Q&A: Robert Scovill, Live Sound Engineer, Part Two

Q&A: Robert Scovill, Live Sound Engineer, Part Two

If audio engineers got the fame they deserve, Robert Scovill would be a household name. 

I sat down with multi-award-winning live sound engineer Scovill as he was gearing up for rehearsals for Petty’s upcoming 40th Anniversary Tour, to pick his brain about industry trends. Read Part One here.

Sarah Jones: So there’s also the issue of balancing the tools at your disposal with the immediacy of providing the audience experience.
Robert Scovill: Sure—and it’s always been the argument for and against digital. If you have the time, you can be incredibly detailed and create incredible audio with a digital mixing platform, to a level previously unattainable. But if it’s a one-off, if you have to move and work quickly, or if it’s a “walk up and mix” at a festival, it’s hard to work fast in that environment, especially if it’s not your preferred console. It’s where the flexibility of the digital platforms can actually hurt you. You can’t really be totally nimble and infinitely flexible at the same time. 

SJ: How does the concept of virtual sound check play into that?

RS: Virtual sound check is the savior of the digital console, in my opinion. If we didn’t have virtual sound check, in conjunction with the digital console platform, I don’t feel we would ever reach the potential that the digital platforms have to offer. 

In the traditional sound check method using analog, you can only work on your mixes and your craft when there is a band onstage. And that only happens two times a day:  during soundcheck, and when there’s an audience in the building. And in neither of those situations are you going to be willing to experiment and try things and make your way around a very complex signal path and workflow. You’re going to take the path of least resistance. Why? Because the guy who’s paying your check is on stage when you’re doing it, or the audience does not really want to hear you experimenting with new ideas during a show. In virtual sound check, you can work when there’s nothing at stake. You can prepare in a real and meaningful way, without the band, at any time and at any pace you choose. In doing so, you can achieve a level of detail and repeatability that simply did not exist with analog. 

SJ: How does that flexibility extend to live recording?

RS: I predict that the archival portion of virtual sound check is simply going to explode over the next decade or so. We’ll unquestionably get to the point where we can multitrack directly to the cloud, and we won’t even have a hardware-based recorder onsite, maybe other than the one we use for virtual sound check. And then on top of that, you’ll be able to distribute mixed audio immediately via the cloud in a MAM or PAM mindset after the show, whether it is mixed by you or someone remote mixing tracks that are being sent to the cloud. 

SJ: Is this changing the necessary skillset? How is this changing learning?

RS: Even just the way that we learn now is so different than when I was coming up as a young man. I think that has to do with transitional nature of information: Technology that is valid today may not even exist in two to three years’ time, and certainly won’t exist in a legacy context, as analog did in the past. Digital consoles are a prime example of that because we have not even scraped the surface of the design and manufacturing possibilities. What we learn in regard to specifically operating a piece of technology today may be completely void in the next generation of a product.

SJ: How do you learn to balance operational knowledge with understanding mixing concepts?

RS: That’s a great point and one that I always cover in my seminars: that you as an engineer have to understand the difference between operating the console and mixing the music. They’re two very different things to master. The ideal situation is that you become so fluent in operating the product that you don’t even think about it anymore; you’re just mixing and reacting and doing the show. 

SJ: The notion of accountability in technology seems more important than ever, in terms of pushing the complexity of systems.

RS: Well, “accountability” at the level you’re suggesting is counter to many of the corporate models in America today; certainly, the technology market doesn’t really buy into it. High-tech manufacturers always want to be pushing the edge because they perceive it as added value to their products. The live sound market is unique in this sense in that it is, for the most part, still a very conservative technology sector. What this market values above all is reliability and consistency. History has shown that the sound-reinforcement industry is willing to sacrifice features and even quality for those two tenets. I don’t know many digital technology manufacturers that work with that same pecking order of values.

I was taught a very meaningful lesson when I entered the audio technology industry, working for a publicly traded company. That lesson is, “We are not in the business of building cool shit. We are in the business of selling cool shit.” Meaning, there’s no point in spending the time, money, and resources on building something that can’t be sold, either because the customers don’t actually want it, can’t actually use it, or can’t afford it. The live sound field magnifies that thinking in that job one has to be, “I have to be able to learn it and use it quickly.” Everything follows from that precept. And that’s what makes the digital console market such a dicey proposition for the live sound. How do manufacturers push technology forward without leaving all the users in a cloud of dust? It requires a very delicate balancing act. And frankly, I think the live sound user base needs a stronger voice in the pace of how it’s all going to shake out over time.

SJ: What about virtual reality in system design? Is that on the horizon for someone like you?

RS: I don’t know how it can not be. It’s going to invade all aspects of our lives. I can certainly foresee a time when you’ll be sitting behind a console, but you’ll be operating the console in a virtual environment. 

For all intents and purposes, we mix in a 2D space right now, where there’s a surface, and underneath, there’s a lot of stuff going on. If we could actually see through that surface and see where everything is going in a very meaningful way, and make that very three-dimensional, then it becomes much more intuitive. Object-based mixing and placement of elements in a visual field of view could be a wonderful way to mix and manage spatial elements.

SJ: As far as 2017, what kinds of technologies are you most excited about?

RS: Well, in some very general broad strokes, it’s easy to see that console input and output capacity is going to continue to grow, and control surfaces are going to continue to shrink. So you’ve got to get your head around how that’s going to work for the live sound mixers of the world, both old and new. User-interface software design is the whole game, going forward. 

And much to my chagrin, we’re likely going to move into touch technology for a lot of audio.  Touch is great for many elements of mixing but given that live sound mixing is a “heads up”/“hands on” activity, I don’t feel it’s the right approach for many key parts of the mixing process. We’ll just have to see how the market responds to it.

We’re certainly going to see more and more networked audio capabilities. My concern with all of it is, at some point it just has to be reliable and dependable—considerably more so than it is today. I’m confident it will happen over time as we acclimate to it.

We’ll have to wait to see how the market bears out, whether it can actually traverse the steep learning curves and withstand the potential for instability or unreliability during the growth phase of these new technologies.

Sarah Jones is a writer, editor, and content producer with more than 20 years' experience in pro audio, including as editor-in-chief of three leading audio magazines: Mix, EQ, and Electronic Musician. She is a lifelong musician and committed to arts advocacy and learning, including acting as education chair of the San Francisco chapter of the Recording Academy, where she helps develop event programming that cultivates the careers of Bay Area music makers. As a new contributing editor to Live Design, Jones will be focused on covering the live pro audio market segment.

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