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.




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


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.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Organization? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Organization

I have a pair of Electro-Voice RE-18’s in the shop that need, I hope, minor repair. The RE-18 was one of the best handheld vocal microphones ever made by anyone in audio history. That’s my opinion and I’m sticking with it because I’ve owned about a dozen of these amazing tools and everyone has been terrific. Every vocalist I’ve taught to use the RE-18 has taken to the microphone like it was a revelation. Every FOH engineer I’ve convinced to try the RE-18 has fallen in love with the mics. Obviously, the RE-18 was doomed to failure in an industry where the SM58 is considered “good enough” when it is obviously barely competent as a talkback mic or a taxi company dispatcher’s desk mike.

When I wrote EV’s misnamed “Technical Services” about obtaining repair parts for the RE-18, the response was, “Unfortunately, we no longer have parts or service to support this series." Although this was a very good mic it was discontinued around 1990.” I, of course, knew all of that except for the non-existent parts supply and EV’s arbitrary decision to discontinue their lifetime warranty, “Also, these microphones are guaranteed without time limit against malfunction in the acoustic system due to defects in workmanship and material.” [Words taken right from the RE-18’s Product Manual.] That warranty was one of the reasons EV was able to ask a premium price on all of the RE Series microphones: $350 back when an SM58 had a street price of $75. Bosch, a German company, has no clue how to deal with customer service, manage quality, or produce a competent product: a typical condition for German companies. Nothing new here. If a German company didn’t totally hose up customer service functions, I’d be suspecting someone else actually owned the company.

evre16EV does, however, still make and sell the RE-16. Many of the RE-16;s parts are identical or close enough for practical purposes. After going around via email with the “we no longer have parts or service” Tech Service guy, I called Tech Services today. Same song and dance, except this guy knew he didn’t know much and really, really wanted to transfer me to “Parts.” Usually, I have had to go through Tech Service to get part numbers and/or assembly drawings. At EV/Bosch, Tech Service has none of that. In fact, I have to wonder what technical services Tech Services can provide without actual product information at hand.

Lucky for me, the woman who answered the parts call was, essentially, an actual Tech Services technician. We quickly identified the parts I wanted to buy, she priced them, she told me when I’d receive those parts (about 14 days), and took my order.

ev-re20-service-manual-coverAll of this hassle could have been easily resolved with a simple parts manual/service data sheet, like the one that is well-distributed and easily found for the RE-20. The fact that this information doesn’t seem to be even in-house at EV/Bosch is disturbing. A lot of companies seem to think manufacturing or service information is “proprietary” information. That philosophy is excessively customer-hostile and leads the company down a path of becoming known for lowered capabilities and lowered expectations from customers turns into lower performance. That results in lower price points because customers assume the company’s products are poor quality, poorly designed, poorly supported, and incompetently represented at all ends of the product chain. That is certainly what has happened to EV over the last 40 years. From a well-known, often used microphone supplier and technical resource in the early days through the 70’s, EV has slowly become a second tier company, mostly known for cheap knock-off microphones and with no real presence in the condenser market at all. In fact, the RE-20 is probably the company’s only well known, well respected microphone. That seems like a pretty serious problem.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Gratitude Is Dead?

In 1971, I was about to be a new dad, had an incredibly demanding but low paying tech job, and was stranded in one of the planet’s armpits, Hereford, Texas; where when the world gets an enema, that’s the place the tube goes. I needed money and there weren’t a lot of options for decent payinjg 2nd jobs in that place at that time. So, I talked to a couple of Amarillo music stores and my local store and began a music equipment/instrument repair service. Fairly quickly, I learned two things: 1) music stores rarely pay their bills and 2) musicians are even less likely to pay bills. No surprise, right? It was for 23 year old me, right out of tech school and at one of the many “I’m outta here (music)” points in my life.

The truth is that it isn’t fair to imply that ALL musicians didn’t pay their repair bills. In fact, I became a regular stop for the many Mexican bands in the area and they paid their bills like clockwork. Country Western dicks, on the other hand, were reliably unreliable. They were gods of “if you let me take my amp today, I’ll gladly pay you on Saturday after the gig.” Not once did that ever happen. There weren’t many rock bands in 1970’s west Texas, but the ones that were there were only slightly less bogus than the C&W assholes. Most of the rock guys were high school kids, so I should probably cut them some slack but I was barely out of high school and I had a family to support. So fuck ‘em.

