Saturday, January 15, 2011

Then and Now

While suffering a 21st Century moderately high-tech DJ/VJ presentation last week, I was reminded of a similar experience from 25 years ago. Friends of my wife did a regular AV show in a small performance area in a restaurant in southern California. This was in the early days of semi-affordable video processing and one of the artists was a laser tech who did work for Disney and lots of rock bands.

For that particular show, these guys wanted to include a blast from AV's psychedelic past along with their high tech gear. So, they brought in an old fashioned overhead projector and my wife added an oil-paint-on-water component to the one large screen where all three visual artists combined their output.

The other aspect of this performance was aural. For that the "musicians" were two electronic music performers and a percussionist. The link between the three musicians was a click/sync signal provided by one of the performer's sequencer-synths that electronically tied the two synth performers together and provided the percussionist with an audible beat. In the mid-80's, SMPTE could have been used to tie it all together but the visual artists chose to make most of their component respond to the audio. The laser artist used a lot of Lissajous figures generated by some or all of the audio. By today's tech standards, this sounds pretty benign but all of the artists were pioneers in computer art technology and they all went on to be a big part of that world in the next 20 years. It was, in retrospect, a big deal. It was, in fact, a a pretty amazing event. Visually and musically it was one of the best live events I've participated in (I provided the sound for the show.).

The point of this article is that, at the end of the night, the audience was overwhelmingly interested in the sounds and sights that came from . . . the percussionist and my wife's oil-on-water work. $300k worth of lasers and $100k in cameras were grossly overshadowed by a 2nd hand public school overhead projector (slightly modified for higher output by the laser guy). A dozen synthesizers and a couple of 1980's Apple computers were put into the background by "that little Indian drum" or an ordinary drum kit. I don't mean mostly, I mean entirely. At the wrap-up party all of the tech artists complained about being relegated to being background for "prehistoric" instruments and a lady who dripped oil colors into a glass pan and swirled them with a stick.

The more recent version of this combination of visual and aural art was missing the percussionist and the old-school hippy artist and it was boring as death. What does that tell you?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How to Tell when You Are too Late to the Party

Recently, the NY Times did an article on law student debt and the lack of jobs in that once profitable field. Who would have thought that the country would ever have too many lawyers. What will John Grisham write about now?

The interesting part of the NY Times article was that law schools are ignoring reality out of the usual profit motive and encouraging gullible students to dive into a quarter million dollars in debt. Regardless of the bleak prospects their students face after college, law schools are promoting a future that doesn't exist because they can get away with it. Berklee College of Music published the results of a survey on ProSound News a while back that stank of the same phony statistics.

It's a tough world out there, especially for the "lost generation" that was sacrificed by the pseudo-conservative movement starting in Reagan's administration and continuing through Bush I and Clinton and really going into overdrive during the Bush II "no child's behind left alone" programs. No only have they had their self-esteem hyped by the K-12 education system's touchy-feely psycho-babble, but they've been dumped into the most vicious economic depression (it's only a "recession" to the 75% who still have jobs) but they're being suckered by a desperate corporate education system that could care less about their future opportunities.

There is a plethora of education money-sinks advertised on late night television. Everything from chef schools to motorcycle mechanic schools to recording and live sound engineering. How does the modern student find a real career among the imaginary prospects? I have to think back to my electrical engineering education in the 1970s for my answer. When I was a young (yes, I was young once), all of my professors were of two types: old or part-time. The old guys were mostly teaching basic electronics, math, and theory classes. They had once been real engineers, many working in power electricity or tube electronics, but were now relegated to education because their skills were obsolete. The younger guys (and none were younger than 40-something) were working engineers who had some weird compulsion to teach the technology they were working with. As a student, you would work your way through the legion of old professors, getting basic concepts and mathematics under your belt, chomping at the bit to take the few classes offered with the adjunct instructors.

I realize now that I under-appreciated the old guys because I couldn't identify with their work history. I over-appreciated the adjunct instructors because they often tried to skip the messy steps to understanding and just talked about the cool stuff they were working on. Their tips-and-tricks were often really useful, but many students weren't even close to ready to design guidelines. While the classes were often fun, they weren't often valuable or useful for the work many of us would be doing. The basic classes taught by the old guys were the core of what many of us (definitely me) would use as engineers all through our careers.

So, with that background, this is my suggestion for picking a career field: If the instructors at your prospective school are young, talented, and in the prime of their careers, run-don't-walk away from formal training in that career path as fast as you can. 

At best and if you really want to do that kind of work, just go do it. You won't need a degree if the best people in the business aren't able to make a good living doing the work. The education system is all about security, not opportunity. Instructor salaries are low. Choosing a career in education instead of the field being taught is an admission that you are either not good enough to work in that field or that the field is economically bereft. If the best people in a field choose to teach a field instead of work in it, you know something is wrong.

What this situation tells us is that the best years of that particular career are in the past; or they never existed, but the glamor attached to that business is still hanging on. Going for that glamor isn't an insane move, unless you attach a few tens of thousands in student loans or a few hundreds of thousands in the case of the law students. The education system is slow, inbred, and self-referential, so it is rarely able to see a trend before the trend is in the dust and the rear view mirror. If you think about the history of popular music, for example, it's obvious how slow academia is. When pop music was in its prime, electric instruments were about as welcome in colleges as venereal diseases. When there were staff recording engineering jobs, there were no programs (outside of the major record labels) to train engineers. The only booming part of the music industry is in the live sound area and that is only life-like in the "house of worship" business. There are substantial differences between live sound for a rock band and sound reinforcement in a modern church. By the time this becomes common knowledge, academia will have waited until the next Enlightenment to get with that program.

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.