Tuesday, July 16, 2019
The Crossings stage, as you can see, is (or was) one of the rare "listening room" environments left on the planet. Working with Peter is a total throwback to a different, much better age. Peter is as disinterested in getting a perfect monitor mix as Bach or John Coltrane would have been. His total focus in a relatively long and detailed pre-show sound check is working toward a great sound for his audience. If you know me, you might guess that is right down my alley. For that goal, I'd show up, unpaid, ten hours early for a sound check.
Sunday, July 14, 2019
A hallmark of a civilized society has always been some sort of concern for the rights, health, and safety of everyone in the society. Here in the USA, we abandoned civilization in the 1980's and never looked back. Reagan and the "greed is good" characters taught a couple generations of mindless, work-slaves that the wealth of a few is a higher goal than the good of many. It has filtered down to every aspect of what remains of our culture. Music, for example; particularly, live music. There was a time, about 20 years ago, when I predicted that "Noise pollution will become the air pollution of today." I was wrong. We went backwards. Today we don't care about air pollution, global warming, economic inequality or insecurity, and noise pollution is practically celebrated.
If you bothered to look at the chart above, you'd notice that pretty much everything we're exposed to in modern life is likely to cause permanent hearing damage. Live music anywhere but in an acoustic (unamplified) environment is hazardous: all amplified live music is hazardous to your hearing health. Is that complicated? Is the risk worth whatever gratification the experience provides? Your mileage is probably different than mine. In my opinion, any live music that uses amplification of any sort better damn well sound at least as good as, and ought to be substantially better than, what I can experience on my car stereo system. Anything less than that is just pointless risk of a fragile hearing mechanism for no justification at all.
In all cases, the only safe way to "enjoy" amplified live music is with significant hearing protection firmly in place. There is absolutely no way to take children to an amplified live music performance that should not be called "criminal child abuse." Children are usually born with terrific hearing and lose it fairly quickly in our modern noise-polluted world. Exposure to the quantity and "quality" of noise a modern sound system produces is flat-out child abuse and should be criminally prosecuted. Personally, I do not understand how the venues, cities, and other adults involved in a well-known medically-unsafe practice are not regulated and prosecuted when they violate public safety, but that's the post-Reagan libertarian nuthouse we live in today.
Monday, July 1, 2019
Honestly, outside of physics there isn’t much value to take from the understanding that hydrogen is 75% of the mass in the universe. The over-abundance of the other two things should be really informative to a young person starting out in life: you do not want to place all of your bets on being special in a commodity market. Being special requires some rarity. Corn, sow bellies, soybeans, car tires, oil, coal, electricity, electronic components, cell phones, computers, and guitars are, mostly, commodities. That means one example of any of those things will serve the purpose as well as any other example. In a rational world, that would mean that the price of any of those things would be the same and as low as the cost of production allows.
In the case of over-produced farm products, the price is artificially held high to maintain the rural status quo. In the case of musicians and music, the price appears to be heading for the dead bottom because there are no powerful 1%’er special interests who have the money to buy off our state and federal congresscritters who could easily create the same artificially high price structure that they have built for energy, oil and coal, ethanol, cell phone providers, corn and soybeans, meat and dairy, exports, housing, and medical industries from insurance companies to Big Pharma. Don’t look for help from that direction, there just isn’t enough money in the industry to create much interest and the money that was in that business model is going away and most of it is long-gone.
Sunday, June 23, 2019
One of the amazing moments in my life was getting to talk, briefly, with Larry after a performance at the Costa Mesa WAVE smooth jazz concert sometime between '89 and '91.
