Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Acoustic Resources–New Gervais Tools

In his terrific book, Home Studio: Build It Like the Pros, Rod Gervais included links to a collection of very useful spreadsheet tools. I collected them into a single spreadsheet, labeled the tabs, and gave that to my MSCM students: New Gervais Tools. Rod provided us with calculators for Sabin RT60, panel absorber design, mass-law transmission loss, room modes, and quadratic diffusors.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Acoustics Resources–Sabin RT60 Calculator

When I taught “Acoustics” and, later, Room Acoustics at McNally Smith College of Music, many of my assignments directed my students to fool around with some spreadsheets I’d created to experiment with the effects of building materials and acoustics tactics. One of the most popular was an Excel file called “Sabin RT60 Calc.” I started work on this spreadsheet on the Office version that came about the time Office appeared on Windows for Workgroups v3.01, back in the late 80’s. It took a serious upgrade with Office XP and a bunch of additions in Office 2003, where its development stopped when Microsquash removed Visual Basic macros from Office.

The first tab in the spreadsheet is the “Sabin Calculator.” However, the coolest thing (IMO) about this spreadsheet is the “Materials List” tab, which contains data for 280 different acoustic materials from really slick RPG specialty absorbers to empty theater seats and wall board. The idea is that you can cut-and-paste the “Material” through the “8k” data into the “Sabin Calculator” room surface fields and build a pretty detailed estimate of your proposed room’s reverberant characteristics. I’ve used it in all sorts of room designs and, outside of room mode problems, it is very accurate.

If your room is relatively dead (<1.0S) or small (<3,000 cubic feet), the next tab, “”Norris-Ering Calculator,” uses the “Sabin Calculator” data to more accurately estimate the reverberation. The flaw in the Norris-Ering formula is that it can not cope with absorbtivities >1.0, which isn’t often a problem but can rear its ugly head with some exceptional specific frequency absorbers.

The “Measured RT60” tab is a place where you can put three sets of measured RT60 test data in a spreadsheet for averaging.

Finally, the “Helmholtz Absorbers” tab contains a spreadsheet with calculators for two different sorts of Helmholtz absorber designs, perforated panels and tube traps.

Best of all, it’s free and easily modified. If you add anything cool to the spreadsheet, I’d appreciate it if you would send me an updated version and I’ll put it on the site and if you “sign” your update it will remain on the spreadsheet.

Bullshit Audio Terms

I’m not even close to being the first guy to gag on the bullshit marketing terms applied to non-existent audio equipment qualities.

Immersive: As in “I felt the music was all around me. . .” (Other bullshit terms used for this generally non-existent quality are “open,” and “air.”) Bob Carver made a nasty audiophile device called the “Time Lens,” back in the 80’s. If you like “immersive,” you’d love this thing. This awful device screwed with mid and upper-mids L/R phase relationships so severely it was hard to locate any sound sources in some rooms. Carver had some really fancy explanations for why sound seemed to be originating everywhere but from the speakers, but simple test equipment (an oscilloscope) demonstrated the fact that frequency-dependent phase relationships were being messed with and the result was semi-entertaining until it gave you a headache. A surround sound mix can be “immersive,” if the speakers and listener are properly placed. Otherwise, stereo means “solid” which will always put the listener in a position facing the sound sources and, at best, a good mix and proper playback system will provide left, right, close and distant perspective. And that’s it. If you hear signals behind you, your system or room acoustics are screwed up.

Warm: (aka “creamy,” silkiness,” and “natural”) Ideally, you might hope this means some mild addition of even harmonics—mostly 2nd—distortion contribution that might seem pleasant. Usually, what most people call “warm” is the result of slew or crossover distortion and is in no way pleasant if you are used to listening to low distortion reasonably accurate sound reproduction. Distortion-wise, we tend to “like” what we’re used to hearing and if we spend enough time with low fidelity equipment and recordings we’ll learn to love that. That is not, however, a good thing.

Presence: Three decades ago, I had the pleasure of getting to mess with a Mark Levinson stereo power amplifier when I was a design and test engineer at QSC Audio Products. The Levinson claim to fame from advertising and reviewer hype was “presence.” hen I put a Mark Levinson amp on the bench, what I found was a slowly rising upper-midrange shelf that peaked at about 3dB at 3kHz (along with the associated phase distortion created by this built-in EQ). Otherwise, there was nothing special about this overpriced equipment in any regard. It wasn’t quick, it wasn’t particularly stable when super-sonic signals or reactive loads were introduced, and it wasn’t particularly low distortion (IMD or THD wise). A few moments with some simple electronic test tools would have dispelled the magical claims from a power amplifier with a silly built-in EQ, but audiophile magazines shy away from test equipment and objective listening tests.

Wide Dynamic Range: Dynamic range is a fairly straight-forward specification in audio equipment: “the ratio between the largest and smallest values of a changeable quantity.” At the most impractical theoretical extreme, the human ear is capable of detecting 140dB of aural signals. That assumes 0dBSPL as the threshold of hearing, which quickly deteriorates from infanthood to adolescence with age and noise exposure to more practical values of 15 to 30dBSPL. This also assumes the maximum sound pressure a human can tolerate and discern is 140dBSPL; a dubious claim at best. 140dBSPL is, for example, typically described as a full-throttle jet engine at 50 meters. A typical gun muzzle blast generates an impulse sound pressure level of 140dbSPL or more and that exposure is commonly known to cause permanent hearing damage. Relative to 1V (0dbV), the theoretical perfect (but practical) unity gain amplifier will produce 123dB of dynamic range. This can be bumped up to about 129dB if the relative maximum is 10VRMS. So, regardless of the unrealizable human hearing maximums, 123-128dB of dynamic range is pretty much as good as it gets in the real world. This relatively straight-forward specification and its associated practical limits are regularly ignored in the bullshit marketing world where numbers as insanely silly as “200dB” are quoted regularly and stupidly. Keeping in mind the analog thermal noise threshold, it’s useful to remember that every combination of amplifiers that produces an exponent of 2 (2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc.) will reduce the combined dynamic range by 6dB. “Floating-point audio” or 64-bit or any other bullshit aside, physics and biology put an end to the realistic gains we’re going to get from playing with numbers.

This list of bullshit words is not by any means complete. I’ve left out color and taste sensory analogs, for example. A good rule to apply to modern ad-driven reviews and marketing claims is “any asshole can write marketing bullshit.” There is no one checking these claims with test equipment or even half-decent ears. So, if it sounds too good to be true, it is.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Killing Music Loudly

I’ve owned a couple of recording studios, worked in a dozen studios owned by far richer people than me, designed a few studios, owned a sound company, designed and manufactured pro audio gear for six different companies (including my own, Wirebender Audio Systems). For 50-some years, amplification, microphones, and loudspeakers have been my life's major fascination and research subject. I taught recording studio design and acoustics, microphone theory and application, recording technology theory, and another half-dozen subjects at McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, MN.
With all of that behind me, I’m rarely encouraged by the sight of microphones and a sound system in a live performance venue. Almost all of my favorite live performances have been as close to sans-PA as possible. I used to play, and spectate, at a folk club in Dallas called “the Rubaiyat.” It was a 50-80 person club that served booze and bar food and hosted some of the best known folk acts of the 1960’s: Tom Rush, Tim Buckley, Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Tom Paxton, Jim Croce, Arlo Guthrie, and lots of lesser-known talents including a spontaneous 2-15 member group we called “the Volunteer Jug Band.” There was no sound system of any sort in that club and the audience heard the performers just fine. I’ve seen a couple of shows at the Ted Mann Concert Hall in Minneapolis and those acts either didn’t use the house system at all or used it so carefully it was unnoticeable. In fact, that might be the key to running a great sound system.
The best known and most widely used live microphones in the world are a pair of coarse objects known as the Shure SM57 and SM58. The most critical quality these two blunt instruments bring to a stage is indestructability. The 58, for example, is known for its ability to be dropped from a 20’ stage to a concrete floor and not sound any worse than before the fall. Maybe the beginning to reinforcing sound rather than just making shit louder would be to get rid of the crappy tools and try doing the job well for a change?

