Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Cool Snarky Puppy Stuff

In case I haven't made this clear, Snarky Puppy is my current favorite recording act. Someday, I hope to see them live and I really hope to make them my favorite live act. These are just a few of my favorite performances from this amazing band. At the least, listen to these pieces with decent headphones. SP goes to incredible lengths to produce high fidelity recordings. They deserve the respect of a decent reproduction system, at the least.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Did We Exist?

Several years ago, just before I retired, I took a quick pass through McNally SmithCollege of Music, to document some of the acoustic treatments my tenure there created. That is documented here, somewhere, I’m pretty sure. Yesterday, I visited the remains of the school to look at the items that will be auctioned off this week. The evidence of my existence and participation in that facility are vanishing quickly. 



Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Bullshit Arguments

A TapeOp Magazine opinion piece recently presented the dumbest anti-ABX argument I’ve heard to date; and I’ve heard a lot of really stupid arguments against ABX comparisons. Allen Farmelo's article title pretty much says it all, “The Problem with A-B'ing and Why Neil Young is Right about Sound Quality.” Because I’m a nice guy and it’s early in the morning, I’m not going to spend any time whacking away at the fact that there are so many old, deaf, mediocre rockers who imagine they possess golden ears. Neil Young, probably the single most prolific creator of awful sounding records in human history, is close to the last guy on the planet who should be promoting high resolution audio. Nuts, I went there anyway. So much for being a nice quy. 

However, the bullshit argument here is, “. . . we hear people talk about how one can't make out the difference between a hi-res MP3 and a 24bit WAV file (assumedly a difference similar to the one Neil Young feels is worth fighting for).  Admittedly a hi-res MP3 and a 24bit WAV are relatively close enough in resolution that many people will not be able to pick them out in an A-B test.

“But, we don't live with music like that.  If your'e [sic] anything like me, you listen to a lot of music in a lot of styles and - over the course of, say, a month - perhaps you've absorbed well over a hundred listening hours across many different albums on a few different playback systems.”

It gets better.

To “prove” his point, he uses what he imagines to be an analogy, “For example, when I started living with my partner I introduced her to what I call ‘good coffee.’  At first she kind of shrugged it off as my snobbery at work, and she couldn't really taste the difference.  But then, after months of drinking the good stuff, she found herself to be a bit of a coffee snob, too.  She could taste the difference because she had, simply, spent time with the good stuff.  The coffee revealed itself to her, slowly and subtly.  Her palate developed.  And the thing about good coffee is that it holds more detail, nuance and, therefore, interest.

“But it takes a while to become aware of that depth and complexity.  Had she done a flip-flip-flip A-B and made her choice to only drink the cheaper stuff because, ‘you know, they're basically the same,’ she'd have missed an opportunity to develop her palate.”

Farmelo is avoiding the simple test that would at least prove his coffee snob argument; now that she has developed “her palate” can she tell the difference when she does a “flip-flip-flip A-B?” If she can’t, you’re still full of shit. Likewise, way back in 2004 the Boston Audio Society performed a simple, repeatable ABX test of ancient 44.1kHz/16-bit technology and a 96kHz/24-bit source and, so far, no high-res audio equipment or recording professional or company has found a way to prove this test was incomplete or inaccurate. Humans love their delusions. One of the most inane arguments I’ve heard from an “audio professional” was the statement “I know what I know and I hear what I hear.” Totally incomplete. Doofus should have said, “I know what I think and I know what I think I hear.” It’s a useless statement, but accurate. 

There are a lot of reasons why I don’t take the fruitcakes and goofballs who call themselves “audio engineers” seriously, but this terror of reality and the limitations of their own hearing is high on the list. No, I don’t take sanitation engineers seriously either; they are just old fashioned, hard-working garbage men (or women).

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Going Downhill


Fortunately, I didn't have to listen to this nightmarish "sound system," but just looking at it was pretty depressing. This tiny faux-array JBL “full-range” speakers perched above and well behind apartment-sized subwoofers immedately made me want to ask, “When did Bose buy JBL?” From time alignment to diffraction and sound pressure field distortion problems, nothing about this mess would be able to reinforce anything resembling music. It isn’t even easy to move, unless the tiny speakers pack inside the subwoofer boxes. If there is any value system here, it must be “gain before feedback” because sound quality clearly is no consideration.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

You Can't Go Home Again

In late-March, a friend from Detroit visited the Cities and we got together at the downtown St. Paul Keys Restaurant for breakfast Saturday morning. I can't remember the last time I was in downtown St. Paul and didn't run into someone I know, but that Saturday was a time when that happened (or didn't happen). I couldn't help look around the restaurant for familiar faces. From 2001 on, I ate a lot of meals in that place with a lot of friends and it was eye-opening to realize that they were all scattered to the winds because of the McNally Smith College debacle. St. Paul isn't the same place it was a few years ago. As a result of that hole in our visit, we decided to walk over to the former home of the school. He sent me a few of the pictures he took and those pictures inspired this essay.

