Spoofin’ tha Manuals

Yes, I’m STILL in the process of redoing my entire studio.

I’ve spent the last few weeks digging through a pile of manuals as long as my arm to make sure I’ve got everything properly grounded.  That’s involved dealing with some serious arcana.  Thought I’d take a minute to spoof some of that.

Bear in mind that most of the stuff I’m using is really old—like 1980s or earlier.  Due to the phenomena known as “cultural drift,”  spoofworthy aspects may have changed over time.   But if you’ve ever had to dig through any of this material yourself, this may seem familiar:

 

ASHLY (excerpt from index):

PART I: Historical and Background Documentation

Chapter 1 (in which the entire history of electronics is described in a thorough, comprehensive, and easy-to-understand survey ): pp 1-4

Chapter 2 (in which the advantages and liabilities of much modern thought is discussed, and faulty notions are refuted): pp 5-6

Chapter 3 (Why we did everything Exactly Opposite From dbx):  7

PART II: The Specific Piece of Gear

        Chapter 1 (Installation, more or less): 7

Chapter 2 (Applications, in which we explain Things You Never Understood Before, thereby blowing your mind in simple language): 8-10

[NOT INCLUDED: Address list of gurus and spiritual guides to help you come to terms with your newly-expanded consciousness]

 

YAMAHA Digital Reverb (excerpts):

From p.2 of their 936 page manual, in the APPLICATIONS section:

“By tweaking parameters xx, yy, and zz, you may be able to perfectly emulate the audio environment common to the upper west corner of the Sistine Chapel. For stucco angel emulation, please refer to section XLVII sub-paragraph B.”

From same manual.  The complete INSTALLATION section (found in its entirety at the bottom of p.1):

“Plug it in & stuff.  Use caution, as errors may result in extinction-level events.”  [Contains cartoon graphics of electrocuted engineers & mushroom clouds.]

 

ORBAN (universal disclaimer):

“Everything you thought you knew is wrong.  ALL OF IT.  No, we are NOT KIDDING.”

[N.B.:  They’re completely correct.]

[N.B.:  Manual fails to include list of licensed therapists.] 

 

HARRIS/GATES (universal disclaimer in front of all manuals):

“If you don’t already know how to use this equipment, you’ve got no business reading this manual. Please go do something else.”

 

RAMSA (the entire manual):

“All interconnects can easily be made on the back of the mixer, using the Interconnect Diagram for reference.”

[Interconnect Diagram is an empty rectangle with an arrow pointing to it. Arrow is labeled “BACK” in crudely scrawled printing]

 

ART:

[Contains a universal disclaimer, written in mildly defensive language, using obscure industry terms like “award-winning” and “Nobel Peace Prize.”]

[Disclaimer somehow fails to carry across the idea that said equipment is capable of world-class results at less than 3% the price of similar equipment.]

[Manual might go on to describe the Tesla-grade engineering used to develop said piece of equipment. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to tell because it’s been covered with anonymous, sharpie-scrawled graffiti reading “ART IZ 4 PUNNNKZZZ” and “VCAS 4LIFE.”]

 

 

I’ve chosen not to spoof any TEAC/Tascam manuals, despite the fact that their authors could probably have contributed meaningfully to the Voyager Golden Record.  I’ve also chosen not to pick on Otari, whose manuals are Absolute Masterpieces punctuated occasionally with truly awful “Engrish.”  And don’t worry about dbx.  I’m sure they’ll get theirs soon enough.  

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Touching the Intangibles

Hi all! Andy here.

I haven’t been writing much. But of course you know the drill: the fact that I haven’t been writing doesn’t necessarily mean that nothing’s happening. I’ve been doing stuff. I’ve been THINKING.

Of course, it FEELS like nothing’s happening, which is SUPER-frustrating. My only results are a couple crummy drawings and a family of ideas that scatter like cats when I try to get ahold of any one.

