Monday, December 30, 2013

ARTICLE: Where Are We Going?

[Another Wirebender-only article from 2004.]

Record companies would like, more than anything, to have this question answered: "Where the hell is the industry, our art, going?"  Mostly, record company execs want to know where the money part of the industry is going to be, the art can take care of itself.  Artists, too, would like to know where the money is and where it's going to be in a few years.  It's hard to make art if you can't find the finances necessary to buy the materials and equipment. 

Unlike many art forms, the materials and equipment necessary for the production of music are getting cheaper by the second.  Full-featured, professional digital recording equipment, capable of doing the recording job far better than analog equivalents of 20 years ago, costs a minor fraction of barely-featured, semi-pro gear from "back in the day."  Transparent microphones, multi-track digital workstations, effects processors, and acoustic treatment materials are easily found, with high quality and low cost.  While cutting vinyl used to be an expensive, slow, and tenuous process, burning CDs is something every grandmother can do on a cheap personal computer.  Basement studios have, sometimes, more tools than the most productive pro studios of twenty years ago.  Go back another decade, to the late 60s or early 1970s, and there is no contest between Abbey Road and a $10,000 investment in a modern basement studio.  The basement wins, hands down.  The Beatle's Abby Road would seem like a primitive garage in comparison. 

From that historical perspective, the music industry isn't hurting either.  Record companies posted an gross income of about $500 million during one of the boom years of R&R, 1968, and they complained of only grossing a reported $13 billion in 2003 (up from $9 billion in 2002).  Production costs are a fraction of past expenses and gross income is 25-times the boom years' earnings.  So, who's hurting in this art economy?

Artists, that's who.  Artists are experiencing a declining market, lowered expectations and diminished returns for time and talent invested.  The average contract allows an artist about 72¢ income per CD sold, before contract expenses are paid.  Most contracts require the artist to sell a half-million copies before the artist makes a nickel on sales.  The outlets for our art are vanishing and customer interest is also declining.  When the Who's bassist, John Entwhistle, died, several music critics commented that he might be the last R&R bass player to be recognizable by non-musicians.  At one time, believe it or not, bands mattered to their fans.  People cared about the music and the musicians who played it. 

These days, nobody but 12-year old girls care who's who in R&R bands.  And they quit caring when they turn 15.  Record companies have depersonalized music to the point that it's a simple, pointless commodity.  Nobody cares who is making the noise that serves as a background to our lives because nobody interesting is making that noise.  Boy bands, girl bands, American Idol stars, who cares?  It's all lifeless, pointless, irrelevant noise that serves to mask the drone of SUV tires as we travel from home to work and back.  That fact couldn't be better illustrated than it is by the band-to-band coverage of geezer rock stations.  Since today's pop music is so irrelevant, we're mostly listening to yesterday's music, which is no more relevant but at least it once had a reason to exist. 

All that said, there is nothing wrong with much of the music being produced today.  In fact, there is (statistically) as much good music being done today as there was in the boom years.  The difference is, FM radio is as ratty as AM was thirty years ago.  There is no practical outlet for good music to leak through the poor taste of the majority of radio station music programmers.  The record companies get the blame for this, since they own a good percentage of the distribution channels.  Blame who you want, as long as there is no alternative distribution channel, as FM once was, there is no way for great music to find a popular audience.

Try to imagine the 1970’s Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Pink Floyd, or even the late-Beatles music finding a home on that period's AM radio stations.  Never happen.  Impossible.  Now, try to imagine anything equally original breaking through on today's FM stations.  Equally impossible.  Radio is dead and the corporate media monopolies will make sure it is never revived. 

The obvious channel for new music is the internet.  Until high-speed, wireless access is cost-effective, that channel is extremely limited.  Early in the life of the world-wide web, we had a collection of interesting, innovative net radio stations.  Slow access speeds and hard-wire-only access killed those stations almost as quickly as the record companies decided that distribution channel was too difficult to control.  Viciously innovative distribution systems like the old MP3.com format completely removed the old record companies from the distribution chain.  More than anything, the record industry clowns want control.  More than profit, more than industry growth, more than music, the execs want control.  When they don't have control, they don't have a clue where the business is taking them.  When they don't know where music is heading, they don't have a firm grip on their executive suites.  Where else would these losers rake in the big bucks if music didn't provide easy money?

Music could care less about music company executives.  Music creates itself.  Musicians play music because they have to, for the same reason that cows produce milk.  While rich and famous musicians have more complicate motivations, the really innovative creators of music that is relevant, powerful, and gripping don't have a moment of control over their muse.  Music is a vicious, powerful bitch that is perfectly happy to kill the instrument and the musician and the audience to get the sound into the air. 

That's the way of all creativity.  For example, medical science doesn't need the profit motive to innovate.  Drug company execs and their barrels of money aren't the source of new science.  Scientists are, and they are driven by a need to know and describe something new about the nature of their art.  Art doesn't know about profit and loss, art is simply something that is pounded into our nature and is driven to escape the confines of human skulls and fingers any way it can. 

I think the internet is likely to be the next escape route for innovative music, but low power radio stations has a lot of potential, too.  However the music finds its way into the air, it is out there waiting for a path.  We just have to be working and waiting for that to happen and it will.  It always does.

Monday, December 23, 2013

AUDIOPHILE

[Another piece of ancient fiction.]

All Rights Reserved © 1999 Thomas W. Day

A difficult and wonderfully expensive operation. The components were selected from the finest manufacturers in the world. Custom designed and hand assembled by the most talented engineers in the industry. An incredibly skilled European surgeon/audiologist performed the operation, using only Swiss-crafted, 24 carat, 60 mil gold-plated, phosphor-bronze surgical instruments.

A platinum stimulation-probe was gold welded to 24 carat Litz cable. The resin-encapsulated, "HP" designed, LSI circuitry and the gold subminature breakaway multi-connector were positioned on the skullcap with a selected hardwood suspension and cover panel. The operation took twenty-two hours, cost a workingman's lifetime earnings, and was the absolute latest in high-fidelity equipment.

Delmar DeVeau awoke with a loud buzzing demanding his attention. The noise was deafening, but it didn't mask the softer sounds of the hospital: the footsteps passing in the hall, shuffling cotton uniforms, voices in neighboring rooms, and the dissonant clanking of hospital paraphernalia.

Before he regained control of his senses the door clicked, swung open, and a vast white sheet, with a grinning bald head and butterfly ears at the flush- pink summit, burst into the room.

"How...Is...My...System? Are you feeling pain?" Delmar barely identified his surgeon, Dr. Danl Vorst, before the doctor had whipped out his otoscope, placed the heel of his hand on Delmar's left cheek, pushed his face away into the bed, and poked the scope into his ear. Delmar felt pain. Then, grabbing Delmar by the nose, the doctor turned his head back facing the door. Forcing Delmar's right eye into the bed, still gripping his nose, Vorst screwed the otoscope's tip into his left ear. All through this "examination" the doctor hovered about Delmar's head making nervous bird-like movements, happily bobbing his head from side to side, and keeping up a broken-English interrogation that exceeded Delmar's mental response time.

"I can see nothing in your ears. I didn't do anything to them." He removed the scope and tucked it into a pocket, but kept hold of Delmar's nose. "How do you feel? Ears buzzing? Of course they aren't, but brain is. Antibodies getting at my little poker, but they'll give up, soon. I think. We made a success, yes? Good operation, good fun. You have a nice head."

Thirty seconds after he entered the room, Vorst spun around and bubbled his way toward the door, "good-bye. I must be in city tonight. Speaking to your Audio Engineering Society. You are going to be famous, maybe. Me too, certainly." Delmar crawled across the bed and into space, levitating himself above the bone-white tile floor to keep the tension on his nose as low as possible. When the doctor absent-mindedly released his grip, Delmar scrambled, hands on the floor, knees on the bed, with the blood rushing to his head nearly forcing him to blackout. After surviving the trip back onto his mattress, he began to wonder at the doctor's comments. Was he the first? The first to have this equipment? The article he had read led him to believe the operation had been first performed successfully in England. Maybe he misunderstood.

Before a single syllable reached Delmar's lips, Vorst had flown from the room, into the hall, and out of his life. Delmar would have liked to ask how long the skull-thunder would last. He would have loved knowing how soon he could use his implant. He wanted Vorst to sign a copy of his book "The Ultimate Entertainment." And he desperately needed a bedpan. He gently massaged his nose and let his small, pudgy body fall back onto an industrial-strength pillow. He wondered if some surgical utensil might still be embedded in his brain.

On closer examination, he discovered the drums in his cranium couldn't be localized. Seeming to come from an unidentifiable source that surrounded him, the source of the thunder couldn't be located by using his ears' directional abilities. The more aware he became, the more the noise seemed to beat at him.

Soon, another medical character arrived. "Doctor Harsh, present. I seconded Dr. Vorst and will be here, for you, during your recovery. Anything I can do for you? Within reason, of course."

"Please, my head is pounding. No one told me it would be painful and I don't think it's letting up." The doctor gave him a disgusted eye-rolling and Delmar stopped whimpering. With a valiant effort, he pulled himself together. Passing a hand over his bandaged head and down across his face, in a drawn curtain motion, he eased the corners of his mouth upward, and pasted a brave look on his chin-less, dimpled, round visage.

After he was certain he wouldn't have to put up with more whining, Harsh tried to look a little sympathetic. "Sorry about that. Nothing for it, though, but wait it out. Some antibiotics might speed things up, I suppose. Tell you what, I'll give you some. Don't go 'way. I'll be right back." As he marched out the door and down the hall, Delmar heard him muttering something about "rich wimps."

"Do you suppose I could have a bedpan?" Delmar called out, hopefully. And he thought, "I am very lucky that nothing went wrong in surgery. Hate to have that spiteful space-case fooling around in my head."

The operation; Auditory Neurological By-pass. By-pass; that might explain how I can still hear, even while this din is thumping in my skull. External and internal signal sources must run in parallel. Simultaneously interpreted, processed, and deciphered. I can listen to my music and to a gentle stream.

A nurse arrived with a bedpan and frosted his posterior on its rim. He savored his first gentle stream/thundering brain experience. A little later, Harsh appeared with a hypo. In a few moments, Delmar's head stopped rattling and he slept.

