do it, if it’s not broken don’t fix it. All of these are examples of what any new engineer on the scene hears from other more seasoned veterans, and that’s perfectly fine, to a point. When do we reach a point though where it must be accepted that for as fast as today’s technology develops and then becomes outdated, is it not possible that our practices and personal stamps on the industry might need revising as well? As an example, at a show last month, the FOH and monitor mix engineer, was setting up the board for the show, much the same way he has done for over twenty-five years. When I asked him what he planned on doing for each band, he looked at me like I had spoken another language, as if to say, “What do you mean?” That’s when it hit me, this person is still mixing the same way he did when I first worked with him in the early 1990’s, with total disregard to the last few decades of advancements in our industry. In order to keep up with the new types of artists and their constant blending of genres, one must keep up with the newest and best ideas from all available resources and build your own “bag of tricks”.

The days of the walls of PA’s, the massive amounts of power required to push the sound, the huge stacks of guitar amps, all of the large amounts of equipment required to put on a show, especially an outdoor event are long gone. According to some of the pros, one in particular, it is accountants that began the demand for smaller, more portable, and cost-effective replacements for the large amounts of equipment and the cost to transport it. This is the theory of one of the most respected names in the industry, Bruce Jackson. He states in an article he wrote for MixMagazine online, The Live Sound Industry Grows Up (and slims down) that, “It's expensive to cart truckloads of heavy speakers around the world, let alone unload them, put them up for the show and put them back in the truck to go to the next gig. I guess too many acts went out on the road for an extended tour, only to find that production costs ate up profits. The pencil-pushers eventually came into positions of power and demanded more efficiency from sound companies, and they responded.” The sound companies certainly did, slimming them down from big heavy arrays, to “tall, slender and lightweight columns of beautifully engineered loudspeaker technology, known as line arrays”, said Jackson. The line arrays of today are lightweight, coaxing each speaker to work with it’s neighbor, to create an even sound for the entire audience, and delivering unbelievable amounts of control of the coverage pattern. Such as in the case of the Clair Brothers line arrays, world famous for their innovation and technology to meet todays live sound needs. US based JBL also has a huge selection for all audio needs as well, still staying lightweight and powerful.

As another example, while it is not necessary to utilize a fully digital board, the newer advancements have been responsible for making it easier for an engineer to go in and make adjustments with surgical precision. The older mixers as they got more complicated adding more stages of electronics to increase routing, bussing, patching and other functions, the sound quality was degraded. Newer analog and all most digital consoles of today have solved this problem by using better internal connections, and enough “internal mathematical precision to deliver mixes with zero degradation,” Jackson also stated. However, all digital consoles are not created equal, so it is best to give them a listening test before investing. Also with the advent of the digital age, processors have become the real winners. Previously unavailable signal processing options such as digital delay, reverb, AutoTunes, pitch shifters, and new filter shapes for EQ’s, again allowing for that surgical precision previously unheard of. Processors of choice by the pros vary; however, some of my favorites are the dbx Drive Rack220i, Empirical Labs EL8Distressor, the Lexicon MX400XL, and the Solid State Logic XRack Stereo EQ.

Knowing all of this new technology that is available, while not forgetting some gear is classic and always present because it still works just as well now as it did twenty-five years ago, should make for a homerun on every show, but sadly there are those that are still clinging to the old practices and mixing the same way they did then too. In order to take a show from mediocre to unforgettable, it is vital for a production company to stay current and knowledgeable about advancements in the music industry. We must not be threatened or afraid of new ideas and new ways of getting things done; in an economy that doesn’t permit mistakes or an audio foul up. The difference between your band plugging into the house system and playing despite the acoustics and the guy behind the board versus properly setting up and playing with the full accompaniment and the power of the system is what will make or break not just a show, but the artist as well. New technology, new and fresh ideas mixed with old standbys should be what today’s engineer blends for that perfect balance of the best ways to make a show rock.

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