Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Beards and Banjos

beNothing in Minnesota confuses and frustrates me more than The Current 89.3, our so-called local Public Radio pop music station. This week, as part of their never-ending fund drive, The Current is doing an incredibly irritating and enlightening run on its listeners’ “893 Essential Artists.” As a habit, l usually avoid this kind of demented shit because it is a constant reminder of how incredibly lame the average human being is. A quick look at #335 (Dwight Yoakam) and #337 (Neil Diamond) and the actual talent that fell far below these hillbillies and pop pablum peddlers explains the whole “Beards and Banjos” killer_asteroid_by_manuelberriosMillenial fuck fest. The incredibly lame Monkeys are at #338 and grocery store magazine rack icon Lyle Lovett is at #342! While the Faces are #359 and . . . aw, forget it. Humans are not worth saving. Bring on that planet killer asteroid.

Seriously. If Minnesota music dweebs are this lame, imagine how incredibly awful the degraded species is in the southeast!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Why Bother?

soundquality_study1If this isn’t a kick in the ears, I don’t know what is: “According to a survey conducted by Strategy Analytics, built-in computer speakers are now the most common way to listen to music, by a sizable margin.  In the study, laptop and desktop speakers overwhelmingly topped the list of frequently-used listening methods, with 55% picking the category.

“Headphones connected to a portable device followed with 41% of respondents, alongside stand-alone radio, also with 41%.  Surprisingly, TV speakers were also highly-ranked, with 29% ticking that box.”

While nothing about this information is surprising, that doesn’t keep it from being depressing. More out of habit and curiosity these days, I still read Mix Magazine, TapeOp, Recording, ProSoundWeb, and Pro Sound News. I’m mostly entertained by the seriousness audio “engineers” (an oxymoron if there ever was one) take their degraded “craft.” Almost by reflex, when I read an interview with some kid who has decided he’s the next incarnation of Tom Dowd (No, he won’t have the slightest idea who Tom Dowd was.) I chase down a few examples of the music he refers to as examples of his work. Invariably (Yes, I do know what that word means.), it will be some awful sounding collection of distortion, overused effects, trite synthesizers, and horribly recorded drums.

The critical feedback loop between musicians and their vanishing customers has been wreaked by “portable devices” and the delusional pipedream that some whackos have that high resolution audio will change any of that is nuts. I suppose I should be happy with the resurgence of vinyl, since you can’t get that shit on to a cell phone? If you know me, you know I think going back to vinyl is about as silly as abandoning cars for horses. It’s not the vinyl that matters, it’s the amplification and speaker systems, dumbasses.

webcorThis has been a long time coming. This godawful Webcor record player is pretty much what I began listening to in my audio career, way back in 1959. My father bought it for the living room, decided he didn’t like the way it looked (ours was salmon “red”) and dumped it in the basement (where I lived).

My mother had convinced him to buy an RCA console system, but he decided that took up too much room and it ended up in the basement, too. It really was pretty awful, but slightly better sounding than my Webcor. rcasteroWhen he remarried, the RCA found its way back into the living room in their new home and it remained there until they downsized after all of the kids had left home.

By then, I had long since graduated to component stereo equipment, then band sound systems, and, finally, recording studio equipment for my home audio system. Our living room system (aka “Home Theater System”) is still a decent receiver and a pair of JBL studio monitors. The down side to that is that, if I bother to listen at all carefully, it’s pretty obvious that Pandora broadcasts in a mediocre MP3 format. Usually, I’m not that focused on the music coming from the living room when I’m working in the kitchen. When I am actually critically listening, I listen to CDs. I’ll put CD quality over vinyl any day.

Too often, when someone under 30 wants to show me some music it will be demonstrated on a cell phone speaker. I have no idea what I’m supposed to get from that experience. I can usually pick out the melody and determine if it is a male or female lead voice. That’s about all I’m willing to invest in that miserable fidelity source, though, which is often disappointing to the person trying to impress me.