The next day, Delmar was wheeled to a lab, where he was put through a series of experiments that verified the position and function of his implant. Sine, square, pulse, and complex waves were pumped into his head, through the little jack in his skull, until he felt like a radio station antenna. The buzzing had subsided and an agreeable silence, punctuated by the test tones, returned.

Three days after the operation, Delmar went home. After dumping his hospital stuff in the hall, he went straight to the study, closed the door, pulled the shades, positioned the acoustic panels covering the door and windows, cleaned his favorite stylus, positioned a disk on the turntable, strung the cable from his pre-amp to his listening chair, lowered the tone arm to the record, and scampered back to the chair. He carefully inserted the interface plug to his skull connector, leaned back, closed his eyes, and listened.

Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" oboe, clarinet, and French horn introduction appeared, surrounding him. Although the disk pops, clicks, and hiss detracted from the effect, Delmar felt like a musician. In the middle of a great orchestra, without the distraction of having to control an instrument. A wonderful and perfect experience.

He couldn't wait for his favorite movement and he leapt to his feet, rushed toward the turntable to skip ahead to the "Corte'ge du sage." The power of the orchestra would be incredible. He could hardly wait to hear the low- frequency response.

In his haste he forgot about the trailing cable and stepped on it, jerking the plug from his head. The music stopped and the pain began. The connector was quick release, just for this type of incident, but it still yanked at the healing scar tissue and mounting screws and bone. Delmar yelped and reached for the offending spot on his head. It was not bleeding, but hurt too much to immediately re-install the connector.

He spent the evening polishing, adjusting, and attempting to listen to his old equipment. The speakers, tall towers of rosewood and acoustic foam, sounded flat and lifeless after the brief experience with the implant. He barely heard their output as he oiled the wood. His equipment cabinet contained the finest apparatus available, at any price. The cheapest piece in his collection would equal the complete sound system investment for a normal music lover.

His taste in music was equally marvelous. He owned a collection of the finest recordings known to the modern world. A few technically imperfect oddities sprinkled his section of the hoard, but even those were esoteric items selected to impress discerning guests. His collection was cataloged, sorted, individually protected by eighth-inch Plexiglas sleeves, and treated by liquids and pastes designed by the finest alchemists in audio.

His ex-wife had not shared his highly tuned sensibilities and a few hundred "pop" records gathered dust at the far end of his record stacks. She left him for a Country & Western guitarist named Willy Joe. Willy Joe had recorded her collection of "music" on a few "music chips" and convinced her that she had no more use for vinyl "fizz-bees." As the lady exited, she voiced the hope that she would never see another obsolete vinyl object. Spitefully, she left Delmar with the records he had bought for her and the even more disgusting collection of "music" she purchased for herself. These oddities were ignored and un- alphabetized. Delmar often considered removing them from sight but they always reminded him of the pain of her loss and the humiliation he had suffered at not being able to convert his own wife into a "true believer." If he ever considered marriage again, Delmar vowed to closely examine the next woman for any sign of poor taste.

Delmar was among the last ten-thousand of the world's digital holdouts. "Music cannot be cut up into ones and zeros and pieced together like a patchwork quilt," he proudly lectured to the diminishing band of analog reproduction advocates, tube electronics enthusiasts, and "Voice of His Master" gramophone fanatics. Delmar was fond of "preaching to the choir." And it was a good thing, since they were the only listeners available; the rest of the world being solidly plugged into, and deafened by, the latest digital technology. Delmar endured the noise and limited lifetime of his vinyl records with confidence. Time would prove him right. No one Delmar respected could tolerate "digits." And what do musicians or recording engineers know about High Fidelity? No gold in those ears. Just listen to the rubbish they record these days! And the way they record it!

But Delmar was not a tightwad. He regularly trotted his wallet down to the local audiophile establishments and purchased the latest in pre-amplifiers, power amplifiers, precious-metal cabling, loudspeakers, and analog reproduction equipment. The latest fad in audiophile technology would always attract Delmar's dollars. He probably would have bought the latest in digital equipment if the "ones and zeros" argument didn't have such a fine ring to it. Delmar loved and treasured his equipment and the justifications that he supported his purchases with.

The following afternoon, he tried his implant again, carefully avoiding quick movements.

Every musical example played back flawlessly. Orchestras, chamber music, jazz, avant-garde. Reproduced as perfectly as the recording medium and original engineering could allow. He skipped from track to track, playing his favorite passages, testing the performance of his new toy under every possible condition. Highs...Lows...Midrange...Quiet... Deafening. Perfect performance. Just like a concert hall. Even better, because he could "listen" at any volume level and for as long as he liked without fatigue.

Who can I show this off to? It's perfect, except for the normally mediocre record engineering, of course. I can hear every detail, every nuance, every player's breath, every screw-up. Feel the room ambience. I'm there, with the musicians.

He called the only person who might appreciate his triumph, Lenoy Robin. A close friend, a fellow audiophile, a neighbor. Using the phone in his study, he raved about his new implant, promised an experience beyond wildest dreams, and told Lenoy to show himself in without ringing. Delmar would be in the study.

Lenoy rushed right over. He found Delmar, by the turntable, happily popping record after record, track after track, on the platter. Although the only sound in the room hissed from an air-conditioning duct, Delmar seemed to be enchanted by the mere sight of spinning disks.

Delmar saw Lenoy, out of the corner of his eye, at the same time Delmar found the 1812 Overture cannons. "Listen to this. Isn't it incredible?" Delmar waved his arms in mushrooming figures, making goofy explosion-like noises, and singing the climax.

"Incredible, it is. What in heaven's name are you doing?" As he spoke, Lenoy noticed the small cable trailing up Delmar's back, into his hair. "Headphones?" he asked.

Delmar stopped short, mid-wave, mid-explosion. Reality hit him like a Tchaikovsky cannon shell. Lenoy couldn't hear his implant. No one could hear it, but himself. A one hundred and some odd thousand dollar, spectacular beyond belief, perfect beyond compare, sound system that only he, Delmar, could enjoy.

What will I do with this mess in my head now?

He slumped into his favorite listening chair, which he had drawn close to the turntable to avoid accidents, and collapsed into despair.

"Do you need a doctor?" Lenoy asked.

"I had one," said Delmar. "You wouldn't believe what I've done." Delmar explained the operation, told the fantastic tale of the marvelous sound in his head, and demonstrated the plug in his skull. At least the selected hardwood could be seen and touched, if you were careful not to touch too vigorously. Lenoy was impressed with the hand-oiled hardwood and the gold connector, but Delmar couldn't share the sound quality with his friend.

After Lenoy left, Delmar tried listening to his old speaker system. Compared to his implant, the speakers sounded awful, but at least his friends could hear it.

He plugged himself back into the preamp and was again transported into the orchestra. Damned if I do. Damned if I don't.

For the first time since he had owned the record, he listened to the entire "Firebird." A wonderful recording. It was a pretty good tune, too. In a twenty hour session, he listened to every record in his collection.

He sat bleary-eyed in the rubble of his hoard and contemplated the results. Finally, after considering all the alternatives, Delmar placed an ad in the local newspaper, "Top-of-the-line component stereo system for sale. No reasonable offer refused. Owner has become hearing-impaired." Delmar's life as an audio equipment hobbyist was over.

Delmar bought a portable chip player and plugged it directly into his implant. He carries the player in a shirt pocket and fills his other pockets with chips. He is never without music and every step of his life is scored with a personal soundtrack. Delmar has become an enthusiastic freelance music critic and is learning to play the piano and bagpipes.

Doctor Danl Vorst delivered his speech to the American Audio Engineering Society describing the technical characteristics of his implant equipment. Initially, the AES was impressed and supportive of Dr. Vorst's achievement. After the results of Vorst's following operations were evaluated, the AES withdrew its endorsement. The Pacific Rim Industrial Council (PRIC), joined by nearly every audio equipment magazine, denounced the implant technology as dangerous and destabilizing to the world's economy. Doctor Vorst voluntarily suppressed the details of his technique and returned to research in Denmark. Doctor Vorst is attempting to locate the brain's sensor input for visual information. Donations from PRIC are funding his research.

Doctor Harsh disassociated himself from Doctor Vorst and opened a lucrative gynecological practice in Irvine, California. He is campaigning for an important state office with the support of the Southern California Republican political machine. Lenoy Robin bought Delmar's old high fidelity equipment and has spent the following years cleaning records and connectors. Lenoy may have found the perfect spot in his living room for the speakers. When everything is just right, Lenoy believes his equipment reproduces the dynamic sound of a large steel door being closed in a reverberant room. He will play this recording over and over for his friends until they agree with his analysis.

The End

Sunday, December 15, 2013

ARTICLE: When are the Jones’s not worth keeping up with?

[Another unpublished good idea from 1999]

So, why should I care about cheap microphones?

Over the years I’ve owned about every price range of microphone, from $5 high impedance desk mikes to $1,500 tube condensers. When I was billing for studio time, I could justify a few high-end mikes. Now that my recording habit has settled into something more resembling a hobby, I buy what works and sell what doesn’t.

In visiting several small studios over the last year or two, I've noticed that owners seem to be investing a lot of money in their board, recording system (digital or analog), their effects rack, and their studio furniture. But, when they get around to buying microphones, those tools seem to be at the tail end of the studio budget and planning. At that point, the popular choice appears to be to buy one or two really trendy and expensive mikes and enough throw-aways to cover a drum kit.

Most recording engineers have a group of standard microphones they use because every other engineer claims to use those mikes in particular situations. "U87 on voice, 421 on the kick, a 57 on the snare, and a pair of 451's on drum kit overhead" . . . and so on. If you can get that same guy behind a couple of beers and in a conversation mood, you might get a look at and a chance to listen to some of their personal favorites. Often you'll find those favorites are low cost beauties that they stumbled into when they were getting into the business and still experimenting with equipment and instruments. (An activity that often stops when the passion becomes a profession and that profession has to pay the bills.)

The expensive gear is important as part of the process of selling studio time and in creating the studio’s image as the all-knowing source of everything technical and aural. Marketing is marketing and perception is everything in that strange world. But when it’s your money and your recording, you don’t have to be so manipulative or cost ineffective. The fact is that a lot of mikes will do the job and getting a professional sound it doesn’t take any where near as much money as some people (marketing types, for example) might want you to believe.

I’m a natural born skeptic. I can’t help think that the phrase “popular wisdom” is an oxymoron.

