Monday, May 20, 2013

Fair Comparisons

Years ago, I built a specialized test box for QSC Audio Products; an ABX tester. At the time, I thought that box was one of the coolest things I'd ever built and I used it as carelessly as any kid ever abused a toy. Because I didn't want any arguments about noise or distortion in the signal path, I used insanely expensive relays for the low signal switching mechanism and because they are make-before-break and mercury-whetted, switching "artifacts" were minimal unless the products under test had significant DC offset. The contacts themselves were gold-plated silver and the cases were hermetically sealed.

The high output relays were also silver contact, gold-plated but they were considerably less sophisticated, since they had to be able to withstand several amps of switching current with high power amplifiers. Later, the company produced a commercial version of the ABX tester for sales representative use and that product has received a lot of comment (mostly uninformed) on the internet:

A friend, Rob Schlette, did a well-informed article about some software based ABX testers for TheProAudioFiles.com ), Audio Perception and ABX Testing, a while back and that's a pretty good place to start your own thoughts about the subject.

A few of us--Jake Swanson (S&M Audio), Aaron Hodgson (McNally Smith Record Lab Manager), and I--recently revitalized the ABX tester for use at McNally Smith College of Music. I haven't had a chance to mess with the new unit, but I'm sure it will raise eyebrows and piss off "professionals" every bit as much as did the original QSC product.

Monday, May 13, 2013

REVIEW: Electro-Voice RE18

Electro-Voice was once one of the great American audio companies who pioneered much of the technology that we use everyday. Like RCA, Shure, JBL, Altec-Lansing, AT&T and Bell Telephone, EV was once an industry leader who created products with reputations that would out-live the company's ability to sustain that kind of brilliance.

A few years ago, one of my classes took on the task of identifying the best hand-held vocal mic available. We had an opportunity to look at Neuman's KMS 104/105s, Sennheiser's e 965, Shure's KSM9, EV's RE-410, and the usual suspects of dynamics (SM58, SM57, etc.). The end result of that test was that we recommended the school buy several of the Sennheiser microphone.

After the test was completed, we continued to play with the Neuman and Sennheiser in a variety of live applications. One result of that activity was the paranoid-seeming warning in my shootout write-up: "WARNING! There is one big downside to using condensers in a live environment that should be discussed before you ever consider this adventure: cables and phantom power. The live environment is not conducive to cable integrity and 48VDC can deliver a driver-shattering blast when it is toggled off and on through a defective mic cable. Before using a hand-held condenser on stage, you should be very careful in selecting the mic cable for this application and consider the talent and cable-abuse-tendencies of the performer. If there was ever a good time to consider quad-star mic cables, this is probably it." As much as I love condenser microphones in all of their musically accurate glory, cheap cables and live sound and condensers do not mix well.

The school's live stage equipment is pretty abused and marginally maintained, so my recommendation to buy the e965s was probably less enthusiastic than it might have been after a few near-catestrophic phantom-popping events. One result from those moments was that I included a pair of my personal RE-18's in a later comparison. While I have always loved these microphones, it was eye-opening to hear my ancient (1980's vintage) microphones stood up to the best modern technology. At first, all of us had difficulty telling the Sennheiser from the EV. The clarity of both microphones was head-and-shoulders above the usual SM58 muddle, but the RE-18's lack of proximity and sibilance control was noticably better than the Sennheiser. Handling noise was also better in the EV. In the hands of one of the school's best vocal instructor/performers, the EV performed like a studio microphone; providing incredible isolation from the stage instrumentation and near-transparent reproduction of her voice.

If you look at the RE-18's spec sheet, you'll find that the manufacturer provided a collection of specifications that are uncommon in today's market. My favorite nearly-non-existent specification is "off-axis reponse." This is never a pretty chart, as much as we'd like to imagine cardioid microphones are really cardioid. As ugly as it is, this chart (left) is about as good as it gets in vocal microphones.  With as little as 15dB of off-axis rejection in the upper-range and 50-150Hz and as much as 20-30dB in the upper mid-range to 10kHz, the RE-18 is a very directional microphone. There is no specification for shock-isolation, but the RE-18 is multiply rubber-mounted from case: everything from the step-up transformer to the element are shock-mounted and handling noise is all but non-existent.

