The Plow and The Field, Part 1

by Danny Maland

  • In keeping with my theme of “things that Grandpa Maland said...or could be imagined to say,” the farm-boy maxim for this blog is below:
  • “Well sure, you can get yerself a better horse. You could get yerself one of them brand new plows. Heck, you can mortgage the whole farm for some better implements. I’ll tell you what, though - that field’s still gonna be nothin’ but rocks, clay, and sandy soil.”
  • Okay, so how does that relate to audio?
  • The blunt, dogmatic way of putting it might be heard in the vicinity of a rock and roll production:
  • “We can bring in all the fancy boxes and toys we want, but I’m tellin’ ya, this rig is still going to sound like World War II being waged inside a giant box made of tin and concrete.”
  • To be a bit more refined, I would respectfully propose the following summarization of my own experience:
  • The proper deployment and operation of electronic devices can mitigate, but not eliminate undesirable sonic characteristics arising from the acoustical properties of a given space. (You can have a great horse and plow, but a field that’s just plain tough to work will always be that way.)
  • So — why talk about this?
  • In my opinion, there is a strong temptation present in tool-centric disciplines (mechanical work, branches of engineering, audio, etc.) to focus very intently on solutions brought about by the creation and use of more sophisticated and/ or refined versions of the tools. Perfectly intelligent, rational, and professional people can become somewhat (or completely) deaf to the idea of fixing a problem’s root cause, and become overly enamored with what their discipline’s tools can do to “patch” the problem. I believe that this can happen more easily when the tools are particularly impressive (and inspiring of passionate responses) in and of themselves. I also believe that achievements by outstanding practitioners of a discipline can help to cause this deafness.
  • Now, please note that I think admiring good engineering and good products for what they are is entirely appropriate! Gear is awesome. I could shop for it all day long. I could also spend all day admiring the accomplishments of Thomas Danley, David Gunness, James Lansing...well, you get the idea. My point, though, is that adoration of audio processing and reproduction equipment can lead to seeing those tools as immediate, accessible methods of fixing problems that might be better handled by other means. (If I really love hammers, and it’s easy to reach one, I might just start banging away at that danged screw that’s sticking up over there...)
  • Let me give you an example from my own life.
  • My church’s old worship space (“The Basement”) had some rather problematic acoustical qualities. The RT60 (reverberation time) of the space was plenty long for the size of the room, being a bit over 1.5 seconds, and that reverberation was dominated by frequencies between 50 and 200 Hz. Every transient in that room was smeared like warm peanut butter. I called the room “the midrange cannon” or “the horn-loaded stage,” whereas a local music promoter came up with the analogy that “this whole room is a kick drum, and the entrance door is the hole.”
  • In that room, a whole ton of equalization helped — but when push came to shove, solving an intelligibility problem required a big sound pressure level differential between the “masking” sound and the sound you wanted to be clear and understandable. The building didn’t belong to us, so that made extensive, permanent acoustical fixes out of reach. That being the case, along with me being a “lover of the tools,” I pined for more and better PA loudspeakers. (“More power!” as Tim the Toolman would say.) I would EQ and re-EQ...and you know? We got along pretty well.
  • Here’s the thing, though.
  • My tendency to focus on electronic tools as an immediate and accessible way to “patch” the room’s problems made me overlook something which (now) is completely obvious to me. For a reasonable investment (even to a very small congregation), we could have installed non-permanent acoustic treatment. Not nearly enough to make the space perfect, but certainly enough to put a major dent in the problem. Enough, probably, to make a much more expensive PA upgrade unnecessary...
  • ...but I never proposed such a solution. I was so focused on my horse and plow that I completely overlooked how a couple of days of getting rocks out of the field could have helped.
  • My plan for Part 2 is to spend some time talking about why I think that electronic devices can only mitigate undesirable acoustical problems, and not actually solve them. See you then!

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