Saturday, November 11, 2017

Musicians and Hobbyists

After a musical episode this past week, I once again got to thinking about the many musical differences between live music and recording studio work. I’ve written before about the concept of “serving the music” being too often the polar opposite of the intent of live music. I don’t often subject myself to a lot of hobby pop musicians and their weirdness and insecurities, but it happened twice this past week and I’m still stepping back from the experience; partially out of disappointment and partially to save my hearing.

It’s not a youth-oriented thing, either. A few weeks ago, I volunteered to be part of a setup band for a local open mic. We formed a temporary group of three: keys/guitar, bass, and drums with about 30 years of space between the oldest (me) and youngest member of the group. We rehearsed twice in the drummer’s living room. We didn’t bother with microphones and we, me and the keys/guitarist, calibrated our volume to the drummer’s acoustic output and we heard each other fine and I enjoyed every moment of practice with that group. Let’s call the keys/guitarist “Travis,” mostly because that’s his name. Travis has a strong voice, but he’s no screamer. I’m usually pretty quiet, vocally. There was absolutely no moment in 4-5 hours of playing together that made me wish for a PA system in that living room. For a few hours, I almost felt like a musician and sort of wished for a performance venue where we could play just like this.

bass_commandmentsIn contrast, this week in the same space there were four of us: all old guys. Guitar, harp, bass, and drums grouped around the drum kit in maybe 120 square feet of fairly live space. Before the guitarist fired up his trendy, over-priced, “hand-wired” boutique faux-Fender Deluxe, the harmonica player and drummer warmed up a bit and I had a brief moment of imagining “déjà vu all over again.”

As soon as the guitarist plugged in, that wet dream dried out fast. Like so many hobby guitarists, his “sound” required far too much output for the room. Obviously, the usual Fender-copy tube topology produces a fairly boring sound at anything less than ear-shattering volume, so ear-shattering it was. I needed a lot longer cord for my bass, or a wireless system that would let me pull back 50’ or so. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the loud guitarist was also rhythm-deprived. Unhappily, the drummer tried hard to “follow” the guitar, since the guitar wasn’t following anything tempo-related and that makes for a miserable experience for me, the bass player. Topping it all off was an evening of Beatles and Grateful Dead nostalgia.

After almost 55 years of being around musicians, you’d think I’d have grown either more tolerant, or at least less disgusted, when the point of playing instruments is not to make music together. You can’t imagine how much I wish that were true. After all those years, the point of playing with other people, for me, is still to make music. I didn’t pick up a guitar or bass to meet girls, to express my inner teenage rage, to become rich and famous, or to play power games. Unlike Jimmy Page who loved the power of being the guy who could make 50,000 people go deaf with a twitch of his hand, I just wanted to make a poor approximation of the incredible sounds I heard on records from Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Mann, Cannonball Adderley, and the rest of my jazz heroes. By the time I was 18 or so, it was clear to me that I didn’t have the will power to persevere to their level of musicianship, but that didn’t mean I had to sound awful. It still doesn’t.

The difference between what I’ll call “a hobbyist” and “a musician” is that hobbyists don’t care about the sum of the parts in a musical performance. Their only focus is “how do I sound?” I realize that means a lot of “professionals” (a person engaged in a specified activity as one's main paid occupation rather than as a pastime) are glorified hobbyists. During the 70’s, as stage monitors allowed everyone on a stage to become the main act with everyone else playing a supporting part to “me,” pop musicians became less interested in the product of the parts and far too interested in their own contribution. Today, we’re saturated with performances that are contaminated by the acoustic mess the front of house tech is stuck wrestling with from stage monitors far too loud for the venue. This is all about ego, not music. It’s not only not musicial, it’s anti-music. “Playing music” in a group requires listening to the other players. If all you can hear is you, you should at least have the decency to be a solo act. That will also provide you with the real information as to what your audience will be when you have it your way.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Life with A Test Tone

This coming Wednesday,it will be three weeks since I wreaked my hearing (“Fragile Shadetree-Engineered Mess”). Since then, 4 hours is a good night’s sleep. I have to be exhausted to get that. The 8kHz tone that has been the subtext to my life since the mid-1990’s is so far in the background to the new 6.76kHz (Ab, 8 octaves up from middle C) blast I can barely remember the irritation it used to cause me. It’s there, but more as an harmonic than a second sound.

The 6.76kHz tone is always the loudest thing in any environment I experience now. We went to the Cities yesterday. Our pickup is far from a quiet vehicle, but the 6.76kHz tone was louder than the radio playing NPR variety and game shows in the vehicle. I have to work to ignore it in that environment. Ignoring it at 3AM is impossible. Life with a constant and always dominant, very high Ab is not going to be easy or pleasant. It may not be possible. Living on 3-4 sleep is, at best, not recommended.

At three weeks, I’m ready to try anything. I spent a few hours tonight researching clinical trials. By the time the Republicans are finished with Medicare, I suspect my “insurance” won’t cover ear plugs, let alone actual research or clinical trials. I’d done a lot of research for my MSCM acoustics classes on tinnitus. Since my recent noise exposure, I’ve done a lot more. So far, every area of research seems to have come to a deadend. I wish I could convince myself there is either a cure or hope for one in my lifetime, but every thing I find points hopelessly to silly crap like “mindfullness.” The idea that I will never again experience a quiet moment is beyond depressing.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

What Do You Buy?

Earlier this summer, I hauled myself off to a self-funded writing retreat in Thunder Bay, ON, Canada. I gave myself a week to restart old writing habits with the hope of knocking out at least 1,000 words a day and editing 50 pages of any of 3-4 books I’ve had in the works for the last couple of decades. The good news is that those goals were really easily met. The bad news is that I have apparently lost interest in my own words. I came home a couple of days early, slightly discouraged but oddly relieved. After a lifetime of telling myself “you should write books if you want to call yourself a writer,” I am done with that mission.

Part of my disillusionment with the craft and discipline of writing is personal and part is financial. In the last couple of years, I’ve been paring down the things I do to see if there is any passion left in me at 70-years of age. I have been working for money, billing customers and putting in “day job” hours, for 55-plus years. With that motivation removed, it’s hard to remember what I like to do because I’ve spent 90% of my life doing what needed to be done to turn a buck. Even with that background, if I believe that nobody will value my work with a few dollars investment I can’t convince myself the work is worth doing.

Looking at my own unwillingness to part with money for the art I’ve spent much of my life creating—fiction and non-fiction, music, audio electronics—I have to suspect most other consumers feel the same. For example, for 50 years I’ve hauled a fairly substantial library with me from one end of the country to the middle and back, several times. When we moved to Red Wing, 90% of that library was either sold or donated. Practically, the only books I’ve kept have been autographed copies of work that had special meaning to me. A friend owns a used book store and is always trying to convince me to buy something. I just don’t feel the need. My local library has access to anything I want to explore, digitally or on paper, and after I’m done reading a book I’m generally done with it. If I want to read it again, I’ll ask the library to find it for me. My preference is eBooks and I don’t even keep the few eBooks I buy.

IMG_8864[1]The same goes for music. While I have a fairly substantial CD collection, I gave away almost half of what I once owned along with the books. Worse, I almost never listen to the CDs I own, so their position in our home is precarious. I’m mostly happy with Pandora and ripping my CD collection to MP3’s that I listen to while I work in the basement or garage. I’m even happy with that sound source from my ancient SanDisk MP3 player and in-ear monitors when I’m bicycling or walking for exercise. Blasphemy, right? When I want to really explore something new, I order it from my library, listen to it, and give it back. I am totally uninvested in modern music, although I like a lot of it. I just don’t care enough to make it part of my life.

