Tuesday, May 15, 2018
Monday, May 7, 2018
If you’ve followed my microphone reviews and opinions, you might know that I am a big fan of Electrovoice’s RE-18 Variable-D hand-held vocal mic. I bought my first RE18 in the 70’s, new, and I’ve owned a dozen or so since. In experiments with a variety of vocalists, I’ve found this microphone to be superior to almost every other live vocal I’ve ever used. In every area (except one), the RE18 excels: handling noise, off-axis rejection and frequency response, proximity effect control (Variable-D), max SPL, distortion, clarity, humbucking noise-rejection, and durability. The one negative, repairability, is the focus of this article.
At one time, Electrovoice offered a “lifetime warranty” on all RE series microphones. After a few years of downsizing, being aquired by a variety of conglomerates, and lowered expectations, that “lifetime” is currently being defined as a "limited lifetime warranty on the acoustic element (due to defect in materials or workmanship), defined as ten years from the last date of the products manufacture." EV seems to have “lost” all of the technical information regarding many of the company’s most respected products, including the RE18, but I suspect that mic went out of production in the late 80’s when EV had all but disappeared from professional audio. Even getting an EV tech support person to admit that the RE18 ever existed requires arm-twisting.
One of the best features of the RE18 was it’s amazing lack of handling noise. That capability as created by incorporating shock-isolation between the element and steel outer case that used butyl-rubber doughnuts and viscous damping fluid. The foam breath and pop filtering was pretty sophisticated, too. To this date, I have not been able to find anything resembling a description of the parts required to repair this shock isolation system and it’s clear that 30+ years of use or improper storage will turn all of those parts into an unrecognizable mess of disolving chemicals. The shock isolation system for my RE18 remains incapacited.
With the assistance of the one helpful tech service person at EV, I was able to obtain a replacement foam filter and Variable-D baffle for their current version of the RE16, but that is a long way from anything used in the original RE18 design. The RE18 used a 3-layer pop filter system, but the RE16 is just typical low density foam. The once-impervious to vocal plosives and sibilance distortion RE18 is rendered passable with the RE16 replacement material.
After decades of recommending this microphone to vocalists of all sorts, I have to give in to the facts and admit that without some sort of support from the manufacturer or someone who was once involved in the design and/or production of this wonderful microphone repairing the RE18 is no longer practical. And, except in incredibly rare instances, I think you will find that upon removing the metal screen that every RE18 is likely in desperate need of serious repair. Typically, the foam has turned to a nasty combination of dust and sticky adhesive and the rubber shock mounts are likely totally deteriorated and there is no evidence that the viscous damping fluid ever existed or any way to determine what it once looked like for the purposes of fabricating a replacement system.
The RE18 shows up often on eBay and Reverb.com; often with an asking price of $200-or-more. Knowing that the microphone is likely in an unrepairable and deteriorating condition, it makes no sense to invest that kind of money in a once-terrific instrument. I would not, under any conditions, pay more than $100 for an excellent condition RE18 and sight-unseen (and before disassembly and inspection) no more than $20 for an on-line sale. At the absolute least, ask the seller to remove the metal screen and take a picture of the foam being distorted with a finger or blunt object to determine if that material is in a state of extreme decay. Usually, when the screen is unscrewed and removed the foam will fall out in pieces and clumps of dust.
Tuesday, May 1, 2018
When I decided to write up my experience with and opinion of the DiGiCo SD9 console, I suspected my less-than-positive opinion might be in the minority on this piece of expensive equipment. Often, people who spend a fortune on gear convince themselves it’s the best thing since sliced fingers. Most of my experience with live and studio consoles has been on analog equipment, but I was not only an early user of the Yamaha PM1D and did a fair amount of upgrade and warranty service for Yamaha between 2001 and 2007 on their PM1D and PM5D consoles. I have had an opportunity to mix on the AVID Venue and Midas M32 consoles a few times, also. I’m not digital-hostile, but I am not particularly fond of engineers who thing the world needs to revise how it spins because those engineers want it to. For starters, there are a variety of opinions from equally talented and experienced mixers regarding the DiGiCo design and ergonomic concepts. For my money (which, happily, isn’t involved here) it’s a no-brainer: the DiGiCo costs about $30,000 without I/O and the Avid Venue is about half that cost with many times the customer base. Even the new Midas digital consoles are considerably cheaper than the DiGiCo consoles and they have a 10 year warranty, vs DiGiCo’s 1 year coverage. The Midas M32 costs less than $6k and would more than do the job this small facility needs done. 96 input channels for a 450 seat facility is gross overkill.
