All posts in "Robert Scovill"

Give A Little Bit: Remembering Russel Pope

By Robert Scovill / September 7, 2017

BY ROBERT SCOVILL

As my flight out of Phoenix climbs to 10,000 feet on my way back to my cushy hotel room, spacious tour bus and high tech sound system while fulfilling my role as concert sound engineer on the Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers 40th Anniversary tour, I find myself sitting here taking stock of what modern concert touring has become in 2017, how it got to this wonderful lifestyle and who were the real pioneers of the industry. I’m introspective about who I am, why I do what I do, and how the hell I got here in the first place.

 

So, what has sparked this sudden burst of introspective investigation of myself worth you may ask? Well, sadly, as is the case many times in one’s life, it’s after hearing the news of the recent death of someone we revere or hold close in our hearts. In my case it’s upon learning of the passing of renowned engineer and mixer Russel Pope.

So why this event you may ask? Why would it carry so much meaning? Well, it’s a story of moments. Actually, a culmination of seconds really when considering it in the context of the total amount of time we actually participate in Planet Earth. It’s a story of a chance meeting that impacts a life for decades yet to come. I believe that every life has an incident like this, whether it’s recognized and identified or not. A chance meeting, that not only influences and impacts who you are during the span of the meeting, but sets the narrative of your life in motion from that moment forward. And so it was for me and Russel Pope.

 

I’ve recounted this incident and my reverence for it in some form or another in feature articles for trade magazines and most recently in webcast interviews and even recently in a live radio interview. And, I will do so again here and pray that I do so in a way that actually shows it in the proper light with the expressed agenda of honoring Russel, not myself.

For many years, I could not recall the actual date, nor could I recall the actual venue where this all took place and the ticket stub was long gone. Hell, I wasn’t even sure it was Russel that I spoke with until decades later. But these trivialities are simply that, trivialities compared to what actually took place on this day for a wide eyed, impressionable 14-year-old consumed by the music of his youth.

For additional context, at this point in my young life I had been studying music for some time. It was 1975 if memory serves me and of course when I say “studying music”, I don’t mean in the traditional sense at a conservatory of music or anything of that ilk. I was simply an ardent fan of contemporary rock music and it consumed me on a daily basis probably from the time I heard my first Beatles 45 at the ripe old age of about 4 or 5 via the teenage son of my baby sitter. By the time I turned 10 I was a fledgling musician (at best) taking music lessons with dreams of one day contributing my own verse to the great historical record of rock music.

And so it was, that the home stereo and the concert hall were the alters at which I worshiped as a young boy stumbling his way into manhood. The legendary progressive rock music station KSHE-95 FM in St. Louis provided the soundtrack to my daily existence and in so doing introduced me to the record Crime of the Century by Supertramp. Musically, and maybe just as importantly, sonically, that record spoke to me in a way that others had not up to that point. But unbeknown to me at the time, the real sonic revelation was yet to come.

That revelation for me took place upon seeing, and more importantly hearing Supertramp live in concert. For context, keep in mind this is the very early 1970s. Sound reinforcement as an industry had little to no visibility in the music business. It was still a “cottage” industry at most. In terms of visibility, obviously, the Internet did not exist. There were no dedicated trade magazines on the subject. You might see some broad, anything-BUT-detailed, coverage of concert technologies and the people who used them in music magazines of the era like Hit Parader or Circus or maybe Rolling Stone but it was extremely rare.

In my young and uninformed mind, all you needed was some big loud guitar and keyboard amps, big loud drums and a “PA speaker” big enough to allow the singer to keep up and somehow it all just magically kind of “happened” when it was brought into a concert hall and turned on. Right?

Well, that perception collapsed and was quickly discarded on to the scrap heap upon attending my first Supertramp concert. I stood there in the audience, in the same room I had seen and heard a number of concerts in my, to that point, young life as a concert goer. I stood there listening and I firmly remember having this awakening thought of “what the heck is going on here? I’ve never heard a concert sound like this”

I mean, many of us have had that moment at home, with a great stereo, or maybe in a control room when you put on an expertly crafted and recorded piece of music where you simply crank the volume and say in that voice that only some of us actually recognize “YES! Fucking hell! Listen to THAT!” From that point on, you simply know that no stereo was ever going to be big enough or powerful enough for your listening pleasure. And so goes the power and influence of rock music.

As the show wound down I continued to process what I had just experienced. I was walking out of the venue and apparently, as providence would have it on this night, I exited on the aisle right by the mixing console. It stopped me dead in my tracks and I stood there staring at it. People continued to brush by me. The guys I attended with were well past me and on the way out of the building to the car. I didn’t care. I somehow knew, this “thing” that I was looking at had something to do with what I just experienced. And more importantly, I inherently knew that the person standing next to it had something to do with my experience as well. Everything seemed to go into slow motion and get kind of blurry, just like in a movie dream sequence until I was snapped out of it by these words..

“Wanna have a look around?”

I’m sure I shyly nodded, or possibly even mumbled the word “yeah” but inside, every part of me was screaming “Hell yes I do!”

At that point, I had no idea who Russel Pope was, what he did for a living, or the magnitude of his impact on the entire Supertramp experience. But what I did know for certain upon leaving after his brief tour and simplistic explanation of the FOH position was, that I was certain I no longer wanted to be a musician, and I was also certain that I was now “on fire” to find my way in to work as a “sound guy” in some way, shape or form. And so my journey took it’s first step forward.

So here I am, at 30,000 feet now, some 42 years later trying to make sense of it all. All of the “what if’s” are circling in my mind like a squadron of fighter planes trying to find their target.

  • What if my parents had remained in rural Kansas instead of moving to St. Louis when I was about 7 years old?
  • What if I had never been introduced to KSHE-95? At the time, a somewhat underground progressive rock station willing to play Supertramp as opposed to the Top 40 pop drivel of the day?
  • What if my parents were too afraid to let me go to “rock concerts” with my school mates – all of whom were considerably older than me at the time?
  • What if I had not saved my allowance in order to go see Supertramp in concert, and instead my only exposure being their albums?
  • What if I had purchased a seat that would have exited me from a different part of the building?
  • What if Russel Pope would have been too busy, or simply unwilling to share what he so graciously shared for a “kid” from No-Wheres-Ville in the middle of the United States?

All I know for certain is that all of those “what ifs” when realized somehow lead to the final one. In my mind’s eye right now, if any ONE of those things don’t take place, who knows how it all turns out for me? But what I can say with absolute certainty is that this brief engagement with Russel rendered all of the other bullet points universally meaningful.

And certainly, in retrospect, in that moment, that very moment – whether he knew it or not, Russel set the bar for me. Maybe I didn’t even realize this until right now while writing this, but without verbalizing it, what he actually got through to me on that night was “if you’re going to make it doing this kind of work, your results need to be at least this good and frankly in the end had better exceed what you heard here tonight”. “Being professional? This is what it looks like. It means striving to never be a charlatan, but it also means you’re gracious enough and secure enough in who you are and what you know to share it, all of it, and in so doing raise up your person and your profession.”

In the decades that followed, I’ve been recognized and awarded and achieved more visibility as a “sound guy” than I ever remotely dreamed possible. And, of course, with that fame and fortune come the critics, the doubters and the nay-sayers, as is true for many in every walk of life. Many of those doubters have questioned not only my abilities and my agenda but have also accused me of self-aggrandizing through countless behind the scenes videos and magazine features, radio and web interviews etc. But it’s my hope, after sharing this story with you, that I can get you to reconsider that this exposure is not a case of vanity run amuck, it’s nothing more than a case of paying Russel’s graciousness forward. It’s my way of simply saying, to anyone willing to listen, read or watch …

“Wanna have look around?”

So, I feel compelled to share the final evidence of providence concerning this story because it’s beautiful in its closure.

In the course of sharing an abbreviated version of the story in a recent Internet radio station interview for Roadie Free Radio, a dear friend of mine who I toured with in the 80’s named Ted Leonard, who now lives in Finland, was actually tuned in to the broadcast. And as my good fortune would have it, he was actually friends with Russel Pope and was unbelievably gracious enough to connect Russel and I via Facebook some 42 years after the fact. It was like being tossed in to some sort of time travel machine. Russel and I recounted the event and, much to my disbelief, he remembered the venue and actually recalled the chance meeting. I was simply in disbelief, but of course I shouldn’t have been. He was as gracious and giving as that night 40 some-odd years ago.

At the time of our Facebook connection, I had no idea he was terminally ill. So, I’ll be forever grateful for the opportunity to close the loop with him and thank him personally so many years after the fact. I’m deeply indebted to Ted for making that connection. And so here, in print, I say again thank you Russel for being the central figure in the most significant 10 minutes of my career and maybe my life. And thank you for being a true pioneer in concert sound and more importantly, setting the bar for professionalism, expertise and manners for not just me, but anyone you encountered. You will never be forgotten.

