Sunday, February 18, 2018

Another Incompetent Conglomerate in Trouble

There is a fair amount of hand-wringing about “Gibson Guitar, maker of the Les Paul, facing bankruptcy after 116 years in business.” “According to the Nashville Post, Gibson’s chief financial officer, Bill Lawrence, left after six months on the job and just as $375 million in senior secured notes mature and $145 million in bank loans become due, if they aren’t refinanced by July. The departure of Lawrence was seen as a bad sign for a company trying to re-organize.”

Sounds dramatic and terrible, right?

Gibson Brands, Inc. is nothing like an American guitar manufacturer, owning a collection of music instrument labels such as Epiphone, Kramer, Maestro, Steinberger, Tobias, Kalamazoo, Dobro, Slingerland, Valley Arts, Baldwin, Chickering, Hamilton, and Wurlitzer. Most of those instruments are made overseas, the majority in China including a good bit of the Gibson product line. Gibson’s big business is consumer electronics and the label either owns or distributes Onkyo and Pioneer, the Philips consumer electronics product line, TEAC/TASCAM, Cerwin Vega, Stanton, KRK Systems, and Cakewalk’s music software through it’s “Gibson Innovations” label. Orville Gibson’s instrument-making business has nothing to do with the mess that Gibson Brands has turned into.

This isn’t a new thing, either. Way back In 1944, another corporate conglomerate, Chicago Musical Instruments (CMI), bought the original guitar-making company. In 1969 CMI was absorbed by one more conglomerate, Panama-based Ecuadorian Company Limited (E.C.L.) which relabeled itself to the more American-sounding Norlin Corporation. After nearly bellying-up during the 80’s recession, some of Norlin’s rich kid-execs bought Gibson and that’s brain-dead trust behind the privately-held corporation that is currently driving the label into the ground; mismanaged by CEO Henry Juszkiewicz and corporate president David H. Berryman. Gibson’s guitar fates have been on the edge of collapse multiple times since the 80’s, so the current panic is just one of a long series. Look for some Chinese conglomerate to be the next owner of the classic “American label.” It’s just part of the plan to “make American great again.”

clip_image001For some reason, this picture is getting a lot of play in the media as the possible collapse of another once-great American label is being discussed. The picture is from the press conference for the Gibson Custom Southern Rock tribute 1959 Les Paul at the Gibson Guitar Factory on 2014. The geezers pictured are Dickey Betts, Charlie Daniels, Gary Rossington, Rickey Medlocke and Jimmy Hall. I think the youngest guy on that stage might be the real Santa Claus. Gibson’s problem clearly has little-to-nothing to do with the general decline in the guitar business, but this picture is a pretty good indicator of the core problem. Guitar is an aging instrument and at the high end that Gibson wants to occupy there is no shortage of higher quality competition and a shriveling quantity of old guys with that kind of money to spend.

Like most of the too-big-to-fail corporate giants in the world, Gibson has a mismanagement problem. The only cure for that has always been bankruptcy, corporate breakup, and a huge refocus by the surviving bits. Don’t get too carried away with calling this a music business problem. This is symptomatic of a far larger American management incompetence problem and rather than addressing that problem the country seems to be doubling-down on the whole idea of putting the dumbest motherfucker at the top and feeding him cake and steaks until he blows up. America’s current business executive model appears to be a bigger-than-life Monty Python skit.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Real Quality Design

When I worked in medical devices, I was regularly struck by the fact that my previous employer, QSC Audio Products, was more concerned with reliability and quality control than either of the two pacemaker/ICD manufacturers" for whom I worked for 10 years after I’d left QSC. I wasn’t shy about expressing that opinion to the people in charge of caring about those two qualities, either. I made that statement to VP’s of Regulatory and Legal and R&D and reliability assurance. I said those words to middle managers, engineers, other reliability engineers and managers, and on occasion to doctors. You’d think that would have terrified, irritated, embarrassed, or pissed-off someone in the grossly over-priced, self-absorbed, and mindlessly corrupt medical industry; but you’d be wrong and disappointed. I don’t think anyone to whom I made that claim even bothered to take it seriously enough to consider the insult and outrage I intended. Usually, the statement just got a laugh. It was, however, a fact and an outrage.