I did some searching on the Web for other opinions of DiGiCo and found a few technical sites where the subject was discussed. For example, when asked for “general opinions about DiGiCo,” an obviously knowledgeable user said, “You probably don't hear much about them because they are rather pricey and usually only the top level companies/venues can afford them, but they are worth it. I think they are more prevalent in Europe along with Midas digitals than here in the states.” Another opinion from a tech clearly familiar with a variety of digital consoles was, “I'm sure that the UI could be learned with a fair amount of time and effort but it's not particularly user friendly especially when coming from experience with the more widely encountered Yamaha's and Avid's.” A tech who has “been touring with Digico consoles since 2007” said, “Users who complain that they are ‘hard to walk up to’ just need to take a moment to give it a chance, as we had to give all the digital consoles a chance that we have learned. With an on-screen layout that mimics an analog channel strip, operating a Digico console is quite easy. I have trained many users ranging from digital console newbies (a couple months ago I gave a training session to a company who bought an SD9 after only owning simple analog consoles) to seasoned touring pros on how to operate Digico consoles and I find that once a few workflow items are explained, people catch on quickly.” “Catching on” isn’t the problem. DiGiCo’s complete ignorance of or disdain for modern design and ergonomic concepts means catching on is about 1/10th of the battle. The problem is that the design lends itself to inefficient and simplistic work flow. I hope this review details some of the reasons why I found the SD9 to be one of the most user-hostile electronic devices I’ve used in years.
NOTE: When it comes to how seriously you take the points made in this review, please take into account that I have 50 years of analog console experience, failing eyesight, and almost zero interest in listening to live guys babble about “sound quality”; a concept so rarely heard in live music performances that I doubt few “professionals” in live music would recognize their own name if it were shouted at them by their mother in close quarters. There is a lot of audiophile fascination with fidelity from the clinically deaf crowd, in my opinion. However, I’m going to assume the sound quality is a given, because it is, and worry about the ergonomics and function of the console.
For starters, DiGiCo’s conceit is that there is something intuitive about a small screen in the middle of the console that describes the functions of 12 of 96 potential channels with no direct physical relationship to channel faders. The only controls lined up with the faders are mute and solo buttons, ID scribble pads, and LED VUs. That does not work for me. The large, asymmetrical physical and visual leap from the constantly in-use faders to the awkward miniature virtual channels on the screen in the upper middle of the console, and the continuous rotation controls at the right of that screen, the function selection buttons on the left of the screen, and another set of continuous rotation faders at the bottom of the screen (plus an alternative function selection button) pushes the limits of my eyesight and long-established habits. My motivation to adapt my lifetime of habits to the DiGiCo world is tempered by the knowledge that I won’t be working on this equipment often and would not choose to ever do so.
There is no labeling on the two channel buttons: solo and mute. The 100mm faders are pretty much the same as everyone else’s. At the channel input screen, the tiny and upper-most positioned channel VU meters are labeled and scaled in 15dB steps, so determining input signal precisely is difficult. If you select the input screen, the VU meters do not come with it. There are larger LED meters just above the channel ID LCD scratch pads. Those meters are more typically scaled, but since there is no correlation between the LCD screen channels and the physical channel location, using those more precise VUs is very counter-intuitive and, honestly, I was never convinced the two meters gave the same information because the scales are so different. Not having taken test equipment to the console, I’m not sure what headroom is available over the VU meter’s clip indication. The preamp has the typical 60dB of gain and the output is capable of +22dBu max output. Distortion is a fairly typical THD >0.05% at 1kHz, which is barely information in today’s far more useful multi-tone IMD measurement world.
DiGiCo’s SD9 touch screen is pressure sensitive, functionally, that an odd feature in today’s world of capacitive touch screens. As if that isn’t odd and off-putting enough, the screen is not particularly consistent in the amount of pressure required or where each button and control’s pressure points are located on the screen. I resorted to using the back end of a BIC pen for screen entry to minimize misses and false control selection. That helped, but didn’t consistently solve that problem. Not being able to use my fingers to make function selections and open and close screens meant making adjustments to practically any function was cumbersome.