If you're doing your own music or working on projects where the cost of your equipment won't impress the clients, I think there is a better way to spend your money. Instead of blowing the budget on one or two expensive and trendy mikes, I recommend that you collect a dozen good, but cheap, microphones. For the purpose of this article, I'm going to define "cheap" as less than $250. Sometimes, a lot less than $250.

Fifteen years ago, I attended a recording engineering seminar at the University of Iowa. This seminar was put on by the university’s music department and the lecturer was a well known and respected engineer who was also the importer of an expensive German microphone manufacturer. The class was made up of, primarily, studio-owning recording engineers with a lot of recording experience.

At the end of the week-long course, the university’s house engineer and I recorded several pieces of music with some of my favorite cheap mikes, some of the university’s mikes, and some of the instructors’ high-budget pieces. We did a decent job of presenting the microphones with a fair collection of recording situations and holding the levels and positions reasonably consistent.

The next day, we did a listening test with the rest of the class. The results were not predictable. Fifteen years ago, mid-priced microphones sold for barely above $100. Expensive mikes were about the same price as they are today. Time after time, in our single blindfolded test, the cheap microphones were picked as the class favorites over the gold-plated models.

When the listening test was over, the lecturer asked to borrow some of my mikes for a few weeks and took them back to his office for further testing. I got the mikes back a month later, but never heard what they learned from those tests.

What do you get for your money?

Ever since my first experiment in microphone comparisons, I’ve had strong suspicions that the adage “you get what you pay for” doesn’t tell much of the story. In the competitive world of professional recording studios, perception is everything; another adage that isn’t particularly informative. At $75 an hour (and up, way up), musicians and producers want to see equipment that looks more expensive than the stuff they own. As any experimenting will tell you, though, looks expensive and sounds expensive are not closely related.

All this is not to say that the cheap spread and the “gold standards” are created equal. At the most expensive end of the scale, some of what you pay for is in the hardware. Building a product with the finest switches, connectors, wiring, machine work, and components used in the electronics (condenser amplification, for example) adds a lot to the unit's manufacturing cost. That cost will be reflected in the manufacturer's retail price. Sometimes all that precision and refinement results in a more reliable product. Some companies put a lot of effort into product consistency. B&K, for example, makes precision engineering tools that just happen to be microphones. But for the majority of users, a lot of that effort doesn’t provide a lot of bang for the buck. Like musical instruments, the inconsistencies in individual microphones can result in occasional gems among the rocks.

Too many users pay for image or possible resale value. They don’t know enough about the equipment to get the most out of it and they often grossly misuse their equipment. One thing that’s common among all fine instruments is that a little abuse will go a long way toward major damage. Using a large element condenser, for example, as a kick drum mike can be a terrific way to find out what happens when those micro-thin gold plates (charged with a couple hundred volts) make contact. I’ve seen it done and, since it wasn’t my money, it was pretty fun to watch.

Putting ears to the test

With all of this in mind, I asked Michael McKern of Minneapolis’ Music Tech if he’d be willing to put up some of the school’s high-end microphones against a collection of cheap stuff. Michael took the bait, readily. He’d been thinking about doing something similar and was looking for an excuse to do a test just like this. I became an excuse.

Michael promoted the “The Cheap Mike Shootout” at the school and the local AES chapter. We hoped for as many ears as possible, but only a few hard core students made it to the event. This isn’t unusual. In my experience, a blind test will send most of the self-proclaimed golden ears running for cover. Something about not knowing the answer in advance changes a lot of attitudes towards listening tests.

It must be close to impossible to do a truly scientific microphone test. Setting all things equal is incredibly difficult. There are a variety of test protocols that you can use to do your testing and we had to pick one for our experiments.

What we decided to do was to drive four microphones at a time with the same source material. For comparison, we had an acoustic guitar, an acoustic violin, a grand piano, and male and female vocalists. We placed the microphones in a tight pattern (see picture), far enough from the sound sources that proximity variations wouldn’t affect the microphones significantly. We included at least one expensive microphone in each batch of four mikes under test, as our “reference standard.” We matched the volumes of the instruments by placing a tone generator where the instrument/voice would be. With the tone source, we calibrated the output of each microphone with a meter (sometimes to within 0.05 dBV, thanks to Michael’s persistence with the faders). After swapping out the signal generator for the musician, we recorded a few minutes of each instrument.

The following is the equipment used in our test:

Monitors (far field): JBL4312

Monitors (near field): Yamaha NS-10

Console: TAC Magnum (used for playback only)

Mike Preamp: Focusrite #1 (red)

Recording System: Sony JH-24 (analog) 24 track deck using Quantegy 456/2" tape

After recording all of the instruments and vocals, we played it all back. Comparing each of the four microphones on each performance, we voted as to which mike we thought sounded best on each performance. The actual microphone ID's were randomized during the listening tests. Michael was the only one of us who knew which channel we were listening to and he didn't know which mikes were where. It was a mild flavor of double blind testing.

We made no effort to compare microphones on similar performances. I’m not much of a believer in “aural memories.” The fairly quick comparisons we were able to make on each of our test microphones, sometimes, made it easy to determine which microphones had the best characteristics for that instrument or voice. Other times, it was incredibly difficult to make a decision.

Because of the distances we maintained from our sound sources, we were sometimes forced to choose the best out of four compromised sounds. None of the piano recordings were ideal, for example. In our effort to make sure that the four mikes got, essentially, the same source material, this seemed like a necessary sacrifice. However, some of the mikes produced such a dramatically inferior sound from the position we were in that something useful was pulled even from the least perfect experiments.

Michael’s experience is at the other end of the recording spectrum from mine. He’s done 20-plus years of high budget work with name artists and studios. Most of his work has been in the pop world (rock and blues and commercials). Most of my work has been on low budget acoustic recordings, most of it on instrumental jazz with very little post-production processing. The other listeners involved in the test had a variety of musical experience and tastes, but they all had young (undamaged by professional audio abuse) ears and their choices were more often similar to Michael’s or mine than they were different. I think we ended up with a very discriminating group. Even when I disagreed with them, I couldn’t fault the justifications for their choices.

As far as which microphones “won” most often or which microphones sounded “best” on which instruments, the results of our test are unimportant. What I believe is important is that we picked the low cost mikes as "best of group" as often, or more often, than we picked the expensive units. On some tests, there were clear “winners” and “losers.” Often, though, there were one or two mikes that were so close together than it was difficult to chose which sounded “best.” Just as often, those two mikes would be at the opposite ends of the cost spectrum.

Only for the purposes of giving you an idea of the range of microphones we used, here are the microphones we used in our test:

AKG 414

AKG C1000

Sennhauser 421

Teac M120

Audio Technica ATM813

Shure SM57

Electrovoice RE18

Electrovoice PL6

Audio Technica (unidentified model) Lavalier

It might appear that we abused on AKG as or our high-end references. High-end AKG units were what was available at the time. The two models we selected as "reference standards" are respected, quality units and have been used in thousands of excellent recordings. I’ve done this test with the other expensive German brand name and had the same results. Nothing about this test tells us that the times we preferred a $100 mike to a $1,000 mike proved that the low cost instrument was “better” than the expensive mike. It just means that the cheap mike was “different” than the expensive mike in a way that contributed to a musical sound that we liked better at that time on that instrument. Your mileage may vary.

This test was different in a lot of important ways from the kind of selection process that goes on in a studio. In the studio, you set up a mike, record a track or listen to a few minutes of real-time music, and decide to keep or change the mike. Then, you go through the same process, again. The performance is different. The position of the mike might be different. You have time invested in the change, which tends to make you want to stick with the result of that investment.

Or, you’re trying to prove how much better your favorite mike sounds and you find a way to do that by doctoring the comparison. You EQ to bring out whatever you think needs to be brought out. You add a little processing to the favorite to show how it “could sound” when it’s prepared properly. We intentionally worked at confusing such biases with our test design.

A side lesson that was learned from this four hour test was that “listening fatigue” is a real and vicious malady. I think re-listening to what we recorded over a series of days would change some of the results, but not necessarily the gist of the outcome. Some of the really close matchups might swing one way or the other, but that wouldn’t necessarily be to the advantage of the more expensive units in the test. Several of the most obvious “best mike” comparisons left out the expensive models entirely. However, by the end of the four hour marathon a lot of us were happy to have it over with, regardless of the results. That’s another thing to take into account when you’re trying to record the best possible sound; when you’re doing the final mixdown, stay fresh. Your ability to make quality judgements is inversely proportional to the time spent at the board.

How do you pick a good cheap microphone?

If you accept the premise that it’s possible to get a professional quality sound from a semi-pro priced microphone, the next step is to start looking for those hidden gems. The first thing to think about when you set out to buy a microphone (or a bunch of them) is "what do you want to do with a mike?" That probably sounds like a dumb question, but microphones have a lot of purposes and your application may be a lot different from mine. There are as many microphone personalities as there are model numbers.

For example, if you're doing a Techno record, you might be happy with just about anything that gets sound onto hard disk. I don't mean that as a knock on Tech. If you're going to process the voice or instrument into something completely different than the original acoustic sound, it doesn't make a lot of difference what it sounded like in the first place. Your microphone choices are practically unlimited.

On the other hand, if you are recording traditional instruments in a well designed acoustical environment, you will be very demanding about the accuracy of the microphones you use. You choices are more critical and limited.

While a lot of audio techies egotistically argue about the small nuances they believe they hear throughout the audio chain, just about anyone can pick out one mike from another. Like loudspeakers and other electro-mechanical devices, the "errors" in microphones are huge compared to the electronic chain.

You can look at this as a bad thing or a good thing. Since we go out of our way to buy equalization and distortion enhancing equipment, later in the signal path, I vote "good thing." In fact, I prefer to view those characteristics of microphones as pre-conditioning for the instrument, voice, or noise I'm recording.

Now, you only have to decide what kind of pre-conditioning you’re trying to buy.

Because, in a recording environment, we’re not worried about feedback we can pick from a lot wider variety of microphones than those used by live performers. Omnidirectional microphones, for instance, have almost no purpose in live music but they are often the perfect mike for recording situations. If you’re recording voice or acoustic instruments in a really terrific sounding room, you can often get an incredible sound with a well placed omni. For that purpose, I like the EV 635. Back when I first discovered this mike, they sold, new, for as little as $50. Now, it’s a popular TV mike and the price is higher, but it’s still a valuable tool for a reasonable price. My old Teac ME120’s have an omni capsule that does the same job with a little flatter frequency response. Adding omnis to your toolbox opens up a huge number of options for possible killer buys in great microphones.

