Sunday, February 28, 2010

FFW17: Engineer, promote thyself!

“One of the best things about the democratisation of technology is that anyone can afford to record. One of the worst things about the democratisation of technology is that anyone can afford to record.” – Me, circa 2000.

For this First Word I tackled the democratisation of technology and how it had affected the recording industry at that point in time (about seven years ago, I guess). As Stewart Brand, founding board member of The Long Now Foundation once said, “Technology moves through society like a steamroller; if you’re not part of the machine, you’re part of the road”. Hitching a ride on the democratised technology steamroller has led us to a place where musicians no longer need musicianship. Affordable recording software makes it so easy to overcome limitations in tuning, timing and expression that the contemporary recording musician needs nothing more than a good idea and the time to realise it. But when we see those same democratised-technology-dependent musicians attempting a live performance, we wonder if it might have been better to be part of the road.

Fortunately, the skills required to be a good sound engineer have not yet been packaged into something that every musician can afford, and hopefully they never will be. It was with that thought in mind that I wrote this First Word…

Engineer, promote thyself!
One of the wonderful things about personal computers is the way they democratise technology, bringing the previously unattainable within reach of the masses. Consider recording technology. Years ago, releasing an album meant going into a professional studio with an experienced recording engineer. Studios were expensive to hire and therefore only available to artists signed to record companies. The average person could not afford to hire such a facility, let alone buy one.

But these days all you need is a powerful personal computer, a multitrack recording package, a horde of plug-ins and some clever modelling algorithms. Such a set-up will give you the power and flexibility of a professional studio, sitting on your desktop, for only a few thousand dollars. Furthermore, with presets and wizard technologies, you don’t even need an experienced engineer – you can choose a preset that’s specifically designed to do the job (it says ‘Snare EQ’, doesn’t it?), or let wizard technology choose the perfect parameters for you. You can now afford to churn out the same crap-sounding recordings that thousands of other losers around the world are churning out. Welcome to democratised technology, it’s a wonderful thing.

What is wrong with this picture? No matter how advanced our technology gets, it can never model or emulate the talent and skill of an experienced engineer. You can buy all the tools in the world, but if you don’t know how to use them you’re wasting your money. Billy Joel summed it up nicely when he sang, “Don’t waste your money on a new set of speakers, you’ll get more mileage from a cheap pair of sneakers”. But I digress…

About three years ago a particularly talented recording engineer/studio owner phoned to tell me his tale of woe. The majority of his clients were up-and-coming bands, and he was usually their first recording engineer. He would teach them how to get the most out of the studio environment, and hold their hands through the process of their first couple of recordings. But in many cases, the bands would eventually decide they were ready to make ‘real’ records, and book themselves into major studios with major engineers. After investing much of his time and effort into these young bands, someone else would always reap the rewards. Perhaps you can relate to his dilemma.

“What can I do to keep their recording projects in my studio?” he asked. I put on my best lateral-thinking Edward de Bono voice and said, “If you can’t keep their projects in your studio, try to keep your studio in their projects”. “Huh?” he replied, sounding totally confused. I explained that he shouldn’t be trying to keep the bands in his studio; rather, he should be suggesting the move to a major studio before the bands think of it themselves.

“But how is that going to help me?” he asked, somewhat cynically. I actually didn’t have an answer for him at the time, but figured there was an opportunity in there somewhere. Being in a mystical Zen Master mood, I told him to sleep on it and call me tomorrow. Which he did. “I get it,” he said excitedly. “You meant that I should take them into a major studio and do the engineering myself. That way the band sees me as the hero and the guy who is pushing their career forward, not holding it back!” “Precisely…” I replied, a wave of smug relief sweeping over me.

Following this, we discussed how he could capitalise on the situation even further by using a combination of his studio and a major studio. If the budget is low, do the bulk of the project in his studio, but mix the most promising songs and/or singles in a major studio for that ‘big budget’ sound. If the budget allows it, he could consider tracking drums and bass in a major studio, overdubbing everything else at his studio, and sharing the mixing between the two studios.

There are all sorts of combinations to fit a given budget, but the main points are a) allocating a larger portion of the budget to the songs that are most likely to attract attention, and b) remaining with the band and playing an active role in furthering their career, rather than letting someone else take all the credit and rewards.

It’s a good strategy for self-promotion. If you’re a studio owner/operator and you’re not prepared to think outside of your own little box, then that’s probably where you’re going to stay. There are large studios out there that will happily accept bookings from other studio owners. So make some appointments, get out and see some of these facilities, familiarise yourself with their equipment, and start furthering your career.

There’s another conversation I’ve had with studio owner/operators a few times lately. It follows the theme that the business is dropping off, the advertising isn’t working, and things are looking bad. In each case, the main problem here is a failure to see how the market has changed due to the democratisation of recording technology.

Studio advertisements containing lists of tracks, channels, effects and so on don’t impress anybody any more. What is valuable and impressive is your skill as an engineer. If you’re an experienced engineer and/or studio owner, forget about promoting your equipment. Concentrate on promoting your skills instead. Focus on your track record, and what you can offer to your clients that they can’t do for themselves. Your skill and experience as a recording engineer can never be put in a box or software package, and it’s the one thing that many project studio owners are realising they don’t have. It happens about three minutes after they realise that they’re churning out the same crap-sounding recordings that thousands of other losers around the world are churning out.

There’s an opportunity in there somewhere. Sleep on it and call me tomorrow, okay?

Over the last decade or so, the democratisation of technology has made it increasingly difficult for large studios. Many have closed down, taking the industries that service and maintain them down too. But the studio industry isn’t the only victim of the democratisation of technology; in fact, it’s a rather pissy and insignificant industry in global terms, hardly worth thinking about. Although I have the largest recording studio in the known world, I’m worried about something far more important than the studio industry…

The world is currently going through massive cultural change, mostly brought about by affordable technology and the media access it provides. Although much of this change is good, we’re moving forwards at such a great speed that by the time we realise something has been left behind it’s too late to do anything about it - it's become part of the road, and there's no reverse gear. The dashboard of the democratised technology steamroller needs a sign that says, “Warning: events in rear vision mirror are older than they appear.”

With that in mind, I’d like to draw your attention to The Long Now Foundation, holders of the 10,000 Year Clock, among other things. Established in 1996 to “creatively foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years”, it’s a think-tank of intelligent and creative people working together to make sure that we don’t leave too much behind in our race forwards. Rather than write about the foundation here, I’ll encourage you to check out their website. Begin by reading Stewart Brand’s essay, then poke around the site. You might even consider signing up

Saturday, February 20, 2010

FFW16: The boiled frog returns, diminished…

AudioTechnology issue 16 was one of the biggest sellers in the magazine’s history, no doubt due to the magnificent Lara Croft (aka Angelina Jolie) on the front cover. It was the fifth issue to feature an artist on the front cover rather than equipment, and any doubts we had about that idea were well and truly quashed when the sales figures came in. It was a rather ordinary and uninspiring issue otherwise, if I remember correctly, which just goes to show how much we judge books by their covers. Likewise with audio equipment, but more about that later. Firstly, here’s FFW #16 from a decade or so ago…

The boiled frog returns, diminished…
“I’m not trying to tell you what to write,” smirked Chris, slapping the page onto his desk in mock disgust, “but the title sucks.” Good old Chris, always a reliable sounding board. “It belongs in a cryptic crossword or a French cookbook, not AudioTechnology!” he scoffed. “But it’s a sequel”, I explained. “Sequel to what? Your other Boiled Frog story? You haven’t finished writing that one yet. You can’t release a sequel before finishing the first part!” he yelled. “Why not?” I protested, trotting off down the corridor, “George Lucas did…”

Twelve months ago I noticed faint brown rings forming on the circumference of my ATCs’ tweeters, where the dome meets the voice coil. They were very subtle at first, but gradually became more prominent. I hadn’t noticed any obvious change in sound quality, and figured it was a harmless discolouration in the dome’s fabric. But recently, during an AudioTechnology Spontaneous Human Consumption event, Rick Dowel of Control Devices and AudioTechnology’s Scott Christie dropped in for a listen, and both expressed their concern over the sound. Rick has never been a fan of the ATCs, and was the importer of a competing brand of studio monitors, so I took his criticisms with a grain of salt. But then Scott chimed in, commenting on how they weren’t sounding right to him, either. I trust Scott’s hearing implicitly, so his comments added validity to what Rick was saying. The whole evening was quite unnerving, and resulted in an argument between Rick and I regarding whether the problem was the monitors or the acoustic treatment of the room. I was banking on the room acoustics, because I could see no reason why the monitors would not be performing to specification. [Note to self: beat up Rick Dowel for criticising my monitors.]

Could there really be something wrong with my monitors? After listening critically for a couple of hours (something I had not done for a long time), I raised some doubts of my own. The stereo imaging wasn’t as good as it used to be, and there was a general lack of low level resolution. Some of the ATCs’ magic was definitely missing.

