Sunday, August 23, 2020

Making Mistakes and Living with Them

Exactly seven years ago, today (8/23/2013), I sold my 1973 Dobro D-66 to Paul Mayasich for $1700. I wrote the following words the day after that guitar walked out of my life. I was incredibly depressed at the time. I had quit my teaching gig at MSCM after a 13+ year career there; probably the best job (at times) I had in my 55 year working life and when it ended almost all of the things I loved about that school were gone. My wife and I were leaving home for the winter and I wasn't looking forward to any part of traveling in a camper. 

This piece sounds really self-pitying; and it was. I was whipped. Since then, a few things have changed. Due to the onset of arthritis in my hands, I went back to playing guitar after we moved to Red Wing in 2015. In fact, I'm playing more now than I have in the last 30 years. I still suck, but I'm enjoying myself. I have been diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, which pretty much puts a terminal punctuation mark in my future. I'm not sure what the point in allowing this to post in 2020 would be, but I decided to let it stay on the queue to remind myself of . . . something.

I bought the Dobro (pictured at left) from one of the blues guys who used to play at the Howard Street Tavern, sometime around 1976. It was a well-used instrument when I bought it. Back in those good days, I ran sound occasionally at the Tavern, rented guitars, amps, and other gear to the bar when a traveling musician or band needed gear that wasn't available from the usual culprits, and bought and sold instruments, petals, and amps to pretty much anyone who called in the middle of the night strung-out, hung-over, in jail, or broke in Omaha or Lincoln. This great old guitar was the last holdover from that period of my life.

I can not explain this, but I was almost infinitely sad about giving up this instrument. I know, "Why did you sell it if you were going to miss it that badly?" The reason was that I was dumping all of my old pipe-dreams, one at a time, until I either found something to care about or decided I was too old, too burned out, too disappointed to care about anything.
After the guitar walked out of my life, I took our dog for a walk. It took about a mile of walking before it sank in that I'd given up an instrument that had been so much of my life during some of the best moments of my life. The real reason I was selling all of my guitars and equipment also sank in; at 65 if I never played another note, sang another song, or even whistled a tune, nobody would care. Not a single person who has ever heard me play guitar or sing has been positively affected by my love of music. A few weeks back, the wife of a friend was bugging me to pick a song and sing for a small group of friends. I begged off, eventually leaving the party to get out of being asked to perform. The real reason was that I was convinced that once she heard me sing or play that would be the last time she'd ask for that torture. When you know how the movie ends, you don't need to stay for the credits.

If you need a definition of failure, this is it. A friend, Scott Jarrett, quoted a car mechanic as saying, "You haven't failed, if you haven't quit." I quit on music, more than once in the last 60 years. When I was a kid, I was one of the few guys I knew in bands who wasn't playing music "for the chicks." In fact, I had almost no interest at all in the girls who hung out around bands and bars. I was there for the music. Worse, I didn't want to be a rock star, I wanted to be a jazzman.

Growing up in western Kansas with shit for a musical environment--and the polar opposite of the parents who used to drag their bored adolescent douchebags into the Musictech/McNally Smith College open houses hoping their offspring would become famous musicians--was a lot more than an uphill battle. It would have required superhuman abilities and commitment. I was more like subhuman. I copped out and played pop music, including a fair number of original tunes, because I had no idea how to get from beginner to jazz player. There were no such animals in Dodge City, Kansas in 1963. When I left home in 1965, there were still no such animals in Dodge or western Kansas and I wouldn't meet any until a decade later.

I got married when I was 19. Somehow, I thought my new wife liked my music and my playing. It turned out that she liked my "dependability" and the fact that I could manage to hold a job and support her. My music was rarely a significant part of me, as far as she was concerned. By the time we'd been married for six or seven years, she was close to hating the aspect of my playing that required practice. There wasn't a place in any of our homes that was far enough away from her to keep her from complaining about my playing. A real musician would have taken that as a sign that we were incompatible. I have never been a real musician or any kind of artist. Over the next two decades, I quit practicing and the less I practiced, the less I could tolerate my playing and less I wanted to play. Today, I can barely stand to touch a guitar because I suck so badly. So, seven years ago I sold my favorite guitar to a man who was a musician. I can't decide if I missed the guitar or the hope once had that I might become a musician.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Making Your Own TC Helicon Perform and Play Acoustic 3 and 6 Switch Pedal Boxes

 Just for laughs, I decided to make my own version of the TC Helicon Switch 3 and Switch 6. First, because I'm cheap and have the "spare time" to do the research and assembly work and, second, because I wanted to fool around with "swirl painting."So, I did. 

