Tuesday, December 16, 2014

State of Software Amateurism

OSuseage2014Last winter,  I engaged in more than a couple discussions with kids who consider themselves to be computer experts (by profession, at the least) who believe that if you aren’t using the latest OS, you are a hillbilly. As of March 2014, the above chart reflects US computer OS use, per a pretty large sample survey.

The statistic that most interests me is “Other,” the 1.99% of users whose technology was, apparently, unimportant to the surveyors. On last winter’s hibernation/retirement trip to New Mexico, I met a surprising number of people who run their businesses on old versions of Windows: all the way back to a law office using Windows for Workgroups 3.11, a graphic artist using windows 98, a collection of small business owners who network and advertise their group on the web using tools from Windows 95, and several people still on Vista. I listened to music created by a 1960’s almost-a-rock-star created on a TASCAM 80-8 1/2” reel-to-reel in a camper trailer and bounced down to MP3 on a free version of audio software long-absorbed by Adobe.

http://dzfocdn.dazeinfo.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Desktop-OS-Market-share-May-2014.pngThat chart sort of reflects how little the computer-user market is driven by computer software hype-sters. Outside of academia, it appears that few of us care what the OS hucksters are “supporting.” Since Microsquash officially discontinued “support” for WinXP April 8. 2014, I suppose XP isn’t holding as strong as it was in March of that year? Well, the above chart was generated in May, well after Windows dropped support and XP still clung to 25.3% of the total market. More users moved from XP to Win7 than to Microsoft’s actual current OS, Win8. So much for driving the market.

I think this all points to the fact that consumers are more interested in value and function than “support.” The reason for that could be that Apple and Microsoft don’t really support anything well enough for consumers to care.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Why We Don't Make Stuff

The Presonus MP20 Preamplifier Conundrum

Oct 20 11:21 AM
I have a pair of MP20 preamps that need repair. Since Presonus no longer provides support for those products, is it possible to obtain a service manual, schematic, or any technical information for these pres that would making servicing them possible?
 
October 21, 2014 11:50 AM
Technical Support PreSonus Audio Electronics
 
Hi Thomas,
 
Thank you for contacting Presonus Technical Support.
 
Your MP20 device falls under the category of End of Service (EOS) support. This means that Presonus no longer has parts, manuals, schematics or suggestions on repair facilities for this product available to the public.
 
We are sorry for any inconveince this may cause, but please let me know if there is any more questions you have about currently shipping products and ways to replace this device.
 
Thank you,
Adam Brandon
Technical Support Agent
Presonus Audio Electronics
18011 Grand Bay Court
Baton Rouge, LA  70809
 
October 21, 2014 12:58 PM          
Thomas Day  
 
You should check your own website before hitting the boilerplate response button. That or actually go to the trouble to ensure a statement like "Presonus no longer has parts, manuals, schematics or suggestions on repair facilities for this product available to the public" is true by eliminating the page that disproves the statement: http://www.presonus.com/support/downloads/MP20. Obviously, anyone who has ever been in a manufacturing environment would never say or believe a company would destroy schematics or service information. In a digital world, none of that stuff takes useful space and provides valuable history. This statement should be, at a minimum, be reworded to something mildly credible.
 
In the past, I have been reasonably supportive of Presonus products when students, friends and customers ask about low priced recording products. I've heard a lot of horror stories from people and students who have purchased Presonus and experienced premature product failure and poor customer support. Until now, I had only experienced Presonus' service tech hostility when trying to obtain schematics and service information for products still serviced by the company. Clearly, Presonus is not particularly interested in promoting word-of-mouth customer relationships and I will now be among the many who do not take the company and its products seriously. I regret ending up in that crowd, since I was once a fan of many Presonus products.
 
October 21, 2014 10:20 PM
Gary - PreSonus Audio Electronics
 
Thomas,
 
This was not a boiler plate response. Being that the MP20 was first manufactured in 1998 and was discontinued in 2008, it is understandable that we may no longer service such a unit. It was one of the first groups of devices we ever manufactured.
 
The main reasons that units are shifted into being discontinued are due to lack of any further available part for service, outdated and incomparable technologies with modern supported technologies/computers/hardware, a replacement or new generation of a product has been released and or due to a combination of any of these the overall manufacturing lifespan of the product is complete. It has been PreSonus' policy since the beginning that we have not released schematics publicly. We actually are currently reevaluating said policy, but our current stance is not one that PreSonus takes, but many companies. So much so that companies such as Apple actually bought a company this year due to them publicly reverse engineering all their products and showing users how to service and repair them. We at no time ever stated that we have destroyed said requested schematics. As the schematics, technology and designs are the intellectual property of PreSonus. It is up to us how we handle such things.
 
Again, I want to reiterate that we are currently taking a look at options that will allow us to release some schematics to customers.
 
We do not at anytime release currently manufactured product schematics to anyone aside from our qualified Service Departments. We take our products seriously and want to insure that they are repaired to spec, so that we someone like yourself experiences one out in the field it properly represents the product and you are not possibly experiencing someones attempt to repair one of our devices, which may or may not be up to par.
 
Gary Hasenbeck
Technical Support Lead
Dealer RA Support Supervisor
PreSonus Audio Electronics
October 22, 2014 09:52 AM
Thomas Day  
 
Gary,
 
You're right, I misread the statement "This means that Presonus no longer has parts, manuals, schematics or suggestions on repair facilities for this product available to the public." I assumed Presonus had gone from the previous customer hostile "proprietary" attitude to claiming the non-existence of such material. You might notice some inconsistency in Adam's statement, since I found the manuals on your own website.
 
There are better companies than Apple to use as a model for customer service, but I can see the internal justification. Apple, however, has done a fairly good job over the years of providing the service manuals their internal techs use on the internet. Otherwise, Apple has done a terrific job of making enemies out of friends and haters out of loyal customers for 30 years. Pro audio is the wrong business to be playing their game, though. One good reason vintage studio equipment holds value is because it is serviceable. While Presonus has pretended to have a stranglehold on good technicians, companies like Epiphone have gone the route of creating products designed for the DIY market. Unrepairable, but otherwise useable, equipment puts a stain on a company's image that results in downgrading future products. There is no reason Presonus should feel compelled to continue servicing old products, but withholding that information from owners appears to be more an act of spite or disregard than any pretense at preventing "reverse engineering."
 
To people with product repair history, a corporate terror of reverse engineering usually indicates a more likely fear of being discovered as a company with a history of reverse engineering (Behringer, for example). If Presonus is honestly worried about a competitor reissuing the MP20 that might be an indication that the product has a larger market than assumed when it was cut from production. It should be obvious that a statement like "we take our products seriously and want to insure that they are repaired to spec" is inconsistent with preventing service from any source once Presonus has decided to cut itself loose from the responsibility of providing service.
 
I appreciate the time you took to reformulate a response to me. I would encourage Presonus execs to reconsider this policy since I believe it has a greater affect on customer perception than a cursory and uninformed perspective might indicate. A high cost of moving manufacturing overseas is that engineering and management lose massive quantities of irreplaceable skill. When a company falls into the pit of deluding itself into believing it is possible to be an "ideas and marketing business," the handwriting is on the wall. Four decades of American manufacturing and engineering skills have been lost in dozens of industries from this fallacy.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

You Know I’m Gone When . . .

AP ATS1 (7)For 13 years the core of my service shop had been my Audio Precision ATS1, the coolest piece of test equipment I’ve  played with since I had constant access to the AP System I at QSC. When I was doing regular studio maintenance, I carried this great piece of equipment along on almost every service call. I had customized an old biomed ICD case to fit the AP and that case and the equipment it contained flew across country several times, travelled in the back of my nasty old Ford Escort through heatwave and blizzard, and suffered the slings and arrows of living in my basement shop for more than a decade between trips. AP knocked it out of the park with this series of test gear and I learned more from using mine than I did from four years of electrical engineering classes.

