Sunday, September 19, 2021

Confusing the Facts and Confusing Facts

 In my never-ending drive to eliminate unused bullshit from my life, I’ve been trying to sell an old, unused Sony turntable for the last month. Today, a buyer came and took it away. A super-nice guy who has taken up hobby electronics as a COVID distraction and who has an intimidating “collection” of 1960-1970s audio equipment. What he calls “warm” sounding is what audio techs and producers called solid state “harsh” and what electronic engineers know is “slew and IM distortion.” His description of post-70s consumer audio gear was “clinical” or “transparent.” (Who knew transparent amplification was a bad thing?) Of course I’ve heard these arguments from guitar players and equally weird and undefined stuff from audiophiles for decades. I would have never thought 70s Japanese audio equipment would become desirable. I am not making a claim for any sort of audio clairvoyance, though. Similarly, I didn’t think 50’s juke boxes would ever be worth anything, so I probably tore apart at least 100 of ‘em for the tube power amps and tossed the rest of the bits into my local garbage dump.

Then my buyer dumped a bit of marketing information on me that I had to look up later, “Last year [2020], vinyl outsold CDs. You know what? That is true. “Vinyl has emerged triumphant in the physical format war, overtaking CD sales [on a monetary basis] for the first time in over 30 years.” The key phrase here is “physical format,” which are CDs, vinyl, cassettes (yep, they still exist), and a tiny portion of other assorted formats like reel-to-reel tape. Vinyl sales have doubled from $333.4M (2015) to $619.6M (2020). That might seem impressive, except total physical music sales fell by $413M in that same period and the RIAA reports that music industry revenues went from $6.7B (2015) to $12.2B (2020) in the same period. For instance, CDs sales went from 1.4B in 2015 to 483M in 2020. Another way of looking at that data is to say total physical media revenue fell from 5% to about 4% in that 5 year period.

Even more interesting is that the industry’s peak physical revenue year was 1999 when total physical revenues were $31.8B; or 513 times the 2020 physical media revenue, CDs produced 13.2B in revenue in 2000 and declined rapidly from that point to today with a string of billion-dollar declines per year until the sales were close to what they are today. So, this is a kind of “triumph” that most industries would like to avoid. Inflation-adjusted (see the above graph), you can get an even more dramatic view of how far the mighty CD and LP have fallen since their peak years of 1977 (for the LP) and 1999 (CD).

So, the increase in vinyl album sales is only impressive if you focus on physical media sales, which isn’t necessarily a bad idea for independent music producers. Sometimes clinging to a chunk of a vanishing niche that still has customers with money is a good idea. Since the top 1% of music entertainment earners are raking in about 80% of the total revenue, the scraps that are left to the 99% are going to be very slim pickin’s and that is when niche marketing is most effective.

A problem with this focus is that this kind of revenue isn’t going to inspire manufacturers to build turntables or phono cartridges, which means NOS (new old stock) is going to become more valuable and the replacement parts and products will come from more dubious sources (low end Chinese manufacturing, for example). That might cause NOS turntables and cartridges to temporarily increase in price,

Non-technical audiophiles, like Tony Villar, claim “Vinyl, on the other hand, is a lossless format. The pressings are made directly from the masters and contain all the detail artists intended. This is why vinyl sounds better than digital and the main argument to why the vinyl format has the better sound quality.” That sort of stuff makes old school folks like me chuckle. Every step of the analog recording process is a loss-filled mess. Tape decks, pro or not, have substantial low and high frequency distortion components and frequency and phase compromises. Tape playback requires high gain, moderate distortion amplification and the older (1960-80’s) solid state tape electronics was a gross collection of slew distortion, intermodulation, and harmonic distortion errors that only the mostly-deaf could call “warm.” Tube electronics are even more distorted. Vinyl records are a freakin’ train wreck of compromise. Because the needle can’t track large excursions or move quickly (to reproduce high frequencies, for example), the 1954 RIAA equalization standard provides “emphasis” on recording/printing/stamping (analog compression) which requires “de-emphasis” (de-compression of sorts) on playback (by your phono preamp). There is nothing about that process that could be described as “accurate” or “warm” or or any other positive value.

How To Frame And Display Your Vinyl Records - Rolling StoneThe one thing LPs definitely have over CDs and virtual media is the “tactical experience.” You get a decent sized piece of art with a 12” LP. Turns out, that is a major part of the attraction to younger people. Once they have experienced the hassle and crackle-and-pop disappointment of listening to a record, the records go back into the sleeve and the package becomes the thing. Since they don’t have a lot of records, what they have becomes wall art. That means the buyers are buying another $20-50 mounting device for their $20-50 LP. That sort of makes sense, but with cheap high quality color printers I’m hard-pressed to understand why you wouldn’t just download the album art and print that? In Villar’s article, he even explains how to use a shareware program to digitize your vinyl. WtF? So, it’s obviously not about the listening experience. If I didn’t know how inconsistent humans are, I’d be confused.

My buyer admitted that COVID boredom was a big driver in his very recent interest in analog music reproduction. In fact, it sounded like he had collected more stereo equipment than records. One of his big self-selling points was that older stuff is “repairable.” He had a very specifically oriented bias against the “throwaway products” of modern electronics. Yet, he tested the accuracy of my turntable’s drive system with the most expensive, newest iPhone; the ultimate throwaway product in modern history. Again, humans are never bothered by contradiction.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

How Much Music Do We Need?