I have never had much of a video collection, but today we might be able to count a dozen movies we still own. Most of those were review copies and a couple are, like our books, signed by the artists involved. Again, I can get all of the movies I want to see through our library.

My wife is a visual artist; a painter and sculptor. We have a house full of her artwork. She is no longer particularly interested in selling her work and while we enjoy the work of many artists, neither of us is interested in acquiring more art for our home. We often prowl art galleries and festivals, but rarely buy anything other than food.

I barely remember the impulse to subsidize artists I respect and enjoy, because the impulse to manage our limited and non-renewable resources rules out that sort of philanthropy. In many ways, “we’ve done enough” comforts us when a twinge of guilt rears its head. So, our lives as consumers of the work that we do ourselves have withered down to the vanishing point. I have to wonder if that is common. If not, why not?

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Fragile Shadetree-Engineered Mess

img1017For much of my life, I’ve said that the human hearing mechanism is evidence that if god is an engineer, he’s one lousy manufacturing engineer. Our ears are one cobbled-together mess of mechanical, hydraulic, electrical, and chemical parts. The two smallest, most delicate bones in our body are the coupling between the outer and inner ear drums. They can be dislodged by the impact of a simple fall at any point in your life. The outer ear drum is plagued with all sorts of infection and perforation opportunities.

Practically all of the information we define as “sound” is made up of complex collections of audio (20Hz to 20kHz, is generally described as the human hearing frequency response) frequencies. There are root, or fundamental, tones and their associated harmonic frequencies; which we often define as “musical signals.” There are noise signals, which often have non-harmonically related frequency content along with more identifiable harmonic content.

6-damaged earThe most delicate of all the components are the cilia, the “hairs,” that line the cochlear. Those tiny hair cells are the devices our hearing uses to convert air waves into specific audio signals to be decoded in our brain. Those tiny sterocilia are the devices required to convert air motion (sound) into electrical signals sent to our brains. Different areas of the cochlea are responsible for different frequency ranges and each of those areas are made up of a collection of rows of cilia which are responsible for very specific frequencies.

cochlearOne of the most typical symptoms of damaged cilia is “tinnitus”: the perception of noise or ringing in the ear. Sometimes, tinnitus means you have done temporary damage, but often it means you have done permanent damage to a specific area of your cochlea. You may have lost the ability to hear the frequencies you are being cursed with “hearing” all of the time. Because those missing or damaged cilia are no longer sending the appropriate auditory nerve signals to your brain and your brain is “cranking up the gain” in an attempt to compensate for the reduced output. In electronic systems, when amplifier gain is increased beyond the point of stability, oscillation occurs: ie. the perception of noise or ringing in the ear.

Unfortunately for us, nothing in nature prepared our hearing mechanism for the abuse we would be subjecting it to in modern life. Outside of landslides, earthquakes, hurricanes and tornados there is nothing in nature as loud as the kind of crap we subject ourselves to every day with vehicles and traffic (loud pipes destroy lives), industrial noise, and modern music from the usual sources: speakers and headphones. The 120dBSPL+ levels we are regularly subjected to is far more than enough to cause permanent damage to practically every fragile area of our hearing mechanism, particularly the cilia.

Twenty years ago, I had reconstructive nasal surgery in an attempt to fix the damage of being my father’s failed student’s punching bag from when I was about 12 until around 17 when I made the decision to make every fight I was forced to participate in into a fight to the death or dismemberment. By then, my nose had been broken so many times, air could not pass through the left side at all and barely squeezed through a convoluted slit in the right side. The surgery was more complicated than the surgeon anticipated and probably needed a second pass. However, about a week after the surgery, a sneeze caused the right side to hemorrhage and I woke up pouring blood from my nose. I went to an emergency room, where a doctor inserted a 4” long piece of stiff absorptive gauze into my nose. Later, my surgeon replaced that with an inflatable device that forced the blood flow into my sinus cavity and nearly burst my ear drum. After a day of intense pain, I deflated the device and decided I’d rather bleed to death than have my hearing destroyed. In the end, I was stuck with an 8kHz ring, tinnitus, in my right ear. Over the years, that noise slowly reduced in volume, but it has been close to intolerable often.

Last night, at a local bar’s open mic, I slipped up and went unprotected, no hearing protection. I sat in the stupidest possible place in that bar, near the FOH speakers, and possibly did permanent damage to my hearing. When I got home, the volume of the tinnitus was the worst I’ve ever experienced in twenty years. I woke up at 4AM the next morning with approximately the same volume of noise. I am desperately hoping that I did temporary damage and it might go away with time. Tinnitus is intolerable for someone who has spent his whole life primarily driven and directed by hearing, sound, and music. I’ve put up with that damn background 8kHz for 20 years. This is not a background noise. It is front-and-center the loudest thing in any room I am in. If you want to know why I am such an opponent of pointless amplification, get into my head for a few hours and you’ll be ready to shoot anyone who fools with a volume control.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Updating the CA Story

Way back in 2014, I bought a used Composite Acoutics Cargo travel guitar. I liked it a lot then and I like it more now. Peavey bought the remnants of CA and that company appears to be purging the memory of the original company as quickly as possible. So, I thought I’d try to compile a little history while it’s still possible:

Pre-Peavey Composite Acoustics Assembly Videos

The Peavey Version

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Use ‘em if You Got ‘em?

I recently did FOH and monitors for a rock band in a small (250 seat), historic, municipal auditorium. It was a four-piece group: two guitars, bass, and drums along with three vocals. I’d never worked that room before, which meant a lot of new things for me to figure out. It would be my first time out with the Behringer X32 digital mixer along with a few other firsts. One of the reasons I took the job was that the director of the facility is a big proponent of low volume shows and there had been some discussions about keeping it small and quiet from past show experiences. The room acoustics weren’t great, but they weren’t terrible either. The auditorium’s equipment was decent and so, it turned out, was the band.

Mostly because the previous house engineer had a show “scene” from the last year’s show, I sort of went with his stage setup. I mic’d both guitar amps and ran a DI from the bass. I setup two overhead mics and a kick mic on the kit, abandoning the previous session’s snare and tom mics. In the end, I used about 16 channels for the 4-piece band. We did a quick sound check, first with the FOH system for me followed by ringing out the monitors. The guitar player at far stage right complained that he couldn’t hear the bass (who was setup far stage left) and I ran up the bass in his monitor to the point it was cancelling the output from the bass player’s amp and overwhelming the FOH bass output. He still couldn’t hear it, so I dialed it back to where it interfered less with the FOH sound. He was the old guy in the group and the loudest amp on stage, so I made the assumption that he was stereotypically R&R deaf. It’s also possible that there was a LF phase-cancellation problem on the stage.

The facility manager complained about the volume during the sound check and I got the bass player and lead guitarist to dial it back a bit. The rhythm guitarist made a show of fake adjusting his amp, but it was obvious that he didn’t intend to comply with the venue’s volume limits. I didn’t bring an SPL meter because I assumed the venue had one, based on the fact that there is a loudness restriction there. I’d guess the show was somewhere between the low and mid-90dBSPL territory.