This past evening I repaired an electric bass amp that’s been lying around in my shop for several years. The positive impression I had of the amp’s manufacturer from the availability of service information on their products vanished when I opened the case and saw the probable cause of the amp’s failure before I’d applied a single piece of troubleshooting test equipment: lots of failed solder connections and terrible mechanical design that put almost ever electronic component in either incredible mechanical stress or at the far end of a diving board that would toss the components until they broke or flew off of the circuit board. When I did use some test equipment I discovered the amp’s output and driver transistors were fried on the negative side of the AB1 output and the bias and driver transistors were fried on the positive side. Probably all of that damage was likely caused by the heatsink vibrating all of the output transistor leads free from the circuit board.

clip_image001At QSC, we used an assortment of moderately sophisticated and primitive vibration, shock, and thermal tests that sometimes demonstrated what was mechanically weak in a design in a few minutes. There were very few components that didn’t receive a stress-relief bend (or two). Components with substantial mass received two different securing methods (screws and glue, glue and silicone rubber, or strap and glue). We tested-in over-voltage and power safety margins; sometimes with batch testing and sometimes with individual transistor tests. We had controls that tracked component lots so, if problems arose in production or in use, we knew where those components ended up: product and location. When our customers sent in their postage-paid warranty registration information, we even knew which customers had the products with the problem components. There was a lot of thought, expense, and care that went into making our power amplifiers (all we made back then) the toughest the industry had ever seen. (This really sounds like a commercial, doesn’t it? It isn’t, since I don’t know anything about QSC products produced since about 1993. The last generation of QSC amps I worked on was the EX stuff.)

This bass amp that I just repaired was closer to medical device equipment than QSC’s best stuff from the 1980’s . About half of the weight of the circuit board was supported by the leads of 8 power transistors. The leads were cut straight, which guaranteed that the weak link in that chain would break under vibration conditions. The weak link would always be the solder connections, especially because the circuit board pads were all too small to provide a strong connection. The design abused the strength of several other components and demonstrated a scary lack of mechanical design skills.

I fixed a few of the design’s problems in the repair, but the worst faults are simply too built-in to the design to resolve in a reasonable amount of time. So, it’s back-to-life, but for how long? Some things really aren’t worth repairing let alone improving. The experience reminded me of how lucky I was to have worked for a company that was focused on providing value to its customers and doing the job as well as possible under the constraints of economics and customer expectations. That was a rare opportunity.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

They Were Giants

When I first moved to the Twin Cities, there was a music school called "Music Tech College," mostly known as "Music Tech." I quickly met a few musicians around town, mostly my age or a little younger, and they all complained about what they called "Music Tech bands." It took a bit, but I learned that meant "kids who can read music, play every style from classical to jazz to hard rock and everything between, and who put together bands and shows that make everyone else look amateurish." Music Tech bands really did piss off a lot of the old guard because they raised the bar so high for club jobs.

The instructors in this video are the people who created that monster and made it into something so special that schools around the country copied that model. When Music Tech's owners, jack McNally and Doug Smith, decided to remake the school in their own image, into a traditional music college with liberal arts requirements, "higher education" rules and curriculum, and renamed it after themselves (McNally Smith College of Music) the eye came off of the ball, the mission turned into a marketing slogan, and the value to students rapidly diminished. This video is a great reminder of what that school was once all about.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Life-Changing Music

Looking at the ticket prices for the upcoming James Taylor/Bonnie Raitt concert in St. Paul made me re-evaluate my own concert experiences over the years. At $350-600/per-ticket, I would expect a life-changing experience out of a concert: at least on the level of a week-long vacation trip costing about the same money for two people. Travel has always been life-changing for me; at least 90% of the time in a positive way. Even business travel has been far better than 50% positive, even if the business part sucked (which it often did). So, I started thinking about the life-changing concerts I’ve seen in my 50+ years of music experiences. No, all music performances don't have to be life-changing, but when they cost as much as a month's rent they damn well better be.

