Going With What You Know When The Pressure’s On

Several years ago, I was invited to be a presenter at an audio industry trade show, and while there, I greatly enjoyed meeting some fellow presenters.

In fact, after the convention center hall closed, eight of us audio “geeks” went to enjoy dinner together, and it turned out to be a fun—and instructive—evening on many levels.

At one point, as we were seated around the table, someone in the group posed this hypothetical question: “If you got a call to do an event, had to be there in an hour, and weren’t told much of anything about the performers or performance, which microphones would you bring?”

This was quickly followed up with: “And oh, by the way, you’re limited to three models. Any manufacturer, but only three different models.”

I immediately jumped in with my take—a dozen dynamic vocal mics, a dozen dynamic instrument mics, and a dozen quality condenser mics. Everyone generally agreed.

Now, what models? This is where it got even more interesting, and more heated, as everyone weighed in with their views about which manufacturers and models were better—and why.

After about 20 minutes, someone suggested making a rule that we all, as a group, had to compromise and agree on the three models. (We also added a caveat that anyone who would not compromise would be on the hook for paying for dessert for the entire group.)

Now it got really interesting! I watched (and participated) as these audio professionals became amazing salesmen, trying their best to sell their particular microphone models.

Finally someone said, “Wait a minute—if we don’t really know what we’re going to be facing at the gig, and in our scenario here, we all must agree on this mics, then wouldn’t it make sense to pick ones we’re all familiar with?”

This immediately brought clarity to the discussion, and it boiled down to this: “Has everyone used a Shure SM58 (ubiquitous dynamic vocal mic)? A Shure SM57 (ubiquitous dynamic instrument mic)? A Shure SM81 (all-around good condenser)?”

The answer was yes for everyone.

And there we had it—those three mics would be the group’s choice in this particular scenario.

My goal here isn’t to promote Shure products (though I do like and use a number of Shure mics), but rather to get to this point: It’s always best to use what you know, especially if you’re in a high pressure situation.

The logic is simple:

1) You’ll know approximately where to set the preamp gain on the console.

2) You can quickly rough in the EQ based on what you are mic’ing because you’re familiar with the characteristics of the mic.

3) You’ll know the best placement of the mic in relationship to the sound source because you’re familiar with the pickup pattern and sensitivity of the mic.

4) You can best place stage monitors because you know the greatest rejection point of the mic.

In other words, you’re stacking the odds in your favor from the outset to deliver a quality result.

This logic applies to more than just microphones. A rule I strictly follow is to not use any unfamiliar piece of gear during a show. I don’t care if I’m told that it’s the best thing ever, and/or really expensive. Nope – I’m going to use what I know.

Now when it comes to trying new things at rehearsals, you bet!  This is where it makes sense—generally it’s a lower pressure situation, and I have plenty of time to learn about the gear, and to learn what adjustments I need to make, and how to use it best in that particular application.

Still, even before trying something new at rehearsals, I must see the piece, check its specs, touch it, and play around with it in order to get comfortable enough to put it into use. I don’t want to waste the band’s time if the equipment does not work or if I have to take time to learn how to even make it functional.

I love playing with new (and/or unfamiliar) gear. The only caveat is that I choose to use it in a controlled fashion so that it’s a win for all come the performance.