Almost like a techno-Mary Poppins, Principal Joe Bocchiaro explains levels of audiovisual craftmanship in this article that first appeared in Sound & Communications magazine.

Some years ago, I was working in West Palm Beach FL on a courthouse AV project. I was the design consultant on the project, and the integrators had to finish a few things before we did the system inspection, verification testing and (hopefully) project acceptance. Because I had some time to kill, I thought I might drive over to Palm Beach “to see how the other half lives”—or, now, I suppose, it would be “to see how the one percent live.”

While admiring the mansions, I was impressed not only by the magnificent and enormous architecture, but also by the grounds and the armies of grounds-keeping crews that were everywhere.

While admiring the mansions, I was impressed not only by the magnificent and enormous architecture, but also by the grounds and the armies of groundskeeping crews that were everywhere. I noted perfectly cut and edged lawns with straight alternating mower patterns and vast, weedless greenness. There were neatly trimmed hedges, cut into perfect shapes and set in contained mulch beds complete with perfectly arranged flowers. The leaves, grass and dirt were completely absent from the pavement, having been removed with leaf blowers. It was—and still is—the ultimate control and containment of the natural environment, and it’s the pinnacle of high-quality property management. This artificial nature surrounded the mansions themselves, with their gleaming and clean windows, beautifully built details and just-waxed European sedans. I thought to myself, “Wow…what money can buy!” I will admit that I was envious, as I do all this work myself at my own house (with the exception of waxing a European sedan).

The attention to detail, the pride in the workmanship and the delivery to the customer that I witnessed all were the marks of craftsmen. If you have to try to define what “quality” means, you could more easily show a picture of that scene than try to describe it. When I returned to the courthouse, I had so many questions in my mind about what a “quality” AV system really is. Fortunately, that particular system was actually pretty darn good, and I knew why right away. The men and women who had worked on it were ready to show it off to me, daring me to find faults; they had created the system with pride. They were not mere AV tradesmen; rather, they were AV craftsmen. They knew what they were doing on multiple levels, just as the crack groundskeepers did. This was a real treat and I was spoiled forever after, given that their install work was so superior to almost every other firm’s that I had ever encountered (except my own prior firm’s work, of course)!

If you’re worried that you won’t see the AV world the same way after you read this article, don’t read on. The Florida drive made me think about the multiple levels of attention that the groundskeepers pay in their profession to create quality. Similarly, I thought about what contributes to the creation of a high-quality AV system, along with what makes that system “appear” high quality, as well as why everybody can’t just make their systems that way. There are blatant flaws and mistakes everywhere. I see disregard for workmanship, and I experience technical mundanity, mediocrity and dysfunction. I also see this in landscapes when I drive in most places outside of Palm Beach. Can we draw an analogy, perhaps?

The landscapers have three basic aspects of their craft to which to attend. The basic level centers on the plantings themselves. This includes the trees, shrubberies, flowers, grass and mulch. These are their live and inert elements that must be understood for how they will thrive. How they grow, how much water and light they need, etc., vary for each element. The second level involves how these elements will be placed in relation to each other, according to how they look and interact together, and in order to thrive at different times of the year. Aspects such as arrangements, patterns, separation and anticipation of how large they will grow—and how they must be cared for and maintained—are vital. The third level centers on how these arrangements are integrated with the hardscapes and the architecture, along with the interactions between all these elements. The heat, the light, the water flow and, of course, the appearance of the holistic finished property are considered, designed and implemented. The master landscaper and the landscape architect who designed it are in tune with all these interrelated elements. The result is more than just the sum of the parts; indeed, it is a construct born of vision and design.

The technical aspects of devices are the best place to begin as the first AV level. Because they are the building blocks of our systems, they are akin to the flowers, shrubs and trees. Successful audiovisual equipment manufacturers go to great lengths, and work with engineering diligence, to produce products that have outstanding performance characteristics. It is up to the audiovisual practitioner to understand the qualities and specifications of those components. That is the only way to ensure that an audience experiences the manufacturer’s painstaking efforts. There are so many critical aspects to this, and these are becoming even more critical as the technology is improved and developed with regard to resolution, contrast, modulation transfer function of lenses, distortion, efficiency, etc. These device specifications are the basis for the performance of the system: They cannot be improved upon, but they must be respected and maintained at the next level.

The second AV level is the system itself; this is akin to the garden arrangement…the ebb and flow of the ecosystem. I have observed that this is where most audiovisual practitioners focus most of their attention—probably because this is the most creative part and it’s what people think they understand the most. This is the systems-design aspect, and it’s the most critical opportunity to maintain the quality of the equipment. Why, then, do designers not learn enough about the interactions of the components and the interfaces? Impedance matching, gain structure, signal loss, protocol compatibility, etc., fall into this domain. There have been so many failed systems throughout the years in this area that manufacturers have resorted to creating evermore failsafe signal transports, such as HDMI, USB and HDBaseT, so as to protect installers from themselves.

Finally, the third level embodies the very purpose of AV: It is a communications medium in the physical realm. This is where we consider not only the physical appearances of systems, but also their holistic integration into the environment of the venue. This is what the audience sees, hears and experiences. Any distraction—for instance, intermittent signals; distortion; interference; crooked, unfocused or keystoned images; dangling cables, dirty ceiling speakers or exposed devices—will detract from the pristine experience that the equipment manufacturers painstakingly engineered their devices to deliver. So, then, why do we see and hear these things everywhere we go? A look “under the hood” at undressed and unlabeled cables, a lack of documentation, mismatched resolution settings and many other AV sins offers a quick indicator to consultants—and probably to the general public—that there are certainly many more problems to be found.

In all of this, I wonder why integrators receive their final payments for obviously imperfect and uncraftsmanlike results. My worst thought is that there are so many people installing audiovisual systems now that many of them have no awareness of any of the best practices or standards in our industry. They do not understand how to protect the business-centric assets of their customers, nor do they understand the effects of the environment on their systems. Worse yet, so many people have seen mediocre systems that they think, “This is just the way it is,” and they’re willing to pay for mediocrity. Things should be far better in this more advanced AV era!

If you’re reading this and you’re uncertain of your own abilities to create quality systems, then I hope you’ve just had a small epiphany. There is absolutely hope for the continuous quality improvement of your craftsmanship and professionalism! Try getting a second opinion of your system, for instance, and be open to constructive criticism. Be willing to spending the extra time to research the causes of the shortcomings, and then invest the extra effort to correct them. Challenge yourself to squeeze the absolute best performance out of a system; if you do, every future project will benefit!

The way I see it, our industry’s manufacturers are creating extraordinary, superhighfidelinition components for us to integrate into systems. Our goal is to strive to create extraawesomesystems from those components. We have to pay attention to our plants (components), our gardens (systems) and our landscapes (anthroposystems). It takes our entire industry to make superhighfidelinitionextraawesomesystems! But it can only be done if we take the time to learn and really consider the big picture of what quality AV systems can be.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Joseph Bocchiaro brings a wealth of audiovisual thought leadership, consultant and integrator experience in higher education, corporate, financial, judicial, publishing, training and conference centers. With degrees in Educational Technology, Media Studies, Electro-Optical Engineering, and Cinematography (he also studied piano and film scoring at New York’s Eastman School of Music), Joe is dedicated to the improvement of audiovisual industry professionalism and its increasingly vital role in the Architectural, Engineering and Consulting (AEC) industry. An accomplished writer and presenter, Joe has published over 100 technical articles in professional journals and has presented across 16 countries at more than 50 audiovisual and information technology conferences.

Contact Joe at 617.933.9229 x325 or at jbocchiaro@TheSextantGroup.com.