Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Making Real Music

A few years ago, a good and perceptive friend remarked that a point was passed about two decades ago where (then) musicians made music and engineers tried not to screw up the performance with limited and unreliable technology and (now) musicians make limited and flawed attempts at providing aural content for the engineers to turn into music. This is not a brag, but a sad commentary on the state of what’s left of the art of making pop music.

This month’s ProSoundNews has a wonderful front page article titled, “Seeing the Small Picture” that describes the half-hearted attempts some engineers and musicians are making to reverse this disgusting trend. Some of the highlights of this excellent article from the Sound Quality Matters event described a scene where “Engineers face the same sort of conundrums. Too man options slow progress. Unfortunately, musicians know that their contributions can be endlessly finessed—by the engineer as opposed to them polishing their own performance. That knowledge multiplied by a room full of players can turn an efficient session into a quagmire of minutia. Then you add a producer who is satisfied to play with the recorded tracks ad nauseam, rather than entice the desired performance out of a human being. The same morasses of options that can drag a tracking session down apply to the mix stage as well. Particular after overdriven tracking and overdub sessions, the mix engineer can have too many details to deal with, too many tracks, too many choices and possibly tracks overproduced to the level of sterility.” Chuck Ainlay summed up the dead music problem’s solution with, “The less you do as an engineer, the better the record.” The Orson Welles/Stephen Webber comment, “The absence of limitations is the enemy of art” carries some significant impact, too.

This is not, however, the direction what passes for “recording engineer education” is taking. I have a sense that somewhere there has been an industry/academic consensus that the Eagles’ “Hotel California” is the greatest record ever produced and that “edit every syllable until the song is completely lifeless” attitude is considered state of the art. Not being any kind of Eagles fan, I missed the meeting or was not invited because I’m not a “true believer.” (The only image I pull up from hearing anything from Hotel California is Ronald Reagan and his merry band of economic and cultural bandits, so it’s not high on my list of fond aural memories.)

Debating “good music” and recording engineering philosophy with 19-year-olds is a depressing activity/occupation. These kids have grown up believing that stringing together loops in Garageband is “making music.” It’s how their heroes do it, so why shouldn’t they buy into this bullshit? I admit, I’m not a modern poetry fan and I really don’t like monotonic, monotonous, childish, whining chit-chat scored with an irritating, repetitive “beat,” so what do I know? Not much, I admit. But I’m willing to bet that this generation of “music” is going to be poorly reflected on in a couple of decades. Like the “lost generation” of No Kid’s Behind Left Untouched, this has been largely a lost generation of music; music by machines for machines.

However, if you are a recording engineer with an interest in music that actually has life, I strongly recommend you read and think about “Seeing the Small Picture.” If you are a Pro Tools certified douchebag who believes musicians are just the data source for your brilliant sonic manipulations and amazing plug-in and keystroke chops, none of this will mean anything and you should carry on with your hobby in your mom’s basement until the trust fund runs its course.

 

The author, Frank Wells, sums up the state of current confusion with, “Ponder how many of the recordings you love best are based on simple arrangements of honest, if imperfect, performances.” In fact, all of my favorite recordings have serious imperfections that make them as close to “perfect” as I can imagine.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Microphone References

Microphones are my favorite electro-mechanical devices.  For almost ten years, I taught "Microphones: Theory and Application" at McNally Smith College and I have been fascinated with these funky and personable devices since I first discovered reproduced and reinforced sound in the early 1960’s.  I've evaluated the microphones included in this column exclusively in recording studio environments, unless otherwise indicated.  Often, my evaluations were conducted during recording sessions or in classroom experiments.  Like all reviews, much of what I've written is my opinion, based on my experience, listening tastes, personal biases, and the limitations of my ability. I suggest you take all reviews with a small block of salt, mine included. What I might love, you might hate and visa versa.

Some of my favorite texts on this subject are:

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The Microphone Book, John Eargle.  Probably the best modern book on this subject. 

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Getting Great Sounds: The Microphone Book, Tom Lubin. Another solid book on this complicated subject. The first half of the book is dedicated to explaining acoustics, microphone construction, and theory. The rest is application.

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Professional Microphone Techniques, David Miles Huber & Philip Williams (An easy to read, and somewhat simplistic, book with interesting recorded examples on an included CD.)

