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Welcome to sound design live. I’m Nathan Lively, and I just completed the fourth presentation of a live webinar training on sound system tuning. The webinars went well, but there just wasn’t enough time to answer all of the question that the 535 attendees sent in. But I don’t want to leave those people out in the cold so I have gathered all of the questions and I am going to answer all of here on the podcast.
I have organized them into sections, so today we are going to talk about the Why of sound system tuning. Because whether your event is a small corporate event or a large-scale theatrical production, why tune a system at all?
#1 Siva: Why tune the sound system?
The 3 main reasons that people want to optimize their sound systems are:
- Consistency: sound system tuning is the best way to bring more confidence and consistency to your work so that the mix you hear at FOH is the same mix that every single audience member hears, not just today at this location, but every day in every location. The more you can be sure that the mix that’s coming out of your console is being faithfully delivered to the entire audience, the better you can focus on creating an amazing show. You don’t have to worry about running around every few minutes to check on different areas, you can be completely present to the event that is unfolding in front of you.
- Demand: Get more freelance gigs: The best way to grow your career as an audio engineer is to be so good they can’t ignore you. And the best way to be so good they can’t ignore you is by optimizing your sound system to produce consistent results night after night. When you can produce consistent results, you are going to be the one getting more personal referrals and generating more demand for your services. But you don’t have take my word for it. Take a look at this quote from TEC award winner and FOH mixer for Pink Floyd, Buford Jones: In live sound, consistency is what it’s all about. Managers and artists are looking for someone that can go from venue to venue and reproduce a predictable sound. Not an easy task especially when you’re not carrying your own production. Management and artists would like to ‘trust’ the sound to you. And that leads to the third reason, which I know we don’t talk about that often, but resonates in the Sound Design Live community…
- Fun: I’m talking about enjoying our work. None of us got into this business because we wanted to be rich and famous or deal with invisible unending technical problems all day. We got here because we are passionate about great art and we love the thrill of the show. I don’t want to be running around solving problems and trying to figure out why the mix sounds terrible in the front rows during the show, I want to be in the moment, completely present to what’s happening on stage, creating art, having an impact on people’s lives. These are the main goals that people talk to me about when they talk about why sound system tuning is important to them. *And they’re great goals. And the best part is that the market is wide open for people who are looking to create real value for their clients and their audience. The live event industry is growing every day and there is a real demand for good audio.
#2 Kyra: What is sound system tuning? Is it only used in live sound?
The term is kind of funny because we are not piano tuners, but it has become the colloquial short hand for sound system optimization. And sound system optimization is just another way to say, maximizing our results, despite inherent limitation.
So how do we define a maximized result? For a long time I thought this meant a flat frequency response. A few years into my career, I was working on theatre and concert sound in Portugal and got one of those handheld RTAs from Phonic. It was so cool. I could take a bunch of different measurements in a room, randomly, average them together, and invert the result to set a graphic EQ, and supposedly return the system’s frequency response to flat.
I kept trying this method on and off for a while, not getting great results. Luckily, I was turned on to the work of Bob McCarthy and his principles of minimum variance. It’s these principles that give us guidelines for what is a maximized result. Those guidelines are minimum level, spectral, and sonic image variance.
That means it shouldn’t be super loud in the front and barely audible in the back. It should be as close to the same level as possible. It shouldn’t be super bright in front and dark and dull in the back. It should be as close to the same as possible. And if an actor is far upstage right, he shouldn’t sound like he’s coming from downstage left, he should sound like he’s come from upstage right. So the goal of sound system tuning isn’t flat sound or good sound, but same sound. And to answer your last question: Is it only used in live sound? No, it’s used everywhere where speakers are used to transmit waveforms to eardrums.
#3 Malcolm: Will I be able to master the art of Sound system tuning?!
Malcolm, the truth is, sound system tuning is potentially a never ending task, and the amount you can learn as well. There are some processes that produce a pass or fail result that can be learned in a few minutes and then there are other more complex processes that can take years to learn to do well. But just the fact that you attended the webinar and you care about this stuff puts you ahead of most sound engineers out there today.
#4. Hal: Is sound system tuning without software really possible? Or, are you only shooting for good enough?
Here’s how I think about it: If a doctor were trapped in an elevator with a pregnant woman who is about to give birth, he wouldn’t want to perform that operation without his tools, but he would do whatever it took to get the job done. So, I wouldn’t want to go to work without my audio analyzer, but if I ended up in a situation where I didn’t have it, I would still do whatever it took to get the job done.
#5. Volker: Is linear sound really good sound?
So Volker, I have some questions for you? Wouldn’t it be great if we could have the same sound in every seat, out to the broadcast truck, and into the overflow rooms that we are hearing at our mix position?
Wouldn’t it be great if we could get the same response from system to system and room to room so that if we are on tour, we can start with the same mix settings we had the night before?
Isn’t it more fun to mix a show if we’re not fighting the system and room and worrying about what the balcony is hearing?
Wouldn’t your clients love it if you could deliver consistent results?
So is linear sound good sound? No. Linear just means that you get the same thing out of it, as you put into it. So if you put garbage into it, you’ll get garbage out of it. And if you put milk and honey into it, you’ll get Rick Astley out of it.