What you see in these picture at left is the result. To highlight how cheap I really am, the 6-switch unit was made with the cover of  a gas water heater I had to replace this past winter. I made a nice looking wooden base for it, but you can only see the wood base when you are holding the switch box. The wood does add a decent amount of mass to the assembly, though, which helps to hold it in place on the floor. 

The 3-switch unit is a pretty simple and obvious device, except for the 3rd switch. As you can see from the schematic at right, the first two switches connect from ground/common to the ring or tip connector of the TRS jack. The third switch connects to both tip and ring through a pair of diodes (pay attention to the correct polarity) and to ground/common. It's not complicated wiring and the parts are cheap. 

I bought a pile (10) of cheap SPST momentary switches from Amazon and used them on both switch boxes. After almost a year of use, they are still working well. They are cheap plastic and I'm sure ham-footed use would break them and if you dawdle with the soldering iron you'll likely melt the plastic holding the solder tab. The switches must be momentary. If they aren't, you'll have to press the switch twice for each change action. That is NOT handy.

The six-switch unit is a little trickier than the three switch unit and requires some planning and assembly skills. Not many, though. Along with the  six SPST momentary switches, you'll need another TRS jack and seven 10k ohm resistors (anything, wattage-wise, will work). You can see I staggered my switches, mostly because I did not want a long switch box and because my TC Helicon PerformVG only has four harmony combinations that I am likely to use, so the two offset switches are for voice echo and guitar echo, which I almost never use. 
 I've included a second drawing for the six-switch unit, in case that layout makes more sense to you. They look different, but they are exactly the same circuit. The drawing at right might more resemble the physical layout of your assembly, which might make error-free assembly easier. I should note that I did not create any of the drawings included in this blog. I snagged them off of the internet, like you probably did when you found this essay. I should go back and find my sources, but that was about a year ago and I'm lazy. So, I didn't draw them, I apologize for not giving full credit where credit is due, and I used them and they work. In fact, the 3-switch unit works incredibly well on my Roland Cube Bass, too.

This is what my performance rig looks like, including a Bluetooth page-turner footswitch, a cheap Android 10" tablet for lyrics and chords, the TC Helicon PerformVG voice and guitar processor, and my trusty and beloved EV RE18 microphone. That and a powered speaker and I'm a louder-than-I-should-be busker or coffee house performer (should I ever want to be such a thing). With a set of in-ears, I can entertain myself for hours.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Me Too Censorship?

I occasionally post songs on a website and app,, just to broaden the palettes of the usual culprits who frequent suck places. Mostly, I'm correcting chords or lyrics for the songs I perform, just so my own app has the story right for me to play. (I don't bother to remember many songs in my old age.) I think I have posted about 100 songs to now. This week, I got a surprise. I posted a 2005 Buddy Guy song, "What Kind of Woman Is This," and the site "rejected" it. I have posted songs like "You're An Asshole" without any sort of censure. I suspect the lyric, "You should be locked up, pretty girl, in my bedroom with me." is the culprit. Fuck 'em if they want to screw with Buddy Guy.

Monday, February 10, 2020

It Just Doesn’t Matter to Me? I Guess Not

The title of a article, “Are You Forgetful? That's Just Your Brain Erasing Useless Memories” struck a nerve with me. The contents of the article reinforced that reaction. For almost 40 years, I’ve complained that when I quit playing in bands in the early-80’s I lost the ability to remember song lyrics. A neuroscientist, Dr. Blake Richards explains that we mistakenly believe that the “argument is that memory isn’t supposed to act like a video recorder, but instead like a list of useful rules that help us make better decisions.”