Unfortunately, I can’t think of many of my own performances that I’d consider to be positive life-experiences. One of my last gigs, before I quit calling myself a “musician” and quit bands for the rest of my life in 1982 was so disheartening it was another 30 years before I considered playing music even for friends. I’ll have to tell that story another time.

venturesThe first concert that I’d call life-changing was in the early 1960’s when I conned my want into being a stage hand for the original Ventures. I learned a lot from working and seeing that show, including the fact that it’s possible to make a living in music while possessing a wide variety of talent levels: from the simple pop capabilities the Ventures demonstrated to the incomprehensible talents of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. In my first major act show, I also learned that a lousy sound guy could sabotage a good bit of a show just by being lazy and tone deaf.

sam-dave_001My next life-changing concert experience came after several years of Midwestern band touring and a few dozen big name concerts when I lucked into an Stax/Atlantic showcase in Dallas, Texas. The headline act was Sam and Dave, and the intro acts were Otis Redding and Wilson Picket. The PA system was a pair of Shure Vocal Master tower speakers and, probably, a 50 watt 4-channel Vocal Master powered mixer. I’d been in white-boy R&B bands for years before seeing these masters at work. Not only was this performance eye-opening for me because their showmanship and talent was octaves above anything I’d seen to that moment in my life. The sound quality was amazing, with only the vocals going through the “sound system” and the rest of the band balancing their output to stay under the vocals. My wife’s life was changed by experiencing an all-ages audience (close to all black) that was totally into the music, dancing their hearts out, and cooler than any group of people we’d ever experienced before or since.

downloadHundreds of shows in my groups and dozens of major name band concerts later, we saw the Allman Brothers (post-Dwayne and Berry Oakley, with members of Sea Level, a fusion band filling out the band) in a large venue. The intro band, Grinderswitch, was nothing short of awful and brought out the faux-cowboy assholiness of their audience to the point of scariness. When the opening notes of “High Falls” began, the IQ of the audience jumped a solid 50 points. This was the first time I’d heard a large scale sound system that sounded musical; and there haven’t been many such experiences since. I was just beginning to morph from music equipment repair guy to audio equipment engineer and my eyes were opened in multiple directions: mix fidelity and quality, speaker system directionality, musicianship, ensemble performance, showmanship, and song selection and audience mood control. The whole evening was hair-raisingly exciting and I can still hear some of that performance in my head 40 years later.

Pat-Metheny-LiveAnother 5 years of music performances passed before the next life-altering concert experience: the original Pat Metheny Group in a disco-being-turned-into-an-Urban-Cowboy club in Omaha, Nebraska. The club held about 100 people, most of whom were sitting on the floor and my business partner and I and a couple of friends were right in front of the stage, close enough that we thought Dan Gottlieb’s drums were going to slide off of the stage into our laps. Pat came on stage, plugged in, said “We’ve never been here before, so we have a lot of catching up to do.” The band played practically everything from three PMG albums and several of Pat’s songs from albums before PMG: three solid, non-stop hours of amazing music. Pat is the only major performer I’ve seen more than twice and a half-dozen times isn’t even close to enough.