A week later I had the good fortune of lunching with ATC’s founder, Bill Woodman. I mentioned the brown rings and received one of his typical matter-of-fact responses: “Osmosis”. Osmosis, Bill? “Osmosis. The ferrofluid has leached out of the magnetic gap and into the fabric of the dome tweeter. It looks like rust stains, which in fact it is. It very rarely happens, and we don’t know what causes it. But it’s happened to both of your tweeters simultaneously, which suggests it might be environmental…” I explained to Bill that my ATCs had spent a long time in AudioTechnology’s office above the shores of Dee Why beach, where the ocean breeze blows in a constant stream of salt air. Perhaps that would trigger it? “Whatever the cause, osmosis is your problem”, said Bill thoughtfully. “Osmosis. You ought to replace those tweeters immediately. You won’t be hearing the true performance of your monitors until you do. Oh, and if you’re going to write about this, Greg, please mention that we don’t manufacture those tweeters ourselves!”

I followed Bill’s advice and the ATC magic came back. I couldn’t believe the improvement. I also couldn’t believe that such a dramatic loss of quality had eluded me for so long – an imperceptible degradation, slipping beneath my radar each and every day, and building into one big loss of quality. It needed someone with fresh ears to point out that my monitors were not sounding right. [Note to self: apologise to Rick Dowel.]

Scientists call it the Boiled Frog Syndrome. If you drop a frog into a pot of hot water, it will try to get out. However, if you drop that frog into a pot of cold water and slowly turn up the heat, it will stay there until it is boiled alive. The frog’s nervous system cannot sense very slow changes in temperature, and so it feels no need to panic. The same logic applies to human perception: if you change something slowly enough, people won’t notice the difference.

After getting my ATCs back to spec, I noticed how poor the rest of my system had become. Little changes that didn’t seem to make any difference at the time (obviously due to the bad performance of my monitors) were now being revealed. I’ve upgraded to a balanced version of The Pot (see First Word, issue 10), replaced many of my cables, and I’m currently auditioning two excellent 24-bit 96k D/A converters: a Weiss DA1 and a Prism Sound DA2. Each of these changes offers a very subtle improvement, some are almost imperceptible on their own, but collectively, they add up – both sonically and financially. You have to spend a lot more money to get a little more improvement. The Law of Diminishing Returns conspires with the Boiled Frog Syndrome!

My studio is sounding better than ever, for now. Are there any boiled frogs in your studio? Think about each piece of equipment you own. Is it working to spec? Is it in need of repairs or maintenance? Are you getting full performance? A bit of critical listening never hurt anybody…

I’d like to end here, but there’s more. This is actually the sequel to a column titled ‘Boiled Frogs & The Golden Years of Hollywood’, which discusses how engineers and musicians still favour the sound of vintage audio equipment, despite the enormous advances made in circuit components and designs over the last 50 years. In our quest for less noise, wider bandwidth, lower distortion, and cheaper manufacturing, we’ve lost some of the special magic that made those old designs sound good. The loss has occurred very slowly over time, an imperceptible amount with each new generation of equipment. It’s the Boiled Frog Syndrome applied on a grand scale to audio equipment design.

So, why haven’t I finished that column? Because it also discusses how the market has inverted to favour the manufacturers, and exposes a number of outright lies told to ignorant end-users by manufacturers whose best interests are served by maintaining the market’s ignorance. I’m proud of the effort, but our legal advisers are less than impressed. For now, at least, it must remain in AudioTechnology’s X files...

Nothing shits me more about the project studio market than the crap that is sold to newcomers under the pretense that it is actually ‘professional’. Make it look good and it will sell like hotcakes regardless of what's inside – rather like issue 16 of AudioTechnology.

Since the introduction of the project studio in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s the quality of equipment has been ever-so-slowly but ever-so-surely spinning down a vortex of marketing-driven degradation. It’s a see-saw with the designers and marketers on one end and the end-users on the other, constantly stuck up in the air and unable to get their feet on the ground to establish a proper point of reference.

The majority of end-users have not spent years in pro studios using pro audio gear, and therefore have no point of reference for professional quality sound. The marketers have become acutely aware of this over the last few decades and, as a result, instruct the designers to make increasingly cheaper equipment because the end-user probably won’t notice the difference anyway. And so, with each generation of equipment to enter the market either a) the overall quality goes imperceptibly further downhill, or b) we pay imperceptibly less for the same overall quality. When will it stop? Probably never, because in this post-Ebay economy the dollar rules and nobody has the time to catch a boiled frog. Let’s go back to a better time…

Many years ago sound engineers had thorough technical backgrounds and understood their equipment inside and out. We can forgive them for wearing white lab coats or suits and looking like nerds because they knew all about the electronics, the mechanics, and the transducers. They had a good understanding of the concepts of interfacing, loading, and so on. You could take any piece of gear and plug it into any other piece of gear, and it all worked with a minimum of fuss and bother. Products that met professional standards survived and thrived. If a product didn’t live up to professional standards, no-one bought it and it didn’t survive in the market place. Call it natural selection or call it intelligent evolution. Either way, the engineers told the manufacturers what they needed and wanted.

But fast forward to these post-project studio revolution days and we find the situation is reversed. There are many ‘engineers’ out there who have only a surface level understanding of their equipment - what the knobs and buttons do – and in many cases that’s all they want to know. They rely on the manufacturers to make the products easy to use and easy to afford. Nowadays, the manufacturers tell the engineers what they need and want.

The smarter manufacturers know that selling a product into this market is a simple matter of promoting some special new ‘pro’ feature and including an endorsement from a retired engineer with a list of hits from the distant past and the need for some fast cash. Easy as pie.

I’m sure you’ve all witnessed the evolution: a musician buys an MBox or similar over-priced and under-performing piece of crap, along with a cylinder of electronic refuse from China that has been described as a microphone, in the belief that they’ll be able to make their next hit record with it. After a few months they realise they’re not getting the sound they were expecting. They pop into their local hi-tech shop and are told that they need a large diaphragm condenser microphone, so they buy the ‘bargain’ that the salesman recommends. But they’re still not getting the sound they’re expecting, and a few months later they’re told they need an external mic preamp. So they buy the one the salesman recommends, and the cycle repeats itself as they accumulate a tube compressor, better monitors, endless plug-ins and so on. They’ve spent a fortune and kept quite a few manufacturers and retailers in business, but they’re still not getting the result they want because a) they’re still buying project studio equipment, b) they still don’t understand what is going on beneath the surface, and c) they never invested any of that money into getting educated about the techniques and equipment choices of professional recording engineers. Manufacturers must love this technically ignorant and willingly hand-fed market.

Since starting AudioTechnology in 1998 I’ve seen a lot of this crap going on. I’ve seen mixing consoles that are marketed as ‘professional’ because they’ve got phantom power, even though the maximum current supply is way less than the AES recommendation of 10mA per channel and so the sound falls apart when too many condenser mics are plugged into it. I’ve seen equipment labelled ‘professional’ because it can sometimes interface with balanced equipment, even though it’s really only pseudo-balanced and should at best be marketed as ‘balanced compatible’. I’ve seen 20-bit devices where one bit is permanently stuck high but the manufacturer does nothing about it because no-one in their proposed market can test it, let alone understand what it means (and the equipment reviewer who discovers it is encouraged to keep it quiet lest the magazine loses advertising revenue). The list goes on, but you get the idea… No wonder I got out of the audio magazine publishing game a few years later – I’d rather do something honest.

There are, however, some positive outcomes:

1) The inability to make professional quality recordings with project studio equipment encourages frustrated musicians and wannabe engineers to do audio courses. Audio education is big business, and teaching audio is one of my personal income generators.

2) The plethora of poor recordings made with project studio equipment helps make my recordings sound superior. Making good recordings is another of my personal income generators.

Come to think of it, both of those outcomes help me to reach the tops of the trees that I care to climb. So do me a favour: please ignore all that you’ve read here and keep using that wonderful stuff from Avid (Digidesign, MAudio), Mackie, Alesis, Behringer et al.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

FFW15: They’ll fix it in mastering…

For this First Word I tackled the gradual decline in engineering quality that began in the mid ‘90s, and its associated reliance on mastering to make the end result sound acceptable. The gradual decline in engineering quality, which we are stuck with today and are unlikely to be rid of, was due to a number of events. Firstly, a misunderstanding of the grunge movement lead novices to believe that it was all about letting the recording equipment distort – no matter what the gear was. Sound recording suddenly seemed so easy that even a novice could do it; just let it distort and call it ‘grunge’! Let me assure you that skilfully overdriving high quality vintage audio gear produces a much different effect than blindly slamming a piece of crap you picked up brand new for $200 – the former sounds rich in appealing attitude, the latter sounds rich in pathetic try-hard masturbation. Someone’s ears are sleeping on the wet spot…

Secondly, decreased recording budgets combined with the arrival of affordable recording toys (Digidesign’s MBox and similar shit) lead to the closure of many of the larger audio facilities that had been the benchmarks of engineering quality throughout the Western world. From that time on, calling yourself a ‘sound engineer’ no longer implied that you were a trained and seasoned expert. In fact, every wannabe with a soundcard and microphone was out there chasing recording work and getting it (unfortunately). If you talked the talk, novice musicians assumed that you also walked the walk. Sound engineers were replaced by sound entrepreneurs.

