As a long-time user of custom-molded in-ears, I've had silicone squeezed into my ears on more than one occasion. And while it's not terribly uncomfortable, and it is a serviceable way to get a good impression, it's not terribly high-tech. The folks at Ultimate Ears—the ones who are already 3-D printing the shells—have come up with a way to scan the inside of your ears with light and come up with a digital representation that is accurate to within 200 microns. You have to see this!
Last weekend I had a cool opportunity to attend a very unique concert. It was unlike anything I had seen and I was grateful for the chance to go. As much as it was a cool musical experience, it was a less than stellar sound experience.
As I sat there listening to the choir and orchestra members position themselves on stage—and I could hear them clearly because all the mic’s were hot—it occurred to me that there is a vast gulf between knowing what a given piece of gear or setting does and why you change it.
Leaving all the mic’s on is just one example. There were numerous EQ challenges and many times when the drums more than overpowered the main instrument. In fact, it sounded a lot like the sound guy dialed up each mic to a good level, and left the faders at unity. So while he technically had good gain structure, he had a less than ideal mix.
The Great Divide
I understand this challenge. On the one hand, I have seen many sound techs who know music, but had no real understanding on how the equipment works. So while they may be able to force some sort of mix together, they typically lack the technical skill set to make it great.
On the other hand, I’ve seen as many (probably more) sound guys who really have no understanding of music but can quote specs, theory and technical gobbely-gook all day long. But they lack the knowledge of why any of that is important.
Science and Art
It’s true that we need to have a firm grasp on the technology we’re using to accomplish the goal of a great mix. But I think even more than that, we must understand the art. The craft. And that is the hardest to teach. I’ve said for a long time that I can teach someone with a modicum of technological understanding how to use the technology. But they have to have an understanding of how music works in the first place if they expect to be a great engineer.
I believe one of the reasons mixing comes so easily to me is that I grew up listening to music. I bought my first pair of headphones at age 9 and spend the entire summer in front of the hi-fi listening to records. Throughout Jr. & Sr. High, I spent at least 3-4 hours a day listening to music.
Knowing what it is supposed to sound like is the first step to getting it there. But there’s even more. Knowing when to mute mic’s and when to open them up is another skill that takes time to learn. There are two ways to learn this—spending hundreds of hours behind the console making hundreds of mistakes (and hopefully learning from them) or being mentored by someone who already did that. You can imagine which way I think is better.
In the climactic scene of Indian Jones, the villain drinks from the wrong chalice and turns to black ash. The wise old sage says, “He chose poorly.” When choosing people to mix, I have found it’s generally preferable to chose understanding of music over pure technical chops.
This is not to say that highly technical people can’t mix, it’s just that they usually take a lot longer to get there. And while it may take a musically literate person a little while to get up to speed with the technology, they will usually be better engineers in the end.
The best scenario of course, is a mixture of both. Those folks are rare, however. When it comes to putting up a great mix, knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing is probably more important than knowing what you’re doing. At least that’s my experience…
This week it's all about wireless spectrum. We're about to lose another 50 or so MHz of wireless space, and our panel of experts will help us understand what that means for us. Time to bone up on your wireless knowledge!
This is a topic that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. It came up last week when I had the opportunity to attend at the Seeds Conference at Church on the Move. I heard it in several of the sessions, and I experienced it all week long. Everywhere we went on campus, people were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about helping us out. There is a joy in serving at COTM that seeps out like the fragrance of a flower. We all know that everything rises and falls based on leadership, and this joy in helping others clearly comes from Pastor Willie George himself. Throughout the week, I saw him sitting and talking with various pastors and church planters. Unhurried and undistracted, he encouraged those guys with no expectation of anything in return.
The creative elements of the conference were also authentic. If you look closely, and talk to the team, you will find out that much of the production elements are based on something else. Whitney George said in his session that there is nothing new, but there are new things through you. Those guys are masters at taking something they saw somewhere else and adapting it to their situation.
Don’t Simply Copy
One of the big mistakes I see churches doing is going to another church or a conference, seeing something cool and trying to straight-up copy it. That seldom works out well, mainly because the church doing the copying usually doesn’t have the resources of the big church or the conference.
The other problem with simple copying is that everything looks different. The people who are best at adapting ideas will make sure that whatever it is they are doing fits the ethos of the church. When you try to copy without adaptation, your people will feel the disconnect between what the church should be and what it does looks like.
Know Who You Are
Of course, being authentic presupposes that you know who you are as a church. I feel like many churches today suffer from multiple personality disorder. The lobby was lifted from one church, the sanctuary from another, the set from another still, the kids area from still another. Because all the ideas came from different places, there is no consistency. And when the various ministries are silos unto themselves, there is no consistency of message there either.
As the technical leader, you may not be able to solve all your church’s split personality issues, but you can be sure that everything you do on your stage matches the mission and vision of the church. This means adapting ideas to suit your church’s culture.
Andrew Stone and I both grew up in the ’80s and share a fondness for lush, rich reverbs with long tails. Having heard his mixes and talked with him about his process, I set about to take the essence of his technique and apply it to my church. Now, you have to know that there was not a fondness for long reverbs at my church. In fact, it was more like whatever the opposite of fondness is.
Thus, I couldn’t just layer up three or four reverb units with 5-8 second reverb tails on them like he does. But what I was going for was the essence of his technique. The thing I found so intriguing was the layering effect of stacking multiple reverbs, each to deliver part of the frequency spectrum. So that’s what I did. I stacked up a few reverb units, played around with the high and low pass settings, and pretty much everything else until I came up with a great sounding reverb that didn’t sound like too much reverb to my leadership.
Had I simply insisted on copying the technique with the justification of “this is what COTM does…” it would not have gone well. But as it was, everyone loved the sound, and I was able to create a more expansive vocal sound that still fit with our church’s ethos. Was it my own personal preference? Not necessarily. Was I happy with the result? Yes.
Of course, being authentic takes time, energy, thought and work. Which is probably why so few bother. But if you’ll put the time in, the results will be worth it.