Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Flying Pigs and So On

This is a fun story, but even more fun is the British use of language. The only place you’re likely to hear the words “tannoy system” or “poopoo’d” are from Brits.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Price of Listening Tests

The Neumann KM184 is one of my all-time favorite microphones and, at $1,000/each, it's a microphone that I would gladly accept a cheaper-but-equal substitute. Michael Joly Engineering's Octava modifications are interesting, but if you listen carefully to his sound examples on the company's sound sample page I do not think you will agree that he's captured the sound of the KM184 with the SDC 991.

Electro-mechanical devices are insanely complicated, both to manufacture and to design. Anything that sounds good is an impressive accomplishment. Sounding spacious, detailed, and natural is miraculous. I think the Joly mics are impressive, but not enough to displace the Neuman small element condenser from it's holy place by the Grail of beautiful electromechanical instruments. At least, that would be my position based on the sound samples we have from Joly.

There are lots of problems with listening tests of all sorts. For over a century it has been widely believed that high quality classical guitars – their soundboards being the major exception – have to be constructed from tropical woods. This applies particularly to backs and sides (rosewood/mahogany) but also to necks (mahogany/Spanish cedar), fingerboards and bridges (ebony/rosewood). Indeed most builders and players alike consider such tropical hardwoods as the preferred, if not the only choice for instruments of the highest tonal quality. Whilst some non-tropical back and side woods have become established for certain applications - most notably cypress for flamenco guitars and maple for the more affordable “student” classical models - experimentation with other, alternative non-tropical woods has only ever occurred on a small scale and has not delivered the empirical proof required to indicate that such woods can be regarded as acceptable tonewoods. Until this present study, there has been no reliable, scientific investigation into the suitability of non-tropical species such as alder, ash, oak, plane, birch, false acacia, chestnut etc. for classical guitar building.

 In order for the widespread belief in the tonal superiority of tropical wood in guitar making to be validated, research would be required to prove that, under blind conditions, experienced guitarists and listeners show a clear preference for guitars made from tropical woods, and are able to reliably distinguish them from their non-tropical counterparts. The Leonardo Guitar Research Project made such a study: http://www.leonardo-guitar-research.com/research-report-lgrp. "In order for the widespread belief in the tonal superiority of tropical wood in guitar making to be validated, research would be required to prove that, under blind conditions, experienced guitarists and listeners show a clear preference for guitars made from tropical woods, and are able to reliably distinguish them from their non-tropical counterparts."

The conclusion probably irritates more people than it convinces, "This study, however, shows that first-rate guitar players and experienced listeners alike are unable either to register a clear preference between the two sets of guitars or to distinguish between both wood groups at anything better than chance levels. 

"Furthermore, under non-blind conditions, the non-tropical wood guitars saw, on average, a marked fallback in preference of some 50%. This would indicate that sound perception is strongly influenced by visually transmitted information such as the aesthetic qualities of an instrument, or the preconceptions surrounding good and bad tonewoods that their recognition allows."

You could argue that since this test as conducted on a moderately primitive guitar design, classical guitars, that it doesn't mean much. What it does for me, however, is prove that human hearing is generally as malformed as the schematic diagram and biology indicates. Our ears, unlike other senses, are a cobbled mess of mechanical, hydraulic, and electrical components that are mostly tuned to the human voice frequency range with some consideration for self-defense in the natural world. Many components are so poorly designed that they are easily damaged and age quickly and weirdly. Similar results have been found in ABX tests on electronic audio equipment, disproving some of audiophiles' and professional recording engineers' favorite myths. In the 90's, my old employer (QSC Audio Products) made a device called the "ABX Comparator" which was designed to allow the company's sales force to demonstrate products in fair comparison tests. Mostly, that proved to piss off wanna-be golden ears who were forced to admit they were nothing more than typically hearing-damaged audio professionals.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

And It Will Sound Like . . .

Some friends are starting up an old guys’ R&R band and they need a bass player. They aren’t going to ask me because, “You don’t want to be in this band. It’s gonna be loud and sound like shit.” Of course, they know me too well. I don’t want to be in a band like that and haven’t since I was in my mid-twenties.

I missed the “opportunity” to run FOH for a “bluegrass band” at Hobgoblin this past Saturday because of family obligations. I know one of the band members a little and he’s a fine musician, a terrific songwriter, and a nice guy. The band’s banjo player/sound guy and I had a couple of email conversations and it was obvious (at least to me) that we wouldn’t work well together, so missing the gig wasn’t at all painful for me. Sunday, I was at Hobgoblin for another gig and, as expected, the house sound system was mangled and as far from reasonably “zero’d” as possible. [Who turns powered speaker systems’ volume controls to “off” and messes with the crossover settings?] The questions that cued me into knowing this wouldn’t be a fun gig were all about the number of monitors (4) that would be needed for a 5 piece “bluegrass” band in a 70 person (max) venue. Any is too many, four is a symptom of deaf rockers pretending to be purists.

jefferson_airplane_pillowUK1Somehow, this sequence of conversations reminded me of one of my favorite 60’s albums, Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow.” There are lots of stories about how “awful” the studio experience was for the Airplane kiddies, but it’s pretty obvious from the quality of the playing that some actual musicians were involved in the making of the record. Post-Pillow, the Airplane’s zombies were big stars and in charge of their own sonic future; which accounts for the godawful sound of every other recording they made in the band’s lifetime. The band had no input as to how their instruments or voices would be recorded by RCA’s actual engineers (guys in white coats) and if they couldn’t play a part, someone else did. The lack of technical input from the kiddies resulted in a historic record of the times.

IguanaStudiosKidsParty-2386Those days will never return. Everyone with $500 and an ego can afford a decent recording rig, today. Goldman’s rule, “nobody knows anything,” has been multipled by millions of uninformed, tasteless kids with a cheap microphone, Pro Tools, and an endless collection of loops and plug-ins. I guess the logical extension of the rule would be “nobody knows anything and everybody thinks they do.”

The end result for me has been that when I’m asked if I’d be interested in a recording project and, if so, what would it cost, my reply is, “If I like it, I’ll do it for free. If I don’t, you can’t afford me.” Most of the time, I won’t like it and the conversation doesn’t get that far because I change the subject before the question is asked.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Losing History

Americans are, almost by definition, people who distain learning from the past. We generally despise academics and intellectuals and politicians have made successful careers based on nothing other than deriding “smart people.” A few weeks ago, one of my brothers made a fairly innocent comment about wishing that age had brought wisdom along with the usual crap we expect from getting old. I told him, “Wisdom is overrated. Nobody wants to hear anything from someone who has actually studied a subject.” I mean that. We have a whole political movement that appears to be proud to be the “Party of the Stupid.” Every aspect of our national life is infected with this foolishness. It is a part of our national character.

