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The "Right" Sound

I've been having more conversations lately about trying to get sound "right." I've spoken with more than one Sr. Pastor or other church leader who just wants the sound to be "right," but doesn't really have a handle on how complicated the task of getting there is. In some conversations, they seem to intimate that there is a knob labeled "right," and all we have to do is turn it up and we're done. You and I know this is just plain silly, but I can understand their point of view.

For example; why does it take them 20 hours to come up with a 30 minute sermon? I mean really? Based on how I write, I'm quite sure I could write 30 minutes of dialog in under 3 hours. What are you doing with the other 17 hours, pastor? Surfing YouTube?

When we don't understand each other's worlds, it's easy to make assumptions. They tend to assume that the shiny new digital board mixes the sound all the way to "right" by itself, and we assume they're slow.

In an effort to bridge the gap, I'm always trying to come up with ways to explain the complexity of what we do. One of my latest illustrations comes out of my math-geekness. I started adding up the number of adjustments we make on any given Sunday to make the sound good. Then I started adding up the number of parameters we have at our disposal, out of which we make adjustments. Then it occurred to me that each of those parameters has a wide range of values. And I wondered what that big number added up to.

So I did what anyone would do, I built a spreadsheet. Starting with the basic parameters on our SD8 (I excluded multi-band comps and dynamic EQ, as well as inserted GEQs and FX) and started adding up how many things we can adjust (HPF, LPF, EQ, Comps, Gates, Auxes, Fader). In our current configuration, that number is 43. I then assigned an approximate number of values to each parameter.

Now this is somewhat subjective; take EQ gain for example. If you have 18 dB boost or cut, how many steps are there? The SD8 works in .1 dB. But who among us can hear .1 dB? So I took it to 1 dB, thus I have four EQ gains with 36 possible settings (actually 37, counting 0). I did the same with Q and frequency, then worked my way through the channel strip.

Any guesses as to how many values we have per channel strip? Remember, this is our board in our configuration and I've made some subjective judgements as to the number of values per parameter. Nonetheless, I came up with just over 2,000 values per channel!

Of course, we don't have one channel. In our case, we normally run between 32-40 channels on a weekend, depending on band configuration, number of speaking mics, etc.. Total it all up, and you are at 65,000+ possible values! 65,000! Some combination of those values will make it sound "right." And as my friend Roy says, "A lot more of them will make it sound wrong!"

I never really got a handle on permutations and combinations in math class so perhaps someone can help me out here. But if you take 43 parameters with 2000 possible values and spread it out over 32 channels, I'm guessing the total number of possible combinations runs into the billions. Math is like that.

Essentially, we have to pick one of a billion possible combinations (for each song, mind you) to make it sound "right."

Of course, this is a vast over-simplification; you can likely be 1 dB off on your guitar EQ and still be in the "right" ballpark. But when you look at this this way, it starts to become a little more clear that this is way harder than it looks.

And, we've not even begun to talk about mic choice or placement; reverb and other effects settings (heck, I didn't even count up output parameters and values!); or even the basic musical artistry that separates technically competent engineers from great engineers.

Feel free to pass this on to your Sr. Pastor if you're struggling to help him understand the complexities of what you do. I have the opportunity to run this by our Sr. and Exec. Pastor at the end of next month; I'll let you know how it goes.

Have you been successful in communicating the complexities of your job with your pastor? If so, what's your secret?

Today's post is brought to you by the Roland R-1000. The R-1000 is a multi-channel recorder/player ideal for the V-Mixing System or any MADI equipped console or environment. Ideal for virtual sound checks, multi-channel recording, and playback.