The Quest for the Perfect Mix: Human and Technology Skill Sets

by Baker Lee
in FOH at Large
Illustration by Andy Au
Illustration by Andy Au

During the course of a recent conversation with one of my shop guys, the discussion turned to analog consoles, bi-amplification, crossovers and crossover points. I was talking to him about how one could control the audio from the amplifiers or crossover either by turning down a given field or by moving the crossover point. He admitted to me that he “missed being a part of the whole analog thing,” but would really like to learn about it, since he does find it “fascinating.”

‡‡         Not-So-Good-Old Days

I’m not sure that “fascinating” is how I would describe the audio equipment of a bygone era, but then again, there are those who might be mesmerized by rotary phones and answering machines. Regardless of the compelling attributes of an analog audio, there was — at the time — a definite set of skills required to operate this particular technology. To ensure success, a certain knowledge and application of such was a necessity for any engineer back in those days of yore. Even though the technology now seems antiquated and quaint, one must remember that — in the way back when — many of the systems that employed these tools were considered state-of-the-art.

Let me be very clear that this statement is by no means a lament, and I do not long for the audio systems of the “good old days gone by.” I have fully adjusted to the current technology, but as I have a history to look back upon, I can appreciate how far the science has come. I do believe that the skills and knowledge that are now required of an engineer are in certain ways more demanding than they used to be and, as the latest technologies replace the old, it is only natural to let go of the skills that are not required and to embrace the new. For example, consider tape splicing. This was a mandatory skill for anyone who was trying to make a living as a recording engineer, and for all those who mourn the loss of magnetic tape, there are that many more that are liberated by the virtual ability to cut and paste.

Technology has enabled us to have a bigger sound in a smaller package, and many of the newer speakers are very close to being plug-and-play systems. With the advent of “smart” systems, the formulas that were once required learning are not that imperative to the operational knowledge of an engineer. As the mixing and matching of components has been replaced by well-engineered turnkey systems, the skills that were once so important have been replaced by other skills required to operate the new systems. The comprehensive inclusion of computer, digital and RF technologies into the world of audio has required the modern engineer to have a command of skills that, like the technology itself, did not exist in a previous time. In-ear monitors have definitely changed the way musicians hear themselves and, subsequently, it also changes how the engineer mixes for the same. There is no “better” or “worse” between mixing ears or wedges, it’s just that one discipline gets replaced by another, and just as our technologies evolve, so do our skills.

‡‡         Ramping Up

We are an adaptive bunch and, as older technology is replaced with the new-and-improved tools of the trade, we change accordingly. Skills that at one time belonged to a specialized group of technicians are now a commonplace requirement for most practicing engineers. For those among us who take a great pleasure in the electronics and the operation thereof, we have that many more bells and whistles to manipulate and watch over. Much like musicians who spend countless hours practicing and thinking about their trade, a devoted audio engineer enjoys nothing more than working with gear and learning how to apply all the technologies in regard to perfecting a mix.

It’s a great escape and an enjoyable way to lose oneself without self medicating and — while it is important to spend time pondering the elusive “perfect mix” and to stay abreast of the current technological innovations — it is also important to remember that, as a working audio engineer, there are more skills required of us than just being technologically adept.

For those who find little solace in human companionship and feel that a good cologne could be made from the smell of burning solder, it would make sense to avoid getting on a tour bus, no matter how developed their engineering skills they might be.

If one’s comfort level between human relations and audio gear leans towards the latter, then it would be advisable for that person to seek employment where contact with humans is kept at a minimum — considering that the technical ability we all hold in such high regard is only a part of the skill set required of a live engineer. Regardless of whether an engineer is on the road touring or doing live events for a local sound company, their communication skills have to be honed and on par with their technical expertise.

If the user is a proficient engineer, then any gear functions should operate as expected and the audio signal will flow where it’s directed. After all, these are machines and, if functioning, should provide a desired end result. Humans, on the other hand, are quirky and not so dependable. Unlike a specific plug-in or console, which pretty much stays the same from day to day, humans can be erratic and grouchy for no discernable reason. They have likes and dislikes which usually affects the way they interact with those around them. Many humans have insecurities that are often not rooted in reality, which also affects the other people with whom they interact. While a good portion of the humans we deal with are easygoing and pleasant, others may be on power trips, only feeling better about themselves when they make those around them feel ill at ease.

Dealing with humans is a complicated task, and the skills required in doing so are often vaguely defined and not necessarily correct. To properly utilize your technological chops as a live engineer, the development of interpersonal skills become an absolute necessity.