For the first time since I turned in my last course grades in 2013, I returned to the scene of the McNally Smith College crimes. Not long after I retired, my wife and I took a winter-long camper trip west. When we came back, we got serious about downsizing our possessions, bought a house in Red Wing, sold our Little Canada house, and started our new life in small town Minnesota. Other than by staying in touch with former students through Facebook and a few of the school's instructors and administrative employees, I didn't think much about the school or its fortunes until in late December of 2017 when I received a flurry of emails from friends still working at the school; the school's owners suddenly decided to close the school a week before Christmas break.
There are people who claim they had no idea the school was in trouble when it suddenly closed the doors. I'm not among that group. There were multiple times during the 13 years I worked at MSCM when it was apparent the school's management was dysfunctional, uncommitted, and disconnected. In fact, pretty much every time I came in contact with either Jack McNally or Doug Smith it was obvious that they were incredibly lucky to have been owners of something like a music "college" rather than desperately poor marginal musicians trying to make a living teaching guitar in a music store closet. Unless you’ve ever met a “job creator,” you could be fooled into believing that all sorts of positive attributes contributed to their success. In most cases, the successful entrepreneurs I’ve known were just incredibly lucky and their real work behind their success had nothing to do with the owners’ involvement; or lack of.

All of the school's success was due to people McNally and Smith hired more out of accident than management brilliance. Somehow a few competent and committed people who found their way into positions of authority and management; mostly because Jack and Doug were busy admiring themselves in the mirror. Michael McKern, for example was exclusively responsible for the complicated and timely move from the Minneapolis Musictech facility to the abandoned St. Paul Science Museum building in 2001. Occasionally, Michael would shepherd Jack and Doug through the construction project, showing them where the money was being spent and describing what the school would look like when the contractors were finished (just in time for the beginning of the 2002 spring semester). The two "owners" were about as involved in that process as a pair of squirrels watching a house being constructed across the street from the forest where they lived.

I was in a few committees that included either Jack or Doug during the years I worked for MSCM. I was always amazed at how decoupled they seemed from what was going on in the facility they later decided to rename after themselves. One of my favorite fables about MSCM is pretty much the story about the school's name found on Wikipedia, "Formerly known as Musictech College, McNally Smith College took its new name in honor of its two founders, Jack McNally and Doug Smith, on its 20th anniversary celebrated in 2005." That is a pretty funny take on the fact that the accrediting organizations (to use that term loosely) strongly advised the school to lose the "tech" aspect from the original school name, MusicTech. The goofballs from National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) met with the accreditation committee members and told us that they had a problem with "tech" being associated with higher education. I wondered if they had the same problem with MIT, the three Cal Tech variations, Georgia Tech, Illinois Institute of Technology,
Florida Tech, Texas Tech, Virginia Polytech, etc? It was a rhetorical question, since I doubt any of those schools would bother with a low-life group of wannabe academics like the NASM characters. Nobody even tried to answer that question, though. In the end, the naming committee recommended a collection of music-related possibilities with the suggestion that "anything but McNally Smith College" would be a not-awful possibility. The "in honor" part of Musictech College being renamed to “McNally Smith College of Music” was purely inspired and demanded by Jack and Doug. I suppose, otherwise how would anyone know they had anything to do with the school?

In a Star Tribune article about the closing, Jack McNally was quoted as having sent an email "asking faculty and staff to 'consider finishing the term and issue grades as usual to avoid these horrific consequences for our students, even if it is without pay, simply for the sake of our students.'” That might be the first thing I ever heard of that Jack did "for the sake of our students." However, since all of the effort and cost of providing that service would be coming from faculty and administration personnel who would not be paid for the work, it's tough to cut Jack even a little slack. One of the last things the remaining administration folks did was on display on one of the school's doors: a "transfer fair." That must have been sobering, disappointing, and a slap in the face for everyone involved. It has been a well-known fact for most of the school's life that few credits were transferable to any real college. Often, no credits were transferable and sometimes no credential was allowed for a MSCM degree when a student decided to try to continue his or her education with one of the more traditional and substantial higher education facilities.
I admit I felt sad and disappointed when I saw the state of the school and when I took these pictures. A lot of effort and commitment went into creating the facilities inside this building and even though much of that work was done 16 years ago, it could have gone on being useful and valuable for a lot more years. Everything ends, but this particular institution ended in the most despicable way possible.

From the beginning of the semester in August 2017, there is no chance (other than gross incompetence) that the administration and ownership did not know precisely the day, or week at the worst, the school would run out of cash, based on the registration and tuition available. IYou’d think at least some regulatory agency would be taking note. In a decent world, you’d think the employees of the school would be owed a formal explanation and apology along with substantial severance pay for the interruption to their careers, the economic strain the sudden closure and unpaid work the owners expected from them, and their inconvenience and displacement.

Yeah, I admit it. I’m pissed off. I left a lot of friends at MSCM when I retired in 2013. I expected the school to slowly wind down and, eventually, either close or be absorbed by a competitor or just someone who either wanted the facility for a school or someone who wanted the real estate. At no point during the years that I knew them did I expect much from either Jack McNally or Doug Smith or Harry Chalmiers, but I expected more than this. If this turns out to be a ruthless cashout of the real estate and assets, I will not be surprised.

