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: "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.

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.