Sunday, December 23, 2018

Why Don’t You Leave?

I've had a few people ask me how I ended up in Minnesota—the frozen north, Rocky and Bullwinkle country, Fargoland—after living in California for a decade and owning a home in Colorado. It is pretty simple and I think this song is a fairly straight-forward reminder, at least of California.

    Oh there ain't no rest for the wicked
    Money don't grow on trees
    I got bills to pay, I got mouths to feed
    There ain't nothing in this world for free
    I can't slow down, I can't hold back
    Though you know, I wish I could
    There ain't no rest for the wicked
    Until we close our eyes for good

Living in Southern California without a big inheritance safety net was like living on the edge of destruction for most of those years. “I got bills to pay, I got mouths to feed” and every time I got a little safety margin built up it came crashing down on me with some piddly medical issue (we never had any major medical issues in California). California is a great place for skilled single people and an ever greater place for people who come from money. I moved there as the provider for a single-income family I was running-in-place for all but the very last year of my life in California. That last year, I was working full time managing QSC’s Tech Services department, going to Cal State Long Beach full time at night, and doing as much of the husband/father thing as I could manage while working and going to school 60 hours a week.

I remember standing in the middle of QSC’s chassis assembly area one afternoon. I was in that spot because I’d been in an engineering/marketing meeting earlier and I needed to install some upgraded product verification software in the assembly Audio Precision test fixtures. While I tried to upload the software, I was being bombarded by questions from people on the assembly floor, the final product test techs, and people who heard I was out there and had questions they’d been saving up for the next time they saw me. Tech Services was in another building and I didn’t venture into the assembly area any where as often as I had when I’d been the Manufacturing Engineering Manager; the job I’d had for the previous five years. The new manufacturing management regieme didn’t spend a lot of time explaining itself or answering questions from assembly personnel, so there was some pent-up energy out there looking for an outlet. One of the techs, Tom Northway, watched a while and, when there was a small break in the action, said, “You have the answers for all of us, don’t you?”

I don’t think I ever felt like I had anywhere near enough answers, but I always thought I owed anyone who cared enough to ask for my help, or advice, some kind of attempt at providing that help. The end result, for me, was that I totally burned out trying to be everything to everyone, often at the same time. One of the things that originally attracted me to electronics engineering was the fact that I could focus all of my attention on a problem, a project, or even just a small aspect of a product design and no one would expect me to do anything else. By the time I left QSC Audio’s manufacturing management, I’d practically forgotten everything I knew about focusing on one thing. Moving to Technical Services was the right thing for me to do, for myself, but it was too little, too late. By then, I was so mentally tired that getting out of the California rat race seemed absolutely necessary.

That moment on the manufacturing floor where all of those minutes, hours, and years of constant head-spinning management frustration was eye-opening. For at least a year, I had been telling my family that I was leaving when I finished my degree at Cal Long Beach, but that frantic, frustrating, multasking moment and Tom’s question sealed the deal. At that moment, I knew I was on the road again; a phrase that has followed me since 1965. Bob Dylan’s line, from “On the Road Again,” has been a song always near and dear to my heart, “Then you ask why I don't live here. Honey, how come you don't move?”

That’s a pretty good description of life in southern California. All my life, I’d heard about “La La Land” and how that “good old Midwestern work ethic” would blow away California (and New York). Don’t believe that shit for a second. Everyone who doesn’t have a permanent silver spoon stuck to their lips is running in place. The pace is frantic, the pressure is intense, the competition is fierce, and the cost of failure can be catastrophic and there are 100 people waiting in line to take your place, if your place sucks. If your place is a really good life, home, job, or opportunity, there are 100,000 people waiting to take it away from you. They probably won’t steal it from you. They’re just waiting for you to drop the ball for a few seconds and they’ll pick it up before you even know you dropped it. And when you lose in California, you might lose everything. The distance from superstar to living under a bridge is far shorter than you can imagine. The path back up is filled with traps, obstacles, opponents, and expenses.

I “made it” in California. I succeed in an occupation that has more failures and escapees than most (engineering). I supported my family in a middle class manner without a college degree or a nickel in inheritance or outside support. I even managed to collect a respectible college degree before I left. When I left, I was more than ready to move and I have never once been tempted to move back to the sun, constant stress and motion, high rent, and precarious lifestyle of a middle class guy in California. And that is why I’m here in Rocky and Bullwinkle Land.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Messy Exits and Revising History