One of the reasons I decided to quit teaching was that I grew tired of hearing 18-25-year-olds tell me how shit works without a fuckin’ clue about the subject at hand. From writing computer code to using audio equipment to music theory (a subject that nearly evades me entirely, but I still knew more than most of our “students”), I was forced to listen to harebrained theories, mindboggling stupidity, and flat-out craziness in the interests of “self-esteem building” and student “retention.” I’m here to tell you that I don’t care how happy you are with your inner self. If you’re a moron, you are a moron. You are far better off knowing you're an idiot and settling for the life of an idiot than being dumb as a brick and whimpering about how the world doesn't properly appreciate you. When you are wrong, you’re wrong. And when you don’t know what you are talking about, it’s best not to talk at all.

Recently, I listened to someone close to me explain why cheap-ass, designed by hillbillies Pyle speakers driven by even more inferior dedicated amplifiers sounded better than powered, Class-D actively crossed-over JBL cabinets. None of this self-delusion is new to me. I have been there and done that. Sometimes flawed material sounds better on crappy speakers. Nothing new there. This, however, wasn't about that. This was about a tin-eared live guy babbling about his hearing deficiencies as if they were super powers. I could have argued the point, but I knew there was no interest in my experience, technical knowledge, or value judgments. I could have saved this doofus some money, time, and dramatically improved the quality of their sound system, but what I know would have fallen on damaged, untrained, disinterested ears. Why bother?

The end effect is that we Americans will continue to repeat our mistakes as if every day is brand new. This is exactly the kind of world cattle and sheep inhabit, but it seems a little primitive for a species that prides itself in being some sort of higher animal or chosen species. There is, of course, no evidence of that specialness on display or even well-hidden in our behavior.

 Considering this, I have to say the best thing about being old is knowing that I won’t have to watch all of this shit happen again because I won’t be around for the reruns.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Vanishing Point

Three years ago, last month, I left

After a dozen years standing in one place

I walked away, alone

At the time, it felt like dying

It felt like being liberated from cement shoes

It felt like losing my family

It felt like winning the lottery

Who knew it would be like vanishing?

No one said, “Don’t go”

Or “We need you”

They all said, “We’ll keep in touch”

I threw my own going-away party

Otherwise, I would have disappeared unnoticed.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Picking Grapes or Ducking Bullets?

When I was a kid, I worked a good part of two summers on a farm to avoid having to live in a squalid Army barrack with my family while my father worked on his Masters degree in Hays Kansas. The summer I turned 13, I went along with the crowd and suffered the slings and discomfort of living in close quarters with a squalling baby, my three bitchy younger siblings, and my parents and decided that death would be better than doing that again. Any kind of death. The next summer (1962), I was in a rock and roll band that toured Kansas, Oklahoma, northern Texas, eastern Colorado, and a bit of Nebraska for most of the mid-to-late summer and if I hoped to get to go on the road with the boys I needed a good story to convince my father that I should get to stay behind. So, I found a job working on a farm for the early wheat and hay harvest with the plan of taking off the moment the band got the first gig of the summer.

I was the youngest member of the band, by about 4 years and the bass player. I’d met the band leader in Hays the previous summer and lied about being able to play bass. He was a rich kid and, because I only owned a crappy Sears/Silvertone acoustic guitar and an even crappier Western Auto/Silvertone electric guitar, he bought a Fender bass (probably a Musicmaster) and a Bassman 50 for me to use. I practiced the bass all winter and was more than ready for the 3-chord garage punk rock would be the Tracers specialty. We weren’t talented, but we were loud. The PA system was a pair of Fender Showmen amps with two 4-ten cabinets per side. We were one of the few R&R bands in Kansas at the time with vocals loud enough to be heard.

That first summer touring experience ruined me for most kinds of work, forever. That year, I was smart or lucky enough to be back in Dodge staying in my step-grandparents’ basement before my family returned home. I’d made pretty good money between the farm work and the band, but I didn’t make it back with much to show for the summer.

The next summer, 1963, I used the same story to skip out on the Hays family excursion and it worked again. This was also the summer my father laid his ultimatum on me, “live in my house, go to my church,” so I wanted to make my escape permanent if I could work it out. That summer I planned on saving my money. The farm work paid even better that year, because I was old/big enough to get a truck and combine driving gig. The band did a whole lot better, too. That year we were advertised on KOMA Oklahoma City radio and  booked through Lawrence, Kansas’ John Brown Midcontinent Productions. You could hear ads warning that “the Tremendous Tracers are coming to your town, TONIGHT!” all over the Midwest. I came home after the family returned that fall. In fact, I was about two weeks late for the start of high school. I bought my band gear home and more money than my father earned in a year teaching high school. Like an idiot, I bragged about it when he yelled at me for missing the start of school. He tossed the amp down the stairs (where my old room was) and I can’t remember what happened to the bass, but I didn’t have one to practice with that summer. He confiscated my money and stuffed it into US Savings Bonds that I couldn’t redeem until I turned 18. That was a game we’d played with any money I made up to that point. Later that summer, I got a job and moved out of my family’s home for good.

The next summer, I didn’t bother with the farm story. One night I just packed up and moved to a friend’s house in a small town about 30 miles from Dodge as soon as school ended. A few weeks late, the band picked me up and I was on tour all summer. I made more money that summer than I did for the next several years. That year, my family stayed in Dodge and I ended up moving to Hays because about every band in the Midwest was there. The Blue Things, the Playmates Blues Band, The Fabulous Flippers, Spider and the Crabs, and a bunch of terrific bands lived in a trailer court, between gigs, not far from the college.

At the end of that summer, life went to shit, the Tracers disbanded, when the band leader crashed his T-Bird into the only fuckin’ tree in Oklahoma on the way back home to Little Rock, Arkansas. When I came back, I rented a trailer with a friend and enrolled in the local community college. Big mistake. The school, Dodge City Community College, was as bad as schools get and probably isn’t much better today.

While I played in a couple dozen bands between 1966 and 1982, none of them were as fun as the Tracers and I pretty much played for money rather than love after I got married in 1967.

But to the point of the title of this article, thanks to life-long allergies I have always despised plant life. My last brief stint on the farm, in 1966, resulted in an asthma bout that turned into bronchitis and pneumonia which coincided with my draft physical and my 1-Y draft deferment. Over the years, I have learned to dislike plants to the point that I’d rather kill and eat a herbivorous animal than dig or pick food from the ground. You might get the creeps from handling birds or snakes or insects or spiders, but neither of those bother me at all I’d just as soon avoid the poisonous variety of the animal world, but I can usually tell which animal might be a problem. The only way I can identify a plant that might infect, kill, or cause an allergic reaction from lettuce is the hard way.

This weekend, I was “volunteered” for an afternoon of grape picking. I knew it would be a miserable experience, but after about an hour I realized that I’d rather be a mercenary than a farmer. I used to tell my students that when I was their age I’d have killed someone to get to work in the studios we had at MSCM. I was not kidding.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

A Backward Look at the Music Industry

Lots of people are selling their insights into “the music industry” these days and, mostly, that’s because making an actual living in what’s left of that so-called industry is next-to-impossible. It always has been, so that shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the territory.

