What do Mark Zuckerberg and Sam Berkow have in common? Nothing … YET!

If you’re a live sound mixer at any level, then you fully grasp the concept that “everyone’s a critic”. You also get, that apparently everyone is an aspiring sound engineer as well. Don’t say you’ve never heard it, because you’d be lying. “Dude, turn the freakin vocal up!” Of course “drunk dude” has no clue about the concept of gain before feedback in a live setting and frankly it’s a bit much to expect of him anyway so let it go. But, more often than not, we go ahead and fight the good fight and try to get that vocal louder don’t we? We, in essence grease the squeaky wheel.

Or how about this one; you are summoned to the dressing room after the show to be berated by the artist because the artist’s significant other “doesn’t think it sounded as good as the show she saw by “so and so” the other night at “Club Whatever” So we march on, don’t we? All the time hoping our work somehow appeases a huge cross section of tastes and sensibilities within the masses of listeners.

I was talking about this over a table filled with plates of sushi with my good friend and super live sound mixer Paul David Hager the other night in Los Angeles while prepping for an upcoming Avid Webinar. He revealed that he is somewhat obsessive with regard to seeking out and reading every review he can get his hands on of shows that he has mixed. Paul’s a brave man for traversing the waters of criticism that exists in today’s world, because those waters are deep, cold and treacherous. Frankly, while at times I’m probably that obsessive, I’m not quite that brave. 

Today’s typical fan base can be ruthless and it’s easy to be, given that no one has to actually be accountable for anything that is posted on the internet, let alone be right. The amount of noise that can be generated by a fervent fan base on it’s own personal megaphone – the internet – is something to behold really. You have fan chat sites, artist chat sites, sound engineer chat sites, fan blog sites, Facebook, Twitter and on and on, let alone the folks that are actually paid to attend a show and provide a traditional critique for an actual news/entertainment entity. All of which can now be responded to and derided by; you guessed it, the fan base. 

What makes matters worse, if you, the “attack-ie” respond to the criticism in the public forum, you do so at great peril. You’ll only be allowed to play defense in a rigged game for all of the world to see – with no meaningful way to come out of it with the last word or any way to save face with out looking inept and like an “excuse maker”. The proverbial rock and a hard place that we’ve come to know so well. Good times.

And lest ye not understand the full ramifications of all of this noise. The artist and their management are actively seeking out, tracking and consuming every nugget of this noise. I mean, those are the artist’s paying customers out there aren’t they? So their opinion actually matters in that if you or the band puts on some poorly received shows early on, it can completely sap the momentum from the tour with regard to excitement and even ticket sales. Gosh, that almost sounds like a business doing market research doesn’t it?

For those of you that might not know, for about the past eight years now, I have been living the life of a double agent. I’ve been working for a top level artists as a concert sound mixer and at the same time working as an executive at Avid Technologies. (I know right? Doesn’t that sound kind of scary?! ) Honestly, it’s actually been a very cool and an enlightening experience. I’ll let you in on a hard lesson that I’ve learned while working for a publicly traded corporation; if you can’t measure the effectiveness of a program, or demo, or advertisement, or banner ad or webinar or console feature or (fill in blank) with regard to it’s ROI (R-eturn O-n I-nvestment) and most importantly customer satisfaction (read as “sales”) then you have little to no chance of getting anything approved and underway. 

The lengths that are gone to in the corporate world in order to predict and measure a customer response is simply breath taking. And now, with the world of social media, the game of obsessively measuring every byte of data you can get your hands on has risen to a level that even the Bill James might be challenged to correlate and give context to. (you baseball guys will get that reference) 

Now I don’t want to make this sound like an indictment of data mining and metrics. Overall as a concept I totally get it and actually endorse it. I mean, by gathering it and properly interpreting it, it results in your efforts at producing whatever it is your producing be more focused and meaningful. That’s certainly an outcome I would love to achieve with my mixing efforts, right? I mean, if I could somehow know how the audience actually feels about the show while it is going on, as opposed to after it, that might be very helpful in refining my efforts yes?  I mean let’s face it, you could have a show with no booing and lots of frantic cheering and applause and still get crucified in social media. So clearly a new and refined approach for live sound result analysis needs to be developed. Right?