Friday, December 4, 2015

On the Ground Video

More of a place marker than anything, but part off this video was recorded in our old Little Canada house.

Creating Space

One of the many things recording engineers (a grossly abused and debased title if there ever was one) talk about is “creating air” in recordings, especially vocal recordings and double-specially background vocals. Most recordists (a more accurate and humble word for what we do in recording studios) use EQ, delays, and misunderstood plug-ins to create “air.” Most recordists understand that there are a limited number of dimensions we have to work with in reproducing a musical performance: left-right (or all the way around in surround), louder-softer, and higher-lower frequency spectrum. There are, however, at least two other possibilities: front-back and lower-higher. Of course, phase distortion provides even more space-creating possibilities, but they are unpredictable and, often, weird. These additional dimensions are only available if the recordist knows something about acoustics and psycho-acoustics.

Acoustic_Guitar_Img_AIn a possibly hopeless attempt to convince a friend that her vocal group could benefit from a little microphone application knowledge, I went looking for some artwork to help with my descriptions. Luckily, Sterling Audio had exactly what I needed. The illustration at right is one of the points I was trying to make. My friend’s group is a fairly large women’s vocal group and their bandleader semi-wisely selected a collection of six low cost large-element condenser microphones with which he lines up in even spacing across the stage, randomly distributing the microphones across 11 performers. The original intent was something like the above illustration. Obviously, 11 into 6 produces a significantly different dynamic, but the flawed concept is the same.

Performance-wise, the problem is even more dramatic. During a recent show, I solo’d up each vocal mic and discovered that the vocalists could be counted on one of two possibilities: 1) some singers naturally gravitated to grouping around a mic and singing “together” and 2) some naturally filtered to an abandoned mic and sang “solo.” If you’ve never sang in a group this might surprise you, but if you have this will be a no-brainer: the solo vocalists were consistently off-time and key and the together vocalists consistently delivered stronger, tighter, more in-key performances. So much so that I found myself naturally fading-out the solo mics and blending the group performers by ear, as I pulled down disagreeable faders and pulled up the performances that blended well.

Most recordists think the best way to record any signal sources more complicated than one voice is to distribute as many mics across the various sources as possible. Hell, hip-hoppers put two mics on one voice to optimize phase distortion and tonal weirdness. Here’s where I disagree with “common knowledge,” regarding the best way to record/reproduce/reinforce a group vocal. Sterling Audio’s article suggests, “There may not always be enough resources for separate microphones or recording tracks” as a reason for simplifying the number of microphones involved. I think the recordist better have a damn good reason for using more than a stereo pair in this kind of situation. “Depth of field” comes from the various time delays caused by the distance of the sound source from the mic. Vocal groups, horn players, and ensembles are often perfectly capable of figuring out where they should be, physically and sonically, in the mix and allowing them to perform for the microphone as a listener often produces incredible results.

beatles recThe fascination modern recordists have for vintage recordings, oddly, doesn’t seem to extend to vintage recording techniques. Due to the lack of console and record media channels, the old-school guys were forced to learn something about microphone polar patterns, acoustics, and music. Today, “more is better” and too many recordings have the spacial characteristics of a pair of headphones.
Beach-Boys-Bruce-Johnston-Carl-Wilson-Al-Jardine-Dennis-Wilson-Mike-Love-Pet-Sounds-session-19661c93ef2c484b038aa03e60bc261bdb13fThe Righteous Brothers. Courtesy Polydor.

POSTSCRIPT: A friend and ex-student, Steven Sullivan, took all of this to heart and produced a record limiting himself to no more than 8-tracks and very few effects. 

A Beginner's Guide to Self Immolation

is the record and it well-deserves your attention. Steven says the idea behind this record was, "The original idea for this album was to go back to basics and record things very simply. I had grown tired of modern recording and mixing techniques and decided to put some self-imposed limitations on the entire tracking and mixing of the album. It changed a little as the process went on, but basically I only used one mic, a long ribbon mic, through a 1950s design preamp and opto compressor, and that was it. So I'd go in the tracking room, point the mic at the piano, play through the tune, scoot the mic closer to the drums and play the drums, go sit down with the acoustic guitar and move the mic closer to it, stand up and sing, and it really allowed me to focus on the music instead of the technology. Part of my concept was that it would end up sounding kind of home made and low-fi since I'd limited myself so much, but to my total surprise it ended up being maybe the highest fidelity, most organic, best feeling record I've ever done."

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Driving A Throwaway World

My hometown theater spent about $150,000 on audio gear this year. The theater was pretty well equipped before, with JBL MP418SP subs and JBL MP415 mains, a decent collection of QSC power amps, perfectly functional monitors and side-fills, and a 24-channel Yamaha analog mixer. Everything worked and it was paid for, something hardly anyone cares about in today’s jacked-up credit card and second-mortgage world. For the $150k, the town got a 48-channel DiGiCo SD-9 Surface & Two D-Rack. SD-9, Dynacord PWH subs and Dynacord Cobra tops, with Dynacord VL 262 under-balcony fills and front stage boxes, and a crap-load of EV power amps oddly located about 100’ from the speaker boxes (a whole ‘nother discussion). So far, pretty much no one substantial who has played the auditorium has wanted to mix on the DiGiCo. So, mostly the ~$40k spent on the mixer has been for some pretty undemanding shows with the toughest stuff being low-turnout local pop bands. As a local taxpayer, I’m less than impressed with the decision process the city used to spend my money.

At a completely different end of this discussion, though, I can’t see anyone having a good justification for spending more than $5-8k on a digital console of any sort. Using actual business rationale, the payback on digital gear has to be really short to make any sense at all. The Return on Investment (ROI) should be calculated to arrive in 3-5 years (max) because the equipment will be obsolete and unrepairable in about that time. If you don’t think that is either a reality or an important part of the decision-making process, you are part of the reason that we live in an unsustainable throwaway society.

my boots

On a much lower economic scale, I recently bought a pair of Red Wing boots. I live in Red Wing and some of my neighbors make these things, so I decided to spend big and buy local. The boots I bought, on the left, are pretty high priced but they are tough and well-built and super comfortable and (above all, for the investment price) are repairable. They can be resoled by pretty much any shoe repair shop anywhere in the country. I expect to be wearing these boots the day I die. On the other hand, Red Wing and pretty much everyone else imports boots from China and other low-labor-cost places like the boots on the right. redwing_606_bootsThey are, admittedly, a little cooler looking, cheaper, and just as tough and comfortable. I don’t know if those things are true, but I assume they are and don’t care. I can not convince myself to spend $200 on a pair of boots that I’ll wear out in a year and have to toss because the soles are not replaceable. Crazy, right? Probably.

Likewise, I can’t convince myself that there is any sonic or functional value to a $30k DiGiCo console over a $5k Midas or Yamaha or, even, a $2500 Presonus digital console. I sincerely do not believe there will be any noticeably audible difference in any of this equipment and I fully expect each of these products to be junk in well under a decade. Since you could buy 6 of the Midas/Yamaha consoles for the same money in that period, I’d think the decision is a no-brainer. Why it wasn’t for our city confuses me.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Quality in the Disposable World

I’m taking the Guitar Repair and Building Program at my local technical college. During a discussion with an instructor, we touched on a misconception about customers’ expectations and dissatisfaction inclinations. Like a lot of small business people, my instructor was under the delusion that customers will naturally complain if they are disappointed with service or product quality. Many larger companies are equally happy to pretend that they are getting 100% “compliance” from dissatisfied customers. The fact is that most customers simply log their dissatisfaction and tell themselves they will remember to never buy that particular company’s product or service again, after receiving crap service or a defective product. Most companies are perfectly happy with that outcome. Sounds like a perfectly balanced system, right?

At the other end of this “system” is the wrong-headed conclusion most business people make about customer loyalty. I’ve heard more than a few executives claim that customers don’t shop out of loyalty any more. The problem isn’t with customers, it’s with businesses. Loyalty is not a one-way street: you have to give it to get it. Counter-intuitively, you have to work at giving it.

