Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Perfect Application

Incredibly, someone found a practical use for one of these things. She asks, "Tell me dad, how are you managing with the new iPad we gave you for your birthday?:

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Another Current Show: Chastity Brown

November 25, MPR/The Current and Dave Campbell ran another of the school's Soundbite shows, this time with the incredibly talented Chastity Brown and her band. The student who recorded and mixed this show, Joe Kimple, did an outstanding job and David gave him well-deserved credit for the work. It starts at about 19 minutes (weirdly, right after Funkytown):

The story of the whole show can be seen here and heard here:

Making Music from Scratch

While American music school students whine about not having the right pitch-correction plug-in, a non-vintage Mexican-made Strat, or having to suffer with the indignity of small audiences, these students are creating music and community with "recycled instruments" (instruments made from landfill trash):

On the technology side, give a kid a computer and you might end up with something either surprising or terrifying: "We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes! Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs [in English] in the village. And within five months, they had hacked Android. Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera! And they figured out it had a camera, and they hacked Android."

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Another Current Show: Zebulon Pike

This one could have gone better. The session was pretty convoluted, my MSCM student bailed at the beginning of the show and only sort of made it back for the wrap-up. The mix delivery was scheduled for Wednesday, 13 days from the night of the show. Wednesday afternoon, I received an email from MPR asking if the mix was going to show up on time for the show planning.Because nothing else had gone right that evening (including Pro Tools crashing once before the show and twice during the interview), I'd made a check mix for a backup. The check mix is what MPR aired and is on the attached link.

On the plus side, Zebulon Pike put on a good show and Dave's interview was his usual outstanding work. I haven't had this much trouble doing one of these Soundbite Shows since we started the series. Hopefully, the next one will be easier.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Another Current Show: P.O.S.

P.O.S. had just escaped from the hospital, after having an insulin delivery system implanted while he was on the waiting list for a kidney transplant. Tracks from the show can be found at 16 and 101 minutes. The local media (the Trib, City Pages, and others) all indicated that P.O.S. delivered an abbreviated show, cutting it short to head back to the hospital. That was untrue. P.O.S. played a solid hour show, stuck around for another hour for the interview with Dave Campbell, and even helped a bit with the load-out. The man is a professional and truly deserves the title of Prince of Punk Rap. Listen to the interview, he's a classic revolutionary.

Joe Kimple's mix of the P.O.S. show is what aired on the Local Show and is on the link below. My grandson, Wolfgang's, edit of the interview is included in the segment.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Dodge City and R&R History

If you passed through Dodge City, Kansas any time in the last 30 years, you wouldn't think the place spawned anything more interesting than ammonia, methane, and rednecks. It's a pretty dismal place in the 21st Century and has been that since the early 1970's. However, it wasn't always a dying town in the middle of the Great American Desert.

In the 1960's, Dodge City was home to Dodge Music, owned by the same people who ran Hays Music from Hays, Kansas. At one time, during the mid-60's, Fort Hays State University was the Playboy "Party School of the Year," two years running. The place was jammed with musicians and bands and some of that spilled over to the Dodge city store. Dodge Music was the first place I ever saw Gibson, Fender, Ovation, Gretch, Guild, and Martin guitars hanging on the same wall. A few years later, I was in Hays and saw about five times that many guitars on a wall, but I was a jaded Kansas Rock and Roll'er by then.

The garage in the middle of the building was the spot where the stage for the Dodge Music Battle of the Band would sit. At the end of every year's weekend "battle," the bands would select the members of an "All Star Band" made up of the folks the bands thought were the best players at each instrument: drums, bass, guitar, keys, horn/reed, and vocal. I was once on that stage and it put me in contact with two of the guys who would become the short-lived, but excellent Living Stereo Quintet.

I was reminded of all this when I stumbled on a few pictures I'd taken in my home town more than a decade ago. The Dodge Music building had been abandoned for years at that time. I don't know if it's standing today. Not much about Dodge City is musical, in any form, these days. Like most of Kansas, the place has fallen on hard, pseudo-conservative times and if anything creative dared to rear its head in the place, it would be cut off in moments. There is a reason that the Midwest has suffered a brain and population-drain in the last 100 years and will continue to do so until the state's IQ is so low that the residents forget how to feed themselves.

Not far from that music store's location was a place most locals barely knew existed, Evans Drums. In fact, Evans was at the other end of the same block, if I remember right.According to the current Evans Drumheads website, in 1956 Marion "Chick" Evans was the man (maybe the first) who fitted Mylar film to a snare drum; later to the whole drum kit. Not being a drummer, I don't know nearly enough about the history of this man and his business. His company was successful and active all through my years in Dodge, but I missed it. Evans sold the company to Bob Beals, when the inventor retired. Beals sold the company to  D'Addario and Co. in 1995 and that company moved production to Farmingdale, NY. I don't blame them.