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Sound Advice on Microphone Techniques, Bill Gibson (A very basic book with an included CD.)

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Microphones Technology & Technique, John Borwick

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Music, Physics, and Engineering, Harry F. Olson

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Sound Recording Handbook, John Woram (out-of-print, but a great reference)

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Microphones: Design and Application, Lou Burroughs (out-of-print, but possibly the best microphone book ever written)

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Microphones for Professional and Semi-Professional Applications, Dr. Ling. Gerhart BorĂ© (Dr. BorĂ© is an ex-Neumann design engineer. However, translated from German, it’s a tough read.)

Perversely, I am a big fan of microphones and have a foolishly large collection of these expensive tools. I'm not a fan of collecting anything, but microphones have captured my heart and imagination. The imperfections caused by the transduction of acoustic energy into electrical energy creates a sonic signature unlike any other device in the audio signal chain except, probably, loudspeakers. Microphones put more of a stamp on a recording than analog vs. digital, digital plug-ins or analog external devices, or any other device in the recording path.

Today, for the first time ever spectacular microphones are available to the ordinary recordist for a reasonable price or, even, outrageously cheap prices. Maybe more than any other reason, it is possible for an amateur recordist or artist to produce a professional sounding product in an unprofessional environment; like a living room. The availability of low cost, high quality microphones is part of the reason that this aspect of recording music has changed so much.

Saturday, June 22, 2013



It's probably a terrible thing to admit, but I enjoy Phish. This is, however, what the Dead sounded like on a good day.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

ONLY THEATRE, NOT REAL LIFE

[A bit if weirdness I imagined while watching the yuppie crowds at Monterey Beach.]

All Rights Reserved © 1999 Thomas W. Day

On a hot Saturday afternoon, a man sat on Cannery Row's sidewalk, near the Monterey Aquarium. The lone unconventional in a conventional place.

In most California cities on summer weekends, prime sidewalk space is covered by street vendors, musicians, jugglers, comedians, beggars, and counter- culture types. Monterey has exiled these misfits to be seen only in comedy shops and bars and mostly-hidden alleys. Serious outcasts live in halfway houses and derelict buildings, their belongings stored in grocery carts. Monterey is a very neat city. Some people clean their homes the same way: little crud under the rug, big crud under the bed.

The man on the sidewalk was an aberration. He was clean, well dressed, and out of the way. The Monterey's Finest would ask him to move, or move him, if he didn't get up and buy something soon.

The man on the sidewalk sat lotus-crossed-legged with an expensive looking, triangular, cloth bag in his lap. His back was against the doorway of an abandoned fish processing plant. He was out of the flow of traffic and bothering no one. He stared straight ahead. He sat quietly. He said nothing and did nothing to attract attention.

He drew a crowd anyway. As when one person stares at the sky, others look up, when one person stopped and looked down at the man on the sidewalk, others stopped and looked down. The longer he sat, the larger his crowd grew. People were drawn to his aura; and to looking down on him.

After a crowd of twenty tourists had gathered around his dingy alcove, he seemed to become aware of their existence. He smiled up at their expectant faces and said, "Welcome to my first performance."

His hands had been resting, open palms up, on his knees. He drew them to the bag resting on his lap. He ran the zipper around the bag and laid it open. The bag was sheepskin-lined and it contained a blue-black, small-caliber, automatic pistol. Using the soft, sheep-fuzz surface of the bag as a work table, he turned the gun so that it pointed away from the crowd. The end of the barrel rested against his navel. He picked up a small cardboard box that was also in the bag and slid it open. It contained dozens of small bullets, nested alternately slug up and slug down. He took three bullets from the box. He removed the clip from the gun and pulled on a button on the side so the bullets could be dropped into a slot on the end. He slid the clip back into the gun. The gun had remained in his lap while he loaded it. His hands had touched the gun only enough to slide the clip into the gun.

The crowd realized that they were standing in front of a man with a loaded gun and they came to life. "What are you going to do?" "Let's get out of here, he's crazy!" "You can't have a loaded gun on the streets of Monterey!" "Somebody should call a cop!" A dozen foreigners said similar things in foreign languages. Or maybe they said completely original things that nobody, besides their companions, understood. The crowd backed away from him and a few of the hoard started to walk quickly down the street.

