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. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Why Does My . . . Sound So Awful?

The “ . . . “ in the title is a “fill-in-the-blank” space for whatever it is that you are wrestling with that sounds awful": my band, my club/bar/restaurant, my living room, my recording studio, my practice room, my auditorium/church/theater, etc. The answer to that question is almost always “room acoustics,” except when the answer is “you suck.” I can count on the fingers of my hands the number of performance places I’ve worked or visited that weren’t acoustic disasters. On top of that, even the places that were acoustically decent were often wreaked by a poorly installed or inappropriate sound system. So, most often those two problems are enough to make a performance intolerable or disasppointing.

Room acoustics are tough to overcome. Lots of bars, for example, are reflective, resonant, reverberant disaster zones. There are extreme limits to the options for fixing that kind of room. Often, the closest thing to a fix is to deaden the room with lots of absorption. However, most types of absorptive material also absorbs smells and is relatively fragile; not ideal for a typical bar that serves food. Worse, the biggest problems in most rooms will be the room modes (resonances) and non-ideal reflection points (hard and flat or hard and concave surfaces, for example). Room modes are usually very low frequencies that resonate in a room like the pitch of a bell or drum. The treatment for that kind of energy and frequency requires lots of space for absorption; with the same problems as regular absorption materials.

sheldonThe shape of some rooms is impossible to overcome and there is no point in attempting to spend any money making those rooms better because it will just be good money after bad. A lot of historic theaters—Red Wing’s Sheldon Theater or Saint Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater and most pre-1980’s churches, for example—are particularly unsuited for modern music. That is also true for practically every auditorium on the planet. Architectural features that include domed roofs or concave faces are particularly miserable acoustic problems. If those featurers are deemed “historic,” there is no hope for a fix from any amount of audio equipment or design. Those beautiful curved surfaces create focused reflections that are powerful, narrow concave reflectionband, and predictable only at the focal point. From every other angle the reflection point will be complicated by other architectural features and their reflection pattern. The end result of this kind of reflection problem is that every spot in the room sounds different. Usually, dramatically different. Any problem has a solution, but acoustic solutions are expensive and in a historic building their application is limited by the historical value of the original, flawed design. Since the most noticable reflections from these features is often mid and low-mid frequencies, it is possible to camoflauge absorption materials inside the curved features. Often the tactic is to used perforated panels covering layers of absorptive material and covered by cloth painted to resemble the historic artwork. Many historic facilities have created large absorption areas at the back of each level of the room. Sometimes a row of seats has to be sacrificed to obtain decent room reflection and modal control, but the sacrifice opens the room up to a broader pallet of performances.

array dispersionThe go-to solution for many facilities has been to spend even more money on sound equipment under the delusion that loudspeakers and electronics can power overwhelm the acoustic flaws. Louder is only louder. Better has nothing to do with volume and, usually, better is completely defeated by volume. The magic of speaker arrays has been grossly oversold and the physics behind array designs is usually ignored because the positive effects are inconveniently limited. For example, in the picture to the left, Meyer’s MILO array in the 3-cabinet (2m tall) application at the top of the illustration is fairly vertically directional at the 1kHz frequency illustrated. New PictureAs the frequency decreases, the verticle dispersion pattern will widen until it is omnidirectional a little below the half-wave length diameter of the largest driver (30cm, or about 500Hz). As the frequency increases, those “beams” of acoustic power dispersion vary in direction and intensity, as you can see from Meyer’s illustration of verticle splay and coverage. Not only does an array’s “steering” capability depend on a large number of drivers and substantial array height to control dispersion range, but even with the most expensive array processors and ideal speaker mounting location (rarely available) the idealized verticle speaker control is pretty much sabotoged by the less convenient and unpredictable horizontal polar pattern. Personally, I’d give no more creditability to this manufacturer’s (Meyer Sound) below-500Hz dispersion patterns than Trump’s estimate of his own personal wealth. In some areas, wild optimism is probably of some value. Here, it is just more marketing drivel in a field overly-contaminated with marketing drivel.