843425848Two decades later, I took my wife, daughter, and future son-in-law to see Steely Dan at Fiddler’s Green in Denver. This was their first tour since they quit the road and got rid of “the band” back in the early 70’s. Roger Nichols was manning FOH and the sound and performance was what I expected; near perfect. It’s hard to call seeing a band I’d loved for most of my life “life changing,” but in some ways it oddly was. First, my daughter and boyfriend didn’t get any of it and left early (bailing out on the most expensive concert tickets I’ve ever bought). That was a wake-up call. Second, I found myself falling in love with those songs almost as if I’d never heard many of them before. Third, I really appreciated my wife’s effort to appreciate music that was not in her ballpark and that she could have been just as easily bored by. We saw SD again, at the Minnesota State Fair a few years ago. It was the same amazing experience, sans Roger Nichols.

Otherwise, it’s obvious from 50+ years of concert going that from here out, when the ticket prices are in the extravagantly idiotic territory I’m going to use the money for travel.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Flashing Backwards

While doing some cabinet making in the shop, I listened to Chicago’s self-produced “documentary” (or promotional video, depending on your perspective) “Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago.” For me, the movie could have stopped about 1/3 way through, when the story got to Terry Kath’s suicide/accidental death/whatever it was. Kath died in 1978 from a self-inflicted “accidental gunshot wound to the head.” Do what you want with that, but I have a hard time imagining accidentally shooting yourself in the head. 

Kath played and sang on Chicago albums from CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) to Chicago VI. Most of the ballsy Chicago vocals were Terry’s, from “I’m A Man” to “Make Me Smile” to “Color My World” to “Now That You’ve Gone.” The other male vocals were Peter Lamm. After Chicago VI, the band went for whiny tenor almost-male vocals and I mostly forgot about them from 1974 on. It’s possible that Chicago did something I liked post-Kath, but I can’t think of what it would be.

In 1970, I was a married trade school dropout with a first kid on the way. I was offered a job in Hereford, Texas with an agricultural equipment company. When my wife and I drove to Texas for my interview, we passed through Amarillo at the moment a local AM radio station decided to play The James Gang’s “Funk 49.” That song allowed us to fool ourselves into imaginging that Amarillo and west Texas were at least as hip as western Kansas. It wasn’t. West Texas was and is as backwards as Alabama; and that might be insulting Alabama. I’ve written about my R&R screwup in “The Last Wagon Wheel Gig.” I haven’t written about what drove me to trying out country music during that miserable period of my history. This is that story.

After we settled into our new home and I got moderately comfortable in my new job, I started looking for a band to join. From the local music store, I quickly learned that there were only three options for a pop musician in Hereford, Texas: C&W, high school kid rock banks, and two horn bands mostly populated by college players from West Texas A&M in nearby Canyon. The kid rock bands didn’t play for money and the horn bands pretty much only worked the college circuit from Amarillo to Canyon to Lubbock and back. The good news was that the horn bands made some money, intermittently. Not much, though, since the cash was shared equally among seven to nine players and a management company out of Oklahoma City.

My last rock band was a fairly successful power trio in the Cream/ Led Zeppelin vein. To be honest, I thought I was a pretty hot guitar player. I could reasonably accurately reproduce Clapton, Page, and everyone British except for a few Jeff Beck solos, I’d been picked (by local musicians) for local All Star bands (on bass) for several years running. Before that, I’d played in a couple of bands that were considered R&B bands, doing Motown and Muscle Shoals hits without a horn section. I played bass with those groups, too. With a recommendation from the music store guy, I got a tryout with both of the horn bands as a guitar player. They both already had excellent bass players.

To make a short story honestly short, I got my ass handed to me during both tryouts. Songs like The Ides of March’s “Vehicle” were right up my alley, but both of those groups were keyed in on Chicago before I knew much about the band. “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is” got a little radio play, but not enough for me to recognize how great a song it was. The first audition started off with the band leader putting the Chicago Transit Authority record’s charts in front of me. With about a minute to study it, he counted off the tempo and away they went with the intention of doing the whole record straight through. By the time they got to “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” (the 2nd cut on the record), it was obvious I was out of my league. I thanked them for their time and slithered away with my tail between my legs. The 2nd band tryout didn’t get past introductions when they realized I didn’t read music and would need to hear the songs they wanted to play, practice them until I mastered the changes and solo, and come back a few weeks later ready to audition. Again, slithering away.