The dreaded front entrance to Century 
Recording Studio. Some musicians claimed
the climb to the studio was "at least three stories"
of hellish stairs. It wasn't, but it was a climb with
a B3 to tote. I dreaded this entrance because I
was tossed out this door too often to count.
Another famous (to audio professionals) ex-Dodge City musical figure is Larry Blakely. Larry owned, managed, and engineered Century Recording Studio in downtown Dodge. Century Recording was the only game in town and, practically, in the state for the years Larry ran the studio. The place cranked out a boatload of regional and a few national hits and most of the bands in the area (and the area included Oklahoma City to St. Louis to Omaha to Denver) wanted to record with Larry. In my usual clueless fashion, I never knew why Larry left town, but I suspect I do now. It just seemed to me that one minute Century was the place to be, the next it was gone. In fact, I think that's exactly what happened.

Larry tossed me out of his building too many times to recall, when I was a wannabe musician/engineering kid between the ages of 14 and 16. I tried hiding in every stairway and cranny and behind every large piece of equipment in the studio, the nights when bands played gigs in the performance area the day before their recording sessions with Century. I thought I was clever, Larry thought I was an idiot. He was right.

Not long after his personal catastrophic moment in Dodge, he moved to LA and became a big time engineer. In 1983, we ran into each other while suffering Xmas in Dodge, struck up an adult friendship, and a few months later he got me a job with QSC Audio Products. Larry didn't do much for my recording or musical career, but he was key to my engineering career and I owe him a lot.

The building that used to house the
worst bar in Kansas, 
the Hillcrest Inn
(or Hillcrest Tavern, 
depending on the
The last "famous" place I took pictures of was the decaying hulk of the old Hillcrest Tavern on the northeast end of Dodge. This place was "famous" only in that it was infamously the meanest bar I ever set foot in. A night that didn't end with a riot at the Hillcrest was a night the place wasn't open for business. Dodge City high school kids and St. Mary of the Plains College boys (mostly guys from the East who thought they were tough) went to the Hillcrest to burn off testosterone and donate blood to the sawdust covered floor. Good times.

I got the nickname "Panda" from my days at the Hillcrest. A friend, Mike Morlan, and I used to find a wall to prop ourselves against, get a couple of fists full of beer, lean our bar stools against the wall, and watch and wait. Sometimes, we'd make it through the night without a scratch. Sometimes, we'd be in the middle of whatever riot was going on. Either way, we were doing what we could to get back to our wall and back to drinking beer and watching the morons beat each other to death. Someone said, "You guys are like a pair of bears, hiding in a cave ready to tear a new asshole into whoever comes into your lair." I became "Panda." I don't know why. Mike was "Grizzly." He earned that name. Mike died in 1996, after a rough career as a lawyer and dubious career as an investment adviser.

If the Blues Brothers had played the
Hillcrest, they'd have had their asses
handed to them.  Chicago wimps. 
The Hillcrest actually paid bands pretty well and in later years put up a screen between the band and the crowd. I think it was to protect one from the other. The world got a look at that environment in the cowboy bar scene in the first Blues Brothers. The drummer for the band Ten O'Clock News got the job because he could snap a drum stick with a rim shot and throw the busted stick like a knife through the screen and into anyone who threatened to claw through the chicken wire. Several of my fondest musical moments in Dodge are tied to some jackass drunk howling in pain as he stumbled away from the Hillcrest stage with a gory wound and a drum stick poking out of his body.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Is It Music?

In an article titled "In 5 to 10 years' time, computers might catch up with traditional technologies. Might." in David Mellor's website, Mellor described giving up on his iPad because after trying the device for a collection of tasks and discovering it was a poor tool for reading, writing, and anything else he had hoped it would be good at. His realization from that was, "Perhaps the iPad isn't actually all that cutting edge. Perhaps even fully-fledged computers are not as cutting edge as we seem to think they are."

He goes on to a variety of comparisons of musical devices and applications that might not be as wonderful in their computer form as many have claimed. The main gist of the article was a comparison of the visual resolution of a magazine (SOS, in this case) and what it takes to get to that resolution on a computer screen. He pisses off a few readers and they replied with comments like "But try also making music with that magazine. That iPad has some very interesting apps for making music in novel ways. That magazine is limited to one function, albeit it does that one thing very good."