Monday, May 7, 2018

When to Give Up

ev re18If you’ve followed my microphone reviews and opinions, you might know that I am a big fan of Electrovoice’s RE-18 Variable-D hand-held vocal mic. I bought my first RE18 in the 70’s, new, and I’ve owned a dozen or so since. In experiments with a variety of vocalists, I’ve found this microphone to be superior to almost every other live vocal I’ve ever used. In every area (except one), the RE18 excels: handling noise, off-axis rejection and frequency response, proximity effect control (Variable-D), max SPL, distortion, clarity, humbucking noise-rejection, and durability. The one negative, repairability, is the focus of this article.

At one time, Electrovoice offered a “lifetime warranty” on all RE series microphones. After a few years of downsizing, being aquired by a variety of conglomerates, and lowered expectations, that “lifetime” is currently being defined as a "limited lifetime warranty on the acoustic element (due to defect in materials or workmanship), defined as ten years from the last date of the products manufacture." EV seems to have “lost” all of the technical information regarding many of the company’s most respected products, including the RE18, but I suspect that mic went out of production in the late 80’s when EV had all but disappeared from professional audio. Even getting an EV tech support person to admit that the RE18 ever existed requires arm-twisting.

One of the best features of the RE18 was it’s amazing lack of handling noise. That capability as created by incorporating shock-isolation between the element and steel outer case that used butyl-rubber doughnuts and viscous damping fluid. The foam breath and pop filtering was pretty sophisticated, too. To this date, I have not been able to find anything resembling a description of the parts required to repair this shock isolation system and it’s clear that 30+ years of use or improper storage will turn all of those parts into an unrecognizable mess of disolving chemicals. The shock isolation system for my RE18 remains incapacited.

RE-18 2With the assistance of the one helpful tech service person at EV, I was able to obtain a replacement foam filter and Variable-D baffle for their current version of the RE16, but that is a long way from anything used in the original RE18 design. The RE18 used a 3-layer pop filter system, but the RE16 is just typical low density foam. The once-impervious to vocal plosives and sibilance distortion RE18 is rendered passable with the RE16 replacement material.

After decades of recommending this microphone to vocalists of all sorts, I have to give in to the facts and admit that without some sort of support from the manufacturer or someone who was once involved in the design and/or production of this wonderful microphone repairing the RE18 is no longer practical. And, except in incredibly rare instances, I think you will find that upon removing the metal screen that every RE18 is likely in desperate need of serious repair. Typically, the foam has turned to a nasty combination of dust and sticky adhesive and the rubber shock mounts are likely totally deteriorated and there is no evidence that the viscous damping fluid ever existed or any way to determine what it once looked like for the purposes of fabricating a replacement system.

The RE18 shows up often on eBay and; often with an asking price of $200-or-more. Knowing that the microphone is likely in an unrepairable and deteriorating condition, it makes no sense to invest that kind of money in a once-terrific instrument. I would not, under any conditions, pay more than $100 for an excellent condition RE18 and sight-unseen (and before disassembly and inspection) no more than $20 for an on-line sale. At the absolute least, ask the seller to remove the metal screen and take a picture of the foam being distorted with a finger or blunt object to determine if that material is in a state of extreme decay. Usually, when the screen is unscrewed and removed the foam will fall out in pieces and clumps of dust.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Product Review: DiGiCo SD9 Digital Console

IMG_9284When I decided to write up my experience with and opinion of the DiGiCo SD9 console, I suspected my less-than-positive opinion might be in the minority on this piece of expensive equipment. Often, people who spend a fortune on gear convince themselves it’s the best thing since sliced fingers. Most of my experience with live and studio consoles has been on analog equipment, but I was not only an early user of the Yamaha PM1D and did a fair amount of upgrade and warranty service for Yamaha between 2001 and 2007 on their PM1D and PM5D consoles. I have had an opportunity to mix on the AVID Venue and Midas M32 consoles a few times, also. I’m not digital-hostile, but I am not particularly fond of engineers who thing the world needs to revise how it spins because those engineers want it to. For starters, there are a variety of opinions from equally talented and experienced mixers regarding the DiGiCo design and ergonomic concepts. For my money (which, happily, isn’t involved here) it’s a no-brainer: the DiGiCo costs about $30,000 without I/O and the Avid Venue is about half that cost with many times the customer base. Even the new Midas digital consoles are considerably cheaper than the DiGiCo consoles and they have a 10 year warranty, vs DiGiCo’s 1 year coverage. The Midas M32 costs less than $6k and would more than do the job this small facility needs done. 96 input channels for a 450 seat facility is gross overkill.

