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!