It doesn’t feel that long ago that I was patching outboard racks into analogue consoles, trying to figure out which channels to insert my 4 comps and 4 gates on. Fast forward about 10 years or so and everything seems to have completely changed. It’s true many things have changed, some for the good, some not, but one thing still remains, our job is to make things sound as good as they can. And this is where it gets interesting, because we are in a era now where the limiting factor for audio quality is now more likely due to us than it is our kit.
Look anywhere online and you can find a thread about analogue vs digital consoles or point source vs line array. There’s sometimes good points from each side regarding pros and cons for each, but I can’t help but feel that debating that sort of thing is kind of missing the point. The real question surely is ‘What is the best tool for the job?’ We have a wealth of choice that even 5 years ago wasn’t available to us. New technology doesn’t necessarily replace older equipment but rather supplements it and gives us as engineers options.
Ultimately technology is a great servant but a poor master. We have seen such massive steps forward in console capacity, PA design and DSP processing in audio recently it’s staggering. It is hard to keep up with the advances, it seems like every other day there is a new console or a new PA system out. There are two main issues with fast moving technology as far as I can see:
You forget how to do the fundamentals
The fear is that with technology becoming increasingly clever, operators do the complete opposite. We have probably met someone who is guilty of this… ‘All the gear, no idea.’ They are usually talking about the latest plugins they’ve downloaded whilst trying to control everything via their iPad… (why is everyone so obsessed with doing this?!) And I have no issue with plugins or iPads if it works for you. My main concern is when those tools are taken away, can you still pull a great mix? Do you know the fundamentals of processing and signal flow? Do you have a solid work flow which can be translated to any venue/console/PA? Are you the one making decisions about your mix or do you just recall the ‘lead vocal’ preset and hope it sounds good? Again I have nothing against presets, I use them regularly as starting points but I do take issue with people not understanding what’s happening to their signal chain. Why? Because if you don’t know what’s going on you will never be able to consistently pull great mixes. Anyone can pull a mix with all the kit, great musicians and unlimited time in the venue, that’s easy. But can you do it when there’s time restraints, where the kit is sub standard and the musicians aren’t great? The difference between OK engineers and great engineers isn’t simply just their ears, it’s the fact they can pull great mixes in far from ideal circumstances and do it consistently. You can’t blag that, to achieve consistently good mixes you need to know what you’re doing. Use the tools if it makes your life easier, but don’t forget the fundamentals whilst using them.
You don’t up-skill and become left behind
We will probably also know someone who fits into this category too. They are usually saying things like, ‘You don’t need all that nonsense.’ or ‘I’ve been doing this for 20 years and have never needed to do that.’ There is an implicit assumption that the simplest solution is always the best solution and if the requests start becoming complicated then the requests and not the workflow is at fault. Working with people like this becomes increasingly frustrating as projects tend to be shrunk down to their capacity rather than their capacity being stretched to meet the brief. A large part of combatting this type of mentality is keeping an open and teachable mind. Just because you’ve never done it that way before doesn’t make that workflow invalid. Just because you’ve never used that bit of kit before doesn’t mean you should avoid it for the rest of your life. As engineers we should be pushing ourselves to try new things. That’s how we learn and progress. Of course there are tried and tested ways of doing things. I’m not suggesting throwing away the wisdom of experience for the sake of being ‘cutting edge’. I’m just suggesting that we can often be too cautious when it comes to trying new things and embracing new technologies. There is no way for example I’d have been able to do some of the shows I’ve mixed on an analogue desk. It just wouldn’t have been possible. Would I never use an analogue desk again? Of course not, but had I not embraced digital technology 10+years ago I would have become very quickly left behind and many of the opportunities I’ve had wouldn’t have been available to me.
It can almost be a badge of honour to be ‘old school’ these days. My philosophy is, ‘If it makes it sound better and helps my workflow then why wouldn’t I use it?’ Ultimately the goal is to make it sound as good as it possibly can, not be loyal to a fault over a certain workflow or piece of equipment. So that could mean using plugins and lots of automation for some shows, and in the same breath using analogue desks, inserts and FX for other projects. Ultimately the choice of equipment and the workflow is heavily dictated by the overall goal of the project and not by me trying to be a purist. Ultimately the audience at your gig couldn’t care less what desk you use, or what plugins you’ve inserted on the snare, they just want it to sound awesome. And however you manage to do that, then great!
So in summary use the new technologies if it helps you make things sound better. Love new technology, be a champion of it. That’s how we progress as an industry, but make sure you’re advancing in your knowledge just as much as the technology is. Don’t rule out new technology because there is a learning curve. It’s worth the effort to learn it and stay current. Similarly, don’t rule things out that aren’t cutting edge, sometimes you can’t beat the tried and tested. Make sure your decisions are informed and based on what you’re trying to achieve and not what is currently ‘cool’ to use. Let’s stop judging people on what kit they use and rather how it actually sounds, because that’s ultimately what really matters.