Of course, omni’s are not ideal for situations where you need to get some isolation from other instruments. That’s exactly what omnis don’t do well. Cardioid and super-cardioid patterns are the hot setup for those kinds of situations. Point-and-shoot mikes, you might say. In real life, that heart-shaped polar pattern only exists for certain frequencies and that’s a big part of what makes up the characteristics of these microphones. Weirdly enough, with all the bad PR this mike gets, Shure’s SM-57 gets used in a lot of drum kits because of the consistent (meaning, “we know what to expect”) directional response the mike provides. That can’t be said for many of the high-priced, condenser standards. In my opinion, one of the silliest drum kit sounds I ever heard was produced with six microphones worth a total of about $11,000.

The other consideration you have to make is the microphone electronics. Dynamic microphones are often nearly indestructible (which is why Shure SM-57s end up in almost everyone’s collection). The down side to this durability is often a lack of sensitivity. The design of the element of a dynamic microphone can limit the mike’s ability to react accurately to high frequency, fast transient, or low amplitude sounds.

One attempt to modify the lack of sensitivity problem is the ribbon element. There are a few ribbon “studio standards” and their characteristics are worth experimenting with. They are not, however, particularly durable.

This is where condenser microphones come into our collections. Condensers are usually more sensitive and more fragile than dynamic microphones. They are often considerably more durable than ribbons. Condenser microphones need a power supply (either phantom or battery) and they have active electronics (this is where the tube vs. transistor argument begins and I go find a good cup of coffee). I’m particularly fond of condenser mikes because they specialize in doing what I like to do. It’s possible to find a reasonably priced condenser mike that can do a wide variety of jobs, either through removable capsules or switchable polarity patterns. At their best, condenser microphones can be very sensitive, accurate, and versatile.

With all the technical stuff behind us, the way to “find” a good cheap microphone is to follow your ears. Listen to it. Bring some favorite mikes along and your best headphones or near field monitors and do your own mini comparison testing. Bring a DAT or a good pro portable deck along to record your test. Don’t trust the headphones for isolation from the live sound. Don’t trust your aural memory for comparisons. If you are looking for an instrument mike, bring the instrument.

Where do you find good buys on cheap microphones?

The best place to find a rare deal on a great mike is at a great music or pro equipment store. I mean this. No sucking up intended. If you know a store that will let you go into a quiet room to do your testing or take the mike home for an evening, don’t worry about saving a few bucks on the price. These guys are your best friends. I will almost guarantee that, if you can spend the time to do quality comparison shopping, you’ll save major money with your choices.

If we’re talking going the cheap route, no one who knows me would expect me to pass up buying used. Sometimes, you can save incredible chunks of money by picking up a little known gem through the want ads or in a pawn shop. You may not find any monster bargains on Neumanns, AKGs, Telefunkens, B&Ks, or even Sennheisers, but you might escape with a killer deal on a Sony or some other lesser noticed manufacturer. Pawn shop guys must have a network that provides them with the highest possible price that a trendy mike might bring, on the best day in uptown NYC. It can be easier to get a good deal on new stuff than a beater that the dealer thinks is a collector’s item.

Most music stores don't seem to carry used mikes. I've heard at least one store owner say “used microphones are a lot like used harmonicas.” While there might be some kind of health issue involved, there are lots of ways to decontaminate materials and I think it's worth the effort[1]. However, this route has major drawbacks. You probably won’t get to do any kind of comparison testing until you get home. You won’t know if the unit even works, most likely. You might not get a guarantee that will last beyond the doors of the shop. So keep all that in mind and include possible repair costs in your offer.

For example, I paid $25 for a beater EV RE-18. It worked, but something was loose in the case. I sent it back to EV, paid another $40 for repairs and ended up with one of my favorite general purpose (live or recording) mikes for $65. The dealer wanted to tell me the mike was a $300 list price mike and ought to be worth at least $150 used, but I passed. He hung on to it for a couple of months and, finally, dumped it on me in a moment of weakness. It happens.

A few sterling examples

Without naming names and condemning the innocent, here is a short list of low-to-mid-priced microphones that I've found in a variety of studios:

Brand

Model

ElectroVoice

N/D57, N/D408A, N/D408B, 635, RE-20, RE-10, RE-16, RE-15, RE-18, RE-27N/D, PL6

Audio Technica

AT4050, AT4033, ATM15a, ATM10a, ATM31a, ATM813, ATM63

Sony

C-535P

Carvin

CM67, 68

Peavey

PVM380N

Crown

PZM, PCC-160, PCC-200

Realistic

Various PZMs (often modified for pro use)

Shure

SM-57/58, SM-33, SM-53, BETA 56, BETA 52, SM-7, SM-5B545

Beyer

M500, M160, M260. M88

This isn’t a recommendation list. It’s just a list of mikes I found on the equipment sheets of several well respected studios. There are a lot more models to choose from and nothing should keep you from making your own list.

For me, all this is one of the most interesting things about recording. Microphones are musical instruments. They’re fun to own, play with, and use. Microphone technique is a vanishing art, especially as we all go into our basements and bedrooms and leave professionally designed rooms. Learn how to pick 'em and use 'em and you will have a talent that will be reflected in your recordings.


[1] If you can safely disassemble the case without damaging the microphone, you can clean the windscreen with a mild dishwashing detergent and water. (The cleaner the water the better the cleaning job. Deioniozed water is best.) Use a toothbrush (your wife’s, not your own) on the metal parts of the grill. Don’t scrub the cloth or foam lining material, just soak them in the soapy water. Rinse thoroughly and let the mike air dry until completely dry. Replace the parts and you're done.

If you don’t feel comfortable doing all this, consider returning the microphone to the manufacturer for service. The cost should be minimal and you will get a performance test along with the cleaning.

Monday, December 9, 2013

REVIEW: The Ray Brown Trio 1/3/1997

Ray Brown brought his world famous stand-up-and-snap-out-a-heartbeat bass sound and his trio to St. Paul’s Dakota Club this past week. This is the Ray Brown of more classic jazz recordings than most of us will ever hear. Ray Brown, who was part of bop’s innovations with Charlie Parker to Dizzy Glimpse to Ella Fitzgerald to Oscar Peterson. Surrounded by an accompaniment of piano (Benny Green) and drums (Gregory Hutchinson), a jazz icon provided a great evening of acoustic jazz in an excellent setting.

Benny Green filled the spaces in the upper register with originality, emotion, and incredible energy. From the up-tempo opening to moody ballads, Green was up to the challenge of playing with a jazz great. Considering Brown’s history of piano alliances, that is an accomplishment. He might be one, himself. Some of his chords were so massive I wanted to check his hands for extra fingers.

Gregory Hutchinson’s eight piece trap set produced a spectrum of percussive timbers. He fit his sound and style into the songs and added impact and rhythm to every piano and bass note. The percussion based “Remember” got a little over extended and Hutchinson appeared almost embarrassed during the traditional drum solo. Hutchinson seemed to be a lot more comfortable in his usual role of providing a solid background for the two melodic instruments.

Brown has made a career of being part of unusual, creative, beautiful music. Many well known instrumentalists design their sets around showcasing their own playing. Ray Brown is touring with a group that showcases compositions. He proved to the Dakota crowd that he has a lot material to highlight and he left us all with the knowledge that we had been part of something rare.

Brown makes an effort to surround himself with talented, young players. With the attention record companies and the music media have slobbered on high profile pop styles, even the jazz genres, you have to wonder what inspires young men to play this kind of music? These guys could play any style they choose, so why do they choose acoustic jazz? When you see these musicians in person, it becomes clear as glass. You can see it in their faces and hear it in their music. It isn’t about fame and fortune, it’s about respect for art and skill and a mutual respect between the artist and the audience.

There isn’t a better place to see this kind of music in the Twin Cities. The Dakota provides a great view of a fine stage with a professional sound system. Throw in good food and area microbrewery products on tap, and you have a great place to avoid the cold. If you are a fan of great jazz, you’ll become a fan of the Dakota.

Monday, December 2, 2013

REVIEW: Lee Ritenour in Concert

The Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis, MN

7/27/1998

Ritenour is one of those odd guitar gods who has been around forever, at least 20 years in what passes for limelight in the jazz world. If you're a collector of his stuff, you'll have more than 25 albums in your collection. If you collected every one of the records on which he's played guitar, you'd have to own warehouse real estate.

Minneapolis was the 3rd stop on Ritenour's "This is Love" promotional tour. The band looked fresh and motivated. With sax star Eric Marienthal, drummer and drum machinist David Haynes, bassist Melvin Davis, and Barnaby Finch on keys, Ritenour toyed with the "Smooth Jazz" pigeon hole for most of the evening. If he could sell it, I think Ritenour's last dozen recordings would have been a lot funkier. Live, he appears to be mostly what he wants to be.

The concert started a little rough. Ritenour passed through several of his current crowd pleasers with energy and he and Marienthal took most of the solo time. During "Boss City," Ritenour took a shot at the classic Wes Montgomery tactic of wringing all of the melodic possibilities from 3-4 chords.

Sound-wise, the mix was, typically, bass-heavy. The show started rough, with the keyboards panned hard left and lost in the mix and the drums panned hard right with about half of the kit completely gone. Some of that improved by the second tune, but the sound dude (I can't call these guys "audio engineers" any more than I can call garbagemen "sanitary engineers." Sorry.) had a terrible time dealing with the dynamics of the band and completely lost control by the end of the show. By the encore, there wasn't a clearly represented instrument anywhere to be found. You'd think that someone who makes decently recorded music would have a handle on live sound, but you'd be consistently wrong.

Monday, November 25, 2013

REVIEW: MP3 Comparison Tests

[This article was published on TapeOp’s website. Whatever it took to publicly humiliate the competition in print, Larry Crane didn’t have, but he still had the nuts to say it somewhere.]

All Rights Reserved © 2006 Thomas W. Day

A while back, I read an editorial in Mix Magazine that claimed to “prove once and for all” that MP3 audio compression was low-fi.  The author was a Mac user, so maybe he can’t be faulted for the many flaws in his test procedure, but be that as it may be, I read between his lines and found a few statements that I couldn’t believe.  His procedure was incredibly flawed and rigged to make MP3 files test poorly, even if the file format and compression were perfect.  His built-in bias was so strong that it was obvious how the test would turn out, even before the second sentence.  This author claimed to hear a “robust difference signal,” proving that the MP3 format was defective and high distortion.  I listen to MP3s, mostly in my car and I was suspicious of that “robust difference signal.” 