If you would like a general description of the RE-18, S.O. Coutant does a fine job on his excellent microphones website: http://www.coutant.org/evre18/index.html. However, the best sonic description I can provide is "clarity." Voices through the RE-18 cut through the mix without equalization or a particularly high level. Like the condenser hand-helds, the RE-18 does not provide the low-mid honk of the SM-58 and that is what many live engineers have come to describe as "presence" on their way to hearing impairment.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Follow-Up: Handheld Vocal Mic Shootout

In reference to the Handheld Vocal Mic Shootout article, a reader asked "If I may ask, do you recall if, during  the shows that you mention in that article, the performers were using in-ear monitoring? I have a Shure Beta 58 which I kind of like (I'm a dramatic tenor, amateur), and what I've heard from the e965 is quite impressing. I am just a bit afraid of running into feedback issues quite soon."

To be blunt, this question brings up a lot of peeves of mine that I currently feel totally free to vent. So, if you are a live guy do what you always do; cover your ears. This will be uncomfortable and actual information as opposed to the superstitions you usually depend upon. Feedback and in-ear monitors are a double-edged sword as are condenser microphones. A lot of live sound people have no clue how gain works and because of that grossly misuse microphones, monitors of all sorts, and gain structure. Educating them is a losing battle and one I have no interest in taking on.

On stage and in the audience, the only feedback number that matters is dBSPL, not the dB values from either preamps or monitor or main trim or fader levels. Anyone who believes otherwise is foolish and uninformed. Beware of foolish or uninformed FOH or monitor "engineers": they appear to be the majority population of that sad "profession." That said, in-ear monitors should resolve a lot of feedback issues on stage (although they offer no particular feedback advantage for the FOH system). The second side of that sword appears when stage volume (not gain) is so high that a feedback loop between the in-ear leakage and the microphone causes the system to squeal. Not only is that painful, but it can be permanently damaging. For that reason, many in-ear artists carry their own monitor system and provide themselves with a monitor mix outside of the mess the monitor guy pukes up.

Regarding condensers and in-ear monitors, do not disregard the original article's caution:
WARNING! There is one big downside to using condensers in a live environment that should be discussed before you ever consider this adventure: cables and phantom power. The live environment is not conducive to cable integrity and 48VDC can deliver a driver-shattering blast when it is toggled off and on through a defective mic cable. Before using a hand-held condenser on stage, you should be very careful in selecting the mic cable for this application and consider the talent and cable-abuse-tendencies of the performer. If there was ever a good time to consider quad-star mic cables, this is probably it.

This is huge when that phantom pop is delivered directly to your ears. One bad cable could be all there is between you and going deaf.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Handheld Vocal Mic Shootout


This test was originally recorded on the Wirebender Audio Systems website. Currently, that page is live and contains pictures and other data that could be useful to you. However, the Wirebender site may vanish (along with the business) at any time, which is why I copied the article to the blog. Unfortunately, when the original page goes, most/all of the pictures will go with it. My apologies.

Description

The purpose of this test was two-fold: 1) we want to examine as many high-end vocal mics as possible to see if there is a reason to reconsider the industry “standard” vocal mic (the Shure SM58) as the go-to mic for all vocal situations and 2) if there was a clear winner I wanted to be able to confidently make a recommendation for a number of these microphones for use in our auditorium.

This is a subject near-and-dear to me. For most of my musical life, I've been disappointed with vocalists' (lack of) professionalism. If a guitar player, horn player, drummer, or even a keyboardist showed up at a gig or even a practice without an instrument, every other musician at the gig would be somewhere between unimpressed and disgusted by that lack of concern. A vocalist shows up no more prepared to put her best performance forward and everyone seems to think, "Awww, isn't that cute. The poor little singer needs someone to pick a mic for him." At best, we can expect a vocalist to believe that the world revolves around the output of a Shure SM58 and we consider that to be as good as it gets for singers. Again, no other musician gets to be this unaware of their primary instrument and still be considered "professional."