AP ATS1 (1)You can get to many of the same places with regular test equipment, but you get there mu ch faster with a great piece of specialized gear. Frequency sweeps with a variety of resolutions, speeds, and steps, which are documented and printable, provides a lot more immediate information than an otherwise perfectly functional sweep generator and oscilloscope. The same goes THD, phase, IMD, input impedance, and power measurements. A variety of otherwise painful, complicated, and troublesome system checks can be almost automated with the ATS1 and that makes troubleshooting a pro console in the studio environment more consistent, professional, and documentable. Again, that’s also true for multi-track tape decks, external gear, and studio wiring.

A few years ago, I more or less planned on letting my estate sort out the value of things like the ATS1 and a few other indispensable pieces of electronic test equipment I’ve relied on for most of my career. When I retired last year, I began to reconsider that plan. I have felt no compulsion to return to audio engineering, even on a hobby basis. So, last week I put the ATS1 on eBay (http://www.ebay.com/itm/301350546710?ssPageName=STRK:MESOX:IT&_trksid=p3984.m1561.l2649) for a very reasonable price and a rental company snapped it up. I’d rather see it used to death than have it rot in my basement shop unappreciated and unused. Electronic equipment, like mechanical equipment, needs occasional use to keep electrolytic capacitors and other parts operational. I’d say I hated seeing it go, but I didn’t. We’ll use the money on our retirement home and being mortgage-free is more important at this point in my life than having the capability to do work I no longer want to do. With that in mind, this is my odd way of saying “so long and good luck” to a great piece of equipment and some great years of my career.

Without the ATS1 in my toolbox, I have one more excuse to turn down crawling around under a studio console or banging my head against some moronic piece of poor design work or swabbing out Coke, coke, or some other crap from broken effects boxes.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Test Your Ears or Shut Your Mouth

30 years ago, Pat Quilter handed me a piece of junk that QSC had purchased to help make objective evaluations of audio gear; an ABX box that had been sold by some audiophile company a few years earlier. The original box had goofy firmware that occasionally retained incorrect test history, lousy circuitry for switching, and limited current capabilities. Since we would be testing everything from line-level signals to power amp output levels into a common speaker system, I pretty much dumped everything except the remote control and redesigned the whole box. From a previous engineering project, I had a few mercury-wetted, silver contact low signal relays in my parts bin, which I used for the line-level switching components. From the design work I’d done on the “award winning” Wirebender Musician’s Preamplifier, I incorporated a hard-wired parallel shielded signal path that minimized crosstalk (to 85dB unweighted), wiring capacitance and inductance, and kept the connectors-to-relay-to-connectors signal path as clean as possible. For the high power signal path, I used gold-plated dual banana connectors and some silver-plated-contact motor controller relays, also from my previous design engineering life.

QSC-ABX From there, we took every opportunity to drag engineers, musicians, recording professionals, live sound professionals, and office staff into the test lab, out in the field, at music stores, and in recording studios where we could test our and competitor’s designs against the discriminating hearing of anyone who would submit themselves to testing. Mostly, we learned that hardly anyone could hear the difference between great gear and crap. Years after I left, QSC turned the whole ABX concept into a product and discovered that proving your customers have mediocre hearing is not a great marketing tactic. On average, the “ABX test” established something that an audiologist discovered at a 1980’s AES, most audio professionals are “functionally deaf” and hate having that demonstrated in public. After a study that categorized the most arrogant audio professionals (live sound “engineers”) as being as deaf as their product consistently demonstrates, the AES banned audiologists from AES shows until the late 90’s. The HEAR organization began providing “confidential” testing at AES conventions in 1997 (“The results of the free hearing tests are kept confidential and maintained in a database that tracks hearing screenings performed for AES members since 1997.”) and even their by-profession data is kept secret.

A recent Pro Audio Review article, “Why Gear Doesn’t Matter,” has similarly fired up everyone from audio amateurs to professionals to, especially, boutique gear manufacturers. Even though any good design engineer will admit that getting a simple audio signal, 20Hz to 20kHz, through modern electronics is a pretty remedial design task, the fact that most modern records sound like crap is easier blamed on not having the right gear rather than recording mediocre musicians playing lifeless music using techniques that are guaranteed to squeeze the life out of any song ever played.

On the other hand, a good number of those functionally deaf recording engineers have managed to record some amazing music over the years. Knowing your limitations and compensating for them intelligently, along with possessing musical knowledge and technical skills, will carry you a long way. When I first sat down with my new toy, the company ABX tester, I discovered a lot of painful things about myself. Listening through high-end headphones, to studio monitors, to audiophile speakers, and decent home stereo speakers, I first discovered an old bias of mine—bipolar output transistors vs FET transistors—was an illusion, in my case. For years I had been convinced that I could clearly hear the difference between bipolar and FET output components and my ABX tester proved that was bullshit. Next, I experimented with slew-limiting, another characteristic I was certain made a big difference. In my case and many other listening test subjects, I learned that a slew of over 4V/μS was reasonably clearly “superior” to a slew under 1V/μS.  Going for higher slew improvements didn’t seem to produce an audible advantage. Harmonic distortion turned out to be considerably less apparent than I’d expected, too. In fact, lots of professionals failed to detect clipping distortion until it exceeded 0.5% and as much as 2%. Put a low-pass filter on the clipping and detection got even worse.

It has been 20-some years since I played with an ABX box and I’m sure my 66-year-old ears are considerably less discerning than my 30-year-old ears. Time is not kind to the hearing mechanism. However, when I hear young or old people make ridiculous claims about the difference in cable “sounds” or insisting on having some over-priced preamp coupled with an even more overpriced microphone before recording pop “music” is possible, I instantly blow off that person’s opinion as bullshit. I’m not buying any of it.

A couple of years ago, a friend (Aaron Hodgson) and I built an ABX test box to use with our school’s AES chapter and various equipment experiments at the school. Since I retired last fall, I am not in a position to be part of that testing, but Aaron is “ready and willing” to let anyone who is interested test their hearing at the school or locally. We went to the same extremes with this tester that I’d used on the original ABX box in the 80’s, including using the same mercury-wetted relay. If you really want to know if you can hear the difference between a Presonus preamp and a Great River (or any other brand), this is your chance.

My good friend, Rob Schlette, wrote an article about digital ABX self-testing for the Pro Audio Files, “Audio Perception and ABX Testing.” Not only does he provide readers with links for ABX software and some history, Rob has written an excellent step-by-step testing procedure that should produce consistent results and provide the testee with a lot to consider. At the digital signal level, there are several ABX test programs you can play with for free. Try more than one to be sure your results are consistent.

On the other hand, if you don’t want to know what you can’t hear, you’re not alone. My experience demonstrated that most “professional audio engineers” were happier not knowing their limitations and became downright hostile when they discovered their golden ears were tin. If that’s you, have fun blowing your money on overpriced gear and get used to knowing that the music you play and record will be something different than your illusions.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

College Is Dead; Long Live Education

The first attempt at higher education I experienced was a disaster. The school was Dodge City Community College and my first major was Music. I had been, intermittently, a fairly successful rock and roll musician for a few years and wanted to extend my musical knowledge to theory. DCCC wanted to teach me how to teach K-12 music, a career path that was dying in 1966. I learned quickly that my school’s music department had damn few actual musicians as instructors. After a wasted semester, I moved to Business and a few weeks later, left that school for good. My first attempt at college was a bust and I was convinced I’d never set a wasted foot in an institution of “higher learning” again.

