Friday, July 1, 2022

Theory vs. Experience: Diffraction

When I taught “Acoustics” and “Room Acoustics” at McNally Smith College, one of my favorite theoretical devices was diffusion. “Theoretical” because almost no one ever wants to spend real money on that acoustical solution after spending really real money on isolation and absorption and cosmetics to hide the practical stuff. The end result has been that while I have built some diffusion products, I have not spent any time enjoying them. I have never had a location/facility or had the opportunity to experience a facility that would have accommodated substantial enough diffusion to have much of an effect. The stupid “convention” of a window between control rooms and performance areas pretty much wipes out any real opportunity to experiment with a diffuse sound field. George Massenburg and Dr. Peter D’Antonio’s Blackbird Studio C design is the posterchild example (at right) for how radical you have to get before diffusion really shows its stuff. It that isn’t an extreme look to you, you are my kind of people. When you look at my discovery that will be described in this essay, remember that Massenburg’s “studio contains slightly more than 100,000 lbs. of wood on the walls.” (That is 50 tons or 45359.24 kilograms of MDF wood!). And the calculations used to create this design came from a “10,000-page Excel spreadsheet based on acoustic diffusion algorithms.”

My personal moment-with-diffusion came totally as an accident; an incredibly fun, happy accident. I’ve been fooling with some mid-fi recordings friends and I made during the 1st 2 1/4 years of the pandemic through Jamkazam. I’m old, tired, and out-of-practice at tweaking and fine-tuning recordings that have a fair number of timing (thanks to long-distance latency) and pitch issues and it helps for me to get some distance from the tools (mostly Apple’s Logic X) and just listen to what I have so far. That critical listening includes stereo placement and my low-fi tool of choice has been a SoundFreaq Bluetooth speaker that sort of does stereo, but with about 6” of displacement. So, I bought a pair of very cheap, beer-can-sized MusiBaby Bluetooth Speakers and hauled them outside to listen while I read. This is definitely not an ad for MusiBaby speakers, but they aren’t as terrible as their $30/each price tag implies. The cool thing about these speakers is, being wireless, I can find a decent placement for them no matter where I am outside.

2022 Diffraction Experiment (1)

My favorite outside spot in our yard is pictured at left: sitting in a swingchair, in the shade of a pair of very large maple trees, with a great view of the forest and hills across the street. So, naturally I stuck the speakers on the ground close enough to be able to mostly overwhelm the traffic noise (except for the idiots on Hardlys and deaf bozos driving muffler-free cars and trucks who sonically litter our countryside). I’ve put the speakers on top of the firepit before and on a glass table that is out of sight to the left of this picture. But two days ago, I put the two blue speakers on the patio shelf to the left and right of the firepit. And while I was swinging back and forth, as I often do to keep the mosquitoes confused and working for their blood, I noticed that there was a spot in that motion that was amazingly full sounding.

2022 Diffraction Experiment (2)

You can see by the picture that I wasn’t doing anything particularly scientific in my speaker placement. I didn’t even more a couple of acoustic obstacles because I wasn’t expecting anything from this setup. Once I got into it, I did start messing with speaker placement, listening distance, and a few other things that might have some effect on the “effect” I was hearing. I honestly had to let this settle overnight before I began to figure out some things from the experiment. What I heard was an incredibly coherent and powerful center image from these two tiny speakers. When the speakers were at a reasonable distance from the firepit, close enough to get some reflective reinforcement and far enough for that reinforcement to be diffused, I heard things in my own mixes and other reference (for me) recordings that I can’t consistently pick out in my office “studio” setup, which has absorption in the center but no real diffusion anywhere.

I think the takeaway from this accidental demonstration is that the diffusor needs to be substantially larger than the speaker, especially taller, and mass, as always, is our friend in acoustic treatments. Those retaining wall bricks are about 40 pounds each, for example. Massenburg and D’Antonio used MDF in their diffusion design at least partially because of the weight, I’m guessing. MDF is about 49 pounds/square foot and pine, for example, is about 30 pounds/square foot. Not a small thing when you are making something as substantial and Blackbird’s Studio C. It would be interesting to build a floor-to-ceiling retaining wall curved diffusor and see how it sounds in a real studio environment. Just don’t do it anywhere that can’t support a few tons of brick.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

From Whence It All Began

Recently, I saw a Facebook post on Pat Metheny’s page where he said, “"The Beatles were huge for me. Without them, I don't know if I even would have become a musician or a guitar player. When their hits started coming out, I was 8 and 9 years old and it had a tremendous impact on me. . .” and he proceeded to play “And I Love Her.” Obviously, Pat turns a fairly deplorable song into something very likeable and almost infinitely more complex than the original composition.

I have been a Pat Metheny fan since his Gary Burton days and he is in my Top 5 guitarists, some days at the top of that list. I played in bands that had a fair share of Beatles songs for 20 years, but in my mind I was always pandering to the lowest common denominator when I played most of those songs. (I admit to liking “Taxman,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Got to Get You into My Life,” and “Birthday[for about a decade, the only song I would play when someone requested “The Birthday Song” and one of the Beatles only actual rock songs]). Otherwise, the band often labeled as “the greatest Rock and Roll band ever” mostly left me wishing for silence.

I absolutely admire George Martin’s genius in recognizing that 4 moderate talents were visually (and could be made to aurally be) the exact right thing for a crowd of blooming Boomer teenagers to obsess on. His commitment to molding that mess of “talent” into what the Beatles became is historic in R&R history. If Martin hadn’t forced the Goofy Three into dumping a mediocre drummer and accepting a professional musician who rewrote the job of pop drumming forever, they likely would have been a one-hit-wonder; if that. To highlight that point, in 1971 neglected and mostly unsuccessful John Lennon asked “What's he done now?” in regard to George Martin’s post-Beatle career. I have loved that typically clueless moment in John’s feet-in-mouth career for 50 years. Wikipedia’s George Martin discography is only a partial list of Martin’s accomplishments before and after the Beatles. “Blow by Blow” alone changed as much in pop music and recording history as had most of the Beatles’ output. (There, I said it and I hope that is out of my system forever.)