A Facebook discussion with a friend today reminded me of one of my many missed “opportunities” to dive into the music business face (and life) first. When I moved to California to work for QSC Audio Products as a Design/Test Engineer, leaving Nebraska required selling off almost all of my recording studio equipment, most of my musical instrument backline, and the disposal of probably 90% of my family’s personal possessions. We were moving from a 2,200 square foot house with a full basement and double car garage to a 650 square foot apartment in Huntington Beach, California. It was a sacrifice-filled “adventure” that required all of us, including my two adolescent daughters, to give up a lot of stuff.

1983 was a seriously economically depressed time in the Rust Belt and finding technical or manufacturing work of any sort in Lincoln, Omaha, Des Moines, Kansas City, Denver, or any of the smaller Midwestern cities was unlikely. Make that doubly-unlikely in my case, since I was 35 and still going to school nights working on my Electrical Engineering degree. Thanks to an old connection, I got a few job offers from the coasts and QSC seemed like the best of the lot. In fact, for almost a decade, my jobs with QSC were close to a dream come true. I got to work closely with Patrick Quilter, one of the best, most creative engineers I’ve ever known. I was instrumental in turning a small, still mostly start-up after a decade of struggle, manufacturer into one of the first American-made quality-driven manufacturers. California still provided incredibly cheap education and actually catered to non-traditional students, so I was able to continue my pursuit of a degree and hold down a 60-80 hour/wee management job. Most of all, we built the absolute best professional power amplifiers in the world and could prove it with customer testimonials.

It’s hard to imagine now, but I was a driven, workaholic for most of my life. While I was engineering and testing products for QSC and going to school nights, I also ran a repair business that serviced much of Roland and Yamaha’s customer returns and provided equipment and studio repair services to Orange and LA counties. Through an AES contact, Wes Dooley, I was introduced to several studio owners and maintenance engineers at our local AES meetings. One of the techs was a guy who was the maintenance engineer for Record Plant on Third Street in LA and for a few years in Hollywood. When he was overloaded with clean-up (often vacuuming the coke out of the faders) and repair work, I occasionally filled in to help: for a price, of course.

When he decided it was time for him to crawl out of his repair shack and get a life, he let me know the Record Plant job would be open. I drove up to Hollywood to hear more about the job and, eventually, he told me it paid about $20k/year. Without overtime, that works out to about $9/hour and there would be plenty of unpaid overtime, as a salary job. I thought he was joking, but he reminded me that he “lived” in the repair shack about 5 days out of a week and his “home” was a rented room. My kids were teenagers, my wife didn’t work, and my family depended on my income. Honestly, I couldn’t find any way to consider what my friend had been doing for a decade anything resembling a “career.” Today, I suspect we’d call that sort of wage-slave an “intern.” Back then, in LA, I lost about 90% of the respect I had for my friend’s job and the Record Plant iin that one conversation. I have never been able to do much with the “do what you love and the money will follow” philosophy because the cost of my reality always trumped the income my dreams would produce. Getting married at 19 and becoming a father at 23 will do that for you.

As we were winding down the job conversation, my friend offered to show me the other applicants. I expected a bunch of right-out-of-tech-school kids with no experience in audio equipment repair or use. What I saw were guys (and a couple of women) with EE degrees from schools like UCLA, Cal Tech, Georgia Tech, and other decent electrical engineering schools along with what I expected. There were also guys I knew from the LA AES chapter who had good jobs with manufacturing companies. Some of those guys were decent engineers, too.

It never occurred to me that working for a recording studio would pay that poorly. While a friend back in Omaha did the maintenance engineering job for the city’s one-and-only real studio, Sound Recorders, and I knew he still lived with his parents, I hadn’t considered the possibility that he lived like a college kid because that’s the kind of money he was making.

Way back in the 1960’s, I had a 1959 MGA. The MGA was a dream car, until it was my responsibility to maintain it. In less than six months, that awful vehicle wiped out my fairly substantial savings and left me broke and transportation-less. I have never envied a sports car owner since. In fact, I usually pity any sports car goofball, unless he is obviously a trustfund brat: then I’m happy for his misery and transportation disabilities. Likewise, since my moment-of-zen at the Record Plant, it’s tough for me to consider recording studio work seriously and I can’t generate any level of jealousy when it comes to working for peanuts, regardless of the work. I’ve done a lot of studio work since then, but I have never considered anything other than my own studio maintenance business anything but a fun hobby. Not only do I not have a trust fund to fall back on, you could burn up my entire inheritance on a decent New York dinner.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

On the Back Side of Technology

Google is threatening to discontinue updates on Chrome for my Apple OS X, 10.7 or whatever cutsey animal name Apple gave it, and my wife’s exercise room WinXP machine. No problem, I deleted Chrome from both machines and they are happy with Explorer and/or Firefox. I don’t care which browser I’m using as long as it works and I can’t say that Chrome works all that well on a regular basis.

Threats to abandon my computer platform have been entertainment since I began to think about retiring in 2012. We have a WinXP machine in the basement that my wife uses for watching Netflix and Amazon movies and while Microsquash abandoned “extended support” for WinXP on April 8, 2014, that system keeps providing entertainment. The computer is probably 15 years old as is WinXP. The end of Microsoft’s “support” and security updates is only noticable because I can’t shut off the damn wanting that my system is not set to automatically accept updates. I’m not alone in continuing to get along with this obsolete software. As of January 2016, the US Windows XP desktop market share is 8%, China at 26%,and it is still the fifth most popular OS in the world after Windows 8.1 and OS X. Some statistics rank WinXP as second after Windows 7. Support from either Microsoft or Apple belongs in quotes because their definition of that word is only consistent with what other industries might call “customer abuse.”

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Addicted to Noise

Almost 50 years ago a friend and I managed to squirrel our way on to the lineup of local performers who played the stage at the Dallas folk music club, The Rubaiyat. Until a few years ago, I could remember the name of the “group” we played as. “Jug Band” was in the name somewhere and some word like “undefined” or “random” was also in the name because there were several of us who played together but you never knew how many there would be outside of the two of us, Ed and I, who were the core. It might be a duet or it might be a 17-piece collection of assorted “percussionists” banging on everything from bongos to forks and spoons with banjos, a stand-up bass, and assorted guitars tossed in for volume and texture. Our high point was intro’ing one of the period’s famous “Toms” or “Tims”: Tom Paxton, Tim Buckley, Tom Rush, Tom Glazer, Tim Morgan, etc. You’d think I’d remember, but I was mostly into soul music at the time and playing on stage, with nothing between me and what felt like a hostile world but an acoustic guitar, scared the shit out of me. Usually, when I left the stage I just kept going until I was out the door and sucking in large quantities of fresh urban Texas air until I could relax a little. All I remember about the headline is when we walked past him on the way off of the “stage,” he said, “You guys know what it’s supposed to sound like.” I have never known if that was a compliment or a mild cut our outright sarcasm.