To be truthful, if you are a cell phone user I have to suspect you don’t care about fidelity in any form. While I haven’t had a fixed-line telephone for quite a few years, our primary telephone looks a lot like a fixed-line system. Our phone service is provided through our high-speed ISP and an Ooma Tele. The sound quality was a substantial step-up from the fixed-line system provided by Qwest and, later, Comcast in our Twin Cities home. I can, in a few moments, tell if a caller is on a cellphone because the quality is miserable. Always. My guess is if you can tolerate that level of distortion in a voice conversation you aren’t that discerning in any aspect of audio. So, while I’m not surprised that music is being listened to on actual speakers by an audience of 12%-and-shrinking I’m also not impressed by your musical tastes. Your opinion of audio quality is just going to make me laugh, so don’t waste either of our time.

Monday, May 15, 2017

“But Everybody Does It This Way!”

\All my life, I’ve heard this argument as an excuse for continuing to do stupid stuff that doesn’t work. For half of my life, as much as I was confused by the disconnect between function and this argument I didn’t know why it didn’t seem to work in the real world I lived in. In the mid-1980’s, I took a Logic and Critical Thinking course from a brilliant instructor, Mike Scott, and learned about historical “irrational arguments,” which as it turned out were about the only sort of arguments I’d heard for most of my life having grown up in a religious family and community. One of the most startling (to me) of the beautiful list of irrationality was argumentum ad populum (Latin for "appeal to the people").

61zbrV7lEVLEarly in my life, in 1956 when I was 8, I’d been exposed to the totally nutty propaganda regarding Elvis Presley, "50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong." In fact, I was pretty sure by the time I was 10 years old, that all Elvis fans were idiots. Elvis vs. the Everly’s? Even Ricky Nelson? No contest. Later, when I got much further into music, specifically, jazz at the ripe old age of 13, I scored Elvis fans of all sorts as something less than sentient: or worse, they were emotional. As I began to think of myself as a musician (As irrational as that was, I know.) and broadened my listening palette to R&B and some classical music, the Beatles came along and blasted pretty much everything of any sort of complexity off of the AM radio band. Of course, that lowered my opinion of “everybody” to something a few notches below farm animals.

Over the course of my career, the “everybody does it this way” explanation has regularly been applied to all sorts of stupid things. Live sound system setup, for example. “Everybody” seems to think the hot sequence of events for a large or small scale sound system is to waste time getting everybody happy with the monitor system, then turn on the Front of House (FOH). One of my favorite moments in Crazy Heart came 47:28 into the movie. Jeff’s character stops the rehearsal and tells the FOH jackass, “I need kick and snare, turn down the damn guitars, you’re drownin’ out the lyrics.”

The sound jackass says, “The mix is good man. You can’t hear what I’m hearin’ out here.”

Jeff’s guy says, “Yeah, you’d be surprised. Do it the way I tell ya and leave it.”

Asshole says, “The mix is just fine, man. Trust me on this.”

Jeff says, “No. I’m an old man. I get grumpy. You heard me.” And aside, mostly to himself says, “Damn sound man. The try to fuck up the opening act. . . ” And you should listen to the rest of the conversation. Jeff became my hero in that movie.

The way 99.99…% of shows are mixed wouldn’t pass for a first attempt right out of high school for a recording engineer. A big part of the problem is that the kiddies and functionally-deaf assholes who pass for “sound men” think the monitor system is more critical than the FOH system, so they setup monitors first and there is no coming back from that fatal move.

messy drumnsAnother “everybody does it this way” audio disaster happens almost constantly on drums. In a deluded and functionally-ignorant attempt at “control,” most live and recording engineers decorate drum kits with more microphones than an actual recording engineer would use on a 90 piece orchestra. Or course, the recording is a disaster in so many ways you’d think it would be obvious, but the general mess is usually “fixed” with gates and compression and, too often, substitution with individual drum sounds recorded by sample recordists. Recording history is full of great drum recordings with as few as one mic and as “many” as three, counting the kick mic. The usual pile of microphones, like the example at left, creates a collection of phase and tonal problems that result

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to record a variety of live performances at the local theater. Because we still haven’t managed to find the time to get the overly complicated and bureaucratic DiGiCo drivers to work with any recording program, I was stuck using my six channel Zoom H6 recorder for more than a dozen different acts from folk singers to a 22-piece horn section with a rhythm section. Did I mention, only six channels?

