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How to Make Any Pro Sound System Amateur-Friendly

For most professionals, setting up an audio system is a routine event — whether it be for recording, broadcast or even a PA system. But what happens when circumstances require that an amateur take the wheel. It happens more than you might expect. Here are some ways to not only protect the gear, but to ensure that it works in your absence.

All of us know that amateurs and volunteers often have to fill in on professionally installed sound systems at schools, community theaters and houses of worship. Most of these systems are designed to accommodate that. But what happens on a lengthy recording or broadcast project when the main sound operator becomes ill or when the budget prevents overtime and less than fully qualified substitutes have to fill in?

Such a situation can be a huge challenge for any audio professional — especially one who installed, designed or even owns the equipment package. Dummy-proofing a pro audio package — the politest way to put it — is a bigger and more common chore than many of us might think.

Line 5 StageScape M20d digital mixer

Line 5 StageScape M20d digital mixer

In fact, it is such a major issue that Sweetwater Sound, a major pro audio dealer in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, who owns its own recording facilities, has written some guidance for those faced with the situation.

“Over the years, many of us here at Sweetwater have had the pleasure of coordinating well-intentioned, but often clueless, would-be live sound techs,” the company wrote. “And we’ve come up with a number of useful tips that have saved not only our sound systems but also our sanity.”

Sweetwater said its advice comes down to providing the best possible training in advance, making the system foolproof and preventing volunteers from accessing certain settings and gear. Here are their recommendations:

  1. Don’t Assume Anything
    This is rule #1 for a reason. It is the most important. Don’t use terms like “XLR” or “gain” around untrained amateurs. It will be techno “geek” to them. Instead, say “microphone cable” or “volume.” Have a lot of patience. You may have to repeatedly start over when teaching audio tricks to a novice. It is far more important to be clear rather than technically correct.
  2. Let the Volunteer Do the Task
    Obviously, spend as much time as you can up front training novices, but the best and most effective training will come when they actually do the job. Have the newcomer shadow a pro on the job so he or she can observe and learn the ropes. Eventually, the novice will have to be trusted, so start as early as possible. It’s best to make mistakes while learning, not doing the job.
  3. Identify the Most Talented of the Newbies
    Some people get it and some don’t. Look out for the trainee who catches on quickest. Groom them with the most care. They will be the ones you depend on.
  4. Figure Out What Is and Isn’t Off-limits on the System
    Figure out which parts of your audio system novices should and should not be able to access. This can be difficult, since the functions may change from setup to setup. Allow the novices access only to the portions of the system that they need to operate. Then find ways to secure the other parts, especially those that could compromise or disable the system.
  5. Go Digital if Possible
    When having to use non-professional help, investment in a digital mixer is a worthwhile plan. It may at first seem counterintuitive, but digital mixers work best when novices take the controls. As opposed to analog boards — which include readily accessible knobs for every EQ band and aux send — most digital boards use a single master channel control to tweak the settings for only the selected channel. Some models even allow personnel to be locked out from critical controls.  Also, with digital boards, presets can be created. This allows an instantaneous recall of a certain setup. With nothing easily accessible except volume controls and mute switches, it’s much harder for a novice to destroy the mix.
  6. Centralize Amps and Processors
    When using novices on sound reinforcement systems, consider using a traditional power amplifier and passive PA speaker setup rather than powered speakers. With amplifiers in a rack, volunteers can literally be locked out of the master gain controls, which are easy to accidentally bump when setting up powered speakers.  Whether there’s DSP built into the amplifiers or additional graphic EQs and other processors to tune the system, all other processing is locked up in the same rack and off-limits to anyone who has no business touching those control functions.
  7. Label Everything
    Use a label maker and lots of label tape. Label everything — every input, every output, both ends of every cable. If it can be unplugged, then it needs a label.  At the very least, this will allow anyone who can read to help set-up. One can simply say, “Grab the cable labeled ‘Mic 1’ and plug it into the ‘Mic 1’ input on the stage box.”  Don’t be apologetic about making any installation look super simple and foolproof. In the end, it will save lots of time and headaches, even when the engineer is there and needs help for a quicker than usual set-up.
  8. Make a Cheat Sheet
    The cheat sheet should minimally include a list of instructions of what gets plugged in where and how to recall or reset the main mixer preset. Make it simple and give plenty of non-technical detail. Anything a novice would have to guess should be on the cheat sheet.  As budgets get cut and there are fewer trained operators available, novices are increasingly called in to help. If it’s your audio setup, you might be responsible to train them and give them the lowdown on how to run the system in your absence.  If it happens, be ready for it. It could help save the day.
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