The Difference between a Sound System Operator and Designer

by Tim Hamilton

Understanding the roles of the sound system operator and designer and the benefits of working together.

In my day job I work as a system designer.  I love the challenge of coming up with quality, effective designs while matching those designs to a client’s budget and needs.  This job offers an endless variety of potential problems and potential solutions.  On occasion I also enjoy the opportunity to return to my roots as a tech director and jump behind a mixing console to run a show or a service.  I find it both fun and valuable to keep familiar with what it’s like to be “in the techie trenches”.  But operating a system is not the same as designing a system, and designing is not the same as operating.  Just because you can do one, doesn’t mean you are good at the other. And vice versa.

Strengths of the Operator.

Sound System Operator and Designer - Sound Guy behind a mixerA great sound system operator not only builds a great mix (a must for anyone running systems) but also sports a host of other talents at the same time.  These talents include personal skills to handle the demands of the band, patience with well-intention “advice” from people on what doesn’t “sound right” in the mix, and confidence and knowledge that it really does sound good. A great sound system operator is also cool under pressure when things don’t go exactly right, an effective troubleshooter, and flexible.  On top of all this, s/he has to know the equipment they’re using and apply it at the correct time and place, which requires lots of skill and experience.  At times it’s a tough job but it’s also a fun one.

Strengths of the Designer.

Sound System Operator and Designer - Photo of a system designerA great designer must first conduct an accurate assessment of the system needs.  Then, s/he works to develop potential solutions to meet the system needs, including assessing whether those solutions fit the project budget.  Effectively and clearly explaining the solutions and budget implications to the person(s) buying the system (and probably a large design team as well) is also a must.  A great designer must also document all the system components and how they connect together and then coordinate effectively with the installer to make sure everything is installed correctly and that the buyer is properly trained on the system. There are a lot of tools and people to work with in this job, which can sometimes make it tough, but also a lot of fun.

Designer or Operator?

The other day I was talking with some members of a church leadership committee who were looking to make some system upgrades.  At one point in the conversation I was told that the church had just hired someone to run all their technology on Sunday mornings and that they were thinking to just have that individual “put it together” and install it.  For small, simple systems this approach is usually no problem, but for larger more complex systems it can be trouble!  I’ve seen numerous organizations try to acquire new systems in this manner, but it’s only usually effective at saving money in the short term.  In the long run it tends to result in spending too much money for a system that under performs.

Not only are the roles of operator and designer different, but the extra time and burdens of a large system design and installation can take a huge toll on staff if they don’t have the tools and expertise for the job.  Employing a system operator to design a system can also end up being much more expensive if things don’t go well and an outside party must be brought in to fix issues.  That’s a cost and liability that can be very expensive.

We must keep in mind is that these roles don’t need to be in competition.  When they work together they can combine to form a team that brings wisdom and insights from many different angles and perspectives.  At times in our industry it feels as if there is some tension between operators and designers.  Operators who set systems up and take them down every day can sometimes come to believe that system design is simple and easily performed.  A couple of weeks ago I was in a design meeting when the system technician for the venue told me that he had already selected the new mixing console that they intended to use for the new system.  He clearly indicated that “most of the hard design work” was now completed and that my remaining work was minimal.  I took a few minutes and walked the team through all the remaining system design elements that needed to be addressed and completed.  At the end, the technician readily agreed that he didn’t want to do all of that work and was glad I was there to handle it!

At the same time, designers can undervalue the experience and knowledge gained from years of live sound work.  There have been times when I have had to put together a system design without having the benefit of discussing all the needs/uses with the end user or operator.  The resulting conversation at the end of the project can be very enlightening as the operator finally gets to share why a particular product would have been a better choice for the operational needs.  Had I been able to access their knowledge and expertise we could have delivered a better final solution.

The truth is that most sound operators (with some exceptions, of course) know gear and they know how to use it.  That’s their job. They know how to tweak it and maximize the functions to squeeze everything possible out of it.  When it comes to the “user interface” items (the stuff we actually put our hands on and move/tweak/adjust), they tend to know which stuff is “good” and which stuff is “bad”.  Operators have a very good grasp on what brands and particular products work/function well in different applications.  Many go to trade shows, read trade magazines, and attend seminars or events on how to do their job the best that they can.  But, the further away we move from the gear that is used on a daily basis, the more that knowledge and experience fades as well.  In other words, the components that make up much of the infrastructure of an installed system may not be as familiar to the sound operator, and the tools required for things like predicting loudspeaker coverage may not be ones that a sound operator has used.

Here is where it is important for the Operator to join forces with the Designer.

