Monday, July 10, 2017

He Never Returned . . . Almost

I recently took a train trip from my Minnesota home to Detroit, MI. Mostly, it was a pleasant experience and I’d recommend Amtrak to anyone not in a hurry or, like me, about as interested in submitting to the TSA bullshit as being sold into prostitution. The problem with going east from practically anywere civilized is Chicago. In particular, Chicago’s Union Station.Chicago is, in general, where ergonomics of any sort goes to die, but Union Station is the sort of organizational disaster usually described in Terry Gilliam movies or the noisy, disorderly hell-hole depicted in dysfunctional post-apocolypic movies where Donald Trump was elected President of the USA and human society collapsed into a drug-infested shooting gallery.

IMG_8385The station, itself, is a gothic cathedral sort of place with tunnels, alleys, and subteranian shopping malls all coupled, acoustically, with an excessive amount of echo and reverberation. It is noisy as hell, but half as pleasant. In a facility like this, you’d hope that public address audio would be abandoned as a useful medium to transfer information. You’d be disappointed. There are mumbling, distorted “messages” IMG_8388being broadcast constantly; including a feminine computer voice endlessly repeating “Track number 17, track number 17. . . “ Even in the waiting areas for specific train gates, useless information is regularly broadcast while the video screens are either filled with pointless TSA messages or are blank. Even stranger, there is elevator music straining to be heard, sometimes above, the pointless and unintelligable “directions,” arrival, and departure information.

IMG_8389This is a place where audio of any sort is nothing more than pollution. From the squeltching noises of the various police and security personnel to loud and confusing conversations to the P.A. system bullshit, no audio information of any sort is likely to be useful. However, the noise level everywhere I explored was well above industrial OSHA limits; often as high as 105dBSPL-A on a constant basis. However, where there were video displays with arrival and departure information, they were often placed where you couldn’t get close enough to read them or they were displaying information about every gate but the one they were near.

IMG_8387I managed to walk off without my 6-year-old Android tablet while I was trying to confirm the information on the Chicago Union Station’s website that said I needed a special boarding permit to get into any of the station’s waiting areas. That turned out to be untrue, but none of the Amtrak or Union Station employees seemed to know the website was incorrect. In all, my interactions with Union Station were miserable and among the dumbest I’ve experienced in my 69 years.

Chicago, you and Rahm Emanuel deserve each other.

Friday, June 9, 2017

If [insert technical person’s name here] Can Do it, It Must Be Easy

One of the many entertaining aspects of a technical career is that the many mismanagement, sales, and marketing numskulls who consider themselves to be “visionary” and who couldn’t turn on a water tap without assistance are convinced that we are a dime a dozen. Society, in fact, makes that same general assumption; that there will always be technical people available to make things work so that they can go about their mindless lives thoughtlessly and without a clue of how or why anything they depend on works.

The United States, in its rush to create a royalty class, is demonstrating this in every election, in every corporate takeover, in its tax policy, and in almost ever office in the country. One of many consequences for this is that more than 50% of our university STEM graduates are non-US citizens and the overwhelming majority of those graduates plan to return to their country of origin with the skills they have attained. The US, on the other hand is cranking MBA and Finance degrees like those “skills” are actually going to be useful in some mythical, non-productive future. Better hurry, kiddies. Once the current batch of banksters have sold off the nation’s assets, there won’t be much demand for people to mismanage the country’s remaining spare change.

phdsElecting a collection of trust fund brats and hedge fund banksters guarantees at least one more generation of our best and brightest being sucked out of useful work and into “finance” and other criminal activities. Since Reagan, the country has steadily lost technical and scientific capacity and time, science, and progress wait for no one.

Looking up references for some of the points I wanted to make in this essay, I ran into a collection of alternative Google searches and links such as “STEM graduates are SOOOO arrogant” and “STEM graduates aren’t as smart as they think they are.” [Look at the chart on the left and, if you have the math skills necessary to read it, try to justify that argument.] All pretty funny, since it’s pretty well established that STEM programs are dramatically more difficult and relevant than liberal arts and STEM graduates are consistently more employable. The skills and disipline necessary to get through a typical STEM degree isn’t something you can just “pick up when I need it,” like management, accounting, or philosphy. The difference between the usual party animal degree (anything from Business to Law Enforcement to any of the dozens of programs that do not require mathematics, science, and technology as core to the degree) and a STEM degree is not just a matter of intelligence, but of time and energy committment and competition. The rest of the world is pretty clear on this, along with US immigration policy. Try to immigrate to Canada, Austrailia, Europe, or any other 1st world country with your liberal arts degree as a credential: you might as well argue that your hair color matters. Offer any of those countries your technical expertise as an experienced engineer, scientist, medical doctor, or a mathematician and doors fly open.