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Living the Dream

By Robert Scovill / February 25, 2017

BY ROBERT SCOVILL

You’re standing in total darkness. Suddenly you hear a huge crowd start cheering wildly. A band starts
playing but, oddly, they sound very distant and far away. A spotlight bursts on to you in intense, blinding white light. In an attempt to shelter your eyes you look down only to realize … you’re naked … and … none of your gear is set up. You squint through the light only to realize that everyone, including the band, is staring at you … and … they have their phones out … and … they’re typing. Suddenly, the phone in your pocket starts vibrating incessantly with social media alerts. Startled, you jerk straight up in bed, sweating … panting. “Oh thank God, it was only a dream.”

Yes, it’s the modern day version of the “roadie dream”. Which is of course actually a PTSD-inducing nightmare that seems to inch closer and closer to reality with every passing event for today’s live audio mixers.

If you’re in the world of Pro Audio, regardless of what level you work, then you’re well aware of the recent audio mishaps at some very high visibility shows. These incidents are now a part of the national conversation. The recent snafus on New Year’s Eve with Mariah Carey, the well-documented events of the last two Grammys with very high-profile artists and even a headline-grabbing, click-generating incident involving a confrontation between a volatile Presidential candidate and a podium mic have all captured the attention and imagination of John Q. Public.

Well, you might scoff at this, but if you’re wondering how this is going to go moving forward, look no further than how modern media responds to anything that happens which is deemed significant by those covering it. Let’s say, for example, there is a carjacking and it gets national attention by national news. Did you ever notice that once that happens, news organizations at the local level all of sudden and seemingly coincidentally start reporting stories of local carjackings? It’s easy to spot this news “trend” if you’re touring and in a different city each day.

At the national level, before long you start seeing experts being called in discuss the rise in frequency of carjackings and their impact on society; crime trends, law enforcement, neighborhood safety, illegal immigrant cause and effect, what can car manufacturers do to better protect drivers, “Is the failure of the family responsible for the explosion of carjacking incidents?” And on and on the media grist mill churns. Sound familiar?

Well, the seeds of the “LIVE SOUND: AN INDUSTRY IN CRISIS” narrative have already been planted and are sprouting roots. Within 24 hours of the Grammy broadcast and the Metallica mishap, Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich, the band’s appointed spokesperson was already on a late night talk show talking about the incident and attempting some brand triage. On this night the show also, “coincidentally”, included a Broadway star who was asked by the host, “so you guys do Broadway shows live right? So do sound problems happen for you guys too?” To which the performer immediately responded “Oh yes, ALL of the time” and then proceeded to describe in detail a litany of incidents. CRINGE … no, make that DOUBLE CRINGE … “Oh Lord, take me now”. Turn the crank on the media grist mill, here we go.

I was amazed (and shouldn’t be anymore really) at how quickly I saw SCNO (S-o C-alled N-ews O-ganizations) — see what I did right there? — flood my social feeds with click-gobbling headlines. Here’s a sample of some actual headlines.

Metallica Unplugged Right After Line Check

Grammy’s Sound Crew Forget To Turn On James Hetfield’s Mic

2017 Grammy’s Disaster; We Have The Inside Story”

Grammy’s Production Insider Tells All 

Stage Hand to Blame for Ruining Grammys For Metallica Fans

Our Industry Expert Explains The Grammy’s Debacle

Grammy’s Producer Apologizes to Metallica

Ad.Effing.Nauseum.

And of course in the social media era we all have to suffer through mind-numbing, oversimplified rhetoric delivered by people (some in our own industry) who line up to posture and proclaim that they’re certain they know exactly what happened and how they would have prevented it.

  • “Man, you’d think at that level, they would have locking connectors on the cables”
  • “Are you telling me no one thought to tape that cable down?”
  • “Boy, you’d think they would put that input box in a place where NO ONE would even come close to it, let alone a dancer”
  • “You’d think they would have instant redundancy for these things wouldn’t you?”
  • “It’s 2017 can’t they design a mic that never fails?”
  • “They should just go wireless for everything”
  • “They need to just simplify things and go back to the way it used to be”

Ad.Effing.Nauseum.

Cause you know … An audio cable had never gotten accidentally unplugged before February 12th 2017. (That said, you can bet every artist and mixing engineer for the foreseeable future will be double, triple, quadruple checking that lead vocal mic connection before that artist ever steps up to that mic.)

One of the posts actually made me giggle though (uncomfortably) because it rang of some truth. “Does anybody remember the days when a mic didn’t work and the next day everyone had already forgotten about it?”

Well, safe to say that world is LONG gone in 2017.

At this years Winter NAMM show I was given the honor of delivering the keynote address for their inaugural Live Sound Expo. One of the topics I was asked to cover was tour preparation in the modern era of live sound. And while I covered cloud collaboration with my crew and lots of other administrative topics, one of the questions I posed and topics that I covered was a big surprise for many in attendance. So let me take this opportunity to ask the same question here.

“As a concert sound mixer, do you have a social media strategy?”

(There were a LOT of puzzled looks around the room as I’ll bet there are on a big percentage of the folks reading this. But once you let it sink in, it becomes pretty obvious that this has big implications for the future of our industry not to mention what it could actually mean for YOU as an audio mercenary going forward.)

In the run up to the Internet era and now the age of social media I have actually written on this topic a couple of times and have also addressed it at seminars and panel sessions. The crux of the conversation is this; when things go “pare shaped” at a show how will you respond, not in the moment, but after the moment?

Live sound has a long and rich history of planning for the unforeseen during a show. But what I’m asking about is how you will react after the incident, not during. How will you react when confronted with negative public opinion of your work? Why? Because I assure you, no matter what your skill level, there will be someone at EVERY show that has that negative opinion and will want to share it with anyone who will listen. How are you going to respond to that criticism? Do you have a plan? Have you thought this through? What if the artist or manager confronts you with the person’s public criticism in hand? Is your plan to get on the bus, have a few drinks and check Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and then drop a few alcohol inspired posts or responses?

There was a time when “that guy” with the negative view of your work might make their way to the FOH position and let their feelings be known. You would respond in any way you saw fit and then it would be over. Today it’s much more likely they will go to your artist’s fan site and post it there, where they will in turn recruit others to join them in their displeasure and post accordingly. In 2017 and beyond, mainstream media might even use it as a headline.

So once they do just that, that’s when things get very interesting and you have some choices to make.

Do you identify yourself and engage them online? If so, do you do so publicly or privately? If publicly, have you done so with the blessings of the artist you work for? Here’s why I ask, because believe it or not, the moment you post, if you identify yourself and your role and then respond, the fan does not hear YOU responding, they hear the artist. Nope, at that moment you are an agent of the artist and representing their brand not yours. You likely won’t even be recognized by name, you’ll just be known as “insert-star’s-name-here’s sound guy told me so and so and he was a total jerk”

Once that takes place, your bad review has just gone next level. A search of your artist’s name and/or the incident on Google etc. now shows up in the list of found items as “stars name … total jerk”.

Phone rings …

FOH Mixer: “Hello”

Bands Manager: “Hey how’s it going out there”

FOH Mixer: “Good”

Morgan Freeman: “Things were not good”

Here’s another example; what do you do if there’s actual liability involved in a show incident? Maybe a lot of people asking for their ticket price back, a failed show where insurance gets involved with big money on the line, or heaven forbid where there is injury or death?

If you go social … you’re now on the record as a representative of the artist and the event. I know we now live in a world of “alternate facts” where you can simply deny that you said something that you’re actually on record as saying … But I’m just saying …

Phone rings …

FOH Mixer: “Hello”

Bands Manager: “Hey I heard what happened last night. I’m just checking, are you okay? Yes? Great. Do you have a lawyer?”

Morgan Freeman: “He didn’t have a lawyer”

Think I’m being over reactionary? Consider something that actually happened recently. Do all of my sound brethren and sisters out there recall the podium mic incident with Donald Trump where he proclaimed that the sound man should be fired or the sound company shouldn’t get paid? All because of handling noise in a podium mic that the next leader of the free world couldn’t stop futzing with.

This could have been any of us sitting behind the console my friends … I’m deadly serious here. I read a lot of ACSE’s (A-rm C-hair S-ound E-gineers) chiming in on social media after this happened who posted with an awful lot of faux bravado.

Just for a second, TRY and put yourself in the mixer’s shoes and ask yourself some very real and pointed questions given the situation.

  • How tempted would you have been to mute the mic after being called out?
  • If you had muted the mic and a riot ensued, maybe with injuries or death, do you think you could’ve been held accountable?
  • Do you think your employer could have been held accountable?
  • Do you think you would have had a job the next day?
  • Do you think you would have had a job next year?
  • How tempted would you have been to address the issue in social media after the incident?
  • How many times do you think the mixer for this event was approached by main stream media outlets for commentary?
  • How much pressure do you think the mixer endured from the opposition to comment on the candidate’s behavior?
  • Would you be prepared to speak on camera without your emotions influencing your words after being called out like that?
  • Would you be prepared to speak on camera with the same gravitas that you showed on social media?

