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…