How to Mix Sound, Session 8: Final Session – Troubleshooting

These will be the harshest words I ever offer on sound mixing. But you need to hear them. If nobody’s teaching you this stuff, make them do so. 

What sets a good sound guy apart from a poser, a dork, a waste of the client’s check, and useless chair-warmer – is the ability to troubleshoot.

Seriously. Learn to troubleshoot or get out of my studio, out the door, and off down the street. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

If you just sit there making ‘I don’t know’ faces when things go wrong or something doesn’t work and you continue to do NOTHING, then you might as well start looking for another line of work. Word will get around and I guarantee you won’t find another job doing this.

You HAVE to contribute, every moment you’re on-set; whether that’s doing setup, schmoozing the talent so the sound crew can get a decent mix, helping with the mix, or doing teardown. If we find you sitting around, you’re going to be sitting around somewhere else.

Sound crews get paid a good rate, and they’re the very first thing that the client will criticize. You’re in the spotlight and there’s nothing you can do about it. This is production, and this is the way it is. Somebody’s spending these bucks, and they want to see results, and they will act if they don’t.

Get this mindset, and get it now. Or get out. Get somebody’s crew kicked off a set and see what that does for your career opportunities.

This is why troubleshooting is so very important!

Let’s sum up what you should have learned, here:

  • You’ve learned what good sound is
  • You’ve learned how to create a good mix
  • You’ve learned how to craft a good mix out of raw material

All right, let’s get into troubleshooting.

What if something goes wrong?

How do you tell if something’s gone wrong?

First, you have to have the skill to recognize there’s a problem. This is called active listening. You have to listen moment to moment, as if you’re hearing with fresh ears all the time.

If something doesn’t seem right, first thing to do is ask yourself, ‘What is different right now from what is normal?’ THIS is the first step on the road. A smart tech will ask another something like this: “Hey, do you hear that? It sounds like we lost a bass driver.”

Work backward from the perceived problem.

Maybe it is a bass driver. Maybe not. Start figuring out how to check if it is. Pull up something with a lot of bass in it and send it to that speaker.

Eliminate suspects until you get to the root of the problem.

Maybe the speaker seems to be working, but just not at full power. Now what? Is it the amp?

Ask yourself, “Now what?” at every event in seeking the problem.

NOW WHAT? (See how this works?)

Okay, so swap the amp out. Did that fix it?

No?

NOW WHAT?

Is it the speaker?

NOW WHAT?

Swap the speaker out and see if that’s it. Give it a try.

Maybe things are OK at this point. But we’re not finished yet.

NOW WHAT?

Set the speaker aside for repair, AND TELL THE ENGINEERING STAFF THAT YOU DID SO. ALSO TELL THEM THAT YOU SWAPPED OUT THAT AMP!!

The single greatest error that production personnel make is NOT informing the Engineering staff of a problem and its attempts at recovery. 

So the next time something’s wrong and there are no spares to swap in, EVERYBODY looks INCREDIBLY stupid and AMATEURISH because YOU FORGOT to tell the people who fix stuff that it’s broke.

Client goes elsewhere for the next job, we lose money.

Permanently.

Thanks an awful lot, and pick up your pink slip on the way out.

See how this works? You wanna play on the team, you make yourself a team player.

Everyday Troubleshooting tips:

  1. Always go to where the problem originates. In permanent setups, it’s usually something simple.
  2. Look for what’s out of place, or not normal, figure out what’s making it not-normal, and do what it takes to return it to normal.
  3. Anything that can’t be fixed by taking things back to a known good point may be a component failure and will have to be addressed by an engineer.

 

Okay, time for the last homework; something to take on life’s road with you.

Homework:

By now you’re familiar with how a mix should sound: clean instruments behind clear vocals, with good spatial feel, and lots of air in the mix. Now pick up a track of any low-budget material and give it a good, hard listen. Figure out how you’d fix it.

Also, don’t get yourself into the habit of  listening at a too high of a sound pressure level. This is really important. Why?

If you have the playback up too high, your hearing compresses the sound and you can’t sort out any spatial nuances in it. And you can’t mix properly. Your stuff comes out as a ‘wall of sound’, instead of a spatial stage.

Now what?

You had the playback up too high. Troubleshooting again. See how it’s important? Fresh ears, every moment!

Keep your head on straight, make a good mix, and honor God by doing a good job. 

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