20180324_182818I did some searching on the Web for other opinions of DiGiCo and found a few technical sites where the subject was discussed. For example, when asked for “general opinions about DiGiCo,” an obviously knowledgeable user said, “You probably don't hear much about them because they are rather pricey and usually only the top level companies/venues can afford them, but they are worth it. I think they are more prevalent in Europe along with Midas digitals than here in the states.” Another opinion from a tech clearly familiar with a variety of digital consoles was, “I'm sure that the UI could be learned with a fair amount of time and effort but it's not particularly user friendly especially when coming from experience with the more widely encountered Yamaha's and Avid's.” A tech who has “been touring with Digico consoles since 2007” said, “Users who complain that they are ‘hard to walk up to’ just need to take a moment to give it a chance, as we had to give all the digital consoles a chance that we have learned.  With an on-screen layout that mimics an analog channel strip, operating a Digico console is quite easy.  I have trained many users ranging from digital console newbies (a couple months ago I gave a training session to a company who bought an SD9 after only owning simple analog consoles) to seasoned touring pros on how to operate Digico consoles and I find that once a few workflow items are explained, people catch on quickly.” “Catching on” isn’t the problem. DiGiCo’s complete ignorance of or disdain for modern design and ergonomic concepts means catching on is about 1/10th of the battle. The problem is that the design lends itself to inefficient and simplistic work flow. I hope this review details some of the reasons why I found the SD9 to be one of the most user-hostile electronic devices I’ve used in years.

NOTE: When it comes to how seriously you take the points made in this review, please take into account that I have 50 years of analog console experience, failing eyesight, and almost zero interest in listening to live guys babble about “sound quality”; a concept so rarely heard in live music performances that I doubt few “professionals” in live music would recognize their own name if it were shouted at them by their mother in close quarters. There is a lot of audiophile fascination with fidelity from the clinically deaf crowd, in my opinion. However, I’m going to assume the sound quality is a given, because it is, and worry about the ergonomics and function of the console.

IMG_9282For starters, DiGiCo’s conceit is that there is something intuitive about a small screen in the middle of the console that describes the functions of 12 of 96 potential channels with no direct physical relationship to channel faders. The only controls lined up with the faders are mute and solo buttons, ID scribble pads, and LED VUs. That does not work for me. The large, asymmetrical physical and visual leap from the constantly in-use faders to the awkward miniature virtual channels on the screen in the upper middle of the console, and the continuous rotation controls at the right of that screen, the function selection buttons on the left of the screen, and another set of continuous rotation faders at the bottom of the screen (plus an alternative function selection button) pushes the limits of my eyesight and long-established habits. My motivation to adapt my lifetime of habits to the DiGiCo world is tempered by the knowledge that I won’t be working on this equipment often and would not choose to ever do so.

IMG_9299There is no labeling on the two channel buttons: solo and mute. The 100mm faders are pretty much the same as everyone else’s. At the channel input screen, the tiny and upper-most positioned channel VU meters are labeled and scaled in 15dB steps, so determining input signal precisely is difficult. If you select the input screen, the VU meters do not come with it. There are larger LED meters just above the channel ID LCD scratch pads. Those meters are more typically scaled, but since there is no correlation between the LCD screen channels and the physical channel location, using those more precise VUs is very counter-intuitive and, honestly, I was never convinced the two meters gave the same information because the scales are so different. Not having taken test equipment to the console, I’m not sure what headroom is available over the VU meter’s clip indication. The preamp has the typical 60dB of gain and the output is capable of +22dBu max output. Distortion is a fairly typical THD >0.05% at 1kHz, which is barely information in today’s far more useful multi-tone IMD measurement world.

20180324_182928DiGiCo’s SD9 touch screen is pressure sensitive, functionally, that an odd feature in today’s world of capacitive touch screens. As if that isn’t odd and off-putting enough, the screen is not particularly consistent in the amount of pressure required or where each button and control’s pressure points are located on the screen. I resorted to using the back end of a BIC pen for screen entry to minimize misses and false control selection. That helped, but didn’t consistently solve that problem. Not being able to use my fingers to make function selections and open and close screens meant making adjustments to practically any function was cumbersome.  

IMG_9297A lot of the features I take for granted in a digital console are not available in the SD9: color-coded groups, individual channel automation, (Avid’s “Auto-Off”, for example), grouped faders and mutes, I/O naming, and probably a whole collection of other useful features I have yet to discover aren’t there. DiGiCo’s Snapshot feature allows you to automate the setup for scenes/songs and is useful for a lot of things, however automating several channels for a variety of things can get messy and, once again, the tiny buttons on the “global scope” touch screen make every change . . . challenging. The facility where I used the IMG_9301SD9 has a keyboard stored on a sliding shelf under the console, but every time I slid it back under the desk, the bump at the end of the shelf jogged something that caused a loud “snap” in the mains; probably a fiber optic connection issue, but it could be almost anything related to the console and its complicated connections. In the end, I mostly did my text entry on the cobbly virtual QWERTY keyboard on the screen. The automation capabilities of the SD9 are very 1990’s capability-wise. You can automate pretty much any of the SD9’s functions, but it’s all or nothing. Unlike Avid, Yamaha, or even Presonus channels that can be individually selected to track or record automation or not, when you select the input channel faders, mutes, pans, sends, or any other function to be automated with Snapshot changes, it’s all or nothing. “Mostly useful” is the nicest thing I can say about the Snapshot feature. If you use the console’s left side Snapshot “next” button to pre-arm the next Snapshot and try to trigger that move with the console’s right side Snapshot “next” button (instead of the left side’s “Fire” button), the selected Snapshot will be one past the one you pre-armed. I can’t guess what the British logic behind that would be.  