But Pat’s comment started me thinking about my own considerably less creative or interesting original musical path origins. One band is probably most responsible for me giving up on my Dizzy Gillespie clone trumpet-player pipedreams and that would be The Ventures. I’m older than Pat, so there is that, too. I was 12 when Walk Don’t Run became a hit in 1960 and had been flailing at the trumpet for 3 years by then. With paper route money, I bought a terrible Sears acoustic guitar and two years later gave up on the trumpet forever. When I was 13, I was in a kid band playing (badly) surf music and Venture’s hits and the summer I turned 14 someone in that band had a connection to the nun (not a typo) who was responsible for bringing the Ventures to the Dodge City, Kansas City Auditorium. Their concert was being promoted and organized by the now-defunct St. Marys of the Plains Catholic College and two of my bandmates were very Catholic Italians and at least one of them had a good enough connection to the college to get me a “job” as a stage hand for the Ventures’ show.

Back in those days, setting up a stage for a rock and roll show was a whole world different than the past 40 years of pop music. The Ventures had three guitar amps and one bass amp, all Fenders, and their instruments, also all Fenders. The auditorium provided the “sound system” for any vocals or dialog, a three or four-channel Bogen tube mixer with about 20W of power and a pair of awful Bogen columns. Worse, it was all being manned by an old man who, I think, was a plumber by day and, later, ran a Suzuki motorcycle shop. As I remember, the “sound check” amounted to him plugging in a mic on a stand and tapping on it. He quickly went sleep next to the mixer before the show even started. Talk about a harbinger of what live sound would become in the future!

I carried amps and guitar cases from the loading dock to the stage and did whatever the band wanted me to do and was finished with my part of the job in an easy hour or so. They noodled around a bit with the guitars and amps, but didn’t really do anything resembling a sound check or rehearsal before they headed off to the backstage area to wait for the crowd to show up. With no adults in the room to care about what I did until after the show and load-out, I climbed the ladder to the grid over the stage and found a great seat right over the middle of the band about 20’ up and well out of sight of the audience. In the dark, I dangled my legs over the edge of the waffled grid and hung out in nervous excitement for the band to appear and the curtains to open.

Someone from the college walked in front of the curtains and said something like “Ladies and gentlemen, the world famous Ventures!” and the current opened up, the band walked to their instruments, strapped them on, and with a short count-in started with the as-yet-to-be-recorded or released Ventures’ version of Richard Rogers’ opera “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” When they struck the opening chord, I almost bounced off of the grid and rained down on their unsuspecting heads. Only luck and a good last minute grip kept me from “bringing the house down” before the first verse. As good as this remastered version of their record sounds, in my memory the live performance was 1,000 times better and more powerful.

Except for the songs they played that night that I’d yet to hear, my band covered almost everything in their catalog from “Walk, Don’t Run” to “Sleepwalk” and all of the surf tunes. Nothing I’d heard in those recordings prepared me for the real, live Beatles . . . I mean Ventures. My life was changed forever and for the next 15 years I was focused on becoming as much like those four guys as possible, except for the greasy hair. Not that I didn’t admire their hair, I was just too lazy to comb mine let alone coat it in Brylcreem.

Classic lineup of the Ventures in 1967After the concert was over and I’d helped load everything back into their vehicle, I remember walking across the parking lot with Nookie Edwards, Bob Bogle, and Don Wilson and asking them to autograph something I’d managed to find that was autographical. The response from Nookie Edwards was, “Surely.” And he reached for whatever I had to sign.

Bob Bogle said, “Don’t call the kid Shirley.” And they all broke up. That was the first of a few thousand times I head that joke, but every other time I’ve heard the lines it brings up a fabulous memory of getting to hang out with my childhood idols. For me, the Ventures started it all, first with their records, second with a live performance. Live sound, recorded music, technology and a life-long fascination with audio electronics, and whatever music I have managed to reproduce or create in my limited-talent life as a bass and guitar player. No band, ever, more deserved to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Friday, April 29, 2022

A Dog's Life

 I began writing this piece on 4/19/2022. I plan to work on it until our close friend, Gypsy dies. It isn’t a journal of those sad days. It is intended to be an obituary of the most amazing non-human life I have ever experienced. Gypsy died on 4/29/2022 at about 12:30PM. In death, as in life, she did her best to be as thoughtful as possible.Posting it to my Wirebender site has a special to a few of my audio friends. One of the more brainless years of "administration" at McNally Smith College of Music the mismanagers decided to forego the spring semester graduation party and ceremony because there "weren't enough students" to make the expense worthwhile (for who?). The Production Department had the usual number of spring graduates so we decided to host our own graduation party at my home in Little Canada. Gypsy was our official greeter and entertainment for that party.

This week, as I begin to write this essay, which is very likely to become an obituary, Mrs. Day and I are watching the last days of our 15-year-old best friend, Gypsy, play out. She joined our family, often as the smartest member, a little more than 14 years ago, near Mrs. Day’s birthday in September, 2007. She was a shelter dog and she and a sister had been caged convicts in a puppy mill that the Minneapolis SPCA had raided a few weeks earlier. Gypsy looked like a cross between an Australian Shepherd and a Blue Heeler, so that’s what we described her as her whole life. Her sister appeared to be a classic, black and white spotted Australian Shepherd. Both dogs were being treated well by the adoption agency where Mrs. Day found her and they appeared to be calm, friendly, and intelligent. It could have been a quarter-flip as to which dog we picked, but Mrs. Day really liked the Heeler color and markings. So, we went home with Gypsy (the name Mrs. Day gave her, not the name the shelter had given her). Our previous dog, Puck, who had lived with our daughter’s family for a few years, had died a few days earlier and Mrs. Day was convinced our granddaughter needed a dog to live with. I still hadn’t finished mourning the dog before Puck, a chow mix who had died 5 years earlier. I doubt that I would have ever brought another animal into my life if Mrs. Day weren’t so resolute that we “needed” one.