Of course, there are “engineers” and there are engineers. When I read or hear about a 20-something electrical or mechanical engineer who can’t find employment in his/her field, my first though is “Make something, dumbass.” The whole point in becoming an engineer is obtaining the background to become inventive, creative, and self-sufficient. Simply getting through a degree program isn’t even a serious first step in a technical life. I know of at least a half-dozen engineers who are not college graduates, even though they have made excellent incomes for a long portion of their lives employeed as “engineers.” I was one, in fact.

The funniest comments on “useless” STEM degrees comes from examples of computer science grads who can’t find work. I worked for a biomed company in the 1990’s and their biggest engineering hiring problem was finding competent software/firmware engineers. I’d just come from a company that had made some pretty large strides in audio communications software, but that company had a secret weapon: only hire programmers who can slow evidence of their accomplishments (The Microsoft Rule.) and don’t worry about their pedigree. That wasn’t an option for the medical devices company because they received some federal corporate welfare based on the “credentials” of their “research” departments. Of course, any software developer with a lick of ability would be off designing software and getting rich long before wasting time acquiring a Masters or PhD in software engineering, which left the credential addicts with slim pickin’s, in the talent territory. As you’d expect, the company’s software was buggy, slow, and insecure and those weaknesses were regularly exposed in the field. (If you think Diebold’s electronic voting machines are easy to hack, you don’t even want to think about how easy it is to blow up a pacemaker or implantable defibrillator.)

None of that changes the point of this rant, however. The goofy inept characters who populate business and liberal arts programs too often gravitate to the head of corporations because nothing measurable ever gets in their way. If you can’t do anything useful, it’s hard to make a mistake anyone will notice. Since crawling to the head of the class, leaving a trail of bodies and betrayal, was so easy for them, how hard can any other activity be?

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Because?

The explaination that I have disliked the most for 99% of my life is, “Because everyone else does it this way.” An adopted (from Bertrand Russell) mantra of my life has been, “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." I absolutely believe that statement: regarding subjects from technology to economics to politics to community/religion. I will always assume that “everyone else” is probably a moron, especially if the thing we’re talking about has any aspect of opinion involved. Often, it turns out that I’m wrong. Sometimes the reason people have done something the same way for a long time is that it is the most efficient, practical, easiest, and even effective way to do that thing. Sometimes I’m right and the reason people have been doing something the same way for a 1,000 years is because they are lazy, superstitious, ignorant, timid/conservative, and/or mentally challenged. With only one life to live and a limited amount of time, energy, and patience with which to live it, I am often uninspired to spend much effort worrying about why things “have always beend one this way.” That is not always (or even often) a strength, it’s just a thing, a personality glitch.

IMG_8123So, when it came time to design an electric guitar (a bass, in my case), I decided to blow off a lot of convention and explore my inner designer. Andf I learned a few things: some useful, some I could have spared myself by going with “conventional wiseom,” and some were outright surprises.

For example, I put a lot of thought and effort into creating the smallest body design possible and still retain “balance.” I started with thicker material than I expected to need and installed a 1/2” cap over the wiring routing holes, creating an instrument from which I expected to carve a lot from the back to create a slight “wrap-around” feel. As the body approached completion and the neck was finished enough to attach, I started fooling with finding the point where the strap pins could be installed to make the instrument hang in a neutral, balanced, position. To my mind, that sounded more comfortable than the body-heavy designs of most guitars.

2017-05-01 Bass (3)I was wrong. It turns out that a slight bias toward body-heavy is more comfortable, at least for my playing position. I tend to play with the instrument high and the neck much higher; probably due to short arms or some such handicapped characteristic.

It also turned out that the sculpting I intended to do was unnecessary. My body design conformed so well that additional wood-removal was pointless. It would, however, have been a good exercise. So, I might build another bass using the same general design but taking the body-shaping further.

