The emergence and acceptance of digital technology in the past decade or two has been good, but for more reasons than we realise.
It's drawn attention back to the core attitudes and skills that are needed to navigate a relatively new field (historically speaking). It's easier to forget that while technology is relatively new, the principles we use when applying it are anything but.
A similar explosion of science and 'technology' happened between the 14th and16th Century, when many engineers, architects, technicians and artists took a closer look at the work that they were doing. They were able to find similarities across their different disciplines crossing many preconceived boundaries of their time.
As well as being studious observers of life and nature, they had an understanding of maths, language, design and the sciences, leading them to be adept at their craft. And so, as a part of the modern day creative class I think we also have an exciting opportunity to remind ourselves of similar timeless principles...
Geometry & Algebra
As we stand, fingers at faders, do we ask ourselves "what is the shape of our mix?" Are we placing enough value on our spatial awareness of the three dimensional soundscape that already exists acoustically on a stage before we enlarge (amplify) it. Do we notice where a band naturally position themselves in relation to each other; thinking about prominence, angle and physical movement of the band members themselves, how they embody their instrument and how the dynamics of the band as a group of people gives life to the dynamics of the music?
In a previous column I commented on the concept of negative space, which can be defined by looking at the shapes and spaces formed between objects. How much we have in a mix is just as important as what we lower in it – and when we do it.
What if we considered symmetry, asymmetry, balance and equilibrium in our mixes and how these create harmony (as well as tension) on a regular basis? From our constant experience in line array usage we know the importance of understanding the difference between the properties of a sphere and the properties of a cylinder. Knowing the algebraic formulas (eg. 4π r² and 2π r h) is somewhat important but surely not as important as grasping the concept itself, and how this applies to the benefits and issues in a given acoustic space.
Algebra is ultimately a discipline of ratio – the relationship of given interlinked objects. Looking at it mathematically a mix is precisely that; a balance held together by certain ratios that we choose as engineers, according to judgement and taste. These ratios ensure that our mix is the same in a small venue, a small festival or an arena. Disregarding nuances created by system differences and acoustics, the relationship between kick, snare and hats as well as the other drum lines are kept because of the precision with which we preserve certain ratios.
Art & Design
The study of harmonious proportions is probably most historically noted in the discovery of the golden ratio – famously depicted by Leonardo Da Vinci's famous Vitruvian Man painting. Art utilises shape within space just as geometry does.
Many engineers of the visual medium such as photographers, videographers, graphic designers and architects alike all know this principle, even if at a gut intuitive level. Next time you watch a well directed film, see if you can detect the splitting of the screen into thirds or the proportions between the characters and the landscape. Is music any different? Visually it's easier to picture these ratios but they still exist in the aural landscape just as
much as the visual.
I think all art is transcendent. Aesthetics isn't merely defined by what is pleasant to the eye but also what is pleasant to the ear. Once we know a few of the basic forms, we can then also deviate from them and experiment, but wild experimentation without the knowledge and understanding of structure is flawed. It's 'happy accidents' cannot be reproduced and delivered consistently.
Engineering and Architecture
Although being a type of engineer, it can be said that we have another part of our role which has more to do with architecture. Engineering is the building and maintenance of stable structures. Engineering based tasks include rigging and flying PA, patching, fault finding, repair and ringing out a system.
The engineering phase is mainly a protective process as it is important to make sure equipment is rigged and flown safely, and ears and speakers are protected from feedback. In the traditional sense architecture is the planning and design of this structure. This process usually begins when we are involved in the spec'ing, system design and prepping phases. On-site our role shifts again to engineering.
Once we have rigged and rang out our system and the line check is complete, the engineering side of our role is mostly over and the process of implementing design begins again – crafting our mix towards the style of the band, the songs they are playing and the sensibilities of the audience. In the same way that architects design a building to a certain spec while also possessing a well trained artistic skill, as sound engineers we also relish the point where our system is built and mixing begins.
This process is mathematical in some ways, but also demands an ear for shaping sonic detail that subconsciously moves our audience. Maybe this part of our role takes longer to learn and is harder to teach but it's often the defining factor between what makes a mix merely audible or full of life – especially for us front-of-house engineers. Obviously there are those of us who are doing only one of these two roles but more often than not we are wearing both hats.
Physics is a discipline we are more commonly well aware of. We all know sound emanates from movement – whether that's the vibrating skin of a kick drum, the oscillating movement of guitar strings or the vibration of the vocal chords. We often forget that essentially what we are doing is manipulating physical energy.
While photographers, video engineers, lighting engineers, and many others who work in the visual medium are curating and manipulating the field of light; we work with it's counterpart. Given the right gear and technology we can achieve incredible results by using and understanding physics to our advantage, but I think it's sometimes important to remember that we can't defy it.
I remember when I first started mixing in very small venues early on and being frustrated at not being able to take a mix any further. While my aims to push my boundaries were well intentioned, nowadays I also realise that trying to push against those limits without the appropriate tools is fruitless.
Tony Andrews has often commented on the quality Funktion-One's speaker design being based on giving paramount attention to the physical properties of the enclosures themselves and the design and textures of the rooms they're being installed in. I know of other manufacturers who posses a similar ethos and I think it's an attitude we as engineers can all adopt as well.
Biology & Chemistry
While physics is universally acknowledged in our field, we often overlook principles of biology. As listeners and appreciators of music and high quality audio, we sometimes take for granted the importance of dynamics until we hear the effects of over-compression, which have 'squashed the life out of a song'.
Subconsciously at least, we know that music is supposed to be somewhat living and breathing – biological. This is ultimately what we're aiming to translate in our mixes. Sometimes we forget that our ancestors used to make all of their instruments from animal skins. There is inherent and unique life in the texture of strings, vocal chords and skinned instruments.
It's easy to forget that all texture, timbre and tone stem from this root level first. Fast forward to the modern day and if it isn't natural skins that we're using then it's most often some form of synthetics. These synthetics still emulate their predecessors, but rather than coming from biological origins, come from chemical processes from the earth, as well as human experimentation to create a new breed of flexibility or fortification. Nylon, steel and brass are all examples of these.
The argument of purists who downplay the validity of bands heavily using synths instead of acoustic instruments is much like the debate between analogue and digital. Trying to come to a conclusion over which is better is missing the point entirely. Synthesizers can't replace the beauty and texture of the pianoforte; but on the other hand can add elements that it can't create.
The human element of everything we do can't be fully predicted or replicated by DSP and is the reason why we cant always apply generic techniques and processing for similar sound sources and instruments. For this reason, perhaps every interaction between the sound engineer and a familiar acoustic instrument should be a new one.
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