Furthermore, the pathetic acceptance of outrageously heavy mix compression as a fashionable requirement for popular music meant that the sound quality within a mix was of little importance. All you needed to do was make sure that the loudest instruments
were the loudest instruments, and let the mix compression take care of the rest, pushing the other sounds beneath the loudest ones and inadvertently hiding the inherent muddiness. It’s clarity through deceit, rather than clarity through skill. You can’t polish a turd, but if you can make it shiny enough someone will pay for the glossy exterior, oblivious of the shit within. And if there’s one thing that today’s mastering engineers excel at, it’s making shiny turds.

Here’s FFW15 from a decade or so ago, still relevant now.

They’ll fix it in mastering…
When I started out in the recording industry, the word ‘digital’ was nothing more than a promising dream – a magic elixir for the ailments of analogue. There were no modular digital multitracks, no hard disk recorders, no DAT machines, and no CD burners. In fact, CD hadn’t even been invented, let alone burnt. So I learned to work within the limitations of analogue tape.

Most of my early recording efforts were demos, destined for cassette. The process began by recording individual sounds through an analogue console onto analogue multitrack tape, mixing them down through an analogue console onto analogue two-track tape, editing with a razor blade and splicing tape to create a master, and dubbing that master onto analogue cassette.

With all of this analogue processing and transferring came certain degradations; tape hiss and console noise would build up, and there was the inevitable loss of high frequencies due to transferring from tape to tape.

To compensate for the noise build-up, I learned to keep the signal level above the noise floor by riding the faders and/or using compressors. To compensate for the loss of high frequencies, I learned to record my sounds slightly brighter than I wanted them to sound in the final mix.

Being a pedantic guy, I’d fuss over each recording until every sound was clearly defined. Separation and clarity were the key words. They were in my head from the beginning of a session, influencing my microphone choice and room positions for each instrument.

It was hard work, and that was just the recording side of it. Once I got all the sounds recorded, it was time to mix. I’d spend hours refining the balance, carefully juggling faders, pan pots, EQ and effects to ensure each sound could be heard clearly within the mix. With every sound and every effect I added to the mix, I’d listen carefully and make sure it did not adversely affect the other sounds.

It was time consuming and laborious, but I knew my mixes sounded as good as I could make them. I wanted them to sound like a record when played back off cassette, nothing less would suffice. Remember that these early recordings were demos, destined for cassette only. There was no mastering engineer to fix any problem areas; it was up to me to get it right, no excuses.

As my engineering skills increased, so too did the budgets of my clients. My recordings quickly went from demo tapes to independent albums destined for release on vinyl – which in turn led to my first session in a mastering studio. I strode in, full of confidence, and proudly handed my mix tape over. I was expecting Mr Mastering Engineer to be blown away by my mixes. But over the course of a couple of hours, he tore my mixes apart. He told me what was wrong, suggested numerous areas for improvement, and generally put me right in my place.

I left crestfallen, but I endeavoured to improve my mixes nonetheless. I learned the benefits of corrective and subtractive EQ, and how removing a little bit of low midrange from a bass guitar can work wonders for the clarity and presence of a male voice within the mix. I learned about dynamic perspective, and how to avoid turning an instrument down in the mix when the musician obviously intends it to be loud (and vice versa). I learned about spatial relationships, and how to create a sense of depth with just one or two carefully adjusted delays, instead of pouring on bucket loads of reverb. My mixes got a whole lot better.

My goal – and perhaps my revenge – was to hear Mr Mastering Engineer say, “These mixes are perfect, Greg, I don’t have to do anything to them”. Although I’ll probably never hear those words from that particular mastering engineer (he is now working in the USA), it is a goal I still aspire to. In fact, it’s a goal I thought all engineers aspired to...

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of teaching at Sydney’s JMC Academy. One day, I popped into a training studio where a local ‘big time’ engineer was guest supervising some student mixing sessions, and repeatedly heard him saying the following phrase: “They’ll fix that in mastering”.

Whether it was low-mid muddiness between bass guitar and vocals, a guitar track that got slightly thin and harsh at times, or a vocal that occasionally disappeared beneath the piano, his answer was always, “They'll fix that in mastering”. Session diplomacy prevented me from saying anything at the time, but all of these problems should have been addressed in the mix.

Pro engineers used to jokingly say, “We’ll fix it in the mix”. Now the catchphrase is, “They’ll fix it in mastering”. A simple tweak that takes a moment in the mix down becomes an hour’s work for a mastering engineer, and an hour’s expense for the client. And what if the mastering engineer can’t fix it?

Mixing is not about making each sound as good as possible on its own, then blending them all together and hoping the result will sound good. That is like taking 24 of your favourite colours and pouring them all into the same bucket. What do you get? A grey mess, every single time. Are your mixes a grey mess? Do you think a mastering engineer can extract the individual colours from that grey mess, and recombine them for you? If so, you’re kidding yourself.

Mixing is about thoughtfully combining a number of different sounds together to form a cohesive whole. It is a delicate balancing act in three dimensions – volume, tone and depth – using just the right amounts of EQ, effects, panning and fader settings to bring it all together. If something isn’t right, don’t leave it for the mastering engineer to fix. It is much easier to remedy most problems in the mix, while you’ve still got access to the individual sounds. Learn how sounds interact, learn how the equipment you’ve got assists with that interaction, and start making better mixes.

Ah, the futility...

Monday, May 11, 2009

FFW14: Safe, clean power

This was written as a practical follow-up to the previous First Word, ‘Acts of God, and other dirty deeds…’ (FFW13). As much as I enjoyed littering ‘Acts of God…’ with pathetic and regrettable puns, my primary goal was to offer useful advice for protecting audio equipment from lightning and similar electrical events. So in this follow-up I described the numerous devices I used to ensure my equipment was connected to clean and safe power. I’ve always taken electrical powering seriously, not just because of the damage it can do when things go wrong, but because of the effect it has on the end result. Dirty power means dirty signals, plain and simple; but more about that later. The information contained below is still valid and relevant (you can’t change physics!), but I doubt the specific product makes and models are still available. Some of the products mentioned were at least six years old when I wrote this in 2000, which means they were on sale 15 years ago. The chances of finding the same products and manufacturers are remote, at best…

Safe, clean power
In the last issue I discussed the damage caused when lightning strikes a power line, telephone line, or television antenna. This issue I’m going to look at products that protect your equipment from such damage, along with some other helpful power-related devices.

According to the IEEE (Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers), a lightning strike on the power lines can deliver up to 20,000 volts and 10,000 amps into a building’s electrical power wiring. Such a sudden and dramatic increase in voltage and current is known as a ‘surge’. The bad news is that surges don’t only come from lightning strikes.

The average home electrical system experiences hundreds of surges every year. The vast majority of these are not from lightning, fortunately, and are therefore not so harmful. They’re created by appliances that contain powerful electric motors and/or heating elements, such as electric heaters, washing machines, dishwashers, air conditioners, refrigerators, and power tools. Whenever such an appliance switches on there is the possibility of a power surge. If your audio system makes a thump or click when an appliance switches on, you’re hearing a surge that has managed to get into the signal path. Although these surges aren’t big enough to cause serious damage (beyond perhaps blowing a fuse), they’re big enough to confuse personal computers and other digital devices, causing them to freeze or crash. They can also make their way into your recorded sound, and may even damage your monitors.

So what can you do about surges? The IEEE recommends two levels of protection. The first is a heavy-duty protector located in your fuse box – where the mains voltage enters the building – for frontline protection against lightning strikes and other externally generated surges. This should be supported by the use of surge protecting power boards that, apart from offering a second level of protection against externally generated surges, also protect your equipment against surges from household appliances.

You will need a qualified electrician to install the surge protection that goes into your fuse box. If that level of protection is too expensive, at least invest in one or two surge protecting power boards. There are a number of these on the market, priced from about $30 upwards. They’re readily available from electronics and electrical retailers, home appliance centres, and hardware stores. If you’ve got a modem connected to your system, be sure to get a board that also includes protection for your telephone line.

It is worth bearing in mind that most of the affordable protection devices use an electronic component called a Metal Oxide Varistor (MOV) to provide the protection. These components are sacrificial: the more surges they encounter, the more they degrade. So before investing in such protection, check that it has a status light to indicate the health of the MOV.

While there are many low cost surge protecting power boards on the market, one that caught my attention is the Panamax series available from Dick Smith Electronics. It’s based on a six-way power board with a ‘Protection OK’ light to show the health of the MOV(s). Modules can be added to include protection for phone lines, antenna and cable TV wiring, RS232 computer interfaces, and more. For a couple of hundred dollars you can put together exactly the system you need.

One step beyond surge protectors are mains filters. The mains power supplied to our buildings contains a lot of electrical noise that, like surges, plays havoc with digital equipment. At the affordable end are passive filters that are usually built into power boards. For a bit more money you can choose from a small number of active designs that provide superior performance. If you’re going to invest in a mains filter, be sure that it also includes surge protection. I have a KCC ‘Squeeky Clean’ LF-3 high-speed power and data filter with active monitoring, which I bought from David Reid Electronics six years ago. It offers protection against surges (including lightning strikes), filters out noise and other interference, protects the phone line, and has some very useful status indicators. A worthwhile investment.