Lucky for me, I was on a mailing list from Don Lancaster, the future author of The Incredible Secret Money Machine, and his newsletter taught me some of the things that would be key to my businesses for the rest of my life. Rule #1: “Know the difference between cold cash, j-dollars, and megabucks.” “j-dollars” are the engineering business term for imaginary money. The rule for megabucks is “the odds of you ever getting one red cent are invariably much lower than you think.” Those rules stuck with me, especially after two years of wrestling with musicians and music stores for the money they owed me. The cap on that money in my business career came after I had a spare room filled from floor to ceiling with repaired equipment that had yet to be paid for and I was about to leave Texas for a new job in central Nebraska. I posted a notice in the local paper and sent post cards to the customers who had given me legitimate addresses warning them that I would be selling all of the customer equipment in my shop for the repair bills. Of course, everyone thought I was bluffing and one weekend I emptied the spare room and the following Monday we were on the road north.

paisleyOff and on over the next forty years I ran a variety of service businesses out of my home, studio, and or office. In four decades, I wrote off about a little more than $1500 in bad debts over several hundred thousand billed and collected. (One hint to the right to the source of one of those bad debts.) Lancaster’s rules became pretty much kneejerk for me, including “Doing something stupid once is just plain dumb. Doing it often is a philosophy.” Not only did I not get screwed out of a payment twice by anyone, but even if I eventually got paid after a protected hassle I did not bother testing those waters twice. Several name studios from L.A. to Denver to Minnesota discovered that I always had enough paying customers to be able to refuse work from the non-paying types: including an ex-employer. More than once, I heard the whine, “Don’t hold a grudge, Tom. This time will be different.” Thanks, but fuck you. Nobody is famous enough to con me into working for free. Although a few of the most famous people I’ve worked with were also the most reliable and generous customers I’ve ever experienced.

When I canned the acoustic consulting and the audio equipment repair businesses, an energetic, personable, and talented young man caught much of what I was tossing off. He gave me a lot of crap for bitching about how little I liked working for musicians and how much I hated the billing hassle. Less than six months later, he quit the work too, saying, “I can’t believe it took you so long to quit doing that shit.” I know what you are saying, kid.

As much of a hardass as all that makes me sound, the fact is that I have done shitloads of work that I’d have rather avoided. Repair works is rarely fun and often miserable. I used to tell my studio maintenance students, “Get used to being wrong a lot if you want to do repair work. If you are really good, you’ll be right one our of ten times.” That is not as much fun as it sounds. Along with busted stuff and lousy designs kicking my ass for 40 years, a lot of the work I did was just grunt work: equipment installation, studio wiring, CAD/CAM programming, debugging other engineers’ designs, and politics. Most of it was better than a sharp stick in the eye and some of it paid better than being a slave, but if I could have been a rock star or a trust fund baby I’d have picked those options in a heart beat.

Now that I’m retired, I’m doing all sorts of bullshit work around our house, volunteering to run sound, recording music, helping with construction or design projects, and some of the silly crap I’ve done my whole life that probably deserves the label “hobbies.” My general rule for considering a project, today, is “If I like it, I’ll do it for free. If I don’t, you can’t afford me.” That offends some people. They think I’m being an asshole for not working cheap, now that I have the spare time, especially since I do some work for free and it all looks the same to them. Learning how to say “no” took me most of my life and it still makes me very uncomfortable. However, that’s what I’m saying more often than not these days and I’m getting better at it. The day I don’t feel compelled to explain why I don’t want to record your awful music, run sound for your awful sounding cover band, make you a guitar, fix your computer, guitar amp or home stereo equipment, build you a wall or a fence just like the one I just built for my wife, help you roof your house, or whatever, will be the day I am officially comfortably retired. Until then, I’m still practicing with the “no word” and if it looks unnatural on me, it is.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The High Cost of Doubt

When I was a working engineer and, later, an engineering manager, my least favorite answer to any question was always, “Because everyone does it that way.” For the last 50 years, a mantra of mine, and my current email signature, has been a Bertrand Russell quote, “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." More than often this is true, but occasionally my kneejerk reaction to convention takes me, the hard way, through the processes that others have already explored and I discover sometimes things are always done pretty much the same way for a reason. Sometimes that reason is bullshit, but there is often a core assumption to be evaluated that with my limited-to-non-existent visual skills I can not see until I experiment.

steinberger-l-series-bass-guitar-2000I am making an electric bass this semester in my Red Wing Southeast Community Tech Guitar Repair and Building program. There are imposed limitations on the kind of instrument we can build as first year students. (I know, I’ve been at it for two years and I’m still taking 1st year classes. Get over it. I am in no hurry.)