Like every other musical instrument, there is a "garbage in, garbage out" aspect to picking a microphone for a live or recorded performance, but that shouldn't stop a professional singer from knowing which instrument best reproduces or enhances her voice. A vocalist showing up with his own microphone just doesn't happen often enough to make me think vocalists are professional musicians, as a group. The fact that so few vocalists even know there is a difference between one mic and a hundred others is really depressing.

Part of the problem is that many live engineers don't know the difference between a mediocre vocal mic and the choices available. An engineer I work with told me that he can't think of a reason to leave the "standard." A client he works with regularly drives radio listeners crazy with the nasal, sucking sound the 58's midrange boost adds to the client's speaking voice. I guess that has become a trademark, but it keeps me from listening to the show even though I like a lot of the content. Convincing live guys to try a better mic is as difficult as convincing the artists to care about their sound.

With that bias out in the open, I'm ready to talk about this extended test. The premise of the test was "quality matters," even in a live music environment. The McNally Smith College of Music's auditorium is notorious for being vocalist hostile. There are 180Hz and several lower midrange resonances in the room that "harmonize" with similar bumps in the SM58 vocal mics that we usually use. That contributes to a muddy and honking tone that effects every vocalist who attempts to sing in that room. Not all vocalists are damaged equally. However, the more subtle the performance, the less appropriate the SM58 becomes for that task.

WARNING! There is one big downside to using condensers in a live environment that should be discussed before you ever consider this adventure: cables and phantom power. The live environment is not conducive to cable integrity and 48VDC can deliver a driver-shattering blast when it is toggled off and on through a defective mic cable. Before using a hand-held condenser on stage, you should be very careful in selecting the mic cable for this application and consider the talent and cable-abuse-tendencies of the performer. If there was ever a good time to consider quad-star mic cables, this is probably it.

The four hand-held vocal mics in this test are ElectroVoice's RE410, Shure's KSM9, Sennheiser's e965, and Neumann's KMS 105. The price range is from $200 (RE410) to $700 (street prices on all samples). All four microphones are cardioid condensers, the Shure and EV are electret condensers and the Neumann is a "DC-polarized . . . condenser " and the Sennheiser is an "externally polarized" 1-inch dual diaphragm condenser microphone. All four samples were well wind-screened, pop-filtered, durable appearing, and comfortable to hold. All four are audio frequency (AF) biased condensers. The heaviest was the Sennheiser at 396g and the lightest was the EV at 260g and the other two weighed in at 300g (the SM58 weighs 298g). All of our samples feel larger than the SM58 and a few vocalists commented on that ("This is a big microphone."); they are all about 20mm longer than a 58. With the screens on, all of the samples have a similar appearance, shape, and feel. (NOTE: All of the pictures on this page can be examined in greater detail by clicking on the picture.)

On the inside, there are some noticeable differences. The Sennheiser and the Shure take a similar approach to shock-mounting the capsule. The capsule body narrows to a thin neck near the body of the microphone, where it is rubber-mounted to the mic's body. The Neumann capsule appears to fit through an o-ring into the body. The EV capsule is suspended on a tripod stem-mounting. The finish of the Neumann and Shure are works of art, aside from being microphones. The Sennheiser is a lot more utilitarian, but still very substantial looking. The EV capsule looks cheap, in comparison to the other mics, but appears to be well-mounted and durable.

There are 3 different approaches to pop filtering taken by the 4 manufacturers. The Shure and Sennheiser use a relatively thick and dense foam inside the metal grill. The Neumann uses three layers of grill work--from the outer structural grill to an inner fine metal grill to a very fine nylon screen housing--as "carefully adjusted acoustic filters" to minimize plosives and sibilance. The RE410 EV has the simplest system; a thin foam filter lining the grill and another layer of foam applied directly to the face of the capsule.