There are two electrical problems that surge protectors and filters can’t protect you from: black-outs and brown-outs. A black-out is a total power failure: the lights go out and everything turns off. A brown-out is when the mains voltage drops, or ‘sags’, significantly. When your lights dim for no apparent reason, that’s a brown-out. Both of these can interrupt your workflow, and may even damage your equipment.

For protection against black-outs and brown-outs, you need an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS). This monitors the incoming power and, when it detects a black-out or brown-out, sounds an alarm and instantly generates 240V AC from a built-in rechargeable battery system, allowing your equipment to continue functioning. Most affordable UPS’s can’t generate this replacement power for very long, but it’s enough time to save your work and power down properly. The Sola 305 range, available from Dick Smith Electronics, also includes surge protection, mains filtering, and phone line protection. Priced from $299 to $499, the more expensive models offer longer back-up time. If you’re considering a UPS, be sure to get one with sufficient power rating for your equipment; otherwise, it might only provide a few seconds of backup power.

Apart from the obvious benefits of these products, providing clean power to your system may also improve the sound quality. The KCC filter I use improves the sound of my location recording rig in certain electrically noisy environments. But the biggest sonic improvement I’ve heard from any power device comes from balanced power. I’ve been using the locally-made Peach Audio balanced power supply and filter for the last four years, and it never ceases to amaze me – especially when taking analogue signals from digital sources. Improvements range from subtle to blatantly obvious. Balanced power is also good for minimising the humming and buzzing associated with tube guitar amplifiers, and avoiding certain earth problems. When all else fails, balanced power to the rescue!

So, how can dirty mains power affect the cleanliness of your audio signal? To explain that properly requires a lesson in electricity, which I’m not prepared to give here. Instead, let’s use a simple analogy…

Imagine a mountain with a number of villages on its slopes. Snow falls on the top of the mountain, melts and causes a stream to flow down its side. Each village takes water from the stream for drinking, cooking, washing, sewerage and so on, and tips the dirty water onto the ground, where some finds its way back into the stream. The village at the top gets pure fresh water, directly off the melting snow. The village at the bottom gets a cocktail of freshly melted snow mixed with dirty water from each of the villages upstream. The inhabitants of the top village can safely drink from the stream, but those at the bottom wouldn’t dare! They’ll need to filter and sterilise the water before it is safe for drinking.

The power wiring that runs through our cities, buildings and homes is very much like that mountain stream, beginning at the electricity generator and making its way through our streets. Each house and building draws power from the mains wiring, and some of its unwanted ‘dirty’ power ends up back on the power line. The further downstream you are from the generator, the dirtier your power gets. To make it worse, the people operating the generators are adding ‘dirt’ to the electricity before it even hits the power lines; for example, special signals to control off-peak hot water systems and so on. This is like adding fluoride to the mountain stream to improve the dental health of the villagers – the intentions may be good, but if you don’t want it then you need to filter it out.

Many audio products don’t have sufficient filtering in their internal power supplies to remove these unwanted signals; such filtering adds to the cost of the product but offers no measured differences in laboratory conditions (where the powering is inherently clean), and therefore has no marketing value. Without such filtering, the unwanted signals pass through the internal power supply and manifest as part of the audio signal. In some cases they are clearly audible as clicks, hums and buzzes, in others they form a layer of grit in the background that makes your recordings sound dirtier and cheaper than intended. Your best bet for clean and safe power is a combination of: 1) protection against surges, 2) filtering to remove most of the unwanted dirt, and 3) balanced power to neutralise the effects of any remaining dirt.

Alternatively, do as I’ve done and wean your audio system off the dirty communal mains power altogether. Switch to battery power and say goodbye to hums, buzzes, clicks, pops and all that other grit.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

FFW13: Acts of God, and other dirty deeds…

I’ve always been awestruck by the power of electrical storms, but growing up in the miserable city of Melbourne, Australia, meant I was denied such spectacles for most of my youth. In that godforsaken city, electrical storms manifest as distant rumbles accompanied by harmless flashes of light occurring somewhere behind the many layers of clouds that are permanent residents of the Melbourne skyline; if you were really lucky, you might glimpse some cloud-to-cloud fork lightning, but usually not.

One of the small bonuses of moving to Sydney in 1987 was the chance to experience decent electrical storms, with cloud-to-ground and ground-to-cloud fork lightning being commonplace. Moving North of Sydney revealed even more sky-borne drama. While working in Brisbane as an Audio Operator for World Expo ’88 I enjoyed watching thunderheads build in the afternoon heat, and eagerly anticipated the early evening when they would release their awesome power. In October 1990 I spent an evening picking off leeches in a bamboo hut in Northern Thailand while an absolutely incredible electrical storm passed overhead.

But my favourite electrical storms take place in Kathmandu during the monsoon. I have experienced many of them passing directly overhead; long, low and loud, with lightning that stroboscopes the city and thunder that rattles the windows open… fantastic! But what do electrical storms have to do with audio? Not much, until one hits your house - as discussed in the following First Word, published in issue 13 of AudioTechnology sometime in early 2000.

Acts of God, and other dirty deeds…
It was not unexpected. I was sitting by a window at The Exhibition Hotel enjoying Christmas drinks with some graduates from Sydney’s JMC Academy when, suddenly, I felt my hair standing on end. Moments later, all hell broke loose with a big bang. The windows and doors rattled violently, and the guy next to me sputtered beer down his T-shirt. A barmaid dropped a bottle of Vodka, and a young girl screamed… and screamed again. Some pool cues slapped to the floor, adding to the chaos. Across the road, in Prince Alfred Park, a man fell to his knees, shielding his head as the fractured cover of a street lamp tumbled to the ground and shattered. When it was over, the screaming girl burst into tears, and an elderly woman at the pokies looked around the room, slowly cursing “Holy Mother of Mary” through the haze of her cigarette.

It was definitely not unexpected. I’d been watching the menacing thunderhead of the Cumulonimbus Incus taking shape all afternoon, imagining the chaos inside its dark anvil shape. Warm air rising to the top, forming ice crystals. Cool air falling to the base, forming water droplets. As these air currents moved past each other, I thought about the massive electrical charges building up inside – positive at the top, negative at the bottom. And as the charges built up, I could feel the corresponding positive charge forming on the ground beneath the cloud, tracking its every move like an invisible electrical shadow. It’s enough to make your hair stand on end, literally.

And so the charge builds and builds. If conditions remain suitable, it reaches such an incredibly high voltage that it overcomes the electrical insulation of the air. Can you imagine it? Millions of volts punching thousands of amps through the very air we breathe, sending a lightning bolt slamming into the ground at 96,000 kilometres per second. It would be silent if it weren’t for the heat – and I do mean ‘heat’. A lightning bolt’s temperature exceeds 22,000° Celsius! It instantaneously superheats the air it passes through, causing a rapid expansion and contraction of air pressure. And thus we get thunder, the sound of the sky being torn apart. Mother Nature’s way of reminding us that, despite our mastery of electricity, she’s still holding the electrodes.

A direct hit from one of these things could short-circuit your life. But luckily, what we experienced was not a direct hit. The lightning bolt struck a tall metal street lamp in the park across the road, about 20m away, producing intense stroboscopic flashes of pink light – pink being a telltale sign of rain in the cloud – accompanied by a crack of thunder that easily qualified as the loudest thing I’ve ever heard. The top end was like four horsemen cracking their whips in your face, while the bottom end would give even the most affluent DJ a wet dream – or perhaps just wet pants. And then, that familiar smell of high voltage in the air, a smell I remember from poking around in the back of old televisions, and working inside high voltage substations. Dangerous stuff… “Armageddon outa here!” I joked to the guy sitting next to me, but he was too busy mopping up his beer.

This particular lightning bolt hit a street lamp, and, apart from scaring a lot of people, there was no real harm done: one damaged street lamp, one smashed bottle of Vodka, a stained T-shirt, and a lot of frayed nerves! But imagine if it hit your telephone line…

No doubt you’ve got a modem connected to your phone line. On the other end of that modem is your personal computer, right? And connected to your personal computer, via numerous electrical interfaces, is your complete studio. One lightning hit on your telephone line and it’s all gone, done, finito! Not to mention what might happen if you’re actually using the studio at the time. Quite a revelation, huh?

I don’t like being a fear monger, but over the last year I’ve heard at least three stories of complete computer-based studios being destroyed by lightning strikes. One acquaintance lost over $100,000 worth of computer-based studio – not even his monitors were spared. Thanks to an inappropriate insurance policy that listed lightning as an ‘act of God’ and therefore not claimable, he’s still out of business. Good one, God!

Your phone line is not the only way lightning can attack your system. Lightning can also strike power lines, so, unless your entire studio runs on batteries, the AC power wiring can provide another path for lightning to get into your system – especially if the electrical wiring in your building is not up to specification. Older buildings, faulty and/or illegal wiring, and so on can all increase your chances of damage.

But wait, there’s more! David Turnbull, an audio technician at the Sydney Opera House, recently told me how lightning hit his neighbour’s TV antenna and found its way into the 240V AC mains wiring, destroying just about every electrical item in their house: TV, VCR, hi-fi system, clock radio, phone, fridge, and so on. If your studio is electrically connected to a VCR with an outdoor antenna on the end of it, lightning gets another chance to ruin your day.