I was doing some testing, backstage, on new QSC products and subb'ing for the Sound Image monitor tech (Dave Shadoan, the owner of the company at the time). During David Benoit's set, there was an FOH problem and Dave asked me to watch the monitor board while he went to the FOH desk. There wasn't much to do, since Benoit's set was about over, so I just re-familiarized myself with the board and flipped through the stage mixes to see what Dave had setup for each player. Benoit's set ended and Dave still wasn't back and one of his guys and I started setting up for the next set, with me on the board, mostly, and the other guy positioning equipment and telling me what each aux needed for the next band. I was pretty overwhelmed with the complexity of it all, since I was used to a 36-channel, 8-aux version of the board and this was a lot more of everything than I'd ever used. We got it done barely before the band hit the stage and I didn't even look up to see who it was. I had my hand poised over the aux bus solo buttons, waiting to ratchet though the stage mixes correcting whatever the musicians wanted fixed during the first song. I heard someone say something like, "This is my first time on a stage since I got shot . . . "and I looked up to see Larry Carlton talking into a mic I had a little control over. The song, "Smiles and Smiles to Go" was the opening tune and I was back to work getting nods and directions from the band until Dave came back and took over about 3/4 of the way through the first song. I went back to work monitoring our amplifiers' performance.
When Larry's set finished, we all went into another frenzy of setup berserk-ness and about the time the next band started its set, I saw Larry exiting the dressing room trailer and head down the backstage area toward the parking lot. I sort of hate most things about being a fan and all things fanatical, but it struck me that I would only get one chance in this life to tell Mr. Carlton how much his music had meant to me. I usually become totally tongue-tied and lose about 100 IQ points in those situations, but I managed to run up behind him and say something like, "Mr. Carlton, I have loved your playing on the Crusaders records since #1 and especially Southern Comfort and Those Southern Nights." He turned around, looking slightly fearful, saw a dumbass yokel wearing a QSC jacket with tools, test equipment, and cables dangling from his belt, a tool bag, and wrapped around his (my) neck and relaxed. We had a really nice 5-10 minute conversation about that music and his love for jazz and I managed not to be a bigger Kansas hick than usual through most of it.
I have been lucky to meet and talk to a few of the people who kept me coming back to music for almost 60 years and meeting Larry Carlton is close to the top of those experiences.
Monday, June 17, 2019
That Blues Breakers sound was the result of a coherent group of musicians playing together to create a piece of work that was a musical composition; even though that composition was artificial as hell. Every sucker who ever attended the sonic disasters that all Clapton concerts were from then on (with the possible exception of the Unplugged MTV concert) would confirm that Clapton no more resembled the musician on that recording than I resemble Lebron James. As for the Blues Breaker recording, I’m sure Clapton’s guitar mess bled into every mic in the room, but through a variety of Gus Dudgeon's clever acoustic and mixing tricks Mayall and the Blues Breakers got a decent recording in spite of Clapton’s ego. That’s my take, anyway. After making that record, Eric threw one of his trademark tantrums and moved on, leaving rock history with a mangled story to argue over. Several years of awful Cream concerts marketed by three brilliantly engineered and produced Tom Dowd records (including two miracle live records that almost made the group sound competent in concert) created a couple of generations of tone-deaf, functionally deaf, brain-dead guitar wannabe-heroes. Even someone as clueless as Ginger Baker could figure it out, “The incredible volume was one of the things that destroyed the band. Playing loud had nothing to do with music.”
For the next 50-some years, guitar players have been messing around with guitars, pickups, amplifiers, and techniques trying to create some sort of sound that either identifies them as individuals or covers them in the reflective glory of copying someone else fairly well. Been there, done that. What an audience is looking for is not a single instrument's "tone," but a well-constructed, balanced and interesting performance from a group (even if the "group" is an acoustic musician and his/her voice) and a song worth remembering. Except in a few instances, nobody would cross the street to hear the average guitarist fumble with their instrument, but most of us would dedicate some of our precious vanishing time to hear a great song.
