JOHN DELF: What’s more important – engineering skills or gear?

Part of being a sound engineer is our obsession with gadgets. I think I have owned at some point pretty much every gadget that has ever been invented.

Some have a longer shelf life than others. Some change your life forever; (iPhone) others just get thrown in the bottom drawer never to see the light of day again (Nokia N-gage). So it got me thinking. How many of the sound toys that we use are the real stayers and how many pieces of equipment just become passing fads? And then that brings me on to the big question. How much of a difference does your choice of gear make to the audience that’s hearing your mix?

Having spent a year mixing a band where the audience screams at over 115dB it got me wondering if decisions I made regarding things like choice of snare mic would actually be noticed by anyone else in the arena but me. How much of our gear choice is down to learned principles and applications or is it just a way of rubbing our egos? If I use a Sennheiser 441 on the snare will anyone in the audience even notice or even care yet it might make me look in front of my peers? Now I know they sound very different, and for each application we all have our own little preferences and quirks with our mic choices but how many non-engineers really notice the difference?

Any engineer worth their salt could make a band sound great just using a set of Shure SM58s on everything. Maybe sometimes having too much equipment can be a sign of over compensation. So what percentage of a good mix is down to the skills of the engineer versus his / her choice of equipment?

These days I always carry my own mics on tour so I can get a continuity between venues rather than using any old stuff that the venue / PA company cares to chuck at me. It means I don’t have to compromise on the quality of sound. I’ve spent years developing my mic choices, experimenting and watching other people’s choices and I have finally settled on a list that works for me. Then I walk into a venue that has appalling acoustics and it all goes out the window. I’d wager that no engineer would be able to tell the difference between mic choices in a venue that has massive natural reverb.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that those choices are made by me because I like the sound of certain mics on different elements of the band, and that changes from band to band depending on the playing styles of the musicians within that band and it’s what works for me. But a different engineer could walk in with a completely different set of gear and make it sound as good, or maybe even better, and the audience would be none the wiser.

How many non-engineer audience members do you think have left a gig saying, “I didn’t think the engineers choice of hi-hat mic this evening was very good.” Alternatively, you could have the best mic technique in the world, but if the band play like a bag of shit it becomes an impossible task to make them sound good and your choices are almost irrelevant.

So for whom are you making these choices? I am saying that it’s for you as an engineer. These choices make you happier with the sound and, if you’re happy with the sound then hopefully that is good enough for the band, and the punter. It’s your consistency of mixing good sound that gets you re-employed by the band and management. So it comes down to is your idea of good sound the same as the next person’s? Mixing sound is a bit like driving a car. Everyone thinks they are really good at it, but in both driving and mixing we know that’s definitely not the case.

To give credit to the audience they can usually tell if a show sounds good or bad but it doesn’t mean they can quantify why. It could just be as simple as they can hear the vocals over the mix. They are not concerned with the fact that you’re using an AKG 451 or a Shure SM81 on the hi-hats. On the last tour I did, we changed the bass guitar mic every single night, trying out a completely new choice at every venue and how many people, including the band, do you think noticed? Just two: the monitor engineer and I.

And the same can be said with your choice of mixing desk, outboard or plug-ins. If you choose a real Urei 1176 or a Waves simulation of an 1176 over a UAD one isn’t it just you that’s hearing the difference? I’ve heard of one singer who has a Neve 1073 and a distressor on their vocal chain, not for the audience but just for their own in-ear mix. This is over £3,000 worth of gear just to rub the singer’s ego. Yes, I’m sure he sings better because he knows it is there but would he sing any differently if he were singing through a dbx 160?

I’ve seen thousands of shows and heard many, many great mixes. The one thing they have in common is that they all have nothing in common except a really good engineer. They were all mixed on different desks, either analogue or digital, with different mics in different venues, yet the person behind the board is the one that’s had the biggest impact on making it great. Your skills as an engineer far outweigh the contribution of the equipment in making a show sound amazing. Part of that sonic beauty is also enhanced by those choices that you made for each individual signal chain and how you blend all those things together.

So I guess, in summary, a great show is a culmination of your skills; your ears and the choices of gear you make that enable you to do the best job that you can. All in the hope that your idea of what sounds good is the same that the audience has. Yes, the gear does contribute to the sound quality but it’s your choices and your application of those technologies that makes it a great show, not the choice of gear by itself. Two chefs could have exactly the same ingredients but it doesn’t mean they’d bake the same cake.

Will that stop me swapping out gear and trying new things and striving for perfection? No, because we all know that really, even though you don’t have an audience full of sound engineers, the punters all know when it sounds great and without the attention to detail that all good engineers have, in making those choices, those amazing shows wouldn’t be anywhere near as good as they actually are.

John Delf is an experienced sound engineer, tour manager and owner of Cheshire-based Edge Recording Studios. He has worked with Plan B, Lily Allen, Eliza Doolittle, The Script, Stooshe, and now Australian pop group 5 Seconds of Summer.

Website: Edge Recorging Studios
Twitter: @JohnDelfsound

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Picture: Delf alongside Edge Recording Studios’ new Solid State Logic AWS 924 hybrid console/controller.

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