Now that I’ve got you totally paranoid, what can you do about it? Tracey Thorn sums it up nicely when she sings “I’ll stand in front of you and take the force of the blow”. You need protection against such massive attacks. And it’s not difficult to achieve.

Prevention is always better than cure. Considering that you can’t prevent lightning from happening, your next best option is to prevent it from getting into your system. The safest thing you can do is disconnect your studio from the power point, phone line and/or TV antenna whenever there’s an electrical storm in your area. But that’s not particularly productive, and it’s not particularly effective if you’re not there when the storm hits!

A smarter option is to invest in proper electrical protection. Apart from protecting your system, it may also improve the stability and sound of your digital equipment. But more about that next issue. For now, keep your eye on the sky. Oh, and do take a second look at your insurance policy. Lightning may seem like the work of the devil, but apparently it’s an act of God…

One of my favourite audio past-times is to record the sound of electrical storms, but it’s not an easy task. Thunderclaps are deceptively difficult to record. They may seem easy because the thunder usually arrives a couple of seconds after a lightning flash, so you get a good indication of when to enter record mode (it is especially helpful if your recorder has a pre-record buffer like my Nagra V, which seamlessly appends the previous 20 seconds of audio to the recorded file so I don’t miss a thing). The difficulty begins with getting the levels right, because each thunderclap is unique and doesn’t provide a soundcheck. To make the task even more frustrating and disappointing, very loud thunderclaps are often distorted before they reach the microphone. Why? Because at very high sound pressure levels the air itself distorts. How?

As you may know, sound energy travels through the air as a series of compressions (i.e. increases) and rarefactions (i.e. decreases) of atmospheric pressure. Although the air can be compressed considerably, it can only be rarefied until it reaches a vacuum, at which point it literally runs out of headroom and clips. This occurs at approximately 170dB SPL. Any sound energy exceeding this point is clipped on the rarefactions and, assuming your recording/editing system is wired in correct polarity throughout, you will see the clipping on the negative half cycles of the waveform only. Bear in mind, however, that it can be difficult to identify the clipping when viewing the waveform due to the air’s absorption of high frequencies over distance, which tends to ‘round out’ the clipped waveform as if it were passed through a low pass filter – which is, in fact, exactly what the air is doing. You can hear the clipping, but you can’t always see it. People who record explosions (including large fireworks) and rocket launches face the same problem.

Other factors to consider when attempting to capture The Perfect Thunderclap are the enormously high static discharges in the air, which can reputedly induce preamp-overloading surges in microphone cables (although I have never experienced this), and the possibility of power blackouts, which render mains-powered recording systems useless. Furthermore, to minimise comb filtering due to reflections from the ground and other nearby surfaces, it makes sense to use a very tall microphone stand and position it in an open space away from other buildings, preferably on top of the tallest building in the area – just like a lightning rod connected to your head via your headphones and recording gear. Maybe that’s not such a good idea…

When I was about nine years old my parents gave me a copy of
The How & Why Wonder Book of Electricity, and I became fascinated with Benjamin Franklin’s lightning experiment with the kite, the wire and the key. By the age of 12 I had failed to repeat the experiment on numerous occasions. My kite, complete with wire and key, remained hidden under my bed, ready and waiting for the next electrical storm. But unfortunately I grew up in the outer suburbs of Melbourne (as mentioned at the start of this Famous First Word), where thunderstorms rarely have the required combination of wind and fork lightning to get a kite off the ground, let alone struck. I should probably be thankful for that…

Sunday, April 19, 2009

FFW12: Encouragement & Recognition

I’ve already explained the importance of the ARIA awards in previous Famous First Words (see FFW06 and FFW08); whoever wins one of those can look forward to at least a year’s worth of regular engineering and/or production work, perhaps longer if they play their cards right. It’s a pity that something so important is handled so badly from behind the scenes…

Encouragement & Recognition
Over the past year I’ve done a lot of direct-to-stereo recordings of orchestras and other acoustic acts in concert halls, churches and pubs. One of the great difficulties with this type of recording is monitoring. Because I’m often located in the same space as the performers it’s not possible to use studio monitors, so I’ve had to resort to headphones. Classical recording engineers have been doing this for years, but for a multitrack studio guy like myself the thought of doing a direct-to-stereo recording using headphones for monitoring is unnerving – unless you’ve got the right ones. So, after much research and listening, I settled on a pair of Sennheiser HD600s. They’re exceptionally transparent, with very low distortion, effortless dynamics, superb midrange detail, and a response that’s smooth as a baby’s bum from 16Hz all the way up to 30kHz. Even your dog will like ‘em! If you want better cans than these you’d have to buy electrostatics, but they’re way out of my budget. Even the $800+ asking price for the HD600s is pretty steep, but they’re worth every cent.

And so it was that one night in early November I found myself in a small pub near Central, where an acoustic ensemble was playing backing tracks for a collection of aspiring vocalists. The evening was an opportunity for these vocalists to polish their performance skills in front of a small and sympathetic audience – mostly consisting of other aspiring vocalists waiting their turn!

Some friends of mine, Brendan Frost and Glenn Santry, were using my rig to record this particular night’s performance, and I dropped in to see how it was going. “Take a listen”, said Glenn, handing me the HD600s while diplomatically donning my older cans. As we sat there listening and discussing the merits of the vocalist currently on stage, I had a flashback to my childhood TV days: images of a judging panel wearing headphones while a performer on stage was strutting her stuff.

Okay, hands up if you remember New Faces, the long running TV talent quest hosted by Bert Newton? If not, I’m sure you can guess the format: aspiring entertainers perform in front of a studio audience and a panel of judges, hoping to launch a career in show business. (You can put your hands down now.) Unlike talent quests sponsored by fizzy drink companies, tacky ISPs, and other youth market vultures who know nothing about exposing genuine new talent, New Faces was the real deal. The judges were qualified industry professionals who offered plenty of constructive criticism, and Bert Newton was, as always, the consummate television host.

After the winners were announced and awards given out, Bert would present a special award to the performer he thought deserved the most encouragement – regardless of whether they won the show or not. He called it ‘The Bert Newton Encouragement Award’, and it became my favourite part of New Faces. As a particularly flat note brought me back to the reality of the small pub near Central, I began wondering which vocalist would have received Bert’s award if he’d been there on the night.

Speaking of talent quests and awards, did anyone notice something strange at the last ARIAs? It happened very quickly, and if you were watching the show on TV and blinked, you would’ve missed it altogether. The category for Engineer Of The Year had five winners. That’s right; five. Not three, not four, but five! F.I.V.E. Cinque, cinco, fünf? Nyet! How can this be? I can tell you that the systems for nominating and voting this year were changed. I’m sure the changes were intended to be an improvement, but I certainly hope ARIA refine it next year so we don’t get another five winners. In a market as small as ours, it is hard enough for one Engineer Of The Year to find work, let alone five!

Congratulations to all the winners nonetheless, and I’m pleased to see some of my own nominations included among them. But my first choice did not even rate a mention. Before I tell you who it was, let me explain my judging process…

In Volume One, Issue Six of AudioTechnology [see FFW06], I outlined the comprehensive and time-consuming process I used to vote for last year’s ARIAs. Then, in Volume Two, Issue Two, I described my disappointment with the amount of Australian mixing and mastering work going overseas – and copped quite a whipping for it! [see FFW08 and FFW09] This year, I simply didn’t have the time to listen to each and every CD that was nominated, so I had to apply a culling process.

Firstly, I scanned the credits of every CD looking for overseas involvement. If it was tracked, mixed or mastered by overseas engineers, I’d yell “OUT!” and gleefully spin the unheard disc into the reject box. It was gone, done, finito! Secondly, I tested each disc for translation. A well-engineered recording should sound ‘right’ through any playback system. So, I auditioned each disc through my ATCs, my NS10s, and my Sennheiser HD600s. Many discs, particularly those aimed at the pop market, kicked arse on the NS10s but were reduced to muddy crap when heard under the scrutiny of the ATCs or the HD600s. My reject box filled rapidly! I was eventually left with a dozen discs, to which I applied the same rigorous procedure I used for judging last year’s ARIAs.

I am not a fan of Dave Graney, and I’ve never met Adam Rhodes, but I must say that the album ‘Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye’ by The Dave Graney Show, engineered and mixed by Adam Rhodes, is a classy and competent piece of sound engineering. It sounds good on the ATCs, the NS10s, and the HD600s. It has a sense of depth and dimension, and it’s not vainly trying to produce a million dollar sound on a $100 budget. Congratulations to all involved. And as for Adam, he wins the inaugural ‘Greg Simmons Encouragement Award’ - a pair of Sennheiser HD600s courtesy of Syntec International. It’s not an ARIA, but, with five Engineers Of The Year running around out there, the HD600s will probably be a lot more practical! And please, keep up the good work, Adam.