First, probably because of the limitations of his computer equipment and/or software, the author took an audio sample, inverted the phase of that sample, played the two (in-phase and out-of-phase together), and found that the resulting signal was the expected nothing.  The result was a near-perfect cancellation, proving that the two samples were equal, with practically non-existent distortion.  Here is where the example died a non-scientific death.  The author converted the phase-inverted signal to an MP3 format and, because his software could only play AIFF wave files, converted the MP3 back to AIFF and ran the above test again. 

Back in my audio manufacturing employment history, I built an ABX test rig for my employer and did a ton of ABX testing on anyone I could con into submitting to the ABX protocol.  Mostly, we learned what the audiologist discovered at the 1985 AES Convention in LA; that most people involved in professional audio are “functionally deaf” or, at least, “hearing impaired.”  Instead of spending our time trying to figure out what subtle differences in equipment were audible, we discovered that drastic defects in the signal path went undetected by most of our listeners.  I went so far as to install defective active components (ICs producing as much as 10% THD) into the signal path of otherwise identical pieces of equipment and found that an alarming number of audio professionals were unable to hear the difference in a reasonably good listening environment.  On the other hand, one of my own employees was able to hear signal differences that my test equipment (which was Audio Precision’s finest of the time) barely identified as measurable (except for substantial very-low-frequency phase differences that I’m still hard-pressed to believe explained the listening test results).   With that history behind me, I decided to replicate the magazine test myself, using a Windows-based software (Adobe Audition) which doesn’t have the limitation of only being able to play one file format simultaneously.  This eliminates the multiple conversion errors from the author’s test and makes the test more of an apple-to-apple test.

I picked three MP3 formats, 128Kbps, 192Kbps, and 320Kbps, constant bitrate, with CRC checksums and a pair of 44kHz, 16-bit CD recordings (“Afternoon” from Pat Metheny Group, Speaking of Now, and L’Adoration de la Terre from Telarc’s Cleveland Orchestra recording of the Stravinsky The Rite of Spring) for the test.  I, first, copied a section of the music and made an inverse-phase mono copy of that section.  In Audition’s Multitrack View, I inserted the two sections into a pair of tracks and compared the resulting signal; or lack of signal.  The two WAV copies exactly cancelled, both according to my ears and Audition’s metering system.  Figure 1 (from the Afternoon recording) displays a section of the original signal from the recording that I will use to display the results of the signal-canceling comparison tests.

mp3_figure1

Figure 1: The original signal, with peaks approaching 0dB.

I tried both Windows’ Media Player v9.0 and dBpowerAMP Music Converterfor the creation of my MP3 files (all made from the reversed-phase WAV file with an already established signal accuracy).  I believe I saw a very slight reduction in distortion using the 320Kbps Music Converter version of the Media Player output, so I created the rest of my MP3 samples using that program.  I inserted the 3 MP3 inverse-phase signals into a 5 channel Multitrack file and listened to the resulting output, comparing each MP3 to the original in-phase WAV file

The first problem you will discover in performing this test is that the MP3 converters both added a short leader (approximately 50mS) to the files.  Ignoring this anomaly produces the “robust” distortion difference signal that started this investigation for me.  Time-aligning my files took some time, but produced a much more believable result from the comparisons. 

 

mp3_figure2Figure 2: 12 8Kbps distortion result waveform

The 128Kbps compression produced a tinny output, with a little low end and a sound quality that was obviously distortion components. The resulting distortion component waveform is pictured in Figure 2.  At this point in the original recording, the peaks are touching 0dB, so the peak distortion output was approximately 25dB below the peak recording signal level.

Figures 3 and 4 picture the results of repeating this test with the 192Kbps and 320Kbps MP3 samples.  The distortion components of the 320Kbps compression sample are 33-36dB below the original signal.  Those residual signal values roughly translate to 5% THD for 128Kbps, 3% THD, for 192Kbps, and less than 1% THD for 320Kbps MP3 samples.  I’ll agree that these are substantial distortion values, but “robust” is not how I’d describe the resultant signal and I question the ability of most professionals to clearly hear the difference signal in an ABX environment.  After all, I’ve simulated much worse distortion components that appeared to have been inaudible.

mp3_figure3

Figure 3: 192Kbps distortion result waveform

Regardless of my test results, I recommend that you try a similar test with material of your own choosing and in a controlled listening environment.  Personally, I discount the results of any listening test that doesn’t live up to the rigor of the ABX protocol.  You can believe any fantasy you like, though.  Part of what makes working in audio so entertaining is the delusions under which we labor and the resulting, sometimes silly, products produced to cater to those illusions. 

 

mp3_figure4Figure 4: 320Kbps distortion result waveform

I do, however, intensely suspect the opinions of someone who claims that consumer cassettes were musical and that MP3 reproduction systems are deficient in comparison.  Compared to FM radio, a high resolution MP3 is practically pristine.  Pop recordings are often so distorted that the minimal harmonic addition low-fi 64Kbps compression introduces can do no more harm to what’s left of the musical content.  If we’re not going to complain about these traditional high distortion delivery systems, where is our credibility regarding new technology?

Most analog consoles don’t produce 40dB cancellation artifacts when one channel is beat against another in producing the side component in a Mid-Side microphone signal.  Analog recording systems are far from capable of producing this level of signal uniformity. 

Dis’ing our customers’ sonic standards, because they are listening to a technology that has an economic impact on our industry, is dishonest, unbelievable and ineffective.  They know the MP3 files they listen to are higher fidelity than past and current commercially delivered formats and once they suspect the industry is lying about quality, what else do we have to offer? 

Monday, November 18, 2013

ARTICLE: Loud Noises

All Rights Reserved © 2004 Thomas W. Day

"I'm busy," was my first excuse.  "Too many things to do, too little time, no money, my teeth itch," were among the later excuses I used to avoid getting involved.  None of those excuses worked.  He needed help and I was the only guy he knew who he would trust with his first big gig as a sound company.  He kept at me.  My friend was the proud owner of a startup business and his situation was the usual startup position of low cash and large expenses, this wouldn't be a paying gig for me.  Being self-employed and in the middle of my busiest part of the season, I do my best to avoid non-paying gigs. 

I worked, for a long time, for a pro-sound equipment producer.  During that period, I had the opportunity to slither into a fair number of high-end gigs, where I got to do monitors and FOH for some of my old musical heroes. This backstage pass got me into those opportunities without the credentials or the paid dues to be in that position.  I was the FOH and monitor engineer for one of the best horn bands I've ever heard, short of JB and Co.  So, I've done what I wanted to do in live music and it's been fun, thanks for the memories.  But, no thanks, I don't need any new ones. 

Three decades ago, I moved from doing live music to recorded music in one short moment of clarity.  I was a recording engineer, live engineer, and musician, at the time, and had fallen between bands and in the midst of business building.  One evening, after a particularly wonderful day in the studio, a friend called to say he was putting together an OMB (original music band, as opposed to the very financially successful cover bands he'd done in the past) and wanted me and my tunes to be part of the group. 

Still flushed from the day's recording work, it only took me a moment to respond, "What you're asking is do I want to work twenty hours a week, along with my day gig, putting together an act so that I can drive five-hundred miles a day to lug four tons of equipment up two flights of stairs and set it up while you (the drummer) putz around pretending that you're tuning your snare and the rest of the band primps their big hair, so that I can play my songs in front of a crowd of drunks who continuously bawl 'Freebird' for three hours until it's mercifully over and I get to tear it all down, pack it up, and drive to the next hellhole where I can do it all again?  Is that about it?"

"Something like that," he mumbled. 

"I think I'll pass," I answered.

We exchanged myths about where our latest project would be taking us and he went on to find another victim.  His victim was mutual friend who went on to riches and fame as a one-hit wonder bandmember and, as far as I know, the two of them are still touring fairs and clubs and are happy to be doing it.  I managed to nearly go broke with my recording studio/sound company and ended up where I am today through a completely random route. 

We ran into each other again, about fifteen years later, when one of his bands was recording two of my tunes.  As an afterthought, his management company decided they should get my permission to include the songs in an album.  Since they'd already recorded the songs and had pressed and distributed a few thousand media copies of the record, they thought it would be a formality.  Ah, the music industry; the soul of integrity.

Shift forward again, thirty years later, an old friend is trying to drag me back into the world of back-breaking labor and loud noises, if just for one night, and I'm not particularly tempted.  In the past few years, I've done an occasional live engineering gig and I've usually been disappointed with the experience.  Being a type-A, semi-perfectionist, anally retentive mental case, the sloppiness of live music in mediocre venues doesn't appeal to me.  Acoustically, the experience is disappointing.  Musically, the lack of control and perfection irritates me.  The big plus for most folks who love doing live music, the audience reaction, is a fat zero for me.  I do music for myself, outside opinions hold about as much water for me as a rusted sieve.  When the crowd cheers, howls, claps, or farts, I can't hear what I'm doing at the board and it irritates me to lose control for even a few seconds.  Every once in a while, all of that gets cancelled by the quality of the act and the complexity of the job, but not often enough to make me want to do it more than once a every year or ten. 

Have I made it clear that I didn't want to fly anywhere to be a part of putting together, testing, and running a sound system?  In the end, my friend found the cash to fly me to the show and the gig landed on a weekend where my schedule had a hole.  I was out of excuses and in the air in a post-9/11 world where flying is less fun than it has ever been.

He met me at the airport and, during the drive to his facility, we talked about the work we'd be doing the following day.  We ended up doing a little of that work before giving up for the night and he dropped me off at the hotel   Five hours later, we're on the way to his shop to load gear.  Sometime about now, he learned that the promoter had copped-out and opted to save a few bucks by not hiring the union guys to let us into the auditorium after noon.  We were going to have less than three hours to unload, setup, integrate the rented components, troubleshoot, and sound check a new and fairly large professional sound system. 

At least, we thought, the contract stated that we wouldn't be "allowed" to take part in the unloading of the truck (union rules), so we'd have some time to start wiring the system up as it was delivered to the stage.  On my way up the loading ramp, however, the union supervisor said, "If you want all this stuff on stage before the soundcheck, you better give us a hand with unloading."  So much for "extra time" we might have carved out of the idiotically tight schedule.

