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.

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.