Still think you got the skill and the stones to handle “a couple of podium mics”?

Yeah, I thought so …

In the spirit of some much needed levity, I’m amazed that Southwest Airlines has yet to leverage a “Wanna Get Away?” commercial out of any of these incidents. If they do, you’ll then know that professional audio has fully arrived in the public consciousness. When that happens, an SNL skit can’t be far behind as sure as there would be a rapidly produced episode of “Roadies” to follow, all in an effort to reflect real life headlines just like producers and writers used to do on the show “Law and Order”.

Whatever happens you can bet that, while humorous, none of it will be flattering to our profession. Yep, we’ll no longer be the cool guys behind the scenes, we’ll be the road crew equivalent of Spinal Tap. Ugggggg … again … “Lord take me now.”

And ya know what? It won’t change at least one irrefutable truth. (do not confuse an “irrefutable truth” with an “alternate fact.”)

Folks, if you’re listening, nothing we do in life is 100% certain. So it logically follows that nothing we do in live entertainment and live concert production is 100% certain either. Nothing. No matter how much talent, experience and money you put behind an effort, nothing is fool proof or failure proof. Nothing. It’s all simply measuring and mitigating degrees of risk. And ya know what? Believe it or not, that’s exactly what you should LOVE about live events. I know I do. Be they drag racing, or live concerts, the fact that it all may go sideways at any moment IS the juice. There’s certainly no excitement in perfectly scripted, predetermined, calculated to nth degree, rinse, lather repeat moments day after day, night after night. None.

That said, what we don’t want to see is our favorite racecar driver die in a fiery crash any more than we want to see our favorite artist suffer public embarrassment because of something we’ve done or not done. But we love it when they’re willing and able to take us along for the ride, right to edge and survive it, especially so when everything is on the line. Exactly like James Hetfield did on Grammy night. When he recognized that his mic was not working, he simply moved in on Lady Gaga and they shared her microphone and simply carried on. And in the process they both showed what touring and performing in front of millions of people for most of their lives had built into them; pure effing professional instincts. Compare James’ actions to Mariah Carey’s New Year’s Eve incident. Yep, I’ll leave it right there.

As has been said many times, “Incidents like these don’t build character, they reveal it.”

Sports is at its best when the outcome of the contest is not predetermined. Music, when it’s at its best, is exactly the same. It’s at its best when it’s live and the execution of the performance is on the shoulders of the artist and in the hands of a professional staff to deliver it, not resting entirely on some unreliable playback technology or even a single mic cable. That’s when real stars are given an opportunity to shine and they often do just that when it’s all on the line. Want an example? Rewind your DVR of the 2016 Grammys, watch it and then fast forward to the 2017 Grammys, and ask yourself “What would Adele do?”

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“Watson, Can You Hear Me?” 

By Robert Scovill / November 5, 2016

BY ROBERT SCOVILL

Okay, I know you’re going to think the following question is totally ridiculous when you read it but, if you’ve been reading my blogs, well, then you know how I roll. So, here it goes.

Is there—or should there be—a given “morality” in pro audio manufacturing and the way it is used?

See, I can already see you shaking your head in disbelief. “Why do I even click on the links to this guy’s blogs?

Stay with me here …

Recently I’ve been amazed by many of the posts and underlying sentiment that I’ve read in social media circles regarding the release of some “auto-tune” audio processors and “mix evaluators”. Now, when I say amazed, what I really mean is not surprised at all.

Since the arrival of the first multi-track recorder spawned the concept of an overdub and, in turn, the concept of “comping” an individual’s performance, the argument that the technology of the day is destroying music and compromising integrity and quelling the need for actual talent, blah de effing blah, has been in full swing. That’s right, this is not a new thesis.

But if you were to gauge the validity of the argument by the voracity of the responses and outcries to many of the latest technological advances, you would be certain that music production, engineering and in particular musicianship, are in full decline and it is the manufacturers that are completely to blame for it. If I’m getting this right, they’re at fault because they had the audacity to provide technologies, many of which were demanded by the users (read as: customers), that provided an efficient path to an end that normally required hours of effort to achieve. Yep, they built the better mouse trap you demanded and you used it. Shame on them.

Through the years, this underlying sentiment has taken on many guises in terms of public perception and opinion.

“Overdubs will destroy a band’s ability to record as a band”

“DAW editors will be the certain death of the recordist“

“Sampling and MIDI sequencing will marginalize musicianship”

“The drum machine will make the drummer replaceable”

“Plug-ins are the great equalizer for the less-skilled engineer”

“Auto tune? Now no one will need to learn to sing in tune”

“In the end, it’s all just Photoshop or performance-enhancing drugs for audio”

And on and on it goes. And you could make a salient argument that there is some degree of truth in those perceived negative consequences. I’ll give you that. But, the underlying sentiment that leaves me with my jaw on the floor is that manufacturers and technical innovators have become in some way culpable or seen  as responsible for those negative consequences by delivering technology to users and then for having the gall to tempt those same users to actually use it. I mean, how dare they?

Now, seriously, don’t let that paragraph just pass through your consciousness. It actually has deep implications, along with some deep-seated sociological underpinnings.

Hear me out and consider what that sentiment is actually driving toward. It’s evidence of the idea that there are factions of people in this world with a belief system that says manufacturers … manufacturers … should somehow be the gatekeepers of integrity and authenticity in the way people use technology to create music with their products. And that this could be—or should be—accomplished by limiting the capabilities of the technologies they develop to some arbitrary level of capability in order to somehow “govern” what is deemed as an ethical standard of use and what is “good for the music and the business.”

Really? Say that out loud with me; manufacturers should be the gatekeepers of authenticity and integrity for musical performance and production? You’re serious about this?

Hmmm … that’s starting to sound eerily like … “Let’s build a wall in order to make music great again! Oh, and get this, we’ll make the manufacturers pay for it.”

Or maybe “Let’s take our music back!” Um, really? Remind me, when did you ever really not have it?

NEWSFLASH: You as a musician, producer or engineer are now, have always been, and will always be, in COMPLETE control over the choice of if, when and how to use ANY piece of technology.

That’s right, you will ALWAYS have the ability to decide whether the use of the technology serves the integrity of the art you are trying to create or present. And here’s the most important corollary; you can also choose to NOT use the current technology in the process of creation if you believe it threatens that integrity.

But hey, let’s keep it real here. That very choice gets tougher and tougher to make with every new project and every new piece of technology that appears, doesn’t it?

Why? Because there can be great and very appetizing by-products that come from using those technologies, that’s why. Oft times, those by-products come in the form of newly opened doors to creativity that would not just be closed, they would not even exist on your path without the use of the technology in question. Can you imagine how “stifled” the recording and post community would be if the manufacturing sector decided “Ya know what? 4-track recording is more than enough tracks. We as a company believe that using more than four tracks compromises the integrity of the music being recorded” Can you imagine? Can you imagine a world without Sgt. Peppers? “Bohemian Rhapsody”? Fill in the blank …

Now, let’s keep it honest here; the primary driver for the development of these cutting edge technologies is, and always has been, finding a path to greatly increased efficiency, which, in turn, unshackles creativity. That’s the agenda, the stated end goal. But don’t confuse it here, what these manufacturers are NOT claiming to do is provide technology that will replace the need for skill and discernment. And, in fact, they’re most definitely not saying their products will actually “save time or energy”. I know, it’s kind of splitting hairs, but it’s meaningful. What they claim without hesitation is that with burgeoning and developing technologies, you can now do more than ever, and do it in much less time than it would have taken you to do the same tasks with the previous technology or without the technology at all. Get me?

So the well-cloaked reality is this: You may actually end up spending more time on these tasks if for no other reason than you’re now empowered to do more tasks in total. And you may have to now actually spend time broadening your required skill set to address the new technologies. You gain the ability to go much deeper in your work, and so you do. Get me? It becomes this kind of self-fueling feedback loop. “The technology now provides a way for me to do more things. As the technology advances it will then allow me to do those things quicker. And because the technology allows me to do those things quicker, I then have time to do even more things” … and … around … we … go … again.

Sometimes, it may be important to pause and reflect on who’s actually driving that merry-go-round. Hopefully you have your hands firmly on the brake and can step off at any time.

I mean, take a look back at ALL of those public perceptions that I listed above. You might notice that all of them, yes all of them, were driven by a desire to accomplish something that was historically impossible, difficult or expensive in terms of real time and money, in a more efficient manner. So what’s the verdict? Has the net result been time and money savings? To a degree yes. But the primary result has been that we now do much more creatively extravagant work on productions that often offset the savings in either time or money—often both.