The man looked into the crowd and said, "Get with it people, I'm an actor. This is theatre. Art. Haven't you ever been to San Francisco? Don't you go to plays, see movies, or watch TV? Don't be so reactionary." His reassurance quieted the crowd and they moved closer again. The people who had started for higher ground stopped and returned to the audience, except a few who didn't understand the actor's English.

The actor was confident. He had presence. He was good looking. He was the only entertainment on the street without a cover charge.

The actor picked up the gun with both hands, carefully keeping the barrel from pointing at the crowd; which meant the gun was always pointing at him.

Someone said, "Be careful with that thing."

The actor spoke without looking at his audience, "This is theatre. Do you know you can still see Walter Brennan, Lee Marvin, Steve McQueen, Ronald Reagan and Rock Hudson in movies? They died in real life, but they are still alive in the theatre. They use real guns and real bullets in movies, but nobody really gets killed. Likewise, I am not a real person, I'm an actor. I can not really die. No one can really die in theatre."

A man in the crowd said, "Looks like a real gun to me. Says Ruger on the barrel and the bullets are Remingtons. Those people make real guns and real bullets. You damn nutso, keep this up and I'm going to call a real cop."

The actor looked into the crowd toward the analytical voice. His expression was tired and pained, his voice was hard and bitter. "This is Art. Use your imagination. Stretch yourself. Nothing can happen without your imagination. You think you see a gun. You imagine you feel tension. Illusion. I have no props, no stage, no supporting actors, no script. I can't see for you. I can't make you nervous. You are doing it all for yourself. This is the purest theatre. I have only you. I only need you, my audience, to make it work. Actors need an audience like bacon needs a butcher. Like hoboes need railroads. Like politicians need graft. Like young-upwardly-mobiles need success. Like love needs hate."

The actor's hands never left his lap while he talked. He delivered his speech without any major shift in emotion. He had the presence of an actor turned politician. He could have sold icicles to Eskimos.

He raised the gun to his face. His hands pressed together with the gun between them, his right thumb on the trigger. The crowd became nervous again. He quieted them by humming a melody. It might have been "I can do anything better than you can." He punctuated the song by asking for group participation. He told them to, "Imagine the ways I could off myself. Think of the possibilities. I could shoot myself in the chest; messy and slow death." He pointed the gun's barrel toward his chest. "Nobody who really wants to die does a body shot. That kind of drama is only for the types who hope to get saved. Bleed a lot. Rush to the hospital. Get enough sympathy to feel loved."

"Close your eyes and imagine with me." He hums some more. Anything you can do, I can do better, I can do anything better than you.

"I could 'eat the gun' like cops do. It's true, cops do it a lot. I guess they get sick of what they know and punch out. Probably the most popular way for cops to use a gun. Still messy, but very effective. Almost everybody who 'sucks the tube' only does it once." He moves the gun to his lips and kisses the barrel full on the mouth.

He hums softer, now. "I could blow out an eye. Almost nobody has the guts to shoot their own eye out. A real man dies that way, I guess." He looks down the barrel like a telescope, scanning the horizon.

His humming becomes hypnotic. "I could be traditional and make new pair of ear drums. You know, poke a hole from side to side. I could even enlarge the old ear holes." With only his right hand holding the gun he pretends to clean his ears with the gun.

He stops the music. "Keep your eyes closed." They did. "Imagine the ultimate live performance. Imagine that I really kill myself. Imagine how I would do it. You may think of new ways to use this weapon. Ways I have never thought of."

They did. They imagined holes appearing in nearly all of the vital parts of his body. Some do it with their eyes closed. Some can imagine with their eyes wide open. He bounces off of the wall with the back of his head blown off. He slowly bleeds to death from a small wound in the belly. He shoots himself in the ear and brains spray from the opposite ear. He puts the gun on top of his head and blows the end out of his big toe. He shoves it up his ass and his dick inflates until it pops like a balloon. The variety is as wide as the crowd is large. Their imaginations are stretched and they are entertained.

The man who identified the gun and the bullets did not need help imagining ways a gun can kill a man. He did not need to imagine what he had lived through. He knew. He had been to war and he had seen bullets enter bodies. He could see the flesh part as the bullet dug an insignificant entry hole. He could see the cavernous exit hole and the strings of innards following the bullet like confetti flowing from a gory office window. He imagined the actor's expression as his life left with the bullet. And he could hear the screams of the men he had seen die. They all screamed from the actor's mouth. He wanted to close his eyes to the death all around him, but his eyes were already closed. He turned away and opened his eyes. He had enough of Theatre. It was too much like real life.