I started the show with instrument volumes very low to see where the players would go once they got into the performance. Pretty quickly, I pulled the rhythm guitar, bass, and kit out of the mix. I tried to mix the lead guitar signal, up during solos and down the rest of the time, but his signal was mostly so distorted (It was a Neil Young cover band after all.) that my addition to the distortion fog only served to screw up the rest of the mix. That was really demonstrated during a song where he solo’d without his distortion pedals and the guitar lept out of the mix all by itself. That clue’d me into the fact that, if I wanted to hear his solo guitar I needed to band-limit it drastically. I low-passed the lead guitar at about 3kHz and high-passed it at 300Hz, which gave me a signal that I could work with.

mixer faderIn the end, I found myself with faders up on three vocal mics, a DI’d acoustic guitar, and everything else fully attenuated or close to it. I had one moment, about 30 seconds long, where I brought the kit up noticably and I flailed away for most of the first set trying to figure out how to get the lead guitar prominently into the mix. I should have taken a picture of the console: two-to-three faders up and the rest all the way out. All that equipment, all that processing power, and no real need for me to be there for most of the show.

If I’d have just setup up three mics and one DI, I’d have had more sound than the room and audience needed. Even from the monitor standpoint, no one asked for drums in their monitors. The drummer wanted a little lead guitar and bass in his mix. I already talked about the rhythm guitarist’s problems. The end result, from front of house, of the monitor mix was that the bass was constantly overpowering the rest of the band; even though I didn’t put any of the bass in the FOH mix. I nagged the bass player to turn down during the break and he claimed that he didn’t change anything from the sound check. In retrospect, I should have believed him because I was what changed when I tried to make the drummer and rhythm guitarist happy with bass blast in their monitors.

It’s a serious temptation to use ‘em if you got ‘em. You spent all that time and energy setting up mics and running cables for no good reason other than the wild hope that you might actually get to mix a show. In my case, 12 of the 16 lines and mics I’d run were unnecessary. I suspect if I did this on a regular basis, I’d be inclined to give myself more faders to play with just out of boredom. The volume would creep up, the sound quality would disintegrate, but I’d be occupied. It’s something to keep in mind if mixing live sound is going to be your life. You are often unnecessary.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Another Brick Falls Out of the Wall

In late 1991, I left my job at QSC Audio Products and my 9 year career with that company for what turned out to be one of the dumbest career and relocation moves I could have possibly made. My tolerance for high density overpopulation and the Southern California pace had played out. A couple of QSC’s direct competitors had been trying to recruit me for a year or so and one company that was in a slightly different audio market made me an offer I decided not to refuse. That resulted in the shortest period of employment in my 55 year career; 30 days. The manufacturing leg and my office for my new employer were in Elkhart, Indiana and the headquarters were in Chicago. No decisions could be made without several meetings in the Chicago office and most decisions were undermined by the office politics that took place after I had returned to Elkhart. After what seemed like an infinite number of pointless meetings and product and production decision reversals and constantly shrinking mismanagement expectations and commitments, I began to suspect my employment with the company was a mistake. So, I expressed a little of my frustration to the CEO, “I’m surprised a $50M company has so many more financial limitations than a $25M company (my previous employer).”

He said, “What makes you think we’re a $50M company?”

“That’s what you had told me in the cover letter that came with your employment offer.”

“I guess that proves you can’t believe everything you read.”

I thought about that conversation on the way back to Elkhart, collected my test equipment and personal belongings from my office that evening, and wrote a letter of resignation that night. The next day I started shipping resumes to everyone I thought might be interested in my skills and experience, including both of those companies that had been interested before I moved to Indiana.

Within a few days, I had lined up interviews with a Bose design site in Michigan, a medical device company in Denver, Sony in San Diego, Underwriter’s Laboratory in Chicago, Audio Precision in Oregon, and Crown Audio in Elkhart, Indiana. I didn’t leave California with a lot of resources and quitting my new job on such short order meant Unemployment Insurance wasn’t an option, so time was fairly critical. I did phone and in-person interviews with UL, Bose, the Denver medical device company, and Crown by the end of my first full unemployed week. Crown called to setup a second interview for the end of the next week. Early that week, I received firm offers from the medical device company and Bose and both companies wanted a decision from me on fairly short order. For mostly personal reasons, I decided to accept the Denver offer on Thursday. I have liked Denver and loved Colorado since I was a kid. I was a little lonely and a good friend (who I would be working with) offered to put me up in his home for as long as I wanted to stay. Finally, the opportunity to work in an entirely new-to-me industry was an interesting challenge. Partially out of curiosity, I went back to Crown on Friday for the 2nd interview.

The Manufacturing Engineering Manager, whose name I have long forgotten, brought me into a fairly large corporate meeting room that was lined with poster paper full of relationships, responsibilities, activities, anticipated results and achievements, and likely advancement possibilities. Crown’s management had put more effort into my possible employment with the company than the management all of my previous 25 years of work. What followed was an interesting interview with a half-dozen managers and another half-dozen people I’d be working with or who would be working for me. I was a little more blunt and honest in my answers to their questions, since I was pretty committed to the Colorado offer I’d already conditionally accepted and to getting the hell out of Indiana (a generally low income state that could be the poster child for economical inequality). I hadn’t yet received the written details to the Colorado offer and the formal offer, so I could still change my mind without too much guilt and I could discuss the possible Crown job without feeling like I was wasting their time.

CROWN AUDIO harmon internationalOn Monday, the Denver job offer arrived in the mail with a Wednesday decision deadline. I hung on to it until a little before the end of the work day Wednesday and called to accept that job. My new employer sent a moving van for my stuff the next day and I was on the road to Denver Thursday evening. Friday night, I was camping in southern Illinois and called my wife in California to check in. She said someone from Crown had called and really wanted to talk to me, leaving a home number. It wasn’t that late, so I called the number and discovered that Crown had tried to contact me in my Elkhart apartment that afternoon to make a very generous offer of employment. I had to tell him I was “taken” and wouldn’t be coming back to Indiana any time soon. He sounded disappointed, but I had warned them my decision was time-sensitive and that there were lots of factors that would determine my next career move.

I left Indiana in mid-November and didn’t have to be at my new job until January 2 and my new employer had provided me with a signing bonus and moving allowance so I wasn’t even in much of a hurry to get to Denver. The friend I’d be staying would be available to receive the moving van, so even making sure my stuff arrived intact wasn’t pressing. I took a full month to get from Indiana to Denver and, other than a little recording engineering and occasionally music equipment repair business, I was out of audio for the next decade. I never forgot the impression Crown made with me, though. I honestly felt like I’d been working in a poorly equipped garage at QSC for the previous 9 years, Crown felt that much more substantial and organized than we’d been while I thought we were their most serious competitors.

vinAd73CrownProSo, when I read that Crown had been absorbed in 2000 by the music business’ brain-drain conglomerate, Harmon, I was both disappointed and glad I’d passed on the Crown job. Honestly, other than Crown there wasn’t much about Indiana that appealed to me. I might not have lasted long there. Harmon was purchased by Samsung Electronics last November and the writing was on the wall for Elkhart before that depressing news. This month, when I read that Crown was closing the Indiana facility doors for good and only 115 jobs were affected, I have to admit I felt more than a little sadness. When I interviewed with Crown, I’d guess the facility employed at least 500 people. More importantly, there were a lot of decent, hard-working, competent people making and designing Crown products in 1991 and I hate to think that their efforts were wasted.

dc300At one time, Crown was the only target in our sights at QSC. They were the industry leaders and everyone else was at our level or below. Go back to the late 1960’s and Crown’s DC300 solid state power amp was the only serious pro power amplifier game in town. Crown was an innovative, trustworthy, and decent American company and there is nothing good to say about the death of that sort of business. There aren’t many left and as the US continues to de-evolve into a minor 3rd world industrial power there will be a whole lot fewer in our future.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Money and Art

A few weeks ago, on summer evening, while I was enjoying a beautiful evening and ignoring a painfully loud and poorly mixed live music show at the outdoor performance theater in my hometown, I was again reminded of the connection between money and art. Mostly, I was reminded of how much money it takes to survive in the arts. Live music doesn’t require a lot of money, but musicians and venues will pick money over quality and talent every time. Concert riders are all about demanding a fair amount of money be spent to “earn” the right to suffer a collection of musicians’ egos. Venue budgets, especially publically financed venues, are all about building empires and bragging rights.

