Pay Attention to Little Critters

by Danny Maland

If you read my last blog, you may remember that my dad grew up in a rural setting. A number of his “wise sayings” can be attributed to my grandpa – and grandpa had quite a library. I don't remember this being part of the official collection, but I can certainly imagine grandpa saying it:

“Even a little critter can have teeth as sharp as anything.”

Ultimately, what this means is that some little issue can end up having an enormous effect later on. (This dovetails nicely with “The Law of Unintended Consequences is that there are always unintended consequences.”)

Now, before you run off in a huff because I've insulted your intelligence, let me say that I know you're detail oriented. What I'm getting at is that there are details even beneath the details that we're all used to noticing, and decisions that affect those details may have surprising outcomes.

For example, how many of us really examine the the behavior and behavioral consistency of gain-related knobs on mixing consoles? While shopping, we might take a look at any number of details, such as whether the knob colors and markings are easy to read, how the knobs are spaced, how they feel when turned, and so on. However, I personally have never stopped to even casually evaluate just how closely a gain control's markings correlate with what happens at an output. (Maybe you have. I don't know.) I usually just take it on faith that the indication on the console's face is an acceptably accurate depiction of what is going on electrically. Further, I have never once checked to ensure that a gain knob on channel 1 gives the same results at the same rotation as a knob on channel 2...or 20.

Hey, if they're all pointing at -6, they should all be just about -6, right?

The reality for guys like me is that a bit of deviation in knob labeling or consistency won't sink the ship. However, a power user like (the totally awesome) Dave Rat might really run into some issues. Dave Rat has even blogged about it here (you'll have to scroll down a bit.)

If you don't have time to follow the link right now, here's the bottom line:

When that little, overlooked inconsistency in knob labeling and behavior gets applied across a good number of channels, it can become an actual problem that consumes a non-trivial amount of time and energy to correct.

Here are some more examples of “Little Critters with Sharp Teeth,” each directly from my own experience.

Critter 1: The North-American, Black Bodied DI Box

At first glance, these DI boxes seemed like a perfect purchase. They were inexpensive, had some nice extras, and most things plugged into them sounded about like what you would want them to sound like.
The issue?

The PAD enable switches are on push buttons, and these buttons are near the input jacks. If the DI is placed on stage such that the jacks are easily accessible to performers, the PAD switches are also easily accessible to an errant toe. On more than one occasion during the unbridled hilarity of a rock show (and also during the much more bridled hilarity of a church service), the aforementioned toe and PAD switch came in contact. Source drops 20 dB, source is now inaudible against the rest of the mix, performer is concerned, performer doesn't know to check the switches, Danny can't get to the stage quickly (or at all)...frustration ensues.

I have now learned to purchase DI boxes with recessed, sliding switches.

Critter 2: The Common, Switched Microphone

Switched microphones may seem amateurish, but they are useful in some contexts. Especially when a tech tends to work alone, having that switch can allow for “performer POV” checking of high-gain monitors without fear that the system will “run away” on you. My favorite switched mics have all been durable, inexpensive, and have competed well enough with industry standard microphones to be very usable.

The issue?

Rather like the DI boxes I talked about before, the switches were actually far too easy to toggle. They were, in fact, a little too “smoothly” engineered. So, once again, the performer brushes the switch, performer's voice disappears, Danny has no input at console, performer can't feel that they've moved the switch, performer starts jiggling the cable, Danny tries to get to the stage as quickly as possible...frustration ensues.

The beauty of this situation was that there was a fix. A bit of minor surgery allowed me to remove the “finger pad” from the switch. This made the switch recessed, and caused the switch to require slightly more force to move. You have to very intentionally jam your finger down into where the switch resides to make contact, and you have to actually want to disengage the switch to make it do so.

I have now learned to purchase switched mics that either “lock” the switches, or allow for easily making the switch difficult to accidentally come in contact with.

Critter 3: The Desert-Dwelling, 24 Channel Snake

Years ago, I purchased a snake that had more channels than I needed, and had the added nicety of locking features on the female XLR jacks. This was welcome, in that it made it difficult for a mic line to get yanked out of the snake head accidentally.

The issue?

The lock release levers weren't really engineered very well. With repeated use, they tended to get loosened inside the XLR connector, to the point where they would actually lose mechanical contact with the locking mechanism. This was a real problem when you had to get the cable disconnected again. Luckily, I was in a position to be able to take the stagebox apart when necessary – but that got old after two or three go-arounds.

This was another situation where a bit of surgery fixed the problem. I got so fed-up one day that I opened the stagebox, removed and discarded all the lock release levers, wadded up bits of masking tape, and jammed all the locks into the “open” position. The female XLR jacks now work perfectly with just friction to hold the cables connected to them.

I have now learned to purchase snakes that only use non-locking female XLR jacks, or to look specifically for high-quality lock release mechanisms.

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