I’m sure I don’t accurately remember how many people could cram into the Rubaiyat, but it was more than a handful and likely close to 50 or 75. Some people called the place a “coffee shop,” but I don’t remember coffee at all. I didn’t drink the stuff until I was in my 40’s and, like golf and Harley Davidsons, I considered coffee to be something “old people” did. I think you could buy beer at the club, but I didn’t drink beer back then, either.

What I do remember about the Rubaiyat was that we didn’t mess with microphones or a speaker system in the club. You just sat down in front of the room and played. People were quiet if they liked and not as quiet if you bored them. It wasn’t a hostile room to play, but it wasn’t mindlessly supportive, either.

Today, every fool with an acoustic guitar, banjo, autoharp, ukulele, or poem to recite feels the need to pull a microphone closer as some sort of defense against being so pointless that people refuse to listen. I think “sound reinforcement systems” are the performers’ equivalent to the “everyone gets a trophy” education/competition philosophy. You’ll never know if you suck if you are so overwhelmingly loud that you can pretend people are playing attention to your message simply because they can’t yell loud enough to overcome your noise output. That may be a lot of things, but two things it isn’t would be “music” and “art.”

I’d bet if you asked 100 random people how often they have left a club, restaurant, or park because the sound system was painfully loud and the “talent” was missing, you’d discover that close to 100 people would admit to being sound system critics. I realize I’m grumpier about this bullshit than most people, since I openly advocate smacking live sound fruitcakes whenever possible. However, I think sound reinforcement systems are responsible for driving more people way from music venues than they could possibly attract.

Here are some rules I’d apply to when you need a sound system:

  • · Your facility holds more than 100 people and you serve food. If the food/bar service can’t be quiet enough to allow the audience to hear the music, you have justification for a small, high fidelity sound system.
  • Many of the artists in your venue bring pre-recorded accompaniment to enhance their performance: rap, spoken word, etc. You don’t need big power, since you are still a small venue, but you will need to be able to accomodate 1/8”/3.5mm TRS, 1/4” TRS,  XLR, and even phono connectors to get their gear into yours. Again, you are a small venue and you don’t need to pulverize your victims’ hearing. Getting the background up to the acoustic output of the voice is enough. Almost any stereo system can pull this off.
  • You venue holds 100+ customers and many of them will be dancing.
  • Outside of those three categories, your need for a sound system is purely psychological. If Tim/Tom didn’t need reinforcement at the Rubaiyat, you don’t either. I know our jug band didn’t need or deserve any additional volume and we were probably better than you or your group. After all, we intro’d Tim/Tom somebody semi-famous in a now-legendary coffee house back in the days when men were men, music stars played tiny clubs for $100, and small furry animals from Alpha Centuri were small furry animals from Alpha Centuri.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

A Prince of a Guy

There is a thing that happens when someone famous dies where all of the weirdness, bad behavior, and even criminal behavior vanishes from the discussion and we all pretend to feel bad that famous character died. Even weirder, people who disliked, hated, or even wanted to imprison or hang the famous dude now sing his praises. When” Nixon died, probably the most hated man in the United States during the second half of the 20th Century, people who once would have shot the man down on sight praised his “leadership.” When Prince died, the world of “crazy Prince” stories turned into “super humanitarian who was the nicest guy you ever met” stories. Weirder, people I know who had told me tons of the crazy Prince stories practically rewrote their own personal history to make him saintly. I suspect this is something I should have learned as a child, but the only traditions my parents tried to pass on to me were religious and none of that took. Thanks to that flaw in my upbringing, I tend to see people the same after they die as before.

One of the first crazy Prince stories I ever heard came from a live sound guy who was working in marketing with Midas (when Midas belonged to Bosch Communications Systems in Minnesota). Many of the Bosch folks were in some way connected to Prince’s Minnesota facilities or his touring history. This guy was Prince’s tour manger for  few years and was pretty close to the purple guy for a while.

During one of Prince’s European tours, he became infatuated with Holland’s windmills and bought one to be delivered and setup at his Chanhassen home. That happened and for a few moments he was happy with his new purchase. Sometime after the installation, Prince called his tour manager and bitched, “It’s pointing the wrong way.”

“It points the way the wind blows, Prince.” Was the only logical reply.

“We’ll see about that,” said Prince. A few days later, he had the windmill torn down and discarded.

prince-s-no-1-fan-kevin-smith-is-crying-purple-tears-over-prince-s-passing-946385My first personal moment with Prince was the night a friend had invited me to the grand opening of the club where he worked in Minneapolis. He had designed the new sound system for the club and I had consulted with him on some of the technical aspects. Along with getting paid, I got tickets for the grand opening and invited  couple of friends along with my wife. The club had a balcony and we picked out a table in the middle next to the parapet. It was a nice location, but we were the only people in the balcony so there were a lot of tables available with equally good views of the stage.

We ordered drinks and appetizers and were engage in the usual pre-rock show converstions when a guy the size of a buss showed up and said “Prince wants to sit here.”

I said, “There’s lots of room up here, why our table?”

“Prince wants to sit here.”

I was about to blow him off when my friend appeared and explained that Prince wanted the entire balcony to himself and that we’d have to move. By then, the main floor was over-crowded because the usual morons who chase around Minneapolis following Prince had shown up. So, there was no place for us to sit that would give us much of the new sound system experience or any kind of sight line to the stage. We left.

It was several years later before I saw my friend again and he was still embarrassed about the Prince debacle. He was equally baffled that I didn’t know Prince was a big deal in Minneapolis (or anywhere).

For years, a couple of my geek friends did most of the studio maintenance for Paisley Park. Prince would go through phases where he would sour on his techs (mostly when they insisted on getting paid) and his studio manager would shop for a new tech.

During one of those moments, I took the call to service the studio’s SSL patchbay problems. I had to do a little parts chasing and one of the studio employees showed me a room full of “condemned” equipment where I could salvage a couple of connectors for my repair job. When I asked why all of that stuff was crammed into the room, he told me that when a piece of equipment baffled or irritated Prince, he had it banished to this room. I said something about that being “pretty idiotic” and went on with my work. While I was there, I ended up doing a couple of other small repairs and between the travel time and work the bill ended up being about twice the retainer I’d insisted on (because I knew that Paisley often didn’t pay its bills).  Of course, Paisley Park still owes me about $500 for that repair visit. In the Kevin Smith video at the top of this essay, Kevin mentions that Prince had every room in the facility mic’d and after hearing that I’ve wondered if my slight cost me getting the invoice paid?

Over the next decade or so, I’d get a call or an email from the Paisley studio manager of the moment asking if I could stand-in for the regular tech until Prince got over whatever mood he was in at the moment. I’d remind them that Paisley still owed me money and they’d go away. The last time Paisley rattled my cage was a few months after I retired and had sold almost all of my test equipment. Again, Prince was pissed at his regular tech and nobody else would take a chance on getting paid for doing the work. The email said, “Are you really retired or would you come look at our SSL?”