The ride home was a warning of what the next 15 years would be like. Gypsy whined, shivered, and paced frantically in the back seat of the car all the way home. As soon as the car stopped and she jumped out, she was “normal” again. For at least 15,000 miles of our lives, Gypsy put on that same show every time she was in a moving vehicle of any sort. She was terrible to travel with by vehicle. If we’d have wanted to walk from Minnesota to California, Gypsy would have been all for it.

The first day Gypsy was introduced to our household, she knew she belonged there and did not ever want to leave. We had a cat at the time, Spike. Spike was a neutered male who pretty much thought he owned the house. When we first got him, Puck was already part of our household. Puck accepted that kitten as if they’d known each other their whole lives. Likewise, when Gypsy arrived terrified, shy, and confused. Spike took a good look at her and walked away, back to his usual routine. Until the day Spike took off on us, after about a week living in our camper, they were the closest of animal friends. I am not lying here, but I wouldn’t believe it if you told this story to me: Spike would catch and kill rabbits, squirrels, and other wildlife in our Little Canada backyard and deliver them to Gypsy to devour for the cat’s entertainment. I really wish I’d have taken a picture of that behavior. Spike would just drop the dead animal at Gypsy’s feet and she’d make the prey vanish as if it had never existed. Barely a puff of fur left over, at most. When our most recent cat, Doctor Zogar, came into our family, Gypsy gave that nasty little brat the same kind of generous welcome Spike had given her. Gypsy played with both cats as energetically as if they were all kittens from the same mother, but she was always careful not to hurt them. I can’t say that care was repaid with any sort of kindness by Zogar. (Who I always called “Stinker.”) Zogar regularly spiked Gypsy’s nose and tried for eyes occasionally. I never hit Gypsy in anger, ever, but I batted that damn cat across the room fairly often when he hurt my dog.

Mrs. Day took her for a walk in our Little Canada neighborhood that first afternoon and Gypsy slipped her collar and ran off several blocks from home. Mrs. Day was convinced her $300 “investment” had run off and vanished on the first day, but Gypsy was waiting on the front porch when Mrs. Day came home. For several weeks, Gypsy didn’t want to leave the house and had to be forced out the door into the backyard to relieve herself. If we weren’t quick enough, she had decided the area in front of my office closet was a satisfactory “bathroom.” In a few days, the carpet and floor under the carpet were ruined.

We had a fenced yard, but she was unhappy inside that fence. So, I bought a “wireless fence containment system”: essentially a transmitter with a shock collar. I sent the collar to the lowest shock setting and walked her around the wireless fence perimeter, which I’d marked with flags. She freaked out at the first shock and we only stayed near the border long enough for the collar to beep after that. We did the same routine the next day, without the shock and she had it figured out. From then on, she was the smartest animal any of us had ever known. She marked out exactly the boundaries of her electronic “fence” and patrolled that area like a military guard. She did discover, much later, if she ran through the border and kept running down to the lake shore she’d either escape the shock or it would be brief enough not to be a problem. She rarely did that, though.

In December of 2011, I had a full hip replacement. I was determined to be mobile again in time for the 2012 motorcycle safety training season, which would start in mid-May for me. I had even loftier, less realistic goals for before that deadline and I was slowly failing to meet any of those targets thanks to pain and Minnesota winter. By then, Gypsy was a spectacular frisbee dog along with several dozen other amazing tricks and behaviors; including being able to jump into my outstretched arms on command, leap head-high (to me) to snag any object out of my hands in a running, flying leap, and jump on to any reasonable object around 5’ high from a standing start. One of my favorites was called “go ‘round.” On that command, Gypsy would run the perimeter of our yard full blast, which was as fast as I have ever seen any animal run. I’d seen something like that in the sheep dog demonstrations at the fair and Renaissance Fairs. My grandson helped teach her the trick by running ahead of her until she figured out the routine. Then, no one alive could have kept up with her let alone lead her. She was the dog I’d dreamed about when I didn’t even know I liked dogs. (I delivered newspapers as a kid and read water meters for the City of Dallas for 3 years. At the end of those experiences, dogs were never high on my list of interests.)

So, as I was struggling with maintaining my rehab discipline I kept up our afternoon walks and tried tossing her the frisbee. The problem with the frisbee was that I had initially trained Gypsy to drop the frisbees at my feet. We would sometimes do a kind of relay toss where I’d flip her a frisbee 15’-20’ out and she’d return it on the run, drop it at my feet, and keep running in the same direction where I’d toss her another frisbee. (I wish someone had video recorded us doing those things, but I’m the only person in my family who knows how to use a damn camera.) After the hip surgery, bending over to pickup a frisbee from the ground was close to impossible. Gypsy figured that out on her own and started handing me the frisbees about waist-high. That became a huge, incredibly distracting and enjoyable part of my daily physical therapy and, thanks to my dog, I was back walking 11 miles a day and teaching a full schedule of motorcycle classes in early May of 2012. My dog was my best, most dedicated, most sympathetic physical therapist and I can only hope I never need that kind of help again because she won’t be there to take care of me.