I admit that I am old and, maybe, my life and generation (and the generations I’m most familiar with) might not be relevant to our offspring. However, this is my observation, buying music seems to be an overt act of conspicuous consumption and, often, pretty much a pity purchase. The existence of oldies radio stations and radio playlists indicates that our appetite for new music is pretty small. The fact that anyone can argue that there was or is a “golden age of pop” simply because that music coincided when that person was entering puberty, first got laid, or experienced some other childish moment that the music commemorates in their mind is a pretty good indication that it doesn’t take much for most of us to get a belly full of all the music we will ever need to hear.

The only people that sometimes isn’t true for are musicians. And I do mean sometimes. There certainly are a lot of musicians, especially old guys, who are still playing the same damn Beatles’ songs they played when they were 15 and there are similar characters in every generation from before Boomers to Gen-Zs. Some people are just tied to the moment when they discovered their genitals, musically and otherwise. But many musicians “collect” all sorts of music over a broad band of periods because of a variety of good reasons.

All of that, though, mostly proves my point and explains why so many unheard musicians and songwriters are likely to remain unheard. According to Music Business Worldwide, 60,000 tracks are added to Spotify alone EVERY DAY. Or one-song-per-second, approximately. The chances that a measurable fraction of that output will ever be heard by 5 people at the same time are next-to-nil. This is nothing like the early FM radio days when odd, original, non-mainstream, inventive music was played late at night when most everyone was fast asleep. This is a brave new world of tossing your pearls into the ocean and hoping to not just hit a scuba diver but to hit Bill Gates scuba diving and have the pearl be large enough that he notices it.

Musicians regularly pat themselves on the head claiming that “music is not a luxury,” and while that might be true for the musician it is clearly in the commodity territory for everyone else. We don’t need the latest, newest, most trendy version of what we’ve had our whole lives. Mostly, we want (not need) to hear the same old songs, sung the same old way. That means whatever you might hope, as a musician, nobody needs what you’re doing right now . . . except you.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Shot Down Before He Started

The Jamkazam group I’ve been playing with for the past year and a half is half about playing music and half about hanging out. Two of the guys in this group came from places where real music is and was played well and often. Two came from Minnesota where music has always been a fairly big thing. And I came from western Kansas where music is more often a chorus of beer cans clinking, farts, and shouting around a street fight. Seriously, it was and is that bad. This week’s conversation began when one of the guys mentioned that an old friend was going to be visiting and that friend was “the guy” in his neighborhood (Chicago, so it was a big neighborhood) on bass back in their growing-spurt days. That started a round of everybody describing who “the guy” was when they were kids.

For starters, there was no “the guy” on bass in western Kansas. I loved playing bass and when I first went into college in 1966, I wanted to be a music major and I wanted to focus on bass. Guys like Bob Cunningham, Paul Chambers, Charlie Haden, Dave Holland, Ray Brown, and Ray Carter were my personal heroes (only slightly behind Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Sandy Colfax, and Bob Gibson before I was 15). However, in Kansas pop bands the bass player was always the band’s weakest member; ALWAYS. In every band I knew of between 1961 and 1967, the bass player invariable either owned the band’s PA system, had a car big enough to carry the band and equipment, or had a much bigger bankroll and payed for everything anyone wanted as long as he got to be in a band. I started out as a bass player in my first money-making band and I was, hands-down, the worst player in the band by miles (I was also the youngest by at least 4 years). Oddly, I didn’t bring anything else to the band other than a willingness to be positioned in the back of the stage by the drummer and learn my parts. At the time, many of the better-known bands had a hard time recruiting bass players because nobody wanted to be easily identified as the band’s least competent member. As usual, I was too clueless to get the insult and was totally absorbed in my instrument. After that group, I always ended up playing lead guitar because that was a bigger hole to be filled than bass, but I always missed the responsibility of being part of the rhythm section, the anonymity of being “upstage with the drummer,” and the sound of that instrument coming from my hands and mind.

“The guy” in my hometown and probably in a 100 mile circle was Skip Cave. From my perspective, Skip played “everything” better than everyone else. He was, as I remember, mostly known as a drummer, but he played saxophone, keys, guitar, and most everything else that could be induced into making a musical sound. The last time I saw Skip was when I was 15 or 16 and he was about to leave Dodge for L.A., so there are likely many holes, glitches, and fractured fairy tale aspects to my telling of this story. The biggest will become apparent soon, since one of the last gifts I received from Skip was a copy of Howard Robert’s “H.R. Is A Dirty Guitar Player.” A record I kept until it vanished sometime between my many moves from Dallas, Texas to Colorado. I probably loaned it to someone and it didn’t come back. Sometime later, an on-line friend ripped a copy from his own LP to CD for me, so I still get to listen to Howard the way he was intended to be heard, hiss, pops and clicks and all.

But I, as usual, digress.

Many years later,in 2000, just before I started working for Musictech Skip run into an article about “cheap mics” that I had written for Recording Magazine. Skip reappeared in my life via an email linked to me by the Recording Magazine editor. Totally by luck, I saved that email and I really wish I’d have been smart enough to record the telephone conversation that followed. The following is a segment of that email conversation where Skip tells the story better (and more accurately) than I could possibly remember:

[After high school] I had a hard time deciding whether I would major in music or engineering, but after visiting my cousin Howard Roberts in L.A. one summer, I realized that if I wanted a music career, I would have to either get much better at drums, or lower my living standards significantly. I went on to get a BSEE from KU and worked on a masters in EE at SMU after I got to Dallas.