I started writing this the day I came back from the auction of McNally Smith College’s equipment. I wrestled with all of my thoughts for several months afterwards. The end of that school was in no way a surprise to me, but hearing that the end came so incompetently and ruthlessly was a surprising disappointment. I'd thought that I had put the place and its dysfunction behind me after retiring in 2013, leaving the Cities in 2015, and unintentionally disconnecting from too many of the people I loved and respected because the 50 miles between the Cities and Red Wing turned out to be a far greater psychological gap than physical. When I started getting emails from friends still at the school and friends who were still more connected to the place than me, my first response was anger. I'd been there long enough to blip past the "denial" stage without much effort. "Bargaining, depression and acceptance" weren't difficult to transition through, either. But, if I'm being honest with myself, I'm still holding on to some anger about the way good people were treated by seriously bad people and how academia's incompetent, corrupt, and lazy fingers got hold of an otherwise useful school and turned it to crap so easily. 
MSCM auction
The scene of the MSCM auction on June 22.
Almost all of the bidding was done on-line.
Like the nitwit I am, Thursday morning (June 22, 2018) I decided to attend the 2nd day, Thursday, of the McNally Smith College of Music (MSCM) equipment auction. As a more intelligent person might have suspected, it was a sad affair that offered no closure, no celebration of the good years the school experienced, and not even much camaraderie (except for the lucky chance that ex-student, ex-MSCM employee Sam Clark was there for a few moments and he stopped to talk before heading back to work). At the 9AM start of the auction, most of the people physically at the auction quickly realized that they would be overwhelmed by the on-line bidders, which meant very few of the in-person participants participated enough to make their presence worthwhile. Like me, they didn’t stay long even though the auction continued until a little after 6PM. I left about 10:30AM and by then there were fewer than a dozen people in the auditorium who were not associated with the auctioneer’s staff.

In a perfect world, I’d have found some comfort in a group of graduates and faculty outside in the court yard playing music. Instead, I discovered the school’s ex-president, Harry Chalmiers, talking to a friend who also was once a McPhail instructor, like Harry. Over the years Harry headed McNally Smith, he took advantage of more perks than you’d hope a small college might have to offer; from luxury housing, to overseas vacations with his wife, to free recording services and performers for his “compositions,” to using his position for self-promotion, to an large and well-appointed office that might make a Washington lobbyist blush, to casual work obligations for the school that often seemed secondary to his actual interests. To many of us, his claim to fame and his office was an unlimited willingness to lavish outlandish public compliments on Jack McNally and Doug Smith (aka “J&D”): words that would have made people with actual accomplishments want to escape out of embarrassment. The first half hour of every commencement Harry presided over was a hilarious litany of Jack and Doug worship. If you where there before Harry, Jack and Doug’s minimal contributions (and financial profiteering) were pretty much a given and their efforts to purge the school’s history of the people who actually made the place work and to replace their efforts and success with a fabricated fable of themselves was a sad, painful story. Harry used to brag that “I have the best job in the world” as president of the school. Many of us suspected that was true, even if we couldn’t figure out the functional aspect of that “job” outside of flattering J&D at every opportunity and creating as much distance between administration and the actual activity and function of the school as possible.
jack and doug
harry chalmiers
It is slightly entertaining that these
characters liked to pose next to
equipment they didn’t use, understand,
or even know why it was there.


For a moment while standing outside of the wreckage of Jack, Doug, and Harry’s legacy that June morning, Harry’s story and opinions changed substantially since his last formal public statement to the press. Now, he imagined he had a book to write about “what really happened” in the whole MSCM debacle. Worse, he thought he had the insight and skills to write a “leadership” book. (I guess if JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon can claim some place in the “leadership” hierarchy anyone can.) Right after the school’s collapse, Harry was hustling the delusion was that the school simply ran out of time in making the conversion from for-profit to non-profit.

I was in the room for some of those discussions, years before Harry arrived, and it was obvious why non-profit was a non-starter: Jack and Doug weren’t willing to give up the giant pile of cash they extracted from the school’s annual profits. Suddenly, as of that June morning’s conversation, Harry said the school ran out of money because Jack and Doug extracted “millions” from the school’s bottom line during the flush years and put as little as possible back into the facilities and nothing into what probably should have been an endowment for the school to use in hard times. That Thursday morning, Harry’s argument for the school’s failure was that J&D’s “share” of the school’s income was so large that it didn’t allow the school to build any sort of savings buffer to carry it through when emergency expenses came up or income went down. Harry was not the first employee to realize that, but he might have been the last. Around the time the school changed its name from Musictech College to MSCM it became obvious that the real school mission was "make Jack and Doug rich without asking them to do anything useful. From equipment purchases to using student fees for actual student activities, it was clear that administrative lackeys had received the message, "Don't spend any money that can be flipped into Jack and Doug's pockets at the end of the semester."

Harry’s new insight was not even close to being a new story. I’ve heard variations of that from everyone I know who was in a position of administration at the school. Jack and Doug, two mostly absentee company owners (to them it was always more a “company” than a school), extracted enough money from the school every year to fund a second school. According to Harry, Jack never met a pile of money too large to be quickly and foolishly spent. So, it’s possible that Jack is at least inconvenienced, if not bankrupt. Unlikely, but possible. Most likely, his money is safely protected in “retirement savings” and bankruptcy is just a tax and responsibility dodge. According to Harry, Doug, has squirreled away “plenty of money” in retirement accounts that are untouchable by bankruptcy courts. The media’s stories about Jack and Doug “loaning” the school money to keep the doors open are as half-researched and gullible as you’d expect from a news media staffed mostly with lazy, entitled, rich-kid interns. If I were betting my money, I’d bet that J&D put themselves on the list of creditors just to make one more extraction from the school’s victims: sorry, I mean “students” and ex-employees.

