The Optical Link
Sound and light. Light and sound. Both forms of energy, both transferred in waves. They have amplitudes, frequencies, and polarities. It’s almost curious how vastly different they are, and how vastly differently we experience them.
Most people would say that light and sound are perceived at similar levels of importance. But here too, the difference is huge: We can direct our sense of sight in a particular direction, and can spot lights of 1 lumen (about the strength of a candle) from kilometers away. We can catch sound regardless of its position, and even pin-point the location of the source after the event itself, precisely measuring the subtle difference caused by the shape of our ears, telling us if we should start looking in front or behind us.
We hear pretty much everything, though we are mostly unaware of it. Ever since I started analyzing what I was hearing exactly (when my ambitions to become a technician were growing) I noticed just how much I miss. I could listen to the same sound repeatedly (say, a snare drum) but when that obnoxious band manager tells me he’s hearing feedback on a certain frequency, I slap myself for simply not catching it before.
Everyone has a different preference about sound, which makes sound such a hard thing to work with. When focused on the wrong thing, it is easy to miss obvious things entirely.
When you push a thing, it moves. If it doesn’t, lube it up and push harder. Easy. But when you turn a knob on a mixing desk, you are changing parameters that influence an electrical alternating current. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s easy to fuck up royally without even knowing before it’s too late.
Things like that tend to happen when I get nervous. I start second-guessing myself and I am no longer sure if I’m doing it “right”. It tends to happen when people point out mistakes to me, when band members are being difficult, or when there’s a particularly stubborn feedback problem somewhere. Technically, I can usually get things in order but that’s only where it starts, and with all the different opinions in the room you just can’t please everybody.
It’s ironic that, while we are so oblivious to what we’re really hearing, we are so picky about what we want to hear. No matter how great a sound technician you are, you will never achieve anything better than what the artist intended in the first place, which goes against the preference of 99% of the people present, regardless if they are aware of it or not.
I’ll take light jobs any day. It’s an even less glorious position than the front-of-house guy, but at least there’s no one looking over my shoulder telling me what to do.
On the first day God said, “Let there be light!” and there was light. And light technicians had an answer to anyone dissing their trade. But people on the street usually carry headphones more often than flashing lights in their eyes, so it’s pretty obvious sound is generally enjoyed more, or at least on a more conscious level.
No, light is experienced deeper. No one ever recalls the light scheme at a gig, and no one will ever go “Flash! Flash!” under the shower sooner than singing the thing they played the other night. Still… I enjoy flicking lights a lot more than getting the sound right.
You see, because light is enjoyed on a more subconscious level, it is possible to work with it in a more creative way. You can take risks. You can really try things, and see if they work. And if you’re lucky, you can take that perfect sound (if the sound guy is any good) and elevate it to the point where it’s not just enjoyable, but literally amazing. It’s a real head rush when a light scheme just works and a few ‘wows’ are audible in the crowd.
People don’t notice light changing, they only feel the atmosphere changing. Afterwards, they can’t tell me why they liked the thing I did at a particular song, just that they did. If I have the time to hang the spots like I want them, and preset my desk so that I can react quickly, doing lights feels remarkable similar to dancing. And if I do my job right, I connect to every single person present, through their eyes, and share that emotion in a deep, very direct way.
One of these figures is named Booba, the other one is named Kiki. Without thinking twice, you know which is which. Right?
This is actually an existing experiment called the Booba/Kiki effect and proves that your vision and hearing are interconnected in ways we are completely unaware of. It can lift the sum of different elements to something breathtaking, an impalpable, awe inspiring event, if they are presented to us just right.
It goes to show that there are things influencing us far beyond our understanding, and that’s exactly the spot where light reaches, unhindered by conscious processing by the receiver. To be able to connect to people on that spiritual plane in such an immediate, honest way, is easily one of the most fascinating things I have ever done.