After the performance, the remaining audience put money into the open sheepskin-lined gun bag on the actor's lap and tell him what a great artist he is. The actor smiles up at them and thanks them for their participation. He tells them what a great audience they were and how he loves them all. "Thank you. Thank you. You were wonderful. You were. I love you all! You've made this a great moment in my career."

The crowd broke up and the tourists look for the next attraction. Many of them are hungry and the seafood restaurants draw their attention. Some of the tourists are from Silicon Valley or San Francisco and are on diets: they look for something to buy.

Fresh traffic passes the doorway and these tourists are horrified. The walls and sidewalk of the doorway are covered with blood. Pasty gray chunks of veined-Jello are splattered against the left side of the door. The actor is slumped against the wall. His eyes are open and blood drains out of his mouth. His gun is back in his lap. His legs are still crossed. The money in his bag is drenched in blood.

"Call the police, someone has been shot," they scream. One of the tourists at the tailend of the actor's audience looks back with disgust and says, "Get with it, people. Don't you know Theatre when you see it?"

The End

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Dealing with Connections

I “volunteered” to present a short bit on audio technology at the Science Museum this past week (June 6). The upside was that the target audience would be adults. The “Social Science” program is intended to attract adults to the museum for adult presentations with adult entertainment (and refreshments). After 12 years of trying to find a way to keep the attention of disinterested teenagers, I wondered if talking about audio and technology with adults would be less frustrating. Since I’m proposing a series of audio courses to a couple of local adult education programs, this seemed like a reasonable test bed for the concept.

More than 1,000 people showed up and it was . . . intense. In 5 hours, I had no more than 3 minutes to myself. My wife, there as a guest, came by a half-dozen times to see how I was doing and I only saw her out of the corner of my eye. We didn’t have a moment to talk until about 10:30PM. If my college students had half as much interest in the subjects I brought to discuss, teaching college would be incredibly fun.

macbook pro However, the point of this rant is that I (for no rational reason that I can remember) decided to bring the school’s MacBook Pro, instead of my trusty Dell laptop, for the presentation. In retrospect, that was a really dumb decision.

lattitude At home and in my own business applications, I use a Dell E6400 for Pro Tools, PowerPoint, Excel, Word, internet crap, and every other task for which I need computer assistance. The e6400 has VGA, USB2 (4), HDMI, Ethernet, Firewire400, and digital/analog audio in-and-output ports. I have a few adapter cables, but I rarely need them. Almost never, in fact.

The school’s IT department has jammed up my MacBook Pro with all sorts of sluggish overhead, which makes using it on a regular basis painful and time-consuming. So, that overpriced unit spends most of its life chained to my cube desk collecting dust, acting as a printer server, and accumulating e-mail. About 6 times a year, I unchain it and drag it upstairs to act as the controller for the Soundbite Cafe live sessions. Otherwise, it’s pretty much designated as my low-tech desk machine.

But that night, June 6, I decided to drag out the school’s POS Apple because . . . I don’t know why. Best guess is that I didn’t know the venue and wanted to risk their gear and not my own.

HT4126-mbp_13_mid2010-ports-001-en One of my least favorite things about the Apple machines is the company’s infamous distain for already-invented-wheels. Apple insists on sticking their suckers . . . I mean customers . . . with weird-assed home-bred “display ports.” There have been at least a dozen of the damn things over the course of my experience with Apple computer products and they are all as idiotic as the previous version of the same stupid idea.

That night, I stopped by the school and grabbed a couple of video adapter cables so I’d be able to turn one of the museum’s monitors into a display monitor for my PowerPoint presentation. In my hurry to test the majority of the presentation (most of which was hands-on stuff with microphones, loudspeakers, and basic electronics) I failed to figure out which of the three possible display port connections my unit has. (Remember, I normally don’t use this thing for presentation work.) With a 33% chance of getting it wrong, my usual odds brought that dismal number to 0% and I found myself at the Minnesota Science Museum, 15 minutes from when the doors opened to the public, with the wrong damn connector. If I’d have brought my Dell, I’d just plug in the VGA connector from the monitor and get on with it. Instead, I made a panic call back to school and had to be rescued by one of the nicest guys I’ve had the fortune of knowing in my educational career (thanks Andy).