For 15+ years, I had hundreds of songs memorized—lyrics, chord progressions, solos, harmonies and melodies—and within a few weeks, of my deciding that playing in a live band wasn’t for me, all of that vanished. Before the year was out, all of those once-useful memories disappeared and, for the most part, I didn’t give it a moment of thought. I was very busy in my new life. Off and on over the next four decades I would occasionally and unsuccessfully try to learn a new song and be mildly baffled at my lack of success. I wouldn’t make the attempt again for several years each time.

This idea that importance is linked to memory isn’t new to me. 30 years ago, I started a new career as an engineer in a medical device company. Part of my job included training new employees, sales representatives, doctors and nurses in the company’s products. I had been doing in-house industrial training since the 1970’s, but those experiences were considerably less formal (product certifications were involved in medical devices) and the outcome of my new job’s training product could be life-or-death. I was renting a room from a friend when I first started in that job and he regularly amazed me with his ability to remember our “students’” names. I am sure I told him, “I just can’t remember names.”

We regularly watched NBA games after work, I was still a big Showtime L.A. Lakers fan and we were watching a game at the time. He replied, “Bullshit. You know the names of every NBA player down to the 13th guy on the bench. You just don’t care about the sales reps’ names.”

Of course, he was right. I didn’t. For the most part, I never did care about sales reps’ names, ever.

A decade later, I was beginning another new career as a college educator. One of the instructors in my new department was fired, partially, because he couldn’t be bothered to learn the names of the students in his half-dozen student labs. Listening to my new boss talk about how he felt that was disrespectful, I promised myself that I would learn my students’ names if it required tattooing their names on my eyeballs. For the most part, I managed that objective and I did it be making sure that I always cared about my students as human beings and potential associates in the industry within which we were all aspiring to work.

Finally, back to why I can’t remember songs today, I really don’t care about individual songs enough to memorize them. I have to admit that. I don’t believe, at this point in my life, songs are an important thing in my life. Music is important, but specific songs are not. Pop music has been the soundtrack to my whole life, but it has been a 50-year-long soundtrack. Other than the jazz that I stumbled upon when I was 11 or 12, specific pieces of music have held almost no claim to my life. Music as an overall thing is not-lifesaving or threatening. Musicians and their music comes and goes and is forgotten or remembered at random based on mostly emotional, juvenile nonsense. People in my generation “love” the Beatles because they were young and cute and hopeful when they first heard that music. Today, they are mostly MAGA assholes who would burn the world to a crisp just to hang on to their gas-guzzling SUVs and golf carts. My kids’ generation clings to punk and metal and disco for the same lame reasons. And on that silliness goes.

I like all kinds of music from pretty much every generation that has touched my life: not all of any of it, but there is some music from every period between the 1920’s (my grandparents’ music) to today (my grandkids’ music) that strikes my fancy in some way. But I don’t love any of it, at least any of it that I’m technically capable of playing, enough to spend the energy and braincells to memorize it. And now that I know why I seem to be unable to memorize music, I’m going to quit beating myself up for that “inability.” I have almost 500 songs on my performance tablet, charted, organized,

The one exception to that failed memory in the last 10 years has been Tom Waits’ “Shiver Me Timbers.” The lyric to that song, if you know me and my life, is clearly why that song remains important to me:

  • I'm leaving my family,
  • leaving all my friends.
  • My body's at home,
  • but my heart’s in the wind.

The first time I heard that song, at the end of a “Numb3rs” television episode, it struck a chord (literally and pun intended) with me that stuck like glue. That song’s lyrics are important to me. In the last year, a John Mayer song, “Walt Grace's Submarine Test, January 1967," is beginning to stick, too. The lyric, “with a library card and a will to work hard” found a place in me that is as personal and important as “Shiver Me Timbers.”

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Audio Is Dead, Long Live Texting

Tonight, I tried to have a conversation with someone on an Apple garble-machine, aka iPhone. Holy crap! What is the point in having a microphone on a device that is that grossly incapable of audio communications? The iPhone owner tried to pronounce the name of the street where I was going several times; “Sturdvant,” “Stirant,” “Sylbant,” “Sylvan,” etc. I asked him to spell it, but that attempt was so distorted that I almost suspected he was including letters from the Cyrillic alphabet. I made my best guess and was wrong, but both Google and Garmin sent me to an address that didn’t exist without even the slightest mention that they had picked a spot in the middle of an intersection where, obviously, there was no house.

