Live Sound: The Crazy Significant Other of the AV World

Abstract visualization waveWe’ve all had the experience or heard the stories from a friend regarding that significant other who seems impossible to please, changes moods on a whim, completely breaks down at a time when everything seemed fine, but simultaneously can bring moments of joy, emotion, and elation that are completely incomparable to anything else in the world. If you know this experience well and understand how to work your way through it, you might just be suited for the world of live sound.

She Caught My Eye…

Like so many others in this industry I started my career on the music side of things, which eventually led to the point of working the console for live sound. My audio career began in a university recording studio, but after I started working for a local event production house I found that I enjoyed the live sound world a lot more. Live sound is built on moments. You have just one shot to capture that moment and project it to the world. If you miss a cue, the moment’s gone and you move on to the next one. This immediacy in live sound to capture what’s happening as it’s happening drew me in and was something that I never found anywhere else.

Looking at the process of a live sound event from start to finish, there are so many things that can happen as these moments pass by that prove it to be rewarding and possibly craziest relationship you’ll ever be privy to.

Our First Date…

When it comes to the preparation for an event, you can ask all the questions and clarifications that you want: input count and type, size of the venue (assuming you’re working for a production house and providing the system), time constraints/volume limitations for the neighborhood, available power in the facility — all just examples of preparation questions to help you determine what you’ll need to accomplish the show.

You can speak with the facilities manager, event planner, and client to determine what the needs are and what they are hoping to accomplish. Odds are you’ll have some continuity between those people, but there is almost always some variation in vision for the event. This is like going out on your first few dates. You’re just getting to know each other and trying to see if it’s going to be a good fit. Are you both out there looking to accomplish the same thing?

Something’s Happening Here…

After the first few dates, a relationship can begin to blossom. Now you’re spending more time together and begin clarifying the more intimate details about each other. This is where the installation of the sound system begins. You’ve carefully selected the equipment to ensure that you will be able to meet the needs of the client and gotten the best crew to put that system together. Once arriving at the venue, though, they find that the path to roll the amplifier racks and consoles into the room was recently carpeted and that they don’t have anything to put down to protect it. Once they get the gear inside, they find that while power is available in the facility, it’s actually down a 100-foot hallway in an electrical closet. While this information may have previously been addressed, the specifics might not have been shared openly.

But the team you sent is good and has planned ahead to accommodate the cabling requirements and sent someone to the local lumber yard for a few pieces of plywood. The process of setting up the system — laying down snakes and splitters to the consoles, rigging up the speakers, and getting “amp land” constructed is accomplished.

Now it’s time to start the system testing. This means doing things like tuning the speakers to the room using pink noise and program audio, ringing out any stage monitors for feedback issues, verifying all input connections are reaching their end points at consoles, processing gear, and amplifiers, setting your wireless mics to avoid interference, and, just as important, making sure any communication links being used for this production are fully operational. In each aspect of that testing phase you are verifying the same thing: are all of these devices able to communicate? In any event or relationship, if communication breaks down and you aren’t able to find a way around the issue, that’s the beginning of the end.

So far, we’ve had a cleanly executed event with only a few things we had to work our way around, but, because live sound is a moment to moment experience, our night has only just begun. There are techs out there that will reach this point and believe that now they can “set it and forget it.” That is a mindset that can lead to laziness, which in turn means they might not catch an issue in the system before it’s too late.

Let’s Make This Work…

The event has now begun and you’ve tested your system and know it’s functioning properly. You took the time to set your wireless microphones correctly. The keynote speaker brought in by your client to kick off the event is wearing lavaliere number one. The speaker walks onto the stage; you get your cue, unmute the mic and…nothing. You can see the speaker’s mouth moving, but you can’t hear a sound. You check the master faders on the console to ensure the sound is up, you check the channel itself to make sure you unmuted the right one, you check the amps to see that they’re on, you check the wireless receiver to see that it’s on, and that’s when you see it – the transmitter has been switched off.

Look at how many different points of failure there were in just making one wireless microphone pass audio. I’d like to think this is best compared to the phase in the relationship where you’re now living together. You can have all your ducks in a row, have all your amenities set up for cohabitation, and be building that home together, only to suddenly have something from the past show up in your lives derailing your progress and leaving you stuck.

These kinds of issues can occur intermittently throughout the event and have the potential to derail the whole thing. A presenter can step in front of a speaker causing feedback, someone standing at a podium can continually be turning to their left or right, and you lose audio because they’re no longer speaking into the microphone. Cables can get broken when resetting the stage from the first band to the second. Loose solder joints can insert noise and distortion. Even dust in the fader rail can insert an audible crackle into a system.

Assuming you can make it through all those unforeseeable instances, overcome those last-second hurdles, and have a contingency plan when all else fails, it is possible for you to reach that ethereal point one night where the band kicks into that groove, the crowd gets lost in the music pumping through the system, and at that moment you can share in something that doesn’t happen every night.

Live sound can drive you crazy. It’s a job that never stops between preparation, setup, operation, and system strike. It’s a job with some of the worst lows and some of the greatest highs that you can’t find anywhere else. And if you don’t have a deep-seeded love for it, you will be miserable. Sounds a lot like that crazy love of yours, doesn’t it?

One Response to “Live Sound: The Crazy Significant Other of the AV World”

  1. G’day,

    Great article, i really enjoyed reading it!
    It even taught me a few new things to try and play around with…
    Most people dont even realize how important sound is to an event, they take it for granted…

    Cheers

    Damo