Preventing Audio Problems: 5 Tips for Eliminating Errors
It’s hard to get excited about testing audio equipment, but let’s face it – there’s nothing worse than a catastrophic failure that interrupts a show or recording. Early on, I never cared much for sound checks or testing equipment until I made a few embarrassing catastrophic errors with only myself to blame. I’ve had live radio broadcasts completely lose sound, I’ve forgotten to press record, I’ve forgotten to turn on mics, and probably a dozen more silly things that could have been prevented with mere seconds of checking. Audio failures not only cost time and money, but they kill morale and creative energy. There’s nothing like an embarrassing failure to push you toward getting vigilant about error prevention. We hope you save yourself the trouble by learning from our mistakes rather than your own.
It’s incredibly rare that audio devices fail, but when they do, they usually fail predictably. The difference between audio professionals and amateurs comes down how much time they spend reducing the risk failures through proper systems and testing. No audio crew can prevent a power outage, but you can control the equipment you’re responsible for, and minimize the risk to the greatest degree possible. Most clients and audience members are forgiving and will understand the difference between careless mistakes and acts of God. Here are some basic strategies for eliminating audio problems before they happen.
Do A Test Run
Before your client or talent arrive or before you begin recording (if working solo), simply run the system live for 60 seconds. If it’s a PA system in front of a live audience, make all connections and speak into a microphone for 60 seconds before the audience arrives. Pretend you’re inexperienced with using a microphone and speak softly, walking around the stage and checking for feedback. If recording in a studio, make all connections and record for one minute and then play back the recording. This probably sounds obvious, but if it saves only one catastrophic error per year, it’s worth the effort.
Assess the Highest Risks
In the real world, you can’t check every audio component, but you can prioritize the areas with the highest risk of failure. Your odds forgetting to press a button or plugging in a cable incorrectly are far higher than your electronics failing. Most people think of computers as the biggest source of their problems, but if a computer fails while recording, it’s likely due to an error in setting up the equipment along the way.
Plan out your system configuration and assess the areas that involve human involvement. Stick to a standardized setup and repeat the process precisely each time. Rely on preset configurations and automation wherever possible, eliminating opportunities for human intervention and errors. Be sure to test each high-risk component before recording or going live.
Checklists are important enough that Atul Gawande wrote an entire book called The Checklist Manifesto. It’s human nature to think we’re too smart for checklists, but the goal is to reduce the statistical likelihood of errors. If using a checklist for setting up equipment reduces mistakes by 20% then it’s an effective strategy. Map out the series of steps needed to set up your equipment, then write a simple checklist that you can follow each time. This works well if others help you with the setup as it keeps everyone on the same page, and mindful about common errors. If new errors present themselves, add them to the checklist, and you’ll develop an even more robust checklist over time.
Create a Buffer
All of this additional testing may require more time with setup, but the results are well worth it. Be sure to give yourself the additional time needed by booking a slightly longer session at the studio or arriving to the venue earlier, and completing the setup with time to spare. If everything works on the first test the first time, then the peace mind will lighten the mood for everyone involved. If you find any mistakes, you’ll have plenty of time for troubleshooting.
You’ll never eliminate potential problems unless you adhere to strict rules and principles. Audio professionals have lived through the pain and embarrassment of past mistakes that fuel their drive for discipline. Getting sloppy is much easier than adhering to strict rules, checklists, and tests applied day-in and day-out. All of us make mistakes, but working professionals strive to make fewer mistakes this year than the year before. Keep yourself on a steady downward trend of errors by committing to a plan of success and aggressively sticking to it.
We hope this helps all of you get better with your audio systems and improving over time. If you’ve found any useful tips for reducing audio mistakes, let us know in the comments below.
Photo credit: Eryk Thompson