Several years later, when I was working with the Sum Fun Band in California, I learned that horn players often have an unfair advantage: they are committed musicians rather than guitar hero wannabes. They have been playing their instrument, often, for most of their lives; practically all the way through K-12, college, and adulthood. They read, they know theory and composition, and have been playing in a variety of performance settings from jazz clubs to college marching bands at the Rose Bowl. Using the horn player musicianship standard, most guitarists are as close to being a musician as donkeys are to being unicorns. It’s freakin’ scary how many hours a horn player has practiced by age 20.

Some time passed and Chicago came to Amarillo. I got tickets, partially because the James Gang was the headline band (or the opener, I don’t remember which). My wife was either pregnant or tending to our first daughter, but she was definitely not interested in either band. Probably, especially Chicago because, to this day, she isn’t a fan of horns or B3 organs. So, I was there on my own, which meant I found a spot near the stage where I could closely watch Kath with Chicago and Walsh with James Gang.

All I remember about Joe Walsh was that he was incredibly drunk and had roadies pretty much propping him up against amps or stage gear. His guitar playing was nothing interesting.

Terry Kath, however, ruined my day by demonstrating how much better he was than guitar playing I’d seen to that moment and any chance I ever had of getting into his league. There were guitarists of practically all sorts and Terry Kath was so far into extreme territory that he seemed like he was floating by himself. I couldn’t guess where he was going anytime during Chicago’s performance. I can count on the fingers of my hands how many times a guitar player has left me so damaged, confused, and demoralized.

Somewhere between the Wagon Wheel Gig and seeing Chicago and Terry Kath, I decided I wasn’t going to put much hope into my music career and I began to concentrate on my electronics career. I started a music equipment repair business and sold my electric guitar and amp. At the time, I thought I was through with bands and music. That sabatical lasted two years, when I changed employers and we moved to central Nebraska. In Nebraska, I hired a kid who turned out to be a drummer. He introduced me to what he was listening to in 1974 and we started a band together. And so it goes. A few years later, I was in eastern Nebraska, met another kid, started another band, canned the band and started a sound company and recording studio. The kid tired of music and we closed the sound company and recording studio. I moved to Omaha where I started another studio with another kid and we wrote and played jingles and made some money. He moved to Washington and I moved to California. And so my quitting and returning to music looped a few more times until I ended up retiring in 2013.

Though it all, that evening watching Terry Kath play has stuck with me for almost 50 years. When I watched the Chicago documentary, it brought back some of the feeling of heartbreak and disappointment I felt in 1978 when I heard Terry Kath had died. Chicago was something amazing with him and something non-descript without. I still imagine myself competent enough to play with a horn band, I just don’t have the energy or time to get there from here.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Musicians and Hobbyists

After a musical episode this past week, I once again got to thinking about the many musical differences between live music and recording studio work. I’ve written before about the concept of “serving the music” being too often the polar opposite of the intent of live music. I don’t often subject myself to a lot of hobby pop musicians and their weirdness and insecurities, but it happened twice this past week and I’m still stepping back from the experience; partially out of disappointment and partially to save my hearing.

It’s not a youth-oriented thing, either. A few weeks ago, I volunteered to be part of a setup band for a local open mic. We formed a temporary group of three: keys/guitar, bass, and drums with about 30 years of space between the oldest (me) and youngest member of the group. We rehearsed twice in the drummer’s living room. We didn’t bother with microphones and we, me and the keys/guitarist, calibrated our volume to the drummer’s acoustic output and we heard each other fine and I enjoyed every moment of practice with that group. Let’s call the keys/guitarist “Travis,” mostly because that’s his name. Travis has a strong voice, but he’s no screamer. I’m usually pretty quiet, vocally. There was absolutely no moment in 4-5 hours of playing together that made me wish for a PA system in that living room. For a few hours, I almost felt like a musician and sort of wished for a performance venue where we could play just like this.

bass_commandmentsIn contrast, this week in the same space there were four of us: all old guys. Guitar, harp, bass, and drums grouped around the drum kit in maybe 120 square feet of fairly live space. Before the guitarist fired up his trendy, over-priced, “hand-wired” boutique faux-Fender Deluxe, the harmonica player and drummer warmed up a bit and I had a brief moment of imagining “déjà vu all over again.”