And the lesson learned? Stick with what you know when it really matters. From here out, the Apple stays on the desk and I travel with the Dell and Win7.

THE LAST WAGON WHEEL GIG

[This is a semi-true (as per Hunter S. Thompson) story of a brief period in my life as a musician.]

All Rights Reserved © 1999 Thomas W. Day

I moved to northwestern Texas, in 1971, to avoid poverty. The attempt failed, completely. I was 21, a college and vocational school dropout, earning a dollar sixty-five an hour. I had a pregnant wife, and no prospects. I was too scared and too ignorant to figure a way out of a bad job in in the Texas desert. I had fallen, screaming all the way, into responsibility. I was poor as a stray cat and desperate. So desperate that I went looking for a gig as a Country and Western (C&W, to those who care) guitar player.

Since I was fourteen, I'd spent every spare moment copying Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and every other hot guitarist's solos. I could play the guitar parts for every rock and roll tune that had been on the Billboard charts since 1966. When I was fifteen, I played in a popular regional band that toured the Kansas and Oklahoma high schools and junior colleges, playing Top Forty soul hits and a few original tunes. A few years later, I was the lead guitarist in a fairly successful local power rock band that did nothing but original songs, many of them were mine. Between that group and when I arrived in west Texas, I was a tiny part of the late 60's folk music scene and was a sideman in every kind of rock group that existed; from blues to R&B to folk rock to hard rock. Music was my life. Music was the one true thing in my world.

West Texas changed all of that. There was only one kind of non-C&W music alive in west Texas in 1970, but I couldn't get up for being a sideman in a swing band. My ego was in the way. I liked being the band's center of attention. And I wasn't that good. In that place, at that time, my craving for regular solo minutes put me in a country band. But I didn't know what "country" meant in west Texas.

Lonny worked with me at the factory and he had a C&W band. Lonny was a welder, with three kids and a wife, and he needed the money even more than me. He needed me because his lead guitar player had moved to civilization, somewhere out of Texas. The band practiced at Lonny's house for a month, mostly for my benefit. Lonny had given up on the other guys ever giving a damn about C&W. He still had hope for me.

The drummer, Danny Lee, was a high school kid whose God was Led Zeppelin's hammer-thrower, John Bonham. Danny packed away every dollar he made playing C&W, swing, polkas, and anything that paid more than he could make as a convience store clerk. Danny was working his way into college as a music prostitute, but he would talk about the music he loved if it looked like there was a chance that you wouldn't beat him senseless for it. Staying out of those conversations was harder than avoiding an auctioneer's eyes when you're broke. Danny was a simple kid with simple desires: money for college with as little work as possible and all the Led Zeppelin vinyl ever recorded.

In another time and place, Danny and I would have been friends. We would have hungout and talked music until we were hoarse. But he was a high school kid. I was a married man with responsibilities that weighed more than a feedwagon full of corn. We just didn't seem to be able to find anything in common.

Dick, the bass player, was not a Texan. When I recall any memory of Dick, I smell well-cured hemp and incense. Bringing back those memories makes me tense. Very tense. The kind of feeling you might have if you were in a car with a guy who can get you sent to Leavenworth for the rest of your life. Dick owned a new burgundy and black Lincoln Continental with a wet bar in the back seat. The Lincoln had an ear-bashing 8-track stereo, a megawatt CB rig, and secret stashes in every crevice Ford Motor Company left available for Dick's dope. Dick was the most zonked-out, abused substance-using, drug-dealing, bass guitar player in our time zone. His eyes had space-and-time singularities where his corneas should have been. Dick's wardrobe never varied from black, western-style shirts and tight skinny-butt jeans cinched up by a Harley-Davidson belt buckle. His oily black, mid-backbone length ponytail made it clear he was no cowboy. He was 32 years old and supplied the town's cowboys and Mexicans and high school kids with all the drugs they could eat. And he ate what they didn't.

Our backwater village was a fraction of Amarillo or Lubbock's size. But that stinking, feedlot surrounded, hillbilly and redneck town sucked up twice as much dope as those cities combined. The local bible thumpers blamed the evil influence of television, but boredom was the real villain. People did dope to have something to do. The local cops were overwhelmed and mostly stoned themselves.

