Monday, February 27, 2017

This Is Revenge?

On the way out of my local library last week, I spotted The Revenge of Analog by David Sax on the “new books” shelves. The sub-title is “Real Things and Why They Matter,” which is oddly confusing. I guess I had no idea that real things had ceased to matter or that analog was particularly “real.” Design Magazine did a brief review of this book a while back and I was entertained by the gushing over vinyl records, as I usually am. Revenge spends the first chapter raving about how and why vinyl records have made a big comeback. I think Sax has the how down pat, but is a little fuzzy on the why.

Jack White, the big proponent of vinyl who has yet to make a record that doesn’t sound like shit, has a quote in Revenge that seems to sum up his philosophy, “With vinyl, you’re down on your knees. You’re at the mercy of the needle. You watch the record spoin and it’s like you’re sitting around a campfire. It’s hypnotic.” I have not problem imagining X-geners and Millenials wanting to be down “on their knees” to mediocre technology, but “romance” and messing with cleaning records and putting up with manufacturing defects and high prices don’t seem compatible to me. White, like his idol Neil Young, claims “the actual sound of analogue is ten times better than that of digital.” If that were true, Young would have made a second decent record and White would have made at least one.

If you read Revenge, don’t expect technical competence. Statements like, “Digital music takes an analog sound wave and translates it into 1’s and 0’s, inevitably sacrificing chunks of information, and sound, in the process. Usually, digital files are compressed to a smaller size to make them easier to download and stream, and their volume levels are jacked up to compensate. But none of that really matters to the vast majority of music listneers, who aren’t really that concerned about sound quality.” You might think Sax would have passed something this stupid by someone who knows something about audio engineering, but you’d be wrong.

The book does make one solid point in the chapter on vinyl, though. In explaining why “digital data” is at fault for devaluing popular music,:the ease at which decent recordings can be made with digital technology put the lie to the idea that artists are a rare commodity. With 8 billion people on the planet, it’s pretty hard to imagine that world wouldn’t produce twenty to fifty million musical geniuses. With access to professional quality recording equipment available to most of those few hundred million musicians, the result is a flood of brilliant, original popular music (and hundreds of millions of dramatically lessor talents) and a swamped buying public.

Sax’s take on the studio recording process is even more open-mouthed baffled and impressed. He is so enamored with the past that he didn’t even bother to ask if analog tape and vinyl have any sonic drawbacks. Likewise, when he finally discovers live music, he writes, “a great live band is a bolt of lightning, and an iPod is a lightning bug.” Imagine what he would think if he were to attend an orchestra concert?

indexThe 2nd chapter is titled “The Revenge of Paper.” You’d think it would be about books and magazines, but it’s about a fashion accessory called the “Moleskine notebook.” There is a chapter for “The Revenge of Print,” but since I’m reading this book on my Android tablet it may not carry the appropriate clout, at least in my case.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Freight Train Is Derailed

I’ve been putting this off, along with sleep and anything resembling confidince that my country isn’t going down a fascist shithole, since late January. It’s probably no news to anyone what the Allman Brothers Band drummer, Butch Trucks, is dead. He used the Republican healthcare plan and shot himself on January 25th.

In the 70’s, the Allman Brothers band was the poster band for musical committment. Post-Dwayne, the band combined with a southern fusion jazz band, Sea Level, and the result was “Win, Lose, or Draw” and a terrific collection of additions to the Allman history. I was lucky (Thanks Mike!) to see the group perform in ‘75 and it made an impression on me that still sticks.

Like today, those were tough years. The Vietnam War turned the US into a deficit nation and we have never recovered. The resulting recession was beginning to close off opportunities and hope for the future. Music was about the only positive thing happening for many of my generation. The Midwest, in particular, was undergoing a change that would be relentlessly painful for the next 40 years. By 1983, that change was so complete that it drove me to move to southern California because technology jobs were no longer available anywhere else. Nixon escaped his criminal prosecution with a deal Ford made to become “president for a moment.” The right-left split that finally resulted in Trump and the likely end of the United States of America experiment went into full throttle.

The Allman Brothers Band was a standard of excellence and energy that could levitate listeners above all of that depressing reality for a few moments. Butch Trucks was the “freight train” that moved the band. “High Falls” might be the best example of how important Butch Trucks was to that large and talented ensemble. There are, as far as I can tell, no good video recordings of that band live.

About five years later, a greatly reduced (in talent, energy, and inspiration) version of the Allman Brothers played at the college in Lincoln, Nebraska. My company provided the stage monitors and I did the stage left monitor mix. Butch Trucks was almost close enough to touch throughout the show.

For the most part, it was Dickie Betts’ band and that was not a good thing. Greg Allman was a drug dazed shadow of himself and when he sang his keyboard playing stopped almost entirely from the effort required just to manage the lyrics of songs he’d been singing for two decades. He had to be led onto and off of the stage, like a brain damaged child. Dickie’s solos were interminable and boring. Getting to work with the band was something I’d looked forward to since the first time I saw them, but after the first couple of songs, I just wanted it to be over with so I could pack up our gear and go home.

rs-derek-trucks-butch-trucks-ff5aa0e1-2034-4848-9a46-2261f5ef26a7The only worthwhile bit in the gig was getting to help Butch Trucks setup and watch him play. Regardless of the band’s turmoil and dysfunction, Trucks just kept truckin’. He was a human freight train who propelled the band through their repertoire, in spite of themselves. Unlike the rest of the band members, Butch stuck around to help disassemble his kit and thanked us for our work on the show.

butchtrucksI’m sorry his last years weren’t happy enough to make him stick around to see how it all turns out. I understand, though. My wife says that age illustrates a person’s character in the lines of their face. I think you can see Butch’s character pretty clearly in this picture.

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.