The EV and Neumann come in cardioid (RE410 and KMS 105) or super-cardioid (RE510 and KMS 105) versions. The Sennheiser and Shure have switchable polar patterns: cardioid and super-cardioid. The switches are just inside the grills. The Sennheiser also has a high-pass and -10dB preattenuator switches inside the grill. This is an exceptionally intelligent place to hide these switches, since they can't accidentally be operated by a user.

The four manufacturers took three different storage attitudes toward these high-end vocal mics. Shure ships the KSM9 in an aluminum road case. Neumann ships the KMS 105 in a narrow slightly padded nylon case, similar to a small tool case. EV and Sennheiser both package their mics in the usual zipper bag. The Shure case is, obviously, better protection but a microphone bag is more likely to be the kind of case used for a touring mic.

We did some totally subjective "quality and performance" tests, first. With the sensitivities calibrated to equal values in the sound system, I put each mic's pop filters, handling noise, gain-before-feedback, selectivity, and other characteristics to the test. Since this was a subjective test, our measurement values are equally subjective. As a reference, we used a new Shure SM58 and a Mojave MA-200.

Then, we followed the performance tests with a listening test. This is, of course, even more subjective. Our test voice was a strong female vocal and she did a terrific job of repeating her performance from mic-to-mic. I'm not going to put a lot of weight on the "favorite" mic in this test, but I do think it is important to note that all four of our test mics were unanimously voted to be improvements over the SM58 and all four test mics were less popular than the studio microphone, the Mojave MA-200. Even through an auditorium PA, in a variety of listening positions, those selections were consistent.

In a particularly well-considered listening test, Pete Greenlund suggested that we all pick our two favorite mics with our test voice. Every vote included the Sennheiser e965, so we'd consider that our official "winner," for whatever that is worth. Likewise, in every test the SM58 was a clear "loser." No one picked the 58 as one of their two favorites.

Outside the semi-clinical test, we tested the microphones in a variety of performances. The best experiment was a vocal department showcase where several male and female vocalists performed a variety of genres; from stark 3-piece songbook jazz to rock to a full-out pre-produced R&B/Gospel number. Everyone who heard that show noticed the difference in how easily the vocals found a prominent place in the mix, without the usual EQ games and the associated irritation factor. Again, I don't think it makes sense to pick a winner from this experiment. It's more important to note that the overwhelming loser was the "standard" and that it was clear to everyone how complete that defeat was. If there was any question before, after this performance it was clear that upgrading the quality of a vocal mic makes a dramatic difference in the sound quality of the overall performance. The subtlety of the voices was dramatically improved. You could hear more emotion in the voices, more air and breath, and the voices didn't have to be pushed as hard into the mix as with the SM58. The quality of the whole sound system seemed to be improved by the vocal performances.

From another evaluation perspective, this show was also mixed for the school's iTunes U site. I mixed that show and, as in the auditorium, it was a lot easier to find a place for the vocals and to optimize them for the video. Again, there was no comparison between the output of any of these four condensers and my past experience with the SM58. Just as there are only certain applications for a mid-sized dynamic vocal mic in the studio, you can make a case for limiting its use in a live environment. When the application fits, the 58 is a fine choice. It is a durable, well-regarded, always dependable, somewhat limited vocal microphone and, as long as you know what you are getting, you can use it appropriately. When a vocalist knows how to use a microphone to get the most out of her voice, our test proved that it's worth upgrading to take advantage of the talent.

Microphones Under Test

ElectroVoice RE410 List $320 $199 Street

Physical Description & Initial Impressions

At $200, the RE410 is about 28% of the cost of the other test mics. The other manufacturers (except Neumann) have vocal condensers in this price range, so the RE410 is unfairly out of its price range. However, the mic’s performance kept it in the game through all of the tests.

The capsule construction is not nearly as elaborate as the other 3 mics, but it appears to be durable and well-isolated from the body. The pop filter is the usual metal screen lined with a relatively thin foam filter and a 2nd layer of foam is applied directly to the surface of the capsule. The outer screen is ringed with EV’s rubber bumper design, to protect the screen from damage when the mic is dropped. The mic body is “EV’s Warm-Grip handle.” The RE410 is the lightest of our test mics, something that a couple of vocalists appreciated.

