By: Kerrie Mondy
In his book, “A Sense of the Mysterious”, author Alan Lightman suggests that technology has grown burdensome despite its advances because we’ve reversed the human-tech roles – whereas innovation used to strive to create purposeful tools for serving mankind, it now creates robotic nanny-masters that give us instructions and objectives, and we, in turn, serve them. Now, there’s no doubt that we have and do things on a daily basis, from the terrific to the mundane, that have been gifted to us by science and computers and math that looks more like hieroglyphics than actual numbers.
I can appreciate this. But there’s a dark side to our increasingly automated society – one needs only to visit the bathroom at a fancy hotel to yearn for the days when we didn’t have to do yoga poses to dispense paper towels or be “recognized” by a faucet in order to turn on the water. But the most distressing feature of the new world of tech is our absolute deference to it – the blind obedience that causes an otherwise reasonable person to drive their car into an ocean because their GPS told them to ( Yes, it really does happen: See here)
We assume that technology is always smarter than we are. Maybe, technically, that’s true. But does smarter necessarily mean better?
I’ve noticed with our visiting engineers a trend that confuses me. They don’t walk the room. They don’t walk the stage. They come into the venue and almost immediately ask where they can set up their reference mics and tell me they need a feed for their Smaart. In one instance, an engineer spent more time setting up his Smaart rig than his actual mix. I could tell that he knew the program inside and out, and he mentioned that he had done special training on it. While I was trying to explain our board to him, he didn’t really listen because he was too busy entering information into the computer, which made soundcheck a bit difficult as it progressed. And when he had feedback problems due to low-frequency spillover into the piano mics, his first order was to cover the piano with a blanket and bring the lid down, despite the fact that a gain adjustment or simple high pass filter and a little EQ usually fixes that right up. I don’t think I saw him out in the house once listening to his mix. He may well be a very competent engineer, but he seemed a little overwhelmed, and frankly I was a little overwhelmed by him at times. It seemed like there were two shows happening – the one on his computer, and the one in the space, and I frequently saw a lot of Audio 101 stuff going ignored for the sake of appeasing the Smaart.
Fair disclosure, I do not own or use Smaart. I know, on a very “in a nutshell’ level, what it does, how it does it, and why that information would be useful to the audio professional, which doesn’t qualify me to pass judgment on the program itself. And I imagine that there’s a reason it’s become so ubiquitous as part of the touring engineer’s arsenal. My question to you all is: at what point do your ears become a less-useful tool than a computer program? I doubt this program, and others like it, were designed to replace your ears so much as to complement their opinions, but it seems to me that this is exactly how people are using them. Instead of treating them as a way to get to the answer, they are treating them as the answer, and that makes me a little uncomfortable.
Perhaps this discomfort speaks a little to my lack of experience – I’ve only been doing this for a few years, and I have much to learn about some of the best practices in our field, especially when it comes to matters of acoustics. But I can’t help feeling that by relying on data instead of aural feedback, we’re neglecting a skill that’s vital to our jobs – critical listening and the development of reasonable responses to what we hear. To me, an audio engineer that doesn’t trust her ears is a bit like a massage therapist that doesn’t trust her hands.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! Happy engineering, and happy holidays, as well!