simple drumsI would be left with only one channel to dedicate to the occasional drum kit and rarely more than two on most of the acts. One of my favorite techniques is often referred to the Glyn Johns’ technique. Another excellent tactic is to place an X-Y pair behind the drummer’s head, simulating the “mix” the drummer is creating for himself. Sometimes a kick mic is useful, but for really excellent drummers I often end up barely using it or not at all. So, with only one channel to spare I put a single condenser in that position. The end result even surprised me. With only a little EQ, mostly a low end bump, the end result was a good full drum kit sound with excellent (considering the stage volume) isolation. Obviously, this tactic puts the “control” of the drum mix in the hands of the drummer. Less obviously, I think that is a good thing. I have generally found that good drummers have a better idea of what their playing sound sound like than 99-something-percent of recordists, including myself.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Organization? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Organization

I have a pair of Electro-Voice RE-18’s in the shop that need, I hope, minor repair. The RE-18 was one of the best handheld vocal microphones ever made by anyone in audio history. That’s my opinion and I’m sticking with it because I’ve owned about a dozen of these amazing tools and everyone has been terrific. Every vocalist I’ve taught to use the RE-18 has taken to the microphone like it was a revelation. Every FOH engineer I’ve convinced to try the RE-18 has fallen in love with the mics. Obviously, the RE-18 was doomed to failure in an industry where the SM58 is considered “good enough” when it is obviously barely competent as a talkback mic or a taxi company dispatcher’s desk mike.

When I wrote EV’s misnamed “Technical Services” about obtaining repair parts for the RE-18, the response was, “Unfortunately, we no longer have parts or service to support this series." Although this was a very good mic it was discontinued around 1990.” I, of course, knew all of that except for the non-existent parts supply and EV’s arbitrary decision to discontinue their lifetime warranty, “Also, these microphones are guaranteed without time limit against malfunction in the acoustic system due to defects in workmanship and material.” [Words taken right from the RE-18’s Product Manual.] That warranty was one of the reasons EV was able to ask a premium price on all of the RE Series microphones: $350 back when an SM58 had a street price of $75. Bosch, a German company, has no clue how to deal with customer service, manage quality, or produce a competent product: a typical condition for German companies. Nothing new here. If a German company didn’t totally hose up customer service functions, I’d be suspecting someone else actually owned the company.

evre16EV does, however, still make and sell the RE-16. Many of the RE-16;s parts are identical or close enough for practical purposes. After going around via email with the “we no longer have parts or service” Tech Service guy, I called Tech Services today. Same song and dance, except this guy knew he didn’t know much and really, really wanted to transfer me to “Parts.” Usually, I have had to go through Tech Service to get part numbers and/or assembly drawings. At EV/Bosch, Tech Service has none of that. In fact, I have to wonder what technical services Tech Services can provide without actual product information at hand.

Lucky for me, the woman who answered the parts call was, essentially, an actual Tech Services technician. We quickly identified the parts I wanted to buy, she priced them, she told me when I’d receive those parts (about 14 days), and took my order.

ev-re20-service-manual-coverAll of this hassle could have been easily resolved with a simple parts manual/service data sheet, like the one that is well-distributed and easily found for the RE-20. The fact that this information doesn’t seem to be even in-house at EV/Bosch is disturbing. A lot of companies seem to think manufacturing or service information is “proprietary” information. That philosophy is excessively customer-hostile and leads the company down a path of becoming known for lowered capabilities and lowered expectations from customers turns into lower performance. That results in lower price points because customers assume the company’s products are poor quality, poorly designed, poorly supported, and incompetently represented at all ends of the product chain. That is certainly what has happened to EV over the last 40 years. From a well-known, often used microphone supplier and technical resource in the early days through the 70’s, EV has slowly become a second tier company, mostly known for cheap knock-off microphones and with no real presence in the condenser market at all. In fact, the RE-20 is probably the company’s only well known, well respected microphone. That seems like a pretty serious problem.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Gratitude Is Dead?