Two hours later (and twenty zillion minor hassles with unloading, available stage power, and equipment configuration), I'm firing up the mains and setting up the crossover and EQs.  One major piece of luck occurred at this point: one of my friend's potential future customers was on site for this stage and left before the headliner's crew got their hands on the gear.  Our initial sound check produced tons of volume (enough that I stuffed my ears with -25dB earplugs) and a tight, clean musical output.  The customer commented on the quality of the sound and said we had more than enough power for his facility and he left. 

An hour later, the headliner's FOH guy had "tweeked" the crossover until the subs dominated the system's output and bass definition was lost in the blubbering wind of 80Hz-and-below rubble.  (Ask me why I don't think live sound guys have ears and I'll take you to a concert.  Proof enough?  Ask me again and I'll take you to an audiologist, where a quick hearing test will eliminate all doubt.)  Finishing off the system's low frequency response, the FOH guy EQ’d out everything from 150Hz to 400Hz, with a few dips in the random lower midrange and his test music sounded like a 1960’s airport public address system.  He was a happy camper, as best I could tell. 

The band's monitor engineer added an equal demonstration of expertise by waving his SM58 inches from the monitors and asking for various frequency bands to be cut until he could no longer produce squeal.  Then the monitor volumes were increased until he got more squeals and had rolled off those tones.  When he was done, the monitor graphics had all cut everything from 300Hz up.  He might have asked for a shelving bass boost and got the same effect. 

Various other problems appeared as we went through the sound check and some of them were pretty serious.  We wrestled with bugs and glitches right up until the lights went down and the crowd came through the doors.  To protect the innocent, guilty, and random bystanders, I'll refrain from anything more specific than these descriptions of our tribulations, but everything (barely) short of burning down the house happened between the start of the sound check and the headliner's opening notes.  We did lose about an hour of troubleshooting time due to a false fire alarm that chased us from the building.  I used most of my experience as an engineer and all of my abilities as a politician from the moment we hit the loading ramp until we closed the truck door and drove away from the venue. 

I ran FOH for the opening acts and "accidentally" hit the main's EQ bypass switch for those acts.  In fact, I forgot to switch the EQ back on for the FOH engineer and he happily played with the knobs and buttons for the first half of his act, with the EQ out of the signal path.  Other than the huge sub crossover boost, the system sounded pretty decent flat.  As the volume rose through the show and hearing fatigue took its course, I continued to trade up my hearing protection until I was stuffing 34dB industrial foam ear protectors around my 25dB "musician's" protection.  My ears still rang the next morning and I'm way too old for that shit. 

While doing my bit as a customer service agent during the main act, I watched the FOH guy fool with a delay line.  While he had a short, medium, and long tap assigned to the output, the short delay seemed to occupy most of his attention.  He rolled it about 5mS above and below 45mS, varying it with the song being played and some inner cue, but never seemed to notice that the delay had no signal on its input indicator.  That particular aux group had its group volume control half way up and none of the individual channels were assigned to the group.  The same story applied to most of the other effects he "used," too. Lots of adjusting, no input signal applied.  Or, I suppose, the input signal was so minor that my old insensitive ears and the units' VUs failed to pick it up.

At the other end of my attention was the question my friend asked me every time he and I ran past each other during the show, "how does it sound?"  My first response was "loud."  Too damn loud, was my actual opinion.  I tried to listen critically and I had to admit that most of the percussion was audible in the mix, the vocal was reasonably clear (considering the microphone being used), and everything but the bass and kick were present and identifiable in the mix.  That's about as good as amplified live sound gets, in my experience.  So, that's what I reported at the end of the show. 

He was happy.  The band was really happy.  The venue was impressed.  The union guys helped us reload the gear and we got the hell out of there before anyone became undiplomatic and violence erupted.  I've since heard great reports from my friend about the reviews of the show and the response from his potential customers.  Everyone's happy and I survived. 

The next day, I flew home.  Now I'm back in the studio and, if it's another couple of years before I see, do, or think about a live show, I've had my Jones satisfied and it won't cross my mind that I might be missing something by living in the virtual world. 

You live guys have a hard road to hoe and I respect the work you do under the conditions you do it.  When I was building pro sound gear, I thought we were doing the world of music lovers a disservice by making it possible for their hearing to be so abused.  When I get my hands dirty in the actual production of a live show, it makes me feel even more guilty.  My generation is going deaf faster than any before it and the generations following us are even more damaged.  There is nothing good to be said about volume over quality and you won't catch me even trying to defend the majority of live music situations.  This experience reminded me of why I rarely go out to see an act, even one I'm recording, and why I do any damn thing I can think of to avoid sitting at either the FOH or the monitor desk.  All of my heroes have ears and I'd like to hang on to mine as long as I can. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Jeff Beck at the State Theater in Minneapolis (3/9/2001)

Many of us own guitars, last night I saw someone play a guitar. In fact, I believe on Friday night I sat among one of the larger gatherings of Minnesotans who own guitars. I also suspect a fair number of guitars were bought and sold in Minnesota on Saturday morning.  Some of us probably felt fairly discouraged at how little we know about the limits of our instrument. Some were encouraged at the previously unrealized capabilities of our instrument. 

In the "historic Minneapolis State Theater," Jeff Beck, and band (Jennifer Batten - guitar/synth, Andy Gangadeen - drums, and Randy Hope-Taylor - bass), may have put on the best show I've ever seen. What Jeff Beck does with fingers and a Strat is physically impossible. He putzed around a little with a wah petal, otherwise, every sound you hear comes from his hands. His fingers, in fact, since he doesn't use a pick. Ten quick fingers creating more sound effects and tonal variations than George Lucas gets from a team of effects engineers and a space ship full of computers.

For 30 years, I've studied Jeff Beck interviews and attended his rare Midwestern concerts, trying to glean something that could apply to my own music. He's so far above my capabilities that I rarely come away with much more than inspiration.  Again, this year I am inspired but uninformed. 

One of the great disappointments in seeing him live in the past was that he's always said that he wouldn't mess with a slide on stage. This show, he gave us two nothing-but-slide-guitar songs and he liberally used the slide on a half dozen other tunes. Compared to any other human playing guitar with a bottleneck, Jeff Beck is unbelievable. During Hip-Notica, I swear, he played with such incredible precision, within millimeters of the bridge, that he bordered on performing the impossible.

A spacey Minneapolis kid intro'd the show, doing something a guitar style and technique somewhere between Michael Hedges and Stanley Jordon. I thought Jeff might have lost his marbles, putting someone that good in front of his show. The kid described the set he was going to do as something where he would just try to "love you up, because Jeff is going to kick your ass." And he followed that by playing some wonderful two-handed tapping stuff. Still, he was right. Jeff took an audience full of guitar players and had them beating their hands till they were raw and he had us yelling for more till a few of us sounded like refuges from a TB ward.

Two encores, a 2 1/2 show that never let up. Fun lighting and visuals, lots of car stuff and 50's movies. It sort of reminded me of the kind of show that ZZ Top always tried to do but didn't have the chops to pull off.

A lot the stuff on Jeff's new records sounds sequenced, it's so complicated and polyrhythmic. It's not. The fucker is unbelievable. He is a ten fingered rock and roll orchestra. I wish he were going to be where ever you live, I'd rag on you to see him till he was back in France playing with hot rods.

Somewhere I read that Andy Gangadeen played drums for the Spice Girls. If so, he's redeemed himself.

Monday, November 4, 2013

ARTICLE: Who Would That Inconvenience?

[Clearly, in 2004 I was in a prolific self-publishing mode. I didn’t even try to find a home for some of these articles, as strongly as I felt then or now about their relevance.]

You can't read an entertainment or computer magazine without running into an article or ad about how much "damage" is being done to the nation's creativity by "intellectual rights theft."  The game manufacturers are, apparently, going broke because so many people are "stealing" game software.  The music industry execs are all living in cardboard boxes in New York and LA's back alleys because nobody is buying music, we're all stealing it through MP3s online.  And those poor, poor software designers are working nights at SuperAmerica to support their creativity because everyone is bootlegging software.  Billy Gates has sold his mansions and lives in a Seattle commune with 35 other desperate, but dedicated-to-their-art, Microsoft employees.  Congress and the international community needs to "do something" to protect these poor, starving, and productive folks before these vital industries are starved into non-existence.

Or not. 

I think not.  For instance, the music industry thinks nothing of "giving away" it's product on the radio.  Radio stations "give" us more of the music industry's product than most of us want to hear.  Sure, they're selling ads and using the music as a loss-leader to attract listeners, but they have worked overtime to own the broadcast business so that they have easy access to free distribution of their god-awful products.  How that is different than the distribution of these same products through websites is too indistinct for my sensitivities.  I'll admit that I'm not particularly sensitive to the needs of overstuffed executives and their desperate desire to own everything from natural resources to original thought.  But I do believe that if you give away your product in one venue, you've given up the right to be able to protect it in another.  The Supreme Court thought the same way when they prevented record companies from limiting the use of cassette recorders, 30 years ago. 

But my real reason for writing this article is to address the pitiful condition of software companies.  In our industry, bootlegged software is as common as guitar picks.  At the tech school where I sometimes teach, I hear about the use of "illegal" versions of every program from ProTools to Sonar to Logic to $50 plug-ins and $10 sampled loop CDs.  Everything you might ever want to own is available, for free, in a bootleg version.  Acquaintances who aren't even involved in the music business have copies of programs that I couldn't justify buying if I didn't need to eat regularly. 

Software manufacturers estimate that they've "lost" somewhere between two hundred million to a billion-zillion dollars due to software bootlegging.  According to their estimates, everyone on the planet would have purchased their products if they hadn't had access to illegal versions.  Some of us would, surely, have bought those products several times if legal channels were the only way we could obtain software.  Software companies have moved from vaporware to vapor markets.  Their hallucinations of wealth and power have infected the magazines with whom they advertise, too.

I beg to disagree.  In fact, I'd bet that the opposite of their argument is true.  I'd argue that if bootleg "test" software wasn't available, most of us wouldn't bother with computers at all.  The computer industry has made that a fact by its inability to build reliable, quality products.  The business tells us that bootleg software is unreliable and to obtain reliability we should pay for the software and pay again for the minimal "customer support" provided by the manufacturers.  Experiences tells us that the words "unreliable" and "software" are inseparable.  It doesn't matter if you pay for software or if you steal it, it's going to be unstable, undependable, buggy, and a constant irritant.  And you're going to have to pay, over and over again, for future versions that "fix" a few problems and create a lot more. 