A few years later, I was working part-time and getting paid full time in Dallas, Texas and with some spare afternoons available I reconsidered my education. Junior colleges were still cheap and so was my time. Right in downtown Dallas was a school several of my friends recommended, El Centro College. I signed up for a couple of the classes I’d flunked in Kansas by dropping out unannounced and stumbled into an unexpected bonus: high quality teachers who cared about their students. In my K-12 and partial college experience, I had no more than three instructors who gave a flying damn about providing value to their students. The overwhelming attitude of my first years’ instructors was that of a pissed off babysitter. At El Centro, I had excellent instructors who cared about their students, knew their subjects, and taught their classes like professionals.

Unfortunately, I went back to the Midwest and suffered the usual crap-for-brains characters who “teach” at a variety of institutions from western Kansas to Texas to Nebraska. Since I’d experience real instruction as an adult, I at least knew when I was in a mediocre situation. California took the whole education experience up several notches. Even in the state’s community colleges, the majority of instructors were not only PhD’s, they were brilliant. The only place I experienced less-than-excellent instructors was in my CSULB minor; technical writing. My Creative Writing and English instructors in that program were as excellent as I’d come to expect from California’s higher education system.

Where’s this all going? I’m glad you asked.

In my experience, the excellence I’ve enjoyed in my education has all been in practical, technical, and vocational training. I include Creative Writing in that group. When the education system is focused on providing value to students, it works. When it is misdirected toward theoretical educational philosophic goals, it becomes pointless and aimless. 50 years later, if you look at the schools I’ve mentioned (and linked) you’ll see some warning flags and some encouraging signs. My first school, DCCC, appears to believe it’s primary purpose is to entertain the local public. If the website is any indicator the school’s focus, sports and cheerleading are the primary activities of its students. El Centro has focused on a few practical vocational specialties and created programs that are economically practical and valuable to their students. The same applies to CSULB’s engineering, design, and even the more traditional programs.

For-profit institutions are getting their asses handed to them in the current economic environment. I recently visited with some of the administrative people at Southeast Technical Community College and they, too, are experiencing a slow-down in enrollment. Unlike other schools, they are not in a panic mode. They’ve been through this before and realize that college enrollment often goes down the when economy is strong. People are less likely to work on improving their skills if their skills are marketable. That’s not smart, but it is human nature. STCC makes a big deal, internally and externally, of their 80% graduate employment rate (a number for-profits only wish they could emulate). Their business model is to provide marketable skills to their graduates along with a reasonable dose of traditional liberal arts education. In my experience, that provides a much more focused goal for the teachers, which provides more value to students. In a decent economy, what we usually call “higher education” is nearly useless. It is an unfocused, disconnected-from-reality waste of time and money that provides value to such a tiny portion of students that intelligent parents should avoid any contribution to that sort of system. If kids want to flush their future into the toilet of general liberal arts, they should after being honestly counseled to the fact that any job they could get after that education could be obtained without it.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

When the Only Information You Have is Disinformation

Mostly, I like TapeOp Magazine a lot. The interviews are interesting and, sometimes, educational and the profiles of people who make the tools of the pro audio industry are rare opportunities to read something about how designers think. However, I do not care much for TapeOp’s product reviews. In fact, I only read them for the humor factor. This month’s magazine has a review with a product type that I think has to be about 90% bullshit: high end “monitor controllers.” If there is any product that makes more claims with less evidence than $1,000+ “monitor controllers,” I do not know what it is.

Way back in the early 1980’s, pro audio went the same route as the audiophile market; all bullshit and no meat. When Mix Magazine, the fluffiest of all audio magazines on either side of the high-buck carousel, bought the last technical holdout in the audio publishing world, Recording Engineer/Producer (RE/P), and closed down the competition in 1992, that was pretty much the end of pro audio being a reality-based industry. From then on, reviews have been test equipment-free and full of biased and unfounded fantasies. “The Audio Precision distortion test” was replaced by “I feel the music more in my soul” sorts of bullshit. We haven’t recovered since.

A friend and I used to argue about publishing’s lack of credibility. This friend, Mark Amundson (past Technical Editor for FOH Magazine), used to agree that even his own reviews were pretty fluffy. In two month’s worth of magazines, he had reviewed a total POS Peavey mixer and a Midas mid-priced mixer using almost identical language. When I pointed that out, he said, “Tom, you have to learn to read between the lines.”

I replied, “White space is what’s between the lines.”

I think my next Wirebender rant is going to be about bullshit terms used to describe magical audio qualities. The phrase that fired up this rant was in that bullshit monitor controller review, “The feeling of this unit is immersive; even at these low levels, I felt the music was all around me, and it made the sweet spot wider.” Sounds like phase problems to me.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

State of Software Amateurism

OSuseage2014During the winter months, I was wrapped up in more than a couple discussions with kids who consider themselves to be computer experts (by profession, at the least) who believe that if you aren’t using the latest OS, you are a hillbilly. As of March 2014, the above chart reflects US computer OS use, per a pretty large sample survey.

The statistic that most interests me is “Other,” the 1.99% of users whose technology was, apparently, unimportant to the surveyors. On a recent trip to New Mexico, I met a surprising number of people who run their businesses on old versions of Windows: all the way back to a law office using Windows for Workgroups 3.11, a graphic artist using windows 98, a collection of small business owners who network and advertise their group on the web using tools from Windows 95, and several people still on Vista. While we were camped at Elephant Butte State Park, I met a 60’s rock star and I listened to his music recorded on a 1970’s TASCAM 80-8 1/2” reel-to-reel in a camper trailer. He gave me a copy of the soon-to-be-released CD bounced down to MP3 on a free version of studio editing software long-ago-absorbed by Adobe.

The OS-users’ pie chart chart sort of reflects my own experience, although a bit optimistically. Microsoft has been working overtime to convince WinXP users to evacuate the building since the company has ceased “support” of XP. Of course, real computer IT and user types know Microsoft is bullshitting us. Support for business XP users will continue for a while and you can tag on to that gravy train easily. Less obvious is the fact that hackers write hacks for the biggest bang for the buck. The real reason Apple’s OS X is fairly “safe” from identity thieves is that a scant 6-7% of computer users are Apple computer owners. If you really want to be hack-free, Windows for Workgroups 3.11 might be your best bet. Running MSDOS might be the closest thing to total security possible.

Soon, it won’t matter much what sort of PC computer OS you run because the majority of computer users will be tablet and phone nerds. The industry expects tablet sales to almost double desk and laptop PC sales by 2017. Mobile phones are already selling at 5X the PC rate and will approach 10X PC sales in 2017. The smart hacker is already up into your phones’ butt right now and heading for the digestive system.

The kids who run computer companies, especially the technologically inbred CEO/CFO/COO types, could care less about security, since they are in no way obligated by law for the incredible financial losses their companies are responsible for creating. While you have to marvel at the royal way these blessed-by-corruption organizations are treated, as a consumer we need to be more than a little bit suspicious of anything they tell us. The fact is, I believe, the only reason for owning any sort of computer is practical. These instruments are nearly useless as educational devices, incredibly limited as news distribution sources, and as inclined to continue the dumbing-down of our degraded and degenerating species as television. So, worrying about whether we are using the latest version of some half-baked, user-hostile bullshit software or hardware is self-destructive.

