Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Apple is a Cult

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Product Review: TC Helicon Play Acoustic

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

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

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

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

TC Helicon | Product | VOICESUPPORT 2

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

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

Saturday, February 13, 2021

When Technology Becomes “Fool Friendly”

Thirty years ago (early 1992), I had just started work at my first medical devices position. One of my coworkers was the company’s brand new  IT guy, Richard, and he and I got curious about the new “World Wide Web” at about the same time. I’d been on-line with email and user groups for some time, but HTML and the web was new to both of us. The company, Telectronics Pacing Systems, was just beginning to face some of the problems that would eventually get the company regulated into history for a collection of disastrous product and engineering decisions. At the time, we were still flyin’ high and looking toward a bright future. (Hard to remember there was a time like that in the USA, isn’t it?)

As we got further into HTML, UNIX, and SQL coding, we could see that the days of these skills could be numbered in the single digits. When we first started out, to send an email message via UNIX, you first had to write an email editor with which to write the message. I had just learned how to do that bit of coding when HP-Mail, DEC’s All-in-One, and other email “clients” plus browsers like Mosaic (Netscape) came along and made many of my brand new skills obsolete.

About then, Richard said, “When the internet becomes easy for everyone to get into, it will be ruined.” What he meant was that for the time being the internet, before the WorldWideWeb, was pretty much a techie’s playground. Once browsers, email clients, and the rest of the crap that would come along to make the Internet accessible to “the common man/woman” the whole thing would turn into a clusterfuck of garbage, morons easily expressing their opinions, and lots of commerce. And he was right. That sequence of events has been true for many technical things: cars, motorcycles, synthesizers, personal computers, photography, audio and video recording and editing, and even engineering.

Jamkazam has been making fairly large strides toward creating an on-line place for musicians from all over the world to get together. The service just became fee-based, although you can experiment for a few hours each month for free. Recently, a new user went to the Facebook Jamkazam Jammers page to complain that she was unable to get “Jamkazam to work.” It turned out that she couldn’t get her Mac to work with her Presonus audio interface and, since her only reason for having an interface was to clutter up the Jamkazam fiber channels, her inability with her equipment was Jamkazam’s problem to solve. That is typical of my experience with the side-effects of dumbed-down technology. When the technology gets simple enough so that it “becomes easy for everyone to get into,” the quality, skills, commitment, and contributions of the people involved quickly drops to that common denominator. Now that on-line music is relatively simple (and getting more simple by the day), the people involved are less sophisticated, less talented, and way less capable of actually playing in a group.

There are at least a dozen groups on Facebook with clueless, talentless members claiming to be “music producers” and/or “recording engineers.” In today’s vernacular, I have no idea what a “producer” is or does. None of these people could swing a record deal if their lives and parents’ fortunes depended on it. They don’t know any actual musicians, so managing a recording date is hilariously out of their bailiwick. The first level border guard of recorded music used to be the entry fee: $100,000 14-track, 2” machines, half-million dollar consoles, multi-thousand dollar microphones, and million dollar acoustic spaces. Today, you can actually spend less than $500 and “make a record.” Most likely, that recording will suck on multiple levels, but YouTube won’t discriminate. Either will CD Baby, Tunecore, iMusician, Distrokid, or any of the other social media and on-line music distribution resources. You can be the absolute worst talent on the planet and still make a record and put it out there where people will have to step around it to avoid hearing it.

This is condition is sometimes described as the "tragedy of the commons." Wikipedia neatly defines this situation, "The tragedy of the commons describes a situation in economic science when individual users, who have open access to a resource unhampered by shared social structures or formal rules that govern access and use, act independently according to their own self-interest and, contrary to the common good of all users, cause depletion of the resource through their uncoordinated action."  The long, but detailed, way of saying, “When the internet (or anything) becomes easy for everyone to get into, it will be ruined.”

In manufacturing, quality and manufacturing engineers have a saying, “The only way to foolproof a system is to get the fools out of the system.” When it comes to systems like the internet, music, and art the fools rush in so fast and get so deep into the structure that there is no turning back.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Original Music: “I’m An American”

This is the first song I've actually "finished" in almost 50 years. Obviously, being fenced in during the COVID pandemic had a lot to do with it. More importantly, the contributions of four friends--Harold Goodman, Stuart Anderson, Scott Jarrett, and Michael McKern—practically forced me to move this song from a half-hearted folk song that I might play for friends hanging around our backyard on a summer evening to what it has turned into (whatever that is). I’m not sure there is a better outlet for something like this than YouTube. 