A feature of getting old is that everything reminds you of every other thing you’ve lived through. Listening to the mess of a mix that night reminded me of my first show in West Hollywood’s Roxy Theater. This is a bit of a convoluted memory, but most of mine are. Our band, Sum Fun, was scheduled to go on fairly early in the show and the house mixer was a little pissed that I wasn’t willing to let him do his usual damage to the band. There was no real sound check, since the audience was mostly there long before any of the bands showed up. The house FOH guy had removed the console’s labeling, with an eraser and fingernail polish remover, from every control on the console; as job security. I got through the show, but it wasn’t much fun. When we were loading out, after the last act played and the crowd went home, I saw the house sound guy climb into a new Mercedes and drive off. No way could he afford that on the pittance the Roxy paid him, but it is par for the course. You just have to assume that anyone who can afford to diddle with music for a living is either willing to live on the edge of catastrophe or is someone who has a pile of trust fund money as a security blanket. More often, these days, it’s the second case.

I’m not the only person thinking that rich kids are becoming the only people who can afford to be in the arts. Actual artists have been dropping out of the game for decades, leaving the field to those with trust funds and no real pressing need to create anything other than something to fill the time and ward off boredom. Making art is expensive, especially art that requires technology; like live sound. The problem with stuffing the arts with bored rich kids is that those kids are rarely particularly talented, motivated, or even interested in art. A typical artistic compromise is for an actual artist to marry someone with a paying gig. That “solution” has its own set of problems, of course.

Unfortunately, having money and having taste are rarely combined. Like that summer evening’s sonic disaster, the big bucks spent to acquire the necessary equipment to make the rider author happy did not result in a musical event. The combination did produce the usual boom-and-screech mess we used to call the “Peavey smile” theory of sonic madness. A combination of a speaker system with lots of 100-250Hz and the usual combination of harsh sounding horns and SM58’s that results in a 6-15dB peak at 3-6kHz often results in a kneejerk EQ response to supplement those characteristics with other non-musical frequencies. Most AM radios can do that job perfectly awfully, although you can usually understand the words on an AM radio.

I’m becoming convinced that the connection between money is negative. Artists are people who are driven to do something—things like play music, paint, sculpt, write, sing, dance, and even play sports—they will do those things with or without money; if they are artists. If they are just self-promoters, money is a requirement. That’s why you will often find some of the most amazing talent in the most obscure places; like small town open mic evenings. Likewise, characters like Kanye West or the vast and talentless array of posing, Auto-Tuned, lip-sync’ing metal and pop singers who, apparently, are swimming in money demonstrate no talent at all. Every time I hear someone claim some big money star is the “greatest [fill in the blank] ever,” I suspect that person doesn’t get out much.

I was reminded of this when a small Unitarian Universalist group my wife and I belonged to suddenly decided it need to “progress” beyond being a friendly group of like-minded people who got together to talk about life, the universe, and everything to an “organization” with salaries and financial committments from the members. Initially, the group was roughly formed around a retired UU minister who decided he wasn’t yet ready to retire because he still felt the need to “preach.” Some friends of his decided it would be ok to be an audience, so he wouldn’t feel like one of those crazy dudes on street corners in L.A. shouting about the Apocolypse or some such silly crap. After a few meetings, the retired minister decided he needed to be paid for talking to us. Minnesotans are notoriously passive-aggressive and while several people expressed disappointment that the group was morphing into something different than what they were hoping to build, most went along with the change. My wife and I decided that this wasn’t what we’d signed up for and we’re sort of drifting, community-wise. The problem with declaring that you “need to preach” (or play music or paint or dance or toss a football or catch one) is that your need does not inspire me to pull cash from my wallet. In fact, if you really need it, I just have to wait a bit and you’ll do it for free. [Just like anyone reading this blog realizes about my “need” to write. As a great American author once said, “I write for the same reason cows give milk.”]

The word “need” is often confused with “want.” The things we need are food, shelter, clothing, energy, medical care, and a very few other items in declining importance. Entertainment is a want item. We can not only live without entertainment, but we have no reason to do so since talent and inspiration lives all around us and is just waiting to find an audience. Maybe the whole idea of art for money is flawed at the core.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Too Hip for Words

I did a live sound gig last weekend and experienced the ultimate in sound guy silliness: an arrogant, hipster waltz and polka-playing accordian player.

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Accordians may not be particularly musical, but they are funny. They are, however, a lot funnier if you don’t have to listen to them any longer than a typical ringtone.

Friday, August 11, 2017

It’s Not All the Same

One of the weird and unsatisfying things about being a tech(nologist) rather than a musician is that we’re supposed to be music-neutral. When artists come into our studios or live venues, we’re supposed to do the best job we can, regardless of how we feel about their art. When a luthier makes a guitar, there is no expectation from the guitarists as to whether the luthier believes the instrument he made is going to make horrible noises or be somewhat musical. When a technican is asked to build a recording studio, fix a piece of gear, or sort out some kind of electronic or mechanical mess a musician made with equipment, the tech is expected to be genre and quality-neutral.

But it doesn’t work that way, does it? Musicians and studio owners and clubs all bitch about the technicans they work with, “They just don’t seem to care.” In fact, they probably don’t. And they probably shouldn’t be expected to, either.

Back in the 70’s, when my partner and I were first starting up our music services business, we had a purpose for doing what we were trying to do. I wanted to record the area’s great, mostly jazz, musicians and he wanted to create the most transparent sound system possible and run it with the area’s terrific musicians as a sound source. Of course, all of that cost a small fortune and not having a trust fund to pay for it we ended up doing work for anyone who could and would pay the bills. For three years, he did two or three shows a week (along with his day job and assisting me weekends in the studio) and I assisted. I did that many sessions a weekend (along with my day job and assisting him on the live shows) or more when we were doing jingles. While that was going on, I was also doing tech and recording engineering work for two other studios in the area. Along with my day job. After three years, my partner had enough. He quit, got a better day job, and never looked back at music again.

I moved to a bigger city, got a day job doing something closer to music (manufacturing audio consoles), and found another partner who specialized in jingles and kept doing the tech and contract recording engineering work. Then, I moved to the biggest city (L.A.) and got a far more demanding day job and started going to school nights. If it hadn’t been for an accidental connection to a great band, I’d have been out of music (other than making equipment) for that whole decade. However, I lucked into a relationship with a really special, really talented band (The Sum Fun Band) and I worked with them anytime they played for about 8 years. If they hadn’t appeared in my life at that time, I might have never gone back to live music or, maybe, music in any way.