In the end, Eric’s tone was about as important to the song as was the “tone” of every other instrument in the recording; especially the dubbed-in horn section. The song, the arrangement, and the mix are what make this tune worth listening to and that is the message that appears to be getting further lost in the weeds as time goes on. Pop “music” has become more of a visual performance “art” than a musical performance and audiences reflect that weirdness. “Musicians” spend more time on their dance steps and posing than their instruments or arrangements. At the club level, musicians are being taught to perform as a random bunch of individuals with self-interest overwhelming anything resembling music. Even jazz musicians in clubs as tiny as coffee shops “need” amplification because they are incapable of listening to each other and too egotistical to imagine that someone else might be the most important thing in a particular tune. And music dies a painful, sad death at the hands of electronics.
Monday, June 10, 2019
For example, I’ve seen Pat Metheny almost a dozen times at a dozen different venues and never once felt betrayed, abused, or let down by his band’s performances. After that many shows, I am still willing to go a long distance to see him again. A small part of my motivation for moving to L.A. in the 80’s was to see the Crusaders in their native element; especially since that was the only way to see them by that late period in their careers. I saw them as the headlines for the 1983 Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Forum, at our local club (The Golden Bear) in Huntington Beach, and at a couple of outdoor shows in the South Beach area. Every show was knocked out and amazingly close to their recordings, quality-wise. Same for Jeff Beck; who I have seen 3 times and 4 if you count a 1960’s Yardbirds concert in a Denver bar. Jeff is often loud, but always musical and the sound quality has been close to state-of-the-art every time I’ve seen him play. Elvy isn’t as much of a jazz fan as me, so many of the above shows were my experience alone. On the other hand, we’ve been to more than a few pop music concerts because of her interests; Queen, for example.
Minnesota State Fair. The sound was terrible and, being an outdoor concert in a facility where I’ve heard some terrific shows, all of the blame landed on the band (and the FOH nitwit). I tried that show twice and the 2nd time was worse than the 1st. I haven’t paid a moment of attention to Robert Randolph since; nor bought any of the band’s newer music. I still think they are a good recording act, but as a live band they suck and I wouldn’t cross the street to see them for free.
To be clear, what I’m expecting in a live concert is at least the sound quality of a decent car stereo (sans hip-hop sub-woofer mess); at the dead minimum. There is no point in spending tens of thousands of dollars on a sound system that is worse than a car stereo; and that is not a high bar. A better goal would be to match the fidelity of a good home entertainment system. Still not a stretch, but an improvement over a car stereo. Excuses from FOH goobers for room acoustics, audience behavior, and the band’s stage excesses don’t mean a thing to me. The band and the FOH engineer are totally responsible for and in control of the concert sound quality. If, as is the usual case, they don’t care one result is either do I.
Even 20-50 years later, I can remember many of the concert moments that blew me away; some as if it were a recent experience. What I remember about the lousy sounding concerts I’ve experienced is “I’ll never do that again.” That, literally, is all I remember of non-musical experiences. That would be my Geezer reflex: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” I had thought about doing a chart of a few of my concert experiences, but it would be a lot of one-time experiences and my HTML charting capabilities suck. Put it simply, there are far more “artists” who I have seen once and wouldn’t cross the street to see again. Too many musicians are more concerned with their egos than with their music. This is not a new thing, but a long-established tradition; especially with jazz and pop musicians.
The conversation Elvy and I had about our 50+ years of going to concerts together was a little surprising. She was even more adamant in her “I’ll never do that again” response. We did remember many of the same great shows close to exactly the same. For both of us, the memory of the sonically disappointing-to-awful shows was limited and a little irritating. We’re not rich and wasting money is something we’ve tried to avoid for all of our adult lives.
