Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Good Times, Bad Times

“You know I’ve had my share.”

I was writing about business and music (either two co-dependent or oxymoronic terms, either way they are an unhealthy mix) in another venue this morning and flashed on my best days in southern California. In fact, I remembered the address where some of those best days happened. 1926 Placentia Avenue.

1926 Placentia Blvd

For twenty some years, QSC audio was at this address and I was more than pleased to see that “progress” hadn’t run these crazy 1940’s buildings into yuppie condos or strip malls. In fact, they are the same buildings they were when I worked for QSC in the 80’s and early 90’s.

Monday, July 29, 2013

REVIEW: Kick Drum Mics

If I were only allowed one microphone, it would be the Electrovoice RE-20. I've been a fan of the RE-20 for so long that I can't remember ever not having one and not reaching for an RE-20 whenever something difficult has to be mic'd. The key to the RE-20 has always been versatility. Anything you need to mic, the RE-20 will produce a respectable result.

This review is not about that kind of microphone. For example, the Electrovoice N/D868 has one purpose; bass. In particular, kick drum, although it will do a respectable job on loud electric bass, floor toms, and other loud, low frequency signals. Not only to record that kind of signal, but the N/D8689, Audix's D6, and Shure's Beta52 dramatically accent the qualities of those signals. 

shure_b52To get an idea of the purpose of this microphone, look at the frequency chart at right from Shure's information on t he Beta52. At close proximity (3mm) the Beta52 provides almost 20dB of boost at 40Hz. That is a 100X power increase over the far field response. Clearly, this microphone is not intended for use anywhere other than right on top of the sound source if you hope to achieve any low frequency (LF) response from the microphone. Both of these microphones exhibit similar characteristics, exaggerated bass response in close proximity, incredibly high max SPL before distortion, and a very modern (as of 2007) LF sound quality when used on the intended instrument; kick drum.

Unless you are looking for an odd effect, I don't know why you would chose either of the microphones for anything but kick or electric bass. They are both physically large, heavy, and somewhat awkward to position (even in an open-back kick drum). At any distance beyond 2" they begin to loose so much LF response that they sound thin and harsh. Their mid-range (2-4KHz) is so busted in the attempt to flatten the LF-mid-range response at near-field, that they are simply irritating sounding beyond a few inches.

These microphones do not attempt to reproduce a natural kick drum sound. Instead, they are going for a dramatic, larger-than-life sound that is typical of modern pop music. For everything from rap to metal, this is the sound of the day (days between sometime in the 1990's up to now). An incredible number of rock records are looking for this sound from the kick drum; something between the overwhelming roar of a thunderstorm and the sound of 4,000 natives pounding on hollow logs in perfect sync. If that is what you are looking for, pick any of these three microphones, put the mic as close to the beater head as you can get it, and slam the meter to +3 (if you're recording to tape) and stick it there. If you're going to digital, forget about pinning the meter, but everything else applies.

Placement is everything with a mic that is this dependent on proximity for bass response. Moving the mic back 2" from the head can produce a signal that could be disappointing if you are expecting thunder. Moving the mic away from the beater and toward the shell will increase the LF incredibly, while mostly hanging on to the impact of the beater hit. Placing these mics near the front head creates a muffled thud that will need some assistance from a quicker, more closely placed mic or well-positioned overheads.

audix_d6On electric bass, these mics can turn a 10" studio amp into a stack of 15x4 cabinets that simply roar with power. Put a B52 close to the edge of the speaker cone and you may find yo urself rolling off 100-150Hz to make some room for the rest of the bottom end in your recording. Move the mic toward the center of the cone and you'll have plenty of punch from a slap-bass player along with tons of low end. Again, if you want bottom end, you'll have to keep any of these mics close to the speaker. Proximity is everything, if you want low end from these large-element dynamics.