In 1971, I was about to be a new dad, had an incredibly demanding but low paying tech job, and was stranded in one of the planet’s armpits, Hereford, Texas; where when the world gets an enema, that’s the place the tube goes. I needed money and there weren’t a lot of options for decent payinjg 2nd jobs in that place at that time. So, I talked to a couple of Amarillo music stores and my local store and began a music equipment/instrument repair service. Fairly quickly, I learned two things: 1) music stores rarely pay their bills and 2) musicians are even less likely to pay bills. No surprise, right? It was for 23 year old me, right out of tech school and at one of the many “I’m outta here (music)” points in my life.

The truth is that it isn’t fair to imply that ALL musicians didn’t pay their repair bills. In fact, I became a regular stop for the many Mexican bands in the area and they paid their bills like clockwork. Country Western dicks, on the other hand, were reliably unreliable. They were gods of “if you let me take my amp today, I’ll gladly pay you on Saturday after the gig.” Not once did that ever happen. There weren’t many rock bands in 1970’s west Texas, but the ones that were there were only slightly less bogus than the C&W assholes. Most of the rock guys were high school kids, so I should probably cut them some slack but I was barely out of high school and I had a family to support. So fuck ‘em.

Lucky for me, I was on a mailing list from Don Lancaster, the future author of The Incredible Secret Money Machine, and his newsletter taught me some of the things that would be key to my businesses for the rest of my life. Rule #1: “Know the difference between cold cash, j-dollars, and megabucks.” “j-dollars” are the engineering business term for imaginary money. The rule for megabucks is “the odds of you ever getting one red cent are invariably much lower than you think.” Those rules stuck with me, especially after two years of wrestling with musicians and music stores for the money they owed me. The cap on that money in my business career came after I had a spare room filled from floor to ceiling with repaired equipment that had yet to be paid for and I was about to leave Texas for a new job in central Nebraska. I posted a notice in the local paper and sent post cards to the customers who had given me legitimate addresses warning them that I would be selling all of the customer equipment in my shop for the repair bills. Of course, everyone thought I was bluffing and one weekend I emptied the spare room and the following Monday we were on the road north.

paisleyOff and on over the next forty years I ran a variety of service businesses out of my home, studio, and or office. In four decades, I wrote off about a little more than $1500 in bad debts over several hundred thousand billed and collected. (One hint to the right to the source of one of those bad debts.) Lancaster’s rules became pretty much kneejerk for me, including “Doing something stupid once is just plain dumb. Doing it often is a philosophy.” Not only did I not get screwed out of a payment twice by anyone, but even if I eventually got paid after a protected hassle I did not bother testing those waters twice. Several name studios from L.A. to Denver to Minnesota discovered that I always had enough paying customers to be able to refuse work from the non-paying types: including an ex-employer. More than once, I heard the whine, “Don’t hold a grudge, Tom. This time will be different.” Thanks, but fuck you. Nobody is famous enough to con me into working for free. Although a few of the most famous people I’ve worked with were also the most reliable and generous customers I’ve ever experienced.

When I canned the acoustic consulting and the audio equipment repair businesses, an energetic, personable, and talented young man caught much of what I was tossing off. He gave me a lot of crap for bitching about how little I liked working for musicians and how much I hated the billing hassle. Less than six months later, he quit the work too, saying, “I can’t believe it took you so long to quit doing that shit.” I know what you are saying, kid.

As much of a hardass as all that makes me sound, the fact is that I have done shitloads of work that I’d have rather avoided. Repair works is rarely fun and often miserable. I used to tell my studio maintenance students, “Get used to being wrong a lot if you want to do repair work. If you are really good, you’ll be right one our of ten times.” That is not as much fun as it sounds. Along with busted stuff and lousy designs kicking my ass for 40 years, a lot of the work I did was just grunt work: equipment installation, studio wiring, CAD/CAM programming, debugging other engineers’ designs, and politics. Most of it was better than a sharp stick in the eye and some of it paid better than being a slave, but if I could have been a rock star or a trust fund baby I’d have picked those options in a heart beat.

