Waxing a Wreck

by Danny Maland

Last time around, I took a break from my fictional “Grandpa Maland-isms.” To introduce this piece, though, I think an honest-to-goodness true story about Grandpa and Dad is in order.

As Dad tells it, he had become enamored of an outwardly appealing but not-running-so-hot motorcar. (I can’t remember the make or the model.) He had it in the driveway, and was lovingly washing and shining his acquisition. Grandpa Maland walked up, and imparted his assessment of the situation:

“Son, you can’t polish a turd.”

See, Dad was dealing with cosmetics, but the weak link in the car wasn’t the body, or even the frame. It was the engine - Dad should have been working on the bit that actually made the car go somewhere reliably.

The way I apply this to the audio (and video) world is that time, money, and effort are easily apportioned to “deceptively sexy” parts of a project, when they would really be better spent on the nuts and bolts that will have the biggest and longest-lasting impact on the whole.

Specifically, I’m talking about how folks can get roped into endless tweaking of things that are already strong links in a signal chain. In so doing, they rob themselves of the much greater benefits afforded by investing in the weakest links. In effect, they “wax a wreck.”

Okay...so, what are the weakest links?

My experience in audio has taught me that the weakest inherent links in a signal chain are at the extreme ends. At the very beginning and very end of a signal chain is a transducer of some sort. A transducer is a bridge between a sonic or visual event and the electrical signaling that represents that event. It acts as a converter between one form of energy and a different, yet corresponding form of energy.

Please note that, in this case, the terminology of “weakest” is not an implication of unsatisfactory performance. What it is describing is a proportionality between integrity of event reproduction across devices in a signal chain. Maintaining signal integrity across a transducer is significantly more difficult than across a device which does not have to convert from one form of energy to another.

It goes without saying that audio transducers are microphones and loudspeakers. The microphone is the entry point to the signal chain, and the loudspeaker is the exit. For the folks in video, the camera is the entry point and the display is the exit. I would also include lighting in this, except that (as far as I can tell), lighting only has an exit transducer – that being the fixture.

Now that we’ve got a definition of what the weakest links are, what’s all this to-do about being disproportionately concerned about the stronger links? Here’s an example.

Every so often, somebody wanting to improve a live sound reinforcement system will start asking questions of others to get a feel for what they should do. What’s interesting is how often the asking party will fixate upon something in the middle of the signal chain. You’ll get questions about whether or not switching to a significantly more expensive mic preamp will result in a more pleasing overall sound, or a worry about whether purchasing console “X” will cause the system to sound less “warm and punchy” than console “Y.” There are discussions about whether or not amplifier “X” is better on subwoofers than amplifier “Y.”

Now, let’s be clear. I’m not saying that different preamps and consoles are incapable of producing measurable and human-detectable differences in the sound of a signal chain. I believe that they can, even though I myself am not the type to spend a lot of time worrying about them. (I’m not at all convinced about amplifiers though. I think you’ve either got enough power or your don’t, and that’s about it. I could be wrong. I often am.)

What I do find very interesting is how often the above worries have been presented by people who have not yet spent a proportionate amount of time and money on improving the extreme ends of their signal chains. Doubling or quadrupling their current investment in microphone or loudspeaker quality would get them large gains, yet they’ve bought into a line of thinking that claims the same quality gains from a double or quadruple investment in devices which perform no transduction at all.

Why would they buy into that thinking?

My best guess is that, in the audio world, we’ve traditionally seen the “big boys” spending a lot of time talking about things in the middle of the signal chain. Preamps, consoles, compressors, etc, etc, etc. In my opinion, what often goes unsaid in those conversations is that the guys at the very top of the game are already using top-notch equipment at the ends of their signal chains. Further, I think that a good number of folks look at what is “reachable” about a more highly placed situation. That is, a giant concert-style PA with effectively unlimited power reserves is totally outside the realm of possibility, but this or that processing device is at least somewhat accessible. (I’ll also take this opportunity to blame “the marketing department,” as I’ve seen plenty of advertising for mid-chain gear that was pretty “tarted up,” whereas most ads for mics and speakers seem to be relatively bland and technical.)

I should also note that we may be seeing a bit of a conversational trend reversal as “digital” becomes more and more commonplace. With so much processing going “inboard,” there’s more time to discuss mics and loudspeakers again. Sometimes.

It depends.

Anyway ,what I’m going for with all this is a note of caution. I’m not holier than thou in any way, as I’ve certainly been guilty of putting lots of money into things sitting “mid-chain” while my endpoints were lonely and neglected. Having experienced those mistakes, though, I think I can legitimately suggest the asking of the following questions:

1) Is this addition to the system just a nifty gizmo, or does it have an impact on the quality of the whole that seems generous compared to the time and money involved?

2) Is this really a weak link, or am I just thinking or being told that it is?

3) If I sell this upgrade to my customer, have I really considered their whole system and whether or not the client’s money might be better spent on some other aspect?

4) If the client has it in their head that “device X” is going to make a big difference, but it may not, is there a tactful way of educating the client about the situation? If not, is there any way to minimize the risk to my client - like allowing for a rental or demo?