So, if your situation is that you can’t avoid your room’s non-ideal reflection surfaces and you can’t overwhelm your room’s resonsances with any sort of speaker design. The chances are good that you probably can’t afford either the treatment cost or the cost of the lost real estate for appropriate acoustic treatment. If that is true, you’ll probably resort to the usual loud and irritating tactic most bars and theaters employ and that will drive away some customers and others won’t know the difference because that is the kind of abuse they’re used to experiencing. However, if you read and understood this paper you will at least know why your . . . sounds so awful.

Monday, March 26, 2018

My Product Review Philosophy

Almost twenty years ago, my friend Mark Amundson (FOH Magazine’s Tech Editor at the time), answered my complaint about the vagueness of his reviews and their general lack of criticism with, “You have to learn to read between the lines, Tom.” Mark had just reviewed a Midas analog console followed by a large channel count Peavey console and I could not find any reason to spend the extra money on the Midas, based on Mark’s review. My reply was, “There is only white space between the lines, Mark.” He followed his response about reading between the lines (and my cynical reply) with a story about how a year of so earlier he had made a mild negative point about a major manufacturer’s product in a review and that manufacturer had pulled all of their advertising from the magazine in retaliation. That one barely critical comment cost the magazine thousands of dollars every month for almost half a year. Mark never made that “mistake” again. 
In my motorcycle magazine product review days, I experienced a similar (although less costly) kickback from a weird Chinese manufacturer, Hyosung. For the next couple of months, fires flared and were extinguished from that unimportant company’s sales manager and, lucky for me, my editor stood behind me. If you look at all of the Geezer columns that mentioned this motorcycle and experience, you might think I am someone who holds a grudge: http://geezerwithagrudge.blogspot.com/search?q=hyosung. You’d be right, too. 

The end result is that I don’t make any money from product reviews on this blog. I have zero motivation to say nice things about products I don’t like. Or to dis products that don’t deserve it, the stuff I really like will be pretty obvious. My reviews, like most reviews, are an opinion. However, mine are weighted by 50 years of audio and electronics experience, a good bit of practical audio engineering background, and my own biases and habits. I’m not going to apologize for any of that. Don’t like it, don’t read it. However, you can assume that any opinion I give is my own and no editor, advertiser, or other outside influence will have any effect on where I go in my reviews. You won’t find that in any modern audio equipment magazine.

Not only am I not an audiophile, I have done enough ABX testing on equipment and people to doubt pretty much any “remembered” sound quality analysis expressed by anyone. A friend, Dan Kennedy, once told a group of AES students, “If you can hear the difference between any mic preamp and a Mackie, Behringer, or Presonus preamp, you’re listening an ‘effect.’” I concur. Modern IC amplifier design is well-shaken-out technology and an engineer pretty much has to be a klutz to screw up preamp design. Transformer-less designs are, in particular, easy to do well and inexpensive. So when it comes to things that should be a “wire with gain” don’t waste time wondering “how does it sound?” It sounds fine . . . unless it is a disaster. Electro-mechanical devices, like microphones and loudspeakers, are a whole different can of worms. How a device functions, its ergonomic quality, its construction and durability, and product support from the manufacturer are going to be the things I want to concentrate on.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

How Much Will This Cost?

repair_costOne of the many things students don’t get much of in school is practical economics. As a result, the hourly rate lots of freshly-hatched audio technicians earn is embarrassingly unlivable. One of many reasons the career-longevity of people in the music and entertainment business is notoriously short. While I was working on one of those projects that usually inspires the notion “I could be doing better than this working at a convenience store,” I decided to write something about my own business experience in the music and audio business.

Until the day I retired, I had a price list for the various services I supplied to a variety of; from musicians and facilities who hired me for location recording gigs to studio and audio equipment repair services for musicians and recording studios to building contractors (acoustic design consulting) to law firms (audio forensics). Some of my price list was determined by the liability insurance required which was mostly determined by the customer (law firms) and the risk (to me, financially) involved in making a court statement about whatever the law suit involved. Acoustic consulting work for commercial construction was almost as risky and required similar insurance protection.