My baseline bass is a Steinberg L-Series headless and almost body-less bass. I’ve owned a couple of these instruments in the last thirty years and, currently, own and play a Hohner knock-off of this bass. I love everything about my Hohner from the low weight to the perfect balance to the sound. The only thing I don’t love is the look, which is always a heavily enameled solid color body and neck with a rosewood fingerboard. If the guitar is going to be made from wood, which my Hohner is and my Steinbergers were not. The headless design was not an option for the first year guitar design course. One of the failures from my acoustic guitar build was my original intention to make my instrument from all-domestic wood. I screwed up my first two walnut fingerboards and my one-piece walnut neck block and had to start over quickly, so I snagged a slab of quarter-sawn rosewood and a mahogany neck block from a guitar builder who was dumping material stock cheap and those two critical parts of the instrument ended up coming from imported wood.

This time, I wanted to avoid that and my design was for all walnut; partially because I love the look of walnut and partially because I wanted to take a second look at a design I started almost 40 years ago. That design was based on the B.C. Rich Mockingbird body and incorporated a fretless Fender Precision neck. Considering my rookie woodworking status, that instrument came out pretty well, except that it weighed close to 50 pounds. I started with a 2” thick piece of old growth walnut that I’d milled myself from rough walnut stock I’d found in a friend’s barn. For my current instrument, I wanted everything I’d accomplished with that original instrument without the physical stress. Literally, my bandmates called my old bass “the refrigerator” because between the bass and the Star roadcase, hauling that thing up a flight of stairs was a lot like carrying a refrigerator with one hand. It currently resides in my daughter’s music room where no one has played it for decades. Honestly, it was a terrific bass, sonically, but it will cut a groove in your shoulder that will bisect the player if given enough time.

IMG_8135IMG_8134Once the bass was assembled and finished, I had to decide where to install the strap pins. My working theory was “balanced,” So, I fooled around with clamps, string, and a strap until I found a location that appeared to be evenly balanced. I wrestled with this measurement for quite a while and mentally wrestled with my memory of instrument feel, strap constriction or flexibility (tightly restrained or hyper loose like the classical acoustic guitar strap attachment), and the concept of “balance” for hours. Finally, I decided to blow off convention and attach the strap in the two places shown in these two pictures. Punching holes in my recently sanded, finished, and polished instrument wasn’t an easy move and going for something less convention for the neck position pin was a mental stretch.


The picture at left shows what balanced looks like. The guitar hangs perfectly neutral when the neck is parallel to the ground. This sort of defeats about 50% of the reason I designed in that “handle” at the top of the instrument, but I thought balance was more important than justifying my design geekiness. Turns out, balanced is not particularly comfortable in a bass, at least for me. While my Steinberger/Hohner L-Series instruments are, in fact, balanced, a slight increase in headstock weight makes a body-heavy strap positon a lot more desireable. For one, I have short limbs (and fingers) and I end up pulling the neck up and slightly to my right when I play the bass. So, I repositioned the neck pin as far up that “handle” as possible, which is pretty much exactly where everyone else on the planet puts a neck strap pin. The end result was a much more comfortable balance and a more relaxed playing position. Which, of course, everyone who has built an electric guitar in the last 75 years knew before I decided to test traditional thinking.

Monday, April 10, 2017

I Can’t Hear You!

lead_960Sometime in the 1980’s at the Los Angeles Audio Engineering Society (AES) convention a group of university audiologists offered to administer free hearing tests to any of the few thousand audio “professionals” attending the convention. “Free” is a pretty enticing price to most of the economic class of people who make a living in professional audio and the audiologists got a decent sample from a variety of what passes for disciplines in the audio profession: recording technicians, producers, live sound technicians, electrical design engineers, company management, etc. What they found shouldn’t have been surprising, but it apparently was either surprising or aggravating. In that year’s AES Journal and in an audiologists’ academic journal, the group reported that the majority of the audio professionals from recording to live sound were either “functionally deaf” or close enough to deaf for rock and roll. You might imagine that information would have been both enlightening and startling, but you’d be overestimating the intelligence of human beings. The immediate effect of learning that sound professionals are hard-of-hearing was that the members voted to ban hearing testing from all future conventions. I guess “hear no evil” extends to all bad news?

It shouldn’t be surprising that the people who work in the least health-regulated, highest volume occupations in the world are hearing damaged. It would be amazing if they weren’t. The surprise is that their reaction to this information was to ignore it. I suppose, like most areas of human activity, economics is the motivator. If our hearing-damaged customers learned that the people they pay to deliver a reasonably high quality audio product couldn’t hear the difference between a Neuman U87 and a busted Shure SM58 or a high quality studio monitor and a well-used Yamaha NS-10, they might be inspired to pay even less for our already barely-valued “talents.” It doesn’t help that the most-deaf musicians of the last ten or twenty generations of humans, 1960’s and 70’s rock icons, like Neil Young, Peter Townshend, Eric Clapton, Jack White, etc. are all not only poster-children for a variety of hearing-impaired charities but loud and insistent advocates for every golden ear’d bullshit from analog recording to high-def digital standards. Most likely, if these guys can convince you to spend more money on “high quality” versions of their work, you also believe Goldman Sachs deserved bailing out in 2008. From the performers to the audio technicians to our audience, hearing damage is key to practically everything we do.