During my ten years with QSC Audio Products, we’d developed a pretty thorough system of handling customer complaints, tracking customer purchases, feeding back customer and product information to marketing, engineering, and manufacturing, and statistically analyzing our product warranty problems and costs. When I left that company, I’d been recruited by an MI conglomerate to turn their low end sound equipment division into something more resembling a competent manufacturer. During the initial talks, I’d been led to believe the company was considerably more substantial—organizationally and financially—than it actually was. So, that moment of employment was doomed from the beginning. If I wanted to fund a start-up with my own equipment I’d have started-up my own company.

Late in the 30 days I wasted in Indiana, I was asked by the company’s guitar division customer service manager to explain QSC’s quality management system.  About 1/10th of the way into the discussion, he interrupted me to say, “That’s all way too complicated and expensive.” He went on to say that the company shipped product with a known 50% defect rate, based off of the internal random inspection data from a few years back (Since they quit inspections after a few months, product quality had probably gotten worse.). From a suspected 50% defect rate, about 1% of the company’s customers complained, expecting some sort of warranty response. If they stonewalled that first complaint, about 1% of the first 1% would come back for more abuse. No special inspection was done for warranty replacement instruments, so at least 50% of the replacements were also defective out-of-the-box. According to the manager, that 1%-of-1% routine applied to warranty replacement complaints. So, while at QSC we were aiming for 6-sigma (99.99966% defect-free, but often struggling with three-sigma performance; 99.73% defect-free), his company could boast an uninformed-by-reality 99.99235% non-warranty-claim rate without spending a dime on quality control and while shipping product that most customers would call “junk.” Between that and a conversation with the CEO regarding the discrepancy between the information in my offer letter and reality, I quit a couple of days later.

Those statistics are from large-quantity production. Small quantity (boutique) production and service businesses don’t have access to actual numbers and formal inspection procedures and if they rely on customer complaints for feedback they are committing business suicide. In fact, the only way a small business can get any kind of information about customer satisfaction is to hunt for it. When someone cares enough about the product or its performance to complain, a conscious customer service tech should take that complaint seriously and to heart. The 1% of your customer base who care enough about your product or their expectations to complain are rare and valuable. If you choose to ignore them, don’t complain when your customer base makes its buying decisions solely on price and delivery. You have informed them through your actions that you don’t give a shit about their expectations and the result is that they won’t care about you or your company’s survival.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Pure Acoustic Bullshit

40 years ago, my partner and I did a summer’s worth of acoustic music festivals, mostly bluegrass shows. After the 90th time hearing some toothless bullshit artist jabber about how “pure” his “acoustic music” was, compared to rock or R&B, while he thumped on his mic saying, “Can you hear this, I cain’t hear nothin’,” I pretty much had all I could stand of bluegrass, hillbillies, and anything “country.” After that season, Dan quietly packed up his stuff and left the business and we folded the studio, equipment rental business, sound system design and consulting, and repair/maintenance services not too many months later. Today, it was “déjà vu all over again.” I helped setup the stage and do the sound check for an oversized group of young people pretending to be acoustic musicians at the local theater. The sound check reminded me of why I am a volunteer for this work, not a paid professional. In fact, the only way I would have money in this game would be if it were mine and I could hire and fire “musicians” at will.

Let me make this perfectly clear, in case you are not only deaf but incredibly stupid: if you need amplification to present your music in a 250 person theater, you are not an acoustic musician. If you have a pickup installed in your guitar and that is how your instrument conducts signal to the FOH board, you are not an acoustic musician. If your stage volume (monitors and POS personally owned equipment included) are adjusted to be too loud for the acoustics in the room, before the front of house (FOH) system is even engaged, you are a pitiful combination of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Spinal Tap.

In this particular group, the only person on stage who seemed to have the slightest notion that the sound system bullshit was grossly out of control was the fuckin’ clogger. When a tapdancer who brings his own sound stage thinks you are “too loud,” you are way past too loud.

There is a concept in music, at least in the studio, called “serving the music.” It is apparently a non-issue in live music and it’s 99.999..% of the reason why rational people rarely attend live music performances. Serving the music means that musicians do anything necessary to ensure the music is delivered to the audience in the best possible manner. It means that the FOH system gets setup first, then whatever minimal reinforcement the musicians need to hear themselves well enough to perform well is added. Since most of the great performances I’ve seen were sans-monitor system, it’s pretty obvious that great musicians don’t need their own mini-concert system at all. Bluegrass musicians ought to be able to hear the damn instruments on stage without anything resembling a monitor system. If they can’t, they have wreaked hearing and should give it up and go back to their Spinal Tap cover band career.

So, the next time you find yourself fucking with the monitor gain-before-feedback when you haven’t even fired up the FOH system, remember this: I fucking hate the way you sound and so does everyone who has ever bought a record and listened to it carefully. As long as your own ego is the main focus on your stage, you are not a musician but you are definitely a spoiled child who didn’t get enough attention from mommy when you were nursing or being potty trained. Or maybe the last one never happened?

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Why Do Guitar Parts and Instrument Manufacturers Call Vibrato “Tremolo” and Vise Versa?

All Rights Reserved © 2015 Thomas W. Day


VIBRATO adjective: a slightly tremulous effect imparted to vocal or instrumental tone for added warmth and expressiveness by slight and rapid variations in pitch.


1. a : the rapid reiteration of a musical tone or of alternating tones to produce a tremulous effect

b : vocal vibrato especially when prominent or excessive

2. a mechanical device in an organ for causing a tremulous (nervousness or shaky) effect.

Like many of the bad things in electric guitar history and technology, you might blame this pair of misnomers on Leo Fender. DeArmond[1] introduced the “Tremolo Control,” (created for organs, not guitars) an amplitude-varying device with “increase” (depth) and “speed” (rate) in the early 1940’s. Harry DeArmond named his device correctly and musically. Since Leo Fender was more of a technician and a manufacturing-oriented guy than an inventor, he often co-opted inventor’s designs and made minimal changes to avoid having to pay patent rights. This would be one of those instances. Fender’s "vibrato" effect—which is technically a tremolo effect—started with its introduction on the 1956 Fender Vibrolux and Vibroverb model guitar amplifiers. The effect has commonly been misnamed ever since.

Like many inventions attributed to Leo Fender and Les Paul, the first guitar vibrato unit was a Rickenbacker design.[2] Oddly, the device was electric only installed on Rickenbacker’s Vibrola Spanish guitars. A Rickenbacker collaborator, Doc Kauffman, designed the device and its purpose was to imitate the variable pitch of steel guitars (slide). Hand operated versions showed up on Rickenbacker's Capri guitars in the late 1950’s. Rickenbacker consistently called their devices “vibrato.” Bigsby made the first successful commercial vibrato unit (still called “vibrato” by that company), with the first known version showing up on guitars demonstrated in 1952. Merle Travis recalled the Bigsby company making a unit for him in “the late 40’s.”

Leo Fender’s “synchronized tremolo” appeared in 1954 on the Stratocaster. This might be the moment the musical effect of vibrato was misnamed "tremolo" as Fender described his device as the "tremolo arm." Thanks to Leo’s ignorance or business sense, as Wikipedia so aptly puts it, “electric guitarists traditionally use the terms ‘vibrato’ and ‘tremolo’ in the opposite senses to all other musicians when describing these hardware devices and the effects they produce.”

Oddly, in my 50+ year career in various aspects of music, I can’t remember any player ever calling this device a “tremolo.” “Whammy bar,” yes. “Tremolo” nope, not ever. Most of the musicians I’ve worked with both in bands, on stage, and in studios know the difference between “vibrato” and “tremolo.” Singers and horn players and classical string players, obviously, use the term in the musical sense and in the recording studio misnaming musical terms is grounds for ridicule and unemployment. I admit to having disliked the sound of amplitude modulation (tremolo) on guitar for more than 50 years. The Dwayne Eddy warble and the goofy sound of surf guitarists in the 1950’s is part of what helped me select the trumpet as my first instrument. So, if my dislike is displayed as cynicism, I’m good with that.