Upon joining the judging panel for the ARIA awards, I asked for all of the CDs for which engineers and producers had been nominated. My contact at ARIA was perplexed by this request. Dumbfounded, I patiently explained that I couldn’t possibly judge the quality of engineering and production work without listening to the recordings themselves. This was a perfectly reasonable argument, of course, and a box of 40 or so CDs landed on my doorstep shortly afterwards. Likewise one year later. But on the third year they objected, saying I was the only one of a dozen or so judges who asked for the CDs. I don’t know how the other judges made their decisions, but it sure as hell wasn’t from listening to the recordings – unless they happened to be extremely keen fans of Australian-produced music in all shapes and forms, and already owned every CD on the list. Considering the scope of music covered by the nominations (everything from hard rock to soft baroque), I found that highly unlikely. Other factors were obviously at play in the judges’ minds; perhaps basing their decisions on chart figures, sales success, or even less relevant and/or less honest means. Whatever the case, I rapidly began to lose interest in the whole thing. And when five engineers won the same award simultaneously, I knew the system was screwed. Hence, the encouragement award mentioned above; it was my diplomatic way of sidestepping the whole mess. These days I couldn’t give a diplomat’s arse about the ‘industry’ per se, so I’m writing it as I remember it.

As for the HD600s, I thought they were the most incredible dynamic headphones on the market – as did every other keen listener of quality audio! With a pair of HD600s in my possession, I figured I had the headphone problem solved forever. Although I felt their stereo imaging was below par, no one else seemed to mention it so I figured it must’ve been my ears. Considering how well they did everything else, I was prepared to cut them some slack. Besides, my good friend Glenn Santry* (mentioned at the start of this First Word) had a pair of AKG K501s that imaged very well, thanks to an interesting driver orientation that placed the drivers forward of the ears and angled towards them, rather than sitting flush beside each ear. They didn’t share the clarity and resolution of the HD600s, but were good performers nonetheless. In those days Glenn and I made a lot of recordings together, and switching between my HD600s and his K501s was standard procedure; using each pairs’ individual strengths while avoiding their individual weaknesses. A bit like switching between main monitors and NS10s when mixing…

Some time later Sennheiser released the superior HD650 headphones. Apart from being more revealing than the HD600s, they imaged particularly well thanks to a new driver orientation that was remarkably similar to the K501’s. They were on my shopping list for years, right up until January 2008 when I reluctantly auditioned a pair of similarly priced Audio-Technica AD1000s at the insistence of one of my students. At first listen, the AD1000s sounded bland and uninteresting; but after an hour or so I began to appreciate them.

The AD1000s outperform the HD650s in every way that matters; in fact, after wearing them for a while, switching back to the HD650s feels as if the sound is being forced into your ears through funnels. Most of the HD600 and HD650 users I know who have the opportunity to do a side-by-side comparison with the AD1000s have a similar reaction. The AD1000s are now my quality reference headphones. In fact, all of my headphones are now Audio-Technicas, but more about that some other time...

[*Glenn Santry’s wife Mel recently gave birth to a baby boy named Noah. He’s a happy little guy with fair hair and big blue lady-killer eyes, but it’s going to be chaos around their house when it comes time to buy him a pet. He’ll want two of everything.]

Saturday, April 11, 2009

FFW11: Parasites & Patrons Of The Arts

When viewed organically, the entire music industry can be seen for what it really is: an ugly parasite living on the lifeblood of musicians. Like any successful parasite, the goal of the music industry is to extract as much sustenance as possible from its host, without killing it - a careful balancing act. So if you intend to work as a sound engineer in the music industry, there are two things you must do from the start. First, you must acknowledge your status as a parasite; otherwise you’re not going to make a living. Second, you must acknowledge that your clients will be among the poorest people in Western society – musicians – therefore, every cent you extract from them is not likely to come easily.

Novice engineers, in particular, feel a strong affinity with musicians and tend to do much more work than their clients can afford, simply because it is fun and/or they enjoy the music and/or the client is currently considered 'cool' (whatever that means). This usually results in a lot more giving than taking. In effect, the engineer becomes a patron of the arts. But eventually they realise that if they’re going to make a living, they’ve got to start earning decent money. They have to switch from being a
patron of the arts to a parasite of the arts. But is it possible to do it in a mutually beneficial manner?

Parasites & Patrons Of The Arts
In ‘91 I spent some time with a small but intrepid group of people trekking through the Amazon rainforest in Peru. Our adventure began in the village of Cuzco, high in the Andes, where the air is thin, cold and dry. After a headlong 4WD descent down a trail clinging desperately to the side of a mountain, we emerged beneath the cloud forest and entered the stifling humidity of the Amazon basin. Exhausted, we transferred our backpacks into powered longboats and spent two days motoring down river, sleeping under the stars on a tiny island formed where two waterways collided. Our destination turned out to be a small beach on the shores of the Amazon, deep within the Manu National Park. This was our home for the next two weeks, so we pitched our tents and made peace with the crocodiles, piranhas and anacondas that were our new neighbours.

It was the early days of eco-tourism. Our guide, a biologist named Barry, took us on numerous forays into the rainforest, revealing something new and interesting with every step: trees that ‘walk’, leaf-cutting ants that farm aphids for food, communal spiders that weave collective webs and share the bounty, and so on. But it was the symbiotic relationships between different species that really stuck in my mind. Barry stopped by a small tree and warned us to never lean against one. He tapped the trunk and it was instantly covered in agitated red ants, heads raised and mandibles open, ready to attack. Judging by the volume of ants that had been hiding inside the tree’s slender trunk, I doubt there was much actual wood left in there! But that’s how this particular relationship worked - the tree sacrificed some of its bulk to provide a home for the ants, and in return the ants protected the tree. That’s symbiosis for you.

After returning from the Amazon, I started a small business doing audio editing and basic mastering. I had $20,000 worth of pro equipment, very low overheads, and a rather organic view of life. My strategy was to charge a low rate to attract plenty of work, and I figured I’d be happy to earn $25 per hour. I spent $50 per week on small ads in the local street press, and my phone was soon running hot. Within a few months I was booked 12 hours per day, seven days per week. My plan was working.

Or was it? Despite all the bookings, I was not making any money. I was working every minute of every day, yet my business was like treading water – if I stopped for a rest, I’d drown. According to my initial figures, I should’ve been comfortable at $25 per hour. What went wrong?

The reality is that when you charge a rate that appeals to the rock bottom of the market, that’s precisely what you get - the rock bottom of the market! The majority of my clients were struggling musicians with no money, whose cheap and dire recordings needed the most amount of fixing to make them sound acceptable. Because I took pride in my work and couldn’t bear to see something leave my studio that wasn’t as good as I could possibly make it, I would often put many unpaid hours into these jobs. No wonder I wasn’t making any money – I had become a patron of the arts, not a businessman!

Then one night I was telling Rick O’Neil my tale of woe. “Double your rate”, he said authoritatively. This seemed like a terrible idea. “But I’ll lose all my regular clients and my competitive advantage”, I replied. “It can’t be much of a ‘competitive advantage’ if you’re not making any money!” mocked Rick, “And the clients you’re attracting can’t pay for the level of work you’re giving them, so they’re not worth your effort”. “I dunno”, I said, shaking my head and feeling rather uncertain about the idea. “Well, you asked for my advice…” said Rick, and promptly changed the subject to the latest piece of gear he’d bought.

At a trade show a week later, I spoke with an engineer who had a similar system to mine, but was charging $80 per hour. I asked how he justified it. “I don’t work much, but when I do, I get well paid for it,” he said, then laughed, “and I send you all the cheapo time-wasting jobs I can’t be bothered with!” By charging more, he created the impression that he was offering a higher quality service than I was. He made more in a day than I made in a week – and he had time to have a life! The whole engineer/musician relationship was working nicely for him.

I started thinking about the ants and their trees. The symbiotic relationship between them is not dissimilar to the relationship between engineers and musicians. In order for the ants to do their job and protect the trees properly, the trees have to make a significant sacrifice (i.e. having their insides hollowed out to provide a home for the ants!).

Suddenly, it became very clear to me. I resolved to double my rate for all new clients, and keep my existing regular clients at the old rate for another 12 months. Bookings dropped off, but business and life picked up. I was working less time for the same money, and I was attracting a better class of client with bigger budgets and higher quality recordings to work with. I finally felt like a small businessman, not a patron of the arts.

Engineers and musicians are not unlike those ants and their trees. As a professional engineer, if you charge too much you may not survive – like the ants killing the tree by hollowing out too much. But if you charge too little you also may not survive – like the tree accommodating insufficient ants to protect it. Musicians need engineers to make their music heard, and engineers need musicians to make their livelihood. Is the symbiosis working for you?

Since writing that First Word back in late 1999 or early 2000, I have extended my parasitic logic even further. I advise all of my audio students to tool up with basic recording equipment (laptop, interface, a handful of microphones), but warn them against building any serious kind of recording facility. Why? Because in every city there are a handful of small, well-built studios hungry for work. Built before the advent of the project studio, when sound quality actually mattered and there was work aplenty, these places are often owned and operated by experienced engineers with good selections of microphones and other recording equipment. Rather than spending vast amounts of money to become yet another hungry studio owner, it is smarter to hire one of these existing facilities for those few occasions when such a space is required. You can walk in with a ProTools session file, add whatever you can’t record at home or elsewhere, and then walk out again. The cost of the studio hire is charged to your clients, of course. It’s a win/win situation, and you’re not left with the huge financial burden that many professional recording studios have become. As a contemporary sound engineer, you become a parasite with two hosts: musicians and studio owners. More hosts means greater chances of survival, right?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

FFW10: 124g of pot, $600 + GST

After savaging the industry in FFW08 and savaging myself in FFW09, I decided to focus my energies on talking about audio equipment for a while - as suggested in the closing comment for FFW09, which read: "Next issue, I'm going to talk about equipment"! This was something I could write authoritatively about without relying on others (i.e. A&R people and their ilk) for fundamental information to underpin an argument.