SPOILER ALERT! – The following is tongue in cheek … Please don’t flood my Facebook page with a bunch of posts saying “Dude, are you guys actually working on this?” Um, no … well … not yet anyway. 

Okay, here we go, What if we could put today’s social media measurement metrics in play for our efforts in live sound? Are you scared yet? What if someone developed a Facebook interface for your digital console, where your mix offered a live “like” or “dislike” counter feed visible to you on your console? “Like” and “dislike” votes by listeners throughout the venue are tabulated and displayed for you the mixer. Hell why not a counter on every input? Can you see it? “Kick drum 3,243 likes, 627 dislikes with 10,428 Twitter mentions, Snare drum 110 likes, 3,760 dislikes and 3,760 Twitter mentions.  “Uh-oh, better double-check that snare drum sound. Lots of dislikes and no one is tweeting about it”

I know, crazy right? Well, maybe not so fast. Like any kind of incoming data, even “drunk dude” coming up to the console after the show telling you “great job on the lights dude!” you have to qualify it and make sure it’s telling you what you really think it is telling you. For example, what if that kick drum dislike total is actually a bit skewed because it is focused in one area of the room, wouldn’t we want to know that? 

Yes you would, so let’s tie that interface in to your speaker prediction software. Maybe it would look something like this; we currently use color to predict frequency response or SPL in a given room geometry based on seating positions and elevations right? Well, okay then, what if we could simply solo the kick drum and see where all the likes and dislikes are coming from in the room by correlating all the smart phone reports – or is that Smaart phones now? — from the seating positions which of course are based on GPS? Awesome, let’s now lay it over our color predictions of frequency response and SPL, and we soon realize that the people that are “disliking” the bass drum are seated in exactly the spots that the software predicted the poorest low frequency coverage would be. Whoa! 

So, your mind should be sufficiently swimming by now. But consider the ammunition something like this would give you IF the data was wildly positive and in your favor. If you had say 90% of the audience reacting positively to your handling of inputs and/or mix qualities. Your “mix score” so to speak. How ready would you be for that night when the artist says, “I heard it didn’t sound very good out front?” You could then respond very confidently with “well that is clearly a minority opinion, and here are the numbers to back it up” I mean, how powerful of a negotiating position would you be in with management and the band next time you negotiated salary with those metrics in hand? In the business world that’s called arming you with a “value proposition”. 

Funny enough, the challenges we would have with this magnitude of data are the same challenges we would have without it. WE still have to filter the data – or “drunk dude’s” keen observations — to figure out what parts of it are legitimate.  I mean, if “drunk dude” comes up to us after the show and says “dude, you needed to turn it up” you might not give it much credence … unless it was followed by more critiques that supported drunk dude’s conclusion… until you found out that the follow on opinions came from people that were actually with “drunk dude” at a bar outside the venue. 

So, as you see, regardless of how much data we get, if we simply knee jerk and give too much weight to the negative criticism, we may be doing a big injustice for a much larger demographic who actually loved the show. So it’s up to us to decide what critiques are meaningful and which need to be dismissed. More data is nothing more than more data. Meaningful data or critiques are what we need. We now work and mix in a time when there are more critics filling the chat-waves with their “expert” opinion than at any other time and it’s not going to contract, it’s going to expand.

The challenge with interpreting any data – especially data about something as subjective as “sound quality” is this; and I’m quoting directly from my good friend and ex-Avid compatriot Lee Stein here, “all that is meaningful is not measurable, and all that is measurable is not meaningful” Whoa … that’s Yoda stuff right there.