Specifications

Transducer: Self-Biased Condenser
Polar Pattern: Cardioid
Frequency Response: 50Hz to 20kHz
Sensitivity: 4mV/Pa
Maximum Input Sound Level: >140dBSPL
Power Requirements: 24 to 48 VDC
Output Impedance: 250 Ohms
Dimensions: 7.15 x 2.0" (182 x 51mm) (Length x Diameter)
Weight: 9.2 oz (260 grams)

Application Impression

Like all of our test mics, every listening test proved an improvement over the “standard.” The EV had a slightly subdued top, less bright (or “harsh”) than either the Shure or the Neumann, and less present than the Sennheiser. The EV’s pop filtering worked better than either the Shure or Sennheiser, but that double filter might have contributed to the feeling that the RE410 has less presence than the other mics. The handling noise was lowest on the EV. It seemed to have the most proximity boost, which some vocalists took advantage of and those with better technique didn’t notice.

If you’re on a budget, the RE410 is almost insignificantly more expensive than an SM58 and is a dramatic improvement in sound quality. I think the fact that this mic held its own with more expensive models proves that looking at the rest of that price range (AKG’s C5 & C535EB, EV’s RE510, Sennheiser’s e865, Shure’s Beta 87A/C & SM86, for example) would be a useful experiment.

Neumann KMS 105 $998 List, $699 Street

Physical Description & Initial Impressions

The KMS 105 is a single diaphram, “DC-polarized studio condenser capsule,” super-cardioid-only microphone. (There is a cardioid version, the KMS 104.) All the microphones in this evaluation have a similar profile which is conducive for traditional hand-held vocalists but somewhat difficult for a rap/rock vocalist to grip in their preferred manner.

The 105 has the most complex pop/wind filter of the four mics we tested. The first level of filtering is a fairly coarse, durable metal screen. Inside that, about half the distance to the capsule, is a much finer metal screen, and directly over the capsule, suspended about ¼” above the capsule surface is an even finer nylon screen. There is no foam used anywhere in the 105’s filtering system, according to Neumann this eliminates ‘clouding’ or ‘muffling’ of the sound.” The capsule is more solidly mounted to the microphone body than the other three examples. This could result in higher handling noise and less durability, since the element appears to be less isolated from the body.

Specifications

Transducer: DC-Polarized Pressure Gradient Condenser
Polar Pattern: Supercardioid
Frequency Response: 20 Hz - 20 kHz
Sensitivity: 4.5 mV/Pa
Maximum Input Sound Level: 150 dB, 0.5% THD
Power Requirements: Phantom 48v +/-4v, 3.5 mA
Output Impedance: 50 Ohms
Dimensions: 7” x 1.8" ( 180 x 48mm)
Weight: 10.5 oz. (297.5 g)

Application Impression

Our subjective test of characteristics like handling and wind noise, plosive and sibilance, and proximity effect indicated that the KMS 105 was at the low end of the group’s performance. In practical application, none of those things were an issue with this microphone. Possibly, because our show vocalists were talented and, possibly, because they were able to get what they wanted from the microphone without eating the mic, solo’ing up the vocal mic on a very stage-active performance illustrated that this is a quiet, present, very natural sounding microphone.

Neumann generates a lot of loyalty and some of us really wanted it to sound better than the competition, just out of a misguided sense of history. Neumann’s typically high prices have an ability to generate “you get what you pay for” reactions, too. In application, the KMS 105 did not disappoint. Male and female vocals through this microphone are easily placed in the mix and present even when they are substantially below normal levels.

Sennheser e965 $1050 List $699 Street

Physical Description & Initial Impressions

The Sennheiser e965 uses a traditional metal grill with a foam filter lining the grill. In our sample, the threads securing the pop filter to the body of the mix used the coarsest threads of the four microphones, but those threads seemed to be either damaged or self-locking, as the filter would not easily screw all the way to the body.