It is valuable (and economical) to constantly remind yourself that a whole lot more great art was created on considerably less sophisticated technology that whatever you’re working with right now than you are likely to produce in seven lifetimes. If you can accomplish whatever work you need to be doing with whatever tool you have in your office, closet, classroom, or business, you are sufficiently up-to-date. Do work and forget about the color-of-the-designer-magazine-week bullshit.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Genuine People Personality

There is new level of user-hostility in all current and popular computer operating systems--OS X, Android, and Win 7/8--that astounds me. I suppose it’s the result of hacking, identity theft, and the fact that most current computer owners do not qualify as computer “users.” That does not make it right, useful, or something we should learn to tolerate.

OS Market Share CP 2011-04 530 2011-05-03 For more than a decade, I’ve said, “The first company that designs an OS that pays attention to the users’ input, first, and the programmers’ background maintenance bullshit, second, will blow Apple and Microsoft out of business in less than a month.” For thirty years, Microsoft’s mantra has been, “We don’t have to be great, we only have to be better than our competition.” Since Apple and Google are the only other game in town, and those two companies suck, Microsoft’s game has become soft. In a competitive world, that would mean that the market is ripe for a new kid in town. This is not a competitive world. The various incarnations of open-source UNIX/LINUX have, for example, not exactly shaken the ground the Big Boys play on.

In trying to “upgrade” my two laptop systems—a Dell Latitude E6400 and a MacBook Pro 2,2—so that I can abandon both of my desktop systems—a Dell tower and a Mac Pro G5—as part of our downsizing attempt, I am re-experiencing the pain of both Windows and OS X. The upgrade mostly consists of moving both machines to SSDs. When I put an SSD in my little Dell Netbook, that sluggish machine became my go-to computer on our trip because it was fast, reliable, small and light, and durable. The MacBook Pro was the opposite of all of those characteristics, so it mostly languished in it’s bomb-proof Pelican case and wasted valuable space for five months. When I did need it, it required several hours of maintenance because the poor layout and cheap fans gummed up with New Mexico dust after a few hours of use. I ended up rebuilding the fans, with actual bearing grease instead of the fish oil Apple’s suppliers used. They have been working for a few hundred hours, quietly and dependably, since.

The SSD installation went quickly (about 2 hours) and, mostly, flawlessly on the Dell laptop, thanks to Samsung’s installation software. My old Dell Latitude E6400 runs like a brand new machine. Pro Tools 10, Sonar X3, Vectorworks, and the usual Office suspects flawlessly and instantly. So far, I consider this move to be a success.

macbook heatsink2 The MacBook installation was as painful as most Apple software/hardware experiences, made even more difficult by the fact that I decided to dig into the physical MacBook to clean and reinstall the heatsink thermal grease, since MacBooks are notorious for overheating and failing in moderate temperatures. (In case you are interested in making this repair, it is only possible on the older MacBook Pro laptops. Apple has not only made the newer models, especially the Retina models, unserviceable and considerably more fragile.)

macbook heatsink Counting the disassembly hassle (massively more difficult for the Mac than the Dell), I have about 9 hours invested in the Mac and after the 3rd failed Disk Utilities software installation attempt, I took the excellent advice from other Apple product owners, I gave up on the Apple OS X built-in cloning software and used Carbon Copy Cloner (CCC). Three hours later, my MacBook was up and running. In fact, running considerably more reliably (after downloading a “trim” enabling utility, since Apple only supports its own overpriced SSDs in its usual user-hostile customer disservice manner).

I had the opportunity to do a side-by-side comparison between my newly enabled MacBook Pro and a 2013 MacBook Pro with Intel's Haswell-based Core i5 processor and an Apple-installed SSD. On every functional “benchmark,” we found my old duo-core MacBook was as quick, in practical terms, as the far more expensive, less-featured (except for Thunderbolt) newer model. Counting the Samsung SSD, I now have $500 invested in my MacBook Pro. After the heatsink repair, the main and video processors are running about 50F cooler at max fan speed and 15F cooler at the lowest fan speed. Of course, some of that could be due to the extreme air-path cleaning I gave the laptop. It wasn’t all that dirty, though. On the other hand, Apple’s cheesy heatsink compound was dried into a crumbling thermal insulator that probably did more harm than good.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Proof in Pudding

IMG_0003 A while back, I referenced new knowledge (to me) about owning an acoustic guitar that I’d discovered in Allen St. John’s Clapton's Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument. If you look at the picture of me playing my new guitar and if you’ve read St. John’s book, you’d have to assume I learned absolutely nothing from Wayne Henderson. You might be wrong. I’m not a good enough guitarist to know much about the intricacies of acoustic guitars, but like all pedestrian art lovers “I know what I like.” I can’t describe it well enough to put forward any intelligent theories or descriptions, but I am reasonably sure I could put together a list of important criteria that might provide someone with a bigger brain some insight into what matters to me as a guitar player.

IMG_0004 The guitar I ended up with is a Composite Acoustics Cargo, that company’s entry into the environmentally indelicate travel guitar market. Here’s what CA has to say about the Cargo, “A travel size instrument that sounds like a full size guitar? Impossible! Our Cargo is comfortable to play anywhere, from the forests of Oregon to the foothills of the Catskill mountains, and even in your favorite armchair. Finely appointed and incredibly durable, the Cargo is ready when you are. It easily fits airline overheads or anywhere space is tight. It's a portable guitar with the playability, sound and satisfaction of a full size guitar.

  blackbird riderOddly, other than the exclamation marks, I pretty much agree with CA’s self-assessment. A friend called, knowing that I was looking for a replacement for my all-around-miserable Martin Backpacker travel guitar, saying that he’d found a used Cargo at a local guitar store and wanted to know if I was interested in tagging along to play it with him. We went to Willie’s American Guitars, first, to check out the Blackbird Rider (steel string). The Rider was pretty impressive, but at $1,600 I decided to wait until I’d sold the Martin 00016C before I plunked down another pile off money on a guitar I might not play. On we went to the next guitar shop where we played a used and purple 2008 (pre-Peavey) Cargo non-electric. The shop was asking $1,000 due to the “collector value” of the pre-Peavey status and Tim and I decided to pass for a while to see how the day’s comparisons sat. When I got home, I looked up current prices on the Cargo and found that $999 was a pretty common street price for the electric-capable version of the “raw carbon” version. Tim ended up ordering one from Sweetwater. About the time he ordered his, I found a used one with the “high gloss carbon burst finish” on Craig’s List. We ended up getting out hands on our new guitars at about the same time, same day, and damn near the same place. Tim’s is new, mine is pre-Peavey used. To my ears, they look and sound pretty much the same, except for string differences and the gloss finish on my guitar.

IMG_0003Ellis Seal, an aerospace engineer, began Composite Acoustics in 1999 and after a couple of wrong steps, over-optimistically anticipating the market for the company’s products and under-pricing their products (at least pricing them so the company didn’t make enough profit to survive), CA went bankrupt in 2010. That same year, Peavey bought the remains and began marketing the carbon graphite guitars, pretty much unchanged, in early 2011. Since then, Peavey has refined some manufacturing processes, but kept the guitars themselves most intact; in spite of the fear-mongering some “vintage guitar” dealers are promoting.

The Cargo is an interesting work in acoustics, psychoacoustics, nearfield design, art, engineering, and ergonomics. After I got my Cargo, Willie’s picked up another Rider and I went to the store with my guitar to compare the two. The Rider has the “advantage” of a smaller body, which makes it a slight bit easier to store. Some of that turns into a disadvantage when you are playing the guitar, though. It does not side in your lap like a guitar, unlike the Cargo. While the body of the Rider is more narrow, it is also deeper so the total stored volume is pretty similar. From a distance, the two guitars sound remarkably similar. From the player’s position, the Cargo has it all over the Rider. The sound hole is high and right under the player’s face, providing more low end to that listening position than the Rider. The body shape of the Cargo puts a very resonant part of the guitar’s back right against your chest and rib cage, providing low frequency bone conduction. Just holding the guitar away a fraction of an inch or wearing a coat is enough to lose this portion of the bottom end. It is a brilliant solution to an otherwise unsolvable problem with a small body guitar. Both guitars have excellent pickups; the Rider the Fishman MiSi pickup electronics, with a tone control, and the Cargo has a less featured LR Baggs pickup. With a half-decent acoustic guitar amplifier, the Rider’s tone controls would be unnecessary.