“The Howard Roberts episode makes an interesting story, however.

“Howard was at that time (1964) married to Jill Swartz , my dad's sister's eldest daughter. Nancy (Swartz) Myrick was the younger daughter. Howard was the top session guitarist in L.A. at that time and was playing several studio sessions a day, as well as making lots of great albums. My mother suggested that I go visit my cousins to see what a musician's life was like. I went to L.A. and stayed in H.R's swanky Hollywood home. I was really impressed with the lifestyle, until I went to a jazz club one Sunday night where Howard was playing an improvisational jazz gig with an all-star cast. The gig was AWESOME!

“I then realized that virtually all of the clientele were musicians, all of them were much better than me, and all of them were starving. THAT's when I decided to be an engineer.

“By the way, a recording of that gig (at Donte's Jazz Club) was made, and was recently released as a CD (The Magic Band, Live At Donte's [LIVE]).”

Funny. I just got through telling my remembrance of that story and it was . . . different. Partially, because my memory of the story is filtered through two or three fairly long, story-filled telephone conversations that came later and, mostly, because my memory is so flawed everything gets quickly converted to a compilation story that I can manage to remember.

But that is a tiny glimpse of “the guy” in my hometown. If you followed the link to what Skip is doing now, it’s probably true that getting scared out of a music career into engineering by members of the Wreaking Crew--Howard Roberts (guitar), Steve Bohannon (organ), Tom Scott (saxophone and 18 years old!), Chuck Berghofer (bass) & John Guerin (drums)—might have been the best thing that could have happened to a brilliant young man in 1966.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Even When You Can Play it, Turn It Down

In the 70s and early 80s, my company (Wirebender Audio) did a fair amount of sound system design and consulting, mostly with bands who wanted to buy Dan’s latest loudspeaker systems. I developed a rule-of-thumb, intended to help guitar players know how much their volume and egos cost their band: “For every 100 watts of guitar amp, you’re going to need 10,000 watts of PA.” Mostly, that went in one deaf ear and rattled around in an empty skull until it came out as “What did you think of my 20 minute solo on that last song” Most likely, I thought it sucked, pretty much as badly as did your band’s sound. In case you wondered.

I try to limit my exposure to live, amplified music to “as little as possible.” Red Wing does a Wednesday evening free concert and, mostly, I use that as my excuse to get out and hang with friends in the park and, occasionally, the music isn’t too bad, either. Last night, the music was “classic 70s white people blues,” featuring a cute-but-coarse female lead singer and an overbearing guitar player with no sense of rhythm. Not high on my list of things I ever needed to hear again. Been there, done that, suffered that, tolerated that, hated that.

Inspirational characters like Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen, Richie Blackmore, and an almost infinitely long list of insanely loud lead guitar players taught four generations of guitar wannabes that rapid-twitch random finger motion was an acceptable substitute for musical talents involving frivolous complications like melody, harmony, rhythm and timing, and group composition.

40 years ago, I experienced this kind of player close up and way too personally. I ran the tech services department for QSC Audio Products for a few years and we tried to carry on the company’s “yippee we survived another month party” tradition after the company had long abandoned that sort of thing. Initially, there were three of us: a drummer, a bass player, and me (on guitar) and we just jammed. Often we’d start with a rhythm from either the drummer or me and it would turn into something or we’d stop and try again. Then I hired a young man who idolized Yngwie Malmsteen, but who had memorized Daryl Sturrmer’s “New Country” solo off of Jean-Luc Ponty’s Imaginary Voyage album, which impressed the hell out of me. It wasn’t until he tried playing with our little group that we all realized this kid had no idea how to play in a group. He’d spent his whole playing career in his bedroom “playing along” with records with no one to tell him that timing is at least as important as getting the notes right. It’s hard to imagine a worse case of getting the notes right at the wrong time, but this kid pulled off that miracle as if he had no idea that rhythm even existed.

The guitar player in the band we suffered last night was a great example of that plague of notes without context. Typically, he was also the loudest thing in the band by at least 10dB. The mix was a mess and the “tone” quality of the performance was mud, edgy distortion, and a complete lack of rhythm (the drums were totally buried by bass and guitar). You could hear, but not understand a word of, the vocals.

And now for something really different, a band with a magician leader and something totally magical for a guitarist.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Hell's FOH Goober

A friend took this picture for me with his cell phone (No, I do not carry a cell phone.). I call it "Hell's Sound Goober." If a Hardly chair and tee-shirt (you can’t read his shirt, but it is a Harley ad) aren't a warning that the guy behind the console is deaf, unfamiliar with musical sounds, and likely not all that bright, then you are in hell and probably deserve to be there. What a musical mess, which was really sad because the intro band,

Yam Haus, was excellent. The “head line band,” was a weird Memphis Tom Petty cover band that, honestly, wasn’t hurt all that much by a distorted, sub-woofer-dominated “mix” that was apparently intended to deafen as many people as possible and provided some interesting moments when substantial portions of the sound system thermaled-out for several minutes while the sound goobers looked confused and wandered around aimlessly until the system “fixed itself.” At least, I was entertained by the momentary pause in distortion and old people’s music.

