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]



[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, 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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The Long-Lost Looming Pylon Interview with Michael Joly

A few years ago–2007, to be exact–I had the opportunity to interview mic modification wizardMichael Joly.   Oktavamod (Michael’s company) was really starting to take off in a big way.  I’d purchased a mic mod on an Oktava Mk-319 which (as it turns out) was about to completely change my world.  

I was not too long out of seminary.  My head was still buzzing with all manner of aetheriality, and I was flush with enthusiasm for the minutiae of my new-found passion for recording.  I had high hopes of publishing this interview in an issue of Looming Pylon, but sadly that never came to pass.  I had the full interview up in blog form on the Looming Pylon MySpace page, but MySpace chose to delete that interview (along with most of my other stuff).

Anyway, the interview did see print in TapeOp magazine’s “Behind the Gear” feature, albeit in an edited form.  And here, for your reading pleasure, is the whole shot.  

On your website you mention that you got started recording when you got your first open reel tape recorder.  About how old were you when you first got started with all of this stuff? 

I received a portable Craig tape recorder with 3″ reels for a birthday present when I was 12.  I had seen a public television show that, in retrospect, must have been about tape-based music composition.  I remember a close up shot of the composer splicing 1/4″ tape in a splicing block so the idea of recording and manipulating chucks of sound originated there and stuck with me.  At the same time I was building Heath kit stuff (a vacuum tube CB radio, 10-4 good buddy) and wireless mics etc. from published schematics.  I lived in the Lafayette Radio catalog poring over parts specs.

A great inspiration for me at this time was Alfred P.  Morgan’s “The Boy Electrician” published in 1912.  I found a copy at my local library and was the first person in decades to check it out.  Just a lovely “can do” spirit—wireless sets, spark gap transmitters, induction coil radio telephone sets.  Really kind of an anachronism at that point in 1968.

It seems as though your general field is about half science and half art.  Were you originally more interested in recording, or electronics? 

I think an interest in electronics preceded recording by a year or two.  But by the time I was twelve I was equally involved in both.  I one a first place ribbon in my Catholic school’s 8th grade science fair for a project called “Light Beam Communication.” I modulated a small incandescent bulb with my Craig recorder and picked up the sound with a solar cell and amp I built.  I left instructions for the judges how to operate the Craig so they could hear my voice describing the theory and implementation of the project.  Wish I still had that reel of tape!  I did my first recording gig when I was 14 and did live sound recording/mixing professionally from the age of 17.

At what point did you realize that you could modify a microphone and expect it to sound better than stock?  -OR- Did you already know enough about microphones that you could look at a mic and see untapped potential before you started experimenting? 

I worked for over 14 years as an “empirical engineer” for David Blackmer, the founder of dbx and later Earthworks.  David was a brilliant guy would sketch out rough drafts of circuits intended for “reduction to engineering practice” as it is called.  So my experience in professional audio product design was one of being a tweaker.  Test, measure, change, repeat to squeeze every last dB and Hz of performance out of a circuit.  Besides the compressor/limiter and surround sound circuits that were my specialty David and I worked on a number of loudspeaker systems for cinema use.

His KT-90 subwoofer was the original, reference standard subwoofer installed at LucasFilm’s Skywalker Ranch Stag Theater and become the foundation of the THX loudspeaker system.  I did some work on the second generation of the subwoofer and a line of high efficiency surround and stage loudspeakers.  The basic acoustical/electrical issues involved in loudspeaker transducer can be applied in miniature to microphones.  So by the time the somewhat affordable Oktava MK-219 appeared with that nearly impenetrable grille I already had a bit of experience with acoustical transducers and circuits.

What has been your primary teacher?  Formal education?  Experience?  Some mix of the two? 

I’ve been fortunate to have had some great mentors and role models that encouraged me to be experimental.  My dad worked at the Electric Boat division of General Dynamics in Groton, CT building nuclear submarines.  We always had blue paper bound texts on nuclear reactor quality control around the house.  He was a tremendously hard worker with a creative side—a good draftsman and soup cook.  He used to supply me with bits and pieces of electronic detritus—an old telegraph sounder, solar cells, US Navy carbon button intercoms, etc.

Alfred P.  Morgan I mentioned.  Never met him, but his spirit is alive in the “Boy Electrician.  I did go to a technical college but the stuff I love to do I learned by being with people who were doing it.  I worked for Star Guitars in San Francisco in the mid-late ’70s for some guys who were an offshoot of the Grateful Dead’s Alembic organization.  That was where high quality electronics and high quality musicianship came together for me for the first time.

We worked on the guitars of many of the big names in bay area rock—Santana, Jorma Koukenen, Journey, and guys on tour who’d drop off an instrument for repair or upgrade like Rory Gallagher, Ted Nugent.  Funny story about Ted Nugent—I guess he had been on a TV show with Patti Smith and they had a good-natured dustup over dinosaur rock/punk rock.  Ted was on tour in ’79 and dropped off one of guitars and several amps.  I