That's a great business, if you can find it.  Build a crappy, unreliable product and follow that up by charging your customers extra for "supporting" your mistakes.  That is the next step beyond planned obsolescence, assuming that your customers don't revolt.

Basing a home studio around bootleg software is a risky business, because putting any faith in software is an act of unfounded faith.  The products are, simply, buggy as a Tijuana hotel bed.  Software crashes, we reboot, software crashes again, this time rebooting for us, and we pay more money in the foolish hope that, this time, the code will be more reliable.  The more features we get, the less reliable the software becomes.  It's an endless, unproductive closed-loop.  Many users are honestly "test driving" software by using hacked versions.  On the rare occasion that a piece of software is actually useful, many users turn from test drivers to legitimate owners.  I see it happen with students all the time. 

Occasionally, a company screws up and releases a version of software that crashes less often than its competition.  When that happens, many users end their search for improvement and get back to doing productive work.  A few months ago, I read a business computer article about a large number of businesses who are still using Microsoft's Windows for Workgroups, version 3.11, and the associated version of Office, because it did the job that needed doing.  Those of us who migrated to Windows 95, 98, 2000, ME, and XP often think that the few functioning features we've gained haven't repaid the investment in retraining, debugging, and the reliability problems we've suffered in transition. 

What would happen if every computer user decided to quit chasing the holy grail of the newest, coolest version of software and found something that worked reasonable well and stuck with it?  There are a fair number of analog studios out there who have gone back (or stayed) to 20 year old technology and spend their time tweaking reliable and functional technology and making music.  Computer recordists could do the same thing.  Quality work was done on almost every version of almost every program.  We could have all quit looking for something new at any time in the last decade or two. 

Of course, that would break the software company income chain.  If every software company in the industry went broke and vanished tomorrow, who would that inconvenience?  If we all were forced to use the products we're using today for the next fifty years, would we stop recording music?  If today's software glitches and crashes became a constant, known, and never-ending irritant, would that make a lick of difference to people currently using that software?  You know it wouldn't.

If the state of the art never moved an inch from its current status, we'd still be doing what we're doing today.  We'd be recording music, burning CDs, cutting vinyl, posting MP3s to websites, and looking for the next cool music.  The profits or losses of software companies means nothing to the flow of music.  We have the tools we need and a hell of a lot of tools that nobody needs.  Software companies have their problems and we have ours and the two have nothing to do with each other. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

ARTICLE: Cheap and Dirty Microphones

(Originally published in Recording Magazine, September 1999. It was considerably shorter in RM, but this is the whole submission with warts and all.)

(NOTE: The flaw in this article was that we didn't organize high priced spread comparisons and went ahead with what we had.  With that flaw, the article doesn't really make sense.  I've done the comparison in the past, and since, and the cheap stuff stood up really well.  Nuts.)

All Rights Reserved © 1998 Thomas W. Day

So, why should I care about cheap microphones?

Over the years I've owned a fairly wide price range of microphones, from $5 high impedance desk mikes to $1,500 tube condensers. When I was billing for studio time, I could justify a few high-end mikes. Now that my recording habit has settled into something more resembling a hobby, I buy what works and sell what doesn't.

In visiting several small studios over the last year or two, I've noticed that owners seem to be investing a lot of money in their board, recording system (digital or analog), their effects rack, and their studio furniture. But, when they get around to buying microphones, those tools seem to be at the tail-end of the studio budget and planning. At that point, the popular tactic appears to be to buy one or two really trendy and expensive mikes and enough throw-aways to cover a drum kit.  At an extreme, one studio owned only SM57s and 58s because they "are industry standards." 

Most recording engineers have a group of standard microphones they use because every other engineer claims to use those mikes in particular situations. "U87 on voice, 421 on the kick, a 57 on the snare, and a pair of 451's spaced over the drum kit" . . . and so on. If you can get that same guy behind a couple of beers and in a conversation mood, you might get a look at and a chance to listen to some of their personal favorites. Often you'll find those favorites are low cost beauties that they stumbled into when they were getting into the business and still experimenting with equipment and instruments. (An activity that often stops when the passion becomes a profession and that profession has to pay the bills.)

The expensive gear is important as part of the process of selling studio time and in creating the studio's image as the all-knowing source of everything technical and aural. Marketing is marketing and perception is everything in that strange world. But when it's your money and your recording, you don't have to be so manipulative or cost ineffective. The fact is that a lot of mikes will do the job and getting a professional sound it doesn't take any where near as much money as some people (marketing types, for example) might want you to believe.

I'm a natural born skeptic. I can't help think that the phrase "popular wisdom" is an oxymoron.

If you're doing your own music or working on projects where the cost of your equipment won't impress the clients, I think there is a better way to spend your money. Instead of blowing the budget on one or two expensive and trendy mikes, I recommend that you collect a dozen good, but cheap, microphones. For the purpose of this article, I'm going to define "cheap" as less than $250. Sometimes, a lot less than $250.

Fifteen years ago, I attended a recording engineering seminar at the University of Iowa. This seminar was put on by the university's music department and the lecturer was a well known and respected engineer who was also the importer of an expensive German microphone manufacturer. The class was made up of, primarily, studio-owning recording engineers with a lot of recording experience.

At the end of the week-long course, the university's house engineer and I recorded several pieces of music with some of my favorite cheap mikes, some of the university's mikes, and some of the instructors' high-budget pieces. We did a decent job of presenting the microphones with a fair collection of recording situations and holding the levels and positions reasonably consistent.

The next day, we did a listening test with the rest of the class. The results were not predictable. Fifteen years ago, mid-priced microphones sold for barely above $100. Expensive mikes were about the same price as they are today. Time after time, in our single blindfolded test, the cheap microphones were picked as the class favorites over the gold-plated models.

When the listening test was over, the lecturer asked to borrow some of my mikes for a few weeks and took them back to his office for further testing. I got the mikes back a month later, but never heard what they learned from those tests.

What do you get for your money?

Ever since my first experiment in microphone comparisons, I've had strong suspicions that the adage "you get what you pay for" doesn't tell much of the story. In the competitive world of professional recording studios, perception is everything; another adage that isn't particularly informative. At $75 an hour (and up, way up), musicians and producers want to see equipment that looks more expensive than the stuff they own. As any experimenting will tell you, though, looks expensive and sounds expensive are not closely related.

All this is not to say that the cheap spread and the "gold standards" are created equal. At the most expensive end of the scale, some of what you pay for is in the hardware. Building a product with the finest switches, connectors, wiring, machine work, and components used in the electronics (condenser amplification, for example) adds a lot to the unit's manufacturing cost. That cost will be reflected in the manufacturer's retail price. Sometimes all that precision and refinement results in a more reliable product. Some companies put a lot of effort into product consistency. B&K, for example, makes precision engineering tools that just happen to be microphones. But for the majority of users, a lot of that effort doesn't provide a lot of bang for the buck. Like musical instruments, the inconsistencies in individual microphones can result in occasional gems among the rocks.

Too many users pay for image or possible resale value. They don't know enough about the equipment to get the most out of it and they often grossly misuse their equipment. One thing that's common among all fine instruments is that a little abuse will go a long way toward major damage. Using a large element condenser, for example, as a kick drum mike can be a terrific way to find out what happens when those micro-thin gold plates (charged with a couple hundred volts) make contact. I've seen it done and, since it wasn't my money, it was pretty fun to watch.

Putting ears to the test

With all of this in mind, I asked Michael McKern of Minneapolis' Music Tech if he'd be willing to put up some of the school's high-end microphones against a collection of cheap stuff. Michael took the bait, readily. He'd been thinking about doing something similar and was looking for an excuse to do a test just like this. I became an excuse.

Michael promoted the "The Cheap Mike Shootout" at the school and the local AES chapter. We hoped for as many ears as possible, but only a few hard core students made it to the event. This isn't unusual. In my experience, a blind test will send most of the self-proclaimed golden ears running for cover. Something about not knowing the answer in advance changes a lot of attitudes towards listening tests.

It must be close to impossible to do a truly scientific microphone test. Setting all things equal is incredibly difficult. There are a variety of test protocols that you can use to do your testing and we had to pick one for our experiments.

What we decided to do was to drive four microphones at a time with the same source material. For comparison, we had an acoustic guitar, an acoustic violin, a grand piano, and male and female vocalists. We placed the microphones in a tight pattern (see picture), far enough from the sound sources that proximity variations wouldn't affect the microphones significantly. We included at least one expensive microphone in each batch of four mikes under test, as our "reference standard." We matched the volumes of the instruments by placing a tone generator where the instrument/voice would be. With the tone source, we calibrated the output of each microphone with a meter (sometimes to within 0.05 dBV, thanks to Michael's persistence with the faders). After swapping out the signal generator for the musician, we recorded a few minutes of each instrument.

The following is the equipment used in our test:

Monitors (far field): JBL4312

Monitors (near field): Yamaha NS-10

Console: TAC Magnum (used for playback only)

Mike Preamp: Focusrite #1 (red)

Recording System: Sony JH-24 (analog) 24 track deck using Quantegy 456/2" tape

After recording all of the instruments and vocals, we played it all back. Comparing each of the four microphones on each performance, we voted as to which mike we thought sounded best on each performance. The actual microphone ID's were randomized during the listening tests. Michael was the only one of us who knew which channel we were listening to and he didn't know which mikes were where. It was a mild flavor of double blind testing.

We made no effort to compare microphones on similar performances. I'm not much of a believer in "aural memories." The fairly quick comparisons we were able to make on each of our test microphones, sometimes, made it easy to determine which microphones had the best characteristics for that instrument or voice. Other times, it was incredibly difficult to make a decision.

Because of the distances we maintained from our sound sources, we were sometimes forced to choose the best out of four compromised sounds. None of the piano recordings were ideal, for example. In our effort to make sure that the four mikes got, essentially, the same source material, this seemed like a necessary sacrifice. However, some of the mikes produced such a dramatically inferior sound from the position we were in that something useful was pulled even from the least perfect experiments.

