Is Sound Subjective? Pt. 1 PA Tuning

Image courtesy of sergio_leenen

Image courtesy of sergio_leenen

The other day I was pursuing one of the many online sound groups and came across a question from someone who I believe to be a volunteer sound tech at a church. He was asking if sound was subjective. He had been dealing with various other leaders in the church and was struggling to come up with a consensus on whether there was “good” sound or if it’s all in the ear of the beholder. 

As someone who has been party to many of these discussions, I’m going to throw my thoughts out here about this topic. The more I’ve thought about it over the weekend, the more I want to break it up into two or three posts—we’ll see how it goes. Because I think we have a few things going on here. 

First I want to tackle the idea of PA tuning, because without a well-tuned PA, good sound is much harder to achieve. And, as you might expect, there are plenty of opinions on how to tune a PA. Second, I want to dig into the difference between “subjective sound” and “personal preference” when it comes to mixing. I think those concepts are often confused, and when we assert one as “correct,” we get into trouble. We’ll see where we go from there. 

You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can’t Tune A Fish

That’s probably one of my favorite album titles of all time (thanks, REO Speedwagon!). When it comes to PA tuning, you could ask 10 guys how to do it and get 11 answers. But it basically boils down to two main schools of thought. The first says the PA should be as linear as possible; that is, what comes out of the board comes out of the PA. When you look at a transfer function graph of a PA tuned like this, it should be pretty close to flat across the audio spectrum. 

Before we go any further, I want to stop and say that in an actual, live room, you’ll never get it totally flat. There will always be slight anomalies, but these should be fairly small. And if you do manage to get it totally flat, you can completely change that by moving the mic about 3 feet. So when I say a linear system is “flat,” I don’t mean the trace looks like it was drawn with a ruler. I mean it’s generally flat. 

The other school of thought is to build in some tonal shaping into the tune of the PA. This would normally include what some call the “bass haystack,” a 6-12 dB bump at the low end that looks somewhat like a haystack, and usually also includes some rolloff of the high frequencies. How much roll off and where it starts will vary, but it’s usually in the order of 1-2 dB per octave above 1-4 KHZ. 

Which is Right?

I’m sure there are those out there who will argue to the death about which method is correct (or have their own, far superior method). Because this is that important. [That was sarcasm] As is often the case, much of this is personal preference. I’ve heard and mixed on systems tuned both ways and to me and my ears I prefer the latter approach. I find these systems sound more musical and less harsh. However, good friends of mine will argue that mixing on a system tuned the way I like it is like mixing with blankets over the speakers. I can appreciate that. Their approach to mixing is different from mine and while we achieve similar results, we go about it differently. I think it’s possible to get a great sounding mix on either tune, but you have to approach the mix differently. 

I do believe folks in either camp will agree that the overall tune of the speakers should be accurate. Aside from a bass haystack (or not), and a subtle, linear roll off of the HF (or not), the system should pretty much deliver what comes out of the console. So while we may have be able to build consensus on a couple of different ways that are “correct” to tune a PA, there are a lot of ways to really screw it up.

You Can’t Tune What Wasn’t Designed To Be Tuned

Part of the problem stems from too many badly designed (or not at all designed) and engineered systems that simply cannot be tuned. What kind of system would this be? I’ve seen seating areas fully covered by 2-3 speakers that are at radically different distances from the seats. You can’t fix the comb filtering that will ensue with electronics. I’ve seen systems that use speakers that are entirely wrong for the space. Sure, they make sound, but it’s so uncontrolled there’s no way to make it sound good. Other times, entire seating sections are off-axis of the PA, and there’s no electronic fix for that. Those are all bad. 

I’ve also seen all sorts of crazy frequency response traces from systems I’ve been called in to fix. These are usually the result of someone with just enough knowledge to be dangerous going in and playing with all those cool EQ controls inside the DSP. I’ve also seen some, uh, interesting EQ curves on 31-bands on the master bus of consoles. Cleaning all that up makes a huge difference. 

The Bottom Line

While I think there is some room for preference and individual taste when it comes to tuning a PA, if you put 10 top notch sound guys in a room with a competent system tech, you could come up with a general consensus of what sounds good and would be easy to mix on. And it would be relatively easy to spot ways not to do it. 

Next up, is mixing a personal preference or is it subjective?

Today's post is brought to you by Elite Core Audio. Elite Core Audio features a premium USA built 16 channel personal monitor mixing system built for the rigors of the road. For Personal Mixing Systems, Snakes, and Cases, visit Elite Core Audio.


Turkey, bacon and smoke. What's not to love?

Turkey, bacon and smoke. What's not to love?

It’s Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. And as I reflect on the past year, I am again realizing that I have a lot to be thankful for. Yesterday, I was baking with my oldest daughter in preparation for today and I said, “It’s pretty amazing what’s happened in the last year, huh?” We’ve had so many changes in the last few months our stress-for-change score is pretty much off the charts. But as we settle in to our sixth month in our new home, in a new city, I think we’re beginning to realize the upsides of all that change.

