Another Late Night at the Studio

I have spent more than one late night in the studio working on sound for a band that is particularly exacting. Most of them in actuality are rather particular, which makes for challenging work. I do my work well and with pride, and that often means overtime hours. And I mean really late. The job has to be perfect. You would expect nothing else from me. I work with a lot of different musicians and each has its particular requirements. I don’t get tired when I am on a roll so I stay alert and alive until the work is done. You feel good when you put in a really long session that gets fabulous results.

When it is time to call it quits and head on home, I pull out my trusty LED flashlight and head for the car. This is an essential item for someone in my business. When the client keeps you in the studio long after dark, you enter a danger zone called the local parking lot where studio employees like me park. Let me tell you that it can be a horror story. The neighborhood is not the best and at night the lot gets littered with broken beer bottles and assorted trash. It is poorly lit, not that you want to see this mess, and it is hard to find your car unless you have a regular spot. This is not a bad idea for us late-nighters. I have been known to move my car closer to the studio back door around seven o’clock before the parking lot mayhem starts. I don’t know why it attracts the slobby drinkers who are carousing the streets after ten and then they go on for hours. Maybe it is because it is dark and they are not visible to the authorities who try to pick up people who are rowdy in the street. It can be dangerous if the crowd gets belligerent. You want to be unseen by them so as not to provoke a verbal attack or worse.

Most of the time things are calm enough and people move on. They know seeing the lights in the studio window that business of some type is going on. They never try to enter our sound haven. It is as simple as bolting the door. But you have to make your way through the broken glass and debris on many a dark night. I have asked the city to put in more powerful street lamps, but so far nothing has transpired. I will keep trying. So, in the interim, it’s just me and the LED flashlight alone in the dark. No one wants to confess fear about leaving the studio alone but musicians often do it together. They don’t want to have to conk an aggressive drunk bystander on the head with a bass guitar. But don’t let me give you the impression that there are negative aspects to my job. I love every late-night minute of it, and so far I have been safe and secure in my car as I proceed home.

Posted under Sound Engineering

The Endless Digital Versus Vinyl Debate

Digital Versus Vinyl

Getting music geeks in a room together is inevitably going to lead to arguments. Getting them to debate about whether digital recordings are better than vinyl recordings is sometimes a veritable recipe for disaster.

Many people who aren’t especially big music fans are probably under the impression that the vinyl versus digital debate has completely fallen out of favor today, and that taking the side of vinyl in that debate automatically marks you out as an older person who is hopelessly behind the times. In fact, vinyl has experienced a drastic resurgence in the twenty-first century.

Compact disks, or CDs, sold well for a time, but they never stopped attracting controversy from the people who insisted that they would never be able to measure up to vinyl records in terms of their sound. CD album sales hit a peak in 2001, after decades of development, and they have dropped by an astonishing 80 percent since then.

The music industry is in an interesting position at the moment. On the one hand, many people are enthusiastically streaming and downloading music, which indicates that the digital sound of music is prevailing. On the other hand, millions of people are now purchasing LPs. The artists who promote their digital songs are also trying to make them sound as much like vinyl recordings as possible, and the notion that a song sounds like it was recorded on a vinyl record is treated as a huge selling point.

One thing is certain about this debate: vinyl recordings sound different than digital recordings. Some people might try to dismiss this debate by saying that people are arguing over very minor differences in sound quality in the manner of wine experts arguing about differences that you would have to be a wine expert to even perceive. Most people are able to tell the difference between vinyl and digital recordings immediately. They produce very different sounds.

The moment anything can be described as distinctly different from something else, some people will be rushing to argue that one thing is better than the other. Then there will be the people in the excluded middle who will argue that both of these things are good, and that one is simply different from the other. Certainly, people exist on all three sides of the debate with regards to vinyl recordings and digital recordings, even as the line between them is starting to blur.

What people should know is that digital recordings were initially devised by sound engineers who wanted to make them as accurate as possible. They wanted to make sure that what people would hear during live music shows would manage to make it into the recordings that they would then purchase. Vinyl recordings are objectively less accurate than digital recordings, and they have been since the early days of digital recordings. CDs are more accurate than LPs, and LPs are less accurate than many of the audio recordings that people will hear on YouTube, even if those YouTube audio recordings aren’t of the best quality.