And even in the midst of the negative perceptions, what rarely get’s its due is the explosion of creativity that can, and has happened while using them, not a suppression or marginalization of creativity or skill as many of the negative perceptions espouse.

So can we all concede that while the manufacturers and their technologies have actually created the possibility of accomplishing much deeper task work, they’ve also been pretty adept at helping us conquer that additional task work in a very efficient manner? And that’s what they should be doing.

However; as I stated earlier, it is now, and will always be up to YOU to decide whether the tasks in and of themselves are worthy of being taken on in the first place. You can disrupt the feedback loop at any time and get off of the merry-go-round if you feel it’s not serving the art you’re creating. Are we good?

So what’s the next frontier then?
Well, um, if the folks at Big Blue have their way, the next frontier is actually conquering and coding creativity. I know, right? What the … ?

I find it simply beyond the scope of coincidence that within a span of 24 hours, I was exposed to T-Bone Burnette’s inspired and moving keynote address themed “Music Confounds The Machines” (http://americanamusic.org/news/t-bone-burnetts-keynote-address) preceded by an episode of Fareed Zakaria’s GPS where he interviews IBM CEO Ginni Rometty on the Watson project.(http://www.cnn.com/videos/tv/2016/09/16/exp-gps-rometty-ibm-clip-technology.cnn)

It simply had to be providence. Someone or something providing some universal balance.

I listened intently as she explained how “Watson” technology is now being used to assemble and create movie trailers. Creation of movies trailers is currently considered a VERY highly skilled editing task that requires laser accurate insight into the sensitivities of a potential viewer demographic in order to create the most effective trailer. The level of skill described must be accurate, and the editors must be awesome at it, because frankly I’ve seen some movie trailers that were actually far better than the movie itself!

This grueling task often requires months of time for the editor to complete. According to Rometty, Watson can perform this task to an equal level of competence and creativity in a fraction of the time normally taken and without the need for the highly skilled and creative editor to be involved. When Rometty was asked by Fareed “So then, do you believe you can actually “code” creativity? Her response; “Absolutely”

Now, I’m just guessing, but I’m putting my money on Mr. Burnett residing on the other side of that claim. And I for one would be with him on this one because, to my eyes, the idea of “coding” creativity is counter to the very essence or definition of what the word creativity means when describing it as a human attribute. I mean it’s a textbook Catch 22 isn’t it? i.e., anything outside the boundaries of “coded creativity” would be considered inherently “creative” would it not? … and … around … we … go … again.

And so it would appear that it’s not only music that confounds the machines, but actually the human’s ability to be creative and think outside the box that does so. Yes, pun “absolutely” intended.

I mean, let’s just take a second and let our “Big Blue” imaginations start to wonder with regard to how Watson may impact our little part of the world. Start here; think about what Watson technology could mean for the process of say … creating music videos. If Watson can “create” an effective movie trailer, then it can certainly “create” an effective music video. In today’s world a music video and a movie trailer are nearly synonymous with each other by serving the same means to an end of promotion. Right? Okay, so let’s go next-level. If today’s music compositions are indeed headed toward devaluation to the point of being characterized as little more than a “promotion tool” for an artist or band, do you REALLY think it’s big stretch to someone saying “Hey Watson, here are my music tracks, please mix them for Genre A with maximum acceptance from Fan Base B.”

If you don’t think that’s a real possibility given the apparent capabilities of this technology … don’t open your mouth, because it will immediately fill with sand. If the history of the bond between mankind and technology has shown us anything, it’s proven beyond a shadow of doubt that if a technology is capable, someone will use it, regardless of any “morality” or impact on the actual medium itself.

So, in keeping with the theme of this blog, we must concede that just because the capability is there, does not mean we HAVE to give in to the temptation to use it. When I’m working with artists, particularly new artists, I’ve seemingly always got my fingers on the scales trying to balance the deployment of very capable technology capable of doing things that will save time and money measured against the counter balance of I or the artist performing the actual work and the benefits that comes from actually digging in and doing so. Yeah, you heard me right, the benefits of doing it “the hard way”.

Dad was right ya know. From a human perspective, it’s very tough to deny the fact that if you work hard for something, hours of toil, trying to get it “just right”, there is something extremely positive with regard to your own reverence for that work that is very meaningful when completed. By contrast, it’s a bit cheesy to claim that something is your passion or your “life’s work”, the result of an intense labor of love, if the technology used to create it is actually doing all of the meaningful work.

Like I say, it’s a very tenuous balance to try and strike in this day and age. The thinly veiled movie reference would of course be “It’s supposed to be hard. The hard is what makes it great … if it wasn’t hard everyone could do it” The refinement of that line of thinking for our world is; if technology levels the playing field and everyone can do everything to an equal level, i.e. musicianship, engineering, production, mastering and distribution what then defines and identifies greatness? If everything is now great, how do we then identify greatness?

So with technology seemingly on a collision course with our want for “credibility” or “authenticity” in the music many of us listen to, the contrarian in me begs to ask this question: “Why do we really care?” What is actually at the heart of that caring? If the end result fits our definition, or the fans’ definition of great, isn’t that enough?

By many accounts today, we as musicians, producers and engineers oft times only show care for the virtue of the creation when it’s convenient. And even though I’m playing a bit of Devil’s Advocate here, I’m also being totally serious. Why do we care so much about authenticity with regard to the processes of music production and performance when compared to other mediums like TV and filmmaking where the concern over process impacting authenticity never comes to bear?

And if we do indeed care so much, then where is this line of demarcation for that level of authenticity in a finished product? In the future, how will we clearly define or characterize a piece of art created by the human vs art created by the machine if it’s increasingly more difficult to tell them apart?

If you harken back to my opening “crazy” question about morality in music, and we care intently about integrity and authenticity in the art of music-making, isn’t that ultimately a question of virtue, as opposed to values? By this I mean, values are forever changing. What I “value” today as a technology and the techniques required to use it given what it can do, may not be what I value 10 years or even 10 minutes from now. But the tenants of virtue; those are steadfast, timeless and unchanging. Am I using the technology to reveal talent or conceal lack of it? In so doing, does that not represent a form of morality with regard to how we do what we do? What are the “virtues” of the creative processes and the resultant content? What is the morality of what we do as an industry?

The reason I bring this up is this; modern music creation and production cultures are extremely susceptible to falling into a very enticing trap. The trap of seeking validation for a work based more in the tools used to create the work than the actual content that tools are used to create. It’s a trap that the manufacturing and retail sectors along with the vintage technology aficionados of the technology worlds are happy to fill with wonderful smelling bait in order to lure you in.
Tell me if these sound familiar.

Manufacturer:“The latest technologies offer you the musician, producer or engineer paths to previously unexplored and untapped creativity.”

Musician, producer or engineer;“I can only use “vintage” technology to make my music, the music just doesn’t work without it.”

Sound familiar? Everybody probably falls somewhere in between the extremes of these two mindsets. It’s a trap that says “if I’m going to create music, it won’t be validated unless I use this kind, or this caliber of equipment to do so.”

Can we get real for a minute? Music in and of itself, has never, ever, put such demands on it’s creation, only humans have done that. And frankly, as soon as you begin to think in these terms, you already have one leg in the trap and are sniffing the bait.
But in today’s world, it’s a dicey tightrope walk to keep it all straight and in the proper perspective and order during the creative process isn’t it? Here’s the simplest example of this quandary: If we were sent tracks to mix and given the choice of the great, but bad “sounding” performance over the poorer better-sounding performance which would you choose? Which master are we serving? Sound quality or performance quality? In this case, you only get to choose one – unless you want to use modern technology to conceal the flaws of either. I know, right?

If we can’t keep the virtues of the art itself in the proper pecking order, we drift into a mode of focusing on completely the wrong thing when listening to or evaluating a piece of work as to its merits. If we can’t navigate these distractions, we end up critiquing something like vocals for whether or not they are perfectly in tune, in lieu of what the singer is actually saying and how he or she is going about saying it. We critique the quality of the band based on the sound quality of the recording instead of the qualities of the musicianship and the music itself. Maybe we validate or invalidate an entire genre of music based on the age or type of instruments used to create the music in lieu of actually assessing whether the music moves us in any meaningful way.

Okay, so let me take a slight step sideways to put a live-sound spin on this. Ask yourself this question; do you think singers and bands that mime to playback tracks or ones that auto-tune live vocals are less viable or credible than ones who actually “perform”? Then ask yourself this: Would you hold concert mixers to the same standards if the mixer was taking advantage of auto-mix technologies or PA system auto-tuning technologies for an event? Now the tough question; do you think your answers, the answers from the artists that you just mentally referenced and their fans are in alignment? My bet; extremely unlikely. So do you err on the side of virtue and integrity or convenience and end result?

