Friday, March 16, 2012

Guest Post: Karl Maciag - Audio Evolution

Karl Maciag is in the system design line of work these days but used to push faders out in venues.  Now you reap the benefit of his years of experience.  Click on the "Contributors" Link above to see his other guest posts.  Karl also writes his own blog over at Karl's Empty Space. Click on the Contributors link above to see his other posts on this blog.
Devilicus Handsomicus
I was planning on talking about system tuning in my next installment, but when I started, it didn’t come out that way. I did come back to it, but this came out first, and I think it’s a good intro to using more advanced tools in audio systems…

First, I consider myself to be very fortunate to have started in this industry at a time that we were preparing to move from analog to digital. I went to audio school at the dawn of our new millennium, starting in January 2000. The school concentrated on studio recording, and I learned primarily how to record using 2” analog tape, mixing down to ½” tape. There were only 2 digital consoles in the school, Mackie D8B consoles, and those recorded to the original ADAT on SVHS tapes. I learned how to operate analog consoles, use patchbays, align tape machines, splice tape etc. Computers were used for 2 track editing, and mastering tracks mixed at different times to match levels and normalization. Get this: Learning ProTools was an elective!! We had an intro to ProTools, and then elected if we wanted to get more in depth with it. I said “that’s pretty cool, but it will never catch on, it doesn’t sound as good as tape…” My my, have times changed, in 12 short years.

In the live world, when I was starting out, digital devices were left pretty much to effects units, and some DSP. The first house gig I had, the crossover was an analog 2-way Rane unit. It was simple: gain, and crossover frequency. My next house gig had a Yorkville TX series system. This had a digital processor, but with a preset tuned by the factory for the boxes, and sensed the output of the amps to make limiting decisions. There was some gain control for each bandpass, that’s it. My first experience with a full DSP was a JBL processor that we had at a rental company I worked at. It stored presets, had a limited number of parametric filters, and could be set up to be a 2, 3, or 4 way system by reconfiguring the outputs. It was pretty modern, and even by today’s standards, a good device. The flexibility of the presets allowed us to use the same drive rack with this processor, with different amp or speaker combinations, and change quickly. That moved into the Ashly Protea systems, DBX Driverack, BSS, XTA, etc. The user interfaces were different, but they all did the same thing.

Consoles were pretty wild. It was all analog for a long time. I saw some digital consoles at larger events, Yamaha PM1D most notably. I’ll never forget my first show on a digital console. It was a Innovason console, whatever their original digi desk was. I was in Montreal, and it was the first show on a tour with a band that I never mixed for. New band, foreign desk, and French was the first language in the house. In his best English, the house tech said “remember to always hit le select button before you do anything…” It was a new world. I loved that everything was on one surface. I loved I had unlimited outboard of comps and gates. I loved that after soundcheck, my settings were saved, and recalled when my set was ready to go. That wet my appetite for finding out what is possible with digital.

At this point, there’s not much you can’t do with digital. With processing like Soundweb London, or Biamp Nexia, you have a huge pallete for signal routing, processing, logic functions, and multiple control surfaces to control all or some of it. That was the stuff of dreams when I was starting out, and it’s all here now…

I think the point I want to make is, all the DSP in the world cannot help you if you don’t know how to apply it. You should know how to make it sound just as good with an analog desk as you can with a digital one. There’s a need more than ever to be educated in everything related to our business. That Innovason desk in Montreal would have been useless to me if I didn’t know to ask where to find the compressors, and preamp controls. If I didn’t know what a parametric EQ was, I wouldn’t have been able to function. If you don’t know what you need to use, how can you ask where it is?

This year, manufacturers have rolled out mixers where the primary control surface is an iPad. That’s a scary thought…not because the world is going all digital, I’ve accepted and embraced that a long time ago, but rather because these sophisticated tools are going to be more widely available, and in more demand than ever before. I’m not afraid that people with an iPad and a couple cheap mics are going to under cut me out of a job. I’m afraid that the standard of what is acceptable for live audio will become so low, that all of us will be irrelevant. If the common occurrence becomes a bunch of guys with iPads trying to figure out how to use a parametric EQ, and turn the noise gate off on the vocal channel, it eventually will be accepted. It’s up to us to make sure there is a higher standard alternative.

Is that a realistic concern? I’m not sure. But I do know that the only way to stay at the top, and not being left behind is to be on top of your skills, and willing to adapt. Never stop learning. I hope this blog has helped you answer questions, or brought stuff up that’s made you dig deeper. Ask questions, and keep it loud. Thanks for reading…

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