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

Robert Scovill

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

A multi-award-winning live sound engineer, Scovill has been touring with top acts for nearly four decades, mixing the likes of Prince, Rush, Def Leppard, Matchbox Twenty, and most famously, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, where he’s spent 23 years at front of house.

An early advocate of digital technology, Scovill has led a double life of sorts for more than a decade now, also serving as Avid’s senior specialist for Live Sound Products, where he was instrumental in the launch of the Venue line of live sound mixing consoles and acts as a technology visionary and brand ambassador to the touring industry. Scovill is commonly referred to as the pioneer of the virtual sound check workflow, which he began developing in the mid-’90s.

I sat down with Scovill as he was gearing up for rehearsals for Petty’s upcoming 40th Anniversary Tour, to pick his brain about industry trends. 

 Sarah Jones: You’ve said recently that the sound reinforcement industry is in a state of transition. What do you mean by that?

Robert Scovill: Yes, it’s our second big transition in a couple of decades now. The first was in speaker system topologies with the move to line source, and now the live sound console industry is the centerpiece of that transition with the move to digital mixing and recording platforms.

But that transition has some serious challenges ahead of it. The current array of console designs and much of the ancillary processing that is vital to digital console success as an audio product is increasingly disparate and splintered, especially with regard to what was formerly common workflows in the analog realm. Now, not only are the basic workflows varied and wide ranging, but so are the underlying upgrade processes, third-party software authorizations, technical support offerings, and on and on. And the really troubling part is that it’s not becoming more unified over time: It is becoming even more disparate. The end result of this is that it’s putting nearly unmanageable pressure on the skill sets demanded of the end users.

Much of that demand ties directly to a challenge that is unique to the live sound world: A person may go out to do shows and never work on the same console night over night, and the idea of doing that now is nearly untenable. Frankly, it’s nearly impossible to accomplish that with a high degree of gear fluency and provide consistent results night after night. 

Much of that difficulty lies in the fact that all of these platforms operate and react so differently to the live mixing workflow. And worst of all, many times the thing that ends up suffering the most is the end product—the artist presentation to the audience.

I’m of the opinion that at some point, hopefully sooner than later, that as an industry of users we’ll need to rally together and encourage manufacturers, at a very objective and independent level, to unify some of the most common workflow processes in their console designs so that users can more easily deal with the reality of moving from console to console in their day to day lives while touring. A common way to look at it is that the users need a “lobby” forum to the manufacturing sector. 

SJ: It sounds a little like the Recording Academy’s efforts to standardize workstation best practices.

RS: Well, I want to use the word “standards” very carefully here, because you’re not really trying to create “standards” by the strictest of definitions. Standards is probably the most misused word we have in pro audio today. Really, it’s just more about creating meaningful dialogue with the manufacturers as a whole, in order to ensure the users in the industry as a whole are being served—not just a given manufacturer focused on its own customers.

The simple and long-standing studio example of this is when you go from a PC DAW to a Macintosh DAW—we still can’t even make the two go into Record with the same keystroke. On one, to put it into Record, it’s command-spacebar, and on the other one, it’s control-spacebar. So it’s literally twice as much information to remember, in a world already overflowing with information that needs to be retained and accessed quickly. Now magnify that by a couple of orders of magnitude, and you’ll get a sense of what a live sound end-user is faced with when he or she moves from one digital console to another. 

There has to be someone to take the reins of that, and I know it can be addressed if we can just get the manufacturers to relax a little bit and commit to balancing the needs of end users against the desire to innovate and look unique in contrast to their competitors. 

SJ: How do these issues extend to systems integration?

RS: There are examples with regard to P.A. systems, and certainly with regard to interconnectivity. Now that interconnectivity area is a lot more “actual” standards based, audio-over-IP standards, we’re making some solid progress there. But if we start talking about DSP usage for system design and architecture, all of these different architecting programs are yet another example of what I’m talking about, where diversity in approach starts becoming a real usability hurdle for those that have to address them all in the course of their work.

I deal with this all of the time: For example, if I consult on a building P.A. system that is already installed, just getting into the DSP and understanding basic operation, let alone the concept behind the custom design, is daunting. In the end it can mean charging the customer considerably more for the job at hand, because it takes so much time just to unwrap everything that’s going on in the system operationally in order to start doing meaningful work on it.