IMG_9285The built-in plug-ins are fine and there are a few typical Waves plug-ins that can be inserted almost anywhere there is an insert in the signal chain. The problem is that DiGiCo works a lot harder than most console manufacturers to make it hard to figure out where the input and output connections actually are. Relabeling their obtuse equipment identification terminology isn’t an option. Like it or leave it, DiGiCo knows better than you how your I/O should be identified.

From reputation only, I understand the SD9 is a pretty durable console. It seems pretty tough, just based on the chassis construction. I haven’t seen the inside of the console and I wouldn’t pass judgment, one way or the other, on it’s durability until I have seen how the boards are mounted, what kind of connectors are used and how they are secured, and how the wiring harnesses are secured. In the past, Euro-designs have rarely impressed me in this regard, so I have my doubts. Based on the Sheldon Theater’s experience, there is no chance that I would consider using DiGiCo’s fiber-optic system on a road tour. In fact, I’d want to see a CAT5 connection to all equipment, looped and returned redundantly. In my experience, British equipment isn’t particularly durable or well-constructed and that would be one more reason I’d never consider a DiGiCo console for a touring rig. Your mileage may vary.

The SD9’s price tag puts it well into the most-expensive-in-class category; more like SSL than Midas or Avid. That makes choosing a DiGiCo console risky business. Like it or not, digital electronics should be expected to have a 3-5 year lifetime before regular maintenance becomes necessary. The DiGiCo’s 1 year warranty is a statement in the company’s product reliability expectation, in itself. I suspect that a majority of SD9 owners are unfamiliar with Return on Investment (ROI) calculations. Before you spend this kind of money on digital audio equipment, you should correct that deficiency. When this kind of gear is discontinued or the company bellies-up, or the gear just stays in use beyond that 3-5 year expectation, you will be regretting that big purchase decision unless you also received big earnings from the investment. The more complicated and sophisticated gear becomes, the harder it is to repair and the more likely it becomes that repair will be necessary. The SD9’s modular assembly makes doing big section repairs fairly easy, but when the warranty expires that design tactic will make repairs expensive. When the company stops supporting the product, it won’t be long before you can get great deals on used SD9’s. In fact, you can already buy a used “refurbished” (whatever that means) SD9 for about $0.30 on the original purchase dollar. No digital equipment holds value well, though, which should always be considered when you are counting up the dollars you plan to spend on equipment.

I’ve heard mention of fader glitches from other DiGiCo users, particularly on unused third and fourth layer faders. I experienced a master group fader suddenly dropping to “–inf” just before a show started, after 45 minutes of signal passing through the mains before the show. I have to admit that unexplained fader moves on group levels that are not part of any area I ever use is a deal-breaker for me. That sort of occurrence is completely outside of anything I have experienced with any other digital console, other than a first generation Soundcrap I was forced to use on a television remote truck for about a year. Some consoles have a function select that allows you to prevent any fader from moving unless there is a human finger on that fader, but that isn’t a DiGiCo option. It should be.

The console’s power supply noise probably isn’t a problem for most pop music acts, but it is a pain in the ass for the small theater production I was involved with. For example, when the theater was empty the FOH work position noise level was 69dBC and 46dBA while the majority of the audience seats were 56dBC and 44dBA, indicating that there is a lot of low frequency noise produced by the console and a fair amount of low-to-mid frequency energy; 10dB or more, in fact. Honestly, in this day of high efficiency, low noise computer power supplies, I think this much noise from audio equipment is intolerable. Since I was working for an average sound system level of 6-8dB over ambient, all that console noise made my job a lot harder than it needed to be.

I’ve written before about my bitch with DiGiCo’s bullshit WAVE drivers, but it’s worth mentioning here. DiGiCo is arrogant enough to believe that they are “special” enough to make obtaining their drivers for recording apps harder to buy than actual programs. You have to be a registered DiGiCo owner to obtain their damn drivers. When you do get them, good luck. Way back when Avid’s Venue came out, in 2005, my Location Recording class went to Duluth to record that city’s High School Battle of the Bands. We had our location Digidesign HD rack, a MacBook Pro, and absolutely no experience with the Venue console. We were able to get a session up and going in a few minutes. After a brief discussion with the FOH engineer about who would control what in the sessions, we were up and ready to record our first band within an hour of arriving. Three years after my local theater bought their SD9, the console has yet to be successfully used as a recording interface. The four events I’ve been asked to record were handled by using the 20180324_164655DiGiCo D-Rack splitter and my own mic pres and recording interface. The local rep, other sound techs who were supposedly familiar with the SD9, along with the characters who sold this rig to the theater have been unable to make any sort of useful connection between all that “sophisticated British gear” and any recording program. In the meantime, I’ve managed to do location recordings on Behringer, Midas, and Yamaha digital consoles with damn near no serious issues. I’m sure DiGiCo sells their Waves-mismanaged drivers as some sort of “feature,” but I am generally disgusted.

