From Alternating Current to Direct Connection
An electrical system creates a loop when a circuit contains more than one ground, and the electrical signal does not know where to find the common earth. There is a running joke in my industry: “How many sound engineers does it take to screw in a light bulb?” “Five: One to screw it in, and four others to tell the person how to do it.” Faced with so many critical perspectives, it can feel hard to find that common ground among peers. When I first embarked on my solo journey to the Audio Engineering Society (AES) Conference in Denmark, I feared that I would travel a long way only to have my own insecurities keep me from building connections and networks with other audio engineers. Fortunately, it turns out we all do have a common way to earth.
It was just another ordinary day at the shop when I received an email advertising the AES Conference on Sound Reinforcement in Open Air Venues. As a live sound engineer specializing in systems tech, the subject line immediately caught my attention. The conference was to be held in Struer, Denmark: “The City of Sound”—quite far from the San Francisco Bay Area. As I perused the program, I found my inner geek dancing around in my head with increased excitement as I saw that the presentations included topics such as system optimization, noise mitigation, subwoofer arrays, and more, presented by some of the heavy hitters in the industry.
Like an electron flowing to the path of greatest potential, I had to go. The problem is when there is something that I want to do, my mind starts listing all the reasons I should not do it under the guise of “pragmatism.” My brain says, “Oh, that’s going to be too expensive,” “You won’t get the time off,” and so on and so on until I’ve exhausted myself mentally before I’ve actually done anything. When I talked to one of my best friends about this indecision, he pointed out something that really hit home for me:
“Sure, you might rack up the credit card for a bit, but are you really ever going to look back and think, man, I really regret that one time I went to an audio conference in Denmark?”
Yet still I found myself wondering if I would end up at the conference, stuck in a corner, unable to talk to people out of sheer introversion or fear of screwing the light bulb in the wrong way. Intimidation is the enemy of progress, or, to quote the litany against fear in the book Dune by Frank Herbert, “Fear is the mind-killer.” The only way to find out was to just try.
I measured time by gig dates, counting them down until I could fly to Denmark, stopping by Iceland on my way there. In Iceland, I spent the majority of my time in nature with hardly any contact with other people: a free electron wandering about a valence cloud of happiness, marveling at nature’s epic majesty. Before I knew it, I was on the plane to Copenhagen, where the culture shock from reintroduction to the periodic table of humanity took a minute to get used to. As an introverted extrovert, I felt concerned that I would arrive at the conference brimming with questions and then short-circuit myself from total excitement overload. By the time I made it to Struer after a few days in the city, the anticipation had achieved nuclear potential in my head.
One property of conductive materials is that electrons, like ideas, can easily flow from one unit to the next. On the Wednesday evening of the opening reception, I rode my bike from my rental home to the Apollon, past the quaint red brick houses of the neighborhood. I took a deep breath before opening the glass door, summoning up every molecule of self-confidence in my body.
A table of AES swag lay in the middle of the reception area, surrounded by a room full of people standing around sharing stories over drinks. I grabbed my nametag and headed to the bar for a glass of liquid courage. No sooner had I received my beer than an older gentleman with round glasses and a grey suit welcomed me. He asked where I had come from.
“San Francisco,” I replied.
“Wow! You came all this way for the conference? What company are you with?”
I had failed to submit any organization during the registration process.
“Oh, I work for XXX company, but I’m actually here to just learn more because there is always something new to learn in this industry.”
He smiled. “Well, we’re very happy you are here.”
After that introduction, the conversations just kept going from one person or group to the next. I felt genuinely astounded at how easy it was to strike up discussions with strangers. I shared a dinner table with a group of people ranging from university graduate students who were presenting their project on Saturday, to researchers from major manufacturers, to a guy who jokingly claimed to be the governor of a small island in Denmark. All these people had come together over a common passion in audio; you can imagine the storytelling that ensued.
The rest of the weekend, my brain exploded. I drank up every presentation, and some of them related directly to questions that had been burning in my head. I even found fascination in workshops that did not pertain directly to my field. I had gone to the event concerned that I would not know what to say to strike up a conversation, but I had so many questions to ask that I found myself deep in technical discussions, whether they were regarding one of the presentations or some real-life experience I had questions about.
Our own minds create so much inner resistance to the flow of ideas because of insecurity or other unspoken inhibitions, but put enough people sharing a common interest in the same room, and it won’t take long before the air fills with the buzz of electrified minds. At the end of the weekend, it was hard to accept that the whole experience had concluded and it was time to head back home. I resolved to make an effort to attend more of these events, despite the insanity of the audio engineer’s production schedule, because the event had installed a new earth in my brain. When you are passionate about something, and you find others who share the same passion as you, all the resistance drops, increasing the current of ideas flowing into the creation of progress. Maybe not everyone has the same idea on how to screw in that light bulb, but, in the end, it is all about the light that it creates or, in our case, the sound that everyone hears.