What do you choose when virtue collides head on with expectation of an end result? Where is that mysterious line of demarcation between values and virtue? When that line is crossed, when does the practice begin to damage ALL credibility, even for those that don’t subscribe to it and insist on doing things in a “virtuous” manner?

I’ll share my version of this in the form of an “old guy” anecdote from much earlier in my career. I was mixing Def Leppard circa 1987 for their infamous “Hysteria In The Round” tour. Def Leppard were certainly known for making incredible sounding records that challenged our precepts of what was sonically possible during the record making process. It was an easy leap to “how the heck are they going to pull that off live?” This was right about the time that rack-mountable digital samplers were coming to market. Once the tour started, the shows were getting great reviews for production, performance and sound quality. We were all thrilled about them. But, that joy was tempered somewhat after a few months of shows. I was chatting with bassist Rick Savage one night after a particularly good performance.  I could sense he was a bit miffed and I inquired as to why. He shared with me that, with increasing regularity, during meet and greets, other musicians and people “in the know” were inquiring as to “what type of sampler the band was using to recreate their epic backing vocals?”

At that point, I fully grasped his dismay. It was the ultimate backhanded compliment in that the inference was they sounded great; maybe too great to be believable. The band did not use samplers to recreate those vocals. They dug in hard and worked tirelessly on executing them and then counted on me to provide just the right amount of “sauce” for the end product. And totally in the band’s defense, their backing vocal performances were fantastic. And yet, here was the assumption that, because the performances were great, they obviously chose to fake them because the technology was now available to do so. It was disheartening. In fact it became the central theme of an endorsement campaign that I participated in for EV microphones. Here’s the actual quote

“All too often on this tour, people have asked me what type of sampler we are using to reproduce the backing vocals in the show. They’re a little startled when I tell them we are not using samplers; we’re using EV N/Dym microphones”

Believe me, I would have much rather talked about other things, but we just felt it was important to get on the record about it. To Def Lepp’s credit, they could have just bailed out and said, “Well, they all think we’re faking it anyway, let’s just start sampling, save our voices and have an easier time on tour” For the record, they STILL don’t use sampled vocals in their show to this day which in my mind is a prime example of choosing virtue over values.

This was a textbook example of the capabilities of an emerging technology damaging the credibility of this band simply because it existed and in turn created the assumption that they would obviously choose to use it and in turn sacrifice the virtue of performance for the value of sound quality, convenience and repeatability. Def Lepp will always have my enduring respect because they refused to give in to that temptation at a time when the alternative was increasingly en vogue.

That was 1987, so, where does that leave us today and for the future? Have you been to a show and thought “Hmmm, I wonder?” Would you have felt cheated or ripped off if you would’ve discovered that parts of the performance were being “mimed”?

I can actually remember a time when disclaimers started to regularly appear on vinyl records claiming, “No synthesizers were used in the making of this record.” Can you imagine such a thing today? I mean, first off, we don’t even have album credits anymore, but if they were ever to be re-established, is that where we’re headed?

I can see it now … “No digital editing was used during the making of this record” or “No instruments newer than 1978 were used during the recording of these songs” or “Every performance on this recording was captured by a tube microphone and performed by human being playing an actual instrument made out of wood” Really? Is that where we’re headed?

What about disclaimers on a concert ticket? Will we see “No auto-tune will be used during tonight’s performance” or “No sampled vocals or instruments are used during tonight’s performance” Does this in turn somehow add “value” to a concert ticket allowing the artist or promoter to charge more? Does it attach some level of authenticity, validation or even invalidation to a live performance? In the future, will we need “auditors” or “agencies” that will verify these claims by artists and promoters?

Sigh …

I, for one, hope not because to my ears that sounds like a pretty dark time and place for one of our most cherished and most important creative mediums; music.

If the Internet has taught us anything in this day and age, it has to be that “Content is King”. But it’s also making a pretty damn good case for, if content is king, then factually accurate, authentic, genuine content is the equivalent of all the king’s gold.

So, raise your hand. Who of you will be the flag bearer for authenticity for skills required to create, perform and produce moving forward with regard to the art form of live music? … I have two hands in the air. How about you guys?

Watson! Put your hand down!!

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“Choose Wisely”

By Robert Scovill / June 27, 2016

BY ROBERT SCOVILL

Now, not to get all “Cosmic Johnny” on you here, but I’m going on the record. I’m a dyed in the wool Libra. Yep, the tipping scales … For me, it always has been, and always will be, about striving for and creating balance in my life. There are more examples of me doing so than I could possible list here. And I fully believe that having a mindset of balance and the ability to rationally evaluate choices is more of a contributor to my success in life and my chosen field of endeavor than maybe any other element. Yeah, “Balance”… Hmmmm … that seems like it might just be a good underlying trait for a audio mixer to have yes?. Oh well, if you’re buying into any of this and have chosen to read on, it might help explain a lot of what you’re about to read.

Since the earliest beginnings of my journey into the world of professional concert sound I can honestly say there is one, singular, centralized concept that has been pounded into my psyche over and over again throughout this journey, either by those that I consider mentors, or simply be the experience of the situation itself. During that time, I’ve done my fair amount of sharing this concept with students, seminar attendees and fellow professionals. As a matter of fact, I’ve probably done so to the point that they’re so weary of hearing it from me, that they internalize a dialogue something along the lines of “OMG shut your pie hole already will ya! I got it!”. What can I say, I’m a giver. Once a giver, always a giver. Give, give, give. ☺

The concept of which I’m speaking of course is that “successful live audio is all about managing trade offs”. I mean, I fully confess, just saying it makes me a tad queasy at times. Honestly, doesn’t it just rub you the wrong way? Surely as Audio Jedi Knights we’re supposed to be the flag bearers of “no expense spared”, “no challenge unconquered”, “whatever it takes” … “NO MAN LEFT BEHIND!!” Yeah, I know, I get a little carried away at times.

Of course we ARE that guy (or gal) and we wear those attitudes and traits proudly like Special Forces medals upon our chests (or breasts). I know, I’m trying not to leave anyone out here … gotta keep soundgirls.org on my good side.

But while attitudes can be as assured and unwavering as Jedi Knights, we’re constantly tasked with making tough choices where there is no perfect or absolute answer. Instead, we are just faced with degree’s of improvement by trading away the lesser of two evils. The reality is, just like with any General Manager of a sports team who manages trades, every time he makes a player personnel move, he trades one player away in the hope of getting a better one in return. And ya know what, the other GM that he’s dealing with is thinking exactly the same way. Both GMs do so knowing full well that ultimately what they’re trying to achieve is the best balance of skills and results for the team model they’re trying to build under a very complex set of circumstances.. And more often than not, it’s the most competent and prepared GM’s that experience the highest success rates. Not the ones with the best stadium, or the richest owners, or the highest payrolls and resources from which to pull.

Okay, I know, enough of the lightly veiled metaphors. Get to the point with regard to pro audio, Robert. Well as audio pros, whether we’re aware of it or not, we deal with trade offs at every turn in what we do.

Microphones: Do I chose the more expensive, better sounding mic, or the one I can actually put into a better position on the instrument? Do I use a mic with better frequency response or better rejection?
Speaker Systems: Do I configure the system in a way that favors the mix position or the audience geometry when—for today—it can clearly not do both at the same time? i.e. Do I provide a better mix to fewer people, or a compromised mix to everyone?
Consoles: Do I choose a console that has advanced features enabling me to easily manage complex mix changes? Or do I average down the complexity and details of the show in lieu of a more pure signal path and/or easier operating architecture? Or maybe the choice is less capability vs. more reliability?
Mixing: Do I compromise the tonality of a vocal or an instrument in order to have more overall gain before feedback? Or do I reduce the overall volume and allow the instruments to be more tonally balanced?

And on and on they go, just a day in the life, one after another, check box after check box just like the GM filling in roster slots for his team hoping he has assembled a winning combination. “Do I take the shortstop with the better glove, or the better batting average?”

And, also just like the GM (and much to the chagrin of many wealthy artists I might add) unlimited money does not ensure the assembly of a successful team or the ability to eliminate the need for quality decision making. History is littered with high payrolls that flat out failed when it came to winning championships. And as we all know, there have been a lot of uber-high dollar concert productions that have failed miserably from an audio perspective.

Don’t believe me? Examine the choices I presented above. Can any of the choices be quickly impacted or eliminated by simply throwing more money at them? No, they’re positively impacted by throwing more experience at them.

I’ve been very fortunate enough and extremely blessed to be allowed to continue a successful career as a concert sound mixer for the last 35 years or so and at the same time be allowed to help conceive, guide and promote the development of live sound products for a major manufacturer of professional audio products; Avid Technologies.

