Conversations With Audio Engineer Dave Stevens

To: Dave Stevens <dstevens@roaddog.com>
From: Ron Pellegrino <ronpell@microweb.com>
Subject: Re: Your web and your opinion
Date: 8/23/98

>Greetings Ron,

Stevens - I´m a touring audio pro that has just viewed you Web for the first time. I have
>SEVERAL credits, involving some of the most respected, most commercially sucessful musical artists
>known to mankind. I´m a published author in several recognised trade magazines, and
>have been involved in sound reinforcement for nearly 20 years. My first paying gig was Sept
>11th, 1980. I´m also executive of a regional PA company that does fairly well, called
>Carlson Audio Systems . A small assortment of my professional credits can be found at
http://www.roaddog.com/dstevens/.

Pellegrino - The fact is that most of us music lovers are far less interested in someone´s credits and credentials than we are in just how well that person can do the job. As I´ve said to other audio engineers: "The proof is in the pudding. The audience doesn´t care how long or how hard you've worked. They don´t care about the complications of your work. And they don´t care about your history. What they care about is what they´re hearing. Mediocre audio is one thing; painful and dangerous is another. In the final analysis audio excellence should go unnoticed by the audience; they´re there for the music."

Stevens - After review of your site, I must say, you seem to be lacking the experience and credentials to
>be making such sweeping generalizations. True, many people involved with concert sound
>reinforcement are poorly trained, and perform sub standard work. There are also these
>type persons in other professions, as well, including academics. (what´s the saying,
>those that can´t do, teach....?) The PA biz doesn´t have a corner on poor performance. My initial
>inclination is to write you off as a frustrated musician with a chip on his shoulder,
>but perhaps there may be more to your story than that.

Pellegrino - Avoiding my essay´s fundamental audio issues and bringing up the "credentials" question has a fairly strong academic ring to it. Folks who make those moves are often either aspiring or closet academics themselves. On the other hand what´s slightly askew in your case is that those who use the lower echelon audio engineer´s mantra "what´s the saying, those that can´t do, teach....?" normally signal to the world that they´ve never had the good fortune of studying with excellent teachers so they tend to hold all teaching in low regard. The truth is that with very few exceptions the best in any field always stand on the shoulders of excellent teachers and those who have had them pay proper respect to the profession for the transfer of knowledge and inspirational attitude.

It´s clear that many audio engineers working in the late-90s were students in the late-1970s and 1980s, historically a deep trough in American educational history characterized by minimal expectations, grade inflation, rampant cheating, and the flight of good teachers. Plus, just struggling to stay alive, university music departments added courses and programs to bolster their student numbers. Courses in music business and recording plus programs in audio engineering were part of the university-turned-into-technical school movement of the late-1970 and 1980s. The early teachers in those programs tended to be low paid, part-time, narrowly focused technical people who ran a modest recording studio nearby to the university. It´s not surprising that their students left with such a low regard for the educational system that provided them with less than stellar backgrounds.

As I´ve responded to other audio engineers who have raised the "credentials" question, I figure that "five decades as a multi-instrumentalist musician - four decades as a composer - three-plus decades as an electro-acoustics pioneer and researcher - two trend-setting books on emerging technology in the arts distributed globally - several scores of published articles also distributed globally- a decade of teaching an upper level university physics course in the physics of sound - the design and implementation of professional, corporate, and university electronic arts facilities (all of which include integrated audio) - the production of over 500 public music-based performance-multimedia events in North America, Europe, and South America - a BM, MM, and PhD in music composition, theory, and philosophy - an avid attendee at music events of all flavors and stripes - and a continuing involvement in all of those threads affords me "the proper experience" and the license to report publicly on my experiences, observations, and reflections on subjects directly related to my professional life (and that includes the performances of audio engineers)."

"Sweeping generalization" seems a completely inappropriate description of my essay. To what exactly are you referring?

Stevens - We do share a common goal, to inform and educate the audio mixer and technician.
>After all, they are not engineers, unless properly accredited. For the last 4 years, I have
>hosted a Web that the primary goal is train and educate live audio professionals, and offer them a
>form of dialog. The URL is http://www.best.com/~roaddog/live_audio/ . I´m posting a copy of this
>email there, with a note for others to contact you directly. Please come join us. In fact, I invite
>you to any show I´m working. Email me for a current list. We´ll even pay for it.

