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.
http://studiospares.s3.amazonaws.com/prd/401820/at4050dia.jpg
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.