Now that I’m retired, I’m doing all sorts of bullshit work around our house, volunteering to run sound, recording music, helping with construction or design projects, and some of the silly crap I’ve done my whole life that probably deserves the label “hobbies.” My general rule for considering a project, today, is “If I like it, I’ll do it for free. If I don’t, you can’t afford me.” That offends some people. They think I’m being an asshole for not working cheap, now that I have the spare time, especially since I do some work for free and it all looks the same to them. Learning how to say “no” took me most of my life and it still makes me very uncomfortable. However, that’s what I’m saying more often than not these days and I’m getting better at it. The day I don’t feel compelled to explain why I don’t want to record your awful music, run sound for your awful sounding cover band, make you a guitar, fix your computer, guitar amp or home stereo equipment, build you a wall or a fence just like the one I just built for my wife, help you roof your house, or whatever, will be the day I am officially comfortably retired. Until then, I’m still practicing with the “no word” and if it looks unnatural on me, it is.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The High Cost of Doubt

When I was a working engineer and, later, an engineering manager, my least favorite answer to any question was always, “Because everyone does it that way.” For the last 50 years, a mantra of mine, and my current email signature, has been a Bertrand Russell quote, “The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more often likely to be foolish than sensible." More than often this is true, but occasionally my kneejerk reaction to convention takes me, the hard way, through the processes that others have already explored and I discover sometimes things are always done pretty much the same way for a reason. Sometimes that reason is bullshit, but there is often a core assumption to be evaluated that with my limited-to-non-existent visual skills I can not see until I experiment.

steinberger-l-series-bass-guitar-2000I am making an electric bass this semester in my Red Wing Southeast Community Tech Guitar Repair and Building program. There are imposed limitations on the kind of instrument we can build as first year students. (I know, I’ve been at it for two years and I’m still taking 1st year classes. Get over it. I am in no hurry.)

My baseline bass is a Steinberg L-Series headless and almost body-less bass. I’ve owned a couple of these instruments in the last thirty years and, currently, own and play a Hohner knock-off of this bass. I love everything about my Hohner from the low weight to the perfect balance to the sound. The only thing I don’t love is the look, which is always a heavily enameled solid color body and neck with a rosewood fingerboard. If the guitar is going to be made from wood, which my Hohner is and my Steinbergers were not. The headless design was not an option for the first year guitar design course. One of the failures from my acoustic guitar build was my original intention to make my instrument from all-domestic wood. I screwed up my first two walnut fingerboards and my one-piece walnut neck block and had to start over quickly, so I snagged a slab of quarter-sawn rosewood and a mahogany neck block from a guitar builder who was dumping material stock cheap and those two critical parts of the instrument ended up coming from imported wood.

This time, I wanted to avoid that and my design was for all walnut; partially because I love the look of walnut and partially because I wanted to take a second look at a design I started almost 40 years ago. That design was based on the B.C. Rich Mockingbird body and incorporated a fretless Fender Precision neck. Considering my rookie woodworking status, that instrument came out pretty well, except that it weighed close to 50 pounds. I started with a 2” thick piece of old growth walnut that I’d milled myself from rough walnut stock I’d found in a friend’s barn. For my current instrument, I wanted everything I’d accomplished with that original instrument without the physical stress. Literally, my bandmates called my old bass “the refrigerator” because between the bass and the Star roadcase, hauling that thing up a flight of stairs was a lot like carrying a refrigerator with one hand. It currently resides in my daughter’s music room where no one has played it for decades. Honestly, it was a terrific bass, sonically, but it will cut a groove in your shoulder that will bisect the player if given enough time.

IMG_8135IMG_8134Once the bass was assembled and finished, I had to decide where to install the strap pins. My working theory was “balanced,” So, I fooled around with clamps, string, and a strap until I found a location that appeared to be evenly balanced. I wrestled with this measurement for quite a while and mentally wrestled with my memory of instrument feel, strap constriction or flexibility (tightly restrained or hyper loose like the classical acoustic guitar strap attachment), and the concept of “balance” for hours. Finally, I decided to blow off convention and attach the strap in the two places shown in these two pictures. Punching holes in my recently sanded, finished, and polished instrument wasn’t an easy move and going for something less convention for the neck position pin was a mental stretch.