Your mileage may vary, but I am more than satisfied with my Composite Acoustics Cargo electric and expect to be playing this guitar for years. When a friend first saw the CA guitars at a NAMM show, the company had three of their instruments on stands under a running waterfall. The demonstrator just pulled a guitar out of the water, shook it off, and started playing. That’s not all that far from the kind of environment living in an RV can be.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Everything into Anything

 A year or so ago, I realized I had a perfectly good steel box for which I had no actual purpose. Too big to make into a guitar petal, too small for most other purposes. At the time, I also had a bunch of conversion projects: getting -10dBV stuff into +4 stuff and high to low impedance matching stuff and other unbalanced to balanced issues. Even weirder, I had a pair of vintage RCA line-matching transformers with no place to go.

What you see in these pictures is my wife's artistic decoration of my Everything into Anything case. I had something less 60's in mind, but you can not guide art. The other thing you might notice is the 1/4" (TRS or TS), RCA, and 1/8" stereo connectors on one side (for stereo input) and a pair of XLR connectors with a ground lift switch on the opposite side. With a slight amount of loading, you can connect any of the left side unbalanced connectors to any of the other left side connectors to "adapt" connectors. Going through the unbalanced side to the balanced side you pass through some big iron transformers for isolation and signal balancing. The ground lift switch disconnects the balanced side from chassis ground. So far, only one application with which I've used this product has needed the ground lift protection, but most live applications probably would.

The box is heavy. Both the transformers (which fit wall-to-wall in the case) and the steel case add both mass and electromagnetic isolation from 60Hz noise sources. I transferred a crapload of 1/4" 15ips analog tape recordings to digital in a two month period with this rig and none of the typical ground issues that came with old Teac reel-to-reel recorders ended up in the transfers. I used the box for a DI with a 1970's Yamaha DX1 synth in the studio and the combination of the balancing transformers and ground lift gave the quietest signal I've received from that ill-designed semi-analog synth.

Honestly, I'd have liked to include a few other connectors on the box; just for the fun of it. However, there was no room in the inn. The transformers and XLRs take up all of the available space, which actually created additional shielding.

Fun project and useful. Of course, finishing it up a few months before I retired is about par for the course. I could have used this thing most everyday for the last two decades.


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Getting A Wish and Wishing I Hadn’t

When I first started playing guitar, 54 years ago, I had a garbage Sears acoustic my father paid $12 for and gave me for Xmas. It was an awful looking sunburst piece of junk with strings about 1/2” above the fretboard and the sound quality of a banjo. I loved it, but felt the need to “fix” it after I played a friend’s Gibson. I sanded the paint job off of the top and neck, refinished the neck and body with rubbing oil of some sort, and made my first shot at dressing a fretboard and bridge. It played better, but still sounded like crap.

alvarez-yariThe first time I abandoned rock and roll, when I was 19, I moved to Dallas, Texas and traded all of my electric stuff for a Gibson J45 acoustic. At the time, I thought it was a great guitar. I played that instrument for the next 20 years and was reasonably satisfied with it. Totally on a whim, in 1980 I bought an Alvarez-Yari DY-87 double-neck acoustic that I loved to death. I sold the J45 to a friend and band mate and played the hell out of the Alvarez-Yari until I moved to Colorado in ‘91. I’d gotten back into recording and the double-neck recorded horribly.

Guitars 016On another whim, I decided to sell the Alvarez-Yari and buy a guitar I’d always dreamed about, a Martin. I found a “good deal” on a 00016C and bought it from a Denver session player who was down on his luck and needed rent money. From the day I owned that guitar, I loved-hated it. I always assumed that relationship was due to the fact that I pretty much quit playing not long after buying the Martin. It was used in a bunch of recording sessions, by other players, over the next two decades, but I barely picked it up. It recorded well, but I never liked the way it sounded to me while I played it. I bet I didn’t put 50 hours of practice on that guitar in 20 years. Honestly, I eventually flat-out disliked my Martin and didn’t think much of myself as a guitar player, either.

After reading Clapton's Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument, I began to suspect there was a lot more to picking an acoustic guitar than I was capable of comprehending or appreciating. When my daughter Holly asked me to help her pick out an acoustic guitar as a present for her husband, I reluctantly agreed to try and help. My reluctance was all about doubting my ability to hear a good guitar when I played one. However, once I started picking up guitars, playing them, listening to them, and moving from one to another, I got absorbed in the project and lost my inhibitions. Eventually, I settled on a Seagull acoustic that I really loved. She bought it. Sherm loves it too. And I decided to rid myself of my Martin.

It went quickly. I don’t miss it, but after playing my crappy backpacker all winter I am wishing for an acoustic guitar that I might love. Yesterday, I played Sherm’s Seagull and I still like it (it needs new strings, Sherm). I don’t know what that means because one thing Holly and I learned when I was picking Sherm’s guitar is that all Seagulls of the same model do not sound or play alike. I might not be able to find another like his. This could be a long process. Acoustic instruments are incredibly personal and that is a lesson that took me 50 years to learn.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Enforcement or Reinforcement?

Last night, I met a friend at a downtown St. Paul bar to hang out after being away for the winter. The bar has a barely-attended open mic on Mondays, so that was supposed to be our background. As usual, that was a mistake. Even though all of the performers were "acoustic musicians" doing folk songs and folk interpretations of pop songs, the sound system was cranked, painfully distorted, and grossly overbearing. Big surprise, right?

I worked for QSC Audio Products for a decade, back in the 80's. That came after 15 years of running my own engineering, service, sound reinforcement, and recording studio business. When I first stated working in audio manufacturing, I didn't think much about the moral aspect of what we were doing. Ten years late, hundreds of live sound gigs under my belt, tens of thousands of audio power amplifiers into the pipeline, and far too many conversations with live sound "engineers" and having suffered the result of providing deaf, stupid people with reliable high-powered amplification, I was pretty much done with the idea of live music as a morality-neutral business.

Our customers were about as concerned with musical fidelity as the two douchebags on the left. Too often, musicians are not performing art as much as they are shouting, "Look at me! Hey! I'm over here! Hey! Look!" Like spoiled 2-year-olds, they are not trying to entertain anyone other than themselves and they are willing to deafen anyone foolish enough to suffer their "art." Think South Park's "The F-Word," if you need more non-musical references. I began to think working for a cojppany whose primary purpose was to make music painfully, harmfully loud was less than ethical. It could be that I was just looking for a good reason to leave southern California, but my dislike for over-amped musical performances has tenaciously hung-on.

To my ears, the two things that make live music less than enjoyable are loudness and lousy tone. In many ways, the two are attached. Poor mic technique came about in an irrational effort to "improve" gain-before-feedbacik. Performers sacrificed quality, dynamics, and detail for loudness. Acoustic guitar pickups are a consistent source of lousy tone and, like poor microphone technique, the whole justification for those awful, twangy things that train listeners to expect awful tone from acoustic instruments is loudness and freedom from microphones. Performers who want their audience to know how special their instrument sounds use either no amplification or employ high quality condenser microphones and use those instruments as competently and flexibly as a talented vocalist.