Monday, June 3, 2019
All of this brings me to my current best solution for crappy live music sound systems: a musician in charge of suffering with the audience (MICOSWTA). 40 years ago, on the sound company side of Wirebender Audio, we discovered that nobody in pop music cared what the FOH system sounded like. (Maybe not “nobody,” but close enough for statistical purposes: 99.9999999 . . . %.) As long as the stage monitors fed the egos of the performing “talent,” the audience could drop dead as long as they bought tickets before they croaked. Today, that level of excess has multiplied to the point of total indifference and independence. In-ear monitoring systems not only allow musicians to receive exactly the mix they want but provide 25-35dB of isolation from the hostile acoustic environment their suckers/audiences suffer.
FOH nitwit was doing at the Snarky Puppy concert, is to make someone in the band (ideally a band leader) suffer exactly the mix the audience hears. By that I mean, either that person either stands near the mains with no other source of audio or, best of all, put a microphone a dozen feet in front of the mains and that all the band’s sacrificial victim gets to hear; either through a traditional floor monitor or in-ears. I mean exactly what the audience at that point receives; including he sound pressure. If the band is deafening the audience with 120+dBSPL, that’s what MICOSWTA gets.
I suspect that not only would live music improve drastically and quickly, but many FOH nincompoops would be unemployed forever. At MSCM, we used to talk about "getting fired moments," often when a recording tech screwed up the headphone mix and caused permanent hearing damage to a client. Likewise, making the band leader live with the potential hearing loss his audience experiences would be nothing but positive.
Tuesday, May 28, 2019
This particular performance was so awful, musically and visually, that it brought back a memory of a really terrible 70's country rock band (There were so many!) called "Stampede." The band was totally talentless and their lead squawker was a toothless hillbilly wearing a stomped on straw cowboy hat doing a bowlegged squatting move that I thought was one of the dumbest looking "dances" I'd ever seen on stage. Watching this pack of homeless goofballs with the sound off reminded me of that awful concert experience from almost 50 years ago. So, I snagged one of the only country songs I have and dubbed it over these fools and their waddling.
Monday, May 27, 2019
It’s hard to know who to fault for the generally awful sound of this terrifically talented band in what should have been pretty easy-to-manage venue. The Palace Theater (or Snarky Puppy’s road company) does have an array system, which more often than not seems to be an identifying marker for lousy sounding shows. Unfortunately, the sound system also includes subwoofers; hardware and technology that almost no live sound doofuses know how to use half-competently. I didn’t bother to get close enough to the FOH sound doofus to look at the console, but it was (obviously) digital and I suspect it was either Avid or DiGiCo. I figured if I got close enough to evaluate the mixer I’d be tempted to strangle or knife the moron. Seriously. There were many moments in Saturday night’s concert where I considered the risk of terminating that useless human wastebasket vs. the few months or years I might have left on my odometer spent incarcerated. He was that incompetent and destructive. I have to suspect he has never listened to a Snarky Puppy CD or heard an actual non-distorted musical instrument. He is too young to have grown up listening to AM radio, but just right for the iTunes 128kBPS MP3 experience.
From the start, it was obvious that the subwoofer component of the system overwhelmed his “talent” level. The first clue to what was to come arrived quickly as the intro act—a vocalist, keyboard, sax, bass, and drums—was as grossly distorted, poorly balanced and mixed, and unintelligible as the usual First Avenue sound disaster. The bass and kick drum merged into an atonal train rumble and the bottom end of the keyboard (anything under 200Hz) was added to the constant drone of the overloaded and poorly managed sub-channel. My wife, Elvy, kept looking at me, wondering, “Is this really the band you wanted to see?” After a pointlessly extended intermission break between acts, Snarky Puppy came on stage. Michael League mumbled some incoherent stuff about the band and, I think, the band crew, as an introduction and the mix went downhill from there. Even reinforcing simple speech was beyond the capabilities of the FOH moron. There was never a moment where anything in the mix improved, but it did get much louder and more distorted as the night went on.