This show was recorded before I met these guys, but it’s a pretty good representation of what they did while I was their FOH and monitor system guy. Often, the band was a couple of pieces bigger, which only made it better. Which brings me to the point of this rant.

When I moved to California, I was tired of doing the jack-of-all-brands-of-music thing. During the past ten years, I’d recorded country, country and western, bluegrass, hillbilly, bubblegum pop, heavy metal, and probably a few other genres of “music,” all of which I hated or, at best, ridiculed. We did live shows for all of that crap, too. My partner left music forever, thanks to that experience. I wasn’t that smart or that flexible, whichever comes first. Like I used to tell my students, “If you want to stay in this business you have to do a little of everything.” The other message should have been, “If you want to end up hating your life in music, do a little of everything including the crap you despise.”

My friend, Scott Jarrett, used to say, “If you can imagine making a living any way but through music, you should.” There is an aspect of desperation to that statement that I did not get for a long time. There are many ways to make a living that do not require ignoring your own opinions and tastes. Working at the technology end of music is not one of those. I remember being backstage at an Iron Maiden show in Irvine and listening to the roadies describe how much they despised the band and how “I could play better than these blokes with ten busted fingers.” I remember all of the country and bluegrass concerts and festivals where I wished I could experience total, but temporary, deafness for a few hours. (Earplugs don’t even get close to doing that job.) I remember spending hours tweaking a record for “artists” who would not be able to reproduce anything resembling that music on their own and wondering, not just would they notice my work, but would I even get paid?

I retired in 2013 and “retirement,” for me, meant no longer having to do unappreciated, uninteresting work. For the first year or two, when someone asked what I’d charge to record their music, I’d tell them, “I have to hear it first. If I like it, I’m cheap. If I don’t, you can’t afford me.” I need to progress from that to either “no” or “hell yes.” I’m slowing integrating into the music community in my new home and getting asked to do more live shows and, even with my current lightweight recording rig and borrowed facilities, more recording gigs. 50 years of saying “yes” to everything is making this transition difficult. However, disobeying this rule can mean that I do one crap gig and I don’t want to do another one for a couple of years; if ever again.

The thing that is hard to sell to musicans and venues is that, at this point, I have finally arrived where my partner laneded 35 years ago. If I don’t love the music, I don’t have any reason on earth to hear it. If I never hear another Beatle, Stones, Led Zep, Eagles, REO, Skynard, Dylan, Bill Monroe, etc. cover again, it would be a much better world for me. I don’t want to hear any of that geezer crap on the radio, either. Honestly, I’d go through a lot to get to tech, live or recorded, some really interesting acoustic jazz, world music, R&B, jazzy acoustic folk, or reasonably complicated original pop music.

So, after musing over this for about a week, I told the owner of one venue I have worked with that I wanted to be more focused on the type of music I worked on than just the venue’s needs and the response was, “Ok, no pressure on the Sept shows. I will do my best to fill them and, if I can't, I'll let you know. Sound ok? I know you are doing sound here, in part, to help us and we appreciate you a ton.”

Aw, now I’m back to saying “yes” to everything. Not really, but I do feel like the work I put into make a show sound the best it can is appreciated and that I’m on the right track here. Now, I’m going out into the backyard where I can practice saying “no” and “hell yes” until I can do both without choking.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Isolation from the Audience

Live sound goofballs do a lot of dumb things—from lousy gain structure to creating mixes that more resemble heavy equipment in operation than any sort of musical expression—but one of the most abused parts of a live sound system is, and probably will always be, the stage monitor system. The purpose of monitor systems is to give the performers some additional subtle feedback regarding timing, pitch, and balance beyond what they should be hearing from the FOH system. That purpose was lost sometime at least 40 years ago, when sound companies realized that most performers don’t give a good shit what the FOH system sounds like and could care less what their audience hears once those suckers have paid good money for an awful experience.

The the standard setup procedure, today, is to “wring out the monitors” as the band is setting up. That means some doofus will make huffing and plosive noises into various microphones until the monitor engineer has obtained the loudest, least musical possible sound from the monitor system. By the time the monitors are setup in this manner, the FOH system is usually unnecessary, volume-wise, and the FOH engineer is left to try to provide a micron of clarity to the mess that is blasting off of the stage. Usually, that underpaid and untalented soundclown takes that job slightly less seriously than the effort expended by a minimum wage private “security guard” at an abandoned Detroit public school building. The result is what we’ve all come to expect from most live music performances; even people in the industry are amazed at how awful live music sounds.

20170805_131950This weekend, I went to an outdoor show in town. The performance was hampered by being partially enclosed in a polyester PVC-coated stretched tents, which are pretty effective mid-range and above audio reflectors, but that didn’t explain how awful the sound was. The group was a 3-piece, very young, pop band with an over-achieving drummer who hammered the snare as if it were a tent post needing to be drilled deep into the asphalt. That set some kind of baseline for the monitor setup, since the drummer was (for once) the first guy on stage to be ready for the sound check. From there, everything went downhill fast. [You can tell by the stage picture, at left, that the sound company had a lot more monitor volume capacity than FOH capabilities.] I watched the sound check, but other than bumping monitor gains up until hitting the gain-before-feedback limits, I didn’t hear any output from the mains during the sound check. Honestly, I couldn’t tell if the mains ever made a contribution to the overall sound; even well into the show.

Obviously, there was zero intelligability from the system. Regardless of where I sat or stood, I couldn’t understand a word coming from the stage. They might as well been speaking French or Chinese, or both. Toward the end of the performance, I walked behind the stage and found (to no surprise at all) that the on-stage volume was substantially louder than the FOH output. While the on-stage sound quality was somewhat better than the FOH, it was mostly deafeningly loud. Probably so loud that the FOH mixer was already past the allowed volume for the venue (an outdoor festival).

For a few hours after leaving that show, I thought about the purpose of stage monitors in the current context. As best I can figure, monitor systems are intended to create acoustic space and physical distance between musicians and their audience. Not to bring the two together in a shared musical experience, but to drive a sonic wedge between the musicians, their fears and and insecurities and frustrations, and the overly-tolerant (and shrinking) audiences who are clearly not particularly discriminating because they put up with this abuse.

20170729_212142Earlier in the week, I was the FOH tech for a small venue performance. When I set up the system and stage, I took advantage of the fact that the performers didn’t list “monitors” in their equipment rider and left the monitors to the side where I could set them up if I needed them. Lucky for me and the audience, when the performers started testing their mics and instruments they were satisfied with the main’s spill and decided to go sans-monitors. The difference between the communication these musicians had with their audience, obviously aided by the close physical proximity, and the performance I saw later in the week was night-and-day. That physical proximity thing isn’t just a function of the venue setup, though. The loud group didn’t provide any high fidelity place for their audience to hear their music. Close or distant, it sounded muffled and distorted everywhere. In contrast, the acoustic/electric duo pictured next to this paragraph sounded clear, present, and natural everywhere in the room.

There has to be some sort of compromise louder acts can make to provide their audience with a decent aural experience. While most bands sound like crap, not all do. Not all bands that sound musical start with the mains, either, but they do make an effort to get out front and listen to the mains sometime before the show or early in the show. And when it sounds like crap, they do what it takes to fix it. One solution for the monitor mess is in-ear monitors, but that provides another level of isolation between the musicians and the audience; especially if the FOH system is overbearing. In-ears or traditional monitors, someone has to care what the audience is hearing and no artist worth listening to will leave that to a hired hand.

