A the end of the day, people make the difference in our world. It is the carpenter that really matters, not the hammer he uses. It is the electrician that makes a huge distinction, not the wire. In the design industry, we value people with knowledge and experience who can provide a specific skill, communicate well with a team, and collaborate on a project. People make the difference more than the tools.
While experience teaches us that it's the quality of the service, not the physical server, that matters, we learn in production that any established artist has a particular set of preferred tools. Nevertheless, the real art is in rendering a final product. Tools are simply a means to accomplish the goal, like mallets to a timpanist, fingers to a pianist, vocal chords to a soprano. To the uninitiated, these tools appear to be a mechanical extension to allow the artist to manipulate the world around us. To the artist, those tools are immensely important as foundations and supports of the bridge created in a deliberate, painstaking process of installing a massive palette developed and refined into a high performance — yet neutral machine — to propel media to the audience. We depend upon them entirely.
Without the brush, the artist still evolves and creates art again with whatever is at hand. Without the artist, the brush is idle. Without the poet, a word has little context. In both familiarity and fondness, artists are quite attached to their specific tools much in the same way a producer chooses a writer and director to work together with a team of designers. We all have a comfort level with particular tools that allow us to create our best work, so that we can hear the intimacy of the piano trill, the thump of the timpani roll, and the aria of the soprano.
For the sound designer, the relationship with the sound rental shop is just as important a collaboration as with other designers. How we communicate, respond, and respect one another has a very real impact on the final product. The shop offers a series of solutions for a group of goals set forth by the designer to create a successful sound design. Today's successful rental shop is competitive and standardized with popular and proven equipment yet has boutique items of intrinsic value all while providing the service of a private tailor or mechanic. It can develop and construct a highly organized, customized, solid, and attractive system — a system that belies the millions of threads woven together in chorus to form a whole yet single instrument to be deftly manipulated.
Not only must a shop provide complete expertise with all historic technology in the audio field, the shop also has a responsibility to fully comprehend and teach its clientele about developing technology. Every modern rental shop has a computer department; every sound system has multiple computers, whether a customized playback system, a digital mixing surface/interface/console, a control system, or RAID for the design team's LAN.
To be competitive, a rental shop must be incredibly versatile, versed in clocking digital equipment, establishing and maintaining computer networks, troubleshooting fiber optic snakes and the many flavors of audio over Cat5 networks, as well as analog mixing consoles, party line intercom systems, and video distribution systems. As line arrays were reintroduced to the audio world and self-powered speakers evolved, shops evolved to provide new methods of integrating flying systems, signal and power distribution, and secure methods to load and ship equipment repeatedly. Rental companies are partnering with wireless microphone manufacturers to lobby Congress as the FCC auctions off portions of the RF spectrum currently used for wireless mics, IEM systems, and intercom for the personal cellular and internet providers as well as DTV.
It is in the best interest of the shop to know equipment better than the manufacturer and to anticipate designers' needs on projects. By serving as a vendor as well as an authority on technology, we become a valued, trusted partner. Because the shops deal closely with manufacturers, we can often provide insight to the development of new products and techniques that are being applied. Many times a new approach to a problem is tried in a different setting — a ballroom at a trade show floor, on a corporate industrial, a TV upfront.
The shop person assigned to a specific production is part mechanic, part chef, and part ambassador. Shop staff members are quick to find and try new tools or technologies very early in their inceptions. Maybe it's time spent looking through the McMaster-Carr catalog for a part or roaming the aisles of Home Depot on a lunch break. Shop techs are quick to share and demonstrate new tools to clients. In the same fashion, after we pick up or hear about new techniques, processors, software versions, or product tweaks from a manufacturer, Broadway sound crew, rock tour, or corporate audio folks, we're eager to try them out and share the wealth with friends and business associates. Remember mixing consoles before the tilt stand? I don't know who had them first, but suddenly, every show had a tilt stand. By the same token, we all bolster to make our business consistent on a daily, monthly, annual basis while forecasting our industry and choosing the next series of projects.
Jim van Bergen is a sound engineer at PRG Audio in New York. He has mixed over 5,000 performances, designed sound for more than 300 productions, and has mixed live broadcasts to over three million listeners.