Robert on tour with Tom Petty followed by a visit to the Forbidden City in Beijing on behalf of Avid
Over the past 30+ years I’ve regularly traveled the world as a live sound engineer mixing shows on nearly every continent short of well … Antarctica. Now, while I’ve been trying to entice Tom and The Heartbreakers into touring the “great white south”, he assures me our tour bus drivers would never agree to take us there. Wow, that could be the next new History Channel reality show “Ice Road Tour Bus Drivers of the Antarctic” … strong concept. Okay, sorry, got off track there for a minute. At any rate, what I was about to get at was, that while I’ve toured to a vast number of geographies and mixed shows for a wide variety of music fans throughout the world, it was not until I stepped into my role as Senior Market Specialist for Avid Live Sound products that I really gave much consideration to the topic of today’s blog.
As one of the faces of live sound for a global audio manufacturer with the breadth of influence that Avid currently has throughout the world, one of my responsibilities, which I take very seriously, is to travel to all of these different locals around the world and meet with audio professionals across a wide variety of audio disciplines. This is all in an effort to get inside their heads, understand what they are trying to accomplish in their careers and in turn help guide Avid toward developing products that will address their needs and their sensibilities in their day to day work. This is no small task I assure you and as we gaze off into the distant future regarding the global economy, clearly the company that most effectively addresses the needs of these varied audio communities stands to capture the majority of the “global audio market”.
Robert giving VENUE presentations and participating in engineer panel discussions at PLASA in London
What I’ve discovered over a very short period of time when traveling to these locals during trainings and Avid technology presentations, is that the audio cultures of the world, in regard to techniques and workflows, are in varying states of growth and development if measured solely by western standards. (which by the way, I’m not convinced is the only valid measuring stick) And in the course of attempting to share what are sometimes complex console operations and seemingly mysterious workflows, with the added impediment of a language barrier, I find oft times needing to explain the “why” rather than the “how” certain things are done. My hypothesis on this is that the seeds of this are a function of the culture that these audio pros have grown up in and of the influences they were exposed to while they were young and gaining experience in their chosen field.
With that in mind, it’s certainly not a stretch to believe that cultures outside of the western world have experienced a completely different set of influences than our own. In the western civilization; specifically the US and England over the last say; 50 years, the live sound culture was clearly born out of the contemporary music scenes of the times. In the early days it was record production and in turn radio listening on home Hi-fi systems that provided the basis for our audio value system. Do you remember how different you felt about music the first time you heard it on FM vs. AM? In the 60s, music was the soundtrack for the cultural revolution and the idea of putting on a concert was not just a social event but a political event, and indeed it even became a rallying point for the audio community. Interestingly the cultural shift happened at a time when technology was providing a means to an audio engineering renaissance with music being produced in new and extremely creative ways. Sound quality i.e. the Hi-fi era was now in full swing. This in turn was the impetus for a specific culture of folks that took it upon themselves to present those same sorts of listening experiences to the largest numbers of listeners possible via large scale concert sound.
As it turned out, this initiative laid the ground work for what we see as today’s pro audio industry. For instance, in America you’d have to give a big share of credit to bands like The Grateful Dead and in turn, John and Helen Meyer. The Meyer’s seemingly simple goal was to make the Grateful dead sound better live, and to be able to do so for a larger number of the deadhead faithful; ergo Meyer Sound and all the innovation that followed. If Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon was your thing; the desire to experience it live and on the grandest scale; especially in regard to audio quality, bore the seeds of Britannia Row Sound out of England. During the 60 and 70s this cottage industry in turn spawned an entire generation of young people who were driven to get into the unknown and yet to be defined field of live sound production. As it turns out, in retrospect, I was just one of the many of that generation.
Now, I didn’t grow up at ground zero of the cultural revolution in California, nor did I grow up in the mod rock and pop scene of England. I grew up in the mid west; St Louis to be specific and at the ripe old age of about 13 years old, I discovered the name Bob Heil through his work with one of my favorite bands of all time; The Who. This drove me to find out how they recorded their records and how they achieved their great concert sound. This instantly made Bob one of my early heroes and he is rightly considered to be a pioneer in concert sound in that he was one of the early engineers to attempt to put together extremely large speaker and amplifier systems during a time when the concept was really in it’s infant stages. As the story goes, at that time, the goal was simply to be able to get Roger’s vocal over the roar of Pete’s guitar and Johns bass and Bob apparently had one of the few PA systems that could accomplish this to the desired effect. And so was born Heil Sound. Bob is now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame … you do the math.