My rates ran from $75/hour to $275/hour. Those are “billable” rates, however, which are not necessarily the same as the hours I actually spent on a project. For example, a lot of recording work requires prep time and effort that the customer doesn’t see or appreciate. So, it just gets folded in to the billed rate. Recording projects are particularly expensive, time-wise, from my perspective. It’s possible at the high end of the “audio engineering” world that people actually make a decent income, but I always suspect a trust fund is involved when someone can afford to spend a career in entertainment.

pyg7cOddly and classically American, my experience with the high-ticket projects came dangerously close to being volunteer work because my liability insurance was so expensive. When I started planning for retirement and was winding down my businesses, the legal work went first. That saved me about $3500/year in insurance costs. The only way doing that work makes sense is if you do enough of it to make up for the insurance cost; at least 20 billable hours. It isn’t reliable work and lawyers, as you might guess, don’t pay their bills quickly and are hard to collect from. It was easy work to give up.

closedFor that same reason, the acoustic consulting work went next. That saved me about $1500/year in insurance costs. Again, it is work you can’t count on and it’s usually not much fun. Although the engineer for the last contractor I worked with was terrific. He did everything he could to take responsibility from me for liability and customer interaction. Designing a quiet staircase in a multi-use building or plugging all of the sound passage routes between a first floor pediatric dental office and a lower-level computer programming company is just not exciting work. Recording studio work is fun, but not particularly profitable. Most of your customers are cheap and not particularly sophisticated and your competition all has a trust fund to spend.

Mostly because several of my ex-Studio Maintenance students were doing a lot of studio maintenance and looking for more work, that business was mostly easy to quit. I just started directing inquiries to them. In the last two years, I’d raised my prices to $225/hour hoping that would drive the business to cheaper techs. When that didn’t work, I had to tell a few customers that I was absolutely no longer interested in crawling around their studios or scouring the food, drink, and drugs out of their wreaked equipment. At least one of those characters had alienated every decent tech I knew of and, I suspect, they simply shut down the studio after the last piece of gear quit working.

Since the 70’s, I haven’t done music equipment repair for anyone other than myself, mostly buying broken gear and selling it in original or hot-rodded condition. In March, 2018, I had about a half-dozen pieces of equipment left in my shop and I am slowly working my way through the pile. When it’s done, I’ll probably convert the electronics shop to a guitar building and repair shop. Or maybe I’ll hand the bench over to my wife for her art projects.

I still do occasional location recording gigs, but with really limited capabilities: no more than 8 simultaneous channels and my interest in working on overdub or large-track-count projects is close to zero. My simple rule for recording projects is, “If I like what you’re doing and the project is fun (meaning, you are not an asshole), I do the job for my cost. If I don’t like you or the project, you can’t afford me.” Most people can’t afford me. I’ve quit pretending like people or projects that I’d just as soon avoid.

c7bbc0570f684ac0ca8fa94366f438dd27c40c37562726a6e386da61927fae2eI’m not being a snob, I would just rather be retired and working on my own projects than worrying about pleasing someone else. I spent more than 50 years of my life trying to make other people happy. For the few years I have left to live, the only person I’m interested in satisfying (avocationally and vocationally) is me. I’ve paid all of the multi-tasking, menial labor, service-job dues I’m planning on paying until I croak. For a long while, I was fairly good at pretending to care what marginally-talented, egotistical, humorless, joyless people thought of my work. Those days are done and, unless I find a way to go broke between now and my last breath, they will never return.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Series Review: Soundbreaking, Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music

clip_image001Quite a while ago, a friend recommended that I watch the 2016 PBS series “Soundbreaking, Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music.” At that time, I gave it a show by watching the segments on the PBS website and gave it up as a bad experience, mostly because the PBS webpage was a pain in the ass and I’ve never subscribed to cable television. The reminder came around again this past week and I finally hunted the series down on DVD from my local library. It was worth it.