When it comes to self-evaluation, I like to see lots of nice, solid, concrete, measurable THINGS. Stuff I can cross off a to-do list. But I’m starting to see that in an undertaking like this one the bigger—and more important—part of the work is in the intangibles.  And much to my surprise, there’s been quite a bit of progress there.

For example, I took a moment to re-read my previous post, and could suddenly see just how far I’ve come. Because I could suddenly see plain as day that I’ve been trying to use someone else’s standards to define my needs.

Here’s how it works: I ask myself things like “why do I need 20+ channels of compression, when I never work in more than 8 tracks?” It sounds clear-headed and minimalistic.

But of course a rhetorical question like that one assumes a LOT. It assumes that compression is something I need. It assumes that I’m going to be using my gear in one particular fashion. It assumes that there’s no joy in complexity. It fails to take into account the possibility that I might just have gear around because I LIKE having gear around.

This studio is going to be MY studio, and if it’s going to be mine, I’M the only one who can make it that way. If tracking down obscure gear is a strength, I don’t want to minimize it, I want to EMPHASIZE it.  “Hide it under a bushel?  NO!  I’m gonna let it shine…”

That’s a pretty abstract bit of work, right there—and not easy work either. What’s more, our whole society is set up to trivialize that kind of work.  I’m fighting decades of social conditioning here.

A few years ago I would have slammed through this whole project in a week and a half. This slower pace feels excruciating. I’ve been incredibly frustrated.

But the thing is, a few years ago I would have pushed the project to a utilitarian level of completion, only to find the myself hamstrung later on due to poorly established parameters at the outset. I’ve been doing things that way most of my life. It doesn’t work and I’m sick of it. This may turn into an ethereal endurance contest, but I’m doing things differently this time.

And hopefully the next entry will have some nice pictures for you to look at.

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Thinning the Herd (The Great Musical Overhaul, part the 2nd)

They tell me that the first step towards recovery involves recognizing that you have a problem.  I have a problem with rack gear.

The problem at the moment is that I’ve got too much of it.

This may be because I can’t pass up a good deal.  I thoroughly enjoy ferreting out good deals on obscure stuff.  But it may have something to do with the way I learned audio as well—self-taught, for the most part.

Being self-taught has advantages and perils.  The advantage (naturally) is that your course of study is tailored to your individual needs. But the perils are a little more subtle.

Perhaps the easiest way to sum them up is to say that you don’t know what it is that you don’t know.  You might never learn standards—studio protocols, for example, or proper wiring techniques.  This may occasionally be a major benefit, resulting in a unique expression of creative genius.  But mostly it just causes needless hassles.

There are other weird undercurrents of insecurity arising from not knowing what you don’t know.  Consider if you will the process of buying gear.

Compression is more art than science.  Even with Rob at Sound Source using his “little man in a box” analogy, it took me forever to work out a rough idea of what the process meant in context of a mix.  It’s enough to make a guy feel insecure.

If you’re insecure, you’re not likely to trust your own judgement, relying instead on the judgement of other people.  You may wind up in an on-line forum asking questions like, “what’s a good compressor?” and “is compressor X good enough for task N?”   It takes a rare degree of intestinal fortitude to throw down the big bucks needed to obtain Truly Great Gear.

One might have trouble developing a healthy rubric for gear selection, which might lead one to buy a wide variety of cheapish gear.  One might then wind up with, say, Compressor X (for drums), Compressor Y (for guitar), and Compressor Z (for vocals).  One might ultimately have been better off laying out a couple grand for Compressor Q (which sounds good on anything).  But one probably wouldn’t have done that, because one lacks the confidence which comes from formal training.

One might even wind up with 20+ channels of compression for a studio which never works with more than 8 channels of multitrack at a time.

Of course, the opposite might happen as well.  One might also wind up with a quirky setup capable of producing unique and wonderful sounds.  One never knows, when one is self taught.

It’s a growing process.