Pellegrino - Please don´t jump to conclusions and put us in the same bag; I´m not the least bit interested in helping people to become "properly accredited". As I say in the introduction the Quest for Audio Excellence section of my site "The Quest for Audio Excellence is driven by an ongoing battle with the forces of aural desensitization and plummeting audio standards and practices at all levels in the global professional and public audio arenas. This area includes reviews of audio engineers and technicians working the professional performance scene as well as articles on sound. The focus is on what is specifically required to improve the personal and public musical auditory environment."

I´m pleased that you link to my site. Everyone benefits from the free flow of information from the perspective of all who care deeply about any field. I plan to include your message and my response to it in the Quest for Audio Excellence section, and the links back to your sites will be hot.

I appreciate your gesture of inviting me to any show you work but my contact with audio engineers is either when I´m doing an event or attending an event to hear the music. All I ask of an audio engineer is that their work be artistically transparent - that they not get in the way of the music. And that is a level of excellence seldom achieved.

Stevens - There are several audio professionals that excel in transfering the artist´s work into
>an enjoyable experience. Perhaps you have not heard our work, just yet. Who´s work have you
>heard? Have you ever even worked a live show, as an audio mixer?

>Please, Ron, inform us as to which artist you have seen, that did not live up to your expectations
>regarding audio quality. Also, let us know who the sound system vendors were on those tours.
>I noticed a distinct lack of experience regard the set up, operation and design of concert audio
>systems. Really, Ron, do you posess any current knowledge of audio systems and mixing? What
>are the last ten shows you have mixed? Have you ever operated a professional concert sound
>system, in a large scale environment? It´s one thing to be a Monday morning quarterback,
>it´s another to actually be pushing the faders.

>Without such knowledge or experience, one would just be a whinny academic, no more.
>Can you really setup, configure and operate that 80 box KF850 rig with a PM4k? I know I can.

>So, most live sound mixers suck? Can you do any better?

>Dave Stevens
>http://www.roaddog.com/dstevens/

Pellegrino - Please note that I don´t write about the audio engineering process; that´s the short view of audio and I prefer the long view. Experienced professionals know that today´s technology will be obsolete in just a few years; what really counts is the in-depth understanding of all audio related principles and the creative wherewithal to implement those principles musically with whatever technology is currently available. Using expressions like "80 box KF850 rig with a PM4k" is known in the scientific world as "hand waving", a hypnotic ploy designed to divert audience attention away from real issues.

The audio engineering process, including you and your crew and all your equipment, should be completely transparent in performances. It should be as if the audio engineering team were not there in the soundspace at all. Concerts are about music, not audio engineering. What´s important to the life of music and the aesthetic involvement of the audience is the quality of the sound as it serves the musical purpose. Far too many audio engineers are getting in the way of the music by making their presence felt in unmusical, painful, and often health-threatening ways. My purpose in writing about audio engineering is to mitigate its flaws, raise the consciousness of those in the field who have ears to hear/eyes to see/smarts to grasp/heart to care, and warn audiences about potential dangers to their hearing.

Ron Pellegrino


To: Dave Stevens <dstevens@roaddog.com>
From: Ron Pellegrino <ronpell@microweb.com>
Subject: Re: Your web and your opinion
Date: 8/24/98

Dave:

Pellegrino - The fact is that most of us music lovers are far less interested in
>>someone´s credits and credentials than we are in just how well that person
>>can do the job. As I´ve said to other audio engineers: "The proof is in
>>the pudding."

Stevens - And how is it you know how well I do my job? To my knowledge, you have
>never heard my work. Until you have heard my work, you can´t judge how
>well I mix. My primary forte is stage monitor mixing. Several of the most
>respected, most commerically sucessful artists are very well satisfied with
>my results. Simply, I can mix, and mix very well. Is your musical ear
>better than someone, like for example, Al Jarreau?