Parts of it were recorded in home studios: Michael McKern’s drums, Harold Goodman’s bass part, my vocals, acoustic and electric guitars). Some parts were recorded live through Jamkazam sessions: Scott’s keyboards and Stu’s steel guitar were pieced together, and synchronized, from several live recordings over a couple of months.  The percussion instruments and some other “instruments” are Apple Logic X effects from Logic’s “Drummer” feature.

The song was produced and mixed in Logic X (v10.3.2) by me at home in my funky upstairs spare bedroom/office on a 13-year-old Mac Pro 3,1 running OS X 10.11 (El Capitan) through a MOTU UltraLite-mk3 interface, in case you are interested in that sort of thing. If nothing else it proves that I am not constrained by not owning state-of-the-art hardware or software, as good or bad as the outcome may be. I’m old, my gear is old, and it’s a race between me and the gear to see who plays out first. I expect the gear to win. The vocals were recorded with an AKG C141ULS, an RE18, and the acoustic guitar was my Composite Acoustics OX recorded both with the C414ULS and the guitar’s pickup, a Seymore Duncan Mag-Mic pickup (thanks for the recommendation, Brian). And that’s about all there is to say about that stuff.

The song is, obviously hopefully, about the dark, decadent times we live in and the very similar times I have experienced all through my 72 years. From my early years of duck-and-cover exercises in 1950’s Cold War Midwestern grade school classrooms to the Vietnam War that commenced as I became a teenager to the collection of endless wars and invasions the country has mindlessly and arrogantly engaged in since Reagan’s gangsters and the host of faux-conservative, Republicans and Democrats, who represent the 1% of the country who profit from wars, who profit from ecological devastation and neglect, who wallow in the spoils of economic inequality that defines this country, and the despicable people who are profit by lying to a gullible public that is too lazy to read a book, who won’t bother with understanding history, science, or technology, and who imagine that complaining about their government is in some way “participating” in democracy. As the song says, we’d rather be lied to than to have to raise up on our hind legs and do something to make the country and world a better place.

One of my favorite 1950’s science fiction authors, Theodore Sturgeon, said something like “90% of everything is crap.” Since my years protesting the Vietnam War, I have been convinced that Mr. Sturgeon was an optimist. I doubt that more than 1% of anything is more than shit. So, keep lying to us and we’ll keep believing it. We’re Americans and “nobody ever went broke under-estimating the intelligence of the American consumer” (except Trump, of course, because he can’t even get that right).

Sunday, December 20, 2020

The ReFlow Myth

During a theory class in my Guitar Repair and Construction class, we watched a vintage demonstration by Dan Earliwine. Dan is a woodworking wizard, but like most guitar repairmen he should leave the soldering to someone else. I think the video lasted about a half hour and I quit counting after Dan had executed at least twenty cold solder joints. The man simply can not use a soldering iron and feed solder at the same time. He’s not alone. The video reminded me of how little guitar manufacturers and repair techs know about solder, electrical circuits and components, metallurgy, chemistry, and mechanical engineering. Or maybe they know about this stuff but don’t care about it. From wall-to-wall cold solder joints to misused components, the electrical portion of what are otherwise works of craftsmanship and artistry are an embarrassment.

The primary problem is that many people do not understand how solder works. While solder “is essentially metallic glue used to join metal parts together,” as Earliwine says. it might be helpful to think of the soldering task more in terms of brazing or welding. Thinking of solder as “glue” negates needing to understand how the allow process works and makes it seem like you just have to pour on the “glue” to solder, which isn’t unlike how Earliwine solders.

alloyThe basic concept is that we are trying to use a metal alloy with a low melting temperature (tin-lead or tin-silver-copper) to produce a bond between two similar materials (usually copper, brass, or nickel). The lower right corner of the alloy type illustration (right) is, ideally, the result of a solder joint’s contact point. For this bond to ideally occur, the two materials to be soldered will be in direct contact as much as possible. A copper-to-solder-to-copper connection is not only weak (structurally) but is dubious electrically. What we’re going for is as much copper-to-copper as we can get. Lead is mediocre conductor, one of many reasons that industry’s leaving tin-lead solder is a good thing (outside of the obvious environmental reason). Lead oxide (and tin oxide, for that matter) is a mediocre semiconductor and, as such, introduces distortion and noise when it reacts differently to current flow in one direction vs. the opposite direction (aka AC, alternating current). So, the traditional guitar tech’s “solder bead” tactic is a terrible idea because the components are, often, not in contact with anything but solder. In manufacturing terms, we call this tactic “reflowing” and it is generally an undesirable practice. Reheating solder produces crystalizing effects that are mechanically undesirable, introduce nonlinear electrical properties, and make the solder brittle. Reflowing without additionally applied flux is a terrible idea, but much of the available tin-lead flux is extremely corrosive (RA stands for “rosin activated,” meaning the corrosive materials, salts, in the rosin are activated by heat). Reflowing is a lose-lose proposition.