I thought about this for a bit and realized that I've been making this same argument for decades. So, my reply was:

I'm always entertained by the claim that users are "making music" on their iPads. If grouping stolen musical loops and repeating thumping and squeeking noises is "making music" and your standards for "music" are low enough that factory sounds fit the bill, I guess the claim has some weight. At best, this noise is as musical as the stuff that comes out of grade school music classes. Until I see someone actually play an iPad like a musical instrument with some skill and creativity beyond that required to play Guitar Hero, I'm reserving my definition of "musical instrument' to actual instruments, of which synthesizers barely qualify because of their user-hostile interfaces beyond the piano keyboard. 

This is a concept with which I've had some sympathy for decades. We're hard pressed to find examples of better-made records from the digital era than from the multi-track tape years. It's not that hard to find examples of music with equal or greater emotional impact from the direct-to-disk or mono era. Digital tools are not ergonomic, on the average. They are in their infancy and may remain there forever because technology keeps marching-on from one gimmicky menu or knob-and-button format to the next without consideration of musician convenience or play-ability. As humans, we might not survive long enough to see computers as successful musical instruments. It took centuries for what we currently recognize as musical instruments to mature.

Not that long ago, I attended a seminar where an expert from Ableton Live! demonstrated the "music-making" capability of that program. I was incredibly unimpressed. The technology demonstrated wasn't the unimpressive part of the demo, the music was. "Fucking mindlessly boring" would be a compliment to the silly noises the demonstrator produced. There is a crowd of folks who imagine "dj music" is actual music, but they have grown up on repetitive video game noise and their tastes are childish, at best. These things are toys, not musical instruments, and the music reflects that lack of seriousness. The big difference between a Linus Peanuts piano or a Mickey Mouse wind-up guitar and an iPad is the price tag. The musical value is about the same. So, this isn't a generational complaint, it's more of a response to the effective marketing these toys have received.

After decades of waiting for synthesizers to become user-friendly and creativity enhancing, I've given up on the whole idea. The best we've seen from the hardware manufacturers has been cumbersome button-and-menu driven combinations that cater to "computer-users' and not to musicians. I have seen a half-dozen technically-inclined and musically capable kids (and one or three instructors) unsuccessfully fumbling over a synthesizer's menu and connector options, trying to figure out how to get the damn sustain petal to work properly. Imagine how tough it is to get an actual musical note if the pedal operation is that complicated.

Couple that hassle with the fact that hardly anyone has found a creative thing to do with a synth since Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein" or ELP's "Lucky Man" and I'm pretty convinced that I won't live to see a computer musical interface that is well thought-out. The engineering motivations are all wrong. Consumers want the next thing, not a thing that works well.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Another Current Show: Heiruspecs

Another of the great series from the McNally Smith Soundbite Cafe and my location recording students (this one was mixed by Joe Kokal), Heiruspecs (the Soundbite show starts at about  18:45 minutes into the program: 
We had another experience with the Heiruspecs folks just before we left Little Canada in 2015. A friend, Andrew Melby, from one of my motorcycle classes a few years back, sent out a note asking for an "abandoned house" to film in for a Heiruspecs music video. We'd just moved our stuff into our new home in Red Wing and the Little Canada house was empty when we weren't doing open houses. Twinky Jiggles/Shawn McPherson and I taught at McNally Smith at the same time, so I alread knew 1/5 of the band. We met the rest of the band during the weekend the video was filmed.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

So Much Crazy, So Much Money, So Little Common Sense

I've kept the Mapleshade catalog in my junk mail pile for almost a year. I can't throw it away because it is such a perfect example of how nutty audiophiles can get. Statements like "Floor-mounting your amp on maple gives optimum performance. This approach sounds better than rack-mounting (even slightly better than on our SAMSON) because your amp won’t be sharing vibrations with other gear" are so full of insanity that it's hard to copy-and-paste it without throwing up a little in my mouth. 

You absolutely need to order this catalog to get the whole experience. Products like the maple-housed USB-to-S/PDIF connector are incomprehensible from an engineering perspective, but statements like "Our Amish woodworkers assemble a beautifully crafted (and ultra-low dielectric absorption) maple enclosure directly to the circuit board, thereby greatly stiffening the board while creating an ample sink for draining internal board vibrations. This maple enclosure avoids the sound-muddying effects of high dielectric absorption of the usual plastic enclosures-or, alternatively, the energy-robbing eddy currents that plague any metal enclosures (eddy currents are inevitably induced in any conductive wire or plate near signal circuitry)" explain it all. Really!