I wrote back, “I’m retired and you still owe me money. So, yes and no.”

To double-check my retired status, the studio manager called some of my friends from the music school where I worked and asked them to use their influence to get me to do the Paisley job. The only one who gave it any sort of shot emailed me and asked, “Still retired.”

I wrote him, “Yep.”

He replied, “Thought so.”

A couple of months later, we were having a beer and he filled me in on why that conversation had taken place.

It was pretty well known that nobody was ever supposed to “look at” Prince or talk to him. I never had the opportunity to break that rule, but I probably would have just to see the reaction.

One of the moments that many people use to justify their reverence for Prince was his solo at the R&R Hall of Fame (“the greatest solo ever”). For sure, that was a pretty good performance. It wasn’t even in the top ten rock solos from my personal experience, but he certainly acted like he thought he was showing up the stage. The bit where he tosses his guitar into a roadie’s hands and struts off like he “showed ‘em” pretty much confirmed all of my biases about Prince. It just looked like an act of disrespect to me.

The other credential his fans give for his Princelyness was when Clapton was asked what it felt like to be the greatest guitarist in the world and he replied, “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask Prince?”

There are a couple of ways to take that and my take would be that Clapton was saying the only guy arrogant enough to believe he was the greatest guitarist in the world would be Prince.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

REVIEW: UltraLite-mk3 Hybrid


I ended up with this device as my primary recording interface purely by accident. For several years, I used a combination of a MOTU 828 MKII and a Focusrite OctoPre MKII as my 18 channel location recording rig. While that mostly worked, MOTU’s software/driver was regularly glitchy and it became one of the many reasons I rarely “updated” my Mac’s software. When I retired and downsized my possessions and hobbies, the mobile rig went pretty early in the garage sale.

I had a couple cheap two channel USB interfaces and sort of assumed that would more than do the job for whatever I’d be doing in the future. A friend, Scott Jarrett, bought an UltraLite when it first came out and suffered with it for a few  months before he decided it was unusable. When I came upon a great deal on my MK3 version, I figured I’d buy it, play with it until it pissed me off, and sell it for a profit. Four years later, I still have it. While MOTU has a talent for making interfaces overly complicated, the MK3 mostly works as expected.

MOTU Specs the unit with:

Feature summary

  • Hybrid FireWire/USB2 connectivity — connect to your computer via either bus-powered FireWire or hi-speed USB2.
  • 10 inputs / 14 outputs — there's no channel sharing in the UltraLite-mk3 Hybrid; the mic inputs, S/PDIF I/O, headphone out and main outs are all handled as separate channels.
  • Classic Reverb™ — provides five different room types, three frequency shelves with adjustable crossover points, shelf filtering and reverb lengths up to 60 seconds.
  • Two forms of compression — a standard compressor with conventional threshold/ratio/attack/release/gain controls and the Leveler™, an accurate model of the legendary LA-2A optical compressor, which provides vintage, musical automatic gain control.
  • Modeled EQ — provides 7-band parametric EQ modeled after British analog console EQs, featuring 4 filter styles (gain/Q profiles) to effectively cover a wide range of audio material. LP and HP filters are also supplied with slopes that range from 6 to 36 dB.
  • Front-panel control — access any setting in your entire UltraLite-mk3 Hybrid mix directly from the front panel.
  • "Reverb return" stream — allows users to record or mix UltraLite-mk3 Hybrid reverb output separately in their DAW. Effects can also be applied when the UltraLite-mk3 Hybrid is operating stand-alone (without a computer) as a complete stand-alone mixer.
  • Stand-alone operation — program your mixes at the studio and then bring the UltraLite-mk3 Hybrid to your gig — no computer needed. Just plug in the included power adapter and you are ready to go. Need to tweak the mix? Do it on site using the back-lit LCD and front-panel controls.
  • Multiple CueMix FX mixes — for example, create different monitor mixes for the main outs and headphones. Or add send/return loops for outboard gear — with no latency.
  • Two combo jacks provide hi-Z 1/4” guitar input or low-Z XLR mic input with phantom power, pad and plenty of gain.
  • Eight 24-bit 192kHz analog inputs and outputs on balanced/unbalanced 1/4" TRS jacks
  • Precision Digital Trim™ — Digitally controlled analog trim on all analog inputs (mic/guitar inputs + quarter-inch TRS inputs) provides accurate adjustements in 1 dB increments. Fine-tune the balance of your analog inputs and then save/recall trim configurations.
  • Direct Digital Synthesis™ (DDS) — a DSP-driven phase lock engine and internal clock source that produces imperceptibly low jitter characteristics (below the noise floor), even when the UltraLite-mk3 Hybrid is resolved to an external clock source via SMPTE time code.
  • Time code support — directly resolves to (or generates) time code via any quarter-inch input or output, without the need for an extra synchronizer.
  • Sample-accurate MIDI — connect a MIDI controller and/or sound module with no separate interface needed. MIDI I/O is sample-accurate with supporting software.
  • Expandable — add additional interfaces for more I/O as your needs grow.
  • Separate TRS main outs with front panel volume control.
  • Stereo 24-bit 96kHz S/PDIF in/out.
  • DC-coupled TRS outputs — can be used with Volta™ (sold separately) to manipulate and sequence voltage-controlled modular synthesizers from a host DAW.
  • Includes native 32- and 64-bit drivers for Mac OS X and Windows 10/8/7/Vista/XP, including ASIO, WDM, Wave, Core Audio, and Core MIDI. Supports all popular Mac and Windows audio software.
  • Front panel volume control for monitoring. Stereo, Quad, 6.1, 7.1 and user-defined surround monitoring setups available.
  • Front panel headphone jack with volume control.
  • Bus-powered FireWire operation. No need for external power when operating as a FireWire interface connected to a computer. A power supply is included for stand-alone operation.
  • Chassis dimensions, excluding rack ears and front and back panel knobs and connectors: 9.5 × 7 × 1.75 inches (24.13 × 17.78 × 4.45 cm). Knobs and connectors extend up to 0.5 inch (1.27 cm) from front and back panels, adding 1 inch (2.54 cm) to depth. With rack ears attached, fits one half of a standard 19 inch (48.26 cm) rack at 1U high.

MOTU makes some other specs-claims that I’d have to dispute. The worst of which is “Plug-and-play operation with your Mac or PC via FireWire or USB2.” I’m pretty sure MOTU does not know what “plug-and-play” means. In using any MOTU product, you will have to wrestle with their obscure and user-hostile drivers and software. Like another company I despise, DiGiCo, you can not obtain MOTU drivers without logging into their website and registering a product. As opposed to actual plug-and-play products, absolutely nothing useful happens when you plug in a MOTU product without pre-installing drivers.