SJ: Unification sounds like a monumental task.

RS: Honestly, it could be a couple of lifetimes’ worth of work to wrestle that completely to the ground. But the dialog and vocabulary need to be being placed into the market right now. Otherwise, the operational differences among all the platforms get so ingrained with the customer base that they become nearly impossible to change. It takes real courage by a manufacturer to alter its systems in an effort to unify workflows with other manufacturers, because it risks alienating their existing customers.   

Right now, the users have a pretty weak voice in the market; they have little to no say into the industry as a whole when it comes to universal product workflows. They have considerable influence with individual manufacturers, but it’s very siloed into that single manufacturer. At the end of the day, while they might get their needs met for a given manufacturer’s product, this relationship can actually hurt the users as a whole. And I honestly feel it can hurt the manufacturer in the long term, in that it can actually narrow the amount of users that a given product can address, because operation on that product can become so specialized.

SJ: What would it take to come to some kind of common ground?

RS: At some point, the concept of building and nurturing siloed customer bases without really addressing the actual day-to-day challenges of having to move between diametrically different console designs is going to break down. By this I mean that live sound mixers are creatures of comfort. They lean heavily on constants in their workflows that they can count upon in order to address the other countless variables that they are faced with, day to day, for a given show. So now, if console operation, which was once a constant, is a variable from one model to the next, it severely stresses this user. The end result is that you have mixers who simply become loyal to a given platform—almost to a fault—in order to retain consistency in operation. And what that means for manufacturers is it becomes increasingly difficult to sway a user away from a competitor platform because the transition is not a simple one. That equates to a stagnant or possibly even declining amount of users for your systems. Not a good formula for any company’s success.

SJ: Is this an issue of scale? Is this more of a problem on big tours than say, the house of worship market?

RS: The problem seems to magnify the lower you get in the market. For example, let’s compare it with what happened with analog consoles. With analog, once you’ve operated one, regardless of price range, you’ve essentially operated them all. By this I mean, there is a signal path and tactile layout that exists in an analog console, and on whole it is almost identical whether you’re working on a $1,500 Mackie mixer or a $150,000 Midas XL4. The basis of that signal path from an operational point of view is the same. So someone who could fluently operate the Mackie could likely operate the Midas with very little training. And of course, the vice versa is true in this case. 

In digital, the exact opposite is true, meaning if I have a $3,000 small-format digital console and a $200,000 large-format digital console, the amount of system-specific knowledge required in order to do even basic operation is completely unique. Meaning, I can’t take what I know about operating one system, and apply it to the other; they’re too different to be able to do that under any sort of time pressure and expect a good result. Now multiply that problem by the number of digital console manufacturers, and I think you can start to grasp the challenge ahead of us.

So it's just making for this big, splintered community out there where people tend to say, “I’m a DiGiCo guy,” or, “I’m an Avid guy,” or, “I’m a Mackie guy.” And they become kind of “caged” creatures of comfort and simply stay in any one of those cages sometimes at all costs. I’m starting to see this play out regularly now in performing arts centers and houses of worship, where they have multiple levels of consoles and operators within a facility. Many of these facilities are now committing to one console manufacturer to supply the entire breadth of mixing technology in their facilities, if for no other reason than to unify the operational workflow of the facility.

SJ: The implications seem to extend beyond workflow into music making.

RS: The difference here is, in the studio, if I have to go work on a different console, or a different DAW, more often than not I have the luxury of time to prepare. That is not the case in live sound. You may show up on show day and have to operate a console that you essentially know nothing about. I can tell you when that happens, it’s nerve wracking, because the house lights are going to go out, and the band is going to start playing, regardless of how fluent you are operating the day’s console.

Stay tuned for Part Two of the Q&A!

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.

Suggested Articles:

Vectorworks, Inc. congratulates the 2021 KCATF Regional Awards winner, rewarding the talented students with free Vectorworks Spotlight licenses.

Systems today demand more stations and sensors than ever. The Network Station Power Supply meets these needs in a compact and economical package.

The Event Technicians Resource Group kicks off its online training program with special guest Richard Cadena.