A Teachable Desire to Improve


The edited version of this article is featured on ProSoundWeb.com

What would you say is the most valuable skill in our industry? Robert Scovill said, when he is considering an employee, he wants to see an innate understanding of signal flow and a good attitude. I agree. Absolutely. But, if I dare add to his comment, I can take it a step below that for this piece. I think the most valuable skill is simply a teachable desire to improve.

I have no problem with anyone making mistakes. That’s how we learn. Good judgement comes from experience, experience comes from bad judgement. No problem. The mistakes only bother me when they are repeated. Don’t have the same problems week after week. Learn and move on.

The first real PA system I ever installed was comprised of mostly used gear. That’s probably a very generous way of saying it. It was actually gear that had been retired, after a long and meaningful life. Some of it was older than me. But, miraculously, it was functional. Even though we managed to make noises come out of it, I didn’t really know what I was doing.

We pieced that pile of garbage together with ancient, unbalanced cables. Hung big speakers from ceiling joists by eye hooks and cheap chains. Stabbed the channels randomly, with no idea about what made sense. We moved knobs and faders until something made a sound. We were quite proud of ourselves. We were also lucky we didn’t kill anyone or burn that place down. We didn’t even know that we didn’t know what we were doing.

I would love to tell you how I learned all this without making any horrible or expensive mistakes. Yeah. That would be nice. But I did. I would love to tell you that I was one of those smart guys who listens and learns the first time. I wish I could teach only from my successes instead of my failures. But I can’t. I learned most of this the hard way. I honestly learned the value of a properly installed and adjusted crossover by destroying a pair 18″subs. That was a $1900 education. Get smart, learn your trade.

Here’s some of the stuff I had to figure out for myself, and the way I understood it.

All equipment operates on magic smoke. If you let the magic smoke escape, nothing works.
When you make a fatal error during installation or operation, the gear will let you know by blowing out the magic smoke cloud. Fortunately, most gear has fuses somewhere. Unfortunately, it’s often inside the box or a specific type that nobody ever has in their kit. Make sure you know what fuses you need and where they are. Keep extras.

The main reason I am opposed to the use of quarter inch phone plugs, is because they enable fatal errors. We once had a guy who plugged the output of one amp into the input of another amp because of a mixup on those cables. New guy. He blew a hole larger than my wedding ring through the circuit board. Poof. Magic smoke.

Then there’s the story of a random idiot, who pushed a system too hard without making sure the crossover was in line. Full range music running wide open. For about five minutes, it was magnificent. Then it stopped. Then he smelled magic smoke. Then $1900 magically disappeared from his wallet. Dumb kid. Some folks have to learn the hard way.

Flipper, the dolphin, lives in your monitors.
If you point a microphone grill towards it, Flipper will scream dolphin curses at you. If you turn the mic up until the monitor is louder than the source you are amplifying, he screams again. If you keep doing it he will scream until the monitor gets permanently quiet. Keep your EQ, levels and mic positions in check and he will behave.

If I told you that the majority of churches are running stage monitors without EQ, you might not believe me. But it’s true. So many churches suffer through horrible stage mixes week after week because nobody knows better. Even the cheapest EQ in any local music store will make life better than living with feedback and constant aggravation.

Stabbing a live channel will kill a system.
Turn the channel off and everything in its path down before plugging or unplugging anything. Surges destroy gear.
I was called to repair a system we had recently installed. The church was full of about 300 kids for VBS and none of the horns were working.
While facing a barrage of questions and defensive statements, I informed them of the reasons horns blow. While I was explaining surges and feedback, I watched a guy unrolling a mic cable towards the house board. As they declared how impossible it was for them to have damaged the system, he stabbed that cable into a live channel.

Boom! The whole building shook, every light in the room flickered, 300 kids hit the floor and I stopped talking. Yeah. Stuff like that will do it. Turn off those channels before changing connections. JBL is funny about honoring warranties on damage like that.

If you want unlimited power, you better have unlimited budget.
If I had to guess, it might be 99.9% of all installation that include someone waiting to blow it up. Someone, hiding in the shadows, is waiting to get that new system all to themselves so they can play their favorite music at ear bleed level.
I don’t care if the client spent $500 or $50k on the rig, someone will have to find the breaking point. People will assume because it’s new and better than the last one, it has unlimited headroom. Find this person and lock them in a closet.

Once. Only once in all my years, did a pastor tell me that he didn’t care what it cost. He wanted the ability to have concerts in his main room every weekend. He wanted enough power to make everyone listen to his shows for miles. Well alrighty then!
That system had virtually unlimited power. Enough that we could keep pushing even after the crowd had been blown to the back wall. You couldn’t make that system distort or clip without experiencing mind numbing pain. Really enjoyed that one.

Systems like that are rare. We usually end up compromising somewhere. That’s where your training becomes important. What do they really need versus what they think they need? What is really critical to their needs? What is absolutely necessary and fits in their budget? You can’t guess about that stuff. You better know before you gamble with someone else’s money. You better learn to ask the right questions.

The definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.
Pastor Myles Munroe taught me the three laws of knowledge.
1 – All you know is all you have learned.
2 – All you know is not all there is to know.
3 – Some of what you know is wrong.

It’s bad to not know. It’s even worse to not know that you don’t know. It’s tragic to pretend you know when you don’t. Arrogant and unteachable is a fatal combination in this business. Admit when you don’t know. Everyone else already knows if you don’t.

I was also taught that the only difference between who you are and who you will become, is the books you read and the people you spend time with. If we want to be good at something, we have to put in the time to learn it. You will not be good at anything, if you don’t do it all the time. If this is a world you want to live in, it might be a good idea to keep reading and learning.

Do you have a teachable desire to improve? That’s the type of person we want to hire.


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