Unmasking

I seem to be on a bit of a theme lately.

The last time around, I talked about how most bands don’t need more or better gear to solve their problems. Mostly, they need to work as a team.

That idea closely ties in with equipment used to reproduce the sound of the band and it’s gear. You know – PA systems. There’s a myth about sound-reinforcement gear which can be voiced in many different ways, but usually boils down to this: “This problem will get better when we’re on a big stage, with lots of monitors and a big FOH system for the audience to listen to, all with enough power to melt somebody’s face off.”

You know what I’m going to say, of course. The above is not true.

Bigger and better reinforcement rigs are sort of like fortune or wealth, as understood by Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni. She said: “Fortune does not change men; it only unmasks them.” In the same vein, I can tell you that more and better PA rarely solves a problem with a band. Rather, it confirms the problem, or makes it more obvious.

I’ve been in more than one situation where the monitor system was far, far better than what a band was using in rehearsal. We had much more power, better initial tuning, and a ton of EQ available. Do you think the poor singer could finally hear themselves?

Not really. All that the extra toys did was confirm that the rest of the band wouldn’t give the vocalist any room to work. They were convinced that pro-audio could make up the difference in their teamwork (or lack thereof). Unfortunately, the difference was too great to be mended. There wasn’t enough gain-before-feedback to undo their steamrolling.

On the other hand, a PA becomes a powerful tool when used with an act that sounds balanced and beautiful right out of the gate. In that case, the system’s reserves can be used to optimally translate the group into whatever space they happen to be in that day. Tasteful sweetening can be applied, just as one might season a bit of carefully prepared food; Good ingredients can be enhanced, but bad ingredients will stay bad.

There are limits to these metaphors, of course. In some cases, an engineer can use a powerful system to blast over a problem. Depending on the situation, this might result in a tolerable sound. It might also be so loud that half the audience leaves. Even so, the need to take drastic measures is an unmasking: It tells you that something is very wrong somewhere.

A great PA with an experienced operator won’t fix inherent flaws with your music or performance. What it will do is make them obvious, because everything that can be improved will be improved. The unsolvable problems, then, will remain…unmasked.