In the 13 years I worked at the school, I never saw any evidence that sacrifice was among the things Jack and Doug were willing to do for the good of the school. J&D liberally used facilities, employees, and students to produce their own musical abortions; as did Harry. Their seldom-used offices were as large as most student apartments, while their participation in actual school management was so slight someone who was once the head of Admissions barely knew who they were. Harry’s office could have been, and should have been, a classroom or an office for several administration characters.

harry piling it on
Harry going on about how brilliant J&D
were to hire him and to manage to
dress themselves in robes that day.
NOTE: At this point, does anyone else see the irony in McNally and Smith being bounced from McPhail, starting Guitar Center/Musictech, moving to St. Paul which spawned IPR and the other Twin Cities music production competition, and finally naming their school after themselves forever cementing their memories as incompetent and corrupt mismanagers in business and academic history? Maybe they should have skipped some steps and just called their new guitar lesson business “McFail?” At least when someone looks up Jack McNally and Doug Smith it wouldn’t be a story about their personal failures with their names plastered all over it. For a pair who were once so concerned about “perpetuity” they sure found an interesting way to get there. 
 
the-last-graduation-ceremony-at-mcnally-smith-college-of-musicThere are good things to be taken away from the school and my experience there. The school became successful largely because of the vision, hard work, talent, and expertise of one great manager, the school’s director when it was still called “Musictech” and the man in charge of the move to St. Paul; Michael McKern. McKern staffed the school with excellent teachers, found, hired, and managed an incredibly efficient administration staff, designed the school’s studio complex, administrative offices, and classrooms, managed the school’s rapid growth with class and competence, oversaw maintenance and expansion, carefully selected and installed appropriate equipment for the school’s educational mission, and provided staff and students with a mission that was summed up in the school’s name and reinforced by consistent commitment to our students’ best interests and careers. J&D observed all of this hard work from a safe, comfortable, and non-functional distance. After it appeared that Michael had the school running smoothly, they “took over” by replacing him with an assortment of academic “professionals” who steadily degraded the school to its final state. McKern’s efficient and lean administration was replaced with a staff that, in the end, gave the school a 1:1 administrator-to-faculty ratio that was not only inefficient and unresponsive to anything but serving itself, but inexcusable in its expense and irrelevance.

Once J&D decided to turn the school over to traditional academic administrators, all of that mission stuff vanished. When they decided to honor themselves by renaming the school, and selling that as something that was decided by anyone but themselves, the die of self-destruction was cast. Any interaction with Jack or Doug would immediately inform a sentient person that their sole “mission” for the school was to pack their pockets as quickly as possible with the least possible effort required from them. J&D were particularly susceptible to lavish and slavish compliments and most of the so-called “professional academic” mismanagers and academics picked up on that quickly and used it to pad their own nests and degrade the school and its operations.

Not many businesses—educational or otherwise—have a real mission. Most organizations arrive by accident, succeed by accident and luck, and wander through their history as clueless as a headless horseman. For a brief period in its 35 year history, Musictech College had a mission and any student or employee lucky enough to be there then should treasure that memory for what it was; a rare opportunity in a rare moment.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Brave Spirits or Just Dumbasses?

In August of this year, John Baccigaluppi wrote a TapeOp End Rant titled "An Endangered Species?" The gist of this article was "The beauty of older analog gear is that we can actually fix it with fairly common parts, or at least we have been able to so far. I recently sent a pair of 1950's-era RFT bottle mics to Scott Hampton, of Hamptone in order to upgrade their power supplies and he had this to say, ‘These things are beautiful, in the fact that it's like working on a 1940's truck. Everything is easy to access and is straightforward. [The work is] going quick and smooth.’" This is a much different experience than troubleshooting why a DAW stopped working after the operating system was updated." I’ve owned 1940’s trucks and I remember that they needed major work about every 10,000 miles, could barely make 10mpg, puked out climate-changing emissions including lots of unburned fuel, were noisy, unsafe at most speeds, and rusted as fast as sugar in water. I’m unimpressed. My response to that column was:

While it is always entertaining to hear old men (or old souls) rhapsodizing about when “spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men, women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri,” tools_Header_JointsJohn Baccigaluppi’s “An Endangered Species” harping about the deficits of lead-free solder was funnier than I suspect it was intended to be. Solder defects have always been a substantial part of electronic equipment failures. In the 80’s, I had a side business repairing Roland Guitar-to-MIDI converters because that company failed to anticipate the mechanical stress of their power supply components on their fragile circuit boards. In my MI equipment repair career, I would estimate that at least 75% of all electronic component failures were initiated by solder connection failures. Even the often-praised point-to-point tube circuits were known to rely on their unreliable mechanical attachment to the terminal posts because the heat from the tube circuits and the lack of flux removal caused the lead to degrade into powdery lead-oxide. As many companies demonstrated over the last century, the beauty of tin-lead solder was that any half-trained chimp could make a mediocre but hard-to-inspect solder connection, but the flaw in that technology was that the circuit designs were rarely conducive to sufficient removal of the flux residue which led to deterioration of the connections with heat, moisture, or just oxygen exposure.