The problem isn't the feedback, it's the volume of performances. At some time in the 60's, sound systems moved from being reinforcement to an attempt to enforce attention from the audience. It didn't work. It shouldn't work. It's a non-musical concept.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Getting Fired Moments

One of the instructors I worked with at McNally Smith College of Music, Bryan Forrester, used to described the Pre/Post monitor fader buttons as the “get fired buttons.” The idea being that if you decided to play with those buttons after getting a monitor mix going, you might subject your talent to a burst of ear-damaging noise and get your lame ass fired as a result. I adopted that in my own laboratory classes and expanded the concept to include things like damaging equipment, being late to a class/session, acting unprofessionally, and being lazy or slow. “If you ever notice that I am working harder than you, assume you won’t be called back to work with me again.”

Most “students” convinced themselves that I was kidding, that the working world wouldn’t be that harsh. At a dead minimum, 99% of the school’s graduates have only “worked” in a professional musical environment once or twice before retiring to their parents’ basement and a part-time career in fast food service. The problem with doubting reality is that reality could give a shit what you think.

In a competitive market, and it’s hard to imagine a market that could be more competitive than music and music technology, there are more reasons to fire someone than to hire them. While the media is packed with feel-good stories about people who failed and became successful, real life has a much larger inventory of people who failed and crawled back into bed. The difference between the two is how hard the first group worked to prove they weren’t members of the second group.

In a world booby-trapped with “get fired” moments, I recommend that you consider the possibility that your mother isn’t the best judge of your talents; for better or worse. You are unlikely to find an employer who will put up with laziness of any sort. You are unlikely to get second chances; let alone third, fourth, and so on chances. You need to listen carefully, take notes, do what you’re asked to do, do it fast, and try to make your self useful to your customers, whoever they may be. Any other approach is not a serious effort.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

What Am I Doin’ Here?

For 12 oddly inconsistent years, I pretended to be a college instructor at a private college in St. Paul. If you know me even a little you know that academia is pretty much the last institution on the planet that should have adopted me. I grew up in an educators’ household, my father was a business/math teacher and my step-mother was a piano teacher, but as David Sedaris wrote, “Like branding steers or embalming the dead, teaching was a profession I had never seriously considered.”

In fact, I have branded steers and it wasn’t bad work, other than the company and the low pay. 100 years ago, I would have considered that to be pretty good work and I’d have still avoided teaching. I have never figured myself for an undertaker, though. When I decided, thanks for the non-existent knowledge of my high school’s “advisors,” that my talent for mathematics qualified me to be an accountant or a math teacher, I sailed my ship toward a life as a rock & roll star. Nobody in Dodge City High School’s 1965 faculty imagined a kid from our armpit of a town could become an “engineer,” unless a striped hat and the Santa Fe Railroad was involved.

When I hear media morons denigrate teachers, especially K-12 teachers, I try to remember that these characters probably had a long string of bad teachers who were well deserved by their students; assuming the media morons are typical of the material they had to work with. It’s a nasty job and no one who has a choice would do it under the usual conditions. When I started, it was not under anything resembling usual conditions. I lucked into a situation with great management, a strong program, and wonderful students. It didn’t last, but the fact that it ever existed is pretty amazing and unusual.

Fascinated by Complication

84478-abby eda1Almost thirty-five years ago, when I first started messing around with computers for a living, the company with which I was employed bought a giant Gerber CAD system. Seriously. The thing was huge. The CPU took up a large closet-sized metal rack, the D-size printer used pens for crap’s sake, the “memory” was reel-to-reel and almost stored enough information to draw a kiddies’ picture. The company’s CEO had seen a demonstration of the Gerber nightmare and, being the clueless little dork he was, put down his unearned million dollars for a pair of work stations. It was up to the Engineering Department to turn this horrible investment into something productive.

We failed. We failed miserably. It took an engineer and a draftsman hours to do the same work a draftsman could have done in a few minutes. A whole schematic took days. A mechanical drawing burned up lifetimes. Even more fun, the printing process would often crash the drawing and those hours, days, and lifetimes would start all over again. The CEO and his suited crowd of Yes Men often stood by the printer, proudly watching the damn thing pick pens and drag ink across paper. When the paper ripped or the pens started drawing gobblygook, the suits would scurry away like cockroaches when the lights come on. After a year of wrestling with finding ways to turn a few hours work into a month of misery, I quit and escaped to a small manufacturer where I hoped to never see a computer again.

Two years later, I was in California working for another small manufacturer. For the first year, I’d wrestled with the company’s Wang “word processor” and the god-awful database the CFO had begun in Wang Basic. He’d started with the wild hope that he could figure out the programming language, given up, hired a “consultant” who’d really made a mess out of the idea, given up again, hired me and assigned me with the task of making this mess work. With a $10,000 price tag on a new 5M hard drive, he’d convinced himself that it could be done with enough brilliant work. I was supposed to provide the brilliance.

osborne-executiveI cheated, eventually. Wang Basic wasn’t up to the task of providing a database that could manage our parts inventory and ordering system, our product BOM structure, and our produce revision history. So, I bought a brand new, post-bankruptcy, Osborne Executive, bootlegged a copy of DBase (for CP/M), created the BOM history with SuperCalc (came bundled with the Osborne), ported that to DBase, and began providing written inventory reports, purchasing schedules, and assembly documentation from DBase. Eventually, all of the company’s execs bought dirt cheap Osbornes from the local Xerox store and we all started using the same software. After a few years, we all moved over the DOS-based IBM AT-clone computers from a local company, AST Research (remember when American companies make computers? I do.). We upped our software game to FoxBase II, Supercalc II, Word, and, eventually, added design analysis and CAD to our systems.

Apple128KAll that harmony didn’t last long, though. Our marketing department, always looking for ways to blow money and exempt themselves from responsibility, responded to Apple’s bullshit “a computer for the rest of us” campaign and bought the biggest piece of shit ever foisted on the world as a “computer.” Suddenly, nothing could be done at that end of the company without consultants: computer consultants, marketing consultants, graphics consultants, artistic consultants, concept consultants, and management consultants. Since the Mac couldn’t talk to anything on the accounting, manufacturing, customer or billing, sales, or any other area of the company, marketing had successfully isolated itself from work. As far as I know, the company’s marketing department is still perfectly useless. Nothing in their advertising from the last 30 years proves otherwise.

Near the end of my time in California, a friend/employee was working on a show band project. He’d collected a group of wonderful musicians and singers, written several great R&B tunes, spent a butt-load of money on a sound system, and rehearsed the band until they were ready for a show case performance in front of some industry clowns. The problem was that he’d been reading too much Electronic Music bullshit and had bought into the idea that a Mac was a music machine and that Mac’s GUI-based MIDI software was the way to go for live performance. Remember, in 1990, the Apple Mac worked so slowly that it resembled Facebook’s crappy text editor in speed. Someone like me, who could type about 60w/m would be driven nuts by the Mac’s inability to keep up, on screen. If you foolishly watched the screen while you typed, you’d go crazy with the slowly crawling characters appearing seconds after you’d typed them.

After failing to be able to run his show by himself, my friend hired me to run FOH and run the MIDI show. I went to several practices, fought with the sluggish and unstable Mac and MOTU’s POS Digital Performer software, and pissed off everyone by my inability to keep the whole mess together; it was a 10-piece band sync’d to a glitchy Mac and MIDI. When we moved to a rehearsal hall, a couple of weeks before the performance, I suddenly “fixed” everything. I’d ported his Performer data to straight MIDI, moved that to a Compaq “portable” computer, loaded up Cakewalk (for DOS), and sync’d the live band to the MIDI performance coming from a Yamaha DX1 and my Kurzweil modules. My friend never knew that his Mac was no longer in the loop and the show came off fine.