Pellegrino - It´s clear from your highly defensive posture that my essay Why are audio engineers the enemies of our ears? has hit a raw nerve end with you. You respond as if I were speaking directly to you and your problems while you´re painfully suffering from some sort of inferiority complex based on past poor professional performance. I hope that´s not the case. The fact is that it´s possible that you could be among the best in the field but the tone of your responses tends to indicate otherwise. As in any field, attitude is everything.

In a discussion focused on fundamental principles and issues, name dropping (Al Jarreau included) is less than irrelevant.

Pellegrino - Avoiding my essay´s fundamental audio issues and bringing up the
>>"credentials" question has a fairly strong academic ring to it.

Stevens - I haven´t avoided your essay´s issues, as much as you have certainly, thus
>far, avoided answering any of the questions I posed regarding your
>experience and knowledge of sound reinforcement. I offer credits merely as
>a foundation so you may have some insight as to my involvement with sound
>reinforcement. Again, my questions were, what do you know about live
>audio, and how often have you done it? You have no idea of my experience
>or expertise, and this is just another "Red Herring" to divert attention
>away from my point.

Pellegrino - It sounds to me as though you only managed to read through the essay title. Nothing that you have said to date indicates that you know what the subject of that essay is. In a nutshell the subject is that deafened audio engineers are deafening the ears of the audience, and that situation constitutes a serious affront to the health of the audience as well as the music they want to hear.

Pellegrino - The truth is that with very few exceptions the
>>best in any field always stand on the shoulders of excellent teachers and
>>those who have had them pay proper respect to the profession for the
>>transfer of knowledge and inspirational attitude.

Stevens - This is one of many points where you show your ignorance of the sound
>reinforcement industry. Very few professional audio mixers are formally
>trained. Most learn on the job. And many times, unfortunatly, it shows.

Pellegrino - The above statement, of course, supports my position that many in the audio scene are woefully deficient in their working understanding of music, the physics of sound, and psychoacoustics. It won´t be long before a deep functional understanding of those areas will be recognized as a fundamental requirement for practitioners in the audio engineering profession. Especially the early and middle stages of the trial and error method of learning should be practiced in more of a laboratory or preparatory setting and definitely not in the context of public music events.

Pellegrino - The early teachers in those programs tended to be low paid,
>>part-time, narrowly focused technical people who ran a modest recording
>>studio nearby to the university. It´s not surprising that their students
>>left with such a low regard for the educational system that provided them
>>with less than stellar backgrounds.

Stevens - More ignorance. Most audio pros have not attended any university programs
>geared toward audio or have had any formal training. Many, however, do
>have degrees in other fields, but for whatever reason, chose to get into
>live audio. How is it you think we are attending recording schools? That
>is not at all the foundation of the concert industry.

Pellegrino - The above paragraph offers more support for my position. I´ve often run into undereducated but seldom completely uneducated audio engineers so I doubt the veracity of your statement. But if what you´re saying is true, the audio engineering world is even a lot worse off than I make it out to be. It seems that the only hope for music lovers is an appropriately educated new generation of audio engineers coming onto the scene and replacing the weak links in the current system.

Pellegrino - production of over 500 public music-based performance-multimedia events in
>>North America, Europe, and South America -

Stevens - I do about 150-200 shows per YEAR. (start my 19th year Sept 11) Do the
>math, Ron. In 3 years, I do as many or more shows than you have in 50. I
>go overseas several often, as do many audio pros. You haven´t been to
>Japan, the Far East or Africa yet? You must go, the experience is well
>worth it. It was for me.

Pellegrino - Artistry is not about numbers or places; it´s about high standards and quality, creativity, and inspiration. The excellent audio engineers will be those who aspire to higher functional ranks in the music world, certainly far above the level of mixers and technicians.

Pellegrino - "Sweeping generalizations" seems a completely inappropriate description of
>>my essay. To what exactly are you referring?

Stevens - You say "every audio engineer" is guilty of poor sound and high SPL. You
>haven´t heard every mixer or every artist. Basically, your essay is a
>based only on what is your narrow experience, combined with a lack of what
>skills it takes to do live audio. Sure, you can say the audience only
>cares about good sound, doesn´t want to know the details and the details
>don´t matter. Well, the details do matter. In fact, they are everything.
>Why don´t you get your nose out of the books, and into the real world where
>the rest of us work. It´s really easy to complain and criticize, without
>knowing what one is talking about, or offering suggestions. Some things
>are out of the mixers control. That is reality, that is the way it is.
>They don´t teach that in school. Many restrictions are governed by severe
>laws. The laws of physics.