Yeah.  Growing is exactly what my Gear Pile is doing.  I like my gear, but it’s all a little overwhelming.  It needs to be maintained.  It’s gotta be hooked up to a patchbay.  That patchbay needs to be normalled (whatever that means).  And it’s all gotta have a proper home.  An environment chock full of sharp corners is a place of peril for an unwary forehead.  That’s bad for creativity.  I like it all, but it’s all too much.

So I spent a huge chunk of yesterday writing out how I use each individual piece of gear.  If I can live without it, I might not actually need it.  And if I get rid of the stuff I don’t actually need, I’ll probably get better at using the stuff I can’t live without.  Or at least, I’ll have a fine point on what it is that I need but don’t yet have.

So, yeah.  I’m gonna build me an awesome custom rack for the stuff I can’t live without.  It will be great, and I will be happy.  And hopefully I’ll be able to unload the stuff I don’t actually need.

I intended to detail my efforts at DIY rack design here, but that’ll have to wait.  I can’t design a rack if I don’t know what it’s gonna hold.

First things first.

 

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The Great Musical Overhaul (Part the First)

Hi!  Andy here.  My musical world is in need of an overhaul.

My “studio” has been through a variety of incarnations over the years, all of them usable but none of them quite right.  My most ambitious effort involved an entirely separate writing space in the attic, but kept “studio A” in the second floor bedroom like always.  I wrote about the setup process extensively.  It didn’t work out.

In fact, at this point the whole system’s broken down.  I can’t trust my patchbay any more, and I’m not sure how much faith I can put in my formerly trusty Ramsa mixer.  I’ve got gear in the way that I hardly ever use, and gear that I can’t live without but that I can’t afford to have fixed either.  I’ve got “dream” equipment which I can’t bring to bear because I can’t make it work in the setup I have.  I can’t even sit down in “studio A” without biting back a surge of frustration which rolls up like nausea from my abdomen.

I’ve tried several repairs, reboots, and rebuilds, but nothing has reached deep enough to make a difference.  A simple reboot won’t work.  Permanence.  I need permanence.  It’s time to start anew.

And it feels good.

Jim Schreck came up for a consult yesterday.  Jim’s day-job is in radio, so studio workflow is an all-day-every-day thing for him. Just the guy I need to talk to.

Our starting point was to establish a mission statement, so we’d know when we were off-topic.  That was easy enough, because it’s the same thing I’ve wanted for years:  a mixing environment with work stations for composition and equipment repair.

With that in mind, here’s what we came up with:

  • The attic is a near-perfect environment for what I want to do, so I’m abandoning the bedroom setup and moving into the attic.  This will be my ‘ultimate setup,’ and I’m going for a professional look here.  Why not?  I’m worth it.
  • I love my computer-cube mixing desk.  It’s perfect. So that’s going to be the centerpiece of the studio.  Whatever console I wind up using will live there.
  • To the right of the mixing desk, within reach:  a short equipment rack, low enough to avoid interference with the monitors, and with a substantial counter on top.
  • Multitrack tape decks will live on this countertop, wired into a patchbay for immediate access.  No more time wasted when I have to switch formats.  There will be space for the DA-38 as well.  I might just buy a second one for permanent installation.
  • A mixdown cart.  This’ll be home to the tape decks I use for mixdown, and any mixdown processing gear.  When I’m using it, I’ll roll it right up to the left side of the mixer.  And when I’m not using it, it’ll be out of the way.  That’ll give me room for incidental tracking during the mixing process, should the need arise.
  • There’ll be a separate “Inspiration Station” as well (Jim’s phrase).  This will have the sparest possible setup—a four-track, some sort of monitoring system, and a few elemental tools for composition.  That way when I wake up in the morning with a song in my head, I can run upstairs and put it straight to tape.
  • There’ll be a repair station as well, which fortunately already exists in a near-ideal format.
  • Summer’s coming, so climate control will be a priority.  I checked the This Old House calculator form just this morning.  Our current window a/c unit should do just fine.

