Trying Something New

August 11, 2009

In recording and pro-audio it’s all too easy to fall into a rut and never try new things. You have found a variety of mics that you like for certain instruments, particular pieces of outboard gear you always fall back on, and mixing techniques that you constantly use.

There are a number of reasons for that, of course. The biggest is probably time, which often equals money. In live situations, there usually simply isn’t time to experiment, unless you are fortunate enough to work with an act big enough where you can have technical rehearsals and full-blown dress rehearsals. In the studio, you are most likely working with a band who is under very tight budget constraints, and that is not conducive to being able to spend time trying different things.

When you have the time, though, it can be extremely rewarding, and can result in some stunning results.

There is also a trend started by some “how to” books to sort of ‘mix-by-numbers.’ They tell you that the kick drum should be at about -3VU on the stereo bus meters, and the lead vocals should be -5VU, or some such thing. Nonsense. Only your ears can tell you how loud something needs to be in the mix. There are some shortcuts you can sometimes take. For example, if you’ve mix a particular band often enough, you usually have a pretty good idea of where things are going to be panned, so it wouldn’t hurt to set the pan pots where you think they’ll end up. But, don’t be afraid to play around with those while you are mixing. You just might find a location for something in the stereo spread that works better for that particular mix. There are a lot of very stunning effects that can be accomplished with phase, delay, and panning, and you will never stumble across any of them if you don’t take the time to try something new.

Sometimes your mic selection and placement has gotten to be such a habit, that you don’t even consider something really different. The absolute best cranked Les Paul/Marshall tone I’ve ever heard was accomplished by a mic selection and mic placement that I NEVER would have tried. But someone took the time to try it, and found that it really worked.

Another, often ignored reason is that digital equipment makes it difficult, if not impossible, to do much “creative patching.” In the old days, you had a patch bay, with a number of mult points, and you could patch anything to anywhere, combining with other things or splitting the signal along the way. With a digital multi-effect unit, this is simply not possible. Most digital mixers and digital audio workstations impose rather rigid signal flow ideas. Beyond that, it is simply not possible to really explore parameters of the equipment that weren’t programmed into it by the developers.

But whatever your situation, try different things. The next time you are tracking a guitar, use your regular mic and placement, but also set up a completely different mic, and use a different placement. Record it on a separate track so that if you don’t like it, you haven’t cost anything, and compare the two. You might just find that it offers something you didn’t expect, and maybe something you can use alongside the other track in the mix.

Digital Doo-Dads

June 23, 2009

Every time I listen to a digital gadget at the local music store, I am overwhelmed by the mushiness of the patches. Or, maybe a better way to put it is that I am underwhelmed with the usefulness of the gadget. If you assume that the factory patches are the best that it can sound, you probably won’t buy it. Be assured that these factory patches aren’t representative, and are probably almost the worst that it can sound.

Plug a guitar into the latest whiz-bang modeler, select any of the factory patches, and you will assaulted by the combination of every effect known to mankind. All at once. With NO dynamics. How can the people who make these things go to all the trouble to “model” all of those vintage effects pedals and amps, and then have NO CLUE as to what they should sound like when you use them?

This holds true on the guitar modelers as well as digital synthesizers. I’m not saying that they CAN’T sound good. Some of them are capable of sounding very good indeed. It’s just that, if you expect to unpack the thing, select a factory preset, and have it sound good in your band’s mix, you are in for a big disappointment.

There are examples of this in all of them, but one standard factory preset on guitar modelers that seems to transcend brand name is the heavily distorted AND highly compressed patch, with a ton of fizzy distortion, always a lot of chorus, some reverb, and a really scooped EQ. It might sound fun in a music store through some little transistor amp played at 60dB, but it’s not going to work through a 4×12 cabinet, crunched tube amp, played at 110dB, and it’s CERTAINLY not going to fit in the mix. Because of all of the extra compression and time-based effects such as chorus and flanging they always add, there will be NO articulation and dynamics.

But, if you build your own patches from scratch, you can come up with some good sounds. Don’t expect them to sound exactly like your guitar through a cranked Marshall with a pair of 4×12 cabinets, for example, but you can create some patches that sound good in their own right, are quite useful, and will sit well in a mix.

The same holds true for digital synthesizers. You sit down in the local music store to try one out, and every factory patch sounds lush, rich, and full. And almost totally useless in a band setting.

However, if you take the time to learn how to build your own patches, you will probably find that the raw samples and waveforms are pretty usable, and some very good sounding patches can be built from scratch, which are extremely good, are more realistic, and will work well in a mix.

