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.


  1. "1) The inability to make professional quality recordings with project studio equipment encourages frustrated musicians and wannabe engineers to do audio courses.."

    Hammer, meet nail. After being told by countless "pros" that for all the crap behringer cop, they are "accurately" reproducing top end gear for the bottom of the market, I find myself with a rack full of lacklustre gear that is neither as dynamic nor as functional as reviews and protips had lead me to believe. Frankly, it's intimidating as hell trying to come into this industry. Everyones got an opinion, but it's rare they can back it. Even with a fundamental knowledge of electronics it can be a pain, i'm yet to meet a dealer who will let me pull lids to see what op amps are in use, how the boards and earth tracks have been laid out, and whether they have run a big noisy power rail through the middle of their preamp sections.

  2. Well quite simply the reason why dealer wouldn't let you do that is because of that big scary sticker thats usually attached saying "WARNING: Void warranty upon opening product"..

    So, are you intending to buy it as soon as you've made the product null and void of factory customer support? Or would you like the one you didn't open still fresh inside its box? I'd say no especially if you didn't like what you saw and not to mention the ramifications of a negative product buzz being you're opinion.
    You would have more luck looking at product design/schematics online or per request with the company your looking to enquire with..
    food for thought.

  3. Yeah, Bad example I guess (I do own a shirt that says "I void warranties", so go figure)

    Point is even if you do do schemo hunting you rarely find what you're looking for unless you are willing to pay for a serivce manual. I have never thought to ask directly for hardware level spec's from the manufacturer though, mainly because your first point of contact is a dealer who, depending on where you are, may glaze over of you ask if the kit uses full or partial earth planes, isolated power rails for different stages and the like. Food for thought indeed.

  4. You guys have got it right. As a one-time equipment reviewer and an electronics technician by trade, I always made it my business to pop the lid on any bit of gear I was reviewing (except studio monitors and software). Of course, warranty issues don't apply to review gear: after it has done its job it is usually sold off cheap. I've seen some scary things...

    I've seen completely redundant chip sets (preamps, AD converters) migrated down from a top-of-the-line product that was released four or five years ago into the latest budget product of today. Why? Either to save about 2 cents, or to use up excess stock (more than likely the latter). No wonder Black Lion Audio did such great business.

    I was once given a ribbon microphone from China to review. The build quality was quite good, but there was an annoying tone to the sound. Tapping the microphone produced a resonant 'boong' sound that sustained for over a second. No wonder it sounded bad! I also established that this mic was wired reverse polarity, so if mixed with another mic at the same distance there would be cancellations. I contacted the importer and we established that it was a quality control issue - someone had forget to put the internal damper lining inside this mic, and didn't pay enough attention to the wiring. What we call '4:50pm Friday' in the West...

    So, I was sent a replacement. The 'boong' was gone, but in it's place was a buzzing sound. I opened it up to find that the ground wire (pin 1 on the XLR) wasn't connected. The wire was hanging there, stripped but untinned, somewhere in the vicinity of pin 1, which was also untinned. Like the first one, this microphone was also wired reverse polarity. I was, of course, sent a replacement.

    The replacement did not have the 'bong' nor the 'buzz', but was still wired in reverse polarity. The importer assured me that it was a simple quality control issue from a relatively new manufacturer, and that they'd contact the manufacturer and let them know about the reverse polarity thing. I thought it was reasonable to give a new manufacturer the benefit of a doubt, and gave the mic a reasonably good review - it sounded quite good and was priced very fairly.

    Some months later the importer told me they had dropped the brand. When I asked why, I was told "You know why..." with a wink. In other words, they were unable to get the manufacturer to make the necessary changes in quality control and wiring to meet professional standards. The importer is a very reputable company and did not want to represent such a sub-standard product...

    Just two examples, of many.

    Yeah, I hate the project studio industry.

  5. Welcome back. I've missed reading these.....

  6. Oi you - don't go disappearing on me again. I sent you an email - call me 0417 622 517!