Vinyl recordings manage to add additional textures to the sounds that people hear, and a lot of people like the extra qualities that vinyl records manage to add to their favorite songs. People aren’t paying for accuracy, so to speak, when they are trying to pay for vinyl recordings of new songs. They are specifically looking for that vinyl sound quality. To a certain extent, you could think of that vinyl sound quality as being an additional instrument in its own right, given the importance that a lot of people attach to it.

Vinyl comes with a unique type of analog sound distortion. Some people would say that this genuinely weakens the quality of the music that is being played, since people are hearing the way the vinyl is interacting with other devices, and they are not hearing anything that the musician definitely intended to use to create the sound. Of course, some musicians encourage people to listen to their songs in the form of vinyl records, so it certainly all depends.

Ultimately, the question of whether vinyl recordings sound better than purely digital recordings is going to be answered on an individual basis. The music world is never going to reach a consensus on this. As the line between vinyl and digital recordings begins to blur, thanks to the possibility of replicating the vinyl sound digitally, it still isn’t clear that there’s going to be any sort of consensus.

Fortunately, music geeks have more options than ever before when it comes to the songs that they’ll listen to, the styles that are available, and the formats that they will choose when they listen to what they like. People can listen to almost anything they want in vinyl today, and they can listen to digital versions just as surely. There is plenty of consumer demand for both versions, and people don’t have to worry about voting with their dollars. They are sure to be able to get the products that they want one way or another

Posted under Sound Engineering

Noise Cancelling Technology

Our ears are bombarded with thousands of fragments of sound, most we ignore, and many we fashion into meaningful information. Most of the time, surrounding sounds are pleasant enough: the birds in the trees, the swoosh of a lawn sprinkler, the crunching of fall leaves, or the crisp creak of a wood floor. Sounds are fun and informative: they help us make sense of things in our environment along with all the visual clues we receive. Everything in total we take in makes for our personal reality.

Be this as it may, there are times when noise pollutions goes in overdrive and we can barely hear ourselves think. This is true in a traditional factory or at a rock concert, even at a ball game. Restaurants are often impossible locales for conversation, but we like the lively ambience. Forget train stations or airports. No wonder everyone is plugged into a smart phone or iPod just to get away, to block out some of the barrage, to break the sound monotony. It is enough to hear all the words floating about endlessly in the air around us, not to mention the music we didn’t select and want no part of.

So let those headphones proliferate to save our souls from aggravation and mental distress. Turn down the volume or put in the earplugs. We need peace and relaxation every now and then. It is not that we want Muzak (elevator music), but just our own selections that speak to us in unique personal ways. We don’t want to be part of another stranger’s realm. If we choose to do so, it will likely be at a social function.

There are other ways to block out sound than earphones and plugs. We can use technology to cancel noise such as the various devices that emit natural sounds like waves in the sea or fields of wheat blowing in the wind. It is called “white noise” and it seems to create a permanent low level din that is barely perceived. Some of these machines come with lights and changing colors so it is a total mind-calming (or bending) experience.

Without realizing it, I used my portable generator a few times to replicate this kind of white all-obliterating noise. I have a small portable one that I use for camping or outages in my house. One time I was testing it for an upcoming adventure and turned it on, only to find that it emitted a light kind of buzzing noise when I paid attention. I found it calming and I kept it on.

I thought it would be simpler or more cost-effective to use a fan, but this actually was too loud. The generator was just right, like Goldilock’s porridge. Mind you, I am not a nervous wreck that needs a machine to tone down the outside world. There are just times when you want to daydream or by contrast to concentrate, and you feel you can do it with noise distraction.

If you lost your hearing, you would not ever regret the din of life, but for now, I can say that the world is too much in my face at times. That’s why people do solo hobbies or go sailing to have peace at sea. It is why they climb mountains to reach the quiet at the top.

We should appreciate the sounds around us, yes, but it is easier when we know that there is indeed an escape. I know people who can’t stand quiet and love the big city. They will open their apartment windows and let in the noise-filled air. They love the honk of a cab, the woosh of a braking bus, the yells and screams of the street. Then then are their counterparts who crave quiet.

If you are of the latter kind, try the generator idea as a test before you get a real white noise machine. If it gives instant gratification, you know what your next purchase should be. Some people find that they meditate better with white noise, even compared to New Age music. So get out those crystals, set up the yoga mat, turn on the generator, and recite that mantra. Pure bliss is a few moments away.