I also blew off the trait most of my fellow students had for pickup selection. First, it’s a bass and, second, this instrument is one I built purely for my own enjoyment and playing. I’m not a particularly complicated bass player. I don’t solo, ever. I like being part of the rhythm section, in the background, just filling in the bottom. The pickup on my bass has a fairly simple task: provide as much fundamental as possible with as little noise as possible. I went for a Chinese knockoff of a Gibson humbucker design, primarily because the pickup came with individual coil wiring. When I received the pickup, I tested the two coils and found that one had slightly (10%) higher impedance and resistance. So, I unwrapped the coils and pulled wire off of that coil until it was very close to the other coil. I reassembled the pickup, soaking the winding in wax before retaping it, coated the pickup pocket and wiring channels in magnetic paint, and hooked up the pickup for series and parallel operation with a single DPDT switch. Add a volume control and a jack and that’s all I need; along with a mostly-midpoint pickup position. I never use the bridge pickup, so why install one?

You can see that my body shape is unconventional. It works beautifully, by the way. It is comfortable standing or sitting and the “handle” is a lot more useful than a horn.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

“I Have Heard It with My Own Ears”

One of many reasons the music business is being left to the spoiled children of the 1% is that there is so much non-stop bullshit in the marketing of audio and audio equipment. This month’s Prosound News ProAudio Review, contains one of many hillarious reviews of a grossly overpriced four channel microphone preamplifier with minimal features, maginal function (only 55dB of gain) and more bullshit marketing words that translate to no information whatsoever: “punchy, fat, rich and full of character” for example. “As [Bret] Teegarden himself offers, ‘The biggest feature is, it doesn't have a boat-load of features. Nothing gets in the way of the sound!’"

“Key features of the Magic Pre 4100 include 55 dB of gain, Sifam VU meters, -20 dB pad (complete bypass in off position), and +48v phantom power (decoupling completely from the transformer).” In other words, it couldn’t have been easier to “design” this product because it doesn’t achieve a single difficult engineering task. In the magazine’s sidebar, “Why No Polarity Switch,” Teegarden describes his miraculous capability to hear the distortion introduced by the polarity switch, although he probably doesn’t know how many places that task could be accomplished where the switch would be at a point where the signal voltage is significant and where it’s introduction would only marginally complicate the design. “There are many electronic engineers out there who will debate this idea of switches affecting audio quality, but I have heard it with my own ears. So, they can argue aboput it all they want; they can buyikld the features into their preamps for marketing’s sake. . . “  Blah, blah, blah. This is the high cost of working in a field where money only exists if you inherited it. Rich kids marketing bullshit to other rich kids and, obviously, no one cares enough to verify any aspect of this product’s claims.

Our ears are the blunt tool of senses. I have long since abandoned any hope that anyone over 20 has hearing capabilities and Teegarden has been making pop recordings for “more than 35 years,” according to his own propaganda page. The cool thing about a nutty claim like this one is the only way to verify or debunk Teegarden’s claim would be with an ABX test (which he would surely fail), but he can always claim the tester switching masked the phase switch distortion.

I have one question for everyone who claims golden ear status, “Do use a cellphone or a hard line phone?” If you can tolerate the godawful quality of a cellphone transmission, it’s obvious to me that your demanding criteria for an electric guitar microphone preamp is a poor joke.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Giving Up the Ghost

January 2017

A half-dozen years ago, during a 20-year long argument about practically everything in life, society, and our imaginations a good friend finished her email with “You are a natural born teacher chafing at the unnatural constraints & idiocy of the classroom.” Since, at the time I was seriously considering abandoning my teaching job and blowing off whatever demented thing in my head that makes me want to explore how people think and make decisions and intentionally avoid facing reality.

Oddly, I took what she’d said as sort of a compliment, even though I was convinced that teaching was a frustrating, painful, frustrating exercise in futility. Being in a classroom for 14 weeks was too often a demonstration of non-existence. Especially in the last couple of years, it felt (especially when I graded exams) that I’d been completely invisible. Looking at the experience logically, if I’d been talking about a subject, demonstrating concepts and principles, and supervising experiments about the subject for 14 weeks at at the end of that period of time the things I’d been attempting to teach were tested and many-to-most of the students’ answers were no more informed than if they’d shown up on test day as if it were the first day of class, it logically follows that I was either invisible and inaudible or non-existent altogether.

This week, I discovered this old and dear friend is dying and one of her tumors is causing her memory of our friendship to intermittently fail. So, in the end non-existence is my fate. One of the few people who recognized whatever it was that drove me to try and pass on hard-earned experience and whatever passes for knowledge I’ve aquired over the last 68 years is dying and that puts me one step closer to non-existence.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

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.

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.