clip_image002I should have known it would be worth the effort, since one of my heroes, George Martin, was the show’s producer. It was Sir Martin’s last projects and one worthy for a career cap of one of the most competent, creative, and original people ever involved in music and recording. While I’ve never been much of a Beatles fan, I have always been a George Martin fan. When Lennon was throwing his poncy hissy fit about Martin being the “5th Beatle,” Lennon said, “When people ask me questions about 'What did George Martin really do for you?,' I have only one answer, 'What does he do now?' I noticed you had no answer for that! It's not a putdown, it's the truth," I, immediately thought, “What about ‘Blow by Blow’?” Lennon would never sit in a recording studio that accomplished that much from his first day to his last. But, I was never a Beatles fan, so what do I know? I am, however, a lifetime Jeff Beck fan and, lucky for me, there are a few Jeff Beck interviews in the series.

Some of the show’s highlighted producers, like Phil Spector, would naturally put me off because the records the show is celebrating from Phil and his ilk are records I have never liked much. Spector’s “Wall of Crap” sound always made me wish my stereo was quieter and of lower quality. Every single record he ever recorded made me wish someone had been able to tell Spector “that’s enough crap, stop while you are ahead.” Never happened, until the police finally delivered that message after he murdered an actress in 2003. Lennon brought Spector in to trash-up “Let It Be” and I never had much use for that record until “Let It Be, Naked” came out in 2003. That record stripped off the Spector crap and demonstrated the power of George Martin’s arrangements and engineering at the peak of that band’s capabilities. As Martin said when he was asked about the credits for “Let It Be,” “How about ‘produced by George Martin, over-produced by Phil Spector?”

The segments on Dr. Dre, Sly Stone, Les Paul, Jeff Beck, Al Schmidt, Tom Scholtz, Don Was, Brian Wilson, Marvin Gaye, etc. paid the viewer-bill, for me. The series is a terrific primer on the history of recording technology and, more importantly, the people who pushed the technology to its limits. It was especially fun to see Giles Martin, George’s son, playing with the old EMI console. Watching him reproduce segments of “Revolver;” “Tomorrow Never Knows” makes it pretty clear how much George Martin, Geoff Emerick, and the EMI engineers contributed to the sound we describe as “The Beatles.” Of course, John Lennon never approached that level of greatness again, but George Martin did.

The series episode titles tell you a lot about what you will see and hear:

  • Episode One: The Art of Recording.
  • Episode Two: Painting with Sound.
  • Episode Three: The Human Instrument.
  • Episode Four: Going Electric.
  • Episode Five: Four on the Floor.
  • Episode Six: The World is Yours.
  • Episode Seven: Sound and Vision.
  • Episode Eight: I Am My Music.

In this day of hyper-expensive microphones and zillions of digital plug-ins and analog or digital effects, it’s hard to imagine that many of the records today’s artists hope to equal were done using incredibly limited equipment and downright cheap dynamic microphones (many of them omnidirectional). Practically every home studio in the country has better and more powerful technology, more available tracks, easier access to instruments and sounds, and no excuse for not making equal or better music; except for the talent problem. The “Painting with Sound” segment does a wonderful job of describing how many of the great pop records were made: warts and all.

One of the series’ silly aspects, technology, was often highlighted by having Ben Harper explain a variety of technologies. Ben is a fine performer, but what he knows about electronics, acoustics, or technology in any form could be well-documented on a single fingernail with a relative coarse Sharpie. His “thoughts” were good for a laugh, though. There are a few other moments like that, but there are plenty of technically-sound moments to spell the laughter: Tom Scholtz, for example, Les Paul, Al Schmidt, Don Was, and more than a few other recording greats.