There were several things that confused and disappointed me about this local show. First, the order was totally screwed up. Only on yokel small town America would a run-of-the-mill cover band headline in front of a very talented local band on their why (I hope) up. Second, there are at least two Tom Petty cover bands in the area—one in the Cities and one in Rochester—who are easily as good as the group the city overpaid to import. Three, the Sheldon Theater has used this same sound company several times and every time they make a painful, unnecessarily distorted mess out of any audio signal they touch and, worse, this Harley goober is behind the board when it is obvious he has never heard a decent record in his life, let alone a good live show.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Demanding Attention or Earning It?

One of the two best jobs I had in my 50 year working life was the 8 1/2 years I worked for QSC Audio Products in Costa Mesa, California. I started as an engineer and left a manager and the ownership, especially Pat Quilter and John Andrews, were always not just supportive but good friends. The company I started with in 1983 wasn’t at all the same place when I left, but it was still a pretty good place to work and the products we made were always something I felt proud to be associated with. At least all of that was true until one of my last escape trips to San Francisco. The products didn’t change, but my perception of what amplification and our products were doing to music, musicians, and the audience shifted dramatically over a short period of time.

There used to be a lot of music on the streets of San Francisco, before the place turned into a bankers’ paradise and hell for everyone else. I would ride my motorcycle up PCH to San Francisco, snag a room at a motel on Fulton Street across from Golden Gate Park and a couple of blocks from the ocean, lock up the bike, and take the bus downtown to wander the streets near the pier or take the Bart to Berkeley and hunt for music and street entertainment. I was never disappointed or at a loss for something to look at and listen to on those trips. On that last trip, Fisherman’s Warf was brimming with entertainment. Walking along Embarcadero was like being in the middle of a festival; comedians, magicians, con artists (“I bet $5 I can tell you where you got your shoes.”, and musicians on every corner, part of almost every storefront. The street talent was intimidating. None of it was amplified and all of it was audible. I stood in a small crowd and listened to a guitarist who could have been Michael Hedges, his technique and style was that striking and original, until he took a break. I suspect his tip jar haul that morning was at least $200, it was overflowing with $10 and $20 bills. A little further down the street, there were at least 50 people clustered around a comedian whose routine was pretty much a hip take on Don Rickles and no one escaped un-insulted. I heard classical violin, bluegrass banjo and acoustic guitar duets, a solo singer unaccompanied by anything other than the applause of her audience, a sax trio, and a kid who duplicated Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie trumpet solos as perfectly as humanly possible. By the time I found the Bart for Berkeley, I was down almost $100 well-spent entertainment dollars.

Downtown Berkeley was a different story. There were still entertainers and great street food vendors, as before, but everyone was amplified. Right off of the Bart, I was assaulted by a loud three-piece blues band producing more noise and distortion than music, even though it was sort of obvious that the players were talented. Instead of attracting a crowd of listeners, the band’s cacophony acted like a cop telling people “Move along, nothing to see/hear here.” The less attention they attracted, the louder they got, and the more alone they were. It didn’t get better on the street. There must have been a dozen amplified acts in two blocks of Shattuck Avenue and they were all competing with each other for attention and irritation factor. There were no crowds of people around any of them. There were a couple of non-amplified performers, but they were drowned out by the electronic “enhancement” of their entertainment neighbors. My prime motivation for going to Berkeley was always a food cart near the Bart station that served the most astounding shrimp-stuffed rice flower confections. I stocked up, hiked over to the UofC Berkeley campus and found a quiet spot to eat.

Afterwards, walking around the campus grounds, I was back in unamplified territory. The University of California campus is, in my opinion, one of the wonders of the world. The place houses the best engineering, chemistry, science, journalism, creative writing, and music departments in the known universe and the campus is beautiful. My alma mater, then Cal State Long Beach, is a beautiful campus and I spent hundreds of hours enjoying those gardens and buildings, but Berkeley is a level above that. As you might expect and I definitely hoped, it wasn’t hard to find students producing amazing music there and that helped gird me for the noise gauntlet I’d have to pass through on my way back to the Bart.

Back at home, in Huntington Beach, a few days later I was stuck revisiting that experience: entertainment vs noise production, attracting attention vs demanding it. Our company, QSC Audio, at the time only made power amplifiers1. Our whole mission was to increase the volume of any damn signal to the point of pain and beyond. In concert after concert, bar after bar, and even a few neighborhood parties, I witnessed the abuse, misuse, and needlessness of most audio amplification; almost all amplification, in fact. As much as I liked the company and the people I worked with, the products seemed to me to have no other purpose than to destroy music and music appreciation. The more powerful our amplifiers became, the worse the music they amplified sounded. It wasn’t, of course, the fault of the amplification, but it was because there is no qualifications required to use the stuff. Any damn moron with a few thousand dollars can buy a PA system and turn music into deafening noise.

Other than making money, I could not see the point in our corporate existence. Up to that moment, I’d felt like we were part of the music business and making a contribution to music. Afterwards, not so much. That might have been the moment when I realized that I need some sort of “mission” in my life to be happy, but I’m not that bright. It took 10 wasted years in medical devices flailing about looking for a purpose in a purposeless industry, severe burnout, and the good luck to have met Michael McKern, a man to whom “mission” is a core principle, to clue me into the concept.