The picture at left shows what balanced looks like. The guitar hangs perfectly neutral when the neck is parallel to the ground. This sort of defeats about 50% of the reason I designed in that “handle” at the top of the instrument, but I thought balance was more important than justifying my design geekiness. Turns out, balanced is not particularly comfortable in a bass, at least for me. While my Steinberger/Hohner L-Series instruments are, in fact, balanced, a slight increase in headstock weight makes a body-heavy strap positon a lot more desireable. For one, I have short limbs (and fingers) and I end up pulling the neck up and slightly to my right when I play the bass. So, I repositioned the neck pin as far up that “handle” as possible, which is pretty much exactly where everyone else on the planet puts a neck strap pin. The end result was a much more comfortable balance and a more relaxed playing position. Which, of course, everyone who has built an electric guitar in the last 75 years knew before I decided to test traditional thinking.

Monday, April 10, 2017

I Can’t Hear You!

lead_960Sometime in the 1980’s at the Los Angeles Audio Engineering Society (AES) convention a group of university audiologists offered to administer free hearing tests to any of the few thousand audio “professionals” attending the convention. “Free” is a pretty enticing price to most of the economic class of people who make a living in professional audio and the audiologists got a decent sample from a variety of what passes for disciplines in the audio profession: recording technicians, producers, live sound technicians, electrical design engineers, company management, etc. What they found shouldn’t have been surprising, but it apparently was either surprising or aggravating. In that year’s AES Journal and in an audiologists’ academic journal, the group reported that the majority of the audio professionals from recording to live sound were either “functionally deaf” or close enough to deaf for rock and roll. You might imagine that information would have been both enlightening and startling, but you’d be overestimating the intelligence of human beings. The immediate effect of learning that sound professionals are hard-of-hearing was that the members voted to ban hearing testing from all future conventions. I guess “hear no evil” extends to all bad news?

It shouldn’t be surprising that the people who work in the least health-regulated, highest volume occupations in the world are hearing damaged. It would be amazing if they weren’t. The surprise is that their reaction to this information was to ignore it. I suppose, like most areas of human activity, economics is the motivator. If our hearing-damaged customers learned that the people they pay to deliver a reasonably high quality audio product couldn’t hear the difference between a Neuman U87 and a busted Shure SM58 or a high quality studio monitor and a well-used Yamaha NS-10, they might be inspired to pay even less for our already barely-valued “talents.” It doesn’t help that the most-deaf musicians of the last ten or twenty generations of humans, 1960’s and 70’s rock icons, like Neil Young, Peter Townshend, Eric Clapton, Jack White, etc. are all not only poster-children for a variety of hearing-impaired charities but loud and insistent advocates for every golden ear’d bullshit from analog recording to high-def digital standards. Most likely, if these guys can convince you to spend more money on “high quality” versions of their work, you also believe Goldman Sachs deserved bailing out in 2008. From the performers to the audio technicians to our audience, hearing damage is key to practically everything we do.

Access-Audiology-Sept2013-Figure-2The local performance theater is a great example. Red Wing, MN is a fairly typical small town (with a much larger town’s city budget thanks to a nearby nuclear power plant and its property taxes) with an aging population. The theater has “assistive listening devices available at no charge,” but like most such places you have to know this stuff is there to ask for it and, like most old and deaf people, the ones who need it the most are the ones who consistently shout “I can’t hear you!” at the dinner table. So, driven by the complaints of the deaf and dumber the production manager has spent a couple hundred thousand dollars on sound reinforcement equipment for an 800 person capacity facility. No, that doesn’t make the place sound better; it’s just a whole lot louder. That means the few people in the audience who are capable of hearing full-range music are being sacrificed for the deaf audience, hearing-impaired musicians, and the quickly-going-deaf FOH tech. This is a whole new definition of “disabled access,” where the disabled are empowered to equally disable everyone else.

It’s possible that, someday, human evolution will catch up to birds and most vertebrates (like lizards, fish, and frogs) and we’ll develop a repair mechanism for hearing damage. It’s about as likely that we’ll find a cure for the Dunning-Kruger effect and humans will suddenly stop our mindless drive toward the Sixth Extinction . . . but we can always dream. Until then, the obvious and well-known cause for hearing damage—environmental noise exposure—will continue to make us deafer and dumber and that will drive live music louder and force sound quality lower. Pretty soon, audiologists will be banned from every mall and medical facility so they can’t remind us of what we’ve lost.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

More Me!