Due to other issues, I’d pretty much exhausted my patience for Southern California by then and a few months later I left the state. He went back to trying to make the Mac drive the show and a few months later the band folded. Over the years, I’ve been amused to see Apple continuously turn simple stuff into massively unmanageable complexity and Apple’s Kool-Aid Kids have grown to be the largest cult outside of the Catholic Church.  Even to this day, Microsoft is the primary reason Apple can still sell its overpriced, cluttered, unpredictable, trendy computers. You wouldn’t know it from the crazy stuff Apple’s Kiddies say, though. Listening to them, you’d deliriously imagine that Apple had done something other than exactly what my California company’s marketing department did; separate itself from actual work and redefine “function” as inept complexity.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

What’s Art Worth?

We’ve been travelling around southwest New Mexico for the last four months, mostly observing the culture of the state and trying to keep our VW-powered RV rolling. Because there isn’t a lot to do in a campground after dark and even less that you can do when two people try to exist in a 90 square foot living space, I’ve spent a lot of this winter reading, thinking, and writing.

Yesterday we landed in a couple of our least favorite New Mexico places, Deming and Rockhound State Park, so there was even less than usual to do last night. After a couple of weeks of primitive national park isolation and a few days of exploring a town full of art galleries, Silver City, it struck me that I don’t know why people pay money for art. I mean art of any sort: music, visual art, movies and plays, and any other “expression of the self” that we might classify as artistic.

Art galleries are full of stuff that will sooner or later end up in second hand stores. Like browsing museums, it’s fun to look at artists’ work but it’s hard to imagine handing over hard-earned cash for something that will either end up selling for a few pennies on the dollar at a Salvation Army store or be tossed out with our worn out furniture when we move or die. Do you know what happens to the majority of grant-created sculpture that you see on temporary display in parks, city streets, and at art festivals? It’s turned into scrap, because nobody wants that shit in their neighborhood, house, or yard. Sure, we all dream that we’ve discovered the next Picasso, Dali, Peter Max, or the splatter paint guy, but that’s not gonna happen 47,000,000 out of 47,000,001 times. Even educated and experienced art speculators get their asses handed to them more often than not. The rest of us are buying overpriced memorabilia.

The more I thought about that, the more confused I became about why people pay money for music. When we left a shopping center in Deming, a pair of wannabe-hip-hoppers were hawking CDs in the parking lot; “New music, dog. Only ten bucks!” I could see by their outfits and the fake urban dialect, it would be hip-hopping beats and more of the painful poetry I’ve come to despise over the last 30 years of suffering that “music.” (Rap, and/or hip-hop if there is a difference, is the one place where I agree with Phil Spector when he said,” When they named the music, they left out the ‘c’.”) Obviously, I wouldn’t pay anything for more of the same pain and misery, but last night I began to wonder why I have ever paid for music of any sort. After all, if I turn on the radio, step into a dentist’s office, hang out in a bar, ride an elevator, or go to the library and borrow an armload of CDs, I can have all of the music I can stand for nothing. What is the value of something so available for free?

Likewise, movies. I get why people pay for popcorn, ice cream, and sodas, but what’s the movie worth? If you’re delusional enough to pay top price for a blockbuster opener, you’ll cough up $15-20 per ticket. Wait for the post-rush matinee and the price goes to $5. Wait for the movie to make it to the second-run theaters and a ticket is $2. Wait six months and the same movie will cost you $1 to rent as a DVD. Wait another year or two and you can see it in hi-def on television for free.

If the movies, music, sculpture, and paintings are, essentially, worthless, why do we pay money for them? If the art is worthless, what are the tools of art worth? What is the value of the musical instruments, paint brushes, movie cameras, microphones, recording equipment, and the rest of the artistic paraphernalia that is where the real money in art exists? That’s a tougher question. If most artists didn’t believe themselves to be the Next Big Thing, the profit margins on this stuff would be considerably smaller, the industries grossly less sophisticated, and academia would be way less interested in hyping courses and degrees in “the arts.” The fact is, pretty much no one will be any closer than parking next to the Next Big Thing, so this is not a reality-based business. Likewise, art for money has some serious problems.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Restoring a Vintage Ribbon


Beautiful workmanship on a vintage product that deserves respect. I'd forgotten how much fun it is to watch a machinist do his magic.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Evolution 001

Once upon a time, there was a wonderful music college that specialized in training young people for the cut-throat relatively-high technology world of modern music. That school had a great name, considering its mission; MusicTech College. The school's mission was to help young musicians and musical technologists find their way into a "life of music." Since modern music is technological in function and design, "MusicTech" was a terrific brand for the school. So much so, in fact, that groups of graduates from the school were called "MusicTech Bands": a description that indicated to other musicians that these kids were a special breed of skilled, theoretically informed, technically adept musicians who were a head above the rest of the pack. I know, that's not saying much since obtaining a music degree isn't known for being a smart economic decision

Being a MusicTech College instructor was a thing to be proud of. The faculty was focused and mission-driven and we were led by a man, Michael McKern, who epitomized that mission and focus. The school's two founders, Jack McNally and Doug Smith, were somewhere in the background in those days, but were not academically involved and barely seemed to know what was going on in the facility they owned. That was particularly apparent when the school moved to St. Paul from Minneapolis and in the last days of construction the two owners were occasionally shepherded around the nearly finished building marveling at the accomplishment. I was on the studio construction crew, which worked 18-20 hours a day for a couple dozen days to get the building in shape for the spring 2002 semester and, before they appeared for one of those tours, I thought McKern owned the school.

In 2005 and after a couple years of wrangling with accrediting bullshit, politics, egomania, and academia, general foolishness, and the usual American mismanagement disconnect from rational business conspired to force the school to "re-brand" the school and the mission went with the brand. The liberal arts community feels threatened by anything connecting "tech" to education. Apparently, MIT, Georgia Tech, Cal Tech, and the host of America's best institutions that proudly label themselves with the dreaded word "tech" don't live up to the dubious standards of today's for-profit fluffball liberal arts and Cardboard Blue trade school accrediting organizations. I'm sure the fact that a half-conscious, completely incompetent liberal arts accrediting agency disrespects "tech" bothers those great institutions deeply.

Sometimes I remember those days, probably unrealistically and overly fondly, and I do a search on "Music Tech" and hope to see some remembrance of that school and its students and instructors. In early February, I got a bunch of hits on that word (brand?) that was incredibly encouraging: The SF MusicTech Summit.

"The SF MusicTech Summit brings together visionaries in the evolving music/business/technology ecosystem, along with the best and brightest developers, entrepreneurs, investors, service providers, journalists, musicians, and organizations who work with them at the convergence of culture and commerce. We meet to do business and discuss, in a proactive, conducive to deal-making environment."

Shades of the good old days.

Another hit produced Music-Tech.com, which is the personal business site of "Award Winning Mixing Engineer" Stephen Sherrard. Sherrard has put together a fairly interesting "Resources for the Recording Musician" blog/informational website and also seems to be an echo of the old Musictech College mission.

One of the copout justifications for the name change was that their was competition for the name from the British music magazine MusicTech Magazine. That made no sense in 2005, since the school had been operating under the MusicTech College name for more than a decade and MusicTech Magazine came into existence in March of 2003. Anthem Publishing, the owner of the magazine version of "Musictech" didn't do much with the magazine for a couple of years, but after the college relinquished the name the magazine seems to have really taken off. Good for them. (Oddly, one of the school's most talented ex-instructors, Rob Schlette, named his mastering business Anthem Mastering. My wife would call that something more spiritually coincidental than "odd.")