I’ve got the woodworking skills, and Lord knows I have tools.  I’m sure I can build the custom rack setup I want.  Recent adventures in wiring have convinced me that I’m up to the inevitable soldering as well.  And I’ve got a pile of top-notch patchbays just waiting to be put to good use.  I see no reason to expect anything other than good results.

I’ll keep you all updated here.  Frankly, I’m excited.  I think this’ll be fun.

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It Came From The Basement

When you’re in a band, it’s not always easy to get a good idea of what you actually sound like.  It seems like a paradox, but when you’re playing you’re usually too busy focussing  your part to be able to listen objectively.  And I’ve been wanting to build up my live recording chops & play with various mic setups.  So we’ve begun recording band practices.

Of course, the drums are the hardest instrument to capture.  They’re spread out more than a guitar amp is, and you have to be able to capture the cymbal sounds–ideally without having the other instruments blathering all over everything.  Waves can interact in some unexpected ways, and sound is a wave.  So if you think of each instrument as a pebble tossed into a pond (and a drum set as a bunch of small rocks thrown in at the same time) you kinda get the idea.  If you don’t pay careful attention to placement you’ll have phasing problems all over the place.  And the place you’ll hear them most is in the mics over the drums.

We set up our drum overheads using the “Recorderman” method (or a reasonable facsimile thereof). This meant that Mark held two drumsticks end-to-end, put one end of the two sticks on the snare head, and used the other end to determine mic placement.  It seems kinda slipshod, but it makes sense if you think about it.  If you’re using two mics, you want them to be about the same distance from your sound source (because that means the sound waves will be hitting each at the same time).  The drumstick is what’s flailing around back there, so it’s an ideal unit of measure.  We put the mics for the kick and snare right up next to their respective drums, to (hopefully) capture the sound waves before they had a chance to interact with each other.

Of course, the other half of the equation is the amps.  Guitar amps are loud.  Close-mic’ing the amp will get you a good sound for that amp, but of course that doesn’t help the drum overheads any.  So we tried an old trick from the ’60s–we set the amps up so they were in a direct line with the front of the bass drum head, and close-mic’ed all three.  Ideally, this cuts down on mic bleed between amps (because mics record what’s in front of them, not what’s beside them), and between the bass drum and either amp.  And hopefully–since the sound coming off the back of the amp is directly out-of-phase with the sound coming off the front of the amp–hopefully this’ll mean that the sound the close-mics pick up either sounds good in the drum overheads, or doesn’t sound at all in the drum overheads.

To make a long story short, it pretty much worked.  The rhythm section–drums and bass–sounds way better than I’d hoped for.  Like, “I could use this to make an actual recording” good.  And it totally feels like a band playing live (a feel which can be difficult to capture in the studio).  Guitar–less perfect.  My good amp is busted, and it was all my backup amp could do to keep up.  We pretty much killed it this last practice.

Much to my surprise, the vocals weren’t terrible.  It’s not that I can’t sing, it’s that a microphone sensitive enough to pick up a voice will also pick up everything else in the room.  Worse still, we were practicing, which meant we needed vocals in the PA system, which meant that they were splattered all over the drum overheads.  End result?  You guessed it.  Phase trouble.  The normal solution is to put the singer in another room, but we can’t do that.  Fortunately the problem is only on the vocal track.  It’s less obvious if the vocals are fairly loud in the mix, though.  And it was good enough to work with, anyway.  In fact, with a little tweaking, I think I got it to sound all right.

Anyway, end result is that we got recordings we liked enough to share.  You can hear them right here on our Bandcamp page (which due to the wonders of technology is also the music portion of our website).

If you’re enough of a nerd to find this all actually interesting, here’s the specifics of our setup:

  • Drum overheads:  Electro-Voice EV635a
  • Snare:  AKG D140e
  • Bass drum:  Shure Beta 52
  • Bass guitar:  this cheap Gear One mic which I got for like twenty freaking bucks, and which sounds spectacular
  • Guitar:  AKG D-140e (maybe not the best choice, but it was handy)
  • Vocals:  Shure SM-78 (a pretty obscure but fantastic mic)

I always mic the top head of the snare drum… one of these day’s I’ll try mic’ing the bottom head.  I may also put the guitar amp right on top of the bass amp, to see if it makes any difference.  And I want to try pointing the PA speakers directly at each other, and flip phase on one of them, and see if I can’t make them cancel each other’s soundwaves right in the overheads (and only in the overheads).  That’d be a pretty neat trick.