If you are one of those unperceptive, species-centric goobers who believes that animals do not have a sense of humor, Gypsy would have laughed in your face and you would have to be a complete fool not to know it. She had a wonderful laugh and a smile that was, literally, ear-to-ear. Her joy in running, jumping, wrestling, and performing her many tricks/behaviors was undeniable. On my worst, darkest depressed moments, Gypsy could make me smile and laugh. As happy as she often made me, I don’t think I ever realized how sad I would be at the end of our life together. As I write this, I feel like my head is overfilling with tears and sorrow. It physically hurts as badly as the worst headache I have ever experienced. I can’t imagine being willing to go through this ever again.

Gypsy had so many tricks (“behaviors” for the politically correct crowd) and she’d taught herself most of them. Speaking of the sense of humor, one of the first things she did was when someone would say “cute face,” she’d cover her face with both paws and act shy. That unmistakable guffaw would often follow that if someone would pet her and talk baby talk at her. She had the most gregarious hand-shake of any animal on the planet. She would raise her right paw even with the top of her head and swing it into your hand to shake. It looked like she was someone almost impossibly happy to meet you. The usual “roll over,” “sit,” “lay down,” “stay,” “speak,” and dozens of other words and actions were almost naturally in her vocabulary. We had to spell words like “walk,” “hike,” “go out,” “outside,” and anything else that might imply going for a walk or she would be whining at the door, looking up at her leash, waiting to go for a walk. Like most dogs of her breed, “heel” was a tough command to obey. She could do it, but she’d much rather take off to the end of her leash and nose about. Early on, she was a plow horse but she learned that obeying “don’t pull” got her a lot more freedom. She also understood “right” and “left” even off of the leash.

While Gypsy might have been the worst traveling companion possible, whining in spectacularly irritating and painful ways non-stop for whatever the length of the car ride, she was the best camp dog imaginable. She was fearlessly protective of Mrs. Day (as seen at left worrying about Mrs. Day on the back of a horse) and kept us aware of everything and everyone who came near our campsites 24-hours/day. She slept at the foot of our camper bed, every night, and always seemed to have one eye open for threats. Once, when she was tried to the bumper of our camper, a coyote had the gall to try and cross the outside edge of our campsite and Gypsy nearly pulled the camper uphill to get at the coyote. The coyote ran away with the knowledge that he’d have been in a fight to the death if Gypsy had gotten loose. People, however, were automatically given a pass unless Mrs. Day seemed nervous. And she was always ready to go for a walk, on a leash or not, and delighted to do it.

She liked everyone and loved many. For most of her life, she was free to roam our backyard and when delivery people came into the yard to drop off packages, she was always quiet and friendly. Many of them came to like leaving packages at our home because they got to visit with Gypsy. Deer, rabbits, and squirrels, not so much. One of my favorite indoor activities was, when I would spot a squirrel attempting to mangle one of my bird feeders, I’d let Gypsy out into the yard and say “squirrel!” She’d dash into the yard, looking for squirrels, and chasing any who were dumb enough to ignore her into the trees, over the fence, or up the hill into the woods. She loved terrorizing squirrels and rabbits and would not tolerate deer or other large wildlife in her yard. Mrs. Day’s hostas will likely be substantially less lush without their guardian.

Her will to live is inspiring. As of today, April 25th, she can’t eat or drink anything without throwing it back up. Her energy is a microscopic fraction of what it was a week ago and she was a shadow of herself then. Every morning, she drags herself out of bed and walks to the back door to be let out. (Yes, she has always been smart enough to know where her home is and did not need a fenced yard or tether until the last couple of weeks.) She is mostly operating on habit, since she isn’t ingesting anything she rarely expels anything. It is very much like she doesn’t want to inconvenience us with the process of her dying. If you are one of those who believe dogs are incapable of love, I can’t imagine what I could say to you. Even when she is on her last legs, she would rather sleep on the floor near Mrs. Day than in a comfortable bed in the living room. She has a bed in the bedroom, too, but in these final days she wasn’t to be closer.

Gypsy died today, 4/29/2022, at about 12:30PM. She had a rough night, mostly waking up and thinking she was alone. She didn’t seem to be in pain. For the 2nd time in the life we’ve known her, she soiled herself last night and when I carried her outside to lie on the deck bench she was still responsive but had no strength at all. She couldn’t even hold her head up and I had to carry her like a baby, supporting her head when I laid her down. We went for our last walk 10 days ago, it that one didn’t last long due to her strength. The day before, we walked almost a mile and she was slow but still moving well at the end of that walk.

Her will to live throughout all of this miserable week was inspiring and humbling. She did not want to give up and we did not feel that we had the right to make that decision for her. She was struggling out of her bed and staggering to the back door to be let out up to Tuesday evening. Wednesday, I carried her out after she was able to get up but couldn’t walk without falling down. We stood in the backyard for a while, listening to birds and night sounds, but she needed to lean on his leg to stay upright. Thursday, she soiled herself and wet the bed overnight. She was conscious most of yesterday and responded to being touched and our voices, but we think she was in a coma most of the day.

Last night, we left her in a bed we’d made for her in the living room but about midnight just as I was going to bed she started whining for the first time in a week (Gypsy whined a lot, that was her “voice” for communication, so the silence over this past week has been weird.) and we laid down beside her. That was what she wanted. I carried her into the bedroom where she had a “bed” and she was fine most of the night, but she woke up twice afraid and I comforted her until she was quiet. I honestly think Mrs. Day’s snoring helped keep her calm for most of the night. Me, not so much.

She seemed to be comfortable on the outside bench and she was there for about 4 hours before I discovered she had kicked off one of the blankets and died. She had been alone for about 5 minutes. I guess she was being considerate to the end.

Life is short, precious, and painful. And if you are as special as our dog, when you go your loved ones will miss you desperately.