Access-Audiology-Sept2013-Figure-2The local performance theater is a great example. Red Wing, MN is a fairly typical small town (with a much larger town’s city budget thanks to a nearby nuclear power plant and its property taxes) with an aging population. The theater has “assistive listening devices available at no charge,” but like most such places you have to know this stuff is there to ask for it and, like most old and deaf people, the ones who need it the most are the ones who consistently shout “I can’t hear you!” at the dinner table. So, driven by the complaints of the deaf and dumber the production manager has spent a couple hundred thousand dollars on sound reinforcement equipment for an 800 person capacity facility. No, that doesn’t make the place sound better; it’s just a whole lot louder. That means the few people in the audience who are capable of hearing full-range music are being sacrificed for the deaf audience, hearing-impaired musicians, and the quickly-going-deaf FOH tech. This is a whole new definition of “disabled access,” where the disabled are empowered to equally disable everyone else.

It’s possible that, someday, human evolution will catch up to birds and most vertebrates (like lizards, fish, and frogs) and we’ll develop a repair mechanism for hearing damage. It’s about as likely that we’ll find a cure for the Dunning-Kruger effect and humans will suddenly stop our mindless drive toward the Sixth Extinction . . . but we can always dream. Until then, the obvious and well-known cause for hearing damage—environmental noise exposure—will continue to make us deafer and dumber and that will drive live music louder and force sound quality lower. Pretty soon, audiologists will be banned from every mall and medical facility so they can’t remind us of what we’ve lost.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

More Me!

One of the great curses of being on the providing end of everything in audio from live sound to recording engineering is the “I need more of me syndrome.” Even in the recording studio, the concept of serving the music is a vanishing idea. Everyone who has a place at the table, regardless of how insignificant, feels the need to be treated like a star.

For example, out of the insanity of the moment I recent volunteered (for the third mindless time) to be “production manager” for a local college’s annual variety show. This isn’t even a music school, but a technical college that has one of the country’s rare and precious musical instrument and repair programs. While many of the students are extremely talented musicians and a few are even composers, arrangers, and one-time music program students, very few are planning any sort of career as performers. The show is a wild mix of everything from classical woodwind and horn groups to singer-songerwritters to large horn bands with a full rhythm section. There is about 3-5 minutes of setup time allowed between acts and often that will involve tearing down a set with a dozen chairs and music stands, moving a few large instruments (piano, drum kit), and setting up microphones. To put it mildly, there isn’t any time for either precision or fine tuning, either during the sound check/rehersal or the show. The performers have a couple of months to get their act together, but the crew sees everything for the first time the afternoon of the show.

To simplify a lot of the setup, the microphone system for the show is a pair of Earthworks cardioid condensers in X/Y configuration centered downstage and many of the acts are just positioned quickly around that microphone pair. Instruments like the piano, drum kit(s), guitar, electric bass, etc often are handled with a single well-placed (hopefully) microphone. There are no stage monitors for anyone. The house speaker system has about 170o of dispersion and the house speakers are angled toward the center of the facility (don’t ask) which provides about 100% coverage to around 10kHz to the front 15’ of the stage.

Did I mention that I do this gig for free?

The sound check is performed in reverse order so we can leave the first act’s setup on the stage at the end. This year’s show, and most years are the same, the final act (first up for the sound check) was a decent sized band: three trumpets, four saxes, four trombones, three saxes, piano, drums, bass, and guitar. They made a run through their song and one of the sax players said, “I need a monitor and a mic. Traditionally, everyone on stage would have his own mic and monitor.” My response was, “’Traditionally,’ I shouldn’t have to mic or reinforce a band this big.” There were some laughs from the adults in the room, some whining from the kiddies, and we moved on. I’m always tempted to turn moments like this into teaching opportunities, but I’m trying to learn that I am not the jackass whisperer.

Did I mention that I do this gig for free?