Like the lovers of big iron American cars, unreliable but repairable out of necessity overweight vintage motorcycles, and lead-based ceramics, Baccigaluppi’s rhapsody for the days past when equipment failed often but could sometimes be repaired with enough effort, patience, and money is nothing new. However, those old vehicles rarely survived 50,000 miles without some sort of major overhaul and while they might have survived in a climate-controlled garage for “60 to 70 years” they were useful transportation for about three years before the cost of repair overwhelmed the cost of replacement. Today, a car that doesn’t last for at least 200,000 miles before needing major work is clearly a lemon.

Electronic Recycling Likewise, I suspect at least a few thousand “vintage” large format consoles have ended up polluting the nation’s water supply because their performance and capabilities didn’t warrant the cost of repair, let alone the real estate necessary to house that equipment. Like old cars, motorcycles, and pottery, the collector/hoarder business in audio equipment is coming to an end. Baccigaluppi asked, “how many pieces of classic recording gear have you seen in a trash dump?” Last fall, I took a “ghost town Detroit” photo tour and saw a building full of “classic recording gear” and broadcasting gear abandoned to metal scavengers in a Detroit public school building: MCI and Otari tape decks, racks of AT&T patch panels, recording and broadcast consoles, effects and signal processing gear, and piles of audio and video patch cables. The school had, supposedly, tried to find a buyer for the broadcast vocational school’s equipment, but no one was interested. So, sooner or later all of that stuff will end up in a trash dump. About a decade ago, I had the opportunity to obtain a pair of Otari consoles that had been used on the first Star Wars movie, just for the cost of getting the consoles out of a 3rd floor warehouse and finding a place to store them. No thanks. So, to the trash dump they went along with a warehouse full of 1970’s and 80’s video equipment.

Some products are worth salvaging, if just for the historical value. Most electronic products are obsolete regardless of whether that was “planned” or not. There is an educational value to repairing an old piece of gear and that shouldn’t be discounted too quickly. There are, however, good reasons why the old equipment gets discarded for the new. There is a wide line between tossing a $600-1,000 phone every year to “stay current” and spending hundreds of hours maintaining old equipment that isn’t even close to capable of performing to modern standards. I suspect the best way to decide where you draw that line is by determining what your time is worth.

That response appeared in this month’s TapeOp Letters to the Editor. It was also interesting to read this month’s end rant about how much maintenance analog equipment needs to be marginally musical and how TapeOp’s editor warns newbies away from the stuff for that reason.

POSTSCRIPT: My grandson gave me his old eBike because it needs a lot of work after a season and a half of daily commuting; especially because of the damage the bike suffered during a Minnesota winter in the Cities. One of the components that failed was the throttle, which is a Hall Effect transistor-controlled electronic device. Wholesale, the throttle is a $2 Chinese-made part, but there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to obtain that part in the USA except through the bike’s distributor.

The part is assembled in a way that doesn’t allow for disassembly for repair without either carving into the case or finding a way to dissolve the cyanoacrylate that was used to glue the part together. So, repair is close to impossible and impractical. While waiting for the replacement, I’ve fooled with troubleshooting the circuit and became facinated with the idea that this kind of assembly would fail since it has not real moving parts.

rt-01-lgWhen an engineering friend was visiting us, I asked if he had some thoughts about why this part might have failed and he tossed it back in my face, “Are you kidding? You know the transistor is mounted on a circuit board, right? Most likely a solder joint failed.” Of course, I should have known that. Consistent with my 55+ years of electronic engineering and manufacturing experience, most likely the failure is a soldering fault.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Concert Review: Crash Test Dummies at the Fitzgerald

crash test dummies 2The concert was billed as the "Crash Test Dummies: God Shuffled His Feet 25th Anniversary Tour." A better person would have known what that meant, but I was mostly a first Crash Test Dummies album fan. The tour started in St. Paul with the core band of Brad Roberts, Ellen Reid, Dan Roberts, Mitch Dorge, Stuart Cameron, and Eric Paulson.

Local bar solo act, Paul Metsa, was the opener. He was as surprised to be there on the Fitz stage as we were to see him there. He didn’t even manage to get the performance up on his webpage retroactively. He had moments of ok-ness and talked way more than he played, which was an odd choice since he seemed to believe he was getting a lucky showcase that night and should have used the time to demonstrate his musicianship. Ending with a patronizing version of the Star Spangled Banner was pure Toby Keith schmaltz. He was, apparently, desperate to get audience attention.

The FOH guy, as usual, was near deaf. As usual, from the start it was obvious he’d never heard an actual record and imagined that we were all just dying to hear kick drum and bass solos; especially that all-captivating territory between 15Hz and 80Hz. (Or maybe his own hearing is so damaged he needed those frequencies boosted 10-20dB to compensate.) As the night went on, the sound goof became more hearing-impaired and eventually it was difficult to even sense the existence of the vocals unless all three of the band’s singers were really wailing. That was particularly disappointing because I don’t often get to hear a singer with Brad Roberts’ mic and vocal technique. If there was ever a band that deserved to have the vocals upfront and on point, Crash Test Dummies are it.

crash test dummiesDuring the many quiet moments and, especially, when the musicians except Stuart Cameron (acoustic guitar) were absent, Roberts really knocked it out of the park. Heart of Stone” was so incredible that my wife and I simultaneously and spontaneously turned to each other and said “that was worth the price of the trip, hotel, and concert tickets.” Of course the lyrics are close to our own story, "And so now we are old, both our stories are told and we wait for the end. If you're first to go I will follow you, know that my heart will not mend. And I wish I owned a heart of stone.” Trust me, it does not read as emotionally powerful as it sounded with Roberts’ incredible voice.