It turns out that the name for a guitar’s mechanical vibrato is brand/inventor dependent. If the mechanical vibrato device is a Fender or a Fender improvement/replacement (including Floyd Rose), it’s a “tremolo.” So much for original thought in the 21st century. If it’s a Bigsby, producing vibrato is done by using a mechanical “vibrato.”

Electronically, vibrato is one of the many things you can obtain with a pitch-shifter, chorus, and many moderately complex digital or less complicated but lower fidelity analog delay devices. Electronic tremolo is an insanely simple circuit and can be obtained for as little as $25. (Behringer’s Ultra Vibrato UV300, for example. Yeah, I know they call it a “vibrato,” but Behringer isn’t known for being smart, original, or musically or technically competent.) If you want an excuse to spend two or three times what the device is worth, you can buy all sorts of boutique tremolo pedals (that all do the same boring thing the same low-tech way) or learn something by building your own. Since the basic circuit is as simple as electronic circuits get, building a device probably provides infinitely more education value than the musical contribution this silly effect creates.

[1] http://www.vintageguitar.com/18545/dearmond-tremolo-control/ “DeArmond’s Tremolo Control did just this. It debuted in about 1946; the earliest known brochure is dated July of that year, according to historian Dan Formosa. ‘This precedes guitar/accordion amps with tremolo (the Premier/Danelectro amps date to 1947 and Gibson to 1948)… It’s most probable that the use of tremolo by guitarists would pre-date the commercially available units (otherwise, why would the manufacturers be prompted to create amps or effects units – unless it was an accordion thing),’ he notes. ‘The earliest recorded guitar tremolo I’ve come up with (so far) is Roosevelt Sykes, 1941-44.’” You can also read a lot about the history of this device at http://www.premierguitar.com/articles/19777-a-brief-history-of-tremolo.

[2] http://guitar.wikia.com/wiki/Whammy_bar This site does a fine job of briefly describing the history of the guitar-based mechanical device.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Microphones Are Not Your Friend

Lately, I’ve been experiencing the sad fact that too many hobby musicians seem to think that microphones are some sort of corrective device; like Auto-Tune©, but smarter. A local bookstore hosts an open mic event every 2nd Thursday of the month and there is a surprising amount of talent, young and old, in Red Wing. A few days later, I was listening to some experienced musicians at the Unitarian Universalist Society of River Falls and saw that deluded faith in microphones again. All of the characteristics and qualities microphone designers know about microphones seem to have failed to filter down to musicians, poets, and nearly anyone who touches a microphone with sound reinforcement in mind.

The open mic experience probably bothers me more because it’s obvious that the people on that stage are simply imitating the stupid crap they see on television or stage from so-called “professionals” who are most likely simply lip-synching a fake performance. Sound reinforcement is close to perfectly unnecessary when your audience is fewer than two dozen people. Musicians survived and thrived for hundreds of years without the help of low fidelity electronics and electro-mechanical devices. Audiences were more polite, more engaged, and more informed about the music, the musicians, and the sound of instruments and voices before electronics distorted and deformed live music. There is some hope, though. Occasionally, I see a musician using those incredible analysis devices called “ears” to make informed decisions about how to use (or not use) the microphones placed on the stage. Not often enough, but at least it happens. If it happens once during each evening, it might catch on and happen twice. Next thing you know, we have a revolution and music sounds . . . musical again.

cardioidHere’s the first thing to know about decent microphones: you will sound more natural, more musical, if you get the hell away from the damn things. Cardioid microphones (like the one in this picture) have the reasonably useful characteristic of being able to ignore some signals from the off-axis (backside) of the microphone where the stage monitor often is. This can, sometimes, provide a ik-iklip-4-largeslight improvement in gain-over-feedback. The nasty compromise this “polar pattern” brings to the party is that as you get closer to the mic the tonal characteristics become grossly weird. P’s, t’s, b’s, and other “plosive” signals are emphasized as are s’s, h’s, c’s, and other “sibilance” signals. You may think you are sounding intimate when you “eat” the microphone, but you are mostly sounding awful and irritating. The sound-doofus may try to “fix” the mess you and the microphone are making with EQ, but that will only add to the irritation. You’re still going to sound awful.

Bob-Dylan-Rare-High-Quality-Picture-04Try backing up a foot or two. Even better, back-up and drop the mic below your collarbone a few inches. Some of the power of your voice comes from your chest, stuffing the mic up your nose does what you might expect it to do; it makes your voice sound “nasal.” If you are a solo vocalist or a speaker, the same thing goes for you. Get the hell away from the mic at least a spread hand’s distance and drop the mic below your mouth at least six inches. If it was good enough for Bob Dylan, it’s more than good enough for you.

Don’t be surprised if this is harder to do that you expected, the first time. You’ve probably grown used to the oversized sound of your proximity-enhanced voice. It probably sounds “big” to you on stage, but if you wanted someone else’s voice you should have become a mimic. Any musician worth listening to is trying to be himself, not some hyped and distorted poor copy. Remember, we’re talking about a venue that is no larger than a decent living room. If you need a PA to entertain yourself in your living room, you’ve got problems I can’t help you with.

One of the things that always amazes me about singers is their lack of attention to the most important details in their live performance: the microphone and microphone technique. Guitarists bring their own instruments, including amplification, but vocalists just show up and depend on the kindness of usually-deaf sound-doofuses. If you are a singer with some talent and a voice, you should study microphones until you know enough to find one that reproduces your voice as you hear it in your head. Then, you bring that instrument with you everywhere you perform. If you are an acoustic instrument musician, the same applies to you. The microphones you are most likely to be stuck with in a live performance venue probably suck. The industry standard, the Shure SM-58, is insanely durable, but sounds somewhere between awful and mediocre. The same goes for a whole collection of 58-look-a-likes from practically every manufacturer. Unfortunately, quality isn’t cheap. Expect to spend $500-1,000 for an excellent vocal microphone.

ptse23One of the worst personality characteristics microphones appeal to is ego. Some musicians simply want to be loud. The thing they most want to be loud is their voice, so their accompanying instrument is either grossly distorted by godawful pickups or doesn’t exist at all. The picture at left of this paragraph is a good example of that defective thinking. If the microphone output were being recorded, the two acoustic guitars would be barely audible and pretty awful sounding. The off-axis frequency response of an SM-58 is generously described as “gross.” If this were, as it appears to be, a live performance, the two voices will often be distorted, poorly blended, and overpowering through the PA (this mic’ing technique would not qualify as sound reinforcement). These two musicians would be far better off without a PA, but they might never know it because they think the microphone is a crutch. It’s not, it’s a handicap unless you know what you are doing and 99% of musicians and 99.99….% of public speakers are totally clueless when it comes to the technical side of microphones.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Saying Goodbye to My Hands

For more than fifty years
My hands have been my life
My fingers have made my living
My hands have fed my family
My hands have built our home
My fingers played the music,
Said the things my heart could not.

Now, old man’s disease, arthritis
Is putting an end to all of that.
With hands that are becoming claws
With fingers that jerk and stall
I can’t hold a handkerchief to my nose
I can’t swing a hammer, hold a guitar pick,
Wield a soldering iron, squeeze my wife’s hand.

The fingers that I broke years ago
Now twist and deform like wilting flowers.
The bones that were smashed by work
and careless disregard for the future
are getting their revenge on the brain
that said “Keep going, keep working.
Play through it. Ignore the pain.”
Today, I can’t.

They won’t perform on command.
My hands are dying.
My fingers are putting an end
To any dreams I might have
Of a future as a builder, a maker,
A musician, a lover, a man.
Goodbye my old abused and tortured friends.

I woke up at 3AM a few nights ago couldn't close my right hand, even a bit. My left was slightly less impaired, but certainly not useful or strong enough to make up for the loss of the right. At that moment, I realized that this might be my last year for a lot of things, like playing guitar or construction projects or typing. There was no chance that I’d sleep more that night. I got up and worked on a Tom Waits song I've fooled with for the last year: “Shiver Me Timbers.” I wrote a half-dozen essays. For the first time since I was a teenager in love, I wrote something the Pressure Press folks call "a poem" That was the bit that opened this essay.