BroadwayBigBandStyle Band BestQualityThe show went fine, I survived it. Afterwards, when I was whining to my wife about having to put up with punk kids who think they are junior college rock stars, she said, “He’s probably confusing those music stands they used to put in front of the musicians for monitors.” I really wanted to tell her she was wrong, but I half-suspect she isn’t. Holy crap! Some dumb kid thinks every guy in Tommy Dorsey’s band had a mic and a monitor? Never underestimate the stupidity of your fellow Americans; it will cost you money.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

You Think You Know What It Sounds Like?

One of the many painful things about being “experienced” (read, “old”) and having a technical background is that not that much surprises me any more. That is not a good thing, it’s not something I can brag about, it’s not something I’m happy about, it’s just a fact. Being surprised, having my stereotypes burst, learning something new and interesting is one of the joys of living. One of the things I loved about teaching music technology to “kids” who were three decades younger than me was being forced to re-evaluate my own biases and experience in a different context. Being retired deprives me of that opportunity and being more than a little disengaged from the necessity of making a living has scraped away some of the desire and requirement to compromise my own standards in the interest of “getting the job done.” When the job isn’t worth doing well, I’d just as soon avoid it altogether. 

So, when I had the opportunity to experience the value of a high quality microphone on vocals I wrote about it on a Facebook group called Move the Mics!, “I was part of an educational experiment this weekend. I ran sound for a regional bluegrass band, The High 48's, who use an AT4050 as their primary vocal mic and a collection of small and large condensers for solo instrument mics. They also have the usual SM58 at one end of the stage for introductions and a few backup vocals. When the banjo player sang or talked into the 58, he was unremarkable. When he sang or spoke into the AT4050, he was a dead ringer for Geoff Muldaur. I should note that I have always disliked the sound of 90% of most vocals through SM58's, but this was just a killer demo of why 58's should only be used to drive nails and for crappy punk vocals.”

I’m exaggerating, of course, and expecting sound geeks to get either humor or comprehend an experiment in quality evaluation is always a mistake. But I was surprised at the “loyalty” and emotion the defenders of the overused, rarely understood, and very successful Shure SM57/58. For example, “There are plenty of other mics I like better, but in a live environment, a 58 on vocals is rarely the weakest link in the chain. It's got good rejection, low handling noise, does well in wind, and is pretty hard to kill. With a little EQ, it works for almost anyone. Better mics are generally less neutral and can be quite picky about which vocalists they sound good on. If I was doing a tour for a band, I'd make sure I had everyone matched up with a great mic, but for doing random shows where you're lucky to get a sound check, a 58 is a safe bet that a good engineer can use to make just about anyone sound decent (well, a decent version of themselves). I wouldn't normally use it for vocals in a studio, but numerous great studio vocal tracks have been made with a 58 over the years, either as scratch vocals that got kept or when a vocalist insisted on holding a mic.

“If the banjo player sounded like a different person through the 58, I would have been scowling at the FOH engineer, not the mic.”

The idea that an SM58 could be EQ’d to sound like a high quality condenser microphone should be ludicrous to anyone experienced with either type of microphone. The delusion that “a 58 on vocals is rarely the weakest link in the chain” demonstrates a severe misunderstanding of the “garbage in, garbage out” concept. A quick look at the basic characteristics of the Shure SM58 should point out more than a few flaws in that claim. Add transient repsonse, noise rejection, phase accuracy, and harmonic and intermodulation distortion to the comparison and the idea that you can “fix” the differences with EQ becomes depressingly familiar.

A comparison to the characteristics of the Audio Technica AT4050 should be enlightening to an experienced, educated audio technician. In it’s worst, least accurate configuration the AT4050 delivers dramatically better frequency response, polar response, and a massively improved proximity characteristic when used at a foot or greater distance. In a group setting, this alone should be eye-opening. One of the defenders of the SM58 went on to say he’d used an SM58 in a chorus performance and it had performed “superbly.” When I expressed both doubt in his hearing and technical competence and gratitude that I hadn’t been forced (ever in my life) to make that kind of sacrifice, his response was to whine that I was jumping to conclusions without having had the pleasure of hearing the mess he’d made out of the performance. I will confess to that “crime.” I’ve heard thousands of miserable amplified live music performances and do not need any more of that kind of experience.
Maslow's golden hammer rule explains, "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail." When the only microphone you know well enough to “trust” is an SM57/58 (and they are not the same hammer), every sound source has the characteristics as a nail. When your only expectation from a microphone is excessive gain-before-feedback and indestructibility, concepts like distortion, transient response, intelligibility, and accuracy are insignificant details. This is one of many reasons why live music is too often a painful and depressing experience to the few remaining people in this country who love music, know what musical instruments sound like, and would like to continue their lives with their hearing undamaged. I wish there was a fix for stupid, but unlike ignorance stupid can not be fixed.

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.