Friday, April 22, 2022

How to Host an Open Mic/Jam Session

Sadly and like most everything else I’ve ever learned and experienced, the “rules” I’m going to list here could be flipped into a “how not to” list. Most everything I’ve learned in my life came the hard way, from doing or experiencing it wrong first.

And “open mic” is often a misnomer. Often, it’s just an excuse for a band or wannabe performer to attract a captured audience while holding out the false hope that other musicians might get to play for a bit. Likewise, “jam session” is sometimes a similar con; you invite people to bring their instruments to accompany you. Both of those experiences are rarely repeated by most of us. Con me once, shame on you. Con me twice, shame on me. So the first rule is “tell it like it is.” If you are trying to attract an audience, don’t bullshit musicians into thinking your invitation is about anyone but you playing music and them listening. Once we’re past that, here are some other pointers from someone who has suffered and enjoyed 50 years of open mics and jam sessions.

1) Don’t mess with the sign-up order. I don’t care if one of your personal heroes shows up and insists that he/she doesn’t have time to wait his/her turn. People do not react well to favoritism, no matter who the favorite is. I’ve sat for an hour at a really awful open mic, watching the names tick off and my name get closer to the top, and when the floor manager suddenly decides to hop a couple locals over me, I just leave and never come back. For all I know, it was the only time it ever happened, but it happened to me and I am not that desperate for mic-time.

2) Use the provided gear. If you can only get “your sound” on your amp, acknowledge the fact that you suck and can only pretend to be a musician if you are so loud no one can tell how bad you are. There is a ton of value in having to make do in these situations. Almost 50 years ago, I thought I was a hot shot, gun-slinging lead guitarist because that had been my role in the last 3-4 bands I’d been in. I wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t great by any standard. Some friends introduced me to the Saddle Creek Bar in Omaha and the almost-famous jam session that club hosted every Monday night. The next week, I brought my guitar, amp and pedals and was told that I had to plug into the amps on stage and that my pedals were unwelcome. I suspect I whined a bit, but I plugged into a nice blackface Fender Vibrolux and proceeded to demonstrate how sloppy my technique was. My rig at the time was a Peavey Artist amp and a half-dozen distortion, gain, dynamics, and modulation pedals and I needed all of that to disguise that I rarely picked a note. My playing consisted of hammer-ons and pull-offs with an occasional picked harmonic and I counted on my very distorted over-driven rig to disguise my lazy technique. I quickly found a 50’s Fender Harvard amp, tweeked it a bit and replaced the boring CTS stock 10” with a K120 JBL and started working on my technique without electronic assistance. [I played that rig live and in the studio for the next 20 years before I sold it to an LA studio player on my way out of California.] After a few weeks of practice, I went back to Saddle Creek and held my own. I kept going back until I kinda was a hot shot, gun-slinging lead guitarist.

3) If you are the host or the host band, constantly remind yourself that the job is is more about being an MC than being a performer. Sure, get the ball rolling with 2 or 3 tunes and invite people to sign up while you’re playing. If the night starts to slow down, you can always get back up to close out the evening. But don’t be a stage hog, you’re just turning the night into a gig for you or your band and letting everyone else know that you imagine yourself to be a star.

4) For open mics, use a freakin’ signup sheet and put it somewhere everyone can see it. Ideally, use a chalkboard or whiteboard so the names can been seen by everyone from a distance. A white board is especially useful if you start attracting a lot of players; you can switch colors as you get near the end of the list and have to start over from the top. Holding on to the list so that you can pretend to be Ed Sullivan (ask your grandparents) and pick the talent is bullshit and the kind of control freak thing you need to not do if you want a big turnout.

5) For open mics, it is critically important that you put a time limit on stage time; say 3 songs or 10 minutes MAX per performer. You can always start your list over and give everyone another 3 or 10, but if you don’t set time limits Murphy’s Law of Musicians says “The worst performer will always hog the stage the longest.” Don’t torture your audience or drive out actual musicians by letting some total goober fumble around for 20 minutes jabbering about “how I wrote this song.” Put a damn time with a big display on the stage so nobody can pretend not to know when their time is up. If you have to, get a stage hook and drag them outta there.

For jam sessions, I’ve found that one or two songs per performer is the most fair way to decide what the group will be playing. Usually, jam session players naturally arrange themselves in a circle, which is perfect for determining who is next in line. Just pick a direction for the player rotation and everyone gets to either choose and perform a song with the rest playing along or “pass.” Don’t try to bully or con someone into playing and singing when they don’t want to do it. They might change their mind on the next time around. Some people just want to play along and not have to lead anything, so let them. A really asshole move is to pick a song and try to con someone else into singing it. If they wanted to sing your song, they’d have picked it for themselves. Put your big kids’ pants on and either play or get out of the way.

6) Watch your volume. Regardless of whether it is an acoustic or electric situation, music is a group activity (unless you’re a solo act) and trying to be the loudest guy in the room is another asshole move. Blend in with the rest of the players. If you are doing something unusually good, they’ll quiet down to hear you better. If you suck, you’re better off being ignored. That goes for your audience, too. If you’re any good, they listen and if you aren’t volume won’t change their minds.

7) Most important, have fun, be nice, and let music do what it does best: create a community between players and the audience.

Monday, April 18, 2022

“Just Good Enough”

A friend who is desperate to get back to making live music has, almost unwillingly, become interested in dealing with the sound of the live shows he’s trying to promote. He is a drummer and not in any way technically inclined. [I know. That does sound like the perfect candidate for a front of house technician.] A few nights ago, we had an hour telephone conversation about his last gig, which I attended for a few moments, and his questions about what went wrong with the sound.

The short answer was “everything.”