You might be able to tell that I'm less than overwhelmed by the overwhelming kick sound these microphones produce. I'm in the minority, but I still like the sound of a real kick drum or the punch from a well-played electric bass. The hyped bottom this kind of mic produces is a sound that I believe will become dated soon. Like the super-isolated, close-mic'd sound of the late 70's and early-80's (i.e. Eagles and their imitators), the giant bottom, sub-woofing kick of the last decade will come to be a "sign of the times" and a sound that future engineers will avoid to keep from sounding "old."

nd868That will leave these microphones to become the useful  tools they are, on the occasion that an engineer wants to take advantage of their special characteristics and tonal qualities. Putting a D6 under congas or a tabala, for example, to exaggerate the LF output of those instruments. Since all of these mics have a MaxSPL spec that exceeds any practical sound source, they would be ideal for recording extreme sounds, like guns, engines, and large machines near field. Their proximity bass enhancement would reinforce the power of those sounds. The D6 and the 868 make killer floor tom mics. Microphones are tools, you don't use the same tool for every job and some tools aren't ideal even for specific jobs. In the case of mic'ing the kick drum, I recommend using a smaller hammer, occasionally. You might learn to love the sound of the real instrument.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Passion to Have Fun

When you’re just an ordinary 9-time world MotoGP champion, what’s left to do on your spare weekends? Build a mansion, with a great garage, and . . . the coolest racetrack in the world for a backyard.

As always, I have more luck understanding Italian than Guy Martin’s “English?” Guy is really Wolverine, right? It’s probably all that Unobtainium in his jaw that makes him so incomprehensible.

A little more of the story is here: One of the World’s Best Motorcycle Racers Builds His Dream Racetrack.

As for Rossi, “The passion to have fun when you ride is the most important thing” pretty much wraps up his life on a motorcycle in front of the rest of us. Like watching Magic Johnson play basketball, it’s a joy to see him having so much fun on a motorcycle.

Monday, July 22, 2013

REVIEW: Yamaha Subkick

sub_kick

This is a niche product that will probably find few homes. It is what it looks like; a small speaker in a drum shell on a fancy stand. It's called a "Sub-Kick," but if "sub" means subsonic, you'll be disappointed. I'm not sure why, but this implementation of an old recording engineer's trick is severely lacking in low end output. I haven't disassembled the unit, but maybe the problem is in an output impedance-matching transformer (if Yamaha used one)? Maybe the problem is that the acoustic character of their drum shell is such that it limits the 8" speaker from moving at very low frequencies? Maybe Yamaha doesn't know why engineers resort to this technique in adding lows to a kick drum sound? Maybe, because of tools like Shure's Beta52, EV's N/D868, or Audix's D6, the reason for a big LF driver has vanished into history? I don't know the answer, but I know I can't find a practical reason to add the Sub-Kick to my signal chain.

The output of this device is heavy in "whoomph" and light in "thud." Technically-speaking, the majority component of this device appears to be in the 80-150Hz territory, which isn't low enough to create a big sounding kick or high enough to add impact to the sound. It appears to be more of a funny-looking effect with little practical application.

To get anything useful from the Sub-Kick, you have to get it close to the head and beater. In the picture above, the Sub-Kick is shown several inches from the back head, which will result in a thin, muffled sound that would be completely useless when combined with the large element dynamic mic they are showing in the back head port. If that same combination moved the Sub-Kick as close as possible to the head, something more useful can result. Maybe. If Yamaha's fancy drum stand mount included enough hardware to get the Sub-Kick inside the drum, really near the beater head, something resembling sub-kick information can be obtained from the Sub-Kick. However, that requires you to re-engineer the rig and it's a lot easier to simply put a small speaker in the kick drum, on a pillow or blanket, and save yourself some money.

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Friday, July 19, 2013

STUDENT RESOURCES: Record Lab

[This page was designed for McNally Smith College of Music Students. However, if the information on this page is useful to you, I'm glad to have been assistance.]