A lot of the features I take for granted in a digital console are not available in the SD9: color-coded groups, individual channel automation, (Avid’s “Auto-Off”, for example), grouped faders and mutes, I/O naming, and probably a whole collection of other useful features I have yet to discover aren’t there. DiGiCo’s Snapshot feature allows you to automate the setup for scenes/songs and is useful for a lot of things, however automating several channels for a variety of things can get messy and, once again, the tiny buttons on the “global scope” touch screen make every change . . . challenging. The facility where I used the SD9 has a keyboard stored on a sliding shelf under the console, but every time I slid it back under the desk, the bump at the end of the shelf jogged something that caused a loud “snap” in the mains; probably a fiber optic connection issue, but it could be almost anything related to the console and its complicated connections. In the end, I mostly did my text entry on the cobbly virtual QWERTY keyboard on the screen. The automation capabilities of the SD9 are very 1990’s capability-wise. You can automate pretty much any of the SD9’s functions, but it’s all or nothing. Unlike Avid, Yamaha, or even Presonus channels that can be individually selected to track or record automation or not, when you select the input channel faders, mutes, pans, sends, or any other function to be automated with Snapshot changes, it’s all or nothing. “Mostly useful” is the nicest thing I can say about the Snapshot feature. If you use the console’s left side Snapshot “next” button to pre-arm the next Snapshot and try to trigger that move with the console’s right side Snapshot “next” button (instead of the left side’s “Fire” button), the selected Snapshot will be one past the one you pre-armed. I can’t guess what the British logic behind that would be.
The built-in plug-ins are fine and there are a few typical Waves plug-ins that can be inserted almost anywhere there is an insert in the signal chain. The problem is that DiGiCo works a lot harder than most console manufacturers to make it hard to figure out where the input and output connections actually are. Relabeling their obtuse equipment identification terminology isn’t an option. Like it or leave it, DiGiCo knows better than you how your I/O should be identified.
From reputation only, I understand the SD9 is a pretty durable console. It seems pretty tough, just based on the chassis construction. I haven’t seen the inside of the console and I wouldn’t pass judgment, one way or the other, on it’s durability until I have seen how the boards are mounted, what kind of connectors are used and how they are secured, and how the wiring harnesses are secured. In the past, Euro-designs have rarely impressed me in this regard, so I have my doubts. Based on the Sheldon Theater’s experience, there is no chance that I would consider using DiGiCo’s fiber-optic system on a road tour. In fact, I’d want to see a CAT5 connection to all equipment, looped and returned redundantly. In my experience, British equipment isn’t particularly durable or well-constructed and that would be one more reason I’d never consider a DiGiCo console for a touring rig. Your mileage may vary.
The SD9’s price tag puts it well into the most-expensive-in-class category; more like SSL than Midas or Avid. That makes choosing a DiGiCo console risky business. Like it or not, digital electronics should be expected to have a 3-5 year lifetime before regular maintenance becomes necessary. The DiGiCo’s 1 year warranty is a statement in the company’s product reliability expectation, in itself. I suspect that a majority of SD9 owners are unfamiliar with Return on Investment (ROI) calculations. Before you spend this kind of money on digital audio equipment, you should correct that deficiency. When this kind of gear is discontinued or the company bellies-up, or the gear just stays in use beyond that 3-5 year expectation, you will be regretting that big purchase decision unless you also received big earnings from the investment. The more complicated and sophisticated gear becomes, the harder it is to repair and the more likely it becomes that repair will be necessary. The SD9’s modular assembly makes doing big section repairs fairly easy, but when the warranty expires that design tactic will make repairs expensive. When the company stops supporting the product, it won’t be long before you can get great deals on used SD9’s. In fact, you can already buy a used “refurbished” (whatever that means) SD9 for about $0.30 on the original purchase dollar. No digital equipment holds value well, though, which should always be considered when you are counting up the dollars you plan to spend on equipment.
I’ve heard mention of fader glitches from other DiGiCo users, particularly on unused third and fourth layer faders. I experienced a master group fader suddenly dropping to “–inf” just before a show started, after 45 minutes of signal passing through the mains before the show. I have to admit that unexplained fader moves on group levels that are not part of any area I ever use is a deal-breaker for me. That sort of occurrence is completely outside of anything I have experienced with any other digital console, other than a first generation Soundcrap I was forced to use on a television remote truck for about a year. Some consoles have a function select that allows you to prevent any fader from moving unless there is a human finger on that fader, but that isn’t a DiGiCo option. It should be.