First, there was no sound check because, as usual, the musicians spent so much time fiddling with the usual unimportant crap. There was no time to do anything more than jabber “test, test, one, two, three” into each of the four microphones to ensure they made noise before the small audience got bored (which they did anyway) and started yelling at each other (aka “bar talk”). Two, one of the three players, the keyboard player, has a very high opinion of himself and is absolutely certain the audience would rather hear him pound on his keyboard than hear the vocalist or any other sound in the room. Three, there were as many as five guys who felt the need to mindlessly tweak the EQ on the mic channels, boosting the bass and low-mids 6-12dB to add “power” to their weak performances and mediocre tone. [Yeah, I’m being a bitch. Bring it on.] The end result was a booming mess filling the room with volume and no music and an audience that paid as much attention to the musicians and music as they did the ceiling fans.

In the process of describing what should have happened, my friend and I ended up recounting the few decent musical performances we’ve experienced in our cumulative 80 years as musicians and audience members and (in my case) production experiences. As a member of the audience, I can count them on the fingers of my two hands and, it’s possible, I might have some change left over. As a musician, I am probably being egotistical in saying I might have participated in twice that many decent sounding shows (out of several hundred shows that went off of the rails). As a technician, I’m back to the 10-fingers-with-change. The problem with live music is that almost everyone settles for “good enough” because doing it right takes “too much effort.” It does take a lot of effort and, based on popular music history and trends, it might not be worth it. If only a miniscule portion of the audience cares, why bother?

Of course, that argument pretty much drives everything to be mediocre. If that is your goal, you have set a highly achievable target for yourself.

50 years ago and beyond, the only people who had an amplification system for anything other than electric guitar or bass were professionals working major venues. You did not often see or hear PA systems in night clubs, bars, restaurants, or small concert venues. You didn’t need to, either. There were two reasons for that: 1) musicians were less arrogant, they didn’t need the ego reinforcement that demanding attention by being the loudest noise in the room and 2) audiences hadn’t been exposed this this kind of abuse so they were less hearing-impaired. And, more importantly, everyone from the musicians to the audience to the bar tenders and service staff were more polite.

More than 40 years ago, my studio partner and I were asked to record a local Lincoln, Nebraska “world/jazz/folk” band, The Spencer Ward Quintet, at a local nightclub. It was going to be the band’s last performance before the band members not only left the group but they left the area in five very different directions. That put some unusual pressure on getting it right the first time. The club had an oversized pa system and my partner had designed a very high fidelity sound system that he had been developing over the past several years, but I wanted as little interference from the sound system as possible which meant minimal sound pressure and maximum directionality from that system. I decided to go with my JBL 4311 studio monitors as the FOH system and nothing but the room acoustics and stage volume from the mostly acoustic instruments for ‘”monitoring.” The band was mostly willing to try my approach and other than the bass player the instruments on stage were all acoustic: guitar, vibes, percussion, violin, and electric bass. Naturally, keeping the bass volume under control proved to be the most difficult problem through out the evening.

The audience and club more than cooperated, too. Throughout the concert, the audience (which was mostly area musicians) were almost dead quiet. During the first break, as the band members were shedding their instruments and leaving the stage, I was almost injured by a jet engine sound in my phones. I pulled the phones off and looked around, assuming something somewhere in my signal path had self-destructed, but the noise was in the room and lots of people were laughing. Turned out, the bar tenders had decided not to make any blended mixed drinks while the band was on stage and had collected every blender they could get their hands on, prepared the drinks in the blenders, and the moment the music and applause stopped hit the power switches on at least a dozen blenders. They kept refilling and emptying the blenders until the band walked back on to the stage. Then, the club went silent for the next set. Considering the limits of our technology and the fact that the only remaining copy I had of the recording was a cassette (dubbed to CD more than a decade later), I am not ashamed of this recording.

After the concert was concluded, Dan and I must have had a dozen local musicians ask how we got “that amazing sound” from the house sound system? The house system had been stacked along a wall on the stage behind the band. I used it as a rough bass trap, but it was never powered up during the concert. Everyone who asked about the system walked right past the 4311s sitting on box newel posts at each front corner of the stage. Looking back, I was lucky no one knocked them off of the posts since they were clearly invisible.

What that proved to me was that volume is more of a problem than helpful and audiences will respond to what you expect from them. I have preached that lesson dozens of times over the last 40 years and, occasionally, someone listens and the result is always better than their previous practice.

Missing the Analog Point

For the last couple of days, I’ve been enjoying Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, by Timothy Egan. It is a story about the most famous photographer of the American Indian in our history. But it is also a story about a man and his art, photography, at the beginning of that technology. When I was a kid, for a little while I was a photography geek in school. I had a few cameras, stuff that I’d found in pawn shops, from 120/620 Kodak film and a huge and beat-up Kodak Vollenda expandable camera to assorted low cost 35mm cameras. I wasn’t particularly good with the cameras (no change from today), but I was fascinated with the developing process and was fairly competent at that for a while. Music drug me away from photography pretty quickly and until digital cameras made taking pictures easy and cheap I pretty much gave up the habit.

Edward Curtis and "The North American Indian": An Exploration of Truth and  Objectivity - Photography Ethics CentreShort Nights of the Shadow Catcher has a lot of detailed descriptions of the chemistry and experimental quality of the developing process that reminded me of the analog recording processes and equipment that I grew up working with and wrestled with for more than 40 years. The book made me wonder if modern analog camera fans are as clueless about the technology they use as are modern analog recording freaks? Edward Curtis was a wizard in the darkroom, creating his own developing emulsions, processes, and creating effects with chemicals, development time and temperatures, and other techniques. His gallery in McCloud, California is a national treasure as was his art. Most modern analog photographers bypass the darkroom, for good reason. The chemicals are often toxic, at best, and the processes are tedious, hazardous, and unpredictable. Sending your roll of film into a company that owns and maintains the automated processing equipment is the surest, easiest, safest way to get pictures developed. It also eliminates at least half of the art of being a photographer.