coax-strip-3The next thing guitar techs get really wrong is poor preparation for the work. First, all components need to be as clean as possible. Wires to be soldered should be new, bright and shiny copper or tinned. Metal parts, like the lids of potentiometers in a guitar’s controls, should be scrubbed clean of old flux and contaminates with a metal brush followed by sandpaper or Scotch-Brite™. After the parts are clean, they should be carefully tinned as quickly as possible to apply a fresh base of tin-lead or tin-silver to protect the newly cleaned or exposed surfaces. When you apply heat, apply as much as possible of the soldering iron tip surface to the largest component. In the case of an old fashioned metal potentiomenter cover, heat the cover and the wire will follow if it is in contact with the cover. If everything goes well, your solder will flow like water to both components and if you are very careful and steady the connection will cool and cure without any vibration or motion upsetting the connection. If it doesn’t go well, you either have to clean off the old solder and start over or add flux when you try to re-heat the connection. Reflowing solder always requires additional flux.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

The “I’m Gonna Quit” Story

There is a long, semi-funny story behind that song and the first recording and THIRD recording. We were living in Fremont, Nebraska at the time. I’d been laid off of my 1st engineering job and had taken a position as tech services manager for an Omaha office equipment company, servicing Burroughs Corporation word processors and IBM Selectric typewriters among other electric and electronic equipment. It was a miserable job with a terrible company, but there weren’t many tech jobs in 1976 Nebraska. A few days before the song’s birth the owner of the company told me I had to lay off 2-3 of my newest, most capable technicians because they were “overqualified” and he wanted the money for raises for a couple of his bimbo saleswomen. The tech service department was not only making the company money, for the first time in the company’s history, but our service was attracting IBM customers and the sales commissions on those machines was better than anything a car salesman could make. Today, I would assume he was screwing the sales bimbos, then I was a pretty innocent/gullible 28-year-old.

Another insane Republican had driven the US economy into the dirt and times were somewhere between terrible and disastrous. We “sold” our house at a $5,000 loss (on a $20,000 original purchase), although on paper it looked like we broke even; I paid the “buyers” $5,000 under the table to make their down payment. I had arranged an Omaha apartment for us to move to, but at the last minute (before any money changed hands) Elvy wasn’t going to go. She’d asked a friend in Scribner, Nebraska for help and he’d offered her (and us) a house he owned that needed a lot of work but was livable and he would pay for the work and materials. $80 a month rent, which was workable on Nebraska’s unemployment. One morning, I called the office company owner and said, “I was sick when I took this job, I’m better now and I quit.” No notice, no two weeks, nothing. I hadn’t worked there long enough to damage my Unemployment from my engineering job so I had nothing to lose.

Before we packed up our belongings and gave away everything that wasn’t going to fit in our new far-smaller home, two friends (Dan Tonjes and Mark Von Seggern) and I hit the basement “studio” for one last blast of our past and we recorded the twanging electric guitar part, vocal, bass (Dan), and drums (Mark) to my new song, “I’m Gonna Quit” on two of my Teac 3340’s four tracks (drums ALWAYS get tracked in stereo). After we were sort of settled in to the house in Scribner, I wanted to add a distorted guitar part and an extended percussion into and outro. Dan and/or Mark knew the Scribner school music instructor and “borrowed” a wheelbarrow full of school percussion instruments. We used the other two 3340 tracks on I don’t remember how many percussion players gathered from our friends in Scribner and my guitar part and I had a song and a recording. I still love that original recording, as rough as it is.

A decade later, a Nebraska friend and one of the guys (a drummer) who we used in the studio occasionally was in a band being fronted by Barry Fey’s company. I’d given him a cassette of my songs back in the 70s and he’d played it for the band and they wanted two of my songs: “Down on the Beach” and I’m Gonna Quit.” By “wanted” I mean they wanted me to give them the publishing rights and authorship in exchange for . . . nothing. I declined, but they recorded the two songs anyway and the band dissolved and nothing happened to the recordings after a lot of money was spent and the usual 80’s rock and roll silliness ensued.