Now, watching even folk musicians at local farmers’ markets drag their bullshit battery-powered Roland or Fishman rigs out to try and demand the attention they feel they so richly deserve or seeing bands like Snarky Puppy, who should know better based on their semi-live album sound quality, let ego overwhelm any attempt at sound quality and a musical experience is just painful. It is a painful reminded that I spent a good bit of my life enabling this garbage and nothing I do can atone for it. The fact is, if your music is worth listening to, it will be heard. Yeah, some deaf assholes will bitch “I can’t hear you,” but sacrificing the quality of your performance for deaf people won’t fix their problem and it will drive away people who give a damn.

1 We’d experimented with some “brass and fern bar” products, QSC Series 2, that included line inputs, phono inputs, and a mic pre for announcement purposes. The products stunk and the market was gone before we managed to deliver an unwanted product. One of our CEO’s brilliant ideas that should have been ignored until he went back to pestering secretaries.

Monday, June 7, 2021

The Question isn’t “Can I Tell?” but “Do I Care?”

In pro audio, audiophile, and just general listener discussions, we often get heavily involved and invested in the miniscule things we can and the things we imagine we can hear. When I was teaching the McNally Smith College “Recording Theory” course, I spent some time on digital and analog recording technology including digital compression algorithms and the history of their development. You shouldn’t be surprised to know there were a fair number of committed vinyl analog fanatics among 50-120 young music technology students and you might use that as evidence that young ears supposedly being more discriminating would pick the “higher fidelity” analog technologies. Jumping to that conclusion would be better evidence that the jumper is biased and doesn’t know kids very well. Critical thinking and discrimination are skills that are developed, not something we’re blessed with as children and lose as we become older, cynical, less sensitive, and lazy. (Although all of those things do seem to be a part of growing older for many people.)

  In this class, I played a variety of analog and digital musical signals, demonstrating dynamic range, signal-to-noise, harmonic and transient (slew rate) distortion, and a few other concepts that are important to audio professionals. One of the early takeaways for many of us is disappointment in our lack of ability to accurately pick out some pretty dramatic signal flaws in excellent critical listening environments. One of the class assignments was to setup a listening test (A/B, A/B/X, etc) and document the experience as accurately and honestly as possible. Not an easy thing to do, I know. However, many students came away from that assignment with a lot more questions than answers regarding their own hearing, the analog vs digital arguments, digital audio compression, and all of the other related issues in this debate. Which was the point in the assignment.

I, too, have had a lot of questions regarding all of these issues for the last 40-some years, beginning with the compromises and systemic defects I discovered in phonograph RIAA pre-emphasis/de-emphasis when I built my “Musicians Preamp” product in the 70s and the analog tape recording limitations and compromises I wrestled with for almost 40 years of my audio engineering career. Now that I’m 70+ years old and am quite certain that my hearing is compromised and will only get worse with age, I am seriously questioning even my own opinions and dogma regarding what I am capable of hearing in recorded music. I mean I question what I hear all the time. Even more, I wonder how much I even care about the miniscule differences.  

In Glyn Johns’ bio, Sound Man, he commented regarding some work he did at Ocean Way in the late 90’s, “the few remaining studios that had stayed true to the acoustics for which they were originally designed in the late fifties, not succumbing to the commercial pressure of having SSL consoles and Hidley acoustic designs, both of which have been responsible for systematically reducing the quality of recorded sound like some invidious cancer." I am more than with him on the SSL consoles and while I’m not sure if I’ve been exposed to any Hidley rooms, I agree that most studio designs are intended to be as neutral and boring as possible to compensate for the lack of engineering skills that is common today. You can’t screw up the mic or instrument placement if every spot in the room is the same as every other spot.

Compare Johns’ statement to the more typical old guy’s whine about digital recordings: this one was in the June issue of Tapeop Magazine, “The reason I’m contacting you is what I’m hearing in many 'digitally remastered' CDs, and even records cut from them. Which is… nothing. No air around the instruments, like a picture done with tempera paints. Listening on a reasonable stereo sound system, the image collapses front to back. I started to pay attention to this after a conversation with a friend about how, even with the hiss, cassettes have more life than the digitally remastered CDs." This guy (Peter Engel) is old enough to be able to brag about having worked with Steven Temmer at Gotham Audio, so he is at least my age if not a decade older. (Never listen to the fidelity opinions of old farts, that is the first rule of any critical listening discussion.) Of course this guy imagines he is comparing apples to apples by discussing remastered CDs that he can compare to his vintage vinyl collection, but even that is tainted by the acoustic design of the mastering facility which is in no way similar (usually massively improved) to 1970s mastering engineering facilities. </>

The “problem,” if there is one, is that we like what we’re used to; especially when we can identify that the sound source is the one we’re used to. Whatever artifacts and distortions that are present in compressed digital audio are what most of us are listening to now: through streaming audio, DVD and Blueray videos, our car and home stereos, our phones and other portable audio devices. It is, obviously, easy to identify a record in playback. Even an old fart can hear the pops, crackles, hiss, and weird panning limitations of a cut record. You can’t practically A/B/X test vinyl against any fair digital reproduction thanks to all of those anomalies and distortions.