I almost held my breath through “I Am My Music,” waiting for the usual MP3 snobbery and I was really surprised and pleased with the absence of all that silliness. Mostly, my experience with ABX testing and audio repair work makes me really suspicious of “pros” who make claims to golden ear-ed-ness. But we didn’t have to listen to any of that here because the focus of the episode was about how the MP3, digital downloads, and the industry’s shortsightedness caused the music business to go into freefall; for good reasons.

Do NOT forget to watch the “extras” on the 3rd DVD.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Retired, Amateur, and Professional

Three categories of participating (used loosely) artists and technicians could be “retired, amateur, and professional.” I am desperately trying to be retired, but “professional” is the addiction status to which I am trying to overcome. A professional technician is, typically, required to “like everything” in order to work regularly, no opinion of the material involved is preferred. An amateur allows himself the often unappreciated luxury of being a step above a fan in preferences, although amateurs are often snobby about the stuff they don’t like. Retired is ideally when the commerce is gone from consideration. A retired guy gets to say, “fuck this, I don’t like it and never did”: my opinion of banjos and bagpipes, for example. I’m working toward being totally consistent in making sure everyone knows if I’m not happy, they can’t afford me. So far, I’m batting about .500, which means I still get pulled into projects I wish I’d never seen or heard.

As a kid listening to jazz and playing in rock and roll bands for the experience, money, and escape from Kansas, I despised country music (except western, but not country and western, just “western” or cowboy songs). Everything I hated about my hometown was well-described in country music and I wanted to escape to somewhere none of that bullshit existed. I would do practically anything to get to listen to a jazz player live, but I’d leave town to avoid the genres of music I didn’t appreciate. The stuff I could play was tolerable and, sometimes, fun but I dreamed of being a musician I never became. I didn’t become that musician, in large part, because I discovered that I could get into the same doors as a technician. Jarrett’s Law applied for me in a way that allowed/encouraged/eased me out of being a player and behind the glass or at a tech’s bench.

So, I became a professional technician. As a professional, I wasn’t allowed to have preferences in much of anything. Not that anyone told me that, but there are only so many jobs and the bills don’t care whose money is paying them. In fact, getting the bills paid is the prime purpose of being a professional. “Art” and professionalism are almost in direct opposition of each other. In a group activity, the only actual “artist” is whoever is paying the bills. Every step away from the bill-payer is just someone trying to squeeze in their tiny moments of inspiration and art without getting fired for being too creative. For many years, I couldn’t justify taking the salary cut to become more of an artist in my work. Since I’m not much of a people person, that easy excuse allowed me to constantly say to myself and potential employers/customers/artists, “I charge $90-225/hour (depending on the work and year) for my consulting/tech/engineering time and it’s not worth it to me to do whatever it is you want me to do for less.”

June 23 084In retirement, the financial aspects of work no longer control me. I was ruthless enough in the above analysis for long enough that we’re pretty financially independent (as long as Trump and the Russians/Republicans don’t trainwreak the economy and banking system). I’ve been around some kinds of music and performance genres for long enough that I would just as soon never hear or experience them again. Some of the stuff that I’ve disliked for my whole life I still dislike and have no interest in pretending that more exposure will change that. Ideally, I should be down to the things I love and situations I am happy in, but saying “no” is just as difficult today as it was 50 years ago. But I’m working on it. Worst case, I’ll retreat to my dream Montana abandoned mine and practice filling intruders’ butts with rock salt.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

That’s Not Serious, It’s Art

not_artI arrogantly like to think my friends at Aerostich created their “Not Art” sticker in honor of an essay on my motorcycle column that talked about the fact that I do not consider motorcycles any sort of art and don’t want anything to do with a motorcycle that could be considered “art.” In that column, I made a somewhat related comment, “I've been some kind of musician almost all of my adult life and I know what I could play and what I couldn't and I try to spend as little time listening to something I do myself. When it comes to musicianship, I am my own definition of ‘artistic.’” And that definition is “if it ain’t fun to listen to, it’s not worth listening to.” I do not take art seriously under any circumstances, but if I’m playing music the best you can hope for is that it might be fun.