As soon as the guitarist plugged in, that wet dream dried out fast. Like so many hobby guitarists, his “sound” required far too much output for the room. Obviously, the usual Fender-copy tube topology produces a fairly boring sound at anything less than ear-shattering volume, so ear-shattering it was. I needed a lot longer cord for my bass, or a wireless system that would let me pull back 50’ or so. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the loud guitarist was also rhythm-deprived. Unhappily, the drummer tried hard to “follow” the guitar, since the guitar wasn’t following anything tempo-related and that makes for a miserable experience for me, the bass player. Topping it all off was an evening of Beatles and Grateful Dead nostalgia.

After almost 55 years of being around musicians, you’d think I’d have grown either more tolerant, or at least less disgusted, when the point of playing instruments is not to make music together. You can’t imagine how much I wish that were true. After all those years, the point of playing with other people, for me, is still to make music. I didn’t pick up a guitar or bass to meet girls, to express my inner teenage rage, to become rich and famous, or to play power games. Unlike Jimmy Page who loved the power of being the guy who could make 50,000 people go deaf with a twitch of his hand, I just wanted to make a poor approximation of the incredible sounds I heard on records from Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Mann, Cannonball Adderley, and the rest of my jazz heroes. By the time I was 18 or so, it was clear to me that I didn’t have the will power to persevere to their level of musicianship, but that didn’t mean I had to sound awful. It still doesn’t.

The difference between what I’ll call “a hobbyist” and “a musician” is that hobbyists don’t care about the sum of the parts in a musical performance. Their only focus is “how do I sound?” I realize that means a lot of “professionals” (a person engaged in a specified activity as one's main paid occupation rather than as a pastime) are glorified hobbyists. During the 70’s, as stage monitors allowed everyone on a stage to become the main act with everyone else playing a supporting part to “me,” pop musicians became less interested in the product of the parts and far too interested in their own contribution. Today, we’re saturated with performances that are contaminated by the acoustic mess the front of house tech is stuck wrestling with from stage monitors far too loud for the venue. This is all about ego, not music. It’s not only not musical, it’s anti-music. “Playing music” in a group requires listening to the other players. If all you can hear is you, you should at least have the decency to be a solo act. That will also provide you with the real information as to what your audience will be when you have it your way.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Life with A Test Tone

This coming Wednesday,it will be three weeks since I wreaked my hearing (“Fragile Shadetree-Engineered Mess”). Since then, 4 hours is a good night’s sleep. I have to be exhausted to get that. The 8kHz tone that has been the subtext to my life since the mid-1990’s is so far in the background to the new 6.76kHz (Ab, 8 octaves up from middle C) blast I can barely remember the irritation it used to cause me. It’s there, but more as an harmonic than a second sound.

The 6.76kHz tone is always the loudest thing in any environment I experience now. We went to the Cities yesterday. Our pickup is far from a quiet vehicle, but the 6.76kHz tone was louder than the radio playing NPR variety and game shows in the vehicle. I have to work to ignore it in that environment. Ignoring it at 3AM is impossible. Life with a constant and always dominant, very high Ab is not going to be easy or pleasant. It may not be possible. Living on 3-4 sleep is, at best, not recommended.

