There’s a great line early in the movie The Blues Brothers where our anti-heroes Elwood and Jake Blues (Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi) go searching for their former bandmates, in an effort to get the band back together. They arrive at a rundown boarding house and start asking the landlady pointed questions, all serious-like in their black suits, skinny black ties, and opaque sunglasses.
The landlady eyes them warily. “Are you the police?”
“No, ma’am. We’re musicians,” says Elwood.
It’s a very funny moment, especially for musicians, because actor Dan Aykroyd delivers the line crisply and succinctly, as if this were not a non-sequitur, but coming from a place of even higher authority than if they were just cops. He might as well have said, “No ma’m. We’re the F.B.I.”
As musicians, we’re often looked to as the resident authority figure on all matters involving music, audio, or acoustics—even in areas where we may be a little out of our depth. For example, someone might ask you to recommend a home stereo system, about which you may know very little. But you can still answer thoughtfully. Think about how you would shop for a home stereo system. Certainly your approach would be different from someone who didn’t know music, gear, or audio at all. And you can relate that to help people sort out their own thoughts, even if you can’t tell school them on receiver brands or total harmonic distortion percentages.
In my untrained youth, I worked as a salesman at a stereo store, and would watch people come in, approach the wall of hi-fi amplifiers and immediately turn up the bass on whatever was playing at the time to “audition” the system. These tire-kickers would then simply stand at the receiver and start moving to the beat—as opposed to backing up, finding the sweet spot in the equilateral triangle formed by speakers and listener, and standing still for a careful listen. That’s how I could tell these people knew nothing about audio.
From that experience, I formulated my own plan on how I would forevermore audition audio systems. I would listen to them with their EQ settings flat; I would bring my own CDs of familiar and varied listening material; and I would always triangulate the sweet spot between myself and the speakers. Lo and behold, that’s how I evaluate audio gear to this day.
I never presumed to have specific technical expertise, just some basic musician-sense. But it came in handy recently when I attended a lecture a friend was giving at a local university. (The subject was screenwriting, and had nothing to do with music.) Once inside the lecture hall, I could see there was a problem up on the stage. Several people were gathered around a small portable sound system, looking worried. I approached the stage and asked if I could help.
“We can’t get the sound working,” said my friend, speaking for the group of presenters.
“I’m a musician,” I asserted. “Let me see what I can do.” And I hopped up onto the stage.
It was a simple matter to solve. They were using a wireless handheld mic whose receiver was plugged into a powered speaker. But they couldn’t figure out the relationship between the output of the receiver versus the volume on the powered speaker. The sound was either inaudible or feedback-squealing loud, and they were flustered. To me it was as natural as setting up a sound on my amp. I first turned both volumes all the way down. Then I cranked the speaker volume three-quarters of the way up and slowly brought up the output on the wireless receiver. The meter on the receiver looked good and the sound rang out clear and loud. I had my friend do a mic check, but her voice was softer than mine, so I momentarily took the mic from her and figured out how to boost the gain on the handheld transmitter. Now all the levels were good. Everyone smiled.
But I didn’t stop there. The powered speaker was on the floor, off the stage and behind a lectern. I lifted the speaker up, put it on the lectern itself, and moved the whole arrangement to the front edge of the stage so that the presenter wouldn’t pass the mic in front of the speaker, potentially creating feedback. I explained to the group that although it sounded good to us on stage, when the room filled up with people, this would guarantee a better sound for the house. Again, approving smiles all around.
Later, my friend commented that she thought I was “just a guitar player” and not an “audio genius.” I explained that all “mere guitar players” could do what I had done, and that “genius” was a strong word for my quick bit of stagecraft. And then she laughed, recalling the way I had said “I’m a musician” when I approached the stage.
“It was like you were saying, ‘Stand back, people, I’m a doctor!’” she said.
“No ma’am. I’m a musician,” I thought to myself silently, while enjoying a laugh with my friend.