Audio Signal Flow

  • Analog Signal Flow in the Trident S80 console. This drawing depicts a mess, but it's our mess. This is a 3-page PDF that depicts the most simple path, the actual Trident path, and a generic console signal path. 
  • Digital Signal Flow typical in-the-box signal path including as much of the signal as possible retained in the digital realm.

Microphones & Accessories

Consoles and Recording Equipment

Other Stuff

  • Jobs in recording studios - What are the jobs available? from RecordProduction.com
  • Recording Studio Careers Buddy Brundo's take on the technology and jobs in recording studios. This should be required viewing in our program. If you think getting to be a recording engineer or producer is a simple career plan, think again.
  • The Multitrack Library This website contains a huge collection of multitrack recordings that you can use to practice your mixing techniques and to look at the inside of some decent recordings.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

What Every Good Teacher Knows

Back in June while running errands around the Cities, I listened to a really good NPR program on education (I really recommend following this link and listening to the whole program.). The lead-in was a a trio of quotes from an Indian physicist/computer programmer/educator, “Children will learn to do, what they want to do” and “Education isn’t broken, it’s obsolete” and a line from Arthur C. Clarke “A teacher who can be replaced with a machine, should be.” 

Every real teacher knows that you can’t teach anything to disinterested “students.” What is less well-known is that real students teach themselves. Or, maybe, that is less accepted.

I have “taught” a lot of students a lot of stuff in my 35 year career: basic electricity, electronics troubleshooting and repair, manufacturing quality systems, music, pacemaker and ICD implant and programming techniques, human cardiac biology, recording and live sound “engineering,” writing (fiction and non and technical), investments and money management, and stuff I have probably forgotten altogether. Most of my “students,” until the last ten years, were industry-based; in-house education of people who were wired to learn and true self-teachers. I was more of a facilitator than an “educator.” In many of those classes, my response to questions was “I’ll have to get back to you on that” because the questions were beyond my knowledgebase. (I did, in fact, always try to get back to the questioner with an answer, no matter how long it took me to find that answer. When I began my medical devices career, I couldn't ‘t find a heart with an axe. I used this line constantly when docs asked questions. Fuckin’ cardiologists look for a hole in your knowledgebase and poke at it until it bleeds.)

When I stumbled into academia, I found myself in a totally different environment. First, the only formal performance criteria I was evaluated on was “retention.” In academic-speak, retention means “people don’t drop out or get dropped from school until we have all of their money.” You’d like to think it meant something about retaining what is considered to be valuable information, but you’d be wrong. Second, no more than half of any class contained people who were vitally interested in the subject. Our current fearless leader likes to say, “No parent ever forced their kid to go to music school,” but that’s far from the truth. The whole “you gotta have a college degree to get a job” mental illness has gone so far from reality that “any degree” appears to be parents’ goal. (I’m from the Woody Allen school of thought that says you haven’t survived the third trimester and can still be aborted until you have a law degree, an MD, or a PhD in something useful.) All kinds of kids go to art school, music school, hairdresser school, cooking school, or whatever other hobby activity you can invent “just to get a degree.” They have no more interest in art, music, hair, cooking or basket weaving than does a chicken. They are just avoiding life and adulthood doing the Garrison Keilor MFA thing (My Fabulous Adolescence).

I think, in fact, education might be obsolete. Most of the K-12 system is a glorified babysitting service. The reason so many “parents” are in favor of abolishing summer vacation and extending school hours has nothing to do with education. They are just looking for more time either for themselves or work. If that’s your goal, don’t have kids, dumbass. Of course, these dimbulbs recently passed through the American babysitting service where crap like “parenthood is a wonderful adventure” propaganda is blasted as if it were true or actual information, so they can’t be blamed for being morons.

All of the “best students” I’ve enjoyed in the last decade have been self-taught. Looking back, I think the only thing I provided was a tiny bit of grandfatherly guidance (“Don’t grab the hot end of the soldering iron, dumbass!”) and the same kind of encouragement (Not bad for a dumbass, dumbass.”) When the students wanted to learn something, the school’s resources were their best tool. The teachers were just there to open the doors and keep the kids from setting the building on fire in the first couple of years.

