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.