Dave Swallow: Audio perception

I wake as the plane judders in the air; the sun is turning red in the misty clouds, casting a long reflection across the Aegean. The shadowy hills in the distance look anciently aware, and the progress map descended from the over-head luggage compartments gives names of myths and legends. Preparing to land in Thessaloniki brings the end to another 5am start, and a journey that has taken over 13 hours.

I met the Manchester band James in Saragossa, Spain for the Fiz festival three days ago. We had a 6.45am lobby call yesterday to get to load-in on time, setup, and complete sound check around midday. The rest of the day was spent wondering around the town at siesta time in a bid to replace the jeans that had suddenly, eagerly, and with a little too much haste, become crotchless; all in the name of fault finding stage time wasn’t until midnight, with a set that was knocking on the door of 90 minutes, and with another 6am lobby call the following day, we all knew it was going to be a long couple of days.

I hung up my headphones for this tour and jumped into the roll of stage manager, which is a nice change as I get on well with the band and crew, and have the wonderfully wise, terribly talkative, and irrefutably interesting Barry Bartlett to while away the wee hours with. It’s also extremely good for me to remove myself from my comfort zone, and get another perspective on this industry.

As show time comes, I crouch on the side of the stage behind the side-fills, contemplating my domain from Smurf height, and I began to wonder…

As some of you know, I was at PLASA this year giving a couple of seminars and my first London audiothinktank. I had a great time, and just hope that the attendees found it interesting and I didn’t lose too many of you in my world of artistic autism, the feel of frequencies, and the philosophy of phase. I seemed to talk for ages, and for someone who doesn’t actually like the sound of his own voice, was somewhat of an achievement. BTW*, a massive thanks to everyone who voted for me in the Audio Excellence Awards! It’s omnipotently gracious to be acknowledged by your peers, and was delightful to receive after what has turned out to be a rollercoaster year. The think tank turned out to be amazing. The amount of similar views shared by a very wide range of people really struck a chord. Yes, yes dear reader, birds of a feather do indeed flock together, but it still struck a cord.

Crouching on the side of stage without any knobs to tweak, watching as the band are frantically gesturing indecipherable hand signals towards a rather dazed and confused Shabby (mons), I thought about the very basics of stage psychology, which lead to thinking about our perceptions in the audio industry.

Let me pop a proposition in front of you: ‘I, and only I, know a great sound’. The obvious answer to this is obviously not, but it’s not far from what a lot of us think when we go to a show where we aren’t mixing. Think about the last time you went to a show. Did the thought ‘I’d never EQ a snare like that’ or ‘Where’s the guitar?’ ever make a fleeting appearance to the front of your mind? How do the audience perceive that same sound? ‘Well Dave, they don’t have an ear trained as well as ours…‘ This might be moderately true, but they do subconsciously know good sound from bad.

A question that was raised at the think tank was: ‘Are engineers conditioned by the equipment they use?’ The answer was shortly considered to be a yes. We all think of some equipment to be bad, and some to be good, but just because you use bad equipment doesn’t mean you’re going to have a bad sound.

So how do we know when we have a good sound or not? I think, first of all, you need to understand the pressure you put yourself through, or not, at a show. Being on edge will never result in a great sound, and being very relaxed could lead to laziness. Question everything you think, come across, and do. Most importantly, ask yourself if this really is the best it can be. This kind of individual thought is so significant, although extremely hard to do objectively, but I beg you to keep hold of this very precious contemplation.

*Sorry, I just found some humor in using such an abbreviation