Robert closing the loop with live sound legend Bob Heil at recent trade show
During one of my early “deep audio guy” conversations with Bob Heil he presented a very interesting hypothesis on how their are likely cultural differences that might just impact the sound quality of technologies being developed and built in different parts of the world. He noted that he was of the opinion that microphones in particular that are being conceived an developed by eastern companies (not mics simply being constructed for western manufacturers) suffered from being “voiced” for the eastern languages. The eastern languages have a very different tonality and envelope to their consonants and vowels than the western languages; especially the English language. This in turn can make those products come off kind of hard sounding or lacking what we perceive as pleasing characteristics because they are designed to sonically enhance the eastern language phonics. I was really taken by Bob’s insight and it got to me wondering how many other products i.e. speakers, consoles, processors etc. might suffer from this same kind of challenge and whether products developed by western manufacturers sound just as odd to the easterners or other non-western cultures?
Okay, so my point of this little stroll down memory lane is actually to lead us all to ponder some questions not only about the difference in manufacturing but also in workflows and approach. Have you ever wondered what the developmental experiences of today’s pro audio cultures were in lands where they were not exposed to the kinds of auditory influences that we’ve experienced in the western world? i.e. our history of recording, radio and concert production? I mean, what is their perception of “good” audio? Is sound “quality” even at issue for them? How would they describe a piece of music that is well recorded or produced? What would they consider a successful good concert sound? What features have they grown to learn are important in a given technology. Where do they get their technology? If it’s technology that’s conceived and created in the western world, does it serve their actual needs functionally or sonically? How do they get past the language barriers in order to learn how to operate western equipment? And on and on infinitum.
Recently, while on a 12 day break from my mixing duties on the current Tom Petty tour, I had the privilege of traveling on behalf of Avid thru every time zone our planet has to offer with one of my stops being Beijing China for my first visit there. My agenda was to present VENUE technology along with all the features and workflows that it offers while meeting face to face with many high end system integrators, engineers and mixers while their.
Robert presenting Avid technology to integrators and engineers in Beijing
It was a fascinating experience to say the least and it was so interesting to share information with an entire community of audio professionals that worked from a completely different set of influences and in turn, values while doing their work. These professionals clearly worked from a very different agenda when evaluating equipment and it’s functionality and features. And in regard to workflow, I found it often vital to first explain the actual origin of the workflow and the driving forces behind it, and then explain how VENUE technology best leveraged it for their use, otherwise it was a complete non-sequitur. It was essential to explain the “where” it came from, followed by the “why” we use it and finally the “how” to do it. Also, concepts that we kind of take for granted now, such as TDM plug-ins and Virtual Soundcheck were foreign (no pun intended) to the majority of them and again it was extremely important to demonstrate not just how those features work, but the genesis of their origin, and in turn how the features could possibly help them address specific challenges in their day to day work.
Another aspect that completely blew me away while there was discovering that many of the engineers spoke little to no English – which also means they could read virtually no English – yet they were completely committed to our technology. Now in case your not grasping the ramifications of this, what I’m getting at is that they operate our consoles and recording systems with software and hardware interfaces that are completely notated in the English language. Now, granted a few operation manuals etc. have been converted to the local language, so they’re not operating completely blind, but the console surfaces and the actual software interfaces have not been “localized”. I wonder how many of us hot-shot engineers could actually step up at say; a festival, or a TV event, and operate a console that was completely notated in Chinese language symbols and actually pull off the gig with success. I certainly doubt that I could. The Chinese engineers and mixers do this every day in China. It was a very impressive display of commitment to our product line and the craft of audio engineering and we at Avid should recognize it and be in their debt for this dedication.
Robert working closely with Chinese engineers at shows and workshops in Beijing
All in all this trip as well as many others leads me to the conclusion that in regard to technology, workflows and culture; there is as at least as much to learn as their is to teach. Who knows, maybe thousands of years from now it will be the subject of the next History channel reality show. If you think about it, the History Channel by rights, should never go off the air. I mean it is history right? It’s not like they’re ever going to run out of material ya know? I can just hear the teaser now “Lost Audio Cultures of the Far East” and there will be this lead in, showing some old craggy archeologist paint brushing the dirt away from the highly coveted and only existing copy of the long lost Pro Tools manual completely converted to the Chinese alphabet.
This is your globe trotting reporter Robert Scovill … over and out!