Today is my 65th birthday and I think it is officially time for me to call this a “career.” I’m paid way too much to open doors and pat people on the back and way too little to pretend to care about young adults who are just burning the most valuable years of their lives hiding from themselves. Thanks for listening, it’s been . . . semi-real.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

STUDENT RESOURCES: Recording Theory I

[This page was designed for McNally Smith College of Music recording and production students. However, if the information on this page is useful to you, I'm glad to have been assistance.]

Sound and Electricity and Basic Concepts

Recording Equipment and Standards

Digital Recording Topics

Analog Recording Topics

Signal Processing (Dynamics and Time-Based)

Review Questions

Monday, July 15, 2013

REVIEW: Royer R122

royer_r122I am  not a fan of history. By that I mean I am not inclined to want to own "vintage" crap simply because it was used by old guys (like me) on old projects that have taken on some sort of historical sheen simply because they were done a long time ago. For years, I thought most of the hype and smoke surrounding ribbon microphones was the same kind of hype wrapped around "pre-CBS" Fender and "PAF" Gibson guitars. I've owned a bunch of those instruments and I'd usually rather have something new and well-engineered than something old and over-priced. So, when I bought my first Royer ribbon I wanted the "modern" version of Royer's products; the mic with the internal amp to reduce the requirement for super high-gain pre-amplification that plagues most ribbon applications.

The R122 is the higher priced version of the R121, due to the phantom powered internal amp. The cool thing about this electronic improvement is that the usual signal loading and frequency altering difficulties you have with matching ribbons to mic pres is dramatically improved. You no longer need a mic pre with super-quiet 85dB gain to use a ribbon on acoustic instruments. You can use a pair of these ribbons to Blumlein stereo record a room full of musicians without worrying about noise marring your recording.

With the technical limitations out of the way, let's discuss the advantages of this ribbon microphone. First, there is a quality to ribbons that is unlike any other acoustic transducer. A ribbon is low-mass, quick to respond to acoustic pressures, sensitive to small variations in sound, and oddly non-linear. While the frequency response of the R122 is as broad and flat as a small element condenser, the actual sound is quite different. Every ribbon I've ever used has affected me in a similar manner; the sound of a ribbon is something like very subtle, musical limiting of the signal. Once, at a trade show, I engaged Dave Royer in a conversation about this effect and he quickly shifted into math-speak and attempted to describe how the combination of the fixed edges of the ribbon combined with the anti-nodes across the length of the ribbon to create a collection of signals, instead of the more unified transducer motion exhibited by a condenser or a moving coil. Intuitively, I knew what he was saying from a mechanical view and from how I've interpreted the actual sound of a ribbon. Intellectually, he lost me at "derivative" and looped back on me with a gang of "integrations."  The end result is that a ribbon can smooth out some signals in a very natural, acoustic manner that integrates into the recording process in a "better than real" way.

To try and explain this in a more musical description, it might be best to refer you to the Royer Demonstration CD. There are lots of recordings on that CD that do a wonderful job of demonstrating the character of Royer's products. For myself, I have found that a pair of R122's XY'd (Blumlein) about 8" above the soundboard, roughly centered over the logo, is about the most usable grand piano sound I have ever achieved. I have used variations of this positioning on recordings from classical to jazz to rock performances and I'm not sure I've ever heard better results anywhere. Spacing a pair of R122's--one near the logo peaking over a brace toward the upper octaves and one slanted across the bass bridge near the back of the piano--is another terrific pop piano sound, with exaggerated breadth and accented dynamics at the top and bottom aural spectrum. Both of these techniques are solid with programmable polarity condensers, but have a special kind of life with a ribbon. A ribbon with the R122's broad response brings a completely different character to these techniques.