Simply put, I’m not impressed. Between the poor ergonomic design, the high price, and the mediocre post-sale support, I think choosing the DiGiCo SD9 is more about status and conspicuous consumption than any functional or aural values.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

A Rare Good Use of Crowdfunding

peterA while back, I had the great luck to be the “soundguy” for a Peter Ostrouschko and Dean McGraw show at Hobgoblin Music in Red Wing. Peter is mostly known as a mandolin player (His first recording was on Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks.”) or violinist, but he is a fine guitar player. I was a guitar repair student at Southeast Tech at the time and my being at the show helped draw a few of the school’s brighter students. We’d been studying the origins of steel string acoustic guitars in our lecture class and one of the origins of all things acoustic and steel is Larsen Brothers Guitars. Before that class, I’d never heard of Larsen guitars but Peter brought one with him. When I saw it, I couldn’t help oggling his instrument.

Larson_GuitarPeter asked me some questions about my interest and offered to let me play it. There is no such thing as a cheap Larson guitar. Some Larson Brothers instruments sell for more than a luxury car and I am generally terrified of antique anythings; even when they aren’t worth more than my life savings. Later, some of my classmates showed up and when I pointed out the Larson on stage they all took a look. Some of the more courageous or clueless even touched the instrument. Peter was nothing but generous and gracious to the kids who mostly pestered him with questions only a kid would ask.

Peter and Dean let me do my usual non-traditional mic’ing of their instruments and mostly made me look good with their brilliant playing and expert use of instruments and equipment. It was an all acoustic show (no pickups on any of their instruments), so they could have screwed with me all night. Peter did fool with finding the “sweet [feedback] spot” for the small condensor I used for his vocal mic and sang along with that tone once he found it. He did it with the most subtle and dry humor possible and I’d have been a lot quicker to fix it if he hadn’t made me laugh so hard. I will [I hope] never forget their version of “Pennies from Heaven” (“Benny’s from Heaven”) and the incredibly powerful instrumentals they toyed with all night. Peter’s talent is near-superhuman.

As always, the good get pounded on first (He is five years younger than me, 64.. Peter suffered a heart attack in late 2017 that required a quadruple bypass and post-op he had a serious stroke. As is typical in the US, his medical expenses are terrible. Someone started a GoFundMe page for him, titled “Help Peter and Marge Ostroushko.” If you were ever inspired to contribute to this kind of fund, this is the one to get in on. Please.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Getting Off of the Bandwagon

Mix Magazine has always been a marketing tool for the equipment industry. Rarely, the magazine actually prints an article that is of some use to a recording tech. Constantly, the pages are filled with pseudo-reviews that are barely more (or not more at all) than reprints of the product’s advertising literature. I’m not just picking on Mix, because that has been the industry standard since Recording Engineer/Producer died.

The Mix Studio Blog: article, “To Subscribe, Or Not To Subscribe” is a typical bullshit Mix faux-informational article promoting, while trying to pretend it isn’t, Pro Tools’ subscription policies. The author pads his pr work with broad statements like:

  • "Subscriptions also make it possible for developers to give customers access to a broader range of products for the money than is feasible through the purchase model."
  • "it takes a mental adjustment to stop thinking of your software as something you own, like your microphones or audio interface, and to consider it a service that you pay for. Some advocates of subscriptions respond to that concern by saying that you never really owned your software, anyway, you just licensed it."
  • "Imagine if the company that makes your DAW goes belly up and your software ceases to function."
  • "Actually, there's already one DAW developer that has a de facto subscription-only policy. Although it allows you to choose between a perpetual license or a subscription, those who choose the former also have to pony up for an ‘upgrade plan’ to get any updates (even maintenance ones)."
  • "Outside of the music space, some pretty major software titles, such as Microsoft Word and the Adobe Creative Suite are available on a subscription-only basis (I'm writing this column on a subscription version of Word, because I don't have a choice), and it could be that it's just a matter of time before that's the case with a lot of music production software, as well."

In 2004, I wrote “Who Would That Inconvenience?” In that article I wrote, "Software manufacturers estimate that they've 'lost' somewhere between two hundred million to a billion-zillion dollars due to software bootlegging. According to their estimates, everyone on the planet would have purchased their products if they hadn't had access to illegal versions. Some of us would, surely, have bought those products several times if legal channels were the only way we could obtain software. protools HDSoftware companies have moved from vaporware to vapor markets. Their hallucinations of wealth and power have infected the magazines with whom they advertise, too." Like Mix Magazine. I also said, “That's a great business, if you can find it.  Build a crappy, unreliable product and follow that up by charging your customers extra for ‘supporting’ your mistakes.  That is the next step beyond planned obsolescence, assuming that your customers don't revolt.” You’d think, that revolution would have happened when Avid started charging $300/year for their “subscription model” or $2,500 for the HD software-only purchase plan that does not provide you support or even a good price on the next version Avid releases, just to piss off non-subscription software owner.