Michael's experience is at the other end of the recording spectrum from mine. He's done 20-plus years of high budget work with name artists and studios. Most of his work has been in the pop world (rock and blues and commercials). Most of my work has been on low budget acoustic recordings, most of it on instrumental jazz with very little post-production processing. The other listeners involved in the test had a variety of musical experience and tastes, but they all had young (undamaged by professional audio abuse) ears and their choices were more often similar to Michael's or mine than they were different. I think we ended up with a very discriminating group. Even when I disagreed with them, I couldn't fault the justifications for their choices.

As far as which microphones "won" most often or which microphones sounded "best" on which instruments, the results of our test are unimportant. What I believe is important is that we picked the low cost mikes as "best of group" as often, or more often, than we picked the expensive units. On some tests, there were clear "winners" and "losers." Often, though, there were one or two mikes that were so close together than it was difficult to chose which sounded "best." Just as often, those two mikes would be at the opposite ends of the cost spectrum.

Only for the purposes of giving you an idea of the range of microphones we used, here are the microphones we used in our test:

  • AKG 414ULS
  • Neumann U87
  • AKG C1000S
  • Sennheiser 421
  • Teac M120
  • Audio Technica ATM813
  • Shure SM57
  • Electrovoice RE18
  • Electrovoice PL6
  • Audio Technica (unidentified model) Lavaliere

It might appear that we abused on AKG as or our high-end references. High-end AKG units were what was available at the time. The two models we selected as "reference standards" are respected, quality units and have been used in thousands of excellent recordings. I've done this test with the other expensive German brand name and had the same results. Nothing about this test tells us that the times we preferred a $100 mike to a $1,000 mike proved that the low cost instrument was "better" than the expensive mike. It just means that the cheap mike was "different" than the expensive mike in a way that contributed to a musical sound that we liked better at that time on that instrument. Your mileage may vary.

This test was different in a lot of important ways from the kind of selection process that goes on in a studio. In the studio, you set up a mike, record a track or listen to a few minutes of real-time music, and decide to keep or change the mike. Then, you go through the same process, again. The performance is different. The position of the mike might be different. You have time invested in the change, which tends to make you want to stick with the result of that investment.

Or, you're trying to prove how much better your favorite mike sounds and you find a way to do that by doctoring the comparison. You EQ to bring out whatever you think needs to be brought out. You add a little processing to the favorite to show how it "could sound" when it's prepared properly. We intentionally worked at confusing such biases with our test design.

A side lesson that was learned from this four hour test was that "listening fatigue" is a real and vicious malady. I think re-listening to what we recorded over a series of days would change some of the results, but not necessarily the gist of the outcome. Some of the really close matchups might swing one way or the other, but that wouldn't necessarily be to the advantage of the more expensive units in the test. Several of the most obvious "best mike" comparisons left out the expensive models entirely. However, by the end of the four hour marathon a lot of us were happy to have it over with, regardless of the results. That's another thing to take into account when you're trying to record the best possible sound; when you're doing the final mixdown, stay fresh. Your ability to make quality judgments is inversely proportional to the time spent at the board.

How do you pick a good cheap microphone?

If you accept the premise that it's possible to get a professional quality sound from a semi-pro priced microphone, the next step is to start looking for those hidden gems. The first thing to think about when you set out to buy a microphone (or a bunch of them) is "what do you want to do with a mike?" That probably sounds like a dumb question, but microphones have a lot of purposes and your application may be a lot different from mine. There are as many microphone personalities as there are model numbers.

For example, if you're doing a Techno record, you might be happy with just about anything that gets sound onto hard disk. I don't mean that as a knock on Tech. If you're going to process the voice or instrument into something completely different than the original acoustic sound, it doesn't make a lot of difference what it sounded like in the first place. Your microphone choices are practically unlimited.

On the other hand, if you are recording traditional instruments in a well designed acoustical environment, you will be very demanding about the accuracy of the microphones you use. You choices are more critical and limited.

While a lot of audio techies egotistically argue about the small nuances they believe they hear throughout the audio chain, just about anyone can pick out one mike from another. Like loudspeakers and other electro-mechanical devices, the "errors" in microphones are huge compared to the electronic chain.

You can look at this as a bad thing or a good thing. Since we go out of our way to buy equalization and distortion enhancing equipment, later in the signal path, I vote "good thing." In fact, I prefer to view those characteristics of microphones as pre-conditioning for the instrument, voice, or noise I'm recording.

Now, you only have to decide what kind of pre-conditioning you're trying to buy.

Because, in a recording environment, we're not worried about feedback we can pick from a lot wider variety of microphones than those used by live performers. Omnidirectional microphones, for instance, have almost no purpose in live music but they are often the perfect mike for recording situations. If you're recording voice or acoustic instruments in a really terrific sounding room, you can often get an incredible sound with a well placed omni. For that purpose, I like the EV 635. Back when I first discovered this mike, they sold, new, for as little as $50. Now, it's a popular TV mike and the price is higher, but it's still a valuable tool for a reasonable price. My old Teac ME120's have an omni capsule that does the same job with a little flatter frequency response. Adding omnis to your toolbox opens up a huge number of options for possible killer buys in great microphones.

Of course, omni's are not ideal for situations where you need to get some isolation from other instruments. That's exactly what omnis don't do well. Cardioid and super-cardioid patterns are the hot setup for those kinds of situations. Point-and-shoot mikes, you might say. In real life, that heart-shaped polar pattern only exists for certain frequencies and that's a big part of what makes up the characteristics of these microphones. Weirdly enough, with all the bad PR this mike gets, Shure's SM-57 gets used in a lot of drum kits because of the consistent (meaning, "we know what to expect") directional response the mike provides. That can't be said for many of the high-priced, condenser standards. In my opinion, one of the silliest drum kit sounds I ever heard was produced with six microphones worth a total of about $11,000.

The other consideration you have to make is the microphone electronics. Dynamic microphones are often nearly indestructible (which is why Shure SM-57s end up in almost everyone's collection). The down side to this durability is often a lack of sensitivity. The design of the element of a dynamic microphone can limit the mike's ability to react accurately to high frequency, fast transient, or low amplitude sounds.

One attempt to modify the lack of sensitivity problem is the ribbon element. There are a few ribbon "studio standards" and their characteristics are worth experimenting with. They are not, however, particularly durable.

This is where condenser microphones come into our collections. Condensers are usually more sensitive and more fragile than dynamic microphones. They are often considerably more durable than ribbons. Condenser microphones need a power supply (either phantom or battery) and they have active electronics (this is where the tube vs. transistor argument begins and I go find a good cup of coffee). I'm particularly fond of condenser mikes because they specialize in doing what I like to do. It's possible to find a reasonably priced condenser mike that can do a wide variety of jobs, either through removable capsules or switchable polarity patterns. At their best, condenser microphones can be very sensitive, accurate, and versatile.

With all the technical stuff behind us, the way to "find" a good cheap microphone is to follow your ears. Listen to it. Bring some favorite mikes along and your best headphones or near field monitors and do your own mini comparison testing. Bring a DAT or a good pro portable deck along to record your test. Don't trust the headphones for isolation from the live sound. Don't trust your aural memory for comparisons. If you are looking for an instrument mike, bring the instrument.

Where do you find good buys on cheap microphones?

The best place to find a rare deal on a great mike is at a great music or pro equipment store. I mean this. No sucking up intended. If you know a store that will let you go into a quiet room to do your testing or take the mike home for an evening, don't worry about saving a few bucks on the price. These guys are your best friends. I will almost guarantee that, if you can spend the time to do quality comparison shopping, you'll save major money with your choices.

If we're talking going the cheap route, no one who knows me would expect me to pass up buying used. Sometimes, you can save incredible chunks of money by picking up a little known gem through the want ads or in a pawn shop. You may not find any monster bargains on Neumann's, AKGs, Telefunkens, B&Ks, or even Sennheisers, but you might escape with a killer deal on a Sony or some other lesser noticed manufacturer. Pawn shop guys must have a network that provides them with the highest possible price that a trendy mike might bring, on the best day in uptown NYC. It can be easier to get a good deal on new stuff than a beater that the dealer thinks is a collector's item.

Most music stores don't seem to carry used mikes. I've heard at least one store owner say "used microphones are a lot like used harmonicas." While there might be some kind of health issue involved, there are lots of ways to decontaminate materials and I think it's worth the effort. However, this route has major drawbacks. You probably won't get to do any kind of comparison testing until you get home. You won't know if the unit even works, most likely. You might not get a guarantee that will last beyond the doors of the shop. So keep all that in mind and include possible repair costs in your offer.

For example, I paid $25 for a beater EV RE-18. It worked, but something was loose in the case. I sent it back to EV, paid another $40 for repairs and ended up with one of my favorite general purpose (live or recording) mikes for $65. The dealer wanted to tell me the mike was a $300 list price mike and ought to be worth at least $150 used, but I passed. He hung on to it for a couple of months and, finally, dumped it on me in a moment of weakness. It happens.

A few sterling examples

Without naming names and condemning the innocent, here is a short list of low-to-mid-priced microphones that I've found in a variety of studios:

  • EV N/D57, N/D408A, N/D408B, 635, RE-20, RE-10, RE-16, RE-15, RE-18, RE-27N/D, PL6
  • Audio Technica AT4050, AT4033, ATM15a, ATM10a, ATM31a, ATM813, ATM63
  • Sony C-535P
  • Carvin CM67, 68
  • Peavey PVM380N
  • Crown PZM, PCC-160, PCC-200
  • Realistic Various PZMs (often modified for pro use)
  • Shure SM-57/58, SM-33, SM-53, BETA 56, BETA 52, SM-7, SM-5B545
  • Beyer M500, M160, M260. M88

This isn't a recommendation list. It's just a list of mikes I found on the equipment sheets of several well respected studios. There are a lot more models to choose from and nothing should keep you from making your own list. [In more recent years, some of these mics, especially the Beyers and Sonys, have made a price-comeback and are no longer “cheap.” In fact, I just sold my Teac ME120’s for $400 for the pair, about 4X what they cost new and 10X what they would have cost used when I wrote this article.]

For me, all this is one of the most interesting things about recording. Microphones are musical instruments. They're fun to own, play with, and use. Microphone technique is a vanishing art, especially as we all go into our basements and bedrooms and leave professionally designed rooms. Learn how to pick 'em and use 'em and you will have a talent that will be reflected in your recordings.

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.