Another friend just got a new iPhone last month and has still failed to figure out how that silly device can be used as a telephone. It kicks ass on the web and texting, but talking to people is just not one of its capabilities. I suggested he try using Skype on the phone, just for laughs. He did, but the problem is with both the iPhone’s shit microphone and even worse speaker; although the speaker did work better on Skype than it does through the “phone app.”

It’s easy and unfair to ridicule young people for their texting default. They’ve grown up with telephones that are incapable of being telephones and as their voices have atrophied their thumbs have become nimble. While their thumbs are far more versatile than, for example, mine, the combination of trying to type with a pair of fat digits on a crappy virtual keyboard plus those godawful “helpers” that replace “their” with “there” and “weather” with “whether” and “you’re” with “your” and the rest of the syntax errors we’re being trained to ignore, their English language skills are atrophying into grunts and groans. Just in time for Trump’s “fake news” world to take advantage of a culture of total illiterate fools.

Monday, December 9, 2019

My Momentary Folk Singer Career

In the fall of 1967, my father withdrew about $3,000 from my college savings fund and the family took a “vacation” and dumped me in Dallas, Texas. The plan was that I would be attending a fly-by-night Texas for-profit computer school. The reality was that my father thought I was wasting my life trying to be a musician and he figured I’d follow my money where ever he decided to send it. He was, of course, right; in his weird, passive-aggressive way. I had earned that money throwing newspapers between the ages of 11 and 13 and working at the Dodge City Boot Hill Front Street Replica tourist trap for two summers from age 13 to 14. I, of course, wanted to spend that money on music equipment, but my father would have none of that. Worst case, I figured I would be far enough from Kansas and my fundamentalist whackadoodle family to completely break free from them and start my own life. 

The school, as you would expect, turned out to be a fraudulent joke. The school’s “dormitory” was a 1920’s flophouse full of bums, drunks, thieves, and a dozen-or-so computer school “students.” After a week in the flophouse, a half-dozen of us started looking for a better place to live. We found a house we could rent for about the same money as the flophouse, sans flophouse food. That lasted for a month because one of our roommates ate everything that came into the house and bought nothing. When he tried to “borrow” money for the 2nd month’s rent, we scattered. Two of the guys, twin brothers (Larry and Gary)  from Lawrence, KS, found an apartment in Old East Dallas and I rented a tiny garage apartment from the same landlord. By then, more than half of the school’s students had dropped out and most of them were suing the school for fraud; among other things. One of the more experienced guys had recommended that we join the lawsuit, but my father had already been conned into giving the school a 2nd semester tuition as a payoff for my dropping out. For an accounting teacher, his math skills were consistently suspect. His capacity for critical thinking was never suspect because it was never evident. I kept going to the school, even though most of the instructors had quit and the already obsolete computer equipment had been repossessed. 

About the time I moved into the garage apartment, a friend from Kansas, Ed, who was burning time before his delayed induction into the Army date moved in with me. We had written a few dozen songs together and decided to try some of them as folk songs. There was a bar a few blocks from the apartment and coffee shops from Lakewood Heights to downtown Dallas. Best of all was the Rubaiyat, the premier Texas folk club/coffee shop of the day. Ed stayed for a couple of weeks, just long enough to help me connect to some of the folk music scene. Toward his last few days in Dallas, our act had started to attract a weird collection of “side men” to our act; percussion players, “singers,” guys blowing into bottles and South American flutes, an upright bass player or two. Some characters brought instruments they often couldn’t play at all, so they’d just bang on them. There was no money in any of it, so that act took on a name that included the words “jug band.” That is all I remember about the group name, too. Jug bands were a thing then, for a brief moment. 

Once, we accidentally ended up being one of the intro acts for a major (for the time) folk singer. It kills me that I can’t remember if it was Tom Paxton, Tom Rush, Tim Buckley, Tim Hardin, or it could have been someone I have completely forgotten. The first name stated with “T,” I was not a folk music guy at the time, although I loved Bob Dylan and covered several of his pre-electric era songs. I wouldn't have known Rush from Paxton from Buckley at the time, but I did cover Hardin's "Reason to Believe."