The analog recording process, at its best, is a similar mess of technologies, lots of subjective judgement, experience, tedious technologies that require constant (expensive) maintenance, and ridiculous quantities of patience. Like analog photography, the results of all of those qualities can be emulated relatively simply and predictably with digital technologies with little-to-no downside. I am not saying that those emulations are perfect and I am absolutely not arguing that an analog master can not do things in that format that might be impossible to duplicate in the digital world. I am saying that if you aren’t a master of the technology, you’re probably bullshitting yourself if you think plowing money into obsolete equipment and media is going to magically buy you something you couldn’t do better with digital equipment.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

It Is Not A Victimless Crime

At the moment where the US Congresscritters are contemplating decriminalizing marijuana use and establishing “procedures for expunging previous convictions from people’s records,” I’m thinking about ways to refill the nation’s for-profit prisons with real criminals. [We can’t ask those prison-owning billionaires to suffer just because the country has decided to be slightly more just and rational.] For years, I’ve advocated several punishment for lousy live sound reinforcement. In “What I Have Learned about Live Sound” I pretty much wrapped up a lifetime experiences and suffering with amplified . . . music? (For lack of a more accurate term.) In 2013, I wrote “Weapons of Mass Destruction – Live Sound” when someone I know butchered a Robert Randolph and the Family Band’s live show so badly I haven’t bothered to listen to or buy an RR record since. “Snarky Puppy in St. Paul” described one of the most embarrassing, awful, and disappointing anti-musical experiences I’ve suffered and one that was a turning point for me in that my response was “never again” regarding all things related to that band. “Isolation from the Audience,” “Where Did the Audience Go?,” back in 2004 I wrote an article for FOH Magazine that disappeared after my friend Mark Amundson died “Loud Noises,” and way back in 1991 one of my first Wirebender Audio website essays was “Loudly Killing Live Music.” I think I have sufficiently documented my case for prosecuting the “the moron behind the sound board.” Back in 1991 I said, “The solution is simple. When you think the sound clown is wreaking your favorite national or local band, he probably is. Walk up behind him and broom his line of coke into the crowd. Smack him in the back of the head with a mid-sized brick. Kick his chair over and spill him, head first, into the mosh pit. Unplug his effects rack. Narc him to the cops. Do whatever you have to do to make his life miserable. Scare him into going back to his boombox pickup truck and out of the wonderful world of music. No punishment is too severe.”

This moment in history presents us, the members of the civilized world and music lovers world wide, an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed. As the nation and even the world considers relaxing penalties for victimless crimes, we could turn to prosecuting criminals with thousands of victims who to get our punishment ya-ya’s out. Obviously, the thousands of big bank financial scammers, government officials who advocate the overthrow the government, corporate executives who have profited from decimating the environment or harming citizens with dangerous products, and anyone who betrays the public trust should be on that list. Beside that, though, what about the many “morons behind the sound board?” These violent criminals have deafened thousands of unsuspecting music lovers without suffering even civil prosecution since the early 1960s; 60 years of blatant negligent criminal behavior without even minor financial penalties.

If it were up to me, I’d just put the bastards against the wall and shoot them. Your mileage may vary, but at the last I think doing the kind of violence to music and a musical audience that I witnessed at the St. Paul Palace Theater in 2019 deserves as much jail time as a minor marijuana possession used to earn: back in the 60s, someone caught with practically any quantity of grass might expect a life sentence in toothless hillbilly states like Texas and much of the Midwest. Today, there are still parts of the country, like Minnesota  where possession of as little as 42.5g (1.5oz) gets a 5 year, $10,000 sentence. And if you don’t think those nutty laws are still being applied, you’re nuts. I especially like the idea of applying the three-strikes “mandatory 25-years imprisonment for repeated serious crimes” to live sound goobers. Like I said, in 1991, what’s the worst that happens if idiots suddenly don’t want to do the job because of the risk? If no one ever touched a live sound board again, music would be the primary beneficiary.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

This Is How Stage Monitors Are Supposed to Work

Back in 2015, I was a regular volunteer back stage at the Red Wing Sheldon Theater. Initially, I did volunteer work pretty much the same way I’d worked paying gigs for the previous 40-some years. I’d show up for the unloading and setup and stand around back stage out of the way until the show was over and be there for the tear-down and load-out, staying until all of the cables were wrapped and put away and the stage and theater were swept up and ready for the next show. Almost like a theater employee, except without a paycheck. I don’t have any idea how many shows I worked, but it was a lot for the first 2-3 years we lived in Red Wing.

One of the weird things about volunteering is that most of the people who get paid to do these things are often way too impressed with themselves and they act as if they are granting you a favor in letting you do the grunt work. I’d run into that often long before I retired and was pretty much on a hair-trigger, ready to escape quickly on the first signs of that attitude when we moved to Red Wing. My tolerance for bullshit from “kids” (anyone 20 years younger than me or more) has slowly vanished with experience over the last 20 years. Lucky for me, the Sheldon’s Production manager, Russell Johnson, is not that kind of manager. As a professional lighting guy and stage manager, Russell actually appreciated my audio experience and as a result I got to do some really fun shows and escape the stuff I usually don’t like about live music: often that includes the actual live performances. My habit, after a few months of establishing myself as useful, was to stick around through setup and the sound check and if the sound check was a typical noise-producing disaster, I’d sneak out the back stage door and call it a night. Live music rarely gets better as the evening proceeds and if the band and/or sound goober are deaf at the beginning they will only be much worse a few minutes into the show. Been there, done that for decades. Don’t have any reason to suffer through it again. And Russell was fine with that.