The e965 is a dual-capsule, programmable polarity microphone with switches inside the pop filter to select cardioid or super-cardioid polar patterns, a high pass filter, and a -10dB preattenuator. The switches are small, but easily actuated and the labeling is clear. The capsule is nicely shock-mounted on a rubber pedestal, which should protect the microphone from drop-damage and vibration and handling sensitivity.

Specifications

Transducer: Externally polarized 1” dual diaphragm AF condenser microphone
Polar Pattern: Cardioid/super-cardioid, switchable
Frequency Response: 40Hz to 20,000Hz
Sensitivity: 7 mV/Pa (2,3 mV/Pa) (with preattenuation)
Maximum Input Sound Level: 142 dB (152 dB) (with preattenuation)
Power Requirements: 48 V/ 3,5 mA
Output Impedance: 1000Ω
Dimensions: 1.89 x 7.83" (48 x 199mm)
Weight: 13.97 oz (396g)

Application Impression

The multiple pattern capacity impressed every live guy who saw it. The fact that the mic includes a high-pass filter, preattenuation (and a very high MaxSPL), and is stage-invisible black only added to the attraction.

The e965 was the winner in our super-subjective, one-act listening test. Everyone voted it as one of their two favorites. In a live performance, I’d say all of those votes were well-founded. Used on male and female vocals, the e965 allowed those voices to sail over the top of the mix. For both lead and background vocals, there is nothing bad to say about this microphone.

Shure KSM9 $875 List $699 Street

Physical Description & Initial Impressions

Of all of the test microphones, the KMS9 is the prettiest construction. The capsule and body interior are polished to a high satin finish and users can’t help but be impressed with the solid feel of this microphone. The pop filter is the usual metal screen linked with a relatively thick foam. The dual element condensor can be programmed to cardioid or super-cardioid, with a switch located below the capsule and inside the pop filter. Like the e965, the KSM9’s capsule is rubber mounted on a pedestal and appears to be durable and handling-isolated.

Specifications

Transducer: Condenser (Electret Biased)
Polar Pattern: Cardioid / Supercardioid switchable
Frequency Response: 50Hz to 20kHz
Sensitivity: -51 dBV/Pa (2.8mV/Pa)
Maximum Input Sound Level: 152 dB
Power Requirements: 48 Vdc +/- 4 Vdc, 5.2 mA typical at 48 Vdc
Output Impedance: 150 ohms
Dimensions: 1.92 x 7.51" (49 x 191mm)
Weight: 300 grams (10.6 oz)

Application Impression

My first live show experience with the KSM9 was pretty depressing. The mic did a fine job, when it was allowed to do a job. However, the vocalist was a hiphop artist who insisted on wrapping his hand around the pop filter and smashing his face into the front of the screen. Still, the KSM9 did a better job than a 58 would have done with the same task. Regardless, the vocalist was incomprehensible (probably his intention) for the majority of the show.

The next opportunity for the Shure was much more musical. Again, used on male and female lead vocals, the KSM9 performed beautifully. In our listening test, the Shure and the Neumann tied for points. In fact, some listeners commented that they couldn’t tell the two apart.

Overall Test Impressions

After calibrating all of the microphones for equal output through our sound system (using a tone generator and the console metering), one of the Live Sound classes performed some totally subjective tests of a variety of specifications and used equally subjective terms to describe their impressions:



  • The “Handling” noise test was simply a repeated finger drumming on the body of each microphone with our test subjects voting for their impression of the amount of noise transmitted into the sound system (“ugly” is worse than “bad”).
  • The “Wind” noise was a burst of breath from the same distance (3.5”) into each mic, with our test subjects evaluating the amount and offensive-ness of energy in the sound system.
  • “Pop” was a fixed distance (3.5”) test with the words “pop” and “burst” spoken into each mic.
  • “Syb” was a fixed distance (3.5”) sibilance test test with the words “see” and “snake” spoken into each mic.
  • “Voice” was a quality evaluation with a female vocalist as the signal source. This test allowed all of the test subjects to select their two favorite microphones and that data was sorted to determine which mics received the most votes. The SM58 received no votes.
  • The proximity (“Prox”) test was a subjective evaluation of the bass buildup as a test voice moved from 1' to an inch. There was also attention paid to the mic's pickup of surrounding sounds, so some of the rating included a pattern and rejection evaluation.
  • The “Gain before Feedback” test was done with a variety of preamp settings, not particularly related to the microphones’ sensitivity and with a monitor EQ set for our SM58s. As such, the test was imperfect but provided some information..