As hard as he tried, the FOH goof did not destroy the evening. The musicianship was solid and the spare arrangements allowed many of the high points to fight their way through the sound system incompetence. There were few moments where the lyrics were decipherable, but when those words were either heard or memorized the whole point of this philosophical, insightful band was proven to be true. If there was a Crash Test Dummies’ song that someone didn’t hear Friday night, it was a really obscure one. I held my breath hoping to hear Superman’s Song, but not expecting it if this was really supposed to be the God Shuffled His Feet 25th Anniversary Tour. They played Superman as the end of the regular set and the last song of the encore was "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" Go Figure.

There were many moments that were worth the trip to St. Paul, the hotel hassle, and even the downtown St. Paul parking hassle. It takes a lot to overcome those obstacles, but Crash Test Dummies pulled it off.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

An Acoustic Guitar Experiment

acoustic guitarOne of many irritants about getting old has been circulation issues. I sleep with at least one half of my body tingling from lack of circulation regardless of which side I sleep on, bed softness or hardness (although, hard is better), sleep position (although after being married for 51 years I am “trained” not to sleep on my back), pills, or anything else I’ve tried. Playing guitar is one more place where my poor technique has turned into a minor medical issue. Like many non-classical guitarists, I “rest” my right arm on the edge of the lower bout. For 50-some years, that hasn’t been a problem for anything but the limitations in speed and technique it causes (which are substantial, I know, Scott). This last couple of years, it has begun to cause another problem. After a few minutes of playing or practice, my wrist, hand, and fingers begin to tingle and will eventually get numb feeling from the lack of circulation caused by that pressure on the edge on the blood vessels of my inner arm.

A few months back, I saw Brian Stewart—music store owner and guitar builder/technician extraordinaire—working on an arm rest for one of his customers. I wondered if that device might help with my circulation problem? So, I built one.

Saturday morning at the TreeStrings morning jam, I tried it out. For the most part, it worked pretty well. Brian and I talked about his design verses mine and we had some other ideas as to how this might become an actual product (which he really doesn’t want to build) and I thought about some of those changes while I played this morning. I wish I’d taken a picture of my original design, if for no other reason than to show the evolution of the idea and because I thought the original piece was really pretty. It did cover more of the top than necessary and was heavier than necessary, too. To keep from having to split another piece of walnut to start from scratch, I decided to hack away at my original piece. Might have been a mistake.  

When I got back home, I took that first attempt down to my basement shop and started carving it down to about half of the original width. I smoothed out the bandsaw cuts, sanded the piece back to a beautiful gunstock satin, and tried it again. This time it wasn’t nearly as comfortable as my original design and that was a huge disappointment. So, I reshaped the top side, losing about 1/3 of the total thickness and creating a little more of a flat spot on top while keeping the soft edge I’d originally designed. I refinished that work and reattached the piece. For the initial experiments, I’m using fairly weak double-sided tape to hold the piece in place, but when I decide I’m happy with it I’ll use something more aggressive.

One of the things I did not expect to happen was for the guitar’s tone and output to change for the better. If you look at that guitar-playing picture (at the top of this essay), you’ll notice that the arm damps a fair portion of the guitar top (especially true when the player is wearing long sleeve anything). I play a very small Composite Acoustics Cargo travel guitar and I’d never really thought much about how much of the guitar’s top I was sacrificing with my playing technique (I know, Scott). After listening the “with and not-with” sound of the guitar, I was interested in the concept on a whole different level. I would guess the overall volume is close to 3dBSPL louder with the arm rest in place and it is substantially more full and brighter, too. In retrospect, all of that makes perfect sense, but I hadn’t thought about it until the evidence was right there in my arms.

I will be playing with this concept a lot more in the future. For now, I’m enjoying being able to practice guitar for several hours without numbness and that irritating feeling (or lack of) that comes with circulation problems.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

I remembered Terry being amazing, but this is an incredible reminder of how badass Chicago was when Kath ran the show. I saw Chicago in Amarillo around 1972, the James Gang was the into band. I put away my guitar for a couple of years after seeing what Terry did with the same instrument I owned. 

Monday, November 5, 2018

Technology Is Gonna Do What?

The telephone has been around almost 150 years, since 1870. By 1879, telephone service subscribers began to be identified by their phone numbers, not by their names and by 1918 a million telephones were in service just in the USA. In 1962, Telestar, the first communications satellite was launched. In 1973, the beginning of the end of telephone communications arrived when Martin Cooper developed the first handheld mobile telephone. The first analog cell phone system went into service in Japan in 1979. In the 1990’s, cell phones began the switch to digital and there are hundreds of millions of people now frustrated by the awful sound of low-fidelity (at best an 8bit/8kHz sample rate, 200-3.2kHz bandwidth, 64kbs data compression) digital cell phone conversations and miscommunication created by lousy digital connections.