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Here’s a Little Something for the Hawks

IMG_5171I’m fortunate enough to be regaining my health & well-being rather than watching it ebb, but the last couple of years have been a real slog. I’ve been spending a lot of time lying on my face lately with heat on my back,  as my spine gradually moves into the space nature intended for it.  It can be frustrating, but it gives a guy time to think.

There’s been a lot of talk about chemical warfare and American interventionism in the news lately. One of the things it’s dredged from the back of my mind is a poem I wrote a decade or so back, about a couple of guys who sorta made it through the Great War.

I published it in Looming Pylon #2 but was never quite satisfied with it. When it popped into my head this morning I thought I’d give it a quick re-write. Seemed like it might be relevant on a couple of levels, so I’m sharing it here.

 

Breathe

Breathe, walk, breathe
Pause, shuffle, breathe
Outside the sun glows on the trees
Breathe, walk, breathe.

Breathe, pause, wheeze—
—I just need to breathe.
So I’ll I sit here a while by the screen.

The wind moves the leaves.

At twenty-one—at 21! I crossed the sea
For Glory, God, and Country
To make the world safe for Democracy.

They said they’d make a man of me.

The sky was blue, and France was green;
The fighting stank and yellow haze
Permeated everything.

Just breathe. Just breathe.

And fetid, rotting mud became
The only safe place for us to be:
But who could know just which shell-hole
Harbored mustard gas, or chlorine?

So damned hard, just to breathe.

Now, I don’t know who got it worst.
Which is the worse? To wait to see
The Ambulance, or Hearse?
To roll from room to room? or
Convalesce an ever-present injury?
We’re both old men at 33.

But as I sit to sleep at night,
And wake to cough, and hack, and heave,
And shudder with neuropathy
I think the winner must be me—

After all, you only lost your legs.

Breathe, just breathe.

 

 

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Black Light / Black Death Part the Third: Mixdown is Finished.

You know, I’m always apologizing for being slow posting about my recording projects.  But the more I think about it, the less reasonable this seems.  Because when I’m recording or mixing, I’m not posting.   And of course, the blog is not nearly so interesting as the music.  So maybe I can consider these long pauses to be other-than-bad.

They're small, but their numbers are many.

That’s right, more than 7 reels of tape for mixdown alone. They may be small, but their numbers are legion.

It’s interesting, because the analog recording process results in the music taking on a physical form.  In my preferred mode, that’s the length of tape which contains the music.  This form can be manipulated physically.

For example, it can be sliced up into bits and randomly reassembled.  Or a piece can be hacked out, turned around backwards, and spliced back in.  Or you can flip the tape over and play it backwards… and you can record stuff forwards while it’s playing backwards… then flip it back and play it forwards while what you just recorded is now reversed. You can distress the tape by stretching it or crumpling it, which affects the way the tape crosses the playback head, which alters the sound reproduced by the tape deck.   I did all this stuff and more during tracking and mixdown.  Which is now finished.

Of course, one can emulate many of these effects using a computer.  Nothing wrong with that.  But using a computer to manipulate files is not the same thing, and different procedures produce different results.

Anyway.  It’s done.  The preliminary track list contains five songs:

  • Black Death Girl
  • The North Shore
  • She’s Haunting
  • The Coming Apocalypse Will Be Privatized
  • Black Light

There may be a couple extra goodies involved as well.  You know: out-takes, alternate mixes, The Hotrod of the Apocalypse, stuff like that.

As things stand at the moment, everything’s been transferred to the digital domain and all that’s left is to schedule a session with mastering guru Dirk Malavase.  I’ll keep you posted.

 

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