NotArt6_0I have a theory that a rational society would determine income levels by the contribution made by each citizen. So, the highest paid people would always be those who society could, literally, not live or thrive without: farmers, scientists, physicians, engineers, technicians, firemen/persons, sanitation workers, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and so on. The people who get paid the most are the ones who would be missed the most if they vanished from the planet. Bankers, hedge fund banksters, lawyers, Republicans, actors and television/movie people, professional athletes and artists, etc. get paid the least because no one would notice them missing if they were to vanish. Their jobs would be filled immediately by perfectly untrained and sufficiently skilled people who would also be paid minimum wages. Yeah, we’d miss the Jeff Becks, the LaBron James, and Jake Gyllenaals, but we’d replace them quickly with even more talented unknowns. There is a world full of amazing amateurs and their skills will more than good enough. At the other end of the values and value spectrum, if all of the doctors in the world vanished, a whole lot of people would die.

When I first re-started my career in audio/music in 2001, one of my customers (later a co-worker) was in his usual state of panic when he said to me, “How come you’re always so calm when everybody else around here (mostly me) is freaked out and in a total panic?” I told him that in the industry I’d just left it was pretty common to get a call from someone that started out with “your piece of shit product killed my kid/spouse/parent/grandparent.” That puts piddly shit like a pop music recording at a pretty low stress level. Yeah, people make a living worrying about silly crap like that, but if they didn’t who would it inconvenience?

When I wrote “We’re Releasing A Record,” I definitely had this thought in mind. The seriousness that kids take when they say that phrase is, even in a historical perspective, laughable. When he read that essay, a friend commented “. . . If you factor in revenue from sync, 'releasing a record' appears to be driven by something other than revenue, or very silly indeed. So Tom, is art driving these folks or are you suggesting that they are silly? Say it ain't so.” Sorry, Rob, it’s so. I mostly think non-essential functions are silly/fun or they are just pompous and ridiculous. I’m ok with silly, but I don’t take it seriously. If it was serious, it would be critical and necessary. Pretty much everyone is some sort of artist and the difference between good, great, and professional art is just not important by any definition of the word.

Fifty years ago, I took a “recording engineering” seminar through the Audio Engineering Society with Stephen Temmer, the founder of Gotham Audio and a legendary recording technician and grumpy old man. We immediately got into an argument about what “serious music” is because he said we wouldn’t be recording anything but serious music in his course and I said “serious music is an oxymoron.” After a bad start, he and I became friends when I discovered that he sang along with classical music (a genre I’d previous thought was painfully boring) on his car radio as if it were a pop song. He immediately saw my point, too. Anything that makes a 50-ish (he seemed ancient to me at the time) man wave his arms conducting a radio-orchestra while driving a full size rental car across an Iowa dirt road could not be serious; and either is the man.

Art is not a serious subject, at least not for me. I only look at or listen to “art” for entertainment. My life would go on without it, in any form. If it weren’t available, I’d make some when and if I had the time.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

We’re Releasing a Record

You know you’re old when that phrase, “we’re releasing our record” means something significant to you. I realize it was a while ago when that statement meant a long process of:

  • hyping a demo tape or EP resulted in getting a contract with a label,
  • writing enough songs to fill out an album’s worth of material (at least 30-45 minutes of music),
  • convincing someone at the label (probably the AR guy) that your material is strong enough and the band is good enough to book serious studio time,
  • keeping it together long enough to get into that studio and get all of the songs recorded without anyone in the band killing someone else in the band,
  • doing well enough in the studio that the material is deemed worth paying a mix engineer to put all the performances together into some kind of semi-coherent collection of songs,
  • impressing the label, again, with those songs so that they cough up the money to send the mixes to a mastering engineer,
  • once the mastering engineer has done his work finding someone at the label to commit time to getting the record and, hopefully, one or two singles played on the radio,
  • and, eventually, selling enough records to pay back the label’s advance and even get some kind of return on the time and committment that results in the band making enough money to do it all over again.