One of the great curses of being on the providing end of everything in audio from live sound to recording engineering is the “I need more of me syndrome.” Even in the recording studio, the concept of serving the music is a vanishing idea. Everyone who has a place at the table, regardless of how insignificant, feels the need to be treated like a star.

For example, out of the insanity of the moment I recent volunteered (for the third mindless time) to be “production manager” for a local college’s annual variety show. This isn’t even a music school, but a technical college that has one of the country’s rare and precious musical instrument and repair programs. While many of the students are extremely talented musicians and a few are even composers, arrangers, and one-time music program students, very few are planning any sort of career as performers. The show is a wild mix of everything from classical woodwind and horn groups to singer-songerwritters to large horn bands with a full rhythm section. There is about 3-5 minutes of setup time allowed between acts and often that will involve tearing down a set with a dozen chairs and music stands, moving a few large instruments (piano, drum kit), and setting up microphones. To put it mildly, there isn’t any time for either precision or fine tuning, either during the sound check/rehersal or the show. The performers have a couple of months to get their act together, but the crew sees everything for the first time the afternoon of the show.

To simplify a lot of the setup, the microphone system for the show is a pair of Earthworks cardioid condensers in X/Y configuration centered downstage and many of the acts are just positioned quickly around that microphone pair. Instruments like the piano, drum kit(s), guitar, electric bass, etc often are handled with a single well-placed (hopefully) microphone. There are no stage monitors for anyone. The house speaker system has about 170o of dispersion and the house speakers are angled toward the center of the facility (don’t ask) which provides about 100% coverage to around 10kHz to the front 15’ of the stage.

Did I mention that I do this gig for free?

The sound check is performed in reverse order so we can leave the first act’s setup on the stage at the end. This year’s show, and most years are the same, the final act (first up for the sound check) was a decent sized band: three trumpets, four saxes, four trombones, three saxes, piano, drums, bass, and guitar. They made a run through their song and one of the sax players said, “I need a monitor and a mic. Traditionally, everyone on stage would have his own mic and monitor.” My response was, “’Traditionally,’ I shouldn’t have to mic or reinforce a band this big.” There were some laughs from the adults in the room, some whining from the kiddies, and we moved on. I’m always tempted to turn moments like this into teaching opportunities, but I’m trying to learn that I am not the jackass whisperer.

Did I mention that I do this gig for free?

BroadwayBigBandStyle Band BestQualityThe show went fine, I survived it. Afterwards, when I was whining to my wife about having to put up with punk kids who think they are junior college rock stars, she said, “He’s probably confusing those music stands they used to put in front of the musicians for monitors.” I really wanted to tell her she was wrong, but I half-suspect she isn’t. Holy crap! Some dumb kid thinks every guy in Tommy Dorsey’s band had a mic and a monitor? Never underestimate the stupidity of your fellow Americans; it will cost you money.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

You Think You Know What It Sounds Like?

One of the many painful things about being “experienced” (read, “old”) and having a technical background is that not that much surprises me any more. That is not a good thing, it’s not something I can brag about, it’s not something I’m happy about, it’s just a fact. Being surprised, having my stereotypes burst, learning something new and interesting is one of the joys of living. One of the things I loved about teaching music technology to “kids” who were three decades younger than me was being forced to re-evaluate my own biases and experience in a different context. Being retired deprives me of that opportunity and being more than a little disengaged from the necessity of making a living has scraped away some of the desire and requirement to compromise my own standards in the interest of “getting the job done.” When the job isn’t worth doing well, I’d just as soon avoid it altogether. 

So, when I had the opportunity to experience the value of a high quality microphone on vocals I wrote about it on a Facebook group called Move the Mics!, “I was part of an educational experiment this weekend. I ran sound for a regional bluegrass band, The High 48's, who use an AT4050 as their primary vocal mic and a collection of small and large condensers for solo instrument mics. They also have the usual SM58 at one end of the stage for introductions and a few backup vocals. When the banjo player sang or talked into the 58, he was unremarkable. When he sang or spoke into the AT4050, he was a dead ringer for Geoff Muldaur. I should note that I have always disliked the sound of 90% of most vocals through SM58's, but this was just a killer demo of why 58's should only be used to drive nails and for crappy punk vocals.”

