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.