In fact, according to an Atlantic Magazine article "Don't Hate the Phone Call, Hate the Phone" a whole generation, Millennials, have been diagnosed with a “kind of telephoniphobia” regarding voice telephone communications. Now that half of Americans under 35 use cell phones exclusively, “the intrinsic unreliability of the cellular network has become internalized as a property of telephony.” It isn’t. It’s a property of fuckin’ cell phones and I absolutely hate the damn things. I hate getting calls from people on their cell phones. I hate calling people who I know will answer my call on their cell phone. Between the distortion, the Auto-Tune-like Mr. Roboto voices, and the forced long pauses while we try to determine if there is still a usable connection (on their side) I just assume that at least 3/4 of the things that were said were misunderstood or not heard at all.

I have stopped listening to audio fidelity complaints from people who tolerate cell phones. This is not an anti-digital rant. I love digital data storage and have been perfectly happy with digital audio for music since the early 1980’s. However, the fact that cell phone users don’t even insist on full duplex communications capability from their crap-stick phone providers is evidence enough to me that they are not serious audiophiles of any sort. If you don’t know the difference between half and full duplex, I particularly like this comment and response for an answer: “GSM operates in duplex (separate frequencies for transmit and receive), the mobile station does not transmit and receive at the same time. That's called half-duplex. It's done to save bandwidth and battery power, and to make cell phone conversations more difficult.” While I’m sure the real reason cell phone providers don’t deliver full duplex is because it would be technically slightly more demanding and marginally more expensive, I’m entertained by the assumption that “it's done to . . . make cell phone conversations more difficult.” No matter why it’s done, it sure as hell makes conversations more difficult, less convenient, less entertaining, less personal, and less pleasant.

This afternoon, I tried to have a conversation with my brother who lives in Phoenix and this statement from that Atlantic Magazine article on why people hate phone calls rang true, “On the infrastructural level, mobile phones operate on cellular networks, which route calls between between transceivers distributed across a service area. These networks are wireless, obviously, which means that signal strength, traffic, and interference can make calls difficult or impossible. Together, these factors have made phone calls synonymous with unreliability. Failures to connect, weak signals that staccato sentences into bursts of signal and silence, and the frequency of dropped calls all help us find excuses not to initiate or accept a phone call.”

It’s not just “weak signals” that are the problem. Grossly misnamed “communications companies” have jammed so much data into so little bandwidth that signal strength is just one of many factors that creates an incoherent telephone call. My brother, for example, said he had “five bars” of signal strength, but our conversation was mostly a collection of Mr. Roboto vocoder noises, weird electronic bird song tweeting and screeches, and long pauses where neither of us were able to get anything across the satellite signal path. After a bit, we gave up and went back to email to carry on our “conversation.”  A few moments later, my daughter called. We both have “land line” phone systems; hers is provided by her telephone company and mine is through the internet and an Ooma Telo system. We had a pleasant 1/2 hour conversation; with each of us laughing at the other’s jokes and stories made even more personal by being able to hear the laughter while we continued the stories. No weird noises, no Auto-Tuned Kayne West sound effects, no forced pauses waiting for the phone system to reboot itself and reconnect us; just a normal telephone conversation. The kind we used to have every time we picked up a telephone that was wired to the fuckin’ wall; 75 years ago.

The fact that the quality of telephone data transmission is lousy allows cell phone manufacturers to dumb-down the whole signal path. The microphones, the “speaker,” and the analog electronics connecting those transducers to the crappy data transmission system are all degraded. Why connected a decent micro-condenser microphone to an 8bit/8kHz sample rate, 200-3.2kHz bandwidth, 64kbs data compression system? It doesn’t make sense to waste a decent transducer on a crappy ADC system. Likewise, at the receiving end why connect a half-decent speaker to a low-fidelity DAC? So, they don’t. You clearly don’t notice or care. Some of you low-life weirdoes even listen to music on your phone, out of that godawful speaker!

Cell phones have rendered over-the-wire conversations pointless and painful. They are helping us all grow apart. “Can you hear me now?” is not a question of coverage and hasn’t been for at least a decade. Now, it’s a question of did you understand that simple question through the hash of garbled transmission, Star Bores sound effects, and cut-out segments of the phrase? I’ve said this before, “I can, in a few moments, tell if a caller is on a cellphone because the quality is miserable. Always. My guess is if you can tolerate that level of distortion in a voice conversation you aren’t that discerning in any aspect of audio. So, while I’m not surprised that music is being listened to on actual speakers by an audience of 12%-and-shrinking I’m also not impressed by your musical tastes. Your opinion of audio quality is just going to make me laugh, so don’t waste either of our time.” It’s still true, but now I also don’t think you care much about communicating with your fellow human beings.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Movie Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

As a rule, I not only don’t do movie reviews but I don’t buy movies. I had a small (probably 15 tapes) VHS collection that I tossed when we moved to Red Wing in 2014. I have about that many DVDs, most of which my wife inherited from her father and some motorcycle DVDs that were sent to me to review when I wrote for Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly magazine. I kept most of the review DVDs because I couldn’t find anyone to give them to. Mostly, I’m happy to watch a movie once and forget about it.

Bohemian Rhapsody may prove to be an exception.