A younger-than-me friend is a fanatic about his CD collection conversions. Every CD he buys is converted to a 44.1k/16bit AIFF file and stored on a huge hard drive and played through a 90’s Nokia phone that he is convinced has “great converters.” Years ago he tried compressing a CD and let Apple’s iTunes do the job. The default iTunes MP3 format was/is 128kbit/sec and even an old guy can hear vocal sibilance distortion and cymbal harshness in that format. However, his attempt appear to be mostly to “prove” that MP3 compression was audibly defective and he accomplished that goal. When he in my home, we are as often as not listening to an MP3 version of whatever I’m demonstrating and if he knows he’s listening to an MP3 he “hears the artifacts,” but when he doesn’t know the source he either assumes it is an MP3 and gets snooty or when he assumes he’s listening to multitrack mixdown he does not notice anything anomalous or irritating. My takeaway from that is that it’s more about what he sees or thinks he sees than what he hears.

However, I have decided the real issue for me at this point in my life is “do I care?” I do not. Since reducing my several-hundred CD collection to 320kbit/sec MP3s and copying the collection to a trio of USB sticks that I have plugged into my studio computer, my office computer, and our home entertainment computer, I listen to my music collection almost infinitely more than I have in the past decade. Like all of those terrible young people, I am picking convenience and playback variety over purity. Your mileage may vary.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Quitting While the Quitting Is Good (or tolerable)

Giving up playing music and giving up playing for an audience or public consumption are not the same thing. You can absolutely do the first while never doing the second ever again. A couple of years ago, my failing vision helped me decide to give up motorcycling after more than 50 years on a bike, but I did not give up bicycling. I wrote a little about that decision, more than once, in my Geezer with A Grudge blog, but most recently in in an essay titled “What Really Signals the End?” That decision is a bigger deal for a motorcyclist than for a musician, at least a hobby musician. “Getting killed” on stage is a minor event compared to the same idea on the highway. It is, however, a humiliating event that I’d like to avoid. For my motorcycling benchmark, I drew a line in the asphalt and wrote about it in “Creating A Baseline.” More than 55 years ago, I identified the same moment for my life as a performing musician.

Starting when I was 13, I made regular attempts to get the hell out of Dodge (Dodge City, Kansas) by running away, hiding in some really disgusting places, and (eventually) getting summer jobs with local farmers and using those spring harvest jobs as a cover for going on tour with bands. By the time I was 16, I’d rented a trailer in a south Dodge trailer park that I shared with a series of friends and co-workers. The first of those roommates was the guitarist and co-songwriter from one of my first bands, Ed. We played in a band that had no regular 3rd and 4th members and worked on a road construction crew rebuilding a section of US283 between Dodge and Minneola for the first month of that spring. Ed was a lot smarter than me and he went back to school pretty quickly after a few weeks of that miserable job. I stuck it out for another month until the Tracers went back on summer tour and I was almost crippled from having my boots sealed with asphalt slurry 10 hours a day. Just before Ed evacuated the highway construction business, we’d somehow learned about a guy in Minneola who had a Gibson acoustic guitar for sale. After work one evening, we’d setup an appointment to look at the guitar and at least I was excited about the possibility of owning my first decent acoustic guitar.

This was probably in 1964 and my memory of what happened yesterday is pretty shaky. So, if Ed or anyone reads this and remembers the story completely differently, they are probably right. However, I took away this experience and this very strong feeling about how it relates to my own life as a musician (such as it and I are).

We arrived together at this fairly ramshackle house in a very ramshackle small western Kansas town. None of that was eventful or out-of-the-ordinary for either of us. Western Kansas was well into the economic and cultural decline that it now wallows in oblivious to how hilarious and pitiful it seems to the rest of the world. The guitar owner was an “ancient” (probably younger than I am today), scrawny Levon Helm-looking guy who grudgingly invited us into his hoard-packed hovel. We were there for a guitar, not conversation, but the old guy took advantage of a captive audience and told us stories we had no interest in and, eventually, brought out the guitar. Instead of handing it over to the prospective buyers, he proceeded to claw away at the guitar and . . . sing. As you’d expect, it was awful. Most likely, he was caterwauling Hank Williams or some such hillbilly crap in fine fashion, but to me (maybe also to Ed) he was not just sucking the interest out of me toward his guitar but giving me way too much of a look at my own likely geezerhood. At 16, I don’t think I had any real concept of my own mortality and old-age decay before that moment. But I have had a pretty clear view of the possibilities since. After what seems like at least an hour of a Vogon poetry quality performance, I had lost all interest in his guitar and I don’t remember even touching it, let alone playing it. I just wanted out of that house and away from the painful and humiliating noises that old guy was generating. In fact, I didn’t seriously look at another acoustic guitar until I was 20, married, and stumbled into a great buy on a 60’s Gibson J-45 at a Dallas pawn shop.