There is something else to consider in the synthesizer patches that claim to be realistic samples of real instruments – and that is that they almost always far less high end and upper midrange than in the real instrument. This adds to the difficulty of getting your instrument to fit in the mix. There are other limitations which, in my mind, are design flaws. One of these is the stubborn refusal by synthesizer makers to put effects in a logical place in the signal chain. A great example of this, and the one that is a huge limitation on Roland synthesizers such as the JV-1080 and XP-50, is Roland’s insistence that a Leslie is an “effect” rather than a “speaker.” As anyone who has ever played a Hammond Organ knows, a Leslie is a SPEAKER, and is therefore the last thing in the audio chain – AFTER the amplifier. The Roland Leslie simulator is not too bad, but by putting it so early in the chain, they’ve made it almost useless. It is such things that make building good patches a real challenge sometimes.

While you can get some patches that will, in a mix, sound “kind of like” another instrument, such as, say, a trumpet; there are some instruments which you will never get close to, no matter how much time you spend creating a patch. A great example of this would be, of course, guitar.

So, know the limitations of the technology and your equipment, take the time to build your own patches, and you will get some very usable patches. Don’t expect to fool anyone into thinking that they are listening to a real vintage synth, a real orchestra, or a real guitar. Just get sounds that will accomplish the same purpose, and that sound good in the mix.

After all, the mix is what’s important. Nobody cares what an instrument sounds like soloed, because nobody but you can solo it. Everyone else in the world will only hear it in the mix.

Social Commentary in Music

April 22, 2009

I’ve been an avid listener to music since I was about 10 years old. My parents listened to Big Band music (Glenn Miller, Dorsey Brothers, etc) a lot when I was young, so it’s been a part of my life as long as I can remember, but when I listened to my favorite type of music as a teenager, I quickly noticed something: there was almost always ‘social commentary.’ I don’t mean ‘teenage angst’ or love songs, or party songs – those things were present in the Big Band music of my parents (they didn’t listen to Cab Calloway).

I liked rock music. Specifically, what we called “hard rock.” A good portion of that music talked about government oppression, but even more devoted itself solely to the war (Vietnam, for you youngsters out there), or to the draft, racial and gender discrimination, unjust laws, unjust taxation, an out of control federal government, and a host of other societal problems. In many of the songs, there was anger. In fact, in many of the songs, there was a LOT of anger. But it was focused. There were also protests – a lot of them. They weren’t usually polite affairs, with proper government-issued ‘permits.’ In fact, if you had suggested that they ask the government for permission to protest, you would have been laughed out of the room.

And things changed. People came to see the war in Vietnam as the injustice it was. Gender and racial discrimination were tackled. The draft was eliminated. When the war and the draft were no longer an issue, most of the people in that generation basked in a brief glow of satisfaction, and then immediately went on to other things, like having a life, raising a family, a real job, etc.

Fast forward several decades, and now we once again have a war on foreign soil (two fronts this time), there is talk of mandatory ‘national service’ ( a draft, by any other name is just as repressive, and this one will be gender-blind), global narco-wars, fueled by the enormous profits created mostly by US drug laws, which has made it so profitable that entire countries have been corrupted simply by the huge profits to be had in the growing, manufacturing, transportation, and selling of the stuff.

Where is the social commentary? I see a lot of young white guys driving BMWs blaring rap “music,” and singing along about how bad it is to be a poverty-striken black youth in the inner city. Of course, the white guys in the BMWs are usually pulling up in front of a GAP store to get a new pair of $200 jeans, but the irony never seems to sink in. I see teenage white girls singing rap lyrics about how thrilled they are to be a young black drug dealer who shoots other black guys for fun before raping his girlfriend.

What I DON’T hear is music expressing anger against the war in Iraq, or the war in Afghanistan. I don’t even hear music expressing outrage over 9/11. Why? I wish I knew.

My band did a “protest song” a couple of years ago. I don’t want to think that only a bunch of guys over 50 are pissed off enough to write protest songs.

Finally Heard the Bose “Poles”

February 25, 2009

After reading the impossible and improbable claims in recent Bose ads about their new system that looks like a couple of black poles, I was, to say the least, skeptical (what? ME, skeptical??).

To be honest, I’ve never liked Bose stuff. Historically, most of it has consisted of a shitpot full of 5″ speakers in some sort of vented box, that, if given a few hundred watts, would get slightly above the level of a conversation while having no low end whatsoever, and no real high end either. They introduced some sort of pre-processing unit which I suppose was intended to smooth out the frequency response of the little 5″ speaker arrays, since they always had a horribly erratic response curve, with a peak in the 2KHz-5KHz area, which is not exactly pleasing to the ears. When you add one of the Bose processors to your system, it still sounds really bad, but now it also sounds really processed.