When I moved to Denver in 1991, I looked up the lead singer of that band and she gave me a cassette copy of their take on my song. It was . . .entertaining, but I could see how the band didn’t take with audiences or promoters. Too much Pat Benatar, too late.

Through my following studio years, I always wanted to redo “I’m Gonna Quit” with a little more fidelity, but recreating the attitude, energy, random-ness and creativity of the performance and percussion section overwhelmed me. Sometime around 2002, Michael McKern and I gave it a shot with the original recording as our “click track,” we recorded his drums, the clean electric guitar parts, some background vocal ideas, and a decent acoustic guitar part to his 24-track MCI JH24 deck and bounced that to Pro Tools. And . . . nothing. I was still stuck without a way to pull off the percussion section and that was a gumption trap.

Jump to August 2020 and I’ve been playing music, on-line, through JamKazam, with four friends: Harold Goodman, Stu Anderson, and Scott Jarrett since March. We’re messing with original music and covers and they’ve irrationally designated me “vocalist” because no one else wants to sing, including Scott who is an infinitely better vocalist than me and about 1,000 times the musician. Michael has been dubbing drum parts to my original songs via Dropbox and, when I tell him I can’t get into finishing off “I’m Gonna Quit” because my attempts at doing a percussion part either with real instruments or Logic X’s loops or MIDI just sucked, Michael knocks out six tracks of the percussion instruments you will hear on the recording. Hesitantly, I offer up “I’m Gonna Quit” to Harold and we fool with it for a bit on line and he, as usual, asks “Should we record it?”

This was the first time I had sung the song since 1978, other than noodling around with ideas with Michael almost 20 years ago. The vocal you hear on this recording, for better or worse, is my first take at the song in August of this year. I’ve sung it with the group on JamKazam a dozen or more times, since, and tried to overdub it with a “better” microphone in my office/studio and I still like this take the best. I musta been really pissed off at something (probably Trump) that day. Harold’s bass line was the perfect foil for the busy percussion and guitars and Stuart’s steel guitar and Scott’s organ and the rest was my problem. My wife, Robbye, suggested industrial, work sounds to go with the percussion intro and outro and that pretty much filled in everything I thought was missing. I did keep a lot of my last vocal stuff from the times we recorded the song on JamKazam for the outro. All of that “I don’t need this” and “I’m gonna quit” and the rest after the last chorus was cut-and-pasted from every other take of the song.

This is the final, newest, bestest version of my song, “I’m Gonna Quit,” featuring my friends Michael McKern, Harold Goodman, and Scott Jarrett. I can not express the obligation I feel toward all of them for making this happen. Not out of arrogance but out of personal history, I do love this song and I am really happy with this version. It is, finally, done.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Serious Music

Back in the late 70s, I signed up for a recording seminar at the University of Iowa. Believe it or not, Iowa City, IA had a very small recording program and decent studios (primarily for classical music and the college jazz band) in the 70s. The presenter was Stephen Temmer, who must have been in his early 50's when I met him but who seemed "ancient" to me at the time (I was in my late 20's.) Temmer died in 1992 at 64, which I would probably consider "young" today. 

Mr. Temmer later became an adjunct professor at the UofI, but at the time we met he was still President and owner of Gotham Audio Corporation, the only North American distributor for AKG, Neumann, Studer, EMT (plate reverbs), Lexicon, and many other things European. At the time of the course I took, Temmer was just beginning to market a collection of audio cables that he claimed were significant improvements over "ordinary wires" and we had some spirited discussions about that subject, too. 

I was at least as big an asshole then as I am now. During Temmer's introduction to the two-week-long, 8-10 hour/day course, he said something like, "We won't be discussing popular music recording in this class. Our topics will all be regarding the recording of 'serious music.'" 

I couldn't let that pass. Up my hand went and I said, "I didn't think music was a 'serious' thing. If it's not fun, it doesn't have much point does it?" I got a scowl and no reply. That was on Wednesday, the first day of class. For the next two days, Mr. Temmer pretty much ignored me. 

