“Choose Wisely”

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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About the author

Robert Scovill

Robert is a 30 year veteran of live sound and 6 time TEC / 2 time Parnelli Award winner for Sound Reinforcement Engineer of the Year. He serves as Senior Market Specialist for live sound products for Avid and regularly works as Concert Sound Mixer and Live Recordist for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.

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