The Bose amps that they came out with years ago were grainy sounding and fragile. They apparently haven’t changed much, from what I heard.

To be fair, when I heard them, they were being used by a “DJ” who was playing MP3s, which don’t need much help sounding bad. But the overall sound quality was pretty dreadful.

Once again proving that “if it sounds too good to be true, it is.” Never believe marketing hype. Also, as I’ve said before, examine any spec sheets with care. And, above all else, LISTEN to something first if you think you may be interested in it. Preferably NOT in a music store. Find a band who uses the piece of gear you are interested in, and go give an extended listen. Also, talk to the soundman (NOT one of the band members). He can give you some insight into ease of setup and use, reliability, ease of repair, etc.

Tools of the Trade

January 18, 2009

One area that is often overlooked is that of tools to always have in your tool kit at every show. You’ll need tools to test, and tools to fix.

You’ll need a fairly good multimeter. With this you can test the AC line voltage. If you seem to have lousy headroom, and some of your switching doesn’t work well, check the line voltage. It should be somewhere in the 115V-125V range. You usually won’t have a problem with the voltage being too high, but you will sometimes run into voltage that is on the low side, and it can affect how much headroom your power amps have. In drastic cases, it can cause distortion at nearly any volume.

You can also use it to test cables, guitar pickups, and components of gear when you have to pop the hood on something.

Also, go to Radio Shack and buy a $6 “Line Tester.” This is a real life saver (possibly literally!). It checks the outlet to make sure that none of the conductors are switched. I use these on every outlet I will have to use before I plug a single thing into them. The most common flaw they will find, which is difficult to check without one of these, is that of the neutral and ground being switched. If you try to use an outlet wired like this, you will end up with hum at the very least.

A 9V battery is a requirement. A quick, easy, and reliable test for speakers. Don’t leave it connected for long, and never use it on a compression driver! Use a jumper to connect the negative connection to the (-) side of your speaker, and briefly touch the positive side to the (+) terminal on the speaker. The cone should jump forcibly OUT. You should hear a ‘thump,’ but no scraping or rattling. Connect it to the speaker cable leading to your speaker, and all of the speaker cones should move the same direction. This is VERY important. If any of them move in while the others move out, then the one that moves in is wired out of phase. Fix it right now. It’s killing your low end.

You can also use it as a ‘down and dirty’ way to quickly check cables when you can’t get both ends close together (such as a snake you’ve already laid out). Connect the battery (-) to Pin 1 and (+) to Pin 3. Grab your multimeter and go to the other end of the cable, put your meter on a DC Voltage setting that will cover 9VDC, and you should find +9V on Pin 3 (referenced to Pin 1) and nothing on Pin 2. Connect the (+) terminal of the battery to Pin 2, go back and re-test with the meter. You should now have +9V on Pin 2 (referenced to Pin 1). You’ve just completed a very basic test of that snake channel. You haven’t tested everything that can go wrong with it, but it should pass sound. If you don’t get a reading on either Pin 2 or Pin 3 with either test, then there is a problem with the Pin 1 connection (the shield). If one gives a reading, but not the other, then the one with no reading has a problem. The problem is usually at the mixer end (the pigtail). Pull that XLR shell and examine the connection.

A soldering “iron.” Actually, I would carry two. One fairly hefty one to repair connections on larger cables, patch bays, etc. And one smaller one for mic cables and for fixing the insides of your equipment. Also, be aware that if you are doing an outdoor show when it’s chilly and windy, a smaller soldering iron may NEVER get your connection hot enough to make a good solder joint.

Solder wick, and good solder. (Don’t forget to tin your wires before soldering!!)

Pliers, needlenose pliers, vise-grips, wire cutters, a good razorblade, electrical tape, a MiniMag, or other flashlight small enough to hold in your mouth so you have both hands free.

A good selection of screwdrivers. As basic as this is, you wouldn’t believe how many people don’t carry even a basic set. You’ll need a tiny flathead for those screws in XLR shells. You’ll need a few good Phillips (or whatever matches the fasteners you used to mount all of your rack gear). Wrenches and whatever you need to take the back off of a cabinet and replace a speaker.

Spare everything.

Music as a Political Force

December 14, 2008

During the upheavals of the 1960’s, music was a powerful force of change. Many popular songs talked of the need for elimination of racial discrimination, cessation of the unpopular and immoral war in Vietnam, the injustices of the government, and immoral policies of the industrial leaders. These topics were, of course, a main subject of the Folk movement, but were a central topic of most American rock acts as well, albeit from a different angle.

Sure, there was plenty of “fluff” foisted upon us as a way to allow kids to experience rock music in a way in which the government approved – remember “bubblegum?” Hardly any convincing social commentary there!