Before you get driven away from seeing Bohemian Rhapsody by the bullshit reviews—most of which apparently wanted long scenes of gay erotica, lots of orgies, and other soap opera gibberish—try to imagine that the band (and, most likely, Freddie) wanted a movie about their musical lives and the music. That is the movie they made and they have good reason to be proud of the outcome. (Brian May and Roger Taylor are listed as “Executive Music Producers) Also, remember that when the band was in its prime most of the reviewers, media rags, and television nitwits hated Queen and Queen’s music, including Bohemian Rhapsody. They were wrong then and they are wrong now, but at least they are consistent. Take everything Rolling Stone, the New York Times, Rotten Tomatoes, the Guardian, and the rest of the wannabe rock critics with a block of highly diluted salt. A typical comment from that crowd was this bit of drivel by a Pitchfork reviewer, "The film also manages to rob Mercury of nearly all his queer pleasures." Another way to say that would be that the film manages to keep its eye on the musical ball rather than Freddy Mercury's balls.

Likewise, the movie spends a little time portraying the media obscessing on Mercury’s sex life, even during band media events intended to promote their music and touring. Nobody dislikes having their image accurately held up for ridicule and nobody deserves that more than the entertainment jackals.

Rami Malek nailed Freddy Mercury perfectly and bozos like sore loser Sacha Baron Cohen are just jealous that not only did he not get the part but the members of Queen thought Cohen’s take on Mercury was pure bullshit. The movie covers more territory in 2 1/4 hours than we have a right to expect from a pop music movie. All four of the character actors who played the band’s members knocked their parts out of the park. Brian May must have felt like he was watching a 30 year old mirror Gwilym Lee had him down so perfectly. Honestly, before a recent documentary about Queen and this movie, I didn’t know squat about Roger Taylor or John Deacon, but Ben Hardy and Joseph Mazzello nailed the characters I saw in the BBC documentary and all of the scenes I’ve seen of Queen on stage.

Watching the actors in the recording studio reminded me of how much I love that world. The freedom, creativity, sounds, energy, control, fun make the recording studio one of the few places on the planet that some of us every get to be who we are; the best of who we are. Taking time away from the performances, the recording studio experience, to spend it on Mercury’s gay high life would have ruined the movie for me. Watching the band on stage, backstage, and on the road reminded me of why people get into pop music in the first place.

Movies are snapshots, at best. They are not rambling 1,000 page tomes on history, society, and sociology. Screenplay authors often have to condense moments that you and I might think are important to something that, to us, may not resemble the story we’ve heard. Often, the story we’ve heard has been distorted and doesn’t even slightly resemble the truth. Movies are not Ken Burns PBS documentaries that can go on for hours in a series of segments. 135 minutes is pushing the boundaries of movie length and if you would have rather had less of Queen’s Live Aid performance or any of the music this movie was supposed to be about and more gay bar scenes, you probably were never a Queen fan. This a movie for fans of the band’s music, but probably not a tell-all semi-porno if that’s what you’re hoping for.

Monday, October 8, 2018

DiGiCO ROI Baseline

In case you thought I was being hard on the Red Wing goofballs who grossly overpaid for the theater's DiGiCo SD9, here's what the resale is on the big boy's DiGiCo, the D5 Live (https://atlanta.craigslist.org/atl/msg/6717399160.html). The D5 Live is a substantial improvement, user-friendlyness-wise, over the SD9 with 4 much more user-friendly screens that actually make a little sense when you use them of the one poorly located screen that is totally disassociated from the channel faders. This used Craig's List console comes with a "road case and 100 meter coax cable. Also have a second D5 with bad power rail and needs power supplies rebuilt. the 2nd can be used for spare parts or fixed and it comes with a brand new road case and I'll just let you take it for free. I have put the engine from the broken console in the working console and it works fine so it would give you a spare engine.” So you get 1 ½ Digico D5’s, a road case, and coax cable for $3200? Red Wing paid $60k-80k (depending on how your read the bid) for a D5 that still can’t talk to any recording rig and is about 90% of the way to End of Service (EOS) and well out of warranty (a measly 1 year warranty, the industry minimum). 

The damn things don’t hold value well, do they? Any rational user would expect to see no more than a 1 year ROI on this kind of technology, but who's counting?


Monday, October 1, 2018

Overrating Repairability

1100.pdf-0Back in the mid-80’s I thought I had a small vision of the future. I imagined that there would be a much larger market for small, high fidelity, high reliability power amplifiers for the home studio market. First, I talked Pat Quilter into designing a one-rack-space Series One amplifier for that market; the QSC 1080/1100. From my own studio experience, I added a pair of headphone jacks for control room monitoring, with independent and easily replaceable limiting resistors so that two different monitor headphones could be plugged into that amp with the expectation that the acoustic output would be the same on both phones regardless of sensitivity or impedance. My contribution to the company’s documentation was the schematics that were found at the back of every owners’ manual for more than a decade. I also spec’d all of our circuit boards at 2 mil thickness to make servicing easier without causing damage to our boards during repair and to add to the durability of our products. I even argued that slotted screws were more repair-friendly than Philips screws, due to my experience working on Japanese motorcycles. (I was wrong in that argument.) 40 years ago, I was a big believer in designing field-repairable products. Today, not so much.