In “Gotta Have It” I wrote, “People did perfectly professional work on Sound Tools, the first 4-track version of Pro Tools, and the first serious multi-track version of Pro Tools (2.0) that produced the first Grammy winner for Digi. Marketing squirrels can yak about why we ‘need’ whatever crap they're pedaling, but the fact is we don't. We've had all the tools we need to record good audio, digitally, for at least a decade.” We need Avid, Apple, Steinberg, etc less today than in 2012 when I wrote that essay. Software updates may be the single best argument for disbelieving the whole supply and demand delusion. Software that is doing every job necessary perfectly well suddenly becomes unusable because a new, unproven, probably buggy version of that same piece of code is available? Nonsense.

Today, I’m doing fine with my 2007 MacBook Pro and 2006 Mac Pro tower machines, both running OS X 10.7.5. My Win7 machine is a 2007 Dell Latitude. All three machines run Pro Tools 10, the Dell a little more reliably than the MacBook Pro. Both Macs also run Logic 9, Mainstage, Soundtrack Pro, and Waveburner flawlessly. I have done dozens of video projects on the Mac Pro running Final Cut Studio. I’ve seen the newest versions of Pro Tools, Logic, and Final Cut and I can’t find a reason to “need” them. Logic X, in particular, is really cool looking and I can imagine using many of the new features, once I struggled through the learning curve on another weird, counter-intuitive Apple interface. But, as usual, Apple would require me to buy new machines, use the latest OS, along with the learning curves for those formidable obstacles. For what? Honestly, just thinking about the hassle of all that makes me want to quit messing with software at all.

As for that wimpy, irritating “I'm writing this column on a subscription version of Word, because I don't have a choice” whine, grow the fuck up and grow a pair while you are at it. “Don’t have a choice” my ass. You can do what ever you want as long as you are smart enough not to fall for the “I need to be state-of-the-art” fallacy. For example, I know quite a few highly functional people who are still doing fine running Office 2003, 2007, or 2010. In fact, I run 2003 on my Windows machines and 2011 on my MacBook Pro. If I “upgrade” to anything, it will be Office 2010 for the Win7 machines. Microsoft says Win7 and Office 2010 will be maintained at least until 2020. So, I don’t have any motivation to go newer until at least 2020.

There is no chance that I will ever become a software subscriber. Worst case, I’ll be using Open Source software for everything after my current equipment and OS becomes really obsolete. By then, Open Source software may very well be superior to the expensive brands. The newest version of Audacity is currently very competitive with the version of Pro Tools I am running and it is cross-platform friendly with many versions of OS X, Windows, and Linux and it uses practically every format of plug-in on all platforms. As for a subscription for Office, forgetaboutit. Never gonna happen. I already use Open Office almost as much as Office and it is also cross-platform compatible.

Friday, April 6, 2018

What I Learned This Winter

I learned a lot about running sound for a play, which was my 2018 late-winter, early-spring “experience.” I was the “sound designer” and FOH tech for a play, “Appropriate,” at the Sheldon Theater in Red Wing. I had a LOT to learn, since I have only been to kids’ and grandkids’ plays as a cheering section rather than participant or even an active and conscious observer. I have never thought about any aspect of sound for live drama . . . ever. When Bonnie Schock asked me to take this job back in late 2017, I asked about a few details and decided it wouldn’t be too much of a strain on my retirement. As I almost always am, when I say “yes,” I was wrong.

For starters, the reason I haven’t been a play-goer is because the historic quality of the performances or the non-subtle style of stage acting doesn’t work for me. I get the commitment and talent required and I respect that, but the art form just isn’t my bag. During my college years, a couple classes required watching video recordings of Shakespeare (who’s writing I love) performances and that reinforced my dislike of the aural aspect of stage acting. My wife, Elvy, is more of a fan of the format than me, partially because she enjoys the art of stage design. For her, the visual qualities distract her from the sound; as long as the audio isn’t awful. She really likes the traditional orchestra performances that are part of many plays, but I’d just as soon hear the orchestra without the play. I had given exactly NONE of that any thought when I agreed to be part of the Sheldon’s performance. At the time, it didn’t seem to matter much, because I figured getting a handle on the play’s audio would be fairly simple. Again, I was wrong.

I have done, and still occasionally do, sound design for television and budget film projects. It’s not like the job of creating audio cues and environments is foreign to me. However, that work has always involved a list of fairly concise sound-effect descriptions and audio cues that come reasonably far into the project’s development. There are usually some changes required, often determined after I deliver my first “draft” of the work, but the few directors I’ve worked with are pretty good at describing the changes they want and I’m billing them on an hourly basis so they have some motivation to be efficient. Plays are, apparently, not like that. The work is endless and the communications are as half-hearted as the focus on television and film audio was 50 years ago. In this production, I’d guess the director and stage manager put about 40 hours into the lighting design and about 15 minutes into the audio; although, there was always plenty of post-show and rehearsal criticism.

