Learn to Listen with Dave Rat

By Kirsten Nelson 10/9/2012

It is said that Leonardo DaVinci rarely let sleep get in the way of his inventive thinking. The prospect of losing several hours a day to the dark purposelessness of shut-eye only would limit his potential to create something new and change a new aspect of human understanding.

Sometimes it seems the business of sound and video doesn't really leave room for rest, either. The all-nighter and the predawn load-in are badges of honor in an industry that serves to make operations seamless on the surface while mayhem is contained behind the scenes.

So in a Dallas hotel on October 1 when a room full of audio acolytes young and old were told that legendary audio engineer and product developer Dave Rat would be on his way downstairs a bit later than he'd planned (but still ahead of schedule), the reason was not entirely surprising. He'd just discovered a new way to demonstrate the perception of comb filtering on both a vertical and horizontal axis, and was breaking his own rule about changing his presentation at the last minute.

Rat, founder of Rat Sound in Camarillo, California had just arrived in town on tour with The Red Hot Chili Peppers, the band whose story evolved in tandem with his own successful trajectory. When Rat is on the road, which is constantly, he kills time between tour dates engaging in what some would deem a full-time job of providing Dave Rat Audio Seminars all over the world. When he appeared in Dallas, Rat had already done 37 sound seminars since his inaugural class in April of this year.

Some seminars are planned far in advance, while others spring up like the ever-evolving ideas in the mind of their host. A message is sent out via social media in the waning days of September: "Are there any #soundnerds in Dallas who want to go to a Dave Rat Sound Seminar on October 1?" And within hours, there are confirmations for 30 people to attend.

 
Dave Rat kept his audience rapt until after midnight in Dallas, TX.
Rat has a following any educator would envy. The most astute and polite sound enthusiasts in the world show up to events in Beirut and Istanbul and Dallas and Austin and anywhere else where Rat finds himself with a few extra hours to share with the world.

And actually, it's not just a few hours. From the time Rat opened the door to the hotel conference room, perused the crowd of quiet and attentive students before him, and extolled, "Allll right, sound humans!" it was five hours before he stopped sharing technical knowledge, business, and philosophical insights. He only broke for ten minutes to consume an apple before launching full-tilt again until 11.00 p.m., when he finished the first part of his presentation. Then the crowd actually demanded an encore. I'm not kidding. The audience wanted to hear the subwoofers talk Rat has been discussing in various media, and the energy in the room never waned as the seminar went past midnight.

At the start of his entertaining and engaging soliloquy, Rat stated the purpose of the Sound Seminars as a means "to share the information I wish people told me when I started out. I'm against audio arrogance. Where people won't share what they know because they want job security. I'm against people not working together in general, whether its manufacturers or vendors."

These are the facts. Dave Rat doesn't just talk. He composes. His modest surfer demeanor would probably shrug at the compliment, but the material covered in a Dave Rat Audio Seminar educates not just on the nuts and bolts of live sound, but also on the practices that help to build a good reputation in business. The word accountability is not just a bullet point on a presentation slide, it's demonstrated in anecdotes about taking sole responsibility for how things sound. And suggestions for how to best set up stage monitors are founded in the practical, and soon to be tactical, with Dave Rat's growing line of Sound Tools providing a literal laser focus on this task.

Sound Humans

The theory behind inventors' reluctance to sleep is that it might interrupt a train of thought that might produce a new idea. Close your eyes and you might miss it. (Of course, we all know about answers appearing in dreams, but that's another topic.)

So when you're Dave Rat, and you think all the time, and you work all the time, and in the meantime you're also running a business and a life, you get a lot of ideas. One of the most pertinent ideas that resonates beyond the world of live sound and into just about any aspect of a well-lived life is one of the core ideas in Rat's current sound practice.

He actually speaks in perfect paragraphs, so I'll just share what I scribbled down as he spoke: "I started thinking about what our true purpose is in audio, what are we trying to do? Is our job to create perfect sound? And if it is, which sound is it? Exactly like the source? Like rehearsal? Like the first album? Like the second album after they got the big record deal and the producer? And I realized that if our purpose is to make it correct, we're going to fail. Our purpose in all live events, whether it's sports, houses of worship, live shows, anything, is to create memories. If people who came to that show remember it for the rest of their lives, you've succeeded. And you create those memories by building a connection between the artist and the audience."

All five senses need to be engaged in the making of memories, and Rat provided ample information about how to calibrate the sonic and physical environment to produce the most memorable effect. He also emphasized the importance of "creating a bubble" around the artist to best enable them to perform and interact with the audience on a visceral level.

How this plays out in the field will be an interesting notion to all y'all sound humans out there. A melding of technical and philosophical ideals occurs every time Rat stands at his trusty old Midas desk, which is positioned peripheral to the stage so Rat can walk along the console's length and stand at the crowd barrier in front of the mix position to feel like a member of the audience. The row of faders is unlit and unlabeled out of deference to the craft of making music. "If the musicians I'm working for have learned their instruments so they don't have to look at them while they're playing-so they can engage with the audience-why shouldn't I hold myself to the same standard?"

The console as instrument is actually a great metaphor for how Rat works shows. Just as a musician improvises around a set of fixed notes to create a new impression of a song, Rat has developed a new philosophy in the mix. "Nowhere in nature does the same sound come from two points at the same time, in phase and accurate," he posits. So why does live sound have to be about creating the exact same sound from two points? "No one ever said it had to be that way."

Live shows are unique in space and time, Rat elaborates, and in order to truly make them memorable, the sound should immerse listeners in a more natural experience of music. Rat's constantly evolving philosophy translates this notion into a mix which avoids the symmetrical at all costs, and thus simultaneously also avoids comb filtering issues and the notorious "power alley". It has the additional benefit of providing each section of an arena with its own calibrated mix. No one is stuck outside the perfect stereo landscape created at other shows. Everyone is in their own section of a sonic picture.

I had the opportunity to witness this notion first-hand at the Red Hot Chili Peppers show at American Airlines Arena the night after the seminar. Watching Rat build his mix made me think of a conductor selecting pieces of sonic imagery to create a diverse and varied cohesive picture. From dual-mic'd instruments came two options for lows, mids, and highs that were scattered across line arrays, fills, and subs. I felt immersed in the sound the way all those surround evangelists philosophized as ideal ten years ago.

"It's a pyschoacoustic experience, and it's there to have fun with," Rat said in his seminar the night before this very big, very real and clear demo. "I want as many things coming from as many different directions as possible."

That's a good ideal in life and work. And with that idea still lingering in the suddenly vacant arena, the tour packed up and rolled out of town, and Rat was onto the next city-seminar-show. Never stop, and always keep the mix diverse, sound humans.

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