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What's the biggest mistake you have made in sound engineering or music? Come on - 'fess up!

A post by David Mellor
Monday June 26, 2006
It's human nature to make mistakes. And to cover them up. But here, David Mellor confesses, and invites others to do the same.
What's the biggest mistake you have made in sound engineering or music? Come on - 'fess up!

I read somewhere that there's an anonymous hotline that commercial aircraft pilots can call to confess errors they have made that might have lead to disaster but fortunately went unnoticed. The thinking is that pilots can all learn from each other's mistakes without anyone having to get fired.

Maybe sound engineers should have a similar hotline. Hey - we could have it here!

So in the spirit of getting things started, here's one of mine. It's not my worst - come on, you didn't expect me to reveal that did you?

OK, so there I was behind the console in a 300-seat theater. Not getting paid mind you, it was a children's ballet performance and I had somehow been 'volunteered'.

It should have been easy. All I had to do was edit some music from CD and play it out during the show. It was quite a lot of music with some intricate editing, but close consultation with the producer ensured that there were no misunderstandings.

If there had been a budget for sound, I would probably have hired a Minidisc cart machine to play the cues from. Minidisc carts are foolproof to operate, which is exactly what you need for theater sound.

Seeing as there was no budget however, I opted to play the cues from iTunes. It's a bit fiddly, but it turned out not to be a problem. Naturally I had a backup on another computer.

But one of my personal golden rules was about to go through the window. Then another. Then another.

Never work with animals or children, says the acting profession. They'll either mess up your act, or they'll completely upstage you.

Never work with cassettes is what I say. Crap sound to start with, and then they jam. And you can't cue a cassette - not unless you make it yourself. And if you made it yourself, why wouldn't you use a better format?

But one performer had a ballet exam on the day of the show. For some reason I can't now remember I couldn't get the music in advance, and she needed her cassette for the exam.

I would only get the cassette after the show had actually started.

So there is my second golden rule flouted - never do anything without rehearsal. Obvious really, but I didn't have a choice.

In a situation like this, it is good to be aware of anything that can go wrong. A cassette could have a number of tracks on it, and it's not easy to tell. So I asked the dancer, "Is there anything else on the cassette besides your music?" "No" she replied. I heard her distinctly... "No."

Well that was good. I cued up the cassette as accurately as I could.

I need to backtrack a little here to put you in the picture. When you are doing playback for dancers, clearly the audience need to hear the music. But just as importantly, the dancers need to hear it too.

So I had arranged monitoring for the stage and fed it through a pre-fade auxiliary send. Pre-fade is essential so that the levels can be adjusted for the audience without affecting the level on stage.

So the time came to play the cue from cassette. Faders were raised, finger was poised. The command came from the stage manager...

Phew, it's working OK. It sounds OK and she's dancing on stage. Nothing went wrong, despite breaking all those golden rules.

The third golden rule, by the way, was never take anything on trust.

When the piece finished, which I had to assume by silence from the cassette and the dancer taking her bows, I pulled down the faders and breathed a sigh of relief.

The stage manager gave the go for the next track, which I played from iTunes as before. All OK.

Err.. all not OK. Something doesn't sound right. And the dancers seem to be in disarray.

To be continued....

Just kidding. I could just make out that there was something wrong with the sound. But clearly there was consternation on stage.

Then I realized - the cassette was still playing. Despite what I had been told, there was something else on the tape.

It wasn't playing to the audience, which is why I couldn't hear it clearly. But the dancers could - they could hear it clearly through the monitors, mixed up with the track they were supposed to be dancing to.

I had pulled the faders but I hadn't killed the pre-fade aux! I killed it quickly, but too late.

If I hadn't been working for free I'd have been fired.

I'd like to say that the audience didn't notice and the show continued without a hiccup. But they did notice, and they all knew whose fault it was - mine.

OK, I had been given misleading information. But I had broken three of my golden rules. What else could I expect?

Over to you. I've 'fessed up my sins. Do you have anything you would like to admit to in front of the entire readership of Audio Masterclass?

Anonymity may be advisable.

A post by David Mellor
Monday June 26, 2006 ARCHIVE
David Mellor has been creating music and recording in professional and home studios for more than 30 years. This website is all about learning how to improve and have more fun with music and recording. If you enjoy creating music and recording it, then you're definitely in the right place :-)
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