My Pet Peeves in the Audio Industry

Everything you do can be utterly satisfying, if it excites, intrigues and fuels you. That one thing for me is audio. The entire field, from music creation and production, studio work, live sound mixing to just enjoying a great piece of music is something that fills me with joy and energy. But as with everything in life, it can never be just fun and games - there are always a few situations or moments that can slightly spoil your mood and get under your skin. Nothing drastic or severe, just more of a nuisance that rubs you the wrong way. I am sure that others might not even notice the things that bother me, but have other things that makes them grind their teeth and mumble inaudible grunts. And they are not constant - they can change with the years. Welcome to my current list.

Audio marketing that claims “sound is easy”

Sound did not get easier, we just have more tools at our disposal to make it work. And more tools inherently means that more knowledge is required from technical teams, not less.

In the past decade, I believe we have witnessed a small revolution in the audio field, especially in live sound. The amount of tools that became accessible to the masses with the introduction of affordable digital mixers, DSP speakers, apps and software is vast. Every channel we work with nowadays has the option of parametric EQs, dynamic processors, tape emulators, studio grade plugins - whatever you might need, it is right there at your fingertips. We route and patch complex signal paths with a touch of a screen instead of fiddling with cables, EQs come with different flavours and characters, we have visual representations of every minute detail on large screens and to top it all off, we can save, load, change and recall settings within seconds. The manufacturers of modern audio gear claim that sound is easier than ever, pointing at presets for specific microphones on specific instruments, readily available channel strip configurations and automated processes for speaker alignment. They however forget to mention that the physics of audio remain unchanged. The microphone will still cause feedback, the speaker will still propagate sound according to his directivity pattern and there is no amount of processing that can fix rookie mistakes (like trying to use condenser mics without phantom power). So I almost break out in hives when I see yet another product advertised as the “anyone can do it” solution in audio. If anything, audio got more difficult and complex. If for nothing else, the expectation of an audience member who bought the ticket is now higher than a decade or so ago. They are now used to high definition sound with crisp vocals and energy of a large scale show they visited last week and they expect nothing less from the local sound company. The fact is that most sound systems nowadays can provide that - if they are setup and operated properly. So the pressure is on to take every show to a level that could not be attained 15 years ago, because of the limitations of the then gear.

Sound did not get easier, we just have more tools at our disposal to make it work. And more tools inherently means that more knowledge is required from technical teams, not less. But it also means your show can be on par with a large scale concert if you can make it happen, becoming more rewarding and with the opportunity of a much better outcome.

Multitude of formats and lack of standardization

Sometimes I envy the lighting guys. For years they have had the advantage of talking about the same data transfer format (DMX) across all their devices, no matter what brand they were. Even with more recent formats, like ArtNet, they seem to be picked up faster and supported by seemingly all major brands in the industry.
Audio, on the other hand, has no such luck. Try marrying a Dante console with a MADI controlled stage rack, and then distribute that signal to an AES50 networked monitor board. There is a lot of IT knowledge, additional gear and substantial cost involved in trying to control all these proprietary formats from various brands, and sometimes it just cannot be done. I have a dream that one day I might wake up in a world where all audio components will have the ability to talk to one another in a way that is simple to setup, integrated in the gear itself and allows you to perform all signal transfer and data control without additional conversion modules and frustrating gear setups. A man can dream, right?

Suspicious looks when I bring out my measurement gear

About 6 months ago I was asked to do a relatively small gig at a venue. Hired by the artist, I got in touch with the PA provider and told them that I will be at the venue about an hour before the act arrives to make sure all is in order. When I got there, I checked out the setup and then went to the console to unpack my gear. The moment I took out my measurement microphone I heard the sound engineer from the local company say: “I never rely on those things, I trust my ears more.” The statement was followed by nods of approval from the rest of the crew. It was as if using a measurement rig means one is using a crutch because their ears are not “golden” enough. I responded that I agree that the final call should always be done after critical listening, but that I use my measurement rig primarily for time alignment between the elements. I did my measurements, adjusted the timing and EQ parameters and got a fairly flat response after turning down the subs for almost 20dB. The local crew thought I was mad and commented that I just “choked” their system. It was a great show and it sounded really nice, but I could not shake this bad feeling that in this day and age we are still so reluctant to embrace technology and disregard all system design principles because “it is not how we do things”. I didn’t mind their approach, I just really don’t like it when people give sarcastic comments about others who want to do just a bit more, try something else, go the extra mile. I truly believe that technology in the future will come at us at an increasingly faster pace. Those who will not embrace the fact that we have to learn more and more just to keep up, will be left more and more behind. I know which group I want to belong to.

Maybe I am getting older and things bother me more. Or maybe these grievances have just reached a critical mass of “grumpiness” and had to come out. In any case, I don’t let any of these lessen my excitement or take my joy away. And I wish the same for you.