Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Why Digital Presets Aren’t All That

Recently, I was asked to stop by a church in the area to work on the EQ for the pastor’s mic. Their volunteer sound guys were having trouble getting it dialed in and they needed help. Since they work on an M7-CL, it would be a simple matter to dial up some EQ and compression, save it to a library and go on my way. Or so it would seem.

On the way down there, I kept thinking of all the disclaimers I needed to offer before I left. Then I got to thinking about how many discussions I’ve had with people who can’t figure out why when they recall last week’s settings, everything sounds different. The more I thought about it, the more it turned into a blog post. So here we are.

Can we just put this out there; saving your settings on a digital console does not guarantee it will sound exactly the same next week. In fact, I can pretty much promise you it will sound different next week. That was one of the things I told the pastor of the church. The settings I saved will get their sound guys into the ballpark, but I wouldn’t expect it to be spot on.

Consider just a few of the variables that affect how a PA sounds (this applies to house PAs, monitors, and in ears):

  • Temperature
  • Humidity
  • Barometric pressure
  • How full (or empty) the room is
  • Where people are sitting this week
  • How old (or new) the guitar strings are
  • How hard (or soft) someone is playing (or singing, or speaking)
  • How late they stayed up last night
  • Mic placement
  • Ear fatigue (especially true for monitor mixes)

When you look at that list, it’s hard to imagine that a preset library would be of any use at all! We can be sure that all or most of those variables will be different from the time we saved the preset. And they don’t have to be different by much to make a big difference. I once mixed in a church that had such poor acoustics, we had to start the mix over almost from scratch every service because we had a different number of people sitting in different spots. It was amazing how much that impacted the sound. And that’s just one variable; change four of them and you have a minefield of possibilities.

Does this mean that saving presets in libraries is a useless practice? Of course not. What it means is that we shouldn’t be surprised when it isn’t quite right the second we hit recall. We keep a library of EQ curves for our pastors on different mics in our room, and typically I find they get us about 80% of the way there. Usually we do some minor tweaking as he starts speaking and by the first point, he’s dialed in. Even with that, I made some significant changes from Saturday night to Sunday morning this past weekend.

It’s not that presets, scenes and snapshots are useless; we simply need to be aware of their limitations. Sometimes people promote digital consoles as a “store it once and you never have to tweak or mix again” solution; and that’s completely false advertising. There will always be a need for at least some level of talent behind the desk. Presets can help volunteers get closer, faster; but the in no way are the magic bullet.

I’ve had, how shall we say, “discussions,” with musicians on Sunday morning in which they are convinced we completely changed their monitor mix overnight (I normally blame it on the same gnomes who come in during the week and tangle up my cables). In fact, the signal path is exactly the same as it was the night before; however, everything else has changed. Sometimes the changes are small enough and the musician less discerning and it doesn’t matter. Other times, it sounds like a new mix. The solution, is to work through the problem, get them what they need and move on. Setting the expectation up front goes a long way to keep everyone on an even keel.

So the next time someone asks why the sound is different today than last week (or night, or service) tell them very simply–everything has, in fact, changed!

8 Comments

  1. GsimmonsSC@gmail.com

    Excellent post! I would also like to point out that the same applies to analog boards as well. I’m currently volunteering at a smaller church with an analog A&H setup.

    While training other sound volunteers, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve stressed “you will need to make adjustments when the service/event starts”. The EQ settings for various singers, speakers and instruments that worked last week won’t work today b/c there are more/less soft objects in the room and it’s raining outside so the humidity is very high. Not to mention, somebody bumped the heat up again!

    Funny that you mention musicians. It’s almost weekly that we have to remind both the musicians and the music minister that the mix will be DIFFERENT once the room fills up. So, there’s no use creating the “perfect mix” in an empty room. We’ll get a good balanced sound, but leave the tweaking for the first song with a full room. Same with the pastor.

  2. GsimmonsSC@gmail.com

    Excellent post! I would also like to point out that the same applies to analog boards as well. I’m currently volunteering at a smaller church with an analog A&H setup.

    While training other sound volunteers, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve stressed “you will need to make adjustments when the service/event starts”. The EQ settings for various singers, speakers and instruments that worked last week won’t work today b/c there are more/less soft objects in the room and it’s raining outside so the humidity is very high. Not to mention, somebody bumped the heat up again!

    Funny that you mention musicians. It’s almost weekly that we have to remind both the musicians and the music minister that the mix will be DIFFERENT once the room fills up. So, there’s no use creating the “perfect mix” in an empty room. We’ll get a good balanced sound, but leave the tweaking for the first song with a full room. Same with the pastor.

  3. phil@philrowley.net

    The one thing I notice time and again is that vocalists are typically at their weakest on Sunday morning rehearsal. I almost don’t even bother adjusting or mixing them until rehearsal is well under way. This is a good reminder to us all that its never a “set it and forget it” game. Reminds me of a time that I ran sound for a wedding once at an unfamiliar church. I was scoping out the setup and the pastor went ballistic on me because “we had that all set PERFECT from last night and now you’ve gone and changed things!” Then I told him that the church I mix at has about 3 times the knobs and buttons that his 16-ch.Mackie has. He got really quiet then. 🙂

  4. phil@philrowley.net

    The one thing I notice time and again is that vocalists are typically at their weakest on Sunday morning rehearsal. I almost don’t even bother adjusting or mixing them until rehearsal is well under way. This is a good reminder to us all that its never a “set it and forget it” game. Reminds me of a time that I ran sound for a wedding once at an unfamiliar church. I was scoping out the setup and the pastor went ballistic on me because “we had that all set PERFECT from last night and now you’ve gone and changed things!” Then I told him that the church I mix at has about 3 times the knobs and buttons that his 16-ch.Mackie has. He got really quiet then. 🙂

  5. jblasongame@gmail.com

    I find the microphone placement issue is a huge one. This is especially true of the pastor's mic. With the inverse-square law, if the microphone is off by half an inch on their cheek from how it was previously you may have to make some adjustments just because the mic placement on the Pastor/speaker's head is different. And no matter how good you train your pastor to try and get it in the same place every time, it will sound different. Sometimes the difference is subtle, but sometimes an inch is like a mile!

  6. jblasongame@gmail.com

    I find the microphone placement issue is a huge one. This is especially true of the pastor's mic. With the inverse-square law, if the microphone is off by half an inch on their cheek from how it was previously you may have to make some adjustments just because the mic placement on the Pastor/speaker's head is different. And no matter how good you train your pastor to try and get it in the same place every time, it will sound different. Sometimes the difference is subtle, but sometimes an inch is like a mile!

  7. mike@churchtecharts.org

    Jeremy,
    That's a great point. There are so many factors to consider, and that is just one of them. It's also a reason I like the new DPA d:fine so much; it's much easier to get it in almost the exact same spot every week. With a lav, good luck!
    mike

  8. mike@churchtecharts.org

    Jeremy,
    That's a great point. There are so many factors to consider, and that is just one of them. It's also a reason I like the new DPA d:fine so much; it's much easier to get it in almost the exact same spot every week. With a lav, good luck!
    mike

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