The other day, I was at the gym. I have never been one to purchase gym clothes that look like… gym clothes. It has always seemed like a waste of money. Instead, when I am at the gym, I am usually wearing an old tee shirt with the sleeves cut off and shorts. Depending on the day, the level of sweat on the gym clothes at the end of the workout can vary. On cardio days, I tend to look like a mess when I am done.
So, why does that matter? Last week on my way home from the gym, my wife called and asked me to pick up some medicine for our son at the store. I had just finished running and was looking pretty gross. Here is what I learned: While at the gym, no one noticed me. I was wearing the uniform. The sweat that you could see on my clothes was a badge of honor. Five minutes later, I looked ridiculous. I was wearing shorts, a soaked through tee shirt and running shoes at the grocery store. Literally, everyone in my path stared at least a little bit. Two people stopped to ask me if I was ok.
A simple thought struck me… CONTEXT MATTERS. There are times when dressing a certain way, speaking a certain way, MIXING a certain way fits the context, and there are times when it just doesn’t. Yes, I found a way to make a gym analogy work for Audio Engineers. See if this makes sense. Over years of experience/trial and error, technical artists develop a list of opinions and preferences about how to do what we do. This list can be applied to microphone selection and placement, it can apply to how we mic a snare, how we blend vocals etc…. Over time, we all develop a style, a preferred gear list and at times a snobbery for anything but our style and our gear list. But, might I propose that in our endeavor for the perfect list that will apply to all situations, we often forget one factor. We often forget CONTEXT. The truth is there isn’t one gear list or mixing style that applies to all situations. Just like certain clothing selections work at the gym and some work in public, certain mic selections work in a traditional auditorium with a blended worship style and others work in a converted warehouse with a more modern rock style of worship.
This has yet to happen on the BLUE FORUM (BLUE’s online community on Facebook), but it is fun to look on sites and watch someone ask a simple question like, “What mic should I get for my snare drum?”. The amount of people who jump on a question like that with recommendations FOR specific models or AGAINST specific models is eye-opening. Everyone has an opinion. But, I suggest that jumping to answers of questions like these, as easy as it would seem, bypasses a CRUCIAL step in the process of success. Shouldn’t we first ask, “What is your environment?”
ADVICE: IF SOMEONE ON A BLOG OR FORUM RECOMMENDS A SPECIFIC PIECE OF EQUIPMENT WITHOUT QUESTIONING YOUR CONTEXT, RUN AWAY.
When making recommendations for people who ask questions about gear and tools consider these factors first:
- Musical Genre
- Room Acoustics
- Stage Constraints
- Player Preferences
- Leadership Expectations
- Engineer Preferences
CONTEXT MATTERS. What if, instead of immediately recommending what has worked in our own experience, we stop and ask, “What does this audience or event require?” Our plan should always be to listen first and let the sonic goal and application guide the engineer to the best microphone for the environment. Even the same musical instrument in another setting or musical style might require a different microphone choice or different processing. Mic selection is just one example. This mindset also applies to every technical and artistic decision that is made in the live mixing process, and extends to other live production technologies as well. Sometimes, certain tools fit; and at other times, they don’t work as well.
In a worship environment, this rule is even more apparent. The mixer – whether volunteer or paid professional – should be sold out to the vision of the ministry and understand the environment the leadership intends to create. Every miking and mixing decision must line up with that vision. While the mixer’s personal preferences are part of his style, preference always takes second place to the strategic vision of the church. In the two decades I have worked with church engineers, it has never ceased to amaze me how many audio engineers feel like they should have the final word on what works in the space. If you like it, but the audience doesn’t connect to it, you might be wearing gym clothes to the grocery store.
Take time to learn your context. That is where the art lives. As world-class concert FOH engineer Robert Scovill says, “We must understand the WHY before the HOW.” You can and should learn the tools of your craft. Blue exists to help you with this. But, if you don’t spend the same amount of time learning your audience, all of the tools in the world won’t get you where you want to go.
1) Listen, 2) Select Tools, 3) Engineer.