Once, somebody called in the feds. The FBI didn't know Dick and, usually, they were looking for drugs in all the wrong places. Only once, the bureau boys got close to where the eggs were hidden. An undercover agent stumbled into the Wagon Wheel Bar and all the commerce within. The FBI guy was prepared for a traditional 60s undercover assignment, but he wasn't ready for Hereford. The narc had the beard, the long hair, and the paisley. He needed a cowboy hat, work boots, and a wad in his cheek. The locals beat the shit out of him, cut his hair with sheep shears, and dumped him in an irrigation ditch. I suspect they hoped he would bleed to death or a rattler would bite him and something would gangrene up and have to be amputated.

He didn't die and he didn't lose any body parts and he took the cowboys to court. He took them to local court. He filed an assault and battery charge against five local boys. He brought pictures of his wounds and his sheep shearing. The cowboys described how he looked before they "prettied him up." The judge threw the fed and his case out, with a kick in the head, "When you come in here, all lookin' like a damn hippy, you get whachu got, boy."

The scalped undercover agent quit looking for trouble and Dick was safe to carry on with his business. Dick had found that the fast track to a cowboy's heart was through cowboy music. Dick's theory was clean and simple, once you have a man's heart you can sell him drugs til he croaks. Dick was a C&W bass player and a C&W drug supplier.

For me, the beat-up FBI guy was a watermark. I had been, more or less, undercover for the months I spent in tech school, with my hair cut shorter than I liked and my mustache neatly trimmed. But after I heard about that bit of Texas justice, I really went into disguise. I practically had my head shaved into a country boy cut. I shaved off the mustache. I even tossed out my paisley shirts and bell-bottom jeans. People who'd been close friends a year before wouldn't have recognized me. I just wanted to be a nondescript part-time country guitar player. I wanted to attract absolutely no attention at all.

Danny Lee, Dick, and I practiced Lonny's songs until we were sick of them. It usually took one pass through most of the tunes to set the three of us to begging for mercy, "Yeah, we can do that one, Lonny. You got any more beer?" When two weeks of practice didn't polish our act, we settled into a tradition: Lonny would announce a song, we'd ask what key it was in, Lonny would pick C or G, count to four, and off we went. I worked on my Buck Owens/Merle Travis licks. Danny Lee played with his brushes and ignored his bass drum. Dick stayed stoned and cool looking. We were ready.

Lonny booked our first gig at the Wagon Wheel. I cut my hair even shorter. Dick took inventory and got his pharmaceuticals stocked up. Danny Lee took the night off from homework. After our day jobs, we each packed our gear and met at the bar.

Danny Lee had the most junk to set up, so we let him go first while we drank beer. Drummers like to fool around with their stuff long past when any sensible person would realize that nobody cares what drums sound like. Anyway, since Danny was underage, he had to stay on the stage and away from the bartender, at least until the bar filled up. We did our part to keep the bartender busy.

Lonny was the only one of us who looked like he belonged. Lonny should have been paid something just for the way he looked. He really was a C&W-kinda-guy. Slicked back blond pompadour, a shirt that had gold plated snaps with a saddle embroidered on the pockets, reptile-skin pointy-toed boots with an etched longhorn skull on the sides, a cowboy hat with a pheasant feather and silver medallion hatband. He'd squeezed into the tightest fitting jeans I ever saw on a man. He had big diamond rings on at least four fingers of each hand. I had seen this kind of get-up on TV before. Buck Owens had almost the exact same outfit, but I had never seen Buck Owens in color.

Before that night, I never knew Lonny was that into it. He seemed like a normal guy at work, at least normal for a guy from Tennessee. Lonny played an un-miked acoustic guitar that you could hardly hear, even on stage standing right beside him. He wore it, more than played it. It was a Gibson Hummingbird with a hummingbird stenciled onto the pickguard. He was probably stylish, but I didn't know the fashion.

And the bar filled up. By seven, cowboys and Mexicans filled the booths and lined the bar. Their women sat in the booths, against the wall, with their hair stacked on their heads like an upside-down week-old bucket of fried chicken, without the bucket. The cowgirls lips were painted red as fire engines and their eyelids and lashes smeared as dark as a blackboard. Sexy, like you never saw. The crowd looked as modern and hip as any other dirt-floor barn filled with farm hands, waitresses, packing plant butchers, drugstore cashiers, feedlot cowboys and small town whores. I felt right at home.