Posted under Sound Engineering

Crickets and Other Pests

Are you a nature lover who could sleep under the stars rain or shine in summer, fall, winter, or spring? Do you love every facet of nature from the flora to the fauna to the mysterious sounds of the night? Or maybe you are a daydreamer, and when you hear a plane, you imagine the exotic places it could be going. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it.

There are many who love this way of life. On the other hand, some people call animals, aircraft, and pests noise pollution and will do all they can to avoid it. Most of the time we just put up with what we have visually and aurally around us and make the best of it. However, if you are recording outdoor music, the task becomes a veritable chore. All kinds of sounds that seem background and insignificant suddenly dominate your music, and you are not sure where to turn.

I know people who record open air concerts and have the best equipment for it. They want a “live” sound experience and not the more controlled studio one. There are, of course, advantages to both. In the studio you can do all kinds of things electronically to alter and improve the sound. It is not any different for outdoor recordings. You can filter the noise and make changes after the fact. But sometimes certain sounds get left in regardless of any effort to eliminate them.

One individual I know records outside on a regular basis for music festivals around the world. People like the natural sound quality and most don’t even notice or care about any infiltration of extraneous noise (unless you are an unadulterated purist, and nut). However, he told me that on one occasion, he had made what he thought was a perfect recording of an event and was packing up for the day. He wanted a sampling of what he had just done and played a bit of it before heading off to go home. What he found was the noticeable and irrepressible sound of flies and mosquitoes whenever the volume was turned even a little bit up. It was heard in all the wrong places. His post-concert work was going to be cut out for him.

Other people complain of different kinds of “pests” that cause noise interference from barking dogs and hooting owls to hissing snakes and neighing horses. Imagine trying to record something in the country where you think it is absolutely quiet. Then think again! Technicians all know the problems that occur and how to deal with pests as a rule. Sometimes it is a matter of laissez-faire and move on.

Some odd places that are a different sort of venue for music performance outdoors are simple ampitheaters in the woods, parking lots in the city, balconies, and school track fields in suburban neighborhoods. So recordings are going to vary upon occasion. I don’t think live albums are expected to have an absolute and unforgiving purity of sound. The average listener does not have particularly special ears. Our senses do their own filtering most of the time, and they do a pretty good job. Do we really need more?

Sometimes music is spontaneous in a group setting such as a party or other social get-together like a meeting. Sometimes is happens without planning or organization. You are lucky if someone records it with a smart phone. You get what you can get. Then there is that professional level where just the right technical equipment must be on hand. Critters are not, a good sound can be obtained with experience and knowhow.

So you don’t have to get the pest control service out to take care of the crickets. In fact, they might add a pleasant or at least unusual, though unwanted, touch. Amateurs frankly don’t care and their recordings are for reminiscence purposes of a concert large or small. Pros have the gear to get quality sound. Everyone is in the same boat, however. They want to record music for posterity for others to enjoy and savor so that it goes beyond a given moment. They also may want a part in promoting the music industry as a viable concern with a market that reaches around the globe.

Posted under Sound Engineering

Caring for a Singer’s Voice

I talk to musicians and vocal artists all the time. They like to discuss their craft. Inevitably, they start to groan and grumble. They have their complaints about the industry and dropping revenues for example. They also bitch about agents and managers who pull too many strings and have way too much attitude, and most of all they complain about their health: those long days on the road with bad food and less sleep, those exhausting rehearsal sessions, and those hot stage lights. They need to be pepped up before they poop out, and we all know it.

Singers, for one group, have gripes about their precious throats, like when they get sore, or when they get raspy with laryngitis. It can kill a career mighty fast if it happens to often. The voice is an instrument that, like a plant, requires feeding and care. Singers all have their tricks of the trade to keep their throats lubricated. Some use expenses imported throat lozenges for example with special additives for maximum lubrication. They come from Switzerland, England, and France and cost a pretty penny. They swear by them, but I won’t divulge their secrets lest the competition gets word.

You can just rest your voice of course. In fact, it seems like the most natural and reasonable thing to do as often as possible. Too much partying is hard on your assets as well. Instead of alcohol, it is best to drink hot liquids like tea or cocoa that can coat the throat (there are actually some medicated brews just to do this job even better like, not surprisingly, Throat Coat). Maybe doing a little of all these remedies is best.

