Are We There Yet?

by Baker Lee
in FOH at Large
Illustration by Andy Au
Illustration by Andy Au

“Are we there yet? No! Are we there yet? No! Are we there yet? No!” It’s the iconic call and response between bored children and their parents as they travel for long tiresome hours in an automobile. It was a scene played out on a daily basis between back seats and front seats everywhere and perfectly parodied in such cartoons as The Simpsons and the Shrek movie. While this is an amusing bit (made all the more funny if one ever experienced the situation up-close), it unfortunately is less than humorous as the experience is unfolding in real-time.

As a child, I remember playing this scene from the backseat of my parent’s car as my mother patiently tried to amuse my sister and me with coloring books and games such as “I spy with my little eye” and “20 questions.” She would read to us, tell us stories and play the radio, but we tired of these distractions quickly and after the first half hour — and as our boredom started to express itself — she began cajoling (and then threatening us) to behave so that our father could concentrate on the driving task at hand.

When I had children of my own, I re-lived the same scenario, but this time from the front seat of the car. As we all can attest, karma is a b*tch, but sometime in the mid-1990s, technology stepped in to relieve my karmic retribution and I was able to calm my own children’s mindless malignant meanderings with videos. That’s right, my wife and I bought a car with a video player and my kids were amused for hours on end with all their favorite VHS movies. It was such a great technological leap that neither my wife nor I complained about having to hear the soundtrack over the car’s speaker system and, just as we were getting ready to complain, technology again intervened and provided us with video players with multiple headphone outputs.

Moving quickly at technological lightspeed, we quickly upgraded to an in-car CD player to assuage the travel boredom of my kids with the only caveat being the problem of backseat fighting over which movie to watch. Technology didn’t rescue me this time, and by the time individual laptop computers with CD-R capability became available, my kids were already in the front seat motoring down the highway and not realizing that they would soon be relying upon technology to save them from their own karmic retribution.

‡‡         So… Are We There Yet?

Having been involved in the technologically driven audio business for the past 35 years, I have often begged the question in regard to the equipment we use, “Are we there yet?” It never fails to amaze me when the manufacturers in the front seat respond with a resounding “No!” My surprise at this answer is not always due to the great technological strides that are being made regarding the equipment we use, but often it’s just how high and frequently the bar is being raised.

I have a collection of audio magazines dating back to the 1990s, and every now and then I thumb through some of the older ones to re-live the state-of-the-art from a time gone by. It’s quite a trip down memory lane, and while I remember mixing some great-sounding shows on the equipment shown in these magazines, I wondered how much of a difference there would be if these relics were compared side by side with a current system of the same size? I’m pretty sure it would sound better now, but not better than it will sound in the near future, since I have been assured by history — as well as manufacturers — that we are not there yet!

Will we ever arrive? From a manufacturing standpoint, the answer is probably “no,” as the manufacturer is in the business of making new products to replace the older models. As a user, my own answer would also be “No,” since we are always on the lookout for ways to improve what we do. Often these innovations are not put in place to make for better-sounding equipment, but rather to provide for more capability. These upgrades are regularly developed due to advances in other technologies. For example; the advent and popularity of IEM’s made the stereo monitor mix a must-have for most musicians, therefore a need for more output was required on the mixing desk for the audio technician to achieve that goal.

A good example of not “arriving” can be viewed in the history of digital audio processors. Digital electronics have been around since the 1950’s, but they didn’t really start making their way into the audio market until the mid 1970’s when EMT introduced the EMT 250 — the first digital reverb. Shortly after that, Lexicon came out with their own digital reverb with their model 224. While the EMT is a great sounding unit, the Lexicon 224 became a studio mainstay because it was about half the price.

‡‡         Getting Closer

By the mid-1980s, Lexicon came out with the 480L, but — as both the 224 and 480L were too cumbersome and expensive for anyone but the top tier bands to carry out of a studio environment — it wasn’t until the release of the PCM60 and PCM70 rack mount digital processors that digital reverb really took off in the world of live audio. Yamaha released their SPX90 digital reverb around the same time as the PCM70 was released and, because of its price point, it, too, became a staple in the world of live sound. The digital revolution changed the complexion and sound of our industry, and by 2005, with the release of the Yamaha PM5D, large-frame analog consoles were on their way to becoming a thing of the past for touring bands and regional sound companies.

Since the release of the PM5D 12 years ago, we can see the huge progress made in refining and updating the capabilities of the various brand name mixing desks. Each year, manufacturers release updated and innovative additions to their inventory. More DSP, more I/O, optical and digital snakes, easier record capabilities, smaller frames with larger capacity, better preamps, better plug-ins, better screens, and the list goes on. I often try to imagine the next improvement or big change in the gear that I use, and even after all these years I am still amazed at how often I get excited to see a new or updated piece of equipment.

Technology never fails to impress me and — as new technological and logistical problems present themselves — it appears that innovative solutions will be made available. As someone once said, “There are no problems, only solutions.” If necessity is the mother of invention, then for all intents and purposes, it would appear that our industry is on a journey without end, and in response to the question “Are we there yet?” the answer is still a resounding “No!”