The Law of Unintended Consequences

by Danny Maland

My Dad is the product of a rural upbringing. Even though he “moved to the city,” he still has that small-town tendency of expressing wisdom in pithy sayings. Here's one of this favorites:

“The Law of Unintended Consequences is that there are always unintended consequences.”

My church and I have been acutely experiencing “The Law” for over a year.

The old building we rented had its audio needs handled by a long-term-but-still-temporary install that greatly prioritized music. The FOH (Front Of House) rig was arranged in “small rock and roll show” fashion. There were two stacks up against the proscenium wall, and that was it. No delay speakers, no dedicated system for spoken-word, nothing. In a room that small, though, it all worked just fine.

Now, 2010 comes along, and it's decided that we need to get into a space that's a step up (literally and figuratively). The new lease puts us into a flat-out gorgeous chapel.

A chapel with an honest-to-goodness permanent audio install.

Right here is where the unintended consequences come in.

Unintended Consequence 1: Reducing difficulty for one set of users may increase difficulty for others.

The company handling the chapel install probably had only one set of users to work with at the time. Those users have a set of clearly defined needs, and those users are mostly non-technical. That being the case, some parts of the system interface are hidden from the user, and some parts of the system interface are highly simplified. The main mixer is four input channels and a master – no channel EQ, no routing.

The above is perfect for the normal chapel occupants, but it just doesn't work for us. I need much more mixing flexibility for a start. I've got to bring in the wedges anyway, so adding a mixing console and a snake isn't a huge problem – it is more work, though.

The bigger issue is how to interface my console with the install. If I just run a line to the accessible XLR input, I could reduce the gain on the installed mixer to allow for line-level. However, if I do that, I just know that one day I will forget to reset that gain control. if the next user of the chapel doesn't know what to look for, there is a very good chance that someone will receive an unpleasant phone call.

Ultimately, I leave the install mixer alone, and stick a spare direct box in between my console and the system input. Inelegant in some ways, but it does work.

Unintended Consequence 2: A system meant for spoken-word doesn't always translate well to music.

The loudspeakers in the chapel are several enclosures that are suspended above the chapel's center-line, in evenly spaced intervals from the front of the chapel to the back. My best guess is that they're meant only for spoken-word applications, based on the system's frequency response, lack of any perceivable alignment delay, and lack of any perceivable amplitude shading. (“Lack” is not a value-judgment. The system works beautifully for speech.)

The main issue is that the system design causes a mix “solution” to be correct in only a fairly small area. If I get a nice blend of the PA and whatever is happening acoustically at my mix position (down front), then whatever the PA is doing will drown out everything else for the folks in the back. If I get the mix correct in the back, then the acoustical sources drown out the PA in the front – and I can't really make decisions in real-time. If I get the mix right in the middle, then the back is okay, the front doesn't quite get enough of what's coming through the PA, and I still can't quite make decisions in real time.

(If this description is a little unclear, this rough drawing might give you a better idea of what I mean.)

  • I finally got tired of grousing about the situation. I now bring in an “EONs on sticks” rig for the music, and use the install for speech.
  • I suppose the funniest, and most ironic unintended consequence of our move is this: For as nice as the chapel is, especially the audio install, it sure has made me bring in a lot of extra gear.

Danny Maland was introduced to the world of pro audio back in his high-school days, almost accidentally. Danny has experience in both the recording studio and live-sound reinforcement worlds, and has found that he prefers the immediacy and intensity that live-sound offers. In the last few years, he was a key player in establishing and operating "New Song Underground," an all-ages music venue offered as an outreach by New Song Presbyterian to Salt Lake City. He is currently a "freelance inconveniencer of electrons and air molecules." Danny holds a vocational diploma (MRP II) from the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences, and also a Bachelor of Science: Information Technology from Western Governors University.