My favorite MusicTech reincarnation might be the Musictech Society.  "We are the society in Imperial College Union for Music Producers and DJs. We meet to make music, mix music and discuss music (and drink and things)." Like rap (the printer left off the "c"), the whole DJ thing loses me, but I like their attitude.

Epilogue: It took me more than a few years to remove all of the old MusicTech College links and logos from my school presentations. Even in recent years, I have uncovered hidden MT logos or reference in my stuff. I, clearly, did not want to let go of the idiotic dream that MSCM would come to its senses and return to the name that implied a mission (and that mission). Instead of replacing it with the new brand, I eventually decided to stamp my work with my Wirebender logo and wait to see if anyone would notice.

Monday, January 20, 2014

ARTICLE: Rounding Out the Sound

All Rights Reserved © 1999 Thomas W. Day

(Originally published in Recording Magazine, May 1999 Volume 12, Number 8, p112, in the "Fade Out" guest editorial column under the title "Rounding Out the Sound.")

In the early 80's, a lot of engineers and musicians fell in love with our brand new digital masters. In the compromised world of vinyl, you would have to pick "the lesser evil" out of a group of master disks sent back from the mastering lab. The records that were made from those masters were, yet another, big step away from our master tape. With digital masters and CDs we got to hear what we originally recorded. The panning, bass, and volume are all where we put them. We seem to be taking that huge step for granted, lately.

The 90's seemed to introduce a new era of doubt for recording engineers. The ABX-shy golden ears crowd and other audiophile terrorists ranted about the loss of all those "pure" varieties of vinyl distortion (frequency, phase, and harmonic). For some reason, we listened to them and started trying to find ways to "round out" the clear, noiseless recordings we could make with our snazzy new digital toys.

There are lots of ways to take the edge (read "top end") off of what you put on disk. The current trendy method seems to be to stick a tube preamp between the mike and the digital gear and go on with life as you normally live it. I have some problems with that theory.

First, where are you going with all those "warm" tube amp even-harmonics? The basic idea behind the hoodoo is that solid state amplifiers add "bad" odd-harmonics to whatever they amplify. Tube amps add "warm" even-harmonics. If you believe there's something inherently evil about the extremely low harmonic distortion generated in modern semiconductor circuits, complicating (distorting) the signal you sent them makes no sense at all. You've created something extremely complicated that has to be "rounded out" in the solid state signal chain. A more conservative and informed "rounding" approach to smooth recording involves a collection of tactics.

Digital recordings got their "harsh" reputation when recording engineers tried to apply their dubious overdriven "tape saturation" tactics to the new digital equipment, resulting in lots of square waves showing up on all kinds of instruments. The same thing happened in the transition years from analog tube equipment to transistorized gear. The first thing you can do to round-out your sound is to keep your levels a safe distance from your headroom. Clip indicators flashing all over the board is a bad thing and your tube preamp isn't going to fix any part of that. After each technology evolution, design engineers learned to build in enormous amounts of headroom to compensate for deaf people in the sound room. Just having all that space for error doesn't require using it.

If you aren't trashing the input amplifiers with overdriven signal, you may be providing them with a harsh signal due to your microphone selection. Microphones and monitors are signal sources that even the lowest caret golden ears can identify in an ABX test. Microphones do not sound alike. Sometimes, two mikes of the same make and model will be considerably different. One of the basic distinctions between good engineers and everybody else is that the good ones have spent a lot of time experimenting with microphones, microphone placement, and stereo microphone configuration (XY, M-S, 3:1, etc.).

Some famous old tube condenser mikes will round off the edges of anything you care to record. Some of the newer FET condensers can do the exact same job for a lot less money. Of course, stuffing a delicate, large capsule condenser mike into a bass drum will give you a harsh, overloaded signal that no tube circuitry can round out. Part of the time you need to spend experimenting with microphones should be spent learning which mikes work on certain instruments and where those mikes are absolutely useless.

Finally, and critically important, you have to do your recording in a decent room. The tracks that need the most rounding-out are the ones that had a microphone stuffed into the guts of every instrument in the mix. If you want a smooth, clean sound that has depth and warmth, you ought to do at least a little bit of the recording in a room that has those characteristics. A grand piano sounds terrific in a decent room, heard from a decent listening position, but it will sound like a poor sample if you cram your head against the sound board. When was the last time you listened to an acoustic guitar with your head stuffed into the sound hole? Pickups are useful in live applications, but on record they make great acoustic guitars sound like mediocre ones. There is supposed to be an advantage to being in the studio. That advantage doesn't get used nearly enough.

Your ears should be the best audio reproduction equipment you own. The best way to achieve a smooth, well rounded recording is listen carefully and critically to what you are putting on tape (or disk). Don't blindly follow someone else's rules. If you have carefully studied your craft, you will have learned that Goldman's Rule applies to art in general, "Nobody knows anything." Our audience will put up with almost any godawful recording technique to hear great songs and performances. I think our goal should be to get between them and their music as little as possible. There have been great records taped directly to 2-track tube decks and on 128-track digital rigs. Patching a tube preamp between a poorly selected microphone and your mixing and recording medium will not correct for abuse of technology or mediocre music.

Monday, January 13, 2014

REVIEW: Otari MTR-90 II

NOTE: Now, of course, we’re really into ancient history. When I wrote this, in 2003, there could have been some argument about which tape deck company would last the longest; Studer or Otari. It turned out to be a moot point. I bet Otari, but I was wrong only because one of the dumbest fucking hostile take-over companies in the history of dumb fucking companies, Harman International, bought Studer and pieced out the last production run of the 827 over almost a decade. Otari, on the other hand, simply tossed in the towel and vanished into audio history.

otari_mtr90The Otari MTR-90 II multitrack deck is an industry workhorse.  From Disney Studios to Lucasfilm to hundreds of professional studios around the world, the MTR-90 II is one of the most common recording tools in the history of the art and business.  For years, Otari fought the reputation of "Japanese junk," until releasing this product.  Suddenly, the performance of Otari's multitrack 2" machine easily rivaled the best German hardware.  Since the Otari electronics had arguably surpassed Studer's performance several years earlier, this was a major crossroads in the world recording competition. 

The control circuitry, best demonstrated when you use otari_remote the MTR-90's remote control.  The remote is incredibly powerful and flexible (outside of the incomprehensible and useless "Search Zero" functions), even compared to today's DAW and hard disk recording systems.  There are ten markers with associated one-button locate buttons.  A sixteen-key keypad allows full control of the tape and vari-pitch speed control is available from the remote. 

This unit was released for production in 1987 and remained an active product until 1991, when Otari ceased production on analog recorders (except for their two-track deck).  In the limited form the company currently exists, some service and parts are still available for the MTR-90.  There are a few support companies still making service parts and doing specialty repairs on this deck, but it's becoming increasingly more difficult for studio owners to justify and maintain their analog multitracks. 

Part of the reason for this difficulty is that an analog deck requires regular maintenance.  Unlike the use-it-and-toss-it digital equipment world, an analog deck can be expected to last for several decades.  However, that won't happen if regular maintenance isn't performed.  Head maintenance, transport maintenance, and general mechanical hygiene is necessary for optimal operation of any analog deck. 

The Otari is as easy to service and maintain as the expensive spread, Studer.  When it comes to calibration, it's possible to tweak the MTR-90 to tighter performance specifications than any but the absolute highest resolution digital systems.  The clean, natural sound of analog tape is well in evidence with this machine and it's a shame to consider its eventual demise. 

It's that kind of world, though.  Analog tape is expensive, hard to edit and handle, and tape machine maintenance is a discipline that is vanishing from the recording business.  Thirty years of equipment development created an ergonomic machine that is reliable, easy to use, and durable.  We'll never see the like again.

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.