There’s nothing quite like a festive flight to put a smile on each and every rosy-cheeked face of the travelling masses. Terminals bustle and hustle: two African women and their eight children check in 20 bulging bags; scores of couples jetting off for a romantic New Year’s break; and the grey faces of business travellers all clutter my path. And, here we are, another new year.
What an interesting year that last year was. Everyone tried to go compact, with Sis, PRO1s and more PA with more 8” drivers that still can’t practically deliver what they say they can. Anyway, onwards and upwards. This is the new year, so there will be lots of things for us to raise our eyebrows at whilst a man in a branded insignia jacket skips his way down a cobbled street playing a flute, luring out all our integrity and drowning it the Missisonic River. My new year’s resolution is not to be so susceptible to these flaunts and flings of a more audio variety.
The woman sitting beside me on the Fokker 70 is wearing a scent of smoked badger and throws me right back into my past, to a world very different to the one I live in now, a world that was more innocent, or at least yet to be proved guilty. The engines roar into life and we are pushed back into our seats as we hurtle forward into the pulverising rain and numbing blackness. It’s quite bizarre looking out the window in cloudy, rainy and dark conditions. The light at the end of the wing flashes, revealing the blur of motionless rain drops.
Looking at this, I cast my mind back to Mr. Phillips’ physics classes. Physics was the only class in school that actually made sense to me. Cause and effect; it seemed so obvious. Unfortunately, its chemistry and biology counterparts were more elusive, but that’s another story. These thoughts reveal something I haven’t thought about for a long time, which is my love for physics. During my 20s, passion gave way to arrogance and indolence that is common in people so inept at living. But recently and realistically, through these words that I write every month, I have rediscovered my affection.
I trust your festive seasons were as pleasant, filling and blurry as mine. I had a lovely family Christmas; full of a little too much wine, far too much rum in the custard. You know what it’s like when the family gets together; a few glasses of wine and a couple of board games, then passion and reminiscence get thrown in the pot together. Then next thing you know you are sitting cross-legged in front of a 1930s gramophone listening to a woman warbling away accompanied by a set of laid- back musicians. I realised then that I’ve never heard the sound of a gramophone before. I’ve heard sounds that have been recreated to sound like this, or recordings of this type of sound, but I’ve never actually heard these machines make this sound. Ok, just for the record, it sounded shit. The needle looked more like the wreckage of a nail bomb than a carefully-crafted stylus, and the record itself would have probably survived a nuke. But if this was all you had, it would have been amazing.
As my legs became deader from the cross-legged position, I found myself gawking into the sound hole. This technology seems relatively stone age to us, but the shape is very familiar: it’s the same shape as a horn- loaded PA system. This might seem primitive, but the technology we use today can be traced back to here; and even further back than this one immaculate example.
Technology has been honed and perfected over time, but not reinvented. I think this says a lot for the basic principles of audio physics, which is why it does bemuse me that some people out there know very little about how sound really behaves. They twiddle and fiddle, tamper and tinker to their hearts content, without understanding exactly what they’re doing. Our audio environment can be a very special place to experience a performance – and with the right kind of nurture it will be.
We’ve seen in the last few years the rise of the producer- musician-I-gonna-take-this-on- the-road live shows where they assume that because their tracks ‘work’ in every club round the world, they’ll work really well if they just give the FOH engineer a left and right. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Constantly changing thermodynamics and polished concrete surfaces come together to create a very volatile space. A live environment isn’t a constant, and never will be. Room responses will always change, so a live environment is all about compromise and, hopefully, optimise. Compromise isn’t a dirty word, we do it all the time. The most important thing to think about compromise is how you compromise, not where. Does it really matter if your mic position is off by 8° when half your PA system is pointing towards a wall? Should you really be hacking the EQ on the graphic equaliser, when physically moving your speakers a foot to the right will remove that 180Hz resonance? How much phase distortion do you get from graphic equalisers? What do all these little things do to the overall sound? Understand the physics!
A positive effect on one element will be detrimental to another. That’s the audio paradox.