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.

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.