The lifetime lesson I took away from that experience was “I don’t ever want to be that guy.” During my studio managing and, later, maintenance years, I did not self-identify as any sort of musician because everyone I came in contact with was infinitely better than I would ever be. After I quit playing in bands, in the late-70s, I quit singing and forgot the lyrics to almost every song I’d performed for the previous 15 years. By the time we closed the studio/sound company, I was done with playing guitar, too. After a very brief period of working on jingles with a keyboard playing friend in Omaha, I’d ceased identifying as any sort of “musician.” When someone would ask, I’d say “I own a few guitars, but I don’t play them anymore. I’m not a musician.” For the next 40 years, with a few momentary intervals of jamming with friends in odd places, my guitars were just pieces of art on the wall (or in a closet). For an ice-breaker in my record lab tests at McNally Smith College, I’d fumble at playing guitar as a sound source; which usually relaxed my students’ with the thought “I can’t be worse than that.” Between 1978 and 2015, I sold at least 50 guitars originally to generate money for recording studio equipment and later to pay off my Little Canada mortgage. When we moved to Red Wing, I had recently purchased a Composite Acoustics Cargo travel guitar to replace my godawful Martin Backpacker with which I’d tortured my wife as we were stuck in New Mexico with a dead VW-Winnebago camper. Other than her and those abused MSCM students, I hadn’t played for any sort of audience since the 1970s.

When we moved to Red Wing, we ended up often frequenting the local used bookstore, Fair Trade Books, that was being managed by a local kid, Josh Schaefer, a songwriter, performer, and hustler extraordinaire. Every time I was in the store, Josh would bug me to play in the store’s open mic. He could not have been either nicer about it or more insistent. I mean EVERY TIME I saw him it was “When are you going to bring us a song?” Initially, my internal answer was always “never gonna happen.” Eventually, a song latched on to me, Tom Waits’ “Shiver Me Timbers,” stuck me as words that described my life. For the first time in at least 40 years, I was playing enough that I not only memorized the chords and lyrics to a song, but felt comfortable enough in a group of very special people that I almost felt like performing it. I’m certain that I sucked, but the Fair Trade audience was the most tolerant, accepting, and fun audience I’d ever experienced and I felt . . . unembarrassed by my performance. Over the next couple of years, I became a regular at the Fair Trade Books open mic until that event ended. By then, I had met a few local musicians, done some recording for a few of them and had moved on to open mic situations at local restaurants and bars. Yeah, I know, “open mics are for losers and amateurs” and I’m fine with that. I have no interest in either playing a full set or focusing my performance on entertaining anyone but myself and my wife and, ideally, a few friends.

However (and the whole point of this essay), I also do not want to either torture anyone like Ed and I were tortured 55 years ago in Minneola or unknowingly humiliate myself like that old guy. I don’t want to knowingly humiliate myself, either. I have asked my wife, repeatedly, to pay attention to both her reaction and any audience reaction to my “performance.” I need her help with that, because I don’t pay any attention to any audience for my music, unless there are other musicians I am playing with. Fortunately and unfortunately, all of the people I play with are incredibly generous and incredibly tolerant people and I suspect they might not tell me if I accidentally shit on their foot. I have stopped doing all sorts of things that I once loved doing because of age and the associate disabilities that come with being ancient. Racquetball, basketball, motocross and cross-country motorcycle racing, adventure motorcycle touring, electronic repair and design, and even some of the detail guitar repair and building skills I recently learned. I’m becoming “skilled” at moving on to things I can do. Sooner or later, I’ll have to make the same decision about singing and playing guitar. I’d appreciate it if you helped let me know when that moment arrives.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Apple is a Cult

A friend received a fairly new Apple MacBook Air as a gift from his daughter. He wanted to have a light, compact computer audio setup for travel and Jamkazam use. The Air is pretty much an Internet browser of a computer, what Dell once called a “Netbook”: no CD/DVD player, no HDMI port, no Ethernet connector, and three USB 3 ports and a Thunderbolt port to address the outside world. So, if you want to do anything useful with the Air, you need to buy stuff to attach to it which will more than make up for the bit of space the skinny but incapable Air saved you in your luggage and will make the computer a lot more fragile and less dependable in your travels. Not that Apple computers have any sort of reputation for durability or reliability. Cult products don’t have to do much other than prop up the fragile egos of the cult members with useless crap like style, marketing, and trendy colors.

So, my friend asked me to help him setup his MacBook Air for mobile internet audio use. He already had a perfectly good (excellent, even) USB C adapter with USB C, HDMI, Ethernet, and USB A ports that we’d used on a Microsoft Surface tablet for this application and we thought connecting that to the Air would be a no-brainer. Wrong. No matter what we tried, it didn’t exist although it worked fine on my Dell laptop. So, I bought a dedicated USB Ethernet Adapter and . . . same problem and it also worked on my Dell laptop and my Mac Pro 3,1. So, some “Google research” later and I learned that the Air can only use the official Apple USB to Ethernet adapter, which obviously costs 3-5x as much as a generic adapter. No surprise there. And there are hundreds/thousands of complaints from people trying to get non-Apple USB—to-Ethernet adapters to work on a MacBook Air.

There are “solutions,” but a SMC reset (one of many OSX glitches Apple culters are happy to call “normal computer operation”) and various other typical Apple glitches will blow up the adapter driver “solution.” The problem is that Apple in its usual customer-hostile manner only included the driver for their own $30 adapter in their BIOS and left writing the code for the rest of the world’s $8-15 adapters to the Chinese manufacturers and the job of finding a non-virus laden driver to their customers/victims. Of course, there are no Apple stores in Red Wing, so it will be a bit before I get this thing working on this cult machine.