Now in many ways, this is totally the dream come true for me. I don’t have to be someone sitting on the side lines of the industry and think “why the heck don’t they make one of these things that I need so badly” or “why doesn’t this thing do the thing I need it to do?”. No, I get to sit in on all of the big pow-wow’s where we get to say “Hey, let’s make one of these and let’s make it do this”.

Sounds like heaven doesn’t it? Well in many ways it IS. But guess what, in just as many ways it is NOT. Why? Because that balance of trade offs thing rears it’s ugly head here as well. Now, before I risk coming across as ungracious in this post, let me explain, because it also ties back directly to the theme of this article.

I recall with stark detail when I was first invited to get deeply involved in conceiving products and feature sets for VENUE at then Digidesign. It was a really exciting time and venture. But that excitement was tempered pretty quickly when then product manager and close friend, after examining what I was proposing, stated that “this is all really good Robert, great stuff here, but I must remind you that we’re in the business of selling cool stuff, not making cool stuff”. Psssssssssshhhh! (that’s the sound of deflation)

It was reminiscent of the scene from the movie “Big” where the main character Josh – the boy inside the man’s body — has been tasked with conceiving the next big successful toy for a company to market and sell. He presents it and everyone loves it and is gushing over it, until one guys pipes in and says “wait a minute does anybody know what this is going to cost? I mean, are we actually going to be able to sell a $50 interactive comic book to 8 year old kids?” Pssssssssssshhhh! (that’s the sound of Josh’s deflation) And … the meeting was over, with everyone scurrying out with their tails between their legs.

The point I’m making is this; that even at the manufacturing level, hell, ESPECIALLY at the manufacturing level, the entire process is about managing trade offs.

Quality: What level of quality does the customer demand? What level of quality is the customer willing to pay for? Just as importantly, what is the customer willing to trade away to get it to that price? Reliability? Features? Do these concepts impact the purchaser of the console differently than the user? How will our choice effect cost of goods needed to make the product? How will cost of goods impact pricing for the customer? How will the cost of goods impact profit margin on the product?

Ease of Use: What level of user are we targeting with this technology? How much complexity can the users base manage? How important to the user is “ease of use measured” against reduced capability?

Value: How long does the product need to be relevant in the market? What is the price break point for vendors to be able to rent it? How much will it cost our company to keep it relevant and making money vs. creating a new product offering? If we close down the product early, what is the potential negative impact from the customers toward the company and future products?

And on and on and on it goes. There are literally dozens more mindsets and trade off challenges that contribute to an incredibly complex formula for creating a successful product. What I learned very quickly was that product design and manufacturing is the major leagues of managing trade-offs. Every detail conceivable. Every part, every penny, every action, every response is considered and accounted for before making any decision. It is hard, challenging work that requires the rational and level headed mastery of a range of skills from human resource management, to physical asset management to crystal ball management.

And so it goes in our little corner of the world known as live pro audio. There is rarely if ever an absolute answer to any challenge you face; just the choice between the better of two evils when measured against the context of the situation.  The goal of course is to “choose wisely.” And yes, we all have to give our father’s credit here, he was totally right ya know. “You can’t taste wisdom without first chewing thru experience“. Or my favorite version of this; “Experience is what you get right after you needed it” #worddad

At the end of it all, we can only hope to tally up our results and just like in the Indiana Jones movie where Indiana is presented with a choice: If you’re still standing and your face hasn’t melted off after you’ve made your choice,, you’ll get to hear the Templar Knight say “you chose wisely”.

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Generation ConteXt

By Robert Scovill / April 24, 2015

One of my favorite jokes of all time is from the bone-dry delivery of comedian Steven Wright. It goes like this; “I was looking out my window the other night and I saw a Martian. So, I say “Hey Martian, why are you so small?” To which he replied, “I’m not small, I’m really far away.”

 

Today’s topic: Perspective and context

 

When I was just starting out in pro audio many years ago, full of good intentions but no actual experiences to back them up, one of the hardest things to get my head around was context. The expectation of what a given input, or even a mix “should” sound like vs. what was possible during a tracking or mixing session in the studio. I could multiply that curiosity and search for context by an order of magnitude when I was taking on a live sound job, which as we all know encompasses both tracking and mixing skills along with a lot of other variables all rolled into one.

 

So what do you do? How do you react when you hear your very first input and have that “um okay, now what do I do to it?” moment? What’s wrong with it? What’s right with it? Do I move on? Do I start over? Wait, what kind of music are we making?

 

Well, I’m of the opinion that with nothing else to guide us, most of us would instinctively fall back on all of the recorded and live music that has imprinted on our conscious and unconscious minds, especially the music of our formative years. We’d begin to recall the countless plays of songs who’s tones and mixes we attempted to undress a million times over imagining how those sounds were created. Or we’d recall every concert experience we ever had before we ever touched that first fader and cautiously pushed if from infinity up to 0db.

 

So what am I getting at here? Well, if your life is in music production in any way shape or form, at any level of work or experience, you are likely a creature of your life’s listening experiences. You know the saying “you are what you eat” … well maybe as mixers and engineers, “we are what we listen to” – or maybe “we become what we’ve heard.” If true, those statements put a very different slant on the acronym GIGO. (G-arbage I-n G-arbage O-ut) With regard to audio, we’re essentially victims of the music, its production qualities and the listening environments in which it was received.

 

For example, my generation of “listeners” was raised on stereo hi-fi, vinyl and tape—regardless of musical genre. As I was growing up into my formative years, if it wasn’t your goal to acquire the best and baddest stereo system for your apartment or house along with THE most kick-ass car stereo… Well, you just weren’t all that relevant when it came to music culture. If you had a reel-to-reel machine, you were in rarified air.

 

And notably, my generation listened “in space” to speakers interacting in a room—and usually LOUD. The only time we ever switched to headphones was when the command came from on high to “turn it down and go to bed”. Which of course made us get out our Koss headphones, turn off the lights and experience an entirely new depth of focus on what we were listening to.

 

In retrospect my generation grew up during a golden and rich age of recording exploration. Finding THE sounds was a considerable part the task at hand and it all seemed new and uncharted. My friends and I marveled at record production. There was a sense of nobility for an artist to take an extended period of time on their recordings in search of an illusive great SOUND and the great engineers and producers of that time we’re (and still are) our hero’s.  My friends and I could talk for hours about how a band sounded in concert and if the experience was as good as the record and we simply could NOT wait until the next show or next record that would magically raise the bar of what was sonically possible. I know for certain these imprints impact how I mix, record even listen today.

 

So I wonder how today’s generation of listeners are being molded? What sonic imprints and influences are being programmed into their collective psyches and what will it drive them to be, and in turn do as future engineers, mixers and producers? It seems any nobility in today’s contemporary scene is building a better workflow. i.e. who can work the fastest with the least perceived harm to creativity.

 

I also wonder what the current generation of fans have developed from their listening experiences and in turn expect from a record or concert production in terms of live audio given that there are very few club scenes with live music any more? What is their audio imprint? Where do they then develop skills and expectations? What do they think is good? What are they impressed by?

 

I marvel at the thought that my kids may never or rarely experience music listened to in an actual space. They only know music via the ear-bud experience with audio presented “at the ear”. They don’t have stereos other than the odd blaster or computer speakers nor are they even interested in them.

 

Also, and maybe just as importantly, they may never experience contemporary pop and rock music with any real dynamic range. I’m fascinated by how mono-dynamic music is today and how much bigger the impact of the arrangements could be if their was more dynamic positioning within the song structure. It was such a vital part of my generation’s music productions. My kids’ generation of music offers an intro that is the same volume as a verse, and that’s at exactly the same volume as the chorus, and a chorus that is exactly the same volume as the bridge, and that bridge is the same volume as the outro.  I would be willing to wager they would be really annoyed by expanded dynamic range where quieter parts of a song were followed by louder parts of a song because they would then feel the need to constantly turn the volume up and down in order to level it all out. (Come to think of it, that’s exactly what I do now when I’m watching—and listening—to movies!) I can’t imagine how challenging it must be to arrange music where any and all emotional change gets nearly zero support from the element of dynamics within the production. I mean, people have complained about the lack of sequencing of the songs into an album. I say what is the point if every song is mastered to within 3db of 0dbfs? The emotional tug of the sequencing is marginalized at that point. Can you imagine listening to classical music mixed, mastered and sequenced in that fashion?

 

I wonder how this generation of fans will ultimately reconcile this with their concert experiences? All they’ll have in terms of expectation are countless “at the ear” experiences and the odd blaster by the pool in terms of spectral experiences. No sense of dynamics or the emotional ride that can take place with a well-sequenced set of songs from a single artist. I find myself as a parent wanting to shout at them while they are in their rooms to “stay up late and turn it up”. We’re definitely on the other side of the looking glass now.