  • Again, obviously these are subjective evaluations. Some of the tests were made more complicated by the fact that our Live Department has a convention of putting all faders at unity while adjusting preamplifier gains for “optimal” signal. That makes figuring out some of the gain relationships difficult (see the “Gain before Feedback” test) to interpret. However, the SPL measurements were straightforward. While a vocalist sang into each mic, the mic gain was increased until the system began to feedback. At that point, the SPL was measured.
    In editing the audio recordings made with these microphones for the school’s iTunes U website, I needed minimal HP filtering to remove unwanted stage and vocal noise from the performance. The isolation was excellent and the vocalists’ tone was a dramatic improvement over past experiences. In contrast, the same task on an SM58 vocal requires substantial EQ at a variety of frequencies to remove the occasional plosive and sibilance burst, the nasal quality of most vocals, and the usual handling noises, along with gating or muting to get rid of the bleed from the rest of the stage.

    I expected these microphones to make a noticeable difference in performance quality. My go-to live vocal mics have been EV RE18s and RE16s for three decades. I was surprised at how much difference these four microphones could make on a stage, but the reaction from the rest of the people involved in those live performances was dramatic. Without exception, everyone was blown away with how good our school’s sound system could sound. All through the vocal department showcase, the technical people involved in the production commented on how clear, present, and powerful the whole mix sounded. Vocals are the most important instrument in the mix and putting an investment into vocals pays big dividends.

    5/1/2013 NOTE: This test was conducted two years ago. Since then, some industry and competitive things have happened that might make me review some of the contestants, assumptions, and winners/losers. When the Neumann/Sennheiser rep was informed of our results he wasn't even a little surprised that the e965 beat out the 105. In fact, the Neumann people had requested their own e965 to see what made it such an overwhelming choice of non-deaf sound professionals (a rarity) and vocalists.

    Minneapois Foundation - Reset Education PSA

    One of the cooler (and more challenging) things I have done with my McNally Smith College Location Recording class (thanks to Andy Halvorson) was recording a 50-kid children's chorus in the school's auditorium for the Minneapolis Foundation. Acoustically, the auditorium is difficult, at best. The choir leader didn't want either a click track or to listen to or have a reference track in the monitors for the kids to sync to or obtain pitch from. Originally, the concept was that the choir would be part of an orchestration, but the final ad only uses the choir mix. We did multiple takes and several versions would have been acceptable performances.

    This is the PSA that came out of that recording session:

    Wednesday, May 1, 2013

    Educational Theory

    I have a theory (surprise!) about traditional education. Academia is, contrary to popular opinion and its own self-image, always behind the curve. Because of the "accreditation" and "credentials" hang-ups, it's all-but-impossible for traditional universities to hire people who actually know something useful. So, by the time one of these institutions figures out that an industry has a need for qualified, trained, and skilled entry-level employees, the industry is practically historic and the need is long gone.

    Here, for example, is a job posting for an instructor in a substantial state school:

    Position: Assistant Professor of Music Technology (Tenure –Track)
    Department: Music 

    Rate: Minimum Starting $46,400
     

    SUMMARY: The faculty in this position must have a strong commitment to teaching excellence, creative activity, scholarship, student advisement, and university and community service.
     

