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.

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.