 

Maybe more importantly, I wonder how the up-and-coming breed of live sound engineers will reconcile a 3db dynamic range in music with considerably less than hi-fi bandwidth in recorded music when they are in charge of their own concert sound mixing experiences on large PA systems in large venues? I fear they will undoubtedly—and likely unconsciously—gravitate toward their imprinted experiences and will try to recreate them. But maybe in the end, that’s what their audience will expect and want, yes?

 

I know during my concert work over the years with Tom Petty, I kind of marvel at the dynamic range that he and The Heartbreakers can put on display within their live shows. There are times when it seems quiet as a mouse and at times it’s a raucous roar followed by an effortless slide right into mid-tempo, mid-dynamic where it effortlessly cruises along. I try very hard to honor and even accentuate those dynamics at our shows and I think his crowd has an appreciation for it.

 

I wonder if a younger audience would see those dynamic shifts as an asset to the show or a liability and in turn be disappointed by them. I sure want to believe it would be the former but alas, it might be that I’m just from another generation with completely different sensibilities. But then again, maybe “I’m not small, I’m just really far away” … Ah yes … context and perspective. Nice.

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Welcome to Choice Fatigue

By Robert Scovill / April 22, 2015

By ROBERT SCOVILL

It’s a phrase born of the new millennium and I assure you it is most definitely real.

We live in a world where the fantasy is to live with no boundaries. It seems like it would be nirvana doesn’t it? A world with no rules, a world with no limits and no boundaries, a world with information that is not filtered with interpretation and agenda but only offers facts, a world where all products work. It’s just up to us to make a personalized choice that is perfect for our situation or ourselves.

The art world (and yes, I most definitely include music in the art world) is rife with this kind of thinking today isn’t it? A lot of industry peeps and fans that I talk to in today’s world claim that what they really want to experience is art and specifically music, with “no filters”. I interpret this as; they want to hear music that’s purely the artist’s interpretation and intention, untainted by the influence of a producer or an engineer or a record label A&R person or even a marketing team. Heck many times, they’ll even prefer to hear the music of a band member outside the boundaries of the band just in an effort to eliminate that band filter and influence.

There are a couple of artists who have lead a pretty grand existence by creating their own world of music while fighting the fight of no boundaries or filters. Now, you jazz aficionados, please don’t bust me down for not talking jazz here. I fully get that the jazz world is ALL about breaking through established music boundaries while all the time honoring them. But I would submit to you that without the existing boundaries of key signature alone it might be more difficult to recognize jazz when you hear it.

But if we stay in the rock/pop world for a moment, the first artists that come to my mind are the likes of Todd Rundgren, Prince and Frank Zappa. There are others to be certain, but these legendary artist attempted and succeed with this approach at a time and in a genre where it was considered audaciously independent, even egomaniacal by many but at the same time genius by many others; not the least of which were they’re fans.

What did they do? Well they fiercely and out rightly demanded their rights as producers, engineers and creators hence staking claim to full and outright control of their creations … right up until it came time for the label (you know people who invested all the money to provide the means for that creative freedom) to approve it and release it and then the battle was really on. But once these artists attained their financial freedom, they truly cut the cord from the labels as well.

Now here’s why I bring this up. That model of creative control and freedom that I just described is the very model that is in play for the music business that we have before us today. That kind of independence and boundary-less existence is seemingly what every artist demands regardless of his or her abilities or accomplishments and in turn there is a significant faction of listeners out there that apparently craves music created in this fashion by artists of every caliber and talent level.

Make no mistake about it; today’s artists have the ability to make professional sounding recordings primarily because they have access to off-the-shelf, high-quality recording technology. They have incredible amounts of on-demand instruction at their disposal in the form of online tutorials both text and video on how to compose, play, produce, and engineer music. They have immediate desktop publishing and content distribution opportunities and channels that would rival any high-end label—as they existed before the Internet. Sounds like heaven doesn’t it?

But here is the hard truth of it. The unintended consequence of this new world order is that we are now literally drowning in the choices of artists and music. An environment where the choices are so vast that making the decision on what to listen to, or even explore, becomes so daunting that as listeners we are tending to contract instead of expand. I submit to you that when that happens we are officially victims of choice fatigue.

As a sufferer of choice fatigue, we tend to gravitate back toward things we know and can count on. Those choices serve as a kind of bedrock based on our previous experiences before being overwhelmed with choice. The ultimate irony here is this, that in direct contrast to the battle for unfiltered choices, what we invariably end up doing is relying heavily on other – and I submit to you less trusted and less reliable – filters than the pre-Internet era to help us rein in our choices. Filters like Internet reviews, general buzz through social media, Internet music distribution services and genre segmentation and on and on. Hmmmm, sounds like the same kind of filters only in a different era.

All of this choice “freedom” forces you to balance your newfound freedom against the amount of precious time you are willing to devote to navigating it.

Here is an example of just one of those filters, genre; which we tend to lean on heavily before searching for new music. As is to be expected, we now have an explosion of genres to choose from. The traditional Rock, Pop, Country and Jazz certainly don’t really serve as genre definitions any more. In fact, new artists feel justified in their efforts if they can actually create a new genre. Check this out. Here is what is listed under “Rock” as an example from www.musicgenereslist.com and you’ll get just a smidgeon of a list that is clearly incomplete, but seems to grow daily.

ROCK
Adult Alternative
American Trad Rock
Arena Rock
Blues-Rock
British Invasion
Death Metal/Black Metal
Glam Rock
Hair Metal
Hard Rock
Metal
Jam Bands
Prog-Rock/Art Rock
Psychedelic
Rock & Roll
Rockabilly
Roots Rock
Singer/Songwriter
Southern Rock
Surf
Tex-Mex

And then of course there would even be sub-categories for these listings. Metal would of course include Speed Metal, Rap Metal … and on and on.

Even on this Web site—which is serving as a filter by the way—you’ll slog through well over 300 genre choices. Can you imagine how many titles are sitting in each genre? Frankly, at the end of the day it just serves as another path to choice fatigue in picking a genre in which to start exploring.

So ultimately who makes the decision to filter and categorize the music choices? You? Me? The artist? The label? A marketing entity? Someone is still in control … are they doing us any favors? I would say yeah, these are necessary boundaries to help us navigate the vast amount of choices. Without them the task is an order of magnitude more daunting.

Keep in mind, this is just music I’m talking about. There are COUNTLESS examples of this kind of choice barrage that now plague us in the world we live in. Here are just a few to get your mind working. Cable TV? So many choices, and so many of them poor. World news? TV, radio, newspaper, magazine, Internet, iReporting. All telling the same stories but with a different set of faces delivering it and all with different interpretations of facts. Which do you choose to believe? Are those “filter-less” choices? I think not. Netflix – by the time I make a choice of whether to watch a movie, a TV series or documentary etc., and then choose the genre and then choose the show to watch, it’s already time for bed. Online shopping? Let’s take hotels or airline travel. Which filter do you want to deploy? Price? Quality? Location? Availability? A balance of all of four? I hope you weren’t planning on doing anything else today. Buying a new car? Pick a manufacturer, go to the site, pick a model, and begin to navigate the choices of color and custom options – by the time you choose, next years model will already be on the lot. I could go on and on … but you all live on the planet too, so I know you get the idea.

All of this choice “freedom” forces you to balance your newfound freedom against the amount of precious time you are willing to devote to navigating it. In direct contrast to the “I want to the right to choose,” in the end, our choices are usually made based on the suggestion of others that we feel safe with and can rely on. That’s right, we rely on filters and are comforted and relieved by a set of boundaries.

Here’s a great example of what I’m talking about and how deeply this kind of thinking is ingrained in us. A few years back during the days of the progressive education movement an experiment was played out on a nursery school playground. The idea was to remove the fencing around the schoolyard. There was no highway or anything that put the youngsters in immediate danger bordering the schoolyard, just grounds now undivided by the visible chain link fence. What happened as a result was quite unexpected.

With the boundary removed, what resulted was that the children tended to huddle closer to the center of the original schoolyard than they did when the fence was in place. None of them actually took advantage of the newly found spatial freedom. When the boundary was reinstalled they all played to the full extent of the playground right up to the fencing.

Now obviously, there are many ways to interpret the data here. One side could say “clearly the kids felt safer and more secure with the boundary and they felt willing to go to the limits of it when it was clearly established.” Others might contest, “I wonder how they kids would have reacted if the boundary had never been established in the first place?”

So if you made it to this point in the article, you’re probably asking “okay, what the hell does all this have to do with sound reinforcement and live sound engineering?”
Well here’s the deal. Us live sound dudes and dudeesses are well on our way to these kinds of challenges in OUR technology world.