I’m exaggerating, of course, and expecting sound geeks to get either humor or comprehend an experiment in quality evaluation is always a mistake. But I was surprised at the “loyalty” and emotion the defenders of the overused, rarely understood, and very successful Shure SM57/58. For example, “There are plenty of other mics I like better, but in a live environment, a 58 on vocals is rarely the weakest link in the chain. It's got good rejection, low handling noise, does well in wind, and is pretty hard to kill. With a little EQ, it works for almost anyone. Better mics are generally less neutral and can be quite picky about which vocalists they sound good on. If I was doing a tour for a band, I'd make sure I had everyone matched up with a great mic, but for doing random shows where you're lucky to get a sound check, a 58 is a safe bet that a good engineer can use to make just about anyone sound decent (well, a decent version of themselves). I wouldn't normally use it for vocals in a studio, but numerous great studio vocal tracks have been made with a 58 over the years, either as scratch vocals that got kept or when a vocalist insisted on holding a mic.

“If the banjo player sounded like a different person through the 58, I would have been scowling at the FOH engineer, not the mic.”

The idea that an SM58 could be EQ’d to sound like a high quality condenser microphone should be ludicrous to anyone experienced with either type of microphone. The delusion that “a 58 on vocals is rarely the weakest link in the chain” demonstrates a severe misunderstanding of the “garbage in, garbage out” concept. A quick look at the basic characteristics of the Shure SM58 should point out more than a few flaws in that claim. Add transient repsonse, noise rejection, phase accuracy, and harmonic and intermodulation distortion to the comparison and the idea that you can “fix” the differences with EQ becomes depressingly familiar.

A comparison to the characteristics of the Audio Technica AT4050 should be enlightening to an experienced, educated audio technician. In it’s worst, least accurate configuration the AT4050 delivers dramatically better frequency response, polar response, and a massively improved proximity characteristic when used at a foot or greater distance. In a group setting, this alone should be eye-opening. One of the defenders of the SM58 went on to say he’d used an SM58 in a chorus performance and it had performed “superbly.” When I expressed both doubt in his hearing and technical competence and gratitude that I hadn’t been forced (ever in my life) to make that kind of sacrifice, his response was to whine that I was jumping to conclusions without having had the pleasure of hearing the mess he’d made out of the performance. I will confess to that “crime.” I’ve heard thousands of miserable amplified live music performances and do not need any more of that kind of experience.
Maslow's golden hammer rule explains, "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail." When the only microphone you know well enough to “trust” is an SM57/58 (and they are not the same hammer), every sound source has the characteristics as a nail. When your only expectation from a microphone is excessive gain-before-feedback and indestructibility, concepts like distortion, transient response, intelligibility, and accuracy are insignificant details. This is one of many reasons why live music is too often a painful and depressing experience to the few remaining people in this country who love music, know what musical instruments sound like, and would like to continue their lives with their hearing undamaged. I wish there was a fix for stupid, but unlike ignorance stupid can not be fixed.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Why Bands Don’t Last

Honestly, this is why most collections of human beings don’t stay together long; including marriages. I used to call this the “David Lee Roth Crowd IQ Estimator,” but I can’t find any evidence that he ever said this, so maybe it’s mine?

"Find the smartest guy in the crowd, divide his IQ by the number of people in the crowd, and . . . there you are."

That’s all there is to it. Humans are not a pack animal, but a herd animal; like buffalo or sheep. Only rarely does the product of a group exceed the sum of its parts. Usually, three of us are dumber than two and, most likely, only one of us in any given group is smart enough to accomplish anything useful. As a nation, we just scouted out the dumbest rich guy in human history and made him our timid, narcissistic, anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-reality President. If you need more evidence than that, you are the problem.

So, when your “greatest ever” rock band folds after a half-dozen practices and one or two dismal “gigs” (It’s not really a gig if you didn’t get paid for it.), don’t beat yourself up. You are just evidence of the rule, not the rare exception.

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.