MOTU follows that delusion with “Includes AudioDesk full-featured sample-accurate workstation software for the Mac and Windows with recording, editing, mixing, real-time 32-bit effects processing & sample-accurate sync.” On both my Mac and Windows machines, AudioDesk 2 was a total loser, failing to even function on Windows 7 and it was such a glitch monster on my Mac that I deleted it immediately.

mix_largeCueMix FX™, the MOTU proclaimed “flexible 10 input/14 bus mixer with on-board DSP effects, including reverb with sends/returns, plus EQ and compression on every input and output” is a pain in the ass. It has some useful features, like “full-screen real-time FFT display, spectrogram ‘waterfall’ display, oscilloscope, X-Y plot and linear or polar phase analysis,” but you will curse its existence often on the way to obtaining any of those features. CueMix is not really a feature, but an obstacle you just have to learn to live with if you use MOTU products.

Getting Pro Tools or Logic to “see” the features of CueMix is a trick. Once I found a setup that worked, I saved it and haven’t experimented much with it since.

Considering how powerful and flexible the UltraLite is, the fact that it can be powered with a Firewire A port (400Mb/s) is a nice thing. Unfortunately, unless you’re sporting a historic Mac/PC (like me), that won’t do you much good. The IEEE 1394 a spec allowed for about 5W of power on the 6-wire buss and 25-30VDC unregulated. USB2 has plenty of power, but the voltage is too low for most applications including the UltraLite.

The two mic pres are reasonably quiet and provide the usual 60dB of gain. The input connectors are XLR/TRS for balanced or unbalanced operation of microphones or instruments. Gain is 1dB/step continuously-variable analog/digital front-panel controls. The knobs are small and a little hard to find in low lighting. The knobs are also the push-button switches for selecting 48VDC phantom power and a 15dB pad. All 8 of the analog inputs, including the two mic pres, can be controlled remotely through my old CueMix buddy. That is, actually, a nice feature especially during a remote recording session.

Mostly, I’m pretty happy with my MOTU unit. Especially for the insane price I lucked into.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Motion City Soundtrack Notes (cont)

The school’s administration, apparently, didn’t get along all that well with the Motion City guys. The marketing contact more or less said, “they’re a bunch of assholes” after she’d dumped them in the student lounge that doubled as our artist dressing room. A couple other admin types made similar comments during our setup.

A couple of hours before showtime, I still didn’t know what the instrumentation will be or have a stage plot. The school’s live guy was more clueless than me. Information was doing the opposite of what is often called “flowing.” I lucked out, two of my students showed up for the setup; one for the duration and the other just for the setup before he had to go to work. While the kid who’d be there for the duration helped me run the snake and setup the recording equipment, I sent the other guy into to ask the band about their instrumentation. He was gone a really long time and I began to worry about him, based on the comments we’d heard from administration. When he finally made it back, he was drunk and had completely forgotten what I’d asked him to do. The band had generously shared their reception buffett, which was mostly beer. Summit Amber Ale, I think.

Not only was that kid pretty useless to me for the rest of the setup, but he was sort of screwed for work later that night. So, I sent in the next victim with instructions to stay the hell away from the beer supply. He came back pretty quickly with a stage plot and we got to work trying to optimize our 18 channels max on a five piece band with at least four vocals. We put up a minimal three-mic drum rig, DI’d the bass, keyboards, and mic’d the guitars and the bass amp. In the end, we had one open channel for a room mic. In the past, the audience mostly sat behind the FOH area in the cafe’s seating area. That was true, even for POS and Doomtree. So, it seemed like a fair bet that we’d get whatever audience participation there would be from that conservative location with a little isolation from the stage output.

The band came out for very brief sound check, looked at the setup and went with it. They had a couple of requests that required some grouping of the synth sounds to allow coverage for an additional stage amp. Otherwise, we were good to go and I, finally, took a breath, grabbed a bottle of water, and sat back to watch the crowd come in.

The crowd was unexpected. Most of the school’s students blew off the show, but Motion City’s fans were there in spades. In a few minutes, all of the seating was filled and a pretty decent sized group milled around the stage. The school president appeared and announced the band. Justin Pierre took the mic and said, “We’re not playing until you rush the stage.” Pretty much the whole crowd got up and packed the area between the FOH setup and the stage. No only could I barely see the stage, making getting levels sorted out for the usual changes in performance levels difficult, but it was pretty obvious that my audience-response mic was really positioned badly. A few minutes into the first song, it was also obvious that the audience really knew the band and their songs. So much so that Justin stopped singing often and let the audience fill in the spaces. And my one lonely, poorly-placed room mic barely snagged any of it.

In all, it was a great show and I became a big fan of Motion City Soundtrack, now owning four of their CDs. After the show Justin Pierre and Joshua Cain made a trip back to our area to thank us for doing the show. Good guys and good times.The video, below, was a mix from what we delivered to the Current's Local Show and it is absolutely representative of how great this band is.

Monday, March 7, 2016

How Quality Feedback Really Works

A while back, I was arguing with one of my MNSCU instructors about why he needed to get over his fear of lead-free solder and move his instruction program into this century. During this “discussion,” mentioned that the electrical assembly portion of almost every electric guitar I’ve ever disassembled has been an embarrassment. From the major factories to the boutique builders, the soldering, component placement and security, and wiring have been . . . sad. Likewise, many of the guitars (and other audio products) I’ve repaired in my career have failed because of soldering defects. His response was, “Don’t you think one of my long term customers would have complained if my soldering failed?”

My short answer was, “No.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about this discussion, but it keeps coming back to haunt me. There is an old 5/5/5 restaurant rule that says something like “It takes $5 in advertising to get a new customer to try a business, 5 seconds of poor service to drive them away, and $5,000 in advertising to get them back again.” It’s a fact. I may be the Geezer with A Grudge, but I’m not the only person on the planet with a long memory or who would rather just move along than wrestle with convincing a company that I’d experienced poor service or had an unsatisfactory experience with their products.
A couple of days after our discussion, I remembered my last relationship with a luthier, back in the late 1970’s in Lincoln, Nebraska. For almost a decade, I’d fallen into the habit of buying guitars and, if I planned on keeping the instrument for any time, I hauled it to Lincoln and had my luthier setup the guitar at $150-250 per instrument. That seems like a lot for the time, but I was buying guitars idiotically cheaply from stoners and starving artists and had the margin to spare with most of my purchases.

Sometime in the early 80’s I brought in an old Gibson Explorer that clearly needed fretwork and a trussrod adjustment. The luthier had a couple of new employees, but I assumed that since I was an old customer my instrument would be serviced by the owner. I was wrong and the setup was awful. I lived about 75 miles from Lincoln and, while my studio was in Lincoln and I was in town for 2-3 days every weekend, I bought a book and made the corrections to the setup myself. Not only did I not complain to the store owner, I never brought in another instrument again and when my own customers asked where I’d have guitar work done I sent them to a shop in Omaha. I didn’t really know the shop in Omaha all that well, but I felt like I knew the Lincoln shop too well.