From everything I thought I knew about Snarky Puppy, I did not imagine I would need hearing protection during one of their concerts. By the 3rd tune, I was cutting pieces of my clothing to stuff into my ears. If that was Nic Hard on the board, he has passed his prime (if he had one) and is well into needing hearing aids and another less complicated and skilled profession. Hard gets credit for Culcha Vulcha, one of the Grammy-nominated SP records and the only one of their CDs I've sent back to Amazon due to what I thought was a defect (intermittent gross distortion) and I now suspect was "intended." My local library's copy of Culcha Vulcha has the same distortion, so I've moved from suspicious to sad confidence. I think League even threatened that the FOH nitwit would be mixing their next CD, which is no kind of good news. The sound was so out of control that we were even often abused by the high-pitched squeal of microphone feedback that the FOH doofus usually made worse before he “solved” it. He clearly never heard a sound system that was loud or distorted enough for his tastes. The sub-channel flat-out rattled, it was so overloaded. I would estimate that the overall sound system regularly produced 20-30% distortion at 125-130dBSPL and often pegged at solid clipping well over 30-50%. Close to the end of the show, League mentioned that the audience could buy downloaded copies of the show we saw. I could almost be convinced to spend that money since the live show was one of the least musical experiences I have ever had in a concert venue. On a perverse and unlikely level, I would kind of like to know what I missed.
The 9 pieces of Snarky Puppy were introduced as "band leaders in their own right," which was sadly reflected in the performances, too. Instead of a coherent group intent on blending their talents into the kind of rhythmic orchestrations we hear on the early Snarky Puppy recordings, Saturday night's performance was more like the usual 90% of jazz, which is a loose collection of individuals demonstrating their technical prowess at the expense of anything resembling "music." Unlike their best recordings where "solos" often are enhancements of the theme, most of the night's solos were exactly that; solos. Sadly, most of those excursions reminded me of the mindless and boring 60's and 70's guitar hero days or what my studio partner used to call jazz; "meandering saxophones."
Elvy, an experienced visual artist, called the light show “painful.” She spent a lot of the show with her eyes closed to avoid looking at the stage. For some weird reason, a good bit of the white spots were randomly aimed into the audience, creating a blinding effect similar to the deafening effect of the awful audio mix. So, pretty much every aspect of the show that the Snarky Puppy crew touched was a fucked-up mess. I'd love to report that the band overcame this deficit with tremendous performances, but from where we sat and stood it was almost impossible to make out any detail of the music. So, much of the evening seemed like a repetitive hip-hop loop of kick drum, snare, and gurgling subwoofer distortion. Rather than a jazz band, the best SP managed that night was something more akin to the kind of Studio 54 electronica "dance music." Perfect music for a near-overdose of coke, PCP, or ecstasy. The light show was probably aimed at those customers.
As a general principle, I’m against capital punishment. However, I would regularly make an exception for FOH doofuses who ruin otherwise excellent shows. At the least, I think morons like the Snarky Puppy FOH doofus should have been smacked on the back of his empty head by each of the 3200 sold-out show victims. The beauty of either beating to death or shooting FOH morons is that, if no one volunteered to do that job because of the risk no one would be inconvenienced. Many of the best shows I have ever heard were completely managed by the band from the stage. All of the worst shows had a “professional” mangling the mix from FOH. Two constant factors in the sound quality of the shows I have seen has been the FOH tech and the band. The sound system is inconsequential. The equipment is NEVER the problem and the people using said equipment are ALWAYS responsible for the sound quality of a show. You can find examples of that fact in many of the show reviews on this website and some of my rants about live music in general.
Due to my wife's mobility problems, we were kindly given ADA seats right behind the FOH console. Our purchased seats were fairly high in the balcony and the Palace has limited elevator capabilities, so that was a really generous act by one of the facility's managers. We were there early, because of her limitations, which gave me the opportunity to move around a lot early in the show. I listened to the opening act at several points in the balcony and, before and during SP's set, on the floor (mostly in the 10-20' just in front of the house console). It wasn't any better than our seats at any of those spots, but most of the areas were considerably worse: closer was painfully louder and further away was incoherently more distorted and muddier. The balcony is a giant bass resonator, which only exacerbated the low frequency problems I've described above.
