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.