The Center Holds

  • You've been there or you've seen it happen to someone else. Helpless, at the center of a crowd, someone is doing what they think is right, when suddenly they are informed that they are mistaken. What they're doing is absolutely wrong, and the person who is informing them of this fact is an expert on the matter. It makes you shudder just to think of it. An audience member boldly walking up to FOH and proclaiming the sound engineer's errors for all within earshot to hear, and all within eyeshot to guess.
  • We are entering the prime season for these experts to come forward and have their say about what it is that audio engineers do. Outdoor festival season exposes a countless number of hapless victims to this trauma every year. There they stand, exposed, behind a console, protected only by a tent to shade them from the sun. Surrounded by equipment, they are clearly the one in charge.
  • These situations are only becoming more difficult as technology continues to improve. When sound reinforcement no longer takes the familiar form of blaring PA loudspeakers distorting the source with high SPLs, something is clearly wrong. Worse yet, when loudspeakers are not visible, there must not be enough of them. For many aggressive observers, if sound is not blaring from a black box in front of them, it is not working, or worse yet, it isn't "turned up loud enough."
  • Technological enhancements are not only to blame in these scenarios. There are socialization factors as well. As has been widely reported, higher expectations for sound have been produced by the expanding availability of what was formerly "pro" technology, along with the ever-growing number of venues featuring audio playback. Sound designers, installers, and engineers are no longer alone in their pursuit of perfection. Every ticket holder also has a stake in the result of their endeavors.
  • These circumstances apply not just to audio, but also video, control, networking, and security applications. It seems as though absolutely everybody has something at home, or knows somebody else who does these systems for a living, and therefore they can tell you about resolution, interfaces, bandwidth, and hard-disk space.
  • Even though it seems like there is an absurd number of "qualified" critics who will state an opinion about what was formerly a distinct expertise on a blog, over a mobile phone, or with arms flapping about their head, none of this is new. Think of the countless other professions that have suffered a similar fate. Auto mechanics, dry cleaners, and flight attendants are frequent recipients of advice on how to do their jobs.
  • Those are just a few examples of professionals who play an integral role in society, and are hence observed with the watchful eye of an interested public. However often these and other professionals' jobs are threatened, their paychecks are actually more guaranteed to keep rolling in. They are pillars of society in the fact that they provide a service important enough to be critiqued by so many knowledgeable customers.
  • Even if everyone seems to know how to accomplish these tasks themselves, they still pay someone else to do them. Because in the end, the expert really is the expert, and the observant customer is recognizing that authority. Just imagine a sunny day where the music is perfect and no one is there to receive a compliment at FOH. Without the "sound guy", an event lacks credibility. There is no one running the show
Kirsten Nelson is a freelance content producer who translates the expertise and passion of technologists into the vernacular of an audience curious about their creations. Nelson has written about audio and video technology in all its permutations for almost 20 years; she was the editor of SCN for 17 years. Her experience in the commercial AV and acoustics design and integration market has also led her to develop presentation programs and events for AVIXA and SCN, deliver keynote speeches, and moderate and participate in panel discussions. In addition to technology, she also writes about motorcycles—she is a MotoGP super fan.