by Curt Taipale
One of the conversations we have on a regular basis in our Church Soundcheck Discussion Group is on the topic of how to know if the person who is designing your next sound system, or video projection system, or production lighting system, knows what they’re doing. The sheer number of really bad sound systems in churches these days is at least partial proof that there are a lot of poor designers out there, so such a topic is understandable.
A popular position to take in that email exchange is that the designer should prove to the client that their design is reasonable and appropriate, that it is the best solution for the client’s needs. On one hand, that’s a reasonable and seemingly logical thing to ask of a designer. But then again, how valid is it? Do you really want to know that answer? How do you know it is right?
Y’all do realize that there’s a whole other philosophy afoot that is an equally logical position to take!?! Right!?! And in the hands of a designer who has the knowledge, the experience, and who actually cares about the results, can lead to a very successful solution.
The philosophy is basically that the church comes to someone who makes their living designing such things for a solution to their needs — not a sound system, not their favorite loudspeakers, not the latest video projector with a bulb life of 4,733 years — their need is a solution to support the worship services and teaching so the Word can go forth. One could argue that whatever form that solution takes is unimportant as long as it delivers the solution at a level of technical excellence that the church (a) needs, (b) wants, and (c) has the budget for.
One side of this philosophical argument recommends that each church demand from the designer detailed proof that the loudspeaker system is going to be flat from DC to Blue Light over 110 percent of the seating area, and while we’re at it that it fixes flat notes, sharp notes, out of time notes and wrong words before they come out of the loudspeakers. The reality is that many — possibly a majority — of the people in churches who would receive and attempt to evaluate that proof aren’t equipped to know what is being communicated.
And a third point is that while it’s entirely feasible to hit some set of guaranteed performance constraints with a system, the reality is that meeting those guarantees in no way ensures that the client will actually LIKE the resulting sound.
There was a time, back when I first started using EASE to help me drive through my designs more quickly, and to learn some important things along the way, that I would spend hours upon hours printing coverage map after coverage map (yes, using direct sound, interference turned on) to show my clients that I could deliver on my promise of guarantees. Those illustrations sometimes also showed the limitation of either what could be done in their room, or the limitations of their budget. So they were a help in many ways. But what an agonizingly slow process that was, especially given how slow those color printers were six or eight years ago.
Today I’m much less motivated to deliver those coverage maps to a client. It’s not that I won’t, but as far as the client is concerned, the EASE plots are almost irrelevant. They’re for my use as a designer. Frankly, the church doesn’t need to know how I did what I did. If I’m good at what I do, then there has to be a certain measure of trust in the process. And some of the designers who charge three to five times as much as we charge our clients wouldn’t even think of taking the time to show coverage maps to their clients. For goodness sakes, why should they? All the church needs to know is that the results are phenomenal, that we met their design needs head-on and delivered the appropriate solution.
Now, I totally realize that there are some clients who want to dig into the middle of the technical stuff. They actually want to wade through multiple coverage plots and other details. Those individuals may find it hard to imagine that in fact there are other clients who literally don’t care about seeing that stuff.
That’s not so hard to understand, really. If I go to the dentist to get my teeth worked on, I frankly don’t care how he does what he has to do to get the job done. I just want to know that he’s doing the job to the best of his ability, with the best tools available, with the latest techniques that meet or exceed published national standards for his craft, that his staff is going to make my dental visit as comfortable as possible, and that the procedure is not going to hurt or have any lasting side effects. I also know that before I leave his office I’m going to have to pay him for his expertise, and I’m not entirely sure which of those processes hurts more.
You do realize that tools like EASE or TEF or Smaart can easily be manipulated to show data that looks very pretty but is utterly meaningless, right?
For example, I can measure the frequency response of your loudspeaker system, adjust the software to display the curve with 500% or even 1000% smoothing, and show you a wonderfully flat frequency response curve. Similar pretty pictures can be created in EASE that could easily fool a client and yet have little to do with reality. I won’t do that to a client. I could, but I won’t. Such a curve would be meaningless, although there are some in the industry who would try to treat a client in such a way. And you can bet they’re a better talker and better at persuasion than I am.
I think the point has been made abundantly clear in recent walks through this topic that knowledge and experience are at the center of every good system design. So is a focused, congruent approach to the design. Whatever tools the designer chooses to use is virtually irrelevant to the client as long as the results are first class. If my friend Tom Young chooses to stick with a pencil and protractor (I still think he’s too cheap to buy EASE, but that’s another story) that’s great — because he has the knowledge and experience to pull it off. His is NOT an LAR (Looks About Right) approach to the design. His designs are the end result of a great deal of seasoning at the side of his mentors, coupled with years of study and untold hours of hard work proving to himself that his designs will actually work.
Now, I know that because I know Tom. Problem is, you don’t know him any more than you know me. But then that’s the rub isn’t it finding that good designer who actually cares about crafting the best solution for you!?! There’s no graph for that. You actually have to call their past clients to sort that out. And then trust the designer to do their job well, taking your best interests to heart.
At the same time, I can tell you true stories where the designer who publicly expressed their disdain for things like modeling software and even measurement tools with windowing capability made some huge blunders in the design, mistakes that could cost tens of thousands of dollars to fix. Had they simply done a computer model of the system before it was installed, they might have caught the fact that they completely missed covering 2,000 seats in the room with anything above 500 Hz. If someone considers me a sissy-designer because I choose to make my life easier by using tools like EASE, TEF and Smaart, that’s their problem.
When was the last time you asked the electrical engineer or the electrical contractor to prove their load calculations or lighting coverage? The client never asks the air conditioning firm to show their calculations. They trust that the engineer has the training and expertise to do the work properly. There are measurements that can validate the design work as far as noise but there are no criteria for draft and wind currents. In the end, whether the results were acceptable or not still depends on if the designer knew what they were doing in order to deliver a satisfactory system. Oh, and if the client provided them with the necessary budget to spec a system that will meet their needs.
So why is it different for the audio, or video, or production lighting designs? The best designers are aware of and actually use the formulas and time-honored design techniques that allow them to deliver an expected result. We all realize that some church building committee members look at church sound, for example, and figure it can’t be all that hard, that it’s just a big home stereo anyway. How hard can that be!?!
Best Use of Time
Let’s say that a seasoned designer uses EASE or some other modeling software as a standard practice on each job. Tell me then, should that designer invest hours upon hours saving those images to disk and printing them out and getting them bound into a formal report, or putting them in a PDF report for email distribution to the client? As the client, are you willing to pay them for the time it takes to prepare such a report? Or would your project be better off if he were instead to invest that time learning about better solutions, experimenting with new design approaches, going to listen to new loudspeakers, and so on. Would you agree that your project would benefit more by having your designer invest that time in training and R&D rather than killing trees?
Ask your senior pastor. What he’s concerned about is the bottom line. Did the solution work. The rest doesn’t matter. Well, getting paid matters, but the rest after that doesn’t matter. Well, possibly knowing there’s a Starbucks within ten minutes of the church, but that’s absolutely all that matters.
Okay, this is obviously a neverending soapbox, so I’ll climb down now and get back to designing your system. Actually, I’m writing this article at 35,000 feet on my way to attend the Yamaha PM1D training class in California. Now, please realize, I don’t get to mix on a PM1D each week. So why on earth am I spending all this money to fly halfway across the country and giving up four business days just to learn this new technology? Because it’s important to YOU, especially if you end up being one of my clients one day. You need me to know how to drive this stuff. Just more self-imposed training stuff. And next week I’m flying to the opposite coast to visit a couple of clients, to attend a training class at RPG Inc., and to visit the EAW factory.
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