IMG_9278Like most facilities, the Sheldon’s FOH mix position is a good distance from ideal; sonically. As you can see from this picture, there is about 15’ of balcony overhang, a couple of very directional EV ceiling speakers, and a large projector shading the speaker and stage output from the FOH position. An upside is the extremely limited vertical dispersion (a claimed 5o, if you can believe that) of the main speaker system. The diffraction from that balcony edge provides a very noticeable phase error signal-mix with almost any level of volume from the FOH speakers. I’ve only worked a couple of live music events here and I never know what the rest of the room is hearing. That, however, is true for everyone in that room, though. The historic 1900’s architectural features of the Sheldon Theater are acoustically hostile. Sound is oddly reflected, focused by concave surfaces, lost through glass and doors, co-reverberated by coupled spaces, and unevenly absorbed by stage curtains and padded seats. So, the upside is that no seat in the house sounds like any other seat, but only a few locations are capable of rendering decent fidelity under limited conditions.

I have some personality quirks that make me imperfect for theater work. I hadn’t put these pieces together before the third or sixth or tenth rehearsal, but there are no more than a half-dozen movies that I’ve watched twice in my life. There are maybe three I’ve watched more than twice. Most of those, I was doing other things while the second run of the movie was playing in the background in my shop. I have never learned to recite a poem because I get bored and wander away after one or two passes.

FOH tech, it is absolutely necessary to know the play almost as well as the actors, since no one cues the audio guy. However, you will have to listen to the lighting cues in your headset while you are trying to mix the show. Document the hell out of the script and color-code your documents. In the example at right, I have blue tabs are for my sound effects Pro Tools markers, the orange are sound effects fader positions, and the yellow are DiGiCo Snapshots. The underlined text are “key points” in the script to keep me in sync with the play action and the boxed text is where the Snapshots need to switch. Creating a document like this means I needed to be present for almost every full run-through of the play, which about quadrupled the amount of time I thought I’d need to invest in the project (Creating an hourly rate that I do not want to talk about.). Like I said at the beginning, I’m not a theater-goer, but I’d be surprised if many theater spaces are much better than this, acoustically or sonically. Theater is an art form mostly propped up by government and arts organization grants and one that mostly exists only in a few major cities. There are many reasons for that.

I can listen to the same ten second segment of a musical performance all day long without getting bored. The same is NOT true for a speech or play. I write a lot of stuff for a lot of outlets and industries, but once I’ve handed off a piece to an editor and I get paid or posted it to a blog, I do not ever re-read what I’ve written. No only does that mean I’m the wrong kind of audio guy for plays, but I have no chance of being a successful author because I would hate going to readings of my stuff. That is a deal-breaker.

The big picture for this kind of work is that you, the sound designer and/or FOH tech, are just a tool in the director’s pallet. More often than not, you will be the smallest, least important, least used tool in that toolbox. You will have as close to no control of your output as you would have working on a factory floor. Nobody wants your creativity, experience, or ideas unless those ideas can be morphed into the director’s vision. The audio tech is the low guy on the pecking order on stage, so expect to step and fetch for anyone from the props and scenery people to the lighting geeks. Audio is considered a necessary evil on the play stage and you are probably the only person in the organization who is not only unnecessary, you are unwanted. Keep that in mind when you ask for help, a budget, or equipment.

So, there are only two good reasons for doing this kind of job and, ideally, both justifications will be met in every project you do: #1 it pays a shit pile of money for the hours you’ll be working and/or #2 you desperately want the work to learn the equipment, the techniques, the credential, and the experience. I suppose you could do it for the art, too, but that means you don’t have any of your own and that’s just sad.

Epilogue: Not long after I wrote this, my wife and I watched a collection of big budget movies on our home theater system. The big takeaway from that experience was that with all of the talk about CG visuals and high tech videography, a substantial portion of all of those movies were . . . dark or pitch black. In other words, while we'd spent some money on our high resolution television, the audio system was about all that got a workout during several of these movies. 

As I wrote to a friend this week during a discussion about this play experience, "I did a bunch of television work between 1998 and 2010 and working the play was a lot like that. It's funny because when a camera guy screws up or a lighting cue gets missed or a whole bank of lights don't work, almost no one notices. It has to be a huge mistake before the audience will realize it wasn't an intended 'effect.' When one (out of a dozen or more) wireless mic cuts out or makes noise or a small part of the sound system fails or there is a break in the music, everyone is all over it. But we stay at the bottom of the pecking order because everybody thinks it's easy." It isn't and the general level of amateurism in most audio outside of movies and modern television demonstrates how hard audio is to do well and how "a little knowledge" isn't even close to enough to do a good job. 

When I was teaching audio students, I used to recommend that they stay to watch the credits roll after movies, just to see how many audio jobs there were in a typical big league film. The movies my wife and I watched this week were a good example; the audio credits roll for several minutes. As they should. Remember, sound without pictures is radio but a movie without sound is just pictures. These days, many people "watch" movies on their telephone or tablet screen but they listen to those movies on headphones. They are sacrificing the picture, but they don't lose much of the audio and they get the story just fine. 

Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.