Then we played. Today, I don't know the name of, or the words to, a single song that we played that night. I didn't know anymore then. I played a solo in the middle of every tune; and screwed off between solos. I probably missed out on an important cultural education. Compelling stuff about truck driving men crying in their beer over women running off with guys in Volkswagens. Big tough old boys from Okie Fanoggy who salute flags and beat up fags. Ladies who love fags from Okie Fanoggy in Volkswagens. Gimme a break. I got your endemic culture right here, you know what I mean? I admit it, I was so bored even my own playing couldn't keep me awake.

In the middle of our second set, Lonny drew a blank. He couldn't find a song in his repertoire to fit the mood of the moment. The mood grew ugly.

The cowboys had been stomping around, with one arm around their cow-woman's neck, doing a bowlegged chicken hop they called the "two step." I guess it's called that because every two steps someone's foot got stomped and the stomper had to stop two-stepping and shout at the foot's owner. Or fight the new-made cripple. The lack of "music" put the fights, that had been put off for two-stepping, back on the front burner. Lonny stood at his mike running through a pointless monologue about the plight of a country-singer-turned-welder in the dark heart of west Texas, while he searched his heart for our next song. It wouldn't come; and we were no help. Between the three of us, we might have been able to name one or two songs, but we had no way of knowing what tunes we had done earlier.

We each did what we could to pass the time. Dick stared into the crowd looking for any customers he had missed during our last break. At least, he focused as well as you'd expect for someone who had smoked up most of what he had intended to sell that night. Danny Lee practiced with his brushes and did quiet toe rolls on his bass drum. I dreamed of better days. Days when the "&" separated two "R's". Days when I knew the songs I played because I believed in, and loved, my music. I turned the volume on my guitar down and quietly played through licks of my favorite headbangers. The crowd got uglier. And Lonny was still stuck.

I walked over to Danny Lee and we made jokes about Lonny's predicament. To us, it was his predicament because this was solidly his band. We were mercenaries. It didn't matter all that much to us if Lonny was stuck for the rest of the night. Although, we might care if the bar owner decided that we shouldn't get paid for standing around in our drugstore cowboy clothes, taking up space on his stage for two out of the four hours we were supposed to be playing C&W.

While we waited, Danny Lee and I mused about the music we loved. I even listened to him rant about Zeppelin and Bonham. I even encouraged him. While we talked, I fiddled with the intro to the Zep's headbanger, "Communication Breakdown." A classic. A screamer. As far from C&W as R&R gets. I still get misty when I hear that song. Danny Lee picked up the tune while we talked. He brush stroked his snare and highhat and I picked and turned up a bit, just so Danny could hear me. We weren't being obnoxious, Lenny didn't even notice.

In a few seconds, Dick turned away from his customers and leered at us, "Hey, 'Communication Breakdown.' Ah right!" A full out Fender Bassman 100 with twin four-ten cabinets started pounding, "DUN, dun dun dun, DUN, dun dun dun, DUN, DAAA DA DA."

I thought, "All right and why not?" I cranked up and Danny Lee flipped his brushes over his shoulder and grabbed his sticks. And we were jammin'.

I used to be able to do Mr. Plant's voice fairly well. I could get up there, if the cigarettes didn't get to me first. That night, I was in good voice, not having sung a note in the first two hours. I walked up to the mike and screamed. I was inspired.

I did Mr. Page's finger-flicking, hammer-on solo pretty dammed well, too. The solo was especially satisfying because early in our first set the bartender had told me to cool it, because the cowboys were stumbling over my picking. I was playing too fast for two-stepping and I had to tone my Buck Owens licks down to nothing faster than quarter notes. So, my fingers had been itching all night. I scratched during "Communication Breakdown."

This might seem weird, but while we played I didn't notice a crowd reaction. I always get tranced when I am really into what I am playing. I don't see anyone away from the stage. I look out, smile, and gaze meaningfully at the shit in front of me, but I don't see anything. Stagefright compensation, I suppose. When we stopped, and I refocused, I realized that I might have made a mistake.