The "poetry" is exaggerated. But I have known way, way too many people younger and older than me who have lost a lot of their ability to be themselves due to arthritis. Some even decided they’d lost enough of themselves to give up on life. A friend of my grandmother--a woman who had been a musician and an artist and a gardener and an inspiration to everyone who knew her—was reduced to wandering around her backyard looking at the weeds overtaking her once-beautiful gardens and staring at her crabbed hands. She managed to turn the gas on her oven, stuck her head into the stove, and smothered herself. No one wondered why. A cousin--a man who is a decade younger than me and was once one of the most active people I’ve known—can’t write his name, drive a car, hold his wife’s hand, or help one of his kids into the car thanks to arthritis.

Personally, I hate this disease more than cancer. Cancer is, usually, terminal and often fairly quick. Arthritis is endless torture.

I have hammered these poor appendages into submission for 67 years, but they are starting to fight back. It does remind me of something I've said for decades, though. "If I'd have known I would live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself.

Seriously, I'm in pretty good shape. The whole prose thing came from the "inspiration" of waking up unable to use my right hand and thinking that someday could be the last day I can do the things I take for granted. The next day, I met a young lady who has been dealing with this pain and incapacity since she was a young teenager. Forty years ago, the girlfriend of the keyboard player for a band I was in was so stricken with degenerative arthritis that she was unable to receive a hip transplant because her pelvis was so wreaked. I'm not whining, feeling sorry for myself, or asking anyone to feel sorry for me. I’m just shouting at the night.

I'm 67 and have broken bones in my hands (and other places) so many times I couldn't begin to get a straight count. I quit hitting the heavy bag in 2013 because my hands were so messed up the next day. This isn't a sudden change but the obvious disability feels sudden.
I'm sort of inspired that the pain aimed me at doing a breed of writing I haven't attempted in 40 years. I'm humbled that I have so many friends who were moved by that inspiration.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Making Your Own Pace of Change

I attended a discussion group at the Unitarian Universalist Society of River Falls last weekend on the topic of “The Pace of Change”: “The culture around us is evolving technologically and this affects the way we live as familiar ways of doing things become outdated. As the pace quickens how do you feel and what do you think about that? Choose an example that affects you directly and share your thoughts and feelings.”

A lot of the group’s feelings were centered around disgust and/or paranoia about “planned obsolescence.” Some of that conversation was pretty much outside of my own experience with product design and manufacturing. Assuming that engineers are capable of good design is often a gross miscalculation. I saw unintentional fatal errors like placing temperature sensitive components next to parts that run hot by design, seriously underestimating the need for component selection safety margins, and completely idiotic part placement in vibration-prone products in at least five different industries and a dozen companies; four of which were highly reliability-sensitive industries. Another common and valid complaint was regarding unrepairable products. This isn’t planned obsolescence, this is terrible design. Design Magazine has a column titled “Designed by Monkeys” that highlights stupid stuff like this and it’s always refreshing to hear an engineer ridicule his fellow monkeys in this format.

In audio, lots of people resort to buying “old school” products to avoid the unrepairable issue: vintage microphones, analog tape recorders, etc. Another, more practical approach, is to hunt down and support those companies whose products are known for reliability and whose customer service is known for providing a quality response. In practically every area, we all know who the low quality vendors are, but figuring out who the good guys are is much harder.

One obvious clue for the good guys is available service information. In my own recent consumer experience, Volkswagen is the most customer-hostile car company I can imagine. They make service information difficult and expensive for independent service centers and even more impossible for customers who want to service their own vehicles. Volkswagen’s dealer service is nationally notorious for incompetence and high cost. Nissan, on the other hand, makes service manuals available (for free) in PDF format on the NissanUSA website. Nissan is extremely helpful to independent service centers. Parts and service information is as available to independents and customers as those commodities are to their own dealer network.

As for doing the work yourself, I recommend it. In fact, I really recommend either carefully researching the products you buy for available service information or when a particular product’s service information is absolutely not available from any vendor in the market, pay the least possible for the product. Paying a premium for Apple’s iCrap is idiotic, now that the company has embraced the “Retina” design philosophy. I don’t have a problem with “throw-away” products as long as they sell for throw-away prices. An iPad sells for $600 and, for the most part, can’t be repaired in any practical sense. There are a large number of Android-OS pads that are well under $70 and they do every useful thing the iPad can manage. The things the iPad does that can’t be done on an Android pad would quickly be available on the cheaper devices if Apple’s sales collapsed. For that matter, Apple’s prices would follow the market if it weren’t for their Kool-Aid drinking fanboys and girls.

In the last two years, I have installed SSD’s in four computers (including a 2009 Apple MacBook Pro), installed operating systems and programs on a half-dozen computers, repaired the cooling system of my MacBook Pro, upgraded the video on my 2008 Mac Pro tower, rebuilt one motorcycle fuel injection system, rebuilt one lawnmower carburetor, changed the oil on all of my vehicles and lawn care appliances, troubleshot and repaired the electronics package on a Winnebago Rialta/VW Eurovan,  fixed the AC on two vehicles, learned how to pour a new floor and wall in my underground garage, repaired a small pile of pro audio electronics and music equipment, wired a good bit of two houses, disassembled and repaired the lens mechanism on my 8 year old digital camera, and repaired more things than I can remember for family, friends, and customers. I’m not convinced that all modern products are unrepairable or even designed so they can’t be repaired. I am convinced that most people are so helpless that they are walking Darwin Awards waiting for the moment that solar flare-generated EMP takes out the technology they cling to so precariously.

One of the things you learn from owning an old home is that engineers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, masons, and everyone involved in product design 50-150 years ago had the same diverse collection of “talents” today’s technicians exhibit. Some were good and some were awful.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Intuition Is Sometimes Right, Even Mine

When I decided to retire from teaching, I felt pretty strongly that Id overstayed my welcome. My patience for bureaucracy, students, and even a few of my friends at the school was wearing thin. I’d stopped having fun teaching more than a year earlier, for multiple reasons. While the subjects still fascinated me, my never-particularly-tolerant tolerance for fools began to suck the life out of my classroom attitude. My last couple of labs were so painfully pointless that I could barely stand the idea of showing up to class on those days. And four of the work days required me to be in those two labs. Between the cell phone addictions and the “Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom . . .” interruptions from a couple of ADHD-diagnosed kids with no more self-discipline than baby bobcats I was back to dragging myself out of bed to go to work. So, two years ago, today I decided I wasn’t going back for the 2013 fall semester.

Off and on, I’ve wondered if I retired too early. If I still had something worth providing to the few students who actually give a crap about music, audio, technology, and the rest of the skills that are required to make a few bucks in the “music business.” One piece of evidence that I’d made the right decision was, oddly, from LinkedIn.com. My youngest daughter, Genya, turned me on to LinkedIn years ago, after I’d left medical devices and was wandering around looking for a 5th (or 15th) career direction. The site never really did anything for my career options, until I’d already began my teaching career. However, it has been an interesting social networking resource, allowing me to keep in touch with past co-workers, friends, students, and employees. LinkedIn has a silly feature that allows users to “endorse” their connections with a button-push; not exactly a rousing recommendation or even something that requires much thought. My friends have generously provided me with hundreds of endorsements for my “skills” ranging from electronic design to recording engineering to musical capability. The last 12 years of my career certainly provided me with more LinkedIn endorsements than the previous 30 years of my career, mostly (I hope) because this kind of resource didn’t exist until recently.

I don’t pay much attention to stuff like this because its no longer relevant to whatever future I have left. I haven’t counted my endorsements or tried to encourage (or discourage) anyone to endorse me. I’m not really looking for work and I don’t care all that much who knows what I know (or used to know) or what my talents are or were. I’m done with a lot more stuff than I expect to do.

