Tuning Misconceptions

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I’m in another season where I’m receiving inquiries related to system tuning and evaluation, and, by the way, if this is something you’re interested in doing before Christmas, I do still have some openings in my calendar so hit my Contact page if you’d like to find out more on that.

Having a properly optimized/tuned/calibrated loudspeaker system is a critical ingredient in achieving a successful mix and listening experience for the entire room. However, there are some misconceptions I’ve run in to while I’m on-site working on systems so I thought it might be worth it to look at a few of these.

Myth #1: Tuning is Just EQ

EQ is a component of any system optimization process, but a lot of times it’s the smallest part when I’m on site. The first step in tuning a system is basic verification to make sure that everything is working, and this can take a fair amount of time depending on the size of the system and how it was configured to begin with. I was on a recent project where I ended up spending a good half day just making sure everything was working and through that process I undid some interesting choices made by a previous technician. I found things like speakers wired out of polarity and delay times set on things that shouldn’t have delays because there weren’t any fills in the system.

That was on a relatively simple setup, though. More complex setups also require alignment to make sure fill speakers are working properly with the main system. If the components of the system aren’t working properly and together, no amount of EQ is going to help so a lot of time can be spent setting a good foundation.

Myth #2: Tuning is a One Time Event

Loudspeakers are made of moving parts that get really hot. Given that, it’s only natural for their performance to change over time. How long the speaker and tuning lasts depends on a few different factors. First, there’s how much use and how hard components are being pushed. When I first went on staff at North Point, we had PA’s that were not originally designed for the SPL we were asked to deliver, and those rigs tended to wear out within a couple years of replacing the drivers.

A second factor is the quality of the system. Once we put in the Meyer rigs at North Point, I attempted to re-tune the PA once a year, but the system held up so well that I was never able to beat the original tuning I did on it. The re-tune would be a little different but not necessarily better, and I always ended up going back to where I landed about three months after the install. By the fifth year, I was starting to feel like I could re-tune and beat where it was at, and if I had stayed on staff I would have found out. Even so, we’re probably talking maybe 2-5% better than where it was at. It wasn’t going to be a big difference.

What you can takeaway from that is with a higher end system your tuning should last quite a while once you have everything dialed in where you want it. Mid-level and lower end systems are a different story, though, and probably need more attention more often.

Myth #3: Re-tuning Is All My PA Needs

This one is partially true. There are a variety of reasons why having an expert like myself tune-up your existing system could improve its performance. These range from component wear to well-intentioned previous attempts at dialing in the system. Re-tuning your PA may put some life back into the system to provide a better experience for the entire room, and there have even been occasions where my clients have remarked that their aging system never sounded that good before.

The problem is, no amount of tuning is going to fix a poor system and acoustic design in the first place. I find in many circumstances that re-tuning actually ends up highlighting discrepancies within the loudspeaker and acoustic design of the space sometimes more than it fixes things.

Here’s a way you can think of it. Consider a room where the lighting hasn’t been changed in a long time so it feels like everything is covered in some form of shadow and probably layers of dust. “Re-tuning” changes all the bulbs and cleans up the dust so now bright spots are as clear as they can be, but now the shadows become even more pronounced due to the contrast between them and the lit areas. Sometimes this can be helpful for churches who are trying to evaluate whether it’s time to look at replacing their system. Unfortunately, though, this won’t help if you’re trying to milk another 5 years out of a system that wasn’t designed properly in the first place.

There’s another issue here, too, though. Re-tuning does not address failed components. It might help compensate for changes in behavior, but if the system is worn out or blown that’s not going to change just from re-tuning.

Myth #4: Tuning Will Make the PA Perfect

The goal of system tuning and optimization is to get it to sound the same in every seat, but that’s simply an extension of what was, hopefully, part of the system design’s intent in the first place. Even when that’s the case, there’s no such thing as perfection.

A great design with modern PA technology and proper acoustics can get us closer than ever today, but things will always change throughout the space. Once again, a lot of this is dependent on the design of the system and the acoustics of the space. Tuning can help get the output of the components relatively similar, but the interaction of everything within the space will change perceptually and measurably as you move across the room and hear different interactions within the space.

The point I want to make is while system optimization and tuning is important for all sound systems, tuning in and of itself will not solve every challenge with a system especially if the system design and implementation needs refinement. When I tune a system, I do whatever I can to get the system sounding the best I can get it, and in most cases the system performance is improved and everyone is happy.

System tuning isn’t a magic bullet, though. It’s just one piece of the puzzle, and there are also times where I have the unfortunate opportunity to let clients know that their speakers are in the wrong place or components are blown or their loudspeakers aren’t covering areas of seating.

So these days I’m starting to approach PA tuning on existing systems more like a doctor’s visit. First I take a look at everything, and then we talk about treatment. I’m always planning on and prepared to tune the system, but sometimes there are things that need to happen first before I can really dial things in. Sometimes there are things I can do on that visit that are a stop-gap to help improve things in the meantime. Sometimes the tuning needs to happen on another day, though.

So how’s your PA doing these days? Is it ready for a check-up and maybe a re-tune? I’d love to chat if that’s the case. Reach out to me through the Contact page on my website or click here to schedule a time we can chat.

David Stagl

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