    DUTIES & RESPONSIBILITIES: Faculty contractual duties include, but are not limited to:
     Teach a full load of Music courses equivalent to four courses (12 credit hours) per semester or eight (24 credit hours) per academic year;
     Teach and /or oversee the teaching of music education courses such as instrumental conducting, instrumental techniques, and music education techniques;
     Provide leadership and recruitment of students who major in music technology, composition, and education;
     Participate in professional music education organizations, fostering relationships with local and state secondary school music programs;
     Procure and maintain music technology equipment and software, musical instruments, and instrumental music library materials;
     Observe Field Base Level III music students as they near graduation;
     Direct student instrumental wind and jazz ensembles;
     Instruct applied brass and/or bass in a variety of styles, including jazz;
     Advise students;
     May be assigned to teach evening and/or Saturday classes, courses via ITV, and/or develop and teach Desire to Learn courses;
     May be assigned to supervise field experiences;
     Develop and maintain collaborative and professional partnerships/relationships with local schools and provide service at the university, state, local and national levels;
     Hold office hours as required;
     Direct and/or supervise student research, independent study, field project, and thesis;
     Serve on faculty or University committees;
     Conduct scholarly activities such as research in a particular field of knowledge and submit findings for publication and/or presentation at professional conferences;
     Maintain regular attendance;
     Perform other related duties as assigned.
     

    MINIMUM QUALIFICATIONS:
    EDUCATION: Doctorate in Music and/or Music Education
    EXPERIENCE: Five (5) years of teaching music technology and education courses, conducting instrumental ensembles, and teaching applied instrumental and composition lessons.


    In addition to the minimum qualifications, preference will be given to the following:
    o Demonstrated experience in composing and performing music for live performances, recording, editing and producing recorded music using the latest computer software programs
    o Experience teaching digital audio recording, production, editing and notation software;
    o Demonstrated experience excelling as a team member with good communication skills while maintaining personable relationships with educators and students;
    o Demonstrated experience in facilitating improvements in music curricula;
    o Experience with event planning associated with music concert performances;
    o Experience participating in recruiting events and public music performances.
     

    KNOWLEDGE, SKILLS AND ABILITIES Skill and expertise in the classroom;
     Ability in the use of technologies and/or strategies to enhance pedagogy;
     Ability to work effectively with a culturally-diverse student body;
     Ability to develop effective methodology for the integration of teaching and research;
     Ability to demonstrate excellent communication skills;
     Ability to teach undergraduate and graduate level courses;
     Ability to supervise undergraduate and graduate student research.


    Presumably, this "instructor" is going to be useful to students as some sort of credible resource, but how is that possible? What would someone with a "Doctorate in Music and/or Music Education" and "Five (5) years of teaching music technology and education courses . . . " know that would be useful to a prospective professional recording engineer or producer? The answer is obvious, isn't it? Not to academia.

    A lot of this comes from a wrong-headed delusion that is core to academia: the disconnect between what students want and expect and what educators imagine they want. Students have bought into the fantasy that "education is important." The kinds of numbers educators promote are based on some pretty sketchy numbers games. When students ask colleges to accept some of the risk, they get nothing but blank stares from those risk-adverse institutions. And for good reason, the connection between higher education and earnings are nebulous, at best. A few years back, I read an article that claimed that if you remove the "honorary" PhDs from the educated side of the ledger, the payback for higher education falls to nearly non-existent. When the Steve Jobs, Mark Zukerbers, George Soros, Richard Bransons, Bill Gates, Warren Buffetts, Steve Woziniaks, and the rest of the incredibly rich honorary PhDs are reduced to their dropout or BA status, it's possible to suspect that spending a lot of time in class might be a mistake. In some professions, it is.

    So, my theory is "Any time you see a profession that is academically represented by people who should be in the prime of their careers, that profession is obsolete." It's also possible that any profession that is thoroughly ensconced in academia is history.

    A while back, I got involved in a "discussion" on the AES Faculty Advisor newsgroup after I'd recommended an excellent instructor who had recently become "available for employment." When I mentioned that he had everything going for him except a college degree, several of the discussion participants chimed in that a recording engineering "terminal degree" was absolutely necessary in their institutions. When I suggested that educational paperwork was pretty much a non-issue in the industry, one instructor replied with "Well, what we're selling students is a degree, so I think it's pretty important from our standpoint." I guess I was wrong. I always thought we were trying to teach kids how do to useful work?

    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.