You don’t want to strain your vocal chords and have to have surgery or go on hiatus worse yet. It is a scary proposition with major risks for singers. Plus there are cysts and polyps to deal with that are not your fault at all. Anyone can get them. You would need state-of-the-art microlaryngeal techniques that use sophisticated instrumentation and laser technology to succeed. While no one wants to go there, this kind of surgery gets good results overall.

More serious procedures are reserved for vocal paralysis and voice box tumors, and they can affect singers and the general public alike. It pays to bone up a bit on all relevant symptoms if vocal work is your livelihood and profession. It is your responsibility and the primary focus of personal care.

Much overlooked is the need to drink a lot of water at all times through the day. Vocal relief can be enhanced by anything from flavored no-calorie drinks to sparkling mineral water. Then there is the plain spring source kind. Forget that chemical-ridden tap output and go for a good faucet water filtration system to obliterate impurities and maximize the healthful benefits of hydration.

A sore throat is the bane of a singer’s existence and getting enough rest and eating right help ward off disease and infection. Your filtration system is just not enough to ward off germs. It is about not taking care of your physical being and pushing too hard. You did that one extra set that night, you went out celebrating after entailing a bit of carousing, and you stressed your throat. If you are career-minded, it pays to put certain things first at all times.

The throat is pretty resilient and will repair itself from undue strain, but if you do it repeatedly, it will take its toll. It is interesting how some career artists can sing into their seventies well while others flounder a fifty. If you want a long career at the same level of performance, it takes giving up those wild enticing nights. I have actually heard of people who get vocal cord immobility and are completely terrified. Most, however, complain of hoarseness and laryngitis.

If you are not a singer, it could mean a benign growth such as a cyst, papilloma, or granuloma. If you are one, it is part of the job. The voice does change and age over time causing all kinds of conditions such as muscle tension dysphonia, scarred vocal cords, or laryngopharyngeal reflux (wow that’s a mouthful).

Whether you are a singer or not, it pays to seek medical care for any and all voice conditions. Prevention is great but if you do incur a problem, you will know where to go. Anyone who uses the voice beyond the norm should heed our advice, and practice good habits of care.

Posted under Sound Engineering

The Music Industry and the Growth of Audio Recording

Man using digital multi-channel soundboard

Man using digital multi-channel soundboard

People today can’t remember a time before the music industry was an enormous force that churned out performers and performances at a prodigious rate. The development of the modern music industry and the way in which it influenced many other trends is interesting, particularly the ways in which several different trends interacted with one another.

For one thing, audio recording technology got its beginnings during the Industrial Revolution, during a time period in which technological innovation and progress was being trumpeted from every street corner. The first audio recording of a human voice dates back to 1877. From that point up to the 1890s, the phonograph went through several different developments as Thomas Edison competed with many of the other pioneers of the day.

The juke box, a device that is still used today for the sake of nostalgia, was born in 1890. The juke box and similar devices managed to stay popular and generate income even during the economic difficulties that many people would go on to experience at the turn of the century.

As the twentieth century dawned, recording technology was bolstered by several other factors. For one thing, the development of the movie industry helped make developments in recording technology profitable in the first place. Silent movies had actual musicians playing the background music on piano during the movies themselves. It was only natural that adding music to the movies themselves would soon follow. The growth of the movie industry only helped fuel the growth of the music industry and the sound recording industry in general.

Jazz music and blues music achieved an unprecedented level of popularity, and these music styles went on to influence rock and most of the genres that would continue to dominate today. Naturally, the fact that the modern music fandom was more or less born during this time period helped make recording devices profitable in a way in which they never would have been otherwise. Magnetic tape recording was one of the most important inventions in this category. Stereos gave way to cassettes, and these set the stage for the digital revolution that is continuing today.

Cultural and technological developments have always managed to influence one another. Naturally, this journey is still ongoing today. The Information Age is continuing to have a profound effect on music, and visa versa.

 

Posted under Sound Engineering

The Development of Recording Technology Before Edison

graphophone_1886

In a world in which even the most mundane of sounds can be recorded and shared to an audience of millions with the camera phones that many of us have, a world without recording technology can seem terribly foreign to us. However, recording technology dates back to the middle of the nineteenth century.

The audio aspects of the world before that point have been lost to history altogether. The mysteries involving that huge portion of history only make it that much easier to appreciate the ubiquity of recording technology today and the fact that it has undergone so many different developments since its humble beginnings.

Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Edison is not the proper father of all of recording technology, and his phonograph was not the first sound recording device. If nothing else, Thomas Edison was a truly magnificent marketer and businessman. His marketing skills have managed to have incredible posterity, since he still has people singing his praises today, and often at the expense of the other inventors that paved the way for him or that competed against him.

Leon Scott’s 1857 Phonoautograph was one of the earliest of all recording devices. It wasn’t the only one of its type at the time, but it is perhaps the most famous of these models today. The recording devices of its generation were devised for the sake of capturing and studying sound waves in a scientific environment. As such, there is a direct ancestral link between the recording devices used for entertainment today and the recording devices used for the sake of scientific research a century and a half ago.

The early Phonoautographs were a wonder to behold. Sound was directed through enormous horns that were similar to the devices that hearing-impaired people at the time often used in order to augment their hearing. The technology in both cases was fairly basic, and the people involved were taking advantage of some of the basic physics of sound.

Alexander Graham Bell added his own variation to the Phonoautograph in 1874, and his variation also managed to predate Thomas Edison’s. He actually experimented with building his device using a human ear that he removed from a cadaver, exploring the internal mechanisms of the human ear all the while. Alexander Graham Bell was certainly dedicated to technological progress, and definitely wasn’t afraid to think outside the box when it came to exploring his own ideas.

Posted under Sound Engineering

Sound Sacrifices and Digital Streaming

The streaming of songs is all the rage today, and it isn’t very hard to see why. People can listen to millions of songs for free that way, and they don’t even have to have their computers present for the streaming to take place, given the number of technological fixes that are available these days.

Downloading is also inevitably going to take up some of the space that people have reserved on their devices or their operating systems. When people stream their music, they are taking advantage of the music that is available on the Internet all the time, and they won’t make any sacrifices in the process in that regard. The only thing that they are going to sacrifice is sound quality.

Music fans will debate about this, but streamed music just doesn’t have the sound quality of something that is downloaded, played on an LP or even a CD, or performed live. Fortunately, there are technological fixes that people can use in order to get around this particular problem as well.

Many people have managed to completely bypass this problem by getting upgrades in the form of better headphones or better speakers. Many people also aren’t going to need especially expensive headphones. Headphones that cost twenty dollars or less are often going to be sufficient for this task. Speakers that manage to amplify and modulate the sound that people can get from the music that they stream will also do the trick. Many music geeks will do both in order to get the best possible sound that they can for free.

Access to music is at an all-time high today. People once had to spend thousands of dollars in order to gain access to the songs that the current generation can manage to listen to for free. This generation can also get something that at least approaches the sound quality that previous generations were able to enjoy. As long as they have the right equipment, they will manage to have the right music in every way.

Posted under Sound Engineering

In Praise of Sound Engineers

bgg3

The people who focus on the technical aspects of the sound of music have helped revolutionize music as people know it. Many of the extremely slick and smooth recordings that we hear today sounded very rough and disjointed when they were first recorded in the studio, which may have nothing to do with the talent of the musician or the musicians in question.

It is customary today for people to complain about the state of modern music, saying that there was some earlier time in which musicians did not need sound engineers in order to sound great. The thing is, a lot of musicians in the past still would have benefited from sound engineers. Sound engineers eliminate static and studio noise: they don’t just add synthetic sounds in order to fill in tracks. Incidentally, the fact that they do is more of a function of the fact that people have higher standards for the music that’s close to their ears than they do for the music that is being sung very far away.

Many people know that in live performances, the musicians are going to stammer, and their voices might break momentarily. Live performances aren’t intended to be perfect, and people don’t expect complete perfection. They are more likely to edit out tiny mistakes, the way we tend to edit out the stammering and the awkward pauses that people will sometimes make during the conversations that we have.

However, people don’t usually have that same tolerance for awkward pauses and mistakes when it comes to scripted television. Television characters who talked exactly like real people would often be painful to listen to, and despite the push for modernism in television, witty and clear dialogue has never gone out of style. It is the same for the manipulations that sound engineers will use in the studio.

They know that the music that they record is going to be held to higher standards than the music that the same musicians would perform live. Live performances, even in an age of ubiquitous recording devices, is still something that people generally consume and then forget about: they don’t listen to these momentary performances over and over again the way they would for their favorite recorded tunes. Something that people are planning on listening to over and over again needs to be the sort of thing that people would want to play over and over again, and the sound engineers of the world can definitely make that happen for all musicians.

 

Posted under Sound Engineering