I’ve been an Arlo Guthrie fan since the Alice’s Restaurant days, the record and the movie. So, when the Sheldon booked Arlo in 2015 I signed up to be part of that crew. The initial setup was pretty straight forward with the band bringing most of the gear they needed flushed out with some of the Sheldon’s backline and stage equipment. The sound check started off with the band, which included his kids—Abe and at least one of his daughters—doing what bands usually do with a sound check: making individual monitors and mixes as loud as possible. I’d pretty much decided not to stay for the show at that point.

After a bit of the usual musical ego-pumping, Arlo came out, moving to his mic at the front of the stage and listening for a bit. A few moments of that and he asked to have all of the monitor sends cut so he could hear the FOH mix. He had some suggestions for Russell about the house mix and asked for a bit of his voice and guitar added to his stage monitors. After he was satisfied, he turned to the band and said, “That’s good for me. You can do anything you want with your monitors as long as I don’t have to hear it.” And that is the way you manage stage volume. After Arlo’s sound-check moment, I decided to see if I could stay for the show and Russell let me find a SRO spot on the 2nd balcony where I could hear and see the show. It was terrific, musically and sonically.

After that, I had a spectacular experience with Leo Kottke at the Sheldon, a terrific evening hanging out with Buckwheat Zydeco, an excellent Ladysmith Black Mambazo show,  and a couple of weirdly fun experiences with the Southeast Tech “Strings, Winds & Brassshows in 2016 & 2017. Eventually, general disappointment in amplified live music plus some conflicting opportunities working with Hobgoblin Music and the Crossings in 2016 and 2017, ending with a show with one of my all-time favorite live performers, Peter Mayer at the Crossings, convinced me it was time to hang up my live music tech shoes.

My days of lugging heavy equipment are in the past. I don’t need to injure myself doing stuff I would just as soon avoid (I’m talking to you, Elvy. I don’t need to rupture anything lugging giant pots full of weeds around the yard and house, either.) and 99% of amplified live music is at lest 50% distortion, 40% crappy mix, and rarely more than 10% music. I’ve seen everyone I have ever wanted to see and a few of them were even worth seeing. Almost nobody is worth what it costs to see them in concert today. Snarky Puppy put the last nail in that coffin in 2019. A lifetime of seeing most of the big name bands when labels were subsidizing tours and tickets were rarely more than $10, working shows and getting paid for being there, getting free concert tickets as an industry perk, and being invited backstage by someone in the band or the touring company has probably given me a severely devalued outlook on what live music is worth. But I’m glad I was there on those few occasions when everyone involved was more concerned with the music and the audience. Those are the shows I remember best.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

A Sign of Either Obsolescence or Irrelevancy

G-00 HardwareGibson’s ad for their “new” (to them) “Player Port” design is freakin’ hilarious. "The Player Port is an original Gibson concept from the early 1960s that has been refined by our acoustic luthier team to deliver a truly revolutionary sonic improvement that adds a new dimension to the sound. The Gibson Player Port allows you to hear the guitar as you're playing it as you've never heard it before—the same way your audience hears it—maximizing the sonic impact for an immersive playing and listening experience." There are so many things wrong with the claims in this ad, I’m not even going to bother starting ticking them off.

There are almost an infinite number of luthiers and many guitar manufacturers who have been advocating side ports for decades. Almost all of them do it better and with more science, style, and art than Gibson. Some examples:

Guitar Side Sound PortsLinda Mazer Guitar Sound Port Autumn Oval Hole Archtop Guitar

Do a Google search on “acoustic guitars with a side port” and you’ll be overwhelmed at the number of guitar designers who have been working with this design for decades while Gibson just kept craping out the same old junk.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

A Bad Fit?

In 2014, I wrote about my search for a decent sounding, reliable acoustic travel guitar in “Proof in Pudding.” The guitar I settled on was the Composite Acoustics Cargo with the LR Baggs pickup. At the time, I wrote “I am more than satisfied with my Composite Acoustics Cargo electric and expect to be playing this guitar for years.” and a few years later, when I swapped my Black Sunburst Cargo for a friend’s red Cargo, I wrote the “Cargo is so much my go-to guitar” that it mostly lives at a spot in our home where I can immediately grab it on any inspiration. If I were forced to keep just one of my guitars, it would be the Cargo. I love playing it, it sounds wonderful, and it is durable in all of the best ways: it is practically weather-proof, stays in tune, and has (unfortunately) taken a bit of beating and survived unblemished. 

Peavey stills displays the CA line on its website. But if you try to look at any of the CA guitars, you’ll see that every model is tagged “item is discontinued.” A couple of years ago there were a few demonstrators and seconds still on the CA website, but they are long gone now. The consensus is that Peavey over-estimated their ability to sell a premier instrument and has abandoned the Composite Acoustics guitars. I can’t find any official notice of that, but dealers don’t have new stock and their big dealers like Sweetwater and Guitar Center no longer list CA instruments in their online catalogs. Used CA instruments sellers have been slowly raising their prices and expectations for the past 3-4 years until asking prices for those instruments are in the collectors’ territory: $3,500-8,000.

The original vision for Composite Acoustics was ahead of its time. The pre-Peavey instruments were, at their best, some of the most amazing custom instruments every built by anyone. The technology invested in that manufacturing process and the training and skills demonstrated by CA employees is just incredible. There might not ever be another instrument maker as advanced and quality oriented as was that original California company. It’s worth your time, if you are interested in guitar construction, to watch the CA manufacturing videos from the early 2000s: “Updating the CA Story.”

I hate that this incredible experiment is over, but I am glad I slithered in while the window was still open and I own two of their incredible instruments—an electric Cargo and an early-edition OX—and I love ‘em both.

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.