bad solderI have a long career in music instrument (MI) and audio equipment repair. That means, I have worked on equipment from the end of the tube design period through the 30-some years of analog equipment and discrete-to-integrated-circuit designs to today’s surface mount technology (SMT) components and our current age of equipment that is so complicated it is very nearly unrepairable for anyone but factory technicians. I have worked for several manufacturers, either as a captured employee repairing company products or as an independent tech working as an authorized service center or repairing equipment long past warranty. I’ve worked on a lot of equipment after someone else has attempted to make repairs. I’ve seen butchered single-sided printed circuit boards (PCBs), slaughtered double-sided PCBs with nonsensical jumpers scattered all over the board to bypass the wreaked traces, and point-to-point terminal strips so buried in cold solder that I needed a bottle of flux to get the solder to flow well enough to remove past repair attempts. And those messes were often created by factory authorized service center technicians and even the factory technicians! There are at least two well-known, high end Eurotrash console makers (who may or may not remain nameless) that were infamous for shipping new consoles with so many butchered and jumpered boards and wiring harnesses that we just assumed their crap would need reworking out of the crate. All of that equipment was repairable, but it needed repairing on a constant basis; rarely less than every 100 hours of use.

interstate-vw-junkyard-2016-06-10-16-05-58In fact, most of the products from our past that are “repairable” were made that way because their expected lifetime was incredibly short without occasional repairs. The old VW air-cooled motors lasted about 35,000 to 50,000 miles between major overhaul (35 for the van, 50 for the Beatle). In the good old days, an analog tape deck required recalibration with every new reel of tape and serious and expensive maintenance every two thousand hours (about 250 8-hour-days) of operation. In modern vehicles, safety features like crumple zones, air bags, ABS brakes, and other electronic-controlled features and functions limit repairability to module replacement because of their complexity and design. It’s not just the SMT components, but the incredible increase in complexity of the circuit designs that limits field repairs.

However, we’re at a point in auto manufacturing history where any vehicle that doesn’t last 200,000 miles between major service intervals is considered a lemon. Other products offer similar longevity expectations. I’m still using a 2008 Dell laptop, although it is on its 3rd keyboard (which was designed to be easily replaceable). While Millennials seem to think a cell phone is obsolete after a year or less, my flip phone has been working just fine for the last decade and it is still on the original battery. Televisions usually get replaced becauses they are “too small” or don’t have current features, not because the CRT or other tubes and components have failed. Appliances are often handed down to a home’s next owners because, on average, Americans stay in their houses fewer years than an appliance survives.

Much of what we buy today can be repaired, it just costs so little to replace it that we do that instead. Click and Clack, the guys on the old Car Talk NPR radio show once estimated that it cost an average of $600/year to maintain an old car, far less than car payments. People still buy new cars, even when their current vehicle is probably good for another decade or two. My father, on the other hand, habitually traded in his “old” Chevy at 50,000 miles because he was used to his cars falling apart about then; and losing trade-in “value.” My first decent vehicle, a 1973 Toyota Hilux pickup, lasted for 350,000 miles with a valve job at 250,000 and a rear transmission seal at 275,000 being the only significant necessary repairs. I sold it for almost exactly what I paid for it, thirty years later. Now that is both longevity and repairability, but no crumple zones, no ABS, decent fuel economy but lousy emissions, lots of vehicle noise, and not much interior comfort. My current 2008 Nissan pickup has most of the creature comforts and safety features of the best car; at least as of 2008. It is pretty servicable, too. My brother’s new Toyota coupe looks like a nightmare to service, but it has a 100,000 mile power train warranty.

Finally, while there is lots of talk about fighting the disposable product economy, there isn’t much energy going into actually doing it. Consumers are quite happy being ignorant about how practically everything they own works. I would bet that the percentage of consumers (including musicians and studio owners) who are capable of repairing even the most simple electro-mechanical problem is less than 1% and many of those would rather they didn’t need to. At some point in manufacturing history, someone asked “How many customers read our detailed owner’s manual with maintenance and service information?” When the answer came back, it was obvious that was a waste of time and effort. Soon after, someone asked, “How many customers care if a service manual is available?” That discouraging answer eliminated service manuals. As long as those kinds of questions keep getting money-saving answers, you can assume servicability will continue to vanish.

4ce1c0104f027.imageIf you really like working on old junk, there is more than enough of that crap availble out there for you to play with. Since all of the post-Boomer generations appear to be mostly bdisinterested in “vintage” crap, prices are falling and demand is vanishing. At that rate, you should be able to buy Grandpa’s muscle car for less than your father paid for it. Hurry, though. Old stuff is showing up in the dump on an accelorated schedule. Turns out, most people would rather recycle old equipment rather than wrestle with fixing it.

The other end of the decision process is function, value, and price. For the cost of a 24-track record head you can buy 24-or-more high definition preamps with a high-resolution A/D interface that will likely last for a decade or more with no maintenance required. For the repair cost of a vintage Eurotrash tube condenser microphone, you can buy a modern condenser microphone that will emulate a whole collection of vintage microphones. If that kind of analysis doesn’t convince you to reconsider tossing good money after bad, you are clearly convinced that there is something special from obsolete technology and I can’t (and wouldn’t want to) change that.

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.