I can’t decide if I would be relieved or disappointed to learn that the sound system was not the Palace’s house system. The upside might be that it could still be possible to see a show there that didn’t suck. The downside would be that Snarky Puppy and Michael League have lost their edge and concern for their fans’ experience. For me, it’s kind of the end of the trail, regardless. Live music has become such a painful experience, physically and sonically, that I generally avoid any indoor concerts out of self-protection. My anticipation and disappointment in this show was pretty obvious. On the way home, Elvy kept asking “Are you ok?” The next morning, she even cried in sympathy, knowing better than anyone how much I had looked forward to this concert. Since were were there early, I bought a copy of SP's Immigrance CD and a shirt before the show started. I have yet to open the wrapper of the CD and the shirt ended up in the rag bag this morning. I do not need a reminder of that evening. If I had waited to the end, I wouldn't have wasted that money.
Over the years, I have seen a handful of amazing live music performances. I’m ok with that, disappointed that part of my life is over, but I have some great memories. Snarky Puppy will not be among those, though.
Sunday, May 12, 2019
About 5 years ago, I wrote a diatribe about motorcycle helmets, titled “That’s Not A Helmet.” After hearing a friend’s description of a few hours in a local “recording studio,” a lot of the thoughts behind that motorcycle rant came back to me.
First, a recording studio should be an excellent acoustic space. If it is not that, the best you could call it would be a “practice space that also stores some recording equipment.” Let’s be honest with why people want to call an overdub space, lousy practice room, or even a living room “a recording studio.” Money. Money. Money.
1) Money spent by the wannabe recording engineer on equipment that far exceeds both the talent of the user and the acoustic capabilities of the space. If you spend $5,000 on a half-dozen high end preamps and an outragesously cool A-to-D interface and your acoustic space is like any of the spaces I’ve collected in the pictures in this rant, you’re fooling yourself. You don’t need 100dB S/N or 126dB of dynamic range, because your crappy space has a 55dBA noise floor. No manufacturer currently selling equipment makes a preamp that is anywhere near as awful as your recording space. $200 is overkill for your room.
2) Money being made by boutique and so-called pro-level manufacturers over-selling equipment to people who don’t need anything near high-end, wouldn’t know how to obtain high-end performance in a pro studio with a professional assistant, and who have almost infinitely more money than sense or talent. While I saw some of this when I was teaching at a music college, I’ve seen way more of it since living in what is essentially a retirement community in southeastern Minnesota. Every little rich kid in this 16,000 person town seems to have a “studio.” That universally means they have thousands of dollars worth of equipment and instruments crammed into a spare bedroom or basement family room space. At the most, they might have spent $200 on an Auralex kit, which they mindlessly applied to the walls in odd places. Everyone in the supply chain saw these suckers coming and sold them on the idea that “there is money to be made in those recording hills.” Trust me, there isn’t. As a brilliant and experienced friend often says, “The only way to end up with a million from a recording studio is to start with three.” You won’t even make minimum wage renting your space to friends and suckers and if you ever knew how to calculate ROI you’ll have to completely ignore that knowledge if you want to stay sane.
3) Money being made by the various vanity distribution channels from CD Baby to YouTube to Spotify. Every one of those characters will be telling you that “you too can be a rock star.” You can’t. You won’t. And you shouldn’t be.
I’m no saying that you can’t make great music in a non-studio environment. You absolutely can. It’s just a lot harder to get great acoustic sounds in a lousy-to-mediocre acoustic environment. My real complaint is that calling a bedroom or basement rec room a “recording studio” degrades the phrase in the same way calling a garbage man a “sanitation engineer” pisses on the training and education required to actually be an “engineer.” Find another word. I call my workspace “our spare bedroom” or “my office.”