A year ago, we had some pretty big stress in our family that almost caused us to cancel Thanksgiving. None of us felt like celebrating, and we almost gave up on it. But we decided that being thankful was a choice, and while things looked bleak, we chose to celebrate God’s goodness despite our situation.

A year later, most of those issues have been resolved, and we are set to enjoy a great day today. It’s nothing short of amazing what God has done in the last 12 months. Even as recently as six months ago, I couldn’t see where we’d be today, and yet, here we are. This is in no small part to the prayers of so many of my friends. You know who you are, and if I haven’t said it lately, I’m very thankful for all of you!

Every time I show someone around our new home, I’m reminded of how thankful I am for it. After being crammed into a perfectly adequate but really small town home in SoCal, it’s so, so nice to have some room to spread out and host guests. The fact that it costs us 1/2 as much per month as the other house is an added bonus. 

I’m thankful to have joined the staff of CCI Solutions just months before my old company imploded. I get to work with some insanely talented people who love the Church and love what they do. It’s great to be working along side my friends. 

I’m also grateful for those of you who read this website and listen to our podcasts. I hear from many of you, and really enjoy meeting you at trade shows. I’m thankful for what you are doing to further the Kingdom. I’m also thankful I get to play a small role in encouraging and equipping you to do your job. We live in fascinating times. 

Finally, I’m thankful to live in a city where smoking my Thanksgiving turkey is not only tolerated, it’s encouraged. Speaking of which, I need to get back to tending the smoker. Which is really just my way of coming up with an excuse to stand out there and enjoy the smell of hickory and oak turning my ordinary bird into something extraordinary. Happy Thanksgiving, y’all!


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Redefining Rest

With few exceptions, the tech guys I know are all blessed (or cursed, depending on the perspective) with a high work ethic. We all tend to live by the “get it done no matter what it takes” creed. That leads to long days, late nights and many weekends not taken off. Generally speaking, those are good traits. This country needs people who will work hard for a good cause. And since Sundays keep showing up with alarming regularity, a good tech guy or gal can be the difference between a service that connects people with God or one that’s distracting. 

The downside of this work ethic however, is that we almost never take time off to rest. I put myself in this category. I realized the other day that I haven’t taken a week off since March of 2014. That is way, way too long to be continually working. Sure, I’ve taken a long weekend here or a random day off there, but not an entire week. A full week is really what’s needed (sometimes more) to reset our internal systems to we can keep on going. But even when taking a week off, there is a problem.

Be Productive!

I keep hearing that phrase in my head. I want to be productive. And no matter how much I really just need to lay in bed until 9, enjoy a lazy morning and then take a hike through the woods, I have this clamoring to be productive and get stuff done. I want to build shelves in my closet, fix the gutter on the shower door, clean my office, move the website, reply to emails that are 5 months old (sorry if you’ve emailed me; I’m really behind…). I feel like I simply need to keep doing something. I need to rest, but I justify it by saying because it’s not “work,” I am getting rest. But I know it’s a lie.

Redefine Rest

Yesterday, I had a bit of a revelation. As I was struggling with how to spend my afternoon, it all of the sudden hit me that I need to re-think my time off. Instead of simply considering it time I’m not working—at my job—I need to create an actual goal I can accomplish. I’m task-driven. I like to figure out how I’m going to accomplish something and then do it. It’s why I’m good at my job. But it can be a problem when I simply need to chill out. Unless I redefine my goal.

Yesterday, it occurred to me that what I need to do is set a goal to rest. I need to remind myself that the point, the goal, the successful outcome of this week will be to get rest

I am tired. I have been running at a pace that is not sustainable and I need to do a better job of pacing myself. I need to take more regular breaks. I know all this. But the start of that process is to get some rest, plain and simple. So I decided that the only way I can consider this week a“success” is if I get a ton of rest. And that means not doing a whole lot. Sure, I’ll take some hikes, go to the range, spend a bunch of time in the kitchen with my wife and daughter and maybe I’ll even build those shelves. But the real goal of this week is to rest. All those tasks can wait.

You Need To Rest

Why am I telling you this? Partially it’s to keep myself accountable. When I put this out on the old inter-webs, it’s harder for me to start taking on a ton of work. But it’s also largely because I suspect there are some of you out there who need to hear this. You need a break. You need to give yourself permission to take a week off and sleep in. You need a whole week of doing nothing. But you struggle with it because you feel you need to be productive. 

So here you go; I give you permission to take a week off and rest. I’m following my own advice here; I was going to write this yesterday, but I went for a walk in the woods instead. Managed to get within about 12 feet of that deer up there. That was very relaxing. Except for my knees—they’re still sore... 

Relax, take time off, do things that are fun and restorative for you. The work will wait. Believe it or not, the world will keep on spinning even if we’re not there to make sure it does so on cue.

Today's post is brought to you by Elite Core Audio. Elite Core Audio features a premium USA built 16 channel personal monitor mixing system built for the rigors of the road. For Personal Mixing Systems, Snakes, and Cases, visit Elite Core Audio.