Ed and I showed up, but the rest of the menagerie did not, so we did a half-dozen original songs and gave up the stage to the headliner. As I walked off of the stage, whoever that T-guy was said, “You know what it’s supposed to sound like.” 

[The picture at right is just a Rubaiyat poster, not a bill that our group was on.]

I will never know if that was a compliment or sarcasm. If you know me, you would be correct in assuming I lean toward believing it was sarcasm. We were 19 and 20-year-old kids from Kansas.

A day or two later, Ed headed off to basic training. I ended up dropping out of my bogus computer school, shacking up with my wife, Robbye, diving into the Dallas hippie world (sans drugs), and almost giving up music entirely. I really wanted to be an R&B guitarist, but couldn’t cut it in that competitive environment. I loved playing guitar or bass in an R&B band, but playing solo folk music scared the crap out of me. Still does. Occasionally, I would stop in at the Rubaiyat and play with one of the other groups or do a couple original songs. One of those songs, “Dixie Lead,” was recorded at the club and got a little late night FM radio play, as a protest against one of the many grossly polluting factories in east Dallas. And that was my first experience in the big city.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Double-Edged Swords

A friend recently ended a jam session complaining, “I’m worried that musicians today don’t even know the names of the people I grew up idolizing and imitating.” (Or something close to that.) 

I responded with, “That goes both ways, with most of the folks in our generation pretending that no good music has happened since the 70’s or 80’s.” That was not received well. 

I just reviewed a book that I, mostly, disliked for the same reasons, A Craftsman’s Legacy by Eric Gorges, and you can read my opinion of that book on my Geezer with A Grudge blog. Every old generation imagines that it not only invented the wheels of society but perfected them so that every following generation can only screw up the work that went before them. It takes a special sort of arrogant blindness to believe that, but humans are really good at both arrogance and blind belief. It’s one of many things that has always convinced me that the natural state of human “civilization” is chaos. I wrapped up my review of A Craftsman’s Legacy with this: 

“Finally, I firmly believe that everything that requires skill is improved by every generation. You may be one of those addled characters who imagines that ‘good music’ stopped being made in 1960, 1970, 1980, or whenever, but you’re wrong. Likewise, most 1970’s era pro basketball players wouldn’t make the team for, even the freakin’ Clippers, today. Even Michael Jordan would have a hard time playing on a winning team today. It’s true that many people knew how to repair their cars and motorcycles in the 1950’s; because they needed to. A vehicle that lasted 25,000 miles without needing major work in 1950’s was a rarity. Today, we call any vehicle that fails before 200,000 miles a ‘lemon.’ Today, if I had to go to battle with a 15th Century sword I’d just use it on myself to get it over with efficiently. Vintage ‘skills’ are that because they are no longer state-of-the-art and, as such, are obsolete. If you think someone with a hammer and coal-fired forge can turn out a better steel tool than a modern factory, you’re only fooling yourself. If you don’t think a modern adventure touring motorcycle isn’t as well crafted as one of Gorge’s hippo-bikes, you don’t know what the word ‘craftsmanship’ means. If you think someone cobbling out plodding, non-functional ‘choppers, bobbers, and diggers’ could get a job on a modern factory motorcycle race team doing . . . anything, you are probably the ideal reader for A Craftsman’s Legacy.

I absolutely believe all of that and even a moderate amount of exposure to the best of today’s young musicians would force almost anyone to acknowledge that the “good old” stuff is practically unlistenable in comparison. I admit that I’m not a typical Boomer in my tastes. I didn’t like the Beatles (but I am a huge George Martin fan, he could turn sow's ears into silk purses, repeatedly) or much of the British Invasion in the 60’s and I like most of that stuff even less now. A lot of great music, from R&B to jazz, was bounced off of popular radio by “yeah, yeah, yeah” and other teenybopper bullshit between 1964 and the early 80’s and I don’t think popular music has ever recovered from the damage done. Another Boomer friend commented on the “trivial character” of current music lyrics, as if songs-about-nothing like the Beatle’s “Hey Jude” or “Long and Winding Road” or “Number 9” and pretty much every Led Zeppelin song that wasn’t stolen aren’t only trivial but annoying. At least the Stones had “Street Fightin’ Man” had a point. 

