Thursday, June 2, 2011

Mixing a Spelling Bee

I happened to be watching the Scripps Spelling Bee on ESPN tonight and it reminded me of my recent experiences providing sound reinforcement for a small spelling bee. You might think mixing a spelling bee would be a rather dull task. I'll admit it can get monotonous. However, like most things in sound reinforcement it can be as involved a task as you make it.

Spelling bees are a lot like weddings in the sense that you will have a very small channel count, but the material coming over those channels is very important stuff. I've heard some engineers say these tasks are "simple" thinking only of the channel count. I wonder if these folks are actually thinking about the importance of the job they are doing. Those kids put in a lot of work to get on that platform. To them, the ability to hear the words and the ability to be heard means everything. The pressure is on because you typically have people who do not have good mic technique and you typically are dealing with multiple output feeds. The contestants need to hear the judges and announcements. The judges need to hear the contestants, and the audience needs to hear everything. The choice of music (whether or what) to play before/after the event can be an important one. A serious sound engineer would shudder to think that a speller missed a word partly because he or she didn't hear something properly or was distracted by feedback.

I used to supply two microphones for the contestants: one for the taller contestants, and one for the short ones. But I've learned that many contestants were "in the middle" and confused about which mic to use. In more recent runs we've simply adjusted the mic between the two age groups and set it up in such a way that it works for most users. I end up riding the faders a lot. I'll typically provide a monitor speaker for the contestant, one for the judge, and one for the contestants' sitting area because these people will be out of the coverage of the main house system. So that's as many as four outputs, each with it's own mix for only about two inputs. The placement of the monitors for the contestant and judge is critical. The purpose of these devices is to make sure they can hear each other. But you can actually reduce intelligibility if the distances are right because one party will hear the other both in direct sound of the voice and sound from the monitor, but these sounds won't arrive at the listener's ear at the same time. So speaker placement and delay considerations are a must. It just goes to show you that nothing in audio is as simple as it looks. Even the simplest events like a small town spelling bee require competent, knowledgable, and interested and alert operators.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Thoughts for the New Year

As I sit here in January and contemplate the new year I must admit that I am in an odd place of transition and my contemplations are not without a bit of uncertainty. 

2010 was an awesome year for my audio interests. I managed to pull in about a 40% increase in revenue by doing about half the number of jobs as 2009. That's mostly a reflection of what can happen when you get rid of debt. I was able to be picky about the gigs I accepted because I didn't feel a pressing need to pay for equipment. 2010 also saw me improving my equipment capabilities as I was able to score some old QSC amps in a road case for a real bargain. These replace an old Audio-Centron amp that supplied all my power up to this point. 

My road map for the future is clear. What is unclear is which section of it I will tackle first and when it will take off. There are three areas I want to explore to improve my skills. They are, in no particular order: recording, system optimization, and larger shows. 

I've had a long-standing desire to hone my recording skills. I've started several projects that I've been unable to finish, sometimes because of my own shortcomings, and sometimes because the band I was working with fell apart. I plan to work through some of my issues and get more experience with my equipment and methods by doing some of my own music. If this pans out it will give me some better reference material while fulfilling a long-time dream. When I feel certain that it won't be a waste of a client's time or money I plan to market my skills and rent out a local studio space. I'd like to someday have a mixing room at home, but I don't have any desire to run a studio.

To improve my tech skills. It's time for the SynAudCon Sound Systems for Technicians class. This class will solidify my knowledge about system optimization and troubleshooting and help me to understand what tools I need to be a successful technician. I don't know how many times I've been asked by a church or other organization to fix their sound system. I'd prefer to gain the skills I need to do that job correctly than to turn them down. 

Finally, there's nothing like the thrill of mixing a show successfully. Most of the shows I've mixed to date have been low-key, low-risk gigs. I'd like to move up a rung on the ladder and do some stuff that will stretch my skills. I'm thinking of seeking out a small festival or another church concert. I don't have the equipment for this, but my strategy is to rent what I need and use my gear as spares and backups.

So I have a clear path forward in several areas. What's not clear is which one will take off and when. I started 2010 with nothing scheduled and this year is no different. Most of my work has happened in the latter half of the year. I've never been one to push hard to get new business. Rather, I prefer to see what will come my way. It will be interesting to see what God has in store in 2011.