by Bob Langlois
I wish I could take credit for coining the term the “Art/ Science Line” but, alas I cannot. My years at Meyer Sound Labs lodged it into my brain. It is a concept so important though, that if taken to heart by churches and performance venues across the nation and around the world, they could tell the wheat from the chaff. It would stop half the fraud that is so rampant in our industry among churches, theaters and places that use sound reinforcement. I no longer work at MSLI but what I’ve learned from being there and working for the legends who have built this industry will echo in my mind as long as I am in this business. The art of designing a sound system is really very simple. Does it meet and conform to GODs laws of physics or not (uh-oh math). There is no such thing as “Magic Ears”. Feelings do not count. Describing sound through colors does not cut it and yes I have heard that conversation more than a time or two. My favorite is, “I read it on the internet”. That is also the favorite saying of every 22 year old ever put in charge of an audio system.
The “Science” Side
My first encounter with science in audio design left me speechless; when what I thought was a subjective point of view was proven to me to be able to be repeated over and over again without fail. The late, great Albert Leccese said to a group of us once, “It’s just science boys”, as we stood with our mouths open trying to grasp what we all just heard. Albert was demonstrating clarity of an audio system through FIR filters while correcting a very “well known” international manufacturer’s speaker cabinet’s performance.
Either a system is linear or it is not. End of story. If it does not have a linear response then it must be subjective. If it is a subjective response then it is subjective to one person. All ears are different. Even the two on your head do not match. There has to be a standard of measurement that is only measured by science and not one man’s opinion. What does linear mean? Basically it means whatever comes out through your system should represent in some shape, form or fashion whatever it is you put into it. I don’t care about someone’s opinion until it comes to the ART side of this equation. We will get to that shortly.
Understanding that there is a right and wrong way to design an audio system is critical. Opinions are just opinions. If the science is not right there can be no “ART” to be created. Imagine a painter who is told to create his best work on canvas, but is also told that he will have to start with someone else’s work and fix it first. I heard someone speak at a reputable convention once and tell his class that mixing is subjective. It is like baking cookies, however you do it is just fine. I left the room before I lost my cookies. What passes for knowledge in this industry and what is being taught is keeping people from learning the truth. Truth is simple. There must be a distinction between the ART and the Science.
Now starting with a “Linear” system is only half the equation. You must have that energy pointing to where the people actually are. You can’t have a system pointed to back of a room and expect it to cover the folks in front just because you think it looks better there. You also cannot take a speaker and know its useable range is 40’ and have it 50’ from the seats that the cabinet is trying to cover. These are all issues that continue, no matter how many articles are written and how many times the science doesn’t work. Here is also a good rule of thumb when it comes to sound systems: if you can’t see it, you probably can’t hear it. There are some instances where things can be hidden and focused electronically, but that is for another day. Let’s just say for the most part it is not always applicable.
There is no such thing as tuning a room. There is just direct energy. You can, however, tune a system and physically correct a room. This might roll around in your brain a bit, but think about it. I can’t tell you how many times “Engineers” try to correct the low end in a room with EQ and all they manage is to remove the left hand of the piano. Why does any of this even matter?
The person behind the mixing desk will know why it matters.
The “ART” side
Where is the delineation for the art science line? It is at the output of the mixing console. The artist is the person mixing and the palette is the desk. This is where you apply your craft. No one should have to worry whether what is being created will be properly represented as it is being amplified in the speaker system. What comes out should represent what goes in; it can be a string quartet, a jazz act or rock and roll. A linear system does not care. The format becomes irrelevant. The limitations are now in the hands of the artist, not the system.
The one drawback to a linear system is it shows everything. It is transparent. If your singers are out of tune they will now really be noticed. Every flaw in the input has to be corrected. Example: I was doing a system tuning at a church not too long ago. The system was beautiful. The response was accurate. I received a call the next day from the staff after spending the day before in training. They wanted me to come back and correct the system. Apparently I did not know what I was doing. The engineer was playing back one of his prized recordings from their studio and they were right, it sound horrific. I then put in a properly produced CD of note and it sounded beautiful and correct. The variable was their studio. They have a studio that was subjectively tuned that they had spent a lot of money on and thought it sounded great, but it wasn’t at all close to linear and exposed all the flaws in their mix down. They were not happy and they did not want to hear it. Even after I showed them the response through the diagnostics and the system trace they were not interested in the truth. Sadly, a lot of the times that seems to be the case after someone is faced with the reality of wasting a good percentage of their church’s budget.
More to come…