Monday, July 10, 2017

He Never Returned . . . Almost

I recently took a train trip from my Minnesota home to Detroit, MI. Mostly, it was a pleasant experience and I’d recommend Amtrak to anyone not in a hurry or, like me, about as interested in submitting to the TSA bullshit as being sold into prostitution. The problem with going east from practically anywere civilized is Chicago. In particular, Chicago’s Union Station.Chicago is, in general, where ergonomics of any sort goes to die, but Union Station is the sort of organizational disaster usually described in Terry Gilliam movies or the noisy, disorderly hell-hole depicted in dysfunctional post-apocolypic movies where Donald Trump was elected President of the USA and human society collapsed into a drug-infested shooting gallery.

IMG_8385The station, itself, is a gothic cathedral sort of place with tunnels, alleys, and subteranian shopping malls all coupled, acoustically, with an excessive amount of echo and reverberation. It is noisy as hell, but half as pleasant. In a facility like this, you’d hope that public address audio would be abandoned as a useful medium to transfer information. You’d be disappointed. There are mumbling, distorted “messages” IMG_8388being broadcast constantly; including a feminine computer voice endlessly repeating “Track number 17, track number 17. . . “ Even in the waiting areas for specific train gates, useless information is regularly broadcast while the video screens are either filled with pointless TSA messages or are blank. Even stranger, there is elevator music straining to be heard, sometimes above, the pointless and unintelligable “directions,” arrival, and departure information.

IMG_8389This is a place where audio of any sort is nothing more than pollution. From the squeltching noises of the various police and security personnel to loud and confusing conversations to the P.A. system bullshit, no audio information of any sort is likely to be useful. However, the noise level everywhere I explored was well above industrial OSHA limits; often as high as 105dBSPL-A on a constant basis. However, where there were video displays with arrival and departure information, they were often placed where you couldn’t get close enough to read them or they were displaying information about every gate but the one they were near.

IMG_8387I managed to walk off without my 6-year-old Android tablet while I was trying to confirm the information on the Chicago Union Station’s website that said I needed a special boarding permit to get into any of the station’s waiting areas. That turned out to be untrue, but none of the Amtrak or Union Station employees seemed to know the website was incorrect. In all, my interactions with Union Station were miserable and among the dumbest I’ve experienced in my 69 years.

Chicago, you and Rahm Emanuel deserve each other.

Friday, June 9, 2017

If [insert technical person’s name here] Can Do it, It Must Be Easy

One of the many entertaining aspects of a technical career is that the many mismanagement, sales, and marketing numskulls who consider themselves to be “visionary” and who couldn’t turn on a water tap without assistance are convinced that we are a dime a dozen. Society, in fact, makes that same general assumption; that there will always be technical people available to make things work so that they can go about their mindless lives thoughtlessly and without a clue of how or why anything they depend on works.

The United States, in its rush to create a royalty class, is demonstrating this in every election, in every corporate takeover, in its tax policy, and in almost ever office in the country. One of many consequences for this is that more than 50% of our university STEM graduates are non-US citizens and the overwhelming majority of those graduates plan to return to their country of origin with the skills they have attained. The US, on the other hand is cranking MBA and Finance degrees like those “skills” are actually going to be useful in some mythical, non-productive future. Better hurry, kiddies. Once the current batch of banksters have sold off the nation’s assets, there won’t be much demand for people to mismanage the country’s remaining spare change.

phdsElecting a collection of trust fund brats and hedge fund banksters guarantees at least one more generation of our best and brightest being sucked out of useful work and into “finance” and other criminal activities. Since Reagan, the country has steadily lost technical and scientific capacity and time, science, and progress wait for no one.

Looking up references for some of the points I wanted to make in this essay, I ran into a collection of alternative Google searches and links such as “STEM graduates are SOOOO arrogant” and “STEM graduates aren’t as smart as they think they are.” [Look at the chart on the left and, if you have the math skills necessary to read it, try to justify that argument.] All pretty funny, since it’s pretty well established that STEM programs are dramatically more difficult and relevant than liberal arts and STEM graduates are consistently more employable. The skills and disipline necessary to get through a typical STEM degree isn’t something you can just “pick up when I need it,” like management, accounting, or philosphy. The difference between the usual party animal degree (anything from Business to Law Enforcement to any of the dozens of programs that do not require mathematics, science, and technology as core to the degree) and a STEM degree is not just a matter of intelligence, but of time and energy committment and competition. The rest of the world is pretty clear on this, along with US immigration policy. Try to immigrate to Canada, Austrailia, Europe, or any other 1st world country with your liberal arts degree as a credential: you might as well argue that your hair color matters. Offer any of those countries your technical expertise as an experienced engineer, scientist, medical doctor, or a mathematician and doors fly open.

Of course, there are “engineers” and there are engineers. When I read or hear about a 20-something electrical or mechanical engineer who can’t find employment in his/her field, my first though is “Make something, dumbass.” The whole point in becoming an engineer is obtaining the background to become inventive, creative, and self-sufficient. Simply getting through a degree program isn’t even a serious first step in a technical life. I know of at least a half-dozen engineers who are not college graduates, even though they have made excellent incomes for a long portion of their lives employeed as “engineers.” I was one, in fact.

The funniest comments on “useless” STEM degrees comes from examples of computer science grads who can’t find work. I worked for a biomed company in the 1990’s and their biggest engineering hiring problem was finding competent software/firmware engineers. I’d just come from a company that had made some pretty large strides in audio communications software, but that company had a secret weapon: only hire programmers who can slow evidence of their accomplishments (The Microsoft Rule.) and don’t worry about their pedigree. That wasn’t an option for the medical devices company because they received some federal corporate welfare based on the “credentials” of their “research” departments. Of course, any software developer with a lick of ability would be off designing software and getting rich long before wasting time acquiring a Masters or PhD in software engineering, which left the credential addicts with slim pickin’s, in the talent territory. As you’d expect, the company’s software was buggy, slow, and insecure and those weaknesses were regularly exposed in the field. (If you think Diebold’s electronic voting machines are easy to hack, you don’t even want to think about how easy it is to blow up a pacemaker or implantable defibrillator.)

None of that changes the point of this rant, however. The goofy inept characters who populate business and liberal arts programs too often gravitate to the head of corporations because nothing measurable ever gets in their way. If you can’t do anything useful, it’s hard to make a mistake anyone will notice. Since crawling to the head of the class, leaving a trail of bodies and betrayal, was so easy for them, how hard can any other activity be?

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Because?

The explaination that I have disliked the most for 99% of my life is, “Because everyone else does it this way.” An adopted (from Bertrand Russell) mantra of my life has been, “The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more often likely to be foolish than sensible." I absolutely believe that statement: regarding subjects from technology to economics to politics to community/religion. I will always assume that “everyone else” is probably a moron, especially if the thing we’re talking about has any aspect of opinion involved. Often, it turns out that I’m wrong. Sometimes the reason people have done something the same way for a long time is that it is the most efficient, practical, easiest, and even effective way to do that thing. Sometimes I’m right and the reason people have been doing something the same way for a 1,000 years is because they are lazy, superstitious, ignorant, timid/conservative, and/or mentally challenged. With only one life to live and a limited amount of time, energy, and patience with which to live it, I am often uninspired to spend much effort worrying about why things “have always beend one this way.” That is not always (or even often) a strength, it’s just a thing, a personality glitch.