A great sound operator knows how to get a great mix and they know all the complex facets to make that happen. They are also wise to know when a project scope moves beyond what they can effectively do as part of their job. Knowing when to rely on a third party system designer can help avoid many potential pitfalls and problems and allows the operator to focus on the mix and the show. Large scale system design uses different tools, products, and approaches to solve problems. Not only does the system designer use these products and tools on a regular basis, but the designer brings additional experience and value to the design. S/he uses their understanding of a space and the available technology to design a system the end user (i.e., the sound operator) can use to support the purposes of that space.

A good designer has to be able to use modelling tools to place loudspeakers for even coverage throughout the room while also having a minimum of interactions between the speakers. It is also crucial to fully understand the space in which the loudspeakers are going to be placed – for existing buildings this means being able to perform a site survey to assess and quantify the existing RT and any other acoustic conditions that may compromise the sound system performance. While modelling the loudspeaker coverage, the designer also works to assess and predict intelligibility of the loudspeaker system. Once the loudspeakers are selected the designer must also designate a properly sized amplifier so that the system runs efficiently and optimally.

Document It!

Engineering electricity blueprint rollsBut the loudspeaker modelling and selection is only one step. A big part of the design process includes documentation of the design. The value of quality project documentation is often underestimated and the larger the scale and scope of the project, the more critical it is that documentation be not only accurate but also shareable. Many large systems quickly move out of the realm of “napkin sketch” diagrams and into a sophisticated software package for all the details and documentation. A good system designer should know these software systems and how the information in them will be shared with the larger design team.

Hand in hand with the design documentation process is the need to have documents that potential contractors (and project managers) can look at, review, and understand so that the construction aspects of the system and the space can be coordinated between different trades. Of vital importance is the need to also have accurate As-Built drawings at the end of the project. Unless a quality designer has been employed to provide the system design and documentation, it is very difficult to get accurate close-out documents. Anyone who has worked on a project that has been installed for some time should appreciate the need for good system documentation because it is hard to work on a complicated system that has no documentation of what wires connect to what components. This is especially true when trying to trouble shoot problems (usually under a tight deadline!) without having good documents. I have worked on designing many system upgrades that were made far more difficult because of the lack of documentation. As it’s all being installed and put together it all makes perfect sense to the installer, but in 5 or 10 years no one will remember where all the conduits run and what wires go to which equipment. If the system is clearly documented at the time of construction, it becomes much easier to look back at the drawings and figure things out when troubleshooting, upgrading, or renovating.

One of the projects I’m currently working on is a school district’s Performing Arts Center that was built about 20 years ago. The technology is ready to be upgraded and as we reviewed the original installation documents from 20 years ago it was wonderful to be able look at the conduits and boxes in the space, correlate them to the original installation drawings, and then be able to easily verify where the conduits run. Being armed with this information not only simplified the task of identifying the conduits, it also saved the owner thousands of dollars in potential new conduit because we already know where everything goes so we can begin to think about and design necessary upgrades.

Championing sound.

While the “End of Project” documents are critical for future years, good documents are equally critical for a current installation. Interfacing with a design team (architects, engineers, interior designers, etc.) requires the sound system designer to work with people who don’t necessarily understand sound and don’t necessarily have a high priority for making sure the sound is done correctly. Many times there is no one else in the project who will champion the sound system and associated necessary infrastructure beyond the sound designer. If the sound designer doesn’t clearly and repeatedly articulate the sound system needs to the team and also document those needs in drawings and specs, then the potential for crucial elements to be missed or forgotten rises significantly.

Having important elements of infrastructure get missed is a bad situation. Perhaps equally problematic are situations where the technology elements to be installed in the space were not well understood by the building designer/architect. Talking recently with a frustrated architect I heard him express his frustration that he had designed a beautiful space only to have somebody come along at the very end and hang some big black speakers and suspend a projector from the ceiling. In his opinion, these elements had “ruined” the space. Of course these were essential elements to the operation of the space, so they had to be there. The problem was that no one had done an effective job of communicating how the technology elements would impact the space and what the final “look” was going to be. Had these things been well discussed with the architect they perhaps could have been better incorporated into the space. At a minimum the architect would have been prepared for the technology and then would not have been surprised when it suddenly “appeared” at the end of the building construction.

Working Together.

The goal of all of this is to have great sounding systems that meet the needs of the space/venue. System operators and designers both have areas of specialty and both have great wisdom and insights for how to get things “right”. There are many crucial steps in the process from the start of the project to the end and if we miss steps along the way the end product cab become compromised. When we work together in our areas of expertise, system designers and system operators both become champions of sound, which results in a well-designed and well-operated system that makes owners, end users, and audience members