The crowd was arranged. They were neatly plastered against the walls of the bar. They looked like they had been blown there by a hurricane that was centered in the middle of the dance floor. If you have ever seen people riding a carnival Spinner, you get the picture. Nailed to the wall as far as they could get from the stage. Quiet and scared as field mice. I believe these people had missed all of the 60`s and my performance was their first audition of the current state of popular music. Good thing we didn't tell them about Japanese cars, too. That would have convinced them they had slept through Armageddon.

The Wagon Wheel's bartender measured five feet in any direction; tall, wide, and deep. He wore a slimy white-once-upon-a-time cook's apron and work boots. I don't remember if he wore anything else. His finger is what I remember the most. The back wall of cowboys and off-duty waitresses parted like bowling pins and he plowed through the dance floor and up to the front of the stage. He didn't look happy. His chubby face was red as a cowboy woman's lips. He was courting a heart attack and I worried for him. He took a steaming deep breath and said, "You!" And stuck his fat greasy finger in my face. "Out!" His lips kept moving like he had more to say, but he must have been out of the necessary wind to say it with.

The bar patrons barely made a sound while we packed up and loaded our cars with instruments and equipment. I didn't try to catch anyone's eye. I didn't talk to the band guys as we packed up. We moved fast and silently. We were all in introspective moods and, mainly, we wanted to get loaded up and away before someone decided to "educate us" on correct cowboy bar music etiquette. We escaped with our instruments and lives and hair and limbs. We didn't get paid and we didn't ask about the money.

Monday, I put my electric guitar and amp in the local wantads. I planned to put in a lot of overtime on my regular job to make up the loss of income.

Monday, Lonny didn't show up for work. He didn't call in sick. He didn't show up Tuesday, either. He worked for me, so it was my job to find him or fire him. I put the job off for most of Tuesday. I wasn't looking forward to facing Lonny. He was a good deal bigger than me and he had good reason to be pretty pissed.

I drove over to his house after work. I brought a six-pack peace offering, but there was no one to make peace with. He was gone. I parked in the part of the yard that passed for a driveway. The garage was empty and the garage door was open. The house looked like an empty skull with windows. The flowery curtains were gone. The front screen door was hanging open and swinging in the wind, banging against the side of the house and the door frame. I got out of my truck, hanging on to the six-pack, and looked into the picture window. There was no sign that anyone had ever lived there.

The wind and I moved to the back of the house. A screen door was waving and banging there, too. In the alley, unwanted kid's toys, worn out kitchen appliances, twisted and stained mattresses, broken furniture, and bags of trash were piled up for the garbage man to haul away. The wind was taking off with anything it could lift. Paper and unidentifiable flying stuff was decorating a dusty horizon.

I sat on the crumbling cement slab that passed for a back porch and opened a beer. I didn't know Lonny well enough to miss him, but something was there to miss. Lonny had packed up everything he owned and left town. Like most everyone who wasn't born in west Texas, Lonnie didn't have any ties there, outside of his job. He cut that loose knot and blew off his last paycheck. Without leaving a forwarding address, he, his family, and a U-Haul left for parts unknown. But he left some silly, damned fantasies in that house for me to wrestle with.

I sat on his porch, haunted by his dreams; and my dreams. Drinking cheap beer. Hassled by a dry, cow-dung saturated wind. Watching worthless paper float around a poor neighborhood. Listening to a screen door swinging and slamming.

The End

Monday, June 10, 2013

Old Stuff in the Pipe

I just uploaded the entire history of my audio publication work to this blog. Over the next few months, pretty much everything I’ve ever written about audio will show up here. Some of it is pretty antique, including reviews of long-dead companies or obsolete products. Sooner or later, the Wirebender Audio Systems website will vanish from the internet and it will be nice to know that some of that stuff will still be here as long as Google keeps Blogger alive.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Dumbing Yourself Down to the Common Denominator



This, I'm certain, the key to remaining a teacher in the United States for more than a couple of years.  Between the mindnumbingly arrogant and incredibly stupid parents, the over-entitled, under-achieving "students" (to grossly abuse the word and humiliate generations of actual students from years past), to the mess of fools who have crawled into the holes we call "administration" in every area of academia and business, it's amazing that the average teaching career lasts as long as "11 years" in this country. Smarter people would get out faster.

The key to resolving these conflicts is, obviously, get dumber.

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.