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SMSMS - A Seasonal Message

Updated: Sep 11, 2020

TECHNOPROBE - And so this is Christmas...

Whilst much of my time these days is spent communicating the advantages of various pieces of highly-developed audio technology in industry publications, I’m occasionally allowed outside into the real world, where these bits of kit earn their corn. It’s easy (but not very wise) to become detached from the actual purpose of the products and end up seeing them just for their own sake. From time to time, it’s worth considering the interface between all this clever stuff and all those ordinary human beings who either enjoy, or are assaulted by, the application of audio technology. It’s good sometimes, to remind yourself what it’s all for and open up the eyes and ears to the best and worst of what’s out there...

Attending the family service at Christmas in my local church is in equal measures spiritually uplifting and technologically depressing. Don’t get me wrong, I only go once a year for the carols and to delay an over-zealous start in the pub but what does my audio brain tune into? Yes that’s right - the bits in between. There are the speakers that don’t have enough throw, there’s the microphone that can’t pick up the vicar’s voice and there’s a console with an EQ knitted from the same wool as a shepherd’s jumper. All that great stuff about the nativity? - lost amidst the shrieks of teething infants. The amusing reflections on Christmas Past? - fluttering in the oak rafters. Why have a sound system at all? Why not just shout? I stand there, a merry gentleman rested - all except for my ears. Anyone got any suggestions?

As for Christmas shopping, what is it about playing Fairytale of New York and making it sound like it’s being filtered through a half-clogged vacuum cleaner pipe, that makes retailers think that it’ll pack ‘em in? Last year, I had to leave half the shops I visited because the canned music couldn’t have been more irritating if they’d played it on a system first installed in 1983...oh hang on...There are ceiling speakers and multi-media players that sound great - the kind of systems that force your hand into your pocket to spend, spend, spend when you’re grooving to rich sounds. People spend more when the sound in a shop is great. Cool tunes and a proper system. It’s proven. It works. They boys of the NYPD Choir were singing Galway Bay - but it’s no good if it sounds like interference on a cheap, lousy short-wave radio.

Over at the school it’s time for the annual Christmas production. Set building’s been going on for months, a large cast has been learning its lines, the band are rehearsed and the curtain is ready to come up. At last - success! Modern pro-audio speakers at the front easily throw the length of the room, the sound and lighting engineers of the future put well-learned skills into practice, pulling together all those headset mics and for once, my audio needs are sated. The system has been in place for a few years now. It’s robust, it sounds great, covers a multitude of applications and elevates the experience of audience, performers and the next generation of technicians. I’d say it’s easily paid for itself - every show is a playing to packed houses because satisfaction is guaranteed.

My doctor’s surgery also knows the score. Bit of tinsel round the “Smoking Kills” poster, pick up a copy of Country Life with a cover picture of a bloke in plus fours shooting birds, wearing a stylised red and white Santa deerstalker and settle back to the sounds of Radio 2 playing through a well-thought out, small but high-quality, well-focused system. It probably didn’t cost a fortune but it’s not tinny and tiring. Just as well if you need your ears syringing. Doctor’s Waiting Room Audio - there’s a case study there somewhere.

Not everybody likes (or can afford) to visit giant stadia to watch sport. At the grass roots, there are small facilities in hundreds of towns, hosting lower level sport, rooted in their communities. Over the Christmas period they play local derbies against each other and it’s a welcome chance to go and sit in a freezing cold shed, away from turkey leftovers. These venues have sound systems, which in my experience, vary between being piercingly shrill and plain weird. Announcements sound like the calls of stranded extra-terrestrials, heads in metal buckets, shouting for help, whilst background music spears into the eardrums, nothing more than a horrid din. Budgets are tight but two decent, weatherproof, full range speakers to cover a stand of maybe 500 people would surely beat the aural pain of twenty five rattling tin-can loudhailers. And if you can’t afford to replace them, at least set them up as best as you can.

And finally, the Christmas gig. Great sound is taken for granted isn’t it? In a market-place chock-full with systems that are capable of virtually anything, you’d think so, wouldn’t you? But of course it’s not always the case and it’s not always down to the engineer - you know - the one who just loves cranking the bottom end so hard, you might as well go to the airport and listen to the planes taking off. Nope. Sometimes it’s because of the false economy associated with ‘making do’. These days, Johnny Punter in his Christmas hat listening to covers of Wizzard, knows a bit about sound, knows there are fewer and fewer excuses for rotten sound and has been known to pick his gigs on the basis of his audio experiences as much as for the love of his favourite rock gods. Once a venue gets a reputation for below par sound, it’s halfway to hell.

It makes me wonder (sorry Robert) where a lot of the good stuff gets sold? Because there’s nowhere to hide any more. There are no excuses.

Merry Christmas.



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