However, when I was in New Mexico over the winter of 2013-2014, I offered myself up as an extra-curricular instructor for the Truth or Consequences high school; teaching the same subjects I’d taught at McNally Smith College of Music. Not much happened from my offer for a month or so and I decided to rattle the music department’s cage to see if I’d fallen through the cracks. What I learned was that the school was pretty much dropping music and art in order to concentrate on bringing the state and the school’s ranking up from dead bottom. The only comment the about-to-be-unemployed music teacher had for me was, “Nobody had much to say about your teaching ability on LinkedIn.”
As far as the button-pusher rankings, he was right. I hadn’t noticed that, but I didn’t have a single vote for any aspect of teaching/education/classroom/mentoring bullshit. Not a subtle hint.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


We have progressed from when "professional" meant someone who made a living and supported a family in a profession to where anyone who once held a job or an internship until discovered to be incompetent can claim to "have been a professional." The current definition is leaning toward "I paid a shitload of cash (in unpaid loans) to be education in a professional and while I'm too lazy, incompetent, and/or untalented to even find an unpaid internship in that field, I deserve to be called a professional." I can't even imagine what's next.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Real Engineering

In a Linkedin.com Music and Audio Professionals group, in in a discussion about "audio engineering" vs. "real engineering" a character named Stephen Hart wrote, "Disagreeing completely, learning and having success in the recording arts is a whole different beast and is far more difficult than proficiency in circuit board layout, C+, CAD, etc. The 'engineering' skills can be learned by many people: millions have become programmers, designers, CAD users etc. It's not any more complex than capturing, guiding and presenting an emotionally charged musical performance. The number of upper echelon recordists and mixers are few, a handful globally. It's not an easy job to get, and it's extraordinarily difficult to have large scale success.

“Thomas, you're talking about finding work easily, having marketable skill sets, that's fine, if laying out circuit boards or repairing automation systems is your thing more power to you, you will have work.

“I'm in this for the music, and as far as I'm concerned if anyone wants a real career in the music creation arena it's probably best to take the process a little seriously.”

This was in response to my quote from George Massenburg recommending recording engineering students “learn how to do something real.” Like lots of marginally artistic folks, Hart overrates the demands of his hobby while demeaning the requirements of professionals. If there is a hobby-profession that has more practitioners than “recording engineering,” it would be musicians who consider themselves to be recording engineers. I’d be amazed if there are “millions” of professional programmers or engineers on a planet cluttered with 7 billion people, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn there are a million self-proclaimed recording engineers in Minnesota.

There is no hard line of functionality in art, as opposed to real engineering. Products have to work as advertised or they are quickly recognized to be junk. A bridge has to tolerate the traffic and abuse it was specified to support. A computer program has to do what it claims to be able to do, reliably and consistently. A recording does not have to “work” or provide service to users. Evaluating a mix is a purely subjective act. There are thousands of examples of recordings that violate dozens of objective “rules” for music and are still considered to be musical (by someone). The difference between art and engineering is exactly this vast gap. A work that doesn’t have an identifiable line of function-over-form can be fine art, but it can not be compared to engineering.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Profitable Kiss of Death

The last few months of dealing with selling a house and buying one has put me in contact with my least favorite sort of engineer far too often: the licensed Professional Engineer (PE). My first experiences with that sad, paranoid, grossly conservative breed of “professional” came in my first engineering job—with a Misfortune 500 agricultural manufacturer. Not only did we have to design many of our products to meet UL’s erratic and irrational demands, but I had to carry on demented snail mail and telephone conversations with UL’s nutty in-house PEs. In a deranged response to the sluggish pace of UL certification, that company bend over and kissed its own ass goodbye and hired two engineers away from UL and a couple more who claimed to be UL and high voltage “experts.” For the next three years, we cranked out over-priced, horribly designed, grossly conservative crap that dropped our field reliability from an already-sad 30%-failed-per-year to an unacceptable (even to our Republican-party-henchman, John Connelly-loving CEO) 70%+ catastrophe. Two years later and several hundred thousand dollars down the drain, the company fired all of the PEs and returned the design task to the run-of-the-mill non-PE-credentialed engineers and techs, mostly out of financial and customer-dissatisfaction necessity. A complete redesign of all of the electronic and electrical components later, our field failure rate was slightly under 3%-annually. (That sounds awful, but most of our electronic components were part of a center-pivot irrigation system; the world’s largest lightening rods.)

A few years later and QSC was trying to meet good ole’ UL’s consumer product requirements and I’m back working with PEs. As usual, it was a depressing experience, not unlike working with a wagon-full of bricks tied to our backs. The UL drones are, like all PEs, terrified of creativity. If you attempt to do something in a way differently than every similar product they have already tagged, you’re in for a battle. There was only one way around their dislike for original thinking: like most bureaucrats, the UL kids are prone to react positively to bribery. Take their PEs to the most expensive restaurant in town, put them up in a Hilton, treat them like the royalty they believe they are, and you can get the dumbest possible designs past their objections. My case-in-point #1? Crown’s Power Base amps which ran a 120VAC single-insulated wire through the middle of the amp’s heatsink without any consideration to all of the safety hazard that design entailed. The UL PEs regularly harped to us, at QSC, about how much better they were treated when they visited Crown in Elkhart.

More recently, my son-in-law’s mother’s boyfriend is an ex-construction contractor who spent much of his career building roads for the state and Minnesota counties. His distain for “engineers” practically burned off my hair. After a few conversations, I found that the only engineers he ever had to deal with were the government road department PEs. He claimed he could design anything better than an “engineer” and after I realized he was talking about civil PEs I don’t doubt him for a second.

As for my most recent PE experiences, at one time I thought I’d have to redesign the basement supports in our Little Canada house and on the recommendation of a contractor, I asked a PE to look at the basement and make recommendations. Luckily, the guy I found was only handicapped by his PE credential but was still young enough to have some functioning brain cells. He gave me a lot of phone time for free and strongly recommended that I not asking him for written confirmation of what he’d advised because once he started to write up our 130+ year old house he said I might as well start tearing the house down. To cover his ass, he’d have to write up everything in the house that didn’t meet current specification and that would be pretty much everything in a house that was begun in 1884 and added on in the 1940’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s along with the updates we’d added in the past 18 years. The contractor who’d recommended this PE told me about a 2’ extension he’d added to the floor joists of a house he was remodeling. Due to the insane requirements of current engineering standards, the PE had required him to attach the 2’ 2”x12” floor supports with “1,000 nails” spaced at micro-intervals. Everyone involved realized that this requirement turned the joists into “Swiss cheese” but current code required that idiocy and PEs live and die by codes.

This week, I’m trying to resolve a flooding issue in my lower-level garage. The problem is that my 1947 house (I’ve modernized my living space by nearly 70 years.) has a garage that is within a couple of feet of the county’s right-of-way and over the years the road has been raised to the point that my garage is lower than the drainage ditch. Because the road belongs to the county, I have to deal with the county’s

Why are PEs so reliably depressing? Grossly conservative, bureaucratic sorts are attracted to the credential and security of an engineering job that requires the PE certification. The requirements—“engineers must complete a four-year college degree, work under a Professional Engineer for at least four years, pass two intensive competency exams and earn a license from their state's licensure board”—are very much like the sort of song-and-dance unions require for membership. Real engineers are too self-motivated to submit to the remedial drivel they’ll have to suffer as part of the “internship” with an old PE drone. A real engineer is more driven to learn how to make things and actually be part of invention and manufacturing than security. The main reason for chasing down the PE certification is the hope for a secure corporate or government job. Not exactly the sort of motivation that inspires a Wozniak, Edison, Tesla, Turing, Wright brother, Kurzweil, da Vinci, Harry Olson, or any other great inventor.

Dealing with a PE is best avoided, but if that’s not an option knowing who they are helps. High on the list of characteristics is their extension of the NIH syndrome (Not Invented Here). Not only are PEs uncomfortable with original thought, their attitude is if it wasn’t invented or approved and documented by a bureaucrat, it doesn’t exit. The best way to convince a PE that your idea is a good one is to convince him it’s not a new one. These guys are not particularly hard-working, so the chances that one of them will do the leg work to determine where an idea came from is close to zero.