So for FFW10 I wrote about a simple passive volume control I had recently built. Initially made to demonstrate high quality audiophile recordings, it spent most of its life as my mastering/monitoring controller, placed between the analogue outputs of my DAC and the inputs to my ATC SCM20A SL Pro studio monitors. Why not use a mixing console or audio interface for this task? Apart from being unnecessarily complex, such devices add more noise and colouration to the signal being monitored, while simultaneously reducing the signal path’s headroom. ‘The Pot’, as it came to be known, was an elegant and extremely high quality alternative. Expensive when considered in isolation, but a bargain when considered in context. It became quite popular among my audio buddies, who would often borrow it for situations that required a clean way to control audio levels.

Here’s FFW10, from sometime in late 1999 or early 2000…

124g of pot, $600 + GST?
It was a typical Melbourne day - cold and raining one minute, hot and sunny the next. But the problem with this particular day was that it happened in Sydney. So I decided to stay indoors and sit it out. And then it struck me – this was the ideal time to try the pot I had stashed away at the back of my bookshelf. After all, I’d been saving it for a rainy day.

I reached into the package and gently rolled the contents onto the palm of my hand, watching it glisten in a brief flash of sunlight and inhaling the characteristic ‘new’ smell. “Time to fire it up”, I thought, and proceeded to unwind the nut from the mounting shaft…

Wait a minute! Nut? Mounting shaft? The pot I’m talking about is a contraction of the word ‘potentiometer’, the electronic component found beneath the knobs on your audio equipment. Potentiometers are used for faders, EQ, auxiliary sends, and anything else that offers continuously variable adjustment between two extremes. What kind of pot did you think I was talking about? Marijuana? Get real!

Like most mind-altering substances, marijuana affects your hearing, usually making things sound much better than they actually are. Any engineer who uses that kind of pot for mixing is obviously an idiot.

Now, back to our potentiometer. The unit in the palm of my hand was made by Penny & Giles, part no. RF15/D/2, 10k ohms, dual audio taper. It’s a precision piece of hand-made electronic art, all stainless steel with blue plastic insulation and gold plated contacts. This is one type of pot that really does make things sound better. So why had I been saving it for a rainy day?

Some time ago I was doing a series of sound quality demonstrations at the Sydney campus of the JMC Academy. I was playing 24-bit 96k recordings from a Sony DVP-S715 DVD player into my ATC SCM20A active monitors. Ideally, I would’ve plugged the output of the DVD player directly into the ATCs, but I needed volume control. I tried all kinds of things, from low cost little ‘utility’ mixers to ultra-expensive preamplifiers. But no matter what I used in this very simple signal path, its inherent noises and distortions added their own characteristic flavour to the sound. So, in desperation, I went to the very essence of volume control - a single potentiometer in the signal path. No active electronics to generate noise and distortion, no power supply to generate hum, and heaps of headroom! I went to Dick Smith Electronics and bought a 10k ohm dual logarithmic pot – a good choice for making a passive stereo volume control – along with a small diecast box, four RCA sockets and a huge knob. The whole shebang cost about $30. I raced home and put it together.

It was certainly very clean and quiet, but, in comparison to the active circuits I had tried previously, it seemed ever so slightly dull. Nonetheless, I used it for my demonstrations.

Not long after, I discussed the dullness with Rick Dowel of Control Devices, the Australian distributor for Penny & Giles. “Greg,” he said in his characteristically knowing tone, “I have just the thing for you”. After rummaging through his drawers for a moment, he tossed the RF15/D/2 across the desk and into my hand. It was surprisingly heavy. “This pot is ideal for the passive situation you’re describing - very low stray capacitance, and therefore much better high frequency performance.” I twisted the shaft between my thumb and forefinger, and sensed the precision engineering within. “Bet it’s real cheap,” I said mockingly. “$600 plus tax” he replied sternly. “Can I hang onto it for a rainy day?” I asked. “It’s raining today…” he interjected. “But I’m kinda busy today,” I said, pocketing the pot and making a beeline for the door. “I want it back real soon!” Rick yelled as the elevator closed behind me…

Needless to say, the RF15/D/2 was a major improvement over the standard $4.50 pot I’d been using. The dullness was gone, but that wasn’t all. The overall sound was more fluid and smooth. The RF15/D/2’s conductive plastic element made the carbon element in the $4.50 pot sound granular and harsh - just like carbon, I suppose.

But there’s more. One of the most impressive aspects of the RF15/D/2 is its excellent linearity between left and right channels – as you adjust the volume, the centre image stays dead centre. It’s a very ‘pure’ experience. According to Rick, the left and right sides are hand-matched to exacting tolerances – one of the reasons for the pot’s high price. (Cheaper pots don’t have such excellent linearity, and so the centre image actually moves slightly left and right as you make volume adjustments.)

After using the RF15/D/2 for a while, I realised I never turned it beyond the 11 o’clock position. Considering the price, I figured I was only using a fraction of what I was paying for! So, I put a 10k ohm carbon resistor in series with each input. This dropped the overall level by 50% (-6dB), and allowed me to use more of the pot’s rotation for the same monitoring level. It also raised the pot’s overall input resistance to 20k ohms, which gave me a bit more ‘air’ from the DVD player (important when playing 24-bit 96k recordings). But, traces of the granular and harsh sound of carbon were back! So, I put together a small collection of 10k ohm resistors of different compositions, and conducted a semi-formal AB test with two keen-eared sound engineering students (Jay and Geon) to decide which ones were best. Believe it or not, we settled on metal foil resistors from the French manufacturer Vishay. These puppies cost about $15 each. In comparison, the carbon resistors I started with cost less than 10 cents each!

When it comes to high quality audio, you have to spend a lot more money to get a little more sound. Every single component in the signal path – every resistor and capacitor, every transistor and chip, every tube and transformer – has a characteristic sound. Collectively, they all contribute to the sound of a particular product.

You could build a passive volume control like the one described above for about $30 using standard ‘off-the-shelf’ carbon resistors and a potentiometer. Or, you could build the same thing using the Penny & Giles RF15/D/2 and the Vishay resistors, and pay about 30 times more! Theoretically, they’re identical, but in practice the more expensive unit sounds and feels a lot better. It’s the kind of pot you should be getting high on…

Next time you’re comparing two similar products at radically different price points, consider this story.

At the time this First Word was written, Dick Smith Electronics carried a range of small diecast aluminium hobby boxes with grey enamel finishes. They looked quite smart, and I used them to house numerous audio utility projects that were collectively known as Simmo’s Magic Grey Boxes. The Pot was one of these; housed in a small box slightly larger than a cigarette pack, with a large black knob (about 3cm diameter and 3cm height) protruding through the top that gave it a very funky Zen look. But that large knob wasn’t just for looks; the Penny & Giles pot was very stiff to turn, but felt fantastic when used with a large diameter knob for greater leverage and resolution. Overall, it looked good, felt great and sounded fantastic.

The Universal Connector/Switcher was another Magic Grey Box. It could select one of two stereo inputs and route it to one of two stereo outputs; each XLR socket could have pins two and three reversed (polarity inversion), along with a number of pin 1 termination possibilities. It was great for interconnecting different devices, checking the best way to interconnect pin one for lowest hum and noise, and comparing polarity. I often used it to select alternative inputs (e.g. DAW, CD player) and direct them to alternative outputs (e.g. two different pairs of studio monitors), and it also came in handy for AB testing of signal paths by placing The Pot in one side and the device under test in the other side. It proved particularly useful for judging the ARIA awards, where I would use it to switch between my ATCs for judging absolute quality and my Yamaha NS10s for judging translation.

Another Magic Grey Box was the Mackie Fixer, a two-channel mic level device that provided a -20dB pad switch and a polarity inversion switch for each channel. Placed between the output of a microphone and the input of a Mackie mixer, it provided the all-important pad and polarity invert switches that were sorely missing from those otherwise well-conceived products.

The Isolator was yet another Magic Grey Box, containing two Lundahl 1:1 mic/line transformers, with two female XLR inputs and two male XLR outputs. Primarily built for providing an electrically isolated feed from my Nagra V for film and television crews, it often found itself patched into an analogue recording signal path simply to add the wonderfully euphonic warmth and thickness of iron to the sound – great for ‘fixing’ a thin string quartet recording or similar.