At three weeks, I’m ready to try anything. I spent a few hours tonight researching clinical trials. By the time the Republicans are finished with Medicare, I suspect my “insurance” won’t cover ear plugs, let alone actual research or clinical trials. I’d done a lot of research for my MSCM acoustics classes on tinnitus. Since my recent noise exposure, I’ve done a lot more. So far, every area of research seems to have come to a deadend. I wish I could convince myself there is either a cure or hope for one in my lifetime, but every thing I find points hopelessly to silly crap like “mindfullness.” The idea that I will never again experience a quiet moment is beyond depressing.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

What Do You Buy?

Earlier this summer, I hauled myself off to a self-funded writing retreat in Thunder Bay, ON, Canada. I gave myself a week to restart old writing habits with the hope of knocking out at least 1,000 words a day and editing 50 pages of any of 3-4 books I’ve had in the works for the last couple of decades. The good news is that those goals were really easily met. The bad news is that I have apparently lost interest in my own words. I came home a couple of days early, slightly discouraged but oddly relieved. After a lifetime of telling myself “you should write books if you want to call yourself a writer,” I am done with that mission.

Part of my disillusionment with the craft and discipline of writing is personal and part is financial. In the last couple of years, I’ve been paring down the things I do to see if there is any passion left in me at 70-years of age. I have been working for money, billing customers and putting in “day job” hours, for 55-plus years. With that motivation removed, it’s hard to remember what I like to do because I’ve spent 90% of my life doing what needed to be done to turn a buck. Even with that background, if I believe that nobody will value my work with a few dollars investment I can’t convince myself the work is worth doing.

Looking at my own unwillingness to part with money for the art I’ve spent much of my life creating—fiction and non-fiction, music, audio electronics—I have to suspect most other consumers feel the same. For example, for 50 years I’ve hauled a fairly substantial library with me from one end of the country to the middle and back, several times. When we moved to Red Wing, 90% of that library was either sold or donated. Practically, the only books I’ve kept have been autographed copies of work that had special meaning to me. A friend owns a used book store and is always trying to convince me to buy something. I just don’t feel the need. My local library has access to anything I want to explore, digitally or on paper, and after I’m done reading a book I’m generally done with it. If I want to read it again, I’ll ask the library to find it for me. My preference is eBooks and I don’t even keep the few eBooks I buy.

IMG_8864[1]The same goes for music. While I have a fairly substantial CD collection, I gave away almost half of what I once owned along with the books. Worse, I almost never listen to the CDs I own, so their position in our home is precarious. I’m mostly happy with Pandora and ripping my CD collection to MP3’s that I listen to while I work in the basement or garage. I’m even happy with that sound source from my ancient SanDisk MP3 player and in-ear monitors when I’m bicycling or walking for exercise. Blasphemy, right? When I want to really explore something new, I order it from my library, listen to it, and give it back. I am totally uninvested in modern music, although I like a lot of it. I just don’t care enough to make it part of my life.

I have never had much of a video collection, but today we might be able to count a dozen movies we still own. Most of those were review copies and a couple are, like our books, signed by the artists involved. Again, I can get all of the movies I want to see through our library.

My wife is a visual artist; a painter and sculptor. We have a house full of her artwork. She is no longer particularly interested in selling her work and while we enjoy the work of many artists, neither of us is interested in acquiring more art for our home. We often prowl art galleries and festivals, but rarely buy anything other than food.

I barely remember the impulse to subsidize artists I respect and enjoy, because the impulse to manage our limited and non-renewable resources rules out that sort of philanthropy. In many ways, “we’ve done enough” comforts us when a twinge of guilt rears its head. So, our lives as consumers of the work that we do ourselves have withered down to the vanishing point. I have to wonder if that is common. If not, why not?

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Fragile Shadetree-Engineered Mess

img1017For much of my life, I’ve said that the human hearing mechanism is evidence that if god is an engineer, he’s one lousy manufacturing engineer. Our ears are one cobbled-together mess of mechanical, hydraulic, electrical, and chemical parts. The two smallest, most delicate bones in our body are the coupling between the outer and inner ear drums. They can be dislodged by the impact of a simple fall at any point in your life. The outer ear drum is plagued with all sorts of infection and perforation opportunities.