When everything else fails, and it probably will, there is a sure weapon against PE-intransience. As best said by Warren Zevon, “bring Lawyers, Guns, and Money.” Lawyers, in particular. The reason PEs are so incapable of original thought or useful activity is that they are buried in their fear of liability. A bureaucrat would rather make no decision than take a chance on an idea might be wrong. The source of this fear is the terror that they might be “responsible” and the people who most scare PEs are lawyers who will identify the responsible bureaucrat and sue the pants off of him. So, bring a lawyer or three to the discussion and while that will not get a decision out of the PE, it will convince him to deny all responsibility and get the hell out of the way.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

How to Kill Your Business

I should be an expert on this topic, since it took me almost three years to officially crush the life out of my studio maintenance and equipment repair business. However, intentionally ending a business isn’t really the subject I’m referring to here. I might talk about that some time in the future, but not now. What this rant is about is unintentionally (I think) killing a business with crap service.

Way back in the mid-1980’s, I got caught up in the US manufacturing quality movement as a manager at QSC Audio Products. Because we were trying to qualify as a Dolby and LucasFilm theater system vendor, we needed to up our manufacturing, quality control, and customer service game substantially. At first it seemed like an almost impossible task, since we were probably a 10-15% defective out-of-box vendor and LucasFilm wanted something more along the lines of 0.001% reliability figure. We, however, would be satisfied with 3-sigma ( a little better than 99% reliable) performance as a baby-step toward first-world quality standards.

I found the Phil Crosby “Quality Is Free” book and took one of his courses in L.A. That turned me on to W. Edwards Deming and his books. Those two sources got me and the company headed in the right direction. After a second 3-day Crosby seminar, I ended up getting a part-time gig as a Crosby quality instructor, which I kept for about two years. Early in my classes, the Ford guys were just starting to put some meat behind the “Quality Is Job One” campaign and Don Peterson had just taken over the whole company. (An engineer running an engineering company, imagine that?) Those guys were hungry for ideas because Ford had a habit of replacing engineering guys with MBA morons and they all knew there was a small window in which they could jack up Ford product quality before the company went back to business as usual and form (and advertising) over function. Having those determined and desperate engineers in my classes put a lot of pressure on me and the Crosby organization to provide a lot of value in a short lecture.

One of the QIF lectures included something I remember being called “the 5/5/5 rule.” Whatever it’s called, it comes from the restaurant business. The basic idea is that it takes $50 in advertising to get a customer to try a new restaurant. 5 seconds of poor service will alienate that customer. It will take $5,000 in advertising to get them to try the restaurant a second time. This was a big deal to lots of us, including the Ford engineers. Along with the customer service variation on the Pareto Effect, which is much more discriminating than Pareto’s 80/20 ratio: 1 to 10% of your customers will complain about a product failure while the other 90-99% will simply stop buying your products. Knowing that the cost of poor service is high and hidden and that the likelihood that your customers will tell you when you’ve screwed-up is low is huge. It means that you have to take the few who care enough to complain seriously enough that paying attention to your customers becomes a habit.

The fact that most businesses do the opposite pretty much wraps up the secret to killing a business. Half-assed, intentionally asshole-ish, inattention, or even a few seconds of distracted service will send customers out the door with the intention of never coming back. If you don’t believe me, you are either a very forgiving customer or seriously in denial. Most customers “forgive” poor service by checking the business off of their list of preferred vendors. They might even do it unconsciously, but nevertheless the effect is the same as aggressively complaining about the service/product and shouting “I’m never coming back!”

I realized how far this unconscious effect can carry the other day when my wife delivered her lesson from our winter trapped in VW-powered Winnebago, “Never have your house attached to your vehicle.” She thought the problem was that our Class C RV did not allow us to separate our living quarters from the vehicle. Since she is incapable of driving a vehicle with a trailer, her lesson essentially says “Stay in motels or stay home.”

My lesson, also delivered almost automatically, has been “Never buy anything from Volkswagen and, ideally, avoid all German vehicles.” I have followed that by describing the miserable service I received from two VW dealers in Albuquerque, the stories I heard about VW service from unhappy VW owners all over the country, and so on. As I write this, I am realizing how many times I’ve told this story and heard it repeated back to me from other people with similar, often second-hand, versions of the same message. By ignoring customer complaints (and VW may be completely immune to customer feedback), VW has created a community of VW-haters who are spreading the word faster than any advertising campaign could hope to compete. Now that’s a perfect example of “how to kill your business.”

Friday, March 13, 2015

Taking Pop Seriously?

When I was born, in 1948, the Woody Woodpecker cartoon theme song was the #1 “Top of the Pops” song on the charts and Pee Wee Hunt’s “12th Street Rag” was the best selling song of that year. If that doesn’t make you question the importance or artistic value of pop music, I don’t know what will.  Wikipedia’s List of Billboard Year-End #1 singles and albums would be depressing if you were inclined to pretend that pop music was anything more than mind-numbing distractions and kids’ music. The list contains some real dogs, a lot of drivel, some major embarrassments, and not more than a dozen songs that might be called “semi-adult music” by the least critical apologist for the pop genre.

I’m taking a class at Southeast Technical Community College called “Introduction to the Digital Arts and Creative Multimedia” and the most irritating aspect of that class is the instructor keeps asking “What examples of current digital . . . art do you think will be appreciated in 100 years?” My first guess is always “commercials.” Money and selling shit is what our current culture takes most seriously and I don’t expect that to change in 100 years. Kids’ music? Not so much.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Being A Technoblaster

During the dozen years I taught technology classes I was probably less-than-friendly to people with no technology skills. In a program (Recording Engineering) that required fairly extensive technical skills it wasn’t at all unusual to find that my students had absolutely no familiarity with technology beyond playing with their cell phones or video games. That crowd was irritating and impossible to educate, but they didn’t bother me until student “retention” became such a big deal that I couldn’t purge their lame asses from my classes. There was another much smaller category of student, however, that caused me a lot more grief. For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to call them “technoblasters.”

Too often my technoblasters were sincere kids who really wanted to do well. They studied, did their homework, did fine to really well on tests, and they paid attention in class or during labs. They participated. They did everything I asked them to do and, sometimes, more. However, every time they touched a piece of technology, they broke it. One irritatingly consistent aspect to their destructiveness was that they always used the passive voice when they admitted breaking something, “The knob/switch/control or microphone/stand/speaker broke.” Or “I didn’t do anything and the computer quit working.” They never damaged anything themselves. It was always the passive tool that broke itself.

Rarely, I would be on site when one of these inanimate objects committed suicide, but when I was on-site it was pretty obvious what happened. Not only did my technoblasters break the equipment, they did it brutally. They would tighten a mic stand so hard they stripped the grip or handle. They would twist a knob until the pot broke or the set screw on the knob started cutting a groove in the shaft or they’d start spinning the control behind the panel until it ripped out the wires or destroyed the circuit board. One kid so consistently insisted on plugging Aux outputs into headphone amp outputs or main buss or group buss outputs that he earned the nickname “Smokey.” He failed his first semester record laboratory, twice, because he fried the console early in the test. The second time he took out the +15V power supply and set final exam testing back a day for several classes.

One of many things all of these kids have in common is a disconnect between their perception of how they use technology and reality. They honestly think they are paying attention to the equipment, treating their tools with respect, and being careful. In fact, they are distracted and on a completely different plane than the work they imagine they are doing. As sad as this is to admit, my wife is a technoblaster. So, I’ve had a front row seat and backstage pass to observing the life of a technoblaster for almost 50 years. Like these kids, when her tools and technology fail her she always describes the events leading to the moment-of-breakage passively. Exactly like these kids, she is always distracted and mostly unaware of her actions and attitude. I can’t think of a single time when she has wreaked some piece of equipment or broken a tool when she could accurately recount the steps she took before the equipment failed.