IMG_8123So, when it came time to design an electric guitar (a bass, in my case), I decided to blow off a lot of convention and explore my inner designer. Andf I learned a few things: some useful, some I could have spared myself by going with “conventional wiseom,” and some were outright surprises.

For example, I put a lot of thought and effort into creating the smallest body design possible and still retain “balance.” I started with thicker material than I expected to need and installed a 1/2” cap over the wiring routing holes, creating an instrument from which I expected to carve a lot from the back to create a slight “wrap-around” feel. As the body approached completion and the neck was finished enough to attach, I started fooling with finding the point where the strap pins could be installed to make the instrument hang in a neutral, balanced, position. To my mind, that sounded more comfortable than the body-heavy designs of most guitars.

2017-05-01 Bass (3)I was wrong. It turns out that a slight bias toward body-heavy is more comfortable, at least for my playing position. I tend to play with the instrument high and the neck much higher; probably due to short arms or some such handicapped characteristic.

It also turned out that the sculpting I intended to do was unnecessary. My body design conformed so well that additional wood-removal was pointless. It would, however, have been a good exercise. So, I might build another bass using the same general design but taking the body-shaping further.

I also blew off the trait most of my fellow students had for pickup selection. First, it’s a bass and, second, this instrument is one I built purely for my own enjoyment and playing. I’m not a particularly complicated bass player. I don’t solo, ever. I like being part of the rhythm section, in the background, just filling in the bottom. The pickup on my bass has a fairly simple task: provide as much fundamental as possible with as little noise as possible. I went for a Chinese knockoff of a Gibson humbucker design, primarily because the pickup came with individual coil wiring. When I received the pickup, I tested the two coils and found that one had slightly (10%) higher impedance and resistance. So, I unwrapped the coils and pulled wire off of that coil until it was very close to the other coil. I reassembled the pickup, soaking the winding in wax before retaping it, coated the pickup pocket and wiring channels in magnetic paint, and hooked up the pickup for series and parallel operation with a single DPDT switch. Add a volume control and a jack and that’s all I need; along with a mostly-midpoint pickup position. I never use the bridge pickup, so why install one?

You can see that my body shape is unconventional. It works beautifully, by the way. It is comfortable standing or sitting and the “handle” is a lot more useful than a horn.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

“I Have Heard It with My Own Ears”

One of many reasons the music business is being left to the spoiled children of the 1% is that there is so much non-stop bullshit in the marketing of audio and audio equipment. This month’s Prosound News ProAudio Review, contains one of many hillarious reviews of a grossly overpriced four channel microphone preamplifier with minimal features, maginal function (only 55dB of gain) and more bullshit marketing words that translate to no information whatsoever: “punchy, fat, rich and full of character” for example. “As [Bret] Teegarden himself offers, ‘The biggest feature is, it doesn't have a boat-load of features. Nothing gets in the way of the sound!’"

“Key features of the Magic Pre 4100 include 55 dB of gain, Sifam VU meters, -20 dB pad (complete bypass in off position), and +48v phantom power (decoupling completely from the transformer).” In other words, it couldn’t have been easier to “design” this product because it doesn’t achieve a single difficult engineering task. In the magazine’s sidebar, “Why No Polarity Switch,” Teegarden describes his miraculous capability to hear the distortion introduced by the polarity switch, although he probably doesn’t know how many places that task could be accomplished where the switch would be at a point where the signal voltage is significant and where it’s introduction would only marginally complicate the design. “There are many electronic engineers out there who will debate this idea of switches affecting audio quality, but I have heard it with my own ears. So, they can argue aboput it all they want; they can buyikld the features into their preamps for marketing’s sake. . . “  Blah, blah, blah. This is the high cost of working in a field where money only exists if you inherited it. Rich kids marketing bullshit to other rich kids and, obviously, no one cares enough to verify any aspect of this product’s claims.

Our ears are the blunt tool of senses. I have long since abandoned any hope that anyone over 20 has hearing capabilities and Teegarden has been making pop recordings for “more than 35 years,” according to his own propaganda page. The cool thing about a nutty claim like this one is the only way to verify or debunk Teegarden’s claim would be with an ABX test (which he would surely fail), but he can always claim the tester switching masked the phase switch distortion.

I have one question for everyone who claims golden ear status, “Do use a cellphone or a hard line phone?” If you can tolerate the godawful quality of a cellphone transmission, it’s obvious to me that your demanding criteria for an electric guitar microphone preamp is a poor joke.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Giving Up the Ghost

January 2017

A half-dozen years ago, during a 20-year long argument about practically everything in life, society, and our imaginations a good friend finished her email with “You are a natural born teacher chafing at the unnatural constraints & idiocy of the classroom.” Since, at the time I was seriously considering abandoning my teaching job and blowing off whatever demented thing in my head that makes me want to explore how people think and make decisions and intentionally avoid facing reality.

Oddly, I took what she’d said as sort of a compliment, even though I was convinced that teaching was a frustrating, painful, frustrating exercise in futility. Being in a classroom for 14 weeks was too often a demonstration of non-existence. Especially in the last couple of years, it felt (especially when I graded exams) that I’d been completely invisible. Looking at the experience logically, if I’d been talking about a subject, demonstrating concepts and principles, and supervising experiments about the subject for 14 weeks at at the end of that period of time the things I’d been attempting to teach were tested and many-to-most of the students’ answers were no more informed than if they’d shown up on test day as if it were the first day of class, it logically follows that I was either invisible and inaudible or non-existent altogether.

This week, I discovered this old and dear friend is dying and one of her tumors is causing her memory of our friendship to intermittently fail. So, in the end non-existence is my fate. One of the few people who recognized whatever it was that drove me to try and pass on hard-earned experience and whatever passes for knowledge I’ve aquired over the last 68 years is dying and that puts me one step closer to non-existence.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Beards and Banjos

beNothing in Minnesota confuses and frustrates me more than The Current 89.3, our so-called local Public Radio pop music station. This week, as part of their never-ending fund drive, The Current is doing an incredibly irritating and enlightening run on its listeners’ “893 Essential Artists.” As a habit, l usually avoid this kind of demented shit because it is a constant reminder of how incredibly lame the average human being is. A quick look at #335 (Dwight Yoakam) and #337 (Neil Diamond) and the actual talent that fell far below these hillbillies and pop pablum peddlers explains the whole “Beards and Banjos” killer_asteroid_by_manuelberriosMillenial fuck fest. The incredibly lame Monkeys are at #338 and grocery store magazine rack icon Lyle Lovett is at #342! While the Faces are #359 and . . . aw, forget it. Humans are not worth saving. Bring on that planet killer asteroid.

Seriously. If Minnesota music dweebs are this lame, imagine how incredibly awful the degraded species is in the southeast!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Why Bother?

soundquality_study1If this isn’t a kick in the ears, I don’t know what is: “According to a survey conducted by Strategy Analytics, built-in computer speakers are now the most common way to listen to music, by a sizable margin.  In the study, laptop and desktop speakers overwhelmingly topped the list of frequently-used listening methods, with 55% picking the category.

“Headphones connected to a portable device followed with 41% of respondents, alongside stand-alone radio, also with 41%.  Surprisingly, TV speakers were also highly-ranked, with 29% ticking that box.”