636535255082162902-020618-CD-ONLINEThat is what “making a record used to mean. But that was when music was some sort of “business.” Today, at the label end of the “business, the business seems to be mostly a money-laundering affair. Music sales are dismal, at best, and unlikely on average. Personally, I think the industry’s CD sales reports are bullshit, too. I absolutely doubt that they sell 1/4 of what they’ve been claiming for the last decade. If radio were any indication, there hasn’t been more than a dozen new records/CDs made in the last decade. Both bands and the pay-to-listen venues are buried in 30-year-old music and yak-radio. You could count the number of Milennial songs played on one hand, most days and nights. The music business has been mobbed-up since—forever—and it’s worse now than any time in my life. Like movies, major label units-vs-dollars-riaamusic is a great place to wring out your illegal cash to keep the IRS guys from flagging you. I mean look at these numbers. Would you put your hard-earned money into this sort of vanishing business? That is one seriously steep declining graph. Unless it flattens in the next year or two, it will approach zero really soon.

The “indie” route is particularly profit-free, too. I have way too many friends who have gone the whole route on their own, from hiring great musicians, renting time in a professional studio, assembling a terrific collection of songs and performances, getting it professionally engineered and mastered, and the end result is a basement or attic stuffed with boxes of unsold CDs and a talent diminished by frustrated dreams. CDBaby, BandCamp,  and the other on-line distribution scams are full of stories of musicians “bragging” about selling $300 worth of music in a YEAR! If you can find a worse job than that, on a per-hour and financial investment basis, run don’t walk as fast as possible from that “opportunity.”

So, these days “we’re releasing a record” means “my friends and I cobbled together 20 minutes of mediocre songs, we spent a couple of hours recording them on mediocre equipment that none of us knows how to use, a friend ‘mastered’ the CD with Garageband, and now we’re hoping our friends and family will buy enough copies of our ‘record’ to make us feel successful.” Or, at least, not completely stupid. It’s a brave new world out there. I’m glad I don’t have to make a living in it as a musician.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Is There Still A Jack McNally Day?

This is pretty hilarious, in retrospect. February 15, 2013 was officially declared "Jack McNally Day" by the St. Paul and Minneapolis mayors. Back then, City Pages was declaring McNally Smith College of Music to be "one of the country's premier music schools" and hyping Jack's schmaltzy recording as " twelve-song slice of Americana meets contemporary country that would fit comfortably in between George Strait and Jeff Bridges." See for yourself:

Mayor (at the time) Chris Coleman is all tangled up in this interview, which he'd probably love to see disappear if his run for the state's governor gets any traction. "[Mayor Coleman] will be playing at the release show... So I've been giving the guy lessons for five or six years, and I thought he would kind of peter off, because he's a busy guy, but no! He comes in for his lessons week after week, and he's practiced! I don't know where he finds the time." He's probably not playing or practicing so much these days, since it's a lot of work to cover your tracks in today's well-documented on-line world.

The ending repartee is pretty hilarious, in light of the last few months:

February 15 has just been proclaimed Jack McNally Day. So now you've got your own holiday. How does that make you feel?
What? Are you serious?

Um... yes. Mayor Coleman and Mayor Rybak both declared February 15 Jack McNally Day.
You're not serious. You're pulling my leg. This is a cruel joke.

....No sir. Would you like me to forward you the press release?

Yes! [Laughs] I'll be darned. I'm speechless. What do you say to that? Holy smokes.

There are more than a few interesting MSCM interviews from those years, including this bit of braggadocio from  Doug: "Orchestrating Growth." A big part of the drama the owners generated about the school's closing was the big drop in income in the last years. which is contradicted by Doug's statement, "And today accredited private college McNally Smith serves about 600 students from across the globe, offering 100 faculty members, bachelor’s degrees in 11 subjects and master’s degrees in five. The school’s $3.5 million in 2001 revenues grew to nearly $19 million in 2013, marking 18 percent growth each of those years." Enough to buy a music composition "cabin" on a lake in Maine, at least.

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.