Eventually, I suspect my ex-students will develop an attitude like my wife’s. She is a firm believer that technology hates her and she hates it right back. She has constructed a mental suit of armor that allows her to ignore her own complicity in equipment failure while assigning the blame to a personal feud between her and the offending technology. One of the tactics I used to overcome this attitude in work situations, including a few “technology instructors” and engineers, has been to require a detailed description of the equipment failure before I accept the task of fixing it or before I’d allow one of my employees to fix it. If “it’s broke” is all I get, I put that job at the back of the schedule so we can do work that is properly defined. Often, “it’s broke” is a user error and will magically go away if I ignore it long enough. If it’s real, repeating the instruction that the failure mode and mechanism must be described before a repair can take place will often force the user to retrace his/her steps and learn something about how the failure occurred.

Of course, none of that works with my wife. If I waited for her to properly define one equipment breakdown before I fixed it, nothing in our household would work because she will just move on to the next victim. And, of course, I’ve been trained by 50 years of marriage to just follow her around putting out fires.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

What I Have Learned about Live Sound

My first live sound “gig” was as a stage hand in Dodge City, Kansas for the Ventures when they played Dodge’s Civic Auditorium (Remember the days when auditoriums were named after their purpose, not some corporate asshole who bought off the city council?) in 1962. I was 14 and had been playing guitar for a couple of years. The Ventures were my heroes. Bob Bogle, Nokie Edwards, Mel Taylor, and Don Wilson were everything I aspired to be as a rock and roll guitarist (The Band that Launched a Thousand Bands). Their song, Slaughter on 10th Avenue, was my favorite of the time. I had bigger aspirations, at the time, for my trumpet playing, but that wild hope was doomed to disappointment.

1) I conned my way into the good graces of the Catholic High School’s head nun (or whatever she was called) and got myself a job lugging the Ventures’ amplifiers into the auditorium and setting up their one microphone for the house sound system. The first thing I learned about live sound came on that gig: age/senility usually comes before talent or knowledge. Dodge City’s auditorium employed an old guy who doesn’t care never gets replaced. Dozens of times, since then, I’ve run into the established house soundgoof ruling shows like a plague on music. Jump to #9 to see why there is damn little hope of fixing any of these problems.

2) When it comes to sound system design and components, weight and convenience are more important than sound quality. Thirty years ago, Carver came out with a line of bullshit and the PM-1.5 amplifier and the phony specs revolution began in earnest in pro amplification.  This POS claimed to produce 450W/8Ω stereo and 1200/8Ω mono with the more important characteristic being a 21 pound total weight when real amplifiers doing that kind of work were a lot closer to 100 pounds. Sound companies and audiofools went nuts over the PM-1.5 and it’s variations. It turned out that the 1.5 was interesting, but fell way short of the claims. The 4Ω minimum operating impedance should have been a tipoff. The Carver amp not only didn’t do what the company claimed it would do, it also sounded awful; especially when it clipped. It clipped often, in fact. When it did, it made this whacked out “splat” sound that often blew up speakers.

None of that stopped sound companies from filling up their racks with Carver 1.5’s and creating awful noises they passed off as “sound reinforcement.” After a while, it became apparent, even to the deaf dudes who mix live music, that the Carvers were pretty damn awful. However, the “light is right” mantra arrived and sound companies have been worshiping that magical concept ever since. The disease has spread to speaker systems. The “miracle of speaker arrays” has invested almost every sound system on the planet and music suffers because of it.

3) Deafness rules the occupation. Back in the 80’s, an audiologist setup a test booth at an AES convention. The audiologists’ tests found that live sound “engineers,” in particular, were consistently functionally deaf. As long as the people running sound systems are incapable of hearing the difference between music and distortion, live music is hopeless.

4) Nobody remembers anything. Back before we had all of this sophisticated equipment, we did “sound reinforcement.” The sad fact is that we did better before we had infinite equipment. Music sounded more like music without tens of thousands of watts and piles of array speakers. I’m unconvinced that technology is taking us anywhere but in the direction pointed out in #9.

5) Sound guys are notoriously ignorant of room acoustics. For example, the practice of making grunting noises so that the sound doofus can attempt to EQ out the room resonances is depressingly ignorant. There is nothing about the information you can get from snorting into a room that will be corrected in system setup. See #6. Sound system speaker placement is traditionally wrong and has been for decades. Of course, the most important thing in a show is the appearance, not the sound, so justifying putting the speakers on the extreme sides of the stage is all about maintaining a visual line-of-sight of the artists from all seats. That doesn’t have any effect on putting the speakers overhead (and low, for close seats), but it would require an ability to think about how sound is propagated in a room.

The simple fact is, the only way to resolve room resonances is with acoustic treatment. You can cut the resonant frequencies from the system, but any transient information (drums, for example) will stimulate the room regardless of the sound system. You could, however, move the speakers, especially the subs, so that they do not optimally stimulate the room. Better yet, don’t overdrive the room unnecessarily so room resonances are working overtime.

6) Sound guys do not understand speaker or microphone polar patterns or even what those characteristics imply. Currently, there is a45-deg-speaker-with-4m-spacing-and-4-5-deg-splay delusional faith in the “miracle” of loudspeaker arrays, regardless of the well-known limitations (by engineers and physicists) of that system design. A quick look at monitor and FOH speaker placement is a pretty strong argument for proof of that ignorance. Even more, the strange practices FOH guys have regarding the fact that their array systems sound so radically different in fairly similar seating positions.

microphones_supercardioidThe total disregard for hyper and super-cardioid off-axis characteristics creates a terror of these very useful microphones because sound guys do not get where the monitors must be positioned. If you look at the polar pattern at left, is it not clear that the response behind the microphone is damn close to the response in front? 90-120  and 240-270 degrees off-axis is pretty amazing, but the traditional monitor placement is idiotic.

frequency-response_sm587) Repeatedly, sound guys select incompatible-to-the-sound-source microphones (SM58 on all vocals) and try to “fix” that with EQ. There are some applications, I suppose, where the SM58 works pretty well. However, GIGO, especially at the beginning of the signal chain is ultimately true. The 58 has mediocre proximity characteristics (so bad, in fact, Shure does not publish that data). The creepy 5dB bump at 2-6kHz emphasizes sibilance problems so irritatingly that characters like Garrison Keillor sound like a rattlesnake with a lisp using that microphone. The “fix” for those problems usually involves a collection of EQ moves that make all of those problems even worse. The real solution would be to dump this mediocre tool and pick a more suitable microphone.

8) In the worst acoustic environments, sound guys almost always over-mic complicated sound sources. In a situation where reflective surfaces are already creating a disaster zone of phase problems, the attitude is consistently “If one mic will do the job, won’t eight be better?” There are few situations where a collection of microphones will make a phase disaster less of a disaster. Complicate that with the fact that more microphones means more bleed from other instruments (and more phase problems on other instruments in the mix) which is usually “fixed” with crap-loads of gating which only fixes the problems when the gates are closed creating an awful sounding drum kit.

The next goofy move from the live crowd is multiple microphones on guitar cabinets, including distance mics. If we’re talking about stacks of amps, mic’ing the damn things is a waste of time. If we’re talking about a combo amp, the sound quality will not be improved with more mics, since there are pretty extreme limits on quality on a live stage. Isolation or tone, those are the options. Pick one and don’t do anything to delude yourself you can have both.

9) The reason all of these problems are unlikely to be solved is that customers are not that critical: beer over music. 30-some years ago, my partner built a spectacular front-loaded, horn-less FOH system and started doing shows with it all over Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska. The experiment went poorly. The bands he worked with loved the system, but clubs didn’t. It took a few shows until one of the bartenders asked Dan to crank up the system, dramatically. When Dan explained that the system was operating optimally and much more volume would distort the system, the bartender said something along the lines of, “Music lovers don’t drink, drunks like it loud and distorted. Crank it up.”

Unfortunately, that rule is true in almost all music venues. Drunks spend more than people who are there for the music. The louder it is, the more the drunks drink and the more room there is for more drunks, since the music fans will be driven out.

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.