That is such a lame complaint. It’s pop music, dude; music for kids by kids. Don’t expect poetry or meaningful commentary on the state of humanity from kids. 

Just because we’re old and full of ourselves now doesn’t mean that we were solid citizens or brilliantly insightful and creative 50 years ago. I am a firm believer in Theodore Sturgeon’s “90% of everything is crap” rule. I can’t think of a period where the overwhelming majority of popular music wasn’t garbage. For example, the furthest up the US pop singles charts Jimi Hendrix ever made it was #20 with “All Along the Watchtower” in late 1968. The chart topper at that time was “Harper Valley PTA” followed by the Beatles’ lamest ever “Hey Jude.”  Hendrix had 4 successful albums, If you look at almost any moment in pop music history, you’ll be discouraged at how generally mediocre the “hits” are. It was true in 1920 and it will be true in 2020 and 2050. The tastes of the average imbecile are predictably dismal. That casts no reflection on that period’s best and brightest, who will likely be an improvement on the skills and creativity of previous generations until humans vanish from the planet.

Qulter MicroBlock 45 Guitar Amplifier


Another brilliant product from the amazing mind of Patrick Quilter. Sticking with tubes just keep getting sillier, but the silliness just took an amazing turn to ridiculous.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Intermittents and Typical Repairs

A while back, a friend “gave” me a Mackie 12” TH-12A powered stage monitor when he was clearing out his shop of things he either didn’t want or didn’t want to spend time trying to fix. I have no reason to want a powered stage monitor, but for whatever reason I decided I wanted to take a crack at seeing if I could fix the monitor. I like Mackie gear and when it breaks unreasonably easily, I get curious. The symptom was “no power indicator or output.” Supposedly, someone renting the speaker had dropped it and it didn’t power up after that incident. My friend had already made a quick attempt at troubleshooting the speaker and confirmed the reported symptom. 

Because of the previous repair, the amp panel had already been removed from the speaker box and the wiring disconnected. My first suspicion is always “connectors and solder connections.” To remove the first likely candidate, I always check the connectors, physically, and clean the connections. A smarter person would re-connect the amp to the speakers and confirm the initial diagnosis, but I wasn’t doing this for money and I didn’t really care if the solution turned out to be overly simple. I was back in my teenage mode of just wanting to see how the product was assembled and looking at the thing out of curiosity, first, and problem-solving, second. There are advantages to being less-than-meticulous about documenting an organized repair. The first of those advantages is that I spend more effort exploring, examining, and learning than I do ticking off boxes and accounting for my time. 

A disadvantage to this process is that it is entirely possible to trip an intermittent fault back into operation and I wouldn’t know that I’d even passed over the intermittent. In my experience, at least 50% of the electronic problems I’ve been asked to troubleshoot are intermittent, which is the nature of connectors and solder connection failures. They rarely outright fail, unless there is enough current in the area of the fault to cause complete failure by burning, arcing, or in-rush current causing damage to other related components. 

What I found during my inspection was that several of the Molex connectors (see red circled connectors in the picture at right) had received enough tension from their attached wires to pull the male base up along the length of the pins; possibly removing contact from the female socket. That isn’t a problem you’d expect to see in a typical application, but Mackie had cut the speaker wires short enough that there was no strain relief possible and the weight of the wire put some strain on the connectors. One of the first things I noticed in inspecting the power amp board was that the woofer male base had slid more than half-way up the pins. Looking around the boards, I found at least two more connectors with a similar appearance. 

With that background, I disconnected, one-at-a-time, all of the Molex connectors, pressed the male header firmly against the PCB, cleaned the connectors with Caig DeoxIT, reassembled the male and female connectors, and glued the connectors to each other and the PCB with a latex adhesive. After cleaning and reattaching all of the Mackie’s connectors, I power up the speaker and found that it worked. I let the adhesive cure for a few hours and gave the amp some signal while tapping all over the amp and power supply assemble looking for intermittent operation. Not finding any evidence of intermittent operation, I “burned it in” for several hours at a variety of volume levels. With some confidence that I’d found the problem, I gave the speaker back to its owner. 