Pellegrino - Misquotes are just another form of fraud. Where in my writing did I say "You say "every audio engineer" is guilty of poor sound and high SPL." (the first sentence in the above paragraph)? Go beyond the title of my essay and check out the reviews of excellent audio engineering. Artists never use the "real world" argument for maintaining low standards and the status quo in the performance arts; best to ban it from your thinking.

A lifelong study of the physics of sound, music, and psychoacoustics would greatly benefit any audio engineer. If "mixers" ever hopes to elevate their performance levels above those of technicians they need to commit to that lifelong study.

Pellegrino - Please don´t jump to conclusions and put us in the same bag; I´m not the
>>least bit interested in helping people to become "properly accredited".

Stevens - Don´t jump to conclusions yourself. I was only stating that persons not
>properly accredited should not call themselves "engineers". Nor should you
>refer to them as engineers. If you are not interested in educating or
>helping live audio mixers attain a great understanding of the physics, then
>you are a whinner, nothing more. Hiding behind a career of college degrees
>doesn´t make it any better, nor does it make your opinion any more valid.
>Complaining without offering suggestions, is just bitching. I´ve done this
>full time for quite a while, you haven´t. Simply, you just don´t know what
>happens out here, though you think otherwise.

Pellegrino - Look in any decent dictionary and you´ll find that the generic definition of engineer is "to plan, construct, or manage as an engineer". Anyone with even the slightest inkling of the philosophy of language knows that laudatory definitions are best avoided so plenty of conceptual room is left for evaluating functional levels from the best to the worst in any category.

Once more, please don´t twist my thinking out of shape for purposes of distortion. Where did I say that I was "not interested in educating or helping live audio mixers attain a great understanding of the physics" (from your paragraph above)? Why do think I´m making this life investment in carrying on these dialogues with audio engineers?

Given that audio engineers have become ubiquitous in the music scene it´s high time that those of us who care about their part in the music scene get involved in improving the overall level of their performances. If you are as good as you say you are and think you are, then you should be working to improve the scene rather than defending the status quo.

The experience argument alone ("I´ve done this full time for quite a while") carries no weight when it is used to defend a position. The same job done thoughtlessly and poorly over and over again makes matters worse not better. To achieve a level of excellence in any field requires a creative attitude toward tuning on the fly, the sort of work only an educated, flexible, fully conscious mind can do. Doing the same thing over and over again without oversight, criticism, and reflection leads to decay not excellence.

Pellegrino - I appreciate your gesture of inviting me to any show you work but my
>>contact with audio engineers is either when I´m doing an event or attending
>>an event to hear the music. All I ask of an audio engineer is that their
>>work be artistically transparent - that they not get in the way of the
>>music. And that is a level of excellence seldom achieved.

Stevens - Again, we are not engineers, we are mixers and technicians. Might want to
>add a qualifier to your statement. Most shows you have heard, in your
>opinion, do not acheive audio excellence. It is not humanly possible for
>you to definativly state the majority of all shows suffer poor audio
>quality, though many do. Got any idea how many live shows there are world
>wide every night? Do you know for a fact the audio was poor at most of
>them?

Pellegrino - If you want to reduce the level of your audio engineering work to mere "mixers and technicians" then we shouldn´t be carrying on this exchange. My thinking is geared to those with higher aspirations. I would expect "mixers and technicians" to just do what they´re told to do by their bosses. I´d expect audio engineers to be on the job with a solid and ever expanding knowledge base sufficient to collaborate creatively with other performance artists in the service of music.

Pellegrino - Please note that I don´t write about audio engineering process; that´s the
>>short view of audio and I prefer the long view. Experienced professionals
>>know that today´s technology will be obsolete in just a few years; what
>>really counts is the in-depth understanding of all audio related principles
>>and the creative wherewithal to implement those principles musically with
>>whatever technology is currently available. Using expressions like "80 box
>>KF850 rig with a PM4k" is known in the scientific world as "hand waving", a
>>hypnotic ploy designed to divert audience attention away from real issues.

