How many times have you heard this phrase: “If we had a digital sound board, we could save so much time on sound checks and it would sound the same every week.” Or this one: “We have a digital board, so why does my monitor mix change every week?” Or my personal favorite: “Are the sound guys not saving the settings each week, because it’s so different every weekend…”
These questions and comments have one thing in common—they all assume sound is an electrical process that, once converted to bits is entirely reproducible week after week. Sorry to dash your hopes, but nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is, sound is a physical process that happens to have an electrical and digital component. The real reason the mix doesn’t sound the same this week as it did last week is simple. Today is not last week. Here’s what I mean.
Sound, being a physical process, is subject to the physical world. Last week was warmer or colder than this week. The humidity was different. The strings on the guitar were newer (or older if recently changed). The singer was more or less tired last week. The drum heads were tighter or looser. You get the point. The fact is, then is not now.
I have seen mixes change dramatically from one service to the next, even though “nothing” had changed. In fact, everything has changed (well almost everything—we didn’t touch the electronics). When I was at Crosswinds, we did a Saturday night service (that was preceded by a afternoon rehearsal), and 2 services on Sunday morning. By the time we got to Saturday night’s service, the room was warmed up and we had snuck up on a good mix. In the morning, however, it could be 10 degrees cooler in the room. The 9 was often lighter in attendance. In the summer it was more humid, in the winter it was drier. When we started up in the morning, everything was different. Then came the 10:45. After getting the early morning service on track, the whole mix was shot for the live walk in at the 10:45. What happened? Everything changed. The room was now warmed up, and full.
You see, having a digital board doesn’t take away the responsibility to conduct a proper sound check. It doesn’t free the engineer from having to mix. It doesn’t allow the musicians to not communicate what they want in their mixes. Even with a digital board, there’s a lot of work to do. Don’t get me wrong, I really like having an M7 here at CPC. It enables us to quickly switch from one type of service to the next without a lot of re-patching. But really, that’s it. The settings we recall each week are nothing more than a starting point. In fact, I’ve been advocating that our starting points start with zeroed out gain and monitor settings. Why? So those get done each week the right way. At first, that may seem like it’s counter-intuitive, going backwards from having a baseline of last week’s “good mix.” I’ll say it again; this week is not last week. Even if the band is the exact same week to week, stuff changes.
In fact, the only time I would advocate starting with last week’s set up is if the entire band was exactly the same. Then and only then could you even consider it. If only one instrument or vocalist changes, you are better off starting from scratch. Still, I would argue that you’re better off starting from scratch each week (from a gain and monitor standpoint anyway) all the time.
So what about EQ? What about it? It changes with time also. Think you have a guitar dialed in exactly this week? Guess what, if the guitarist plays during the week, it’s going to sound different come next Sunday. Same with vocals. Very few singers can perfectly replicate the same vocal performance week after week. Not to mention the fact that room is going to vary based on temperature, humidity, loading, etc..
So am I completely dismissing the recallable set ups of digital boards? Not at all. Just don’t buy into the myth (lie?) that if you save this weekend’s settings it will all be the same next week. ‘Cause it won’t. Don’t think that if you spend $20,000-50,000 on a digital board that any monkey can sit back there and make great sounding mixes after someone who knows what they’re doing has “set it all up.” There is still no substitute for a good FOH engineer, and for ongoing training to make them better. And if the person who is sitting behind the mixing desk week to week can’t hear the difference between a good mix and a bad one, no amount of digital recall-ability is going to fix that.