Everything on which I've tried the R122 has been flavored with the character of this microphone; from vocals to horn sections to acoustic and electric guitar. There is something exceptionally musical about the R122 that adds a natural, present, enhanced flavor to the sound of acoustic instruments. I know that sounds contradictory, but it's the best I can do in describing a musical quality in words. It is far better to simply try the microphone and come up with your own words to describe what it does. To put it simply, I think you will like what you hear.

Monday, July 8, 2013

REVIEW: Shure KSM141

ksm1413The Shure folks loaned Musictech College a pair of KSM141s, probably with the expectation that they would  get them back in a reasonable period of time.  Six months later, we're still "testing" them.  This is Shure's blurb on the KSM141:

"Th e Shure KSM141 is an end-addressed condenser microphone with mechanically switching dual polar patterns (cardioid and omnidirectional)."

The list price on these little guys is about $1500 for a "matched pair."  Street price is closer to $800 for a pair.  Compared to many of the products in this price range and with these product features, the KSM141 is incredibly competitive.  However, there aren't many microphones in this price bracket with comparable features. 

The advantage of a mechanical polarity selection system should be obvious to anyone who has dealt with multi-pattern small element mics and their fine-threaded capsules.  Even with years of experience, I lose a little piece of self-confidence every time I thread an omni/cardioid capsule on to a mic body.  I haven't yet managed to cross-thread a capsule, but it will happen, eventually.  The combination of fine threads and aluminum bodied microphones is an accident waiting to happen.  My initial concern was that the mechanical polarity selection switch would be . . . delicate.  Maybe too delicate for the heavy-handed tactics of music school students.  Nick Wood, from Shure, assured me that wouldn't be a problem and was actually interested in seeing how his product held up under our less-than-ideal conditions.  At the school, we've used these mics several dozen times in the past few months and every person who's held a KSM141 has had to hold the mic up to the light and watch the acoustic baffle open and close, at least a few times.  The mechanism has had a workout and it's as solid feeling today as it was when I first used the mics.  I'm no longer concerned with this aspect of this microphone's reliability.  Shure's polarity pattern switching mechanism was designed to work over time and through abuse.

Shure sells the KSM141s in a "matched pair" set, including a case, shock mounts, storage bags, and miscellaneous hardware.  However, "matching" is something the Shure engineers say is unnecessary with this product, since their quality control is tight enough that all of their high-end products could be called matched sets simply by model numbers.  I found that these two mics, placed 4' from a grand piano and summed out-of-phase into a pair of Trident preamplifiers, matched each other at least as well as the two preamps with a single source.  This is the 2nd Shure "matched set" that has performed this well, so I'm beginning to suspect that Shure's quality control is exceptionally tight.

The polar patterns are as predictable as you'd hope a small to mid-sized condenser element would provide.  The cardioid pattern provides an excellent off-axis response curve and only becomes non-directional at very low frequencies.  I couldn't detect any caving of the polar pattern at audible high frequencies.  The omni pattern is equally predictable and is as smooth and flat as my calibration standard microphones.  

I compared the KSM141's sound quality to AKG 451s, SM81s, Neumann KM184s, and the Studio Projects C4 small element condensers.  While all of these instruments had identifying and worthwhile characteristics, I consistently found the KSM141 to be a highly accurate and warm condenser for the applications I normally mic with this type of instrument.  The 141's discrete Class A amplification is probably a contributor to the transparency and low self-noise of the microphone.  With a high-quality low noise preamplifier, the KSM141s are practically invisible in the signal chain. 

The KSM141's flexibility is enhanced by the built in features, such as a 17Hz subsonic filter, a 3-position (0 dB, 15 dB, and 25 dB) pre-attenuator, and a 3-position high-pass filter.  I used the 141s individually or in a pair for overhead drum kits, percussion instruments, a small horn section, acoustic guitars, violin, acoustic bass, snare drum (top and bottom side), and high hat.  The worst I could say about the KSM141 is that it reproduced the acoustic environment in which I placed it accurately and without coloration.  Sometimes, coloration is a good thing. 