Stevens - Again, you are showing your ignorance towards matters concerning
>professional sound reinforcement. We are still using the same basic
>transducer technology that we were in the 1950's. What has become outdated
>in the last few years? The technology curve for live audio isn´t quite
>that steep. But then, how would you know? I´ve been involved in more than
>US$ 3,000,000.00 in purchases for live sound systems over the span of my
>career. Bought any gear lately?

Pellegrino - Now that´s a truly fascinating position. I wonder how many audio engineers are using 1950s audio technology on the job in the late 1990s. How about your expression "80 box KF850 rig with a PM4k"; is that 1950s technology?

There you go with those numbers again. All those zeros including those on the right side of decimal point are certainly impressive but artists in any field know that it´s not how much you spend on your tools that´s important; it´s how well you use them.

Stevens - One is required to posess a great deal of technical knowledge, to operate a
>modern sound system. It´s not just about pushing faders and "being
>transparent with the art". Fundimentals such as gain structure, coverage
>patterns and proper mic technique, among many others, are required to
>obtain optimum sound reinforcement results.

Pellegrino - From where does that "being transparent with the art" quote come; it´s certainly not from my writing. Unless you´re normally a bit careless with details it seems like another misrepresentation for the purpose of distortion; fraud, in other words. The "fundimentals" to which you refer are already higher level audio engineering functions based on the true fundamentals of music, acoustics, and psychoacoustics. Without a solid working understanding of the true fundamentals there´s no way anyone will get what you´re calling "fundimentals" right on a regular basis.

Stevens - You are also hypocritical in your response, accusing me of diverting the
>issues, when I have asked several direct questions regarding your
>experience and expertise in operating a sound reinforcment system.
>Basically, you have no expereince in this area, except for a few hundred
>performances, none of which you actually mixed.

Pellegrino - The fact is that I´ve engineered (including mixed) every show I´ve ever done and it´s not just an audio game that I´m playing. Real-time video is also an integral part of my performance-multimedia events. Plus I´m mixing in many other performance artists in music, dance, video, theatre, lighting, and all the technical services that go into creating a music-based public performance-multimedia event.

Stevens - If you want to talk down to me like I´m some audio "new guy", go ahead.
>Basically, you have very little experience in this area, but a great many
>opinions. You posess little or no expertise, even though you pass
>judgement without the benefit or even regard for the real world
>requirements involved in concert sound. You wrap yourself in a cloak of
>education, purporting to have the knowledge, but lacking any real answers,
>other than general complaints regarding audio quality.

Pellegrino - Insults and distortions are worthless as arguments in any discussion. Best to rise above those unproductive strategies and focus on issues.

Stevens - I´m not saying sound reinforcment is perfect. It is a far cry form
>perfect. You assume my knowledge and expertise is somehow, below yours,
>though you have no idea who I am or what I do. I ask direct questions, and
>you acuse me of skirting the issue, all the while, not even considering my
>questions.

Pellegrino - All I know of you is from what you´ve said in these exchanges. Of course much can be inferred from the style and substance of communication as to the nature of the writer. I carefully consider everything you say but I operate with the principle that it´s never wise in focused discussions to respond to questions, direct or not, that are off the subject and are apt to lead nowhere or worse.

Stevens - The funny part, for me anyway, is that there are several thousand audio
>pros, just like me. You haven´t met them yet. Chances are you never will.
>We do this for a living. You don´t, and from the looks of it, can´t.

>Tell us, Ron, what should we, as an industry do, to improve audio quality?

>Dave

Pellegrino - Meeting audio engineers in not my reason for being. Music is. If the "what should we, as an industry do, to improve audio quality?" is more than a rhetorical question, please give some thought to the material posted on the Quest for Audio Excellence section of my site. When time permits I keep expanding that section with my own writing plus the ideas of many other folks including those such as yourself. In that section you´ll notice that I don´t edit the ideas of others and I don´t misquote them. Anyone studying that section will benefit from the unadulterated perspectives and insights of the spectrum of audio engineering practitioners.

Ron Pellegrino


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