So, again my answer is “no.” I do not think the average customer, long-term or not, will bother to complain about lousy service. They’ll just move on unless you have set up some really clever system to almost require them to let you know how they felt about your product or service.

In my dotage, I’m taking a “guitar repair and construction” course at my local community college; mostly for access to the school’s incredible wood shop tools. After a couple of semesters, I began to wonder why none of the classes ended with the usual student course/instructor evaluations. Since the dropout rate in my class has been extraordinary, you’d think someone might care about student retention. After a little inquiry into the school’s policies I received the following response from administration, “According to policies set forth by both the State of Minnesota and MnSCU the tenured faculty are only required to assess their class once per year - and they can do so in whatever format they choose. Probationary instructors need to assess much more frequently. I should mention that we are in full compliance with the policies, so I'm not sure what you're looking to do with this.”

All I can say to that response is "Wow!" No wonder my experience with MNSCU's programs (from the UofM to Inver Hills to Southeast Tech) has been so marginal. It sounds like a system totally driven by teacher union contracts and management disregard with no system for maintaining quality-of-program or delivery performance considerations. There is no such thing as a feedback-free system that provides any sort of quality control.

Now I really feel like I'm officially in the Midwest, the home of the most mediocre educational experiences I suffered in my 30+ years as a student. It does explain the proliferation of for-profit schools here, though. Apparently, the solution is for the student senate to recommend RateMyProfessors.com and give up on the school administration doing any sort of job.

Friday, March 4, 2016

A Dime A Dozen

One of the many things I learned working as an instructor at a music college was that talent, creativity, originality, stage presence, and “the right look” are not rare things. In my first couple of years at the school, I recorded original music from students and musicians from the Minneapolis/St. Paul community that blew me away. I recorded songs that I couldn’t believe the world didn’t want and need to hear. As my time there went on, that became such an expected and regular event that it was the background for my existence for 13 years. All the while, the stuff I heard on the radio and internet paled in comparison; or worse, often much worse.

Now that I’m retired and fooling around learning how to build and repair guitars it’s interesting to look back on my teaching and recording experience from the position of being in a classroom full of kids who are taking on a semi-practical trade while still hoping to be the “next big thing.” Most of these kids are pretty good musicians. Some of them are decent songwriters. The fact is that I’ve seen much, much better and all that talent went pretty much nowhere. Saying that, I don’t mean to discourage them. Their chance of making it big as a musician is almost exactly the same as it was for the music students who I thought had it all going for them: practically nill.

Luck and connections are more important than talent. It doesn’t hurt to have a few family members in the business, too. This is true for all areas of the arts. The world is full of amazing musicians, painters, sculptors, singers and dancers, funny people and dramatic actors, glass blowers, story tellers and poets, wood carvers and cabinetmakers, and people who make beautiful things and moments from nearly nothing. Some of those people make small or large fortunes from their “talent” and many of the most wealthy are nearly talentless (Yeah, I’m talking about you Kayne.) At the other end of the spectrum, there are incredibly talented people who, outside of friends and family, no one every hears about.

Like Mike Lewis told the 2012 Princeton graduation class talent only takes you so far. Luck is one hell of a lot more important a contributor to success and if you aren’t successful it could be because you weren’t lucky. If you were, it might not be due to anything about you.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Getting My Geek Vitamins

I’m obviously vitamin-starved. At the last Fair Trade Book Store open mic, I blew off my usual mediocre acoustic guitar piece and brought my MacBook Pro to demonstrate a vintage musical piece to the small group of musicians and musical kids. My wife warned me to “keep it short,” so I wouldn’t bore anyone (meaning her). I did my best to make it brief, but mostly what I pointed out to myself was how much I miss having a few friends to talk about recording, recording technology, and music.

For a few years, working at Musictech (then McNally Smith College of Music) was a full emersion geek-out experience. Every day, I was close to instructors and students who not only loved music but who were fascinated with the physics, electronics, acoustics, and psycho-acoustics that is core to the production of modern music in any of its forms. The geek factor slowly vanished from the school as many of the tech-intensive instructors left and were replaced by people whose claim to fame was Pro Tools expertise. I guess there is a geekiness associated with being really good with function and quick-keys, but it’s not something I care much about. You can polish turds until they shine, but they are still just little bits of crap. Without some knowledge of how the physical equipment works (microphones, preamps and signal chain, acoustics, signal processing, and human hearing), knowing how to cut up performances into well-aligned bits just isn’t very interesting.

So I retired and moved from the Twin Cities to Red Wing, where we made new friends, found more things to do than we have time to do them, and picked up some new hobbies (like guitar building and cabinet-making). It turns out that I miss some of what I lost.

25 years ago, I quit my last full-time music industry job and found work in medical devices. Admittedly, too much of my motivation was money. Eventually, it turned into lots of money. While the money was good, one of the first things I noticed about the people I worked with was “this is not my culture.” While there were a few outdoor recreation types in Engineering, most everyone in medical devices and medicine was focused on making money, getting promotions, and acquiring stuff. I could easily go for months without hearing anyone hum atonally to themselves, let alone sing or play a musical instrument. I felt a little like a Stranger in A Strange Land. Or a lot.

I guess I have to do something about that. It turns out that not working with musicians and technical people is more of a deprivation than I expected. Go figure.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Meeting Genius

goldenbear-aOne of the things I looked forward to when I moved to California was getting to hear the Crusaders play, since they rarely toured by the early 80’s. We moved to Huntington Beach, a few blocks from the Golden Bear where I was privledged to see my favorite group so often that it became a regular expectation. When we moved to Red Wing, MN I had slightly lower expectations, but one of them was that I hoped to see Leo Kottke sheldonin the Sheldon Theater. Friends and neighbors from our old home in Little Canada had told us that hearing Leo in this small, acoustically excellent theater was one of the most amazing musical things they’d ever experienced. I’ve been a fan of Mr. Kottke’s music for forty years and a friend of mine, Scott Rivard, was the engineer for Leo’s first record (A 1976 release titled “Leo Kottke.), so this seemed like a fairly reasonable expectation. Little did I know that Leo had an unpleasant experience at the Sheldon a few years back and had made it clear he wasn’t coming back again. Lucky for me, the present Production Manager for the Sheldon, Russell Johnson, had cleared up that muck and restored Leo’s confidence in the theater.

Back in September of 2015, when I saw the Leo Kottke concert on the Sheldon’s 2016 lineup I signed up to be part of the “crew” for this show. The crew was me, Russell, and one of the part time Sheldon employees, plus Leo’s son-in-law.

When Mr. Kottke and his son-in-law, Dennis, arrived, I directed them to the stage and Russell introduced me. We had a mutual aquaintance, Scott Rivard, whose work we both admired. Scott engineered Leo’s first record and I worked with Scott at McNally Smith College of Music and knew him a bit from earlier encounters when he was with Minnesota Public Radio and Garrison Keilor’s programs. Leo had some very generous and insightful thoughts about his experience working with Scott. Seemed like a good start.