Copyright © 2007 Wirebender Audio Systems

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Saturday, July 6, 2013

STUDENT RESOURCES: Microphone Theory and Application Resources

[I taught REC113Mi Microphone Theory and Application at McNally Smith College of Music for about ten years. This page was designed as a resource for my students. However, if the information on this page is useful to you, I'm glad to have been assistance.]

Specifications & Polar Patterns

Microphone Application Resources

Microphone Accessories and Other Equipment

Industry Standard Microphone Reviews

Other Stuff

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Making A Mark

tdmtrip5 I suffered a decade in medical devices between 1991 and 2001 before coming to my senses and giving up any hope that something good could come from that experience. From there, I went from unemployed to part-time employed and full-time self-employed to full-time college instructor over the last dozen years.

One of the reasons I failed miserable in medical devices is that I was completely unable to make any sort of identifiable difference in the way either of my two employers did business. That never happened to me before. Even at the two Misfortune 500 companies where I’d been employed before medical devices, I’d been able to make a dent in the places.  American medicine, however, is a different, much less ethical, largely inflexible, massively incompetent business and there is no place for creative thinking. Sad, but true.

One of the things that I’ve loved about working for a music college is that there are signs all over the place that I’ve been there:

IMG_4432 IMG_4433 IMG_4436 IMG_4437 IMG_4438 IMG_4429 IMG_4430 IMG_4431

If for no other reason, the school’s acoustic treatments reflect what I’ve taught and recommended in nearly every classroom and practice room of the school. I, clearly, was there.

Monday, July 1, 2013

REVIEW: Blue Omnimouse


I'll admit that I'm sort of agnostic when it comes to Blue's products. I'm not a fan of the Blueberry, the Mouse, the Kiwi, the Dragonfly, or Blue's landmark mic, the Bottle with its stock capsule. However, the OmniMouse sold me. Blue recommends this mic for Decca tree classical recording situations, but I've found it to be useful and interesting on a variety of projects, from vocals to room mic'ing. According to the Blue specs, the B4 capsule is a small element "true pressure omni capsule." According to a conversation I had with one of Blue's engineers, "small" means approximately 3/4" to Blue. Based on my experience, I would have suspected something about that size might be hidden inside the Omni's rotating capsule housing.

For one, the "omni" quality of this mic is mildly directional. There is no noticeable bass-boosting proximity effect, but there is some high frequency directional character. That is probably partially due to the large housing ring that surrounds the capsule, focusing some of the 2kHz and above information into what becomes a hyper-cardioid pattern at 16kHz.  You can easily hear this effect by rotating the element while recording a moderately broadband signal, like an acoustic guitar. A more omnidirectional omni would produce unnoticeable frequency variations under these conditions, but the OmniMouse is not specially omnidirectional.

That's not all bad. If I wanted an instrumentation omni, I'd buy a small capsule unit with a small body. I was looking for a musical tool when I purchased a trio of OmniMice (Mouses?) to stuff into a Decca tree. The biggest surprise was in how beautifully this mic reproduces a near-field vocal. I hadn't planned on using it for that application, but after accidentally trying it on a voice, I've used it often ever since on male and female lead vocals. In several recording sessions, I've received raving responses from vocalists and voice-over artists after they've heard the playback from the OmniMouse. I've also used the OmniMouse in conjunction with a Royer R122 in M/S configuration to pickup a horn section and that was about as realistic a section as I've ever recorded. It just jumped into the mix with depth and width, far more interestingly than with either a U87 or a C414ULS in omni mode.

Once I realized this was a more versatile tool than I'd anticipated, I began to use it on all kinds of acoustic sources; from studio group voices to acoustic guitar to solo flute and classical cello. I have yet to find an application where I've been disappointed by the OmniMouse and I can't recommend this mic too strongly. Now I wonder if I'd like the Bottle with the B4 capsule?

Copyright © 2007 Wirebender Audio Systems

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.