Now that I've bookmarked this nutty company in my blog, I can finally throw away the catalog. However, I will always miss the picture of a Mapleshade "recording session" in the back of the catalog. This photo will have to work as a substitute, because I can't stand looking at this book for one more minute.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Mystery Palace at McNally Smith

I can't believe this band slipped by me. Mystery Palace is a local act that had some success in the last decade. I wish I'd have been paying attention, then. This is yet another recording engineered by my Location Recording Class (the MSCM portion of the show starts at about 85 minutes):

Another Current Show: Motion City Soundtrack

One more MN local band that I didn't catch when they were hot. MCS created one of my all time favorite music videos:
This was a great show, Motion City Soundtrack, mixed by Rob Frost III (the MSCM show starts at about 82 minutes):

Cool Stuff from McNally Smith and The Current: The Honey Dogs

One of my favorite classes at McNally Smith is the Location Recording class. Some semesters it's a bigger pleasure than others, but it's always a good class because it's one of the few I have that has upper level students (mostly, I'm an "Intro to" lab instructor) who know what they are doing and who care about what they are doing. This past year we picked up a new responsibility: recording a 2 hour show in the school's cafe and turning it into a 15-20 minute radio show.

About 80 minutes into the Local Show, Dave runs a show segment by the Honeydogs that is mixed by one of my students. This one was done by Jordan Goldberger.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Gotta Have It

Tonight, the local AES chapter presented Ableton certified trainer Thomas Faulds and Ableton Live 8. Like the fool that I am, I volunteered to be his foil to compare with other pieces of software (Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Sonar, Cubase, Audition, etc).

Honestly, I can't think of a reason in the world why I would use Ableton Live. If "beats" are your kind of music, it's a great tool. I can't help but feel the difference between a beat programmer and a kid playing Guitar Hero is too fine a distance for me to measure. It's fun, but it's not playing music. For that matter, it's only fun for a little while.

After the presentation, Mr. Faulds and I got into a discussion about what's happening in professional audio software. He argued that the newest version of Pro Tools (v10) represented a microscopic advance in technology. I suggested that the most significant improvements v10 offered might be ignored by the less-than-astute customer base the industry is creating. By the industry, I mean all of the schools teaching "audio engineering," the long list of drivel genres the Grammies and the Recording Academy recognizes, what's left of the music business, and the largely deaf generation of kids who grew up with 125dBSPL of deafening earbud noise glued to their heads. 65-bit buses and 32-bit internal audio handling is pretty pointless to a 128kbs MPG customer base. We agreed to disagree.

I mentioned that there was a vanishing reason to "upgrade" to the latest version of any software because of the minimal advantages or tools to be gained for the substantial investment required. Faulds disagreed, saying that Apple will force the upgrade issue, regardless of utility or need. When I questioned how they would manage that, he said "If you don't upgrade, you won't be able to keep up with plugins and OS changes."

"That's the point. If what I have now does the job, I don't need new tools. Nothing Lion, for example, does improves on what I can do with my Mac and Snow Leopard. Pro Tools 10 currently includes machines that run 10.6.8, but the first "fix" from Avid might blow off older generation Macs that won't run 10.7. With that threat in mind, I don't feel the need to leave PT9."

Faulds continued to argue that I'd, eventually, have to upgrade to stay "current," but I ended that circular line of debate by saying, "That's true for these kids, but I'm 64. I won't live long enough to worry about any other generations of software."

There is more to it than that, though. 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. The latest, greatest thing is a microscopic improvement on the original thing and having that tool won't make great music. Unfortunately, Faulds demonstrated some of that concept by showing all of the cool things Ableton Live can do without producing thirty seconds of interesting music in a two hour presentation.

The "leap" Ableton and similar software made between MIDI sequencing and loop programming is less about music and more about allowing people to play at music without having to learn how to play music. I can't help but think that is more of  a sad development than a great programming achievement. The leap made by current DAW generations is almost raising the digital bar to the last generation of analog gear. Convenience is what allowed digital recording to obsolete analog and convenience is being overrun by constant "upgrades" to software, operating systems, and interfaces.

The fact is, many people are doing excellent work on Mac G3's and 4's, using all sorts of "obsolete" software and hardware. Another fact is, in spite of Apple's constant rearranging of the deck chairs on their computer Titanic, you can always find an old G3 or G4 in great condition for less than $125. You can find G5's for about that kind of money, too. Even the early Intel Macs are barely worth $250 loaded with memory, video cards, and, even, outdated Digi interfaces don't raise the price tag much. The chances are that someone committed to staying with an old version of everything can keep doing work well into the middle of the next decade; just by looting working parts of dirt cheap "obsolete" machines. If the work is the thing, this is obviously a smarter move than spending $4-6k on a new super-fast machine and pouring another pile of money in the latest-greatest software.Windows users have even less motivation to "upgrade." WinXP works, is faster than Win7, and is still supported by everyone.

At some point, living to install software and working overtime to pay for gear should make a real musical person question the point in the whole exercise. Sooner or later, you're going to have to make some music or move into IT where nobody ever does real work but they convince themselves they are running the world.

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.