While nothing about this information is surprising, that doesn’t keep it from being depressing. More out of habit and curiosity these days, I still read Mix Magazine, TapeOp, Recording, ProSoundWeb, and Pro Sound News. I’m mostly entertained by the seriousness audio “engineers” (an oxymoron if there ever was one) take their degraded “craft.” Almost by reflex, when I read an interview with some kid who has decided he’s the next incarnation of Tom Dowd (No, he won’t have the slightest idea who Tom Dowd was.) I chase down a few examples of the music he refers to as examples of his work. Invariably (Yes, I do know what that word means.), it will be some awful sounding collection of distortion, overused effects, trite synthesizers, and horribly recorded drums.

The critical feedback loop between musicians and their vanishing customers has been wreaked by “portable devices” and the delusional pipedream that some whackos have that high resolution audio will change any of that is nuts. I suppose I should be happy with the resurgence of vinyl, since you can’t get that shit on to a cell phone? If you know me, you know I think going back to vinyl is about as silly as abandoning cars for horses. It’s not the vinyl that matters, it’s the amplification and speaker systems, dumbasses.

webcorThis has been a long time coming. This godawful Webcor record player is pretty much what I began listening to in my audio career, way back in 1959. My father bought it for the living room, decided he didn’t like the way it looked (ours was salmon “red”) and dumped it in the basement (where I lived).

My mother had convinced him to buy an RCA console system, but he decided that took up too much room and it ended up in the basement, too. It really was pretty awful, but slightly better sounding than my Webcor. rcasteroWhen he remarried, the RCA found its way back into the living room in their new home and it remained there until they downsized after all of the kids had left home.

By then, I had long since graduated to component stereo equipment, then band sound systems, and, finally, recording studio equipment for my home audio system. Our living room system (aka “Home Theater System”) is still a decent receiver and a pair of JBL studio monitors. The down side to that is that, if I bother to listen at all carefully, it’s pretty obvious that Pandora broadcasts in a mediocre MP3 format. Usually, I’m not that focused on the music coming from the living room when I’m working in the kitchen. When I am actually critically listening, I listen to CDs. I’ll put CD quality over vinyl any day.

Too often, when someone under 30 wants to show me some music it will be demonstrated on a cell phone speaker. I have no idea what I’m supposed to get from that experience. I can usually pick out the melody and determine if it is a male or female lead voice. That’s about all I’m willing to invest in that miserable fidelity source, though, which is often disappointing to the person trying to impress me.

To be truthful, if you are a cell phone user I have to suspect you don’t care about fidelity in any form. While I haven’t had a fixed-line telephone for quite a few years, our primary telephone looks a lot like a fixed-line system. Our phone service is provided through our high-speed ISP and an Ooma Tele. The sound quality was a substantial step-up from the fixed-line system provided by Qwest and, later, Comcast in our Twin Cities home. I can, in a few moments, tell if a caller is on a cellphone because the quality is miserable. Always. My guess is if you can tolerate that level of distortion in a voice conversation you aren’t that discerning in any aspect of audio. So, while I’m not surprised that music is being listened to on actual speakers by an audience of 12%-and-shrinking I’m also not impressed by your musical tastes. Your opinion of audio quality is just going to make me laugh, so don’t waste either of our time.

Monday, May 15, 2017

“But Everybody Does It This Way!”

\All my life, I’ve heard this argument as an excuse for continuing to do stupid stuff that doesn’t work. For half of my life, as much as I was confused by the disconnect between function and this argument I didn’t know why it didn’t seem to work in the real world I lived in. In the mid-1980’s, I took a Logic and Critical Thinking course from a brilliant instructor, Mike Scott, and learned about historical “irrational arguments,” which as it turned out were about the only sort of arguments I’d heard for most of my life having grown up in a religious family and community. One of the most startling (to me) of the beautiful list of irrationality was argumentum ad populum (Latin for "appeal to the people").

61zbrV7lEVLEarly in my life, in 1956 when I was 8, I’d been exposed to the totally nutty propaganda regarding Elvis Presley, "50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong." In fact, I was pretty sure by the time I was 10 years old, that all Elvis fans were idiots. Elvis vs. the Everly’s? Even Ricky Nelson? No contest. Later, when I got much further into music, specifically, jazz at the ripe old age of 13, I scored Elvis fans of all sorts as something less than sentient: or worse, they were emotional. As I began to think of myself as a musician (As irrational as that was, I know.) and broadened my listening palette to R&B and some classical music, the Beatles came along and blasted pretty much everything of any sort of complexity off of the AM radio band. Of course, that lowered my opinion of “everybody” to something a few notches below farm animals.

Over the course of my career, the “everybody does it this way” explanation has regularly been applied to all sorts of stupid things. Live sound system setup, for example. “Everybody” seems to think the hot sequence of events for a large or small scale sound system is to waste time getting everybody happy with the monitor system, then turn on the Front of House (FOH). One of my favorite moments in Crazy Heart came 47:28 into the movie. Jeff’s character stops the rehearsal and tells the FOH jackass, “I need kick and snare, turn down the damn guitars, you’re drownin’ out the lyrics.”

The sound jackass says, “The mix is good man. You can’t hear what I’m hearin’ out here.”

Jeff’s guy says, “Yeah, you’d be surprised. Do it the way I tell ya and leave it.”

Asshole says, “The mix is just fine, man. Trust me on this.”

Jeff says, “No. I’m an old man. I get grumpy. You heard me.” And aside, mostly to himself says, “Damn sound man. The try to fuck up the opening act. . . ” And you should listen to the rest of the conversation. Jeff became my hero in that movie.

The way 99.99…% of shows are mixed wouldn’t pass for a first attempt right out of high school for a recording engineer. A big part of the problem is that the kiddies and functionally-deaf assholes who pass for “sound men” think the monitor system is more critical than the FOH system, so they setup monitors first and there is no coming back from that fatal move.

messy drumnsAnother “everybody does it this way” audio disaster happens almost constantly on drums. In a deluded and functionally-ignorant attempt at “control,” most live and recording engineers decorate drum kits with more microphones than an actual recording engineer would use on a 90 piece orchestra. Or course, the recording is a disaster in so many ways you’d think it would be obvious, but the general mess is usually “fixed” with gates and compression and, too often, substitution with individual drum sounds recorded by sample recordists. Recording history is full of great drum recordings with as few as one mic and as “many” as three, counting the kick mic. The usual pile of microphones, like the example at left, creates a collection of phase and tonal problems that result

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to record a variety of live performances at the local theater. Because we still haven’t managed to find the time to get the overly complicated and bureaucratic DiGiCo drivers to work with any recording program, I was stuck using my six channel Zoom H6 recorder for more than a dozen different acts from folk singers to a 22-piece horn section with a rhythm section. Did I mention, only six channels?

simple drumsI would be left with only one channel to dedicate to the occasional drum kit and rarely more than two on most of the acts. One of my favorite techniques is often referred to the Glyn Johns’ technique. Another excellent tactic is to place an X-Y pair behind the drummer’s head, simulating the “mix” the drummer is creating for himself. Sometimes a kick mic is useful, but for really excellent drummers I often end up barely using it or not at all. So, with only one channel to spare I put a single condenser in that position. The end result even surprised me. With only a little EQ, mostly a low end bump, the end result was a good full drum kit sound with excellent (considering the stage volume) isolation. Obviously, this tactic puts the “control” of the drum mix in the hands of the drummer. Less obviously, I think that is a good thing. I have generally found that good drummers have a better idea of what their playing sound sound like than 99-something-percent of recordists, including myself.

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.