Russell had warned me that Leo liked to experiment during his sound check. Russell had setup the Sheldon’s pair of Earthworks condensers, but expected we might not get to use them. On cue the experiments began with a new toy Leo had acquired, a Grace “Felix Instrument & Microphone Preamplifier/Blender.” He was hoping to use the Grace pream to combine his guitar’s piezo and magnetic pickups into something resembling a guitar sound. He fooled with that device for about 45 minutes, obtaining a tolerable electric pickup sound and the volume he wanted in the room. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great. He switched to his standby Countryman DI for the 12-string and decided to stick with that, with the Grace on the 6-string. In a few minutes, he decided all of the time he’d put into the Grace’s setup had been a pointless exercise. So, the plan was to use the Countryman DI on both guitars. Russell asked if Leo wanted me to strike the microphones. Leo said, “No, I’d still like to hear them.” He put away some of his gear and packed his guitars to the chair in the middle of the stage.

I removed the line for the Grace pre and positioned one of the Sheldon’s SR30 Earthworks where I thought it would best replicate the sound I heard Leo going for with his preamplifier. He said, “That’s where I always put the mic.” He asked Russell to kill the pickup (through his Countryman DI) so he could hear the mic alone. We had two out, but one was positioned more for his voice than as a guitar mic, so Russell just brought up the mic I’d just setup. Leo played for a few minutes and said, “I don’t know why I mess with pickups. What do you think?” Everyone agreed that he sounded amazing through the mic only. Leo and Russell experimented a bit with a blend of his magnetic pickup and the microphone which didn’t do significant harm to the tone. After a bit, he said, “What do you think, Tom?”

“The more mic, the better. Nothing beats a great microphone on an acoustic guitar.”

Leo started another song, while I was back at the console with Russell trying to figure out where DiGiCo hid the phase switch on the virtual channel modules. The mic was too close and Leo was used to choking up on the mic for the usual gain-before-feedback (plus damn-sound-quality-I-want-it-loud) reasons. Russell asked me to reposition the mic to avoid some of the plosive and sibalance sounds. I pulled the mic back about a foot from Leo’s mouth and dropped it till it was a few inches above the top of his guitar, slanted toward his face and off axis of the guitar. He looked at me as if I were more than slightly crazy.

I said, “Without a stage monitor and at this system volume, feedback won’t be a problem. I think you’ll be more comfortable and I know you’ll sound great. If you don’t like it, I’ll get a vocal mic and we can go close.”

He started the song again and liked it a lot. Again, he asked what everyone else though. We all agreed that he sounded incredible and that the system was dialed in.

During the show, rarely, Leo habitually leaned in toward the mic and was rewarded with a small plosive burst. He started turning that into part of his routine and got a some laughs out of it. However, he worked that mic pair like the studio professional he is and turned in an incredible show.

Not only did I get to accomplish one of the goals I’d set for moving to Red Wing, but I got to know (a little) one of the artists I’ve admired for four decades. It was one of the most rewarding and musical evenings I’ve enjoyed in my 50+ years in music. Leo Kottke’s willingness to experiment coupled with his over-riding goal of producing the best sounding show possible was inspiring.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Music as Art (or bullshit)?

shkreliThe internet news has had a good time with “Asshole of the Year” Martin Shkreli’s greed and corruption, but one small aspect of the multi-millionare’s story seems to have barely dented the group consciousness. Shkreli paid $2M for a one-off Wu-Tang Clan album, just for the bragging rights. Many of us have heard that, but until the recent edition of Pro Sound News I hadn’t heard much about the Wu-Tang Clan side of the story.

First, here’s what Shkreli got for his money:

  • Wu-Tang-2“An engraved silver-and nickel box and a 174-page manuscript containing lyrics, credits and anecdotes, printed on gilded parchment and encased in leather by a master book binder.”
  • A pair of customized PMC MB2-XBD studio monitors (list price $85,500).
  • A guarantee that “there are no other physical or digital duplicates in existence.”
  • A requirement that they buyer “may not release any of the content for a period of 88 years.” Here’s the bullshit part (outside of all things SHkreli): On their best day, the self-promoters also known as the Wu-Tang Clan are not known for any particular audio fidelity concerns. Their “music” (see sample below) is pretty much the usual hip-hop culprits of sampled instruments, sampled voices, cheezy repetitive beats, what passes for spoken word “poetry” in this sad age, and indiscriminate distortion mostly due to noise-induced hearing loss since the primary requirement from speakers from Wu-Tang’s producer, Tarik Azzougarh, is “I like my music super-duper loud.”

    At the self-delusional side of this transaction is Azzougarth’s claim that this whole marketing scam was an attempt to “bring value back to music.” (Choke. Sorry. I threw up a bit.) “We wanted to do something that was radical and the complete opposite of everything the music industry stands for,” said Azzougarth from his palace in Morocco.  Music, he said, “Feels like it’s something you play in the background while checking your Twitter feed and updating your Facebook status.”

    He fixed that, for sure. Shkreli had an intern pick up the “album” and other bullshit included in the $2M purchase and, supposedly, he hasn’t listened to any of it yet. He’s bragged about it, but since it’s not really music, original, interesting, or even worth showing off to his prison buddies he hasn’t listened to it.

    Way to go Wu-Tang Clan and Azzougarh! You’ve not only taken kid’s music to the heights of fine art (stored in a 1%’er’s closet where no one will ever have to suffer hearing or seeing it) you’ve saved the rest of us from having to listen to your godawful bullshit in bank elevators, on what passes for speakers on some saggy-pants kid’s cell phone or the bleed from his earbuds, or as the warm-up music pre-concert anywhere ever. Your “world-record breaking art project” has assumed a place slightly below every kid’s favorite display format; mom’s refrigerator. Your little piece of drivel is well-hidden in the asshole-of-the-year’s walk-in closet. Better yet, the FTC might end up owning all of Shkreli’s crap and, when that happens, they might just toss the whole mess into a dumpster.

    Monday, January 4, 2016

    Acoustic Resources–Room Modes

    I hesitate to include the original Room Modes calculator in this series, since it absolutely requires Visual Basic to work properly. Since it works incredibly well and, supposedly, VB was cobbled back into Office 2010, I’ve added it to the list of my old MSCM class reference materials and tools.

    For you less-technical Mac users and non-VB Windows-based Office suckers, I’ve linked the more remedial Linkwitz Lab MacRoomModes calculator. It works, but no nearly so easily, since you have to resort the data manually to get the sequences right after entering new room dimensions.

    More computer OS-independent is the JBL/Infinity Harmon Room Mode Calculator. I have no idea where I found this and it seems to be missing in action on the current JBL website. The thing to keep in mind with this tool is that the first tab, “WAVES,” is where the room dimensions must be entered. The 2nd page’s fields are protected.

    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.