Practically all of the information we define as “sound” is made up of complex collections of audio (20Hz to 20kHz, is generally described as the human hearing frequency response) frequencies. There are root, or fundamental, tones and their associated harmonic frequencies; which we often define as “musical signals.” There are noise signals, which often have non-harmonically related frequency content along with more identifiable harmonic content.

6-damaged earThe most delicate of all the components are the cilia, the “hairs,” that line the cochlear. Those tiny hair cells are the devices our hearing uses to convert air waves into specific audio signals to be decoded in our brain. Those tiny sterocilia are the devices required to convert air motion (sound) into electrical signals sent to our brains. Different areas of the cochlea are responsible for different frequency ranges and each of those areas are made up of a collection of rows of cilia which are responsible for very specific frequencies.

cochlearOne of the most typical symptoms of damaged cilia is “tinnitus”: the perception of noise or ringing in the ear. Sometimes, tinnitus means you have done temporary damage, but often it means you have done permanent damage to a specific area of your cochlea. You may have lost the ability to hear the frequencies you are being cursed with “hearing” all of the time. Because those missing or damaged cilia are no longer sending the appropriate auditory nerve signals to your brain and your brain is “cranking up the gain” in an attempt to compensate for the reduced output. In electronic systems, when amplifier gain is increased beyond the point of stability, oscillation occurs: ie. the perception of noise or ringing in the ear.

Unfortunately for us, nothing in nature prepared our hearing mechanism for the abuse we would be subjecting it to in modern life. Outside of landslides, earthquakes, hurricanes and tornados there is nothing in nature as loud as the kind of crap we subject ourselves to every day with vehicles and traffic (loud pipes destroy lives), industrial noise, and modern music from the usual sources: speakers and headphones. The 120dBSPL+ levels we are regularly subjected to is far more than enough to cause permanent damage to practically every fragile area of our hearing mechanism, particularly the cilia.

Twenty years ago, I had reconstructive nasal surgery in an attempt to fix the damage of being my father’s failed student’s punching bag from when I was about 12 until around 17 when I made the decision to make every fight I was forced to participate in into a fight to the death or dismemberment. By then, my nose had been broken so many times, air could not pass through the left side at all and barely squeezed through a convoluted slit in the right side. The surgery was more complicated than the surgeon anticipated and probably needed a second pass. However, about a week after the surgery, a sneeze caused the right side to hemorrhage and I woke up pouring blood from my nose. I went to an emergency room, where a doctor inserted a 4” long piece of stiff absorptive gauze into my nose. Later, my surgeon replaced that with an inflatable device that forced the blood flow into my sinus cavity and nearly burst my ear drum. After a day of intense pain, I deflated the device and decided I’d rather bleed to death than have my hearing destroyed. In the end, I was stuck with an 8kHz ring, tinnitus, in my right ear. Over the years, that noise slowly reduced in volume, but it has been close to intolerable often.

Last night, at a local bar’s open mic, I slipped up and went unprotected, no hearing protection. I sat in the stupidest possible place in that bar, near the FOH speakers, and possibly did permanent damage to my hearing. When I got home, the volume of the tinnitus was the worst I’ve ever experienced in twenty years. I woke up at 4AM the next morning with approximately the same volume of noise. I am desperately hoping that I did temporary damage and it might go away with time. Tinnitus is intolerable for someone who has spent his whole life primarily driven and directed by hearing, sound, and music. I’ve put up with that damn background 8kHz for 20 years. This is not a background noise. It is front-and-center the loudest thing in any room I am in. If you want to know why I am such an opponent of pointless amplification, get into my head for a few hours and you’ll be ready to shoot anyone who fools with a volume control.

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.