Need evidence or precedent? Well look no farther than today’s studio world. Just try to navigate their choices of microphones, mic-pres, A/D convertors, EQs, dynamics and effects processors; both real and virtual, DAW software, control surfaces, control room monitors, even cabling and on and on and on. The choices are seemingly limitless and are expanding every day. And here’s the real rub in the studio world; NOTHING ever really gets eliminated from the choice pool because gear that is 50 years old is still considered a viable choice and in many cases preferable. So the choices expand dramatically with every year. How do recording engineers (read as “musicians” in this day and age) make a choice?

I won’t even discuss musical instrument choices. Have you ever had a look at the choices of strings, drum heads and sticks, let alone the choice of instruments to use them on?

So what about sound reinforcement then? Are we headed down that path? I’m willing to bet we are, and in many cases are already there. Let’s start with a simple one. Just pause for a moment and consider how many choices you as an engineer have today with regard to … oh, say … vocal microphone choices. Really, soak that in and ponder it for a minute. The number of choices you have at your disposal is simply enormous. And guess what, the manufacturers are rolling out new models EVERY year just like Ford and GM.

Now, ask yourself, how do I make a decision on what to use? Do you actually try all of them before using them? No, you rely on filters in order to narrow the scope of the choice. Recommendations from: manufacturers, peers, sound company, the artist, web site reviews, and blogs? Remember, we’re talking about a choice for one single input; the vocal. Done? Okay, let’s move on to the next instrument. And on and on we go for 64 or more channels. I’m worn out already.

Given the shift to digital live sound technologies the choices are going to expand exponentially for live sound choices. Even as early as we are in the digital technology changeover for live sound, we already have more mixing console choices than ever. And within those consoles resides more processing choices than ever. Additionally, we now see more crossover of studio products to the live sound world than ever before. We have more manufacturers making more and more choices for us to choose from daily. And, I have yet to even address speaker systems, controllers and amplifier topologies. The tsunami is building strength.

As live sound engineers we’re “on the clock.” It’s ticking and the amount of allotted time to make decisions is generally fixed. We know when the house lights are going out and the show is going to start. Time is always a major factor. It demands that we make decisions quickly and concisely and then work with the results. So what are we to do then when confronted with the plethora of choices and our newfound freedom from the torn down technical boundaries? It’s not exactly a fine line between the freedom that comes with limitless choices measured against time efficient and more importantly time effective choices. So what do we do?

Well, I’ll tell you what history has shown that we have a tendency to do, and that is metaphorically speaking, act as the schoolyard children did. We huddle toward the center. Even though we’re free to explore with near limitless boundaries, we fall back on what we know is safe and predictable and will simply get the job done. Again, metaphorically and often literally, we choose the SM58 or the SM57. These kinds of choices are essentially the classic rock radio stations of audio engineering aren’t they? You’re certainly not going to hear anything new there and you’ll likely hear at least one thing that you like every hour. ☺

I suppose the real lesson of the world we live in today is that “time” is the thing we should value and protect most. In the end the most important choice we make may just be which things in our lives we’re going to devote precious minutes, hours or days of focus to in order to come to a what normally would, or should be, a simple and quick decision.

Even with the freedom to blog on whatever topic I want to, you just wouldn’t believe how much time I spend trying to decide on a topic. Ya know what? I may need to reach out to you for some filtering and suggestions.

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“Paging Dr. Moe, Dr. Curly, Dr. Larry…”

By Robert Scovill / April 8, 2015

 You can judge the maturity of a given industry or field by it’s approach to educating and training the people who want to work in that field and contribute to that industry.

 

For example, the medical field has been around in one form or another since the dawn of man. As techniques and knowledge grew with regard to easing suffering and saving lives, so did the need to teach those techniques and pass them on to others in order to improve and save future lives. Over time, this process has manifested into intense educational programs and very specialized practitioners who–aided by incredible technology–diagnose and treat the ill and dying.

 

I mean, if you want to be a certified doctor – and not get arrested one day for impersonating one — you don’t really have any choice – you’re going to medical school. And while there are widely varying qualities and statures of medical schools, on whole everyone is being taught based on the same principles and knowledge of the human body. And obviously, while there are certain proficiencies that need to be met to graduate medical school, each of us are unique human beings, and so it will be, that there will be doctors who have received exactly the same training, but will graduate from school and develop varying degrees of skill and expertise.

 

As a side note, it’s always kind of bugged me that logic dictates that somewhere in the world lives the world’s worst doctor. Murphy’s Law of chance says that I’ll probably make an appointment with him one day. Wait, maybe I already have … sorry, I digress.

 

So where does that leave us in the field of live sound? Well, we’ve had a burgeoning live sound industry for oh, around a century now. Obviously by comparison, the medical profession has been around for many centuries longer and during that time, they’ve had a bit more at stake in, ya know actually saving lives, so the comparison is not really all that fair.

 

But what is fair is to begin to examine how we are educating people in the field of live sound, and how we will educate them going forward.

 

The live sound industry is actually maturing and evolving right before our eyes and at a very rapid pace. If you simply examined the level of technology being implemented today compared even to even 30 years ago, the changes are profound. If you compared the knowledge base and skills needed by the average road sound guy 30 years ago compared to today’s guys, the difference would be rather staggering. And here is the important take-away, the technology being used and the concepts being deployed are not getting less complex, they’re getting more complex and that complexity is going to explode over the next couple of decades resulting in more and more specialists needed in the field.

 

So going forward, how do we actually educate and train these folks to improve the quality of what our industry presents to the public? Certainly in the past, and even today to large degree, it is kind of a “catch as catch can” way of learning rooted in the school of hard knocks. Now don’t get me wrong, you can learn an awful lot in the school of hard knocks – but you can also learn an awful lot that is deeply flawed and rooted in survival and keeping your job, not fact or truth or proven approaches.

 

Recently I’ve been traveling around the world giving presentations on the history of the development of virtual sound check. I’ve been experimenting with virtual sound check and refining it as a workflow since the early ‘90s and, over the past few years, have been working tightly with Avid helping implement it into their VENUE live sound products. During these presentations I share one of the key motivations for digging in on this workflow in an effort to highlight the generally unrecognized plight of the live sound mixer. It goes something like this.

 

“Generally speaking, where or how does a live sound mixer actually “learn” to mix? Well, way more often than not, it is “on the job” over the course of countless sound checks and events, right?

 

“Okay, so let’s consider what that actually means. What that actually means is, the only time he ever gets to practice, rehearse, experiment with a new approach or technology, or actually spend time mixing, and in turn develop his skill and approach is while the band is on stage, and/or while an audience is in the building. I mean, it’s the only time he actually has signal coming into the console right?

 

“I’ll tell ya what, let’s try putting any other professional under those constrains. For example: “Okay, rookie guitar player, you not allowed to EVER pick up your guitar and actually attempt to play it unless you’re on stage with your bandmates or in front of an audience.” Hmm, so how good do you think our guitar player’s first few years of shows are going to be? Yeah, I know right? Yet we don’t even think twice about asking live sound mixers to do this very thing night after night and wonder why it’s not very good.”

 

Obviously, virtual sound check takes a step in the right direction in overcoming this challenge by giving live sound mixers a chance to more effectively work and develop their skills offline, but in the live sound environment when there is nothing at stake, with no one listening or looking over their shoulder.

 

But does this approach still have flaws? Well the application of it might, because at it’s core, it still relies on a form of the school of hard knocks in order for the mixer to get better at his or her craft. What inexperienced mixers actually need IS someone looking over their shoulder. Someone with solid experience who is willing to share tried and tested approaches and get them on a solid path. By doing so you can then let the student blossom into something special as a mixer through hours of practice and experimentation. I mean, hey – we all took guitar lessons, but there’ll only ever be one Hendrix right?

 

This is where both education and training need to step in. So who actually does this education and training? Schools? Manufacturers? Working professionals? Well, the simple answer is “Yes”. For example; I’m of the mindset that you have to separate operational training and education. Today’s audiocentric schools often fall into the trap of essentially teaching operation of a specific technology, instead of teaching application, which is where they should be focused.

 

I mean, you can know everything about how to operate a mixing console and at the same time know nothing about mixing or even live sound. Get me?

 

This is where today’s technology manufacturers and audio educational facilities need to team up. In my mind, the best model would be the manufacturers offering the operational training and certifications on their technology, either independently and/or in conjunction with educational facilities. This does not, however, ensure that these folks can actually mix.  i.e., just because you can tune the guitar, turn on the amp and get a good sound, does not mean you can actually play. This is where educators and professional mentorship comes in to play by teaching “mixing” in conjunction with topics like music appreciation and production techniques.

 

Mixing in and of itself is an interpretive skill, not an operational skill. Mixers, music mixers in particular, need knowledge and expertise in “why” of taking a certain approach, not just the “how” of executing it.

 

 

If you as a mixer you can posses and refine a large cache of the “why” as well as the “how”, you stand to be a force to be reckoned with as a live sound mixer. Oh, and could you hurry up please, house lights are about to go out.

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