Then came “disco,” and the resulting focus on how good someone looked when attending the local nightspot, rather than anything that the songs had to say. It was suddenly more important just to be seen at the trendy club of that week than if the lyrics of the songs talked about anything at all. In fact, the most popular things played in the clubs were “club mixes,” where a non-vocal groove was extended ad-infinitum. Nobody listened to the words, cared what they talked about, or even if there were words at all! As long as the coke flowed, and the dance floor and disco lights were available, the crowds were happy.

To counter this sugar-coated pablum, “punk” came on the scene. Once again, song topics ranged from typical teenage angst to injustices in society – mostly protests against “class” status. After all, Vietnam was no longer an issue, the “civil rights” movement had pretty much wound down, and the economy seemed to be fine.

Then came the death knell to most meaningful music – MTV. Now, not only did not matter what the subject of the songs were, it didn’t matter if there was any real substance to the music either. It was more important that the bands’ videos were good quality, the band was good-looking. On top of all that, it was almost a priority that the song talked about nothing at all, since it had to once again fit in a 3-4 minute slot, and still leave plenty of space for pictures of the band and scantily clad young women. “Video Killed the Radio Star” indeed.

Fast forward 25 years – where is the protest in music now? MTV no longer plays videos, but has relegated itself to spewing out “reality shows” that are as far removed from “reality” as is possible. The government-controlled media feeds us nothing except barrages of news about Brittany Spears, in the hopes that we will actually become interested in her. Hardly a bastion of political controversy, and therefore the government deems her safe for the public to hear. The “Nu Metal” movement had some potential for political commentary, but appears to be more determined to just eat itself with non-focused anger, which many of its fans seem to focus on themselves, rather than any justifiable and logical target.

Where is the commentary on government abuses? Where is the outrage over the on-going wars in the Middle East? Where is the shock at the constant and on-going corruption and abuse of power by the government?

How is it possible that out of the entire younger generation, which will be most affected by the unConstitutional actions of our government in the economy, infringement of our rights, and constant meddling in foreign affairs, nobody has anything to say? Do they not know what is being done to them? Do they not care how it will affect them? Or, are they just too chickenshit to say anything about it?

I have a 4 year old, and I certainly hope that his generation is nothing like the current crop of “young adults.” I hope that his generation will stand up for themselves, because the current batch of 20-30 year olds apparently don’t have the balls to even think about it.

More Important Info on Grounding

November 24, 2008

A good electrical ground serves a couple of purposes.  As I pointed out earlier, all of the shields in your audio cables are connected to ground.  As the name implies, it “shields” the ‘hot’ conductor (in the case of unbalanced) or + and – conductors (in a balanced cable) from external electrical noise and shorts that noise to ground.  As long as the ground connection is a good one, and the current flow is not excessive, the noise goes away, and no problems are caused.

There is one aspect of grounding which you MUST take into account, and personally check.  This is the ground integrity of everything on stage.  Here’s why: Let’s say that there is a guitar player who defeats the ground on his guitar amplifier and manages to plug the AC cord in so that his chassis is connected to the “hot” side of the AC line instead of the neutral side.  Now, let’s say that he also sings, so you place a mic on stage in front of him, and your mic is properly grounded through its mic cable.  So, if the guitar player touches his guitar strings, which are at the same electrical ‘potential’ as the chassis of his amp (which is SUPPOSED to be at ground potential, but which in this care, is NOT!), his body is also at the same potential as his amp chassis (i.e.-‘hot’).  If he touches the mic at the same time, with either his hand or his lips, he can receive a fatal shock, or at the very least feel like he has been bitten on the lip by an angry badger.  Even if it’s not fatal, it’s not very conducive to his continuing to put on a good show, as he will spend several minutes trying to breathe.

This is very serious stuff.  There have been guitars players KILLED by this, and thousands of others shocked.  Check out all of the amps that the guitar players will use.  If you see any vintage amps, make sure that they have a 3-prong AC plug.  In all cases, I strongly suggest taking your AC Voltmeter and checking every guitar amp.  Plug in a guitar and, with your meter, measure from the guitar strings (or bridge) to something you know has a good ground (like the metal casing of a mic, or the metal case of an XLR connector, or, if you are close enough, a chassis ground lug on something in one of the PA or monitor racks.  It may take a few minutes, but it’s an important issue.  Safety is about the only thing I consider more important than sound.  I doubt that sound quality is very high on the priority list of someone who is riding in an ambulance to the hospital after getting shocked.  And since few musicians have health insurance, it can be a costly experience on top of everything else.

Just remember:  BE SAFE!!  MAKE IT SAFE FOR OTHERS!!!