Way back in the dark ages of the 80s, I experienced one of my first head-scratcher Apple cult moments when another friend was stuck with a dead keyboard for his new Mac 128k machine and we discovered that only Apple keyboards could be used on that mostly-incompetent “for the rest of us” machine and that they cost 2-5x what a good keyboard for a real computer cost. After that, I started watching my employer’s (QSC Audio Products) marketing budget for computer equipment and saw that it was several times the engineering budget and all they did with that money was email and awful graphics. We were buying HP dedicated CAD/CAM equipment in Engineering and it was still cheaper than the culters’ gear.

Jobs just made Menken’s observation into a company mission, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American consumer.” That doesn’t take genius, but a little sociopathy doesn’t hurt. However, my McBook Air friend did pay the right price for his laptop; it was a corporate discard from his daughter’s company and she gave it to him for free. As for Jobs’ mythical genius, like his reincarnated cult leader Elon Musk, he mastered the Harvard Business School rule without having to waste 4-8 years on a degree, “Pull credit up and push blame down.”

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Product Review: TC Helicon Play Acoustic TC Helicon Play Acoustic Vocal Effects Processor: Musical  InstrumentsThe TC Helicon "Play Acoustic combines all the things you need to make a live acoustic performance shine: lavish vocal sounds, perfect backing harmonies, best-selling guitar effects, and unique processing that makes your six-string sing – in perfect harmony with your voice." Sounds pretty amazing, doesn’t it? Some of those claims are even true, if only somewhat useable. Four years ago, I wrestled with the decision for a vocal and acoustic guitar performance rig I’d be using most often in jam sessions, local open mics, and recording.

After a lifetime as a techie, I wanted to work on other skills, mostly vocal and guitar performance. With that in mind, a big part of what I was looking for was ease of use because I didn’t want to be wasting my time fooling with bells and whistles when want I wanted to work on was my performance chops. Four years ago, I decided on the TC Helicon Perform-VG for its simplicity and versatility, knowing that the Perform series of products were all downscaled versions of the Play Acoustic, Play Electric, and VoiceLive devices. With the Perform-VG, I have many of the Play Acoustic features without much of the flexibility. That is the downside. The upside is that I was up and running almost instantly with the VG and wasted most of an afternoon trying to figure out how to adjust a vocal compressor and set the harmonies for the Play Acoustic.

TC Helicon Play Acoustic on OhGuitar.comA critical look at the back connector panel of the Play Acoustic illustrates two critical flaws of the Play Acoustic: 1) no guitar thru connector, 2) no vocal out signal path (both guitar and voice are stereo mixed to the two XLR output connectors. There is an “AUX” input, for bringing in external analog audio, a “Pedal” connector for either the Switch3 or Switch6 function selection foot switches, an 1/8” stereo headphone jack, and a mini-USB connector that supposedly supports "Stereo audio input and output via USB is also supported at 16 bit resolution with 44.1 or 48 kHz sample rate." I wrote “supposedly” regarding that USB recording function because there are mountains of reports on-line of users giving up on the Play Acoustic’s digital recording capability due to lousy driver support. That wasn’t going to be something I would care about, so it had no real effect on my opinion or this review.

As the YouTube research demonstrated, TC Helicon’s harmonizer is terrific and the Play Acoustic has an powerful and well-designed collection of harmony, chorus, reverb, and other effects for the voice channel. Many of the effects come from TC Electronic’s wonderful array of professional recording plugins and special effects devices. Only a portion of the Play Acoustic’s vocal harmony capability is available on the Perform-VG. The Perform-VG can, however, separate the vocal output from the guitar for both live performance mixing and recording purposes. I can’t even imagine what went through the designers’ heads when they decided that capability wasn’t necessary for the Play Acoustic.

TC Helicon | Product | VOICESUPPORT 2

I’m not much for spending time wrestling with layered menus, either on my cars or my electronic devices. I really hate throwback software; been there, lived that. We are in an age of powerful, user-intuitive and friendly software and there is no excuse for any piece of digital electronic hardware forcing users to program a device through a crappy interface. That is exactly what you will have to do with the Play Acoustic, though. This incredibly ancient looking (and performing) piece of software is TC Helicon’s VoiceSupport 2 software as it looks on both Mac and Windows 10 machines. The software is pretty much Windows Explorer or Apple Finder for a few TC Helicon products. For the rest, this is nothing more than the overly complicated, under-performing interface TC Helicon uses to deliver firmware updates. You can reorganize your patches, you can download patches from TC Helicon’s cloud, but you can not edit anything usful with VoiceSupport 2. None of this should be surprising, though. TC Helicon/Electronic was acquired by Behringer in 2015 and it is safe to assume nothing innovative will come from the TC products in the future. Behringer is as notorious as was Norlin for taking gold and smelting it into oxidized lead.

So, for me, as powerful and interesting as the Play Acoustic is, it just isn’t worth the programming hassle. I messed with it for a day and sent it back to Sweetwater. For now, I’m fine with my Perform-VG until Zoom, Line6, Yamaha, Roland/Boss, or some other competent company comes up with a significant improvement. If you like fiddling with firmware more than playing, the Play Acoustic might be exactly what you are looking for, though. It has a lot of features, sounds great, and is a durable package (except for the notoriously fragile scroll wheel) that could give years of service. Of course, you’ll spend half of those years trying to tweek the thing into something you like using.

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.