The console’s power supply noise probably isn’t a problem for most pop music acts, but it is a pain in the ass for the small theater production I was involved with. For example, when the theater was empty the FOH work position noise level was 69dBC and 46dBA while the majority of the audience seats were 56dBC and 44dBA, indicating that there is a lot of low frequency noise produced by the console and a fair amount of low-to-mid frequency energy; 10dB or more, in fact. Honestly, in this day of high efficiency, low noise computer power supplies, I think this much noise from audio equipment is intolerable. Since I was working for an average sound system level of 6-8dB over ambient, all that console noise made my job a lot harder than it needed to be.
I’ve written before about my bitch with DiGiCo’s bullshit WAVE drivers, but it’s worth mentioning here. DiGiCo is arrogant enough to believe that they are “special” enough to make obtaining their drivers for recording apps harder to buy than actual programs. You have to be a registered DiGiCo owner to obtain their damn drivers. When you do get them, good luck. Way back when Avid’s Venue came out, in 2005, my Location Recording class went to Duluth to record that city’s High School Battle of the Bands. We had our location Digidesign HD rack, a MacBook Pro, and absolutely no experience with the Venue console. We were able to get a session up and going in a few minutes. After a brief discussion with the FOH engineer about who would control what in the sessions, we were up and ready to record our first band within an hour of arriving. Three years after my local theater bought their SD9, the console has yet to be successfully used as a recording interface. The four events I’ve been asked to record were handled by using the DiGiCo D-Rack splitter and my own mic pres and recording interface. The local rep, other sound techs who were supposedly familiar with the SD9, along with the characters who sold this rig to the theater have been unable to make any sort of useful connection between all that “sophisticated British gear” and any recording program. In the meantime, I’ve managed to do location recordings on Behringer, Midas, and Yamaha digital consoles with damn near no serious issues. I’m sure DiGiCo sells their Waves-mismanaged drivers as some sort of “feature,” but I am generally disgusted.
Simply put, I’m not impressed. Between the poor ergonomic design, the high price, and the mediocre post-sale support, I think choosing the DiGiCo SD9 is more about status and conspicuous consumption than any functional or aural values.
Thursday, April 26, 2018
A while back, I had the great luck to be the “soundguy” for a Peter Ostrouschko and Dean McGraw show at Hobgoblin Music in Red Wing. Peter is mostly known as a mandolin player (His first recording was on Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks.”) or violinist, but he is a fine guitar player. I was a guitar repair student at Southeast Tech at the time and my being at the show helped draw a few of the school’s brighter students. We’d been studying the origins of steel string acoustic guitars in our lecture class and one of the origins of all things acoustic and steel is Larsen Brothers Guitars. Before that class, I’d never heard of Larsen guitars but Peter brought one with him. When I saw it, I couldn’t help oggling his instrument.
Peter asked me some questions about my interest and offered to let me play it. There is no such thing as a cheap Larson guitar. Some Larson Brothers instruments sell for more than a luxury car and I am generally terrified of antique anythings; even when they aren’t worth more than my life savings. Later, some of my classmates showed up and when I pointed out the Larson on stage they all took a look. Some of the more courageous or clueless even touched the instrument. Peter was nothing but generous and gracious to the kids who mostly pestered him with questions only a kid would ask.
Peter and Dean let me do my usual non-traditional mic’ing of their instruments and mostly made me look good with their brilliant playing and expert use of instruments and equipment. It was an all acoustic show (no pickups on any of their instruments), so they could have screwed with me all night. Peter did fool with finding the “sweet [feedback] spot” for the small condensor I used for his vocal mic and sang along with that tone once he found it. He did it with the most subtle and dry humor possible and I’d have been a lot quicker to fix it if he hadn’t made me laugh so hard. I will [I hope] never forget their version of “Pennies from Heaven” (“Benny’s from Heaven”) and the incredibly powerful instrumentals they toyed with all night. Peter’s talent is near-superhuman.
As always, the good get pounded on first (He is five years younger than me, 64.. Peter suffered a heart attack in late 2017 that required a quadruple bypass and post-op he had a serious stroke. As is typical in the US, his medical expenses are terrible. Someone started a GoFundMe page for him, titled “Help Peter and Marge Ostroushko.” If you were ever inspired to contribute to this kind of fund, this is the one to get in on. Please.
Tuesday, April 17, 2018
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. Software 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
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.
Like 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
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.
The 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 band, 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.
The 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. As 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
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
One 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.
Oddly 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.
For 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.
I’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
Quite 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.
I 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.