One of the great things about the Magic Grey Boxes was that they could be interconnected to form all sorts of monitoring and isolating signal paths. I once took the output of a Mackie mic preamp through the Isolator to thicken and warm up the sound, then through The Pot to ride the level before going into a Prism Sound AD124 AD converter for recording. Nice…

Sunday, March 29, 2009

FFW09: Hearing it like it isn’t

In FFW08 I proceeded to tell the entire Australian music industry that its recording and mixing work was below international standards. Hours of exasperating conversations ensued, from which emerged a clearer picture of the problem. It was extremely disheartening to learn that a local record company would spend many times more money getting the same record mixed and/or mastered in the US than they would spend here in Australia. The reasons behind that were equally disheartening; in fact, I chose not to print them at the time (as seen below) because they would do nothing but induce a feeling of futility and helplessness among local engineers. Considering the ill-feeling and potential damage I had caused with FFW08, I chose instead to portray myself as well-meaning but mislead. By publically falling on my own sword I put an end to the matter from my point of view, thereby conveniently short-circuiting the need for me to do any further investigation into it. In other words, putting a lid on it. I did, however, invite others to write in with their own experiences, in the hope that one of the engineers I had spoken to would be willing to ‘out’ the problem in their own words, but no-one took me up on the offer. I guess they felt like I did; damage control!

But that was a decade ago when I still had faith in the concept of a local music recording ‘industry’: one in which deep-pocketed record companies were committed to developing local artists to record and release their music. These days, that aspect of the local music recording industry has proven to care more about its deep pockets than anything else, and I personally care less for it than I care for a pocketful of cockroaches and mosquitoes. So, I’m going to put those reasons at the end of this Famous First Word. Enjoy, or whatever…

Hearing It Like It Isn’t
The late, great press critic A.J. Liebling once said: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one”. There can be no doubt that having the freedom to publish whatever you want is one of the greatest things about owning a magazine, but as with all forms of freedom, it comes with an implied responsibility…

In my last column, ‘Hearing It Like It Is’ [AudioTechnology, Volume 2, Issue 2], I described my disappointment with the sound of Australian recordings that had been mixed and/or mastered locally in comparison to those that were sent overseas. I then went on to explain why I believed our major artists and record companies were sending their work overseas. I did some market statistics, spoke to a couple of A&R people, and even got some ‘insider’ sales figures from a local record company. Essentially, my conclusion was that our local mixing and mastering talent wasn’t capable of delivering an international sound.

Before going any further, I would like to offer my sincere apologies to all those people who felt attacked or betrayed by that column – it was not my intention to do any harm to the industry. I took a ‘hard line’ to shake things up a bit, and hopefully encourage some discussion and raise the standard. Judging by the feedback I’ve received, I have achieved those objectives. But my fundamental argument was misinformed and therefore flawed, and may have done more harm than good.

‘Hearing It Like It Is’ was a follow up to a column published two issues earlier, titled ‘Relativity & The Whispering Chinese Engineer Of The Year’ [AudioTechnology, Volume 1, Issue 6]. Both columns were referring to a specific set of recordings: the ARIA nominations for Engineer Of The Year and Producer Of The Year. No matter how cynical you are about such awards, you cannot ignore the impact they have. Whoever wins such an award can expect an improved income for the following 12 months (if they play their cards right), and may use it as a springboard to a higher profile career. They will contribute significantly to shaping the Australian sound, and their work will be held as a local reference by many of our aspiring young engineers. For those reasons alone, I took these awards very seriously. Hence the disappointment in what I heard – was that the best we could do?

The feedback flooded in from the day the magazine hit the streets. The first wave was very positive, mostly congratulating me for bringing this topic into the open. But the second wave knocked me reeling. These were industry professionals: recording engineers, mixing engineers, mastering engineers, producers, and studio owners. They felt angry and betrayed, but to their credit, argued their points rationally and objectively. As many pointed out, my conclusion was sending a very negative message to our local record companies and artists: “don’t get your mixing and mastering done in Australia!” That was not my intention at all (quite the opposite, in fact), and it didn’t take long to see the error of my ways.

The flaw in my conclusion was the assumption that Australian artists and record companies were going overseas because our local engineers could not deliver an internationally competitive sound. After discussing this situation with numerous local engineers, I can only say that it was not a valid assumption – which makes the rest of my conclusion bogus.

I heard many tales of woe from Australian engineers explaining how they were given ridiculously small budgets to mix albums, only to find the record companies and artists weren’t happy with the finished results. As Daniel Denholm points out, “You can’t clip the wings and then expect it to fly…” [see ‘Your Word’, this issue]. As a result, the work was sent overseas to be remixed, and the record companies spent at least twice the budget they had allocated for local engineers. Of course they got better results!

So why are our local record companies and artists willing to spend more on overseas mixing and mastering? Everyone has their own explanations – some plausible, some not. Whatever the reasons may be, there is one thing I am now certain of: if our record companies and artists spent the same amounts of money on local jobs as they did on international jobs, we’d be producing recordings that would be equal to those done overseas, perhaps even better. We have the technology, we have the motivation, and we have the skills. But most importantly, we have something unique to smaller markets – resourcefulness and the willingness to make the most of a less-than-ideal situation. It’s an Australian trait, and we’re famous around the world for it.

Which leads me to another flaw in my previous conclusion: I had applied a broad generalisation to the issue, when in reality these things should be discussed on a case-by-case basis. I’d like to follow this up by talking with the appropriate decision-makers for each of the Australian recordings I was referring to in my previous column. But I doubt I’d get meaningful answers… After all, the two A&R people I spoke to as part of my research both gave me the same answer: “It sounds better, it sells better”. What I didn’t know then was that they were using an unfair reference: you can’t compare two different sets of mixes (local and overseas) when the overseas mixes have such larger budgets! And I thought these A&R people knew what they were doing…

There are more shortcomings of 'Hearing It Like It Is' worth explaining, but I'm out of space. I'd like to thank all those who contacted me to discuss this issue, and especially those who found the time to write in. I published my conclusion with the freedom of the person who owns the press, and now I feel obliged to turn that freedom over to the industry. If you have something constructive to say about Australian work going overseas, send it in and we'll publish it. But please, keep it short, concise and to the point. In closing, I'd like to draw your attention to this issue's Your Word, where we have published some readers' comments on this topic, and to Last Word, where Rick O'Neil gives me quite a beating. (Next issue, I'm going to talk about equipment…)

Okay, enough of the self-flagellation bullshit. I've always felt bad about not telling what I believed to be the truth behind that situation; this retrospective blog provides the opportunity to right that wrong.

In the numerous conversations that took place with local engineers and producers after the publication of FFW08, the following scenario came up again and again. A local engineer was given a budget of, say, $5000, to mix an album for a local artist. With SSL mixing rooms charging around $1000/day in those days, this allowed five days to mix 10 or more songs. In other words, mixing at least two songs per day. The mixes were rushed, of course. Not surprisingly, the local record company didn’t like the sound (what I rightfully described as a ‘demo on steroids’ in FFW08) and would decide to send it to the US to be mixed ‘professionally’. Miraculously, the US mixing engineer was given enough budget to mix one song per day; allowing for exchange rates at the time, that’s about three times as much as the local engineer was given. As each of the local engineers said to me, “If they gave me that much money and time in the first place I could’ve given them a world-class mix”. And I’ve no doubt of that…

So why don’t the local record companies spend the big money here in the first place? It’s not about our engineers and it’s not about our studios. It’s about networking and sales.

As I pointed out in FFW08, the record buying public in the US is (or was at the time) about 15 times larger than the Australian record buying public. There’s lots of money to be made for an Australian artist who lands a song on the US charts, certainly enough to cover the recording costs and even put some worthwhile money into the artist’s pocket (which is more than can usually be said for landing a song on the charts in Australia, by the way). But there’s little chance of US chart success if the recording is mixed and mastered here in Australia.

Consider the following hypotheticals…

Situation A: The A&R manager of the local branch of a major record label sends the finished and mastered mixes of his latest pet project to his US counterpart and says, “Hey, check this out, these guys are pretty good, kind of like Guns’N’Roses but with an Aussie accent”. The US A&R person takes a listen, thinks, “Yeah, okay. Apart from the Aussie accent, it sounds like everything else out there. Boring.” He drops it into the marketing machine without a second thought, leaving it to fend for itself.

Situation B: The A&R manager of the local branch of a major record label telephones his US counterpart and says, “Hey, I’ve got these artists coming over to do some mixing and mastering in LA. Please pick them up from the airport, show them around town and, you know, just generally take care of them.” A few cocaine lines later and the US guy has developed a relationship with the band; now they become one of
his pet projects. When the album is finished, he’s personally taking it to the marketing department saying, “Hey, check out these guys I’ve been working with. They’re like Guns’N’Rose with an Aussie accent. Look good, too. Awesome!”

You don’t have to be a genius to realise which of those situations is going to fly…

So when a local record company sends something to the US for mixing and/or mastering, they’re willing to take a bigger financial risk because the US networking gives it a greater chance of making a decent financial return. No wonder all of our more successful artists eventually go to the US to do their entire albums. The networking is as complete as possible and so, therefore, are the chances of success.

As I said at the start of this post, it's disheartening stuff, instilling a sense of futility and helplessness into the hearts of those hoping to make it big in Australia.

There’s only one conclusion to make from all of this. If you aspire to have a satisfying career as a ‘big fish’ sound engineer working in a music industry where there’s enough money to do things properly, get out of Australia as soon as possible. You’re wasting your time splashing around in this rapidly evaporating little pond.

Then again, have you heard the slickly perfected in-one-ear-and-out-the-other dross from the US lately? If you want a satisfying life, consider opening a café instead; the hours are better and people will always appreciate, and pay through the nose for, a good cup of coffee.