This kind of repair reminds me of the many things that were always frustrating as a repair tech. First, troubleshooting intermittent failures is miserable work. When you are "finished," at best you feel you've done everything you could to be certain you've fixed the problem(s), but you are never even close to 100% confident. Intermittent faults have a Murphy's Law mind of their own. I used to joke that about half of the problems I'd been called in to repair "fixed themselves the moment they saw a toolbox." Of course, half of that half were user error issues that often cleared themselves up before or immediately after I arrived. That kind of repair is really difficult to convince customers that my time still needed to be paid for. 

Early on in the last version of Wirebender Audio Services, I quit taking telephone calls for service work because a few customers would pretend they didn't know who called me, when the problem "fixed itself." A few of those customers learned that I never forget being stiffed and whined like spoiled children when they learned that under no circumstances would I ever do work for them again. In the case of the Mackie speaker repair, I have a couple other ideas to chase down if the intermittent operation comes back to haunt me, but since I didn't have an associated bill with the original repair I can be fairly relaxed about the whole affair. 

Monday, August 26, 2019

Being A Musician

Lots of people believe that there is something sort of magical about being a musician or being “musical.” A friend who is the poster child for all things musical once came to a local weekend jam session when he was visiting for a week. Afterwards, he said something about the folks from that group not being “musicians.” And I asked what he meant, mostly because I have always been fairly embarrassed at the fact that after playing guitar for almost sixty years I still suck. 

He said, “There are three things that you have to have to be a musician; 1) you need to know music theory and technique for your instrument, 2) you need a decent sense of rhythm, and 3) you need to listen. If you have any one of those qualities, you could be a musician. If you have all of them, you probably are a good musician. Most of the people in that room (the local jam session) couldn’t make a claim to any of those qualities.” 

And he was right. 

To be fair, some of the people in the jam session were beginners; regardless of age. However, my friend’s #3 point, listening, is something anyone who wants to be a musician should develop really early. Honestly, it should come easier than it apparently does. 

One of the many things that drove me away from live performance was the fact that it was close to impossible to put together a group of 4 or more people who would bother to listen to the output of the group. In the recording studio, you can compensate for your performers’ inability to listen to the music. You track every instrument and every voice, one-at-a-time, and you mix the outcomes into something that may resemble a “performance.” Getting human beings to act like musicians is, sometimes, as close to impossible as getting old white people to think about anything but themselves. 

For example, that same jam session occasionally attracts a local character who thinks of himself as being almost famous. He knows a half-dozen songs, mostly old time bluegrass/country tunes, and he plays and sings them really loud. The format in this session is generally set and designed so that everyone gets a chance to pick a song and sing it; if they want to. You can always pass on your turn, but everyone usually gets one. Unless “almost famous” shows up. He uses every pause in the action as his moment to either tell a story about himself or to start hammering away on another song. At best, the cycle goes: someone in the group picks a song, “almost famous” does a song, someone else does a song, “almost famous” does another, and so on. 

Not surprisingly, “almost famous” complained that he couldn’t hear the other players guitars over his own instrument; especially when someone took a solo on one of his tunes. His solution was to get a PA into this normal, reverberant room. The person he complained to, one of the better players in the group, suggested that he try to hammer his guitar more quietly when others were playing. His response was, “This guitar just doesn’t do quiet well. It’s really loud.” I was fortunate not to be eating or drinking anything at that moment. Otherwise, I might have sprayed the group. 

Guitars, especially acoustic guitars, are capable of substantial dynamic range. Guitar players, especially electric guitar players, are rarely able to shut up or lower their volume at all unless you put sheet music in front of them. This particular acoustic guitarist had never been in a situation where he had to listen to anyone else while he played. At almost 70-years-old with five decades of “music" performance behind him, it’s probably too late for him to learn the most basic requirement of being a musician. That is something really scary to consider.

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.