Luckily, the school's studio maintenance tech, Stephen Julestrom and I had hit it off pretty well, mostly talking about tape deck and console maintenance and design. The "in" with Mr. Julestrom, who was about my age (and who later became a design engineer with Shure Brothers in Chicago about the time I went to work for QSC Audio Products), provided me with some amazing opportunities including recording student classical performances and the college jazz orchestra (I still have a copy of that last one.). Unfortunately, one of the nights I'd volunteered to help Stephen record a student jazz group at a local coffee shop was the night the rest of the class went to see one of my lifelong heroes, Dizzy Gillespie, direct the UofI's big band. I've always regretted that and didn't get to see Gillespie until the early 90s in Long Beach with a small, mostly electric band. However, I got to play with some very expensive microphones that I'd only read about up to that moment and work in the college's great performance spaces using the school's very expensive equipment; although some of it was expensive, but not particularly high fidelity.

When the first weekend came, Steve Julestrom had invited Mr. Temmer and me out to his lakeside place for an afternoon barbecue. Because we were a one-vehicle family at the time, I'd taken the bus from Nebraska to Iowa City and Mr. Temmer offered to give me a ride to the lake. The school had rented a Cadillac for Mr. Temmer and I hadn't been in a new Caddy for several years. At the least, it would be a comfortable drive, even if we didn't talk much. I'd mentioned this experience in another Wirebender essay a couple of years ago, "That’s Not Serious, It’s Art." Who knows why, maybe to irritate me, maybe because it's how he always traveled by car, maybe he thought he was going to educate me, but Stephen fired up the stereo as we took off and found a classical station. When the orchestra started playing something I wish I could remember, Temmer began to wave his arms while he drove and sing along with a pretty decent voice. I watched him for a bit and about the time I started to smile at his performance, he looked at me and started laughing. We laughed together for a bit and had a great conversation about music being about "fun" and entertainment and a distraction from serious stuff and by the time we arrived at Julestrom's home we were more than acquaintances. 


The next day, Sunday, the Stephen's invited me
to help record a piano-violin Bartok record with two of the school's faculty musicians and a collection of Temmer's Neumann microphones; new and historical (Including a Neumann omni that Temmer said was either "Hitler's microphone" or one like that used to record Hitler's speeches. It looked a lot like the one in this picture, as I remember. Temmer was an Austrian immigrant.) I also included several of the Audio Technica and Tascam microphones from my own collection in the recording and, later, we did a single-blind comparison of all the microphones used in this recording with the rest of the class. To Temmer's mild disappointment, the class overwhelmingly selected my Teac ME-120 condensers as their favorite in that test. The "Hitler mic" was pretty obviously lacking in high end response as the violin would often slide above the mic's capabilities far enough that it vanished in the mix. If nothing else, that proved that there are some limits to the vintage cache. 

For the next several years, any time I came upon a low-to-moderate cost microphone that I thought was either interesting or exceptional, I would write Stephen Temmer about it and, often, he'd ask to borrow it for a bit. I fell out of that habit a little before I moved to California in 1983, after my 2nd studio closed and I was convinced my life in music was all but finished. At the time, I was managing a manufacturing company building everything from high voltage inductance test equipment to the Arrakis Systems broadcast equipment. That might seem like I was still working in audio, but it didn't feel much like it. In my last few months in Omaha, massive personal turmoil pretty much squashed everything in my life but work and home. I'd been working with a friend, Mark Hartman, on jingles and pitches for commercial music, but that sort of withered away in those last months before I accepted the QSC job. 

Once in California, I was a regular member and occasional officer with the Orange County Audio Engineering Society (which no longer exists) and I bumped into Stephen at least once at the LA AES Show before he retired from and sold Gotham Audio in '85. A year or two later, I ran into him at Wes Dooley's AEA Micophones facility in Pasadena, when I was buying a couple Audio Precision test fixtures for the QSC assembly line. It still would be a few years before I started collecting and messing with microphones again, but I always clung to the idea that music wasn't a serious thing. If it's not fun for someone it's not music. I didn't see or hear from Stephen again and didn't know he'd died in 1992 until recently.

Note: Heidevolk and their one and only flash-in-the-pan semi-hit, Vulgaris Magistralis, are the poster children for my music is "fun" point. It's hard to tell from their other songs, but I can only hope these characters are posing as Viking assholes. Regardless, I love this song and it never fails to make me laugh when i hear it. I would just as soon not know anything more about the band or their opinions on "life, the universe, and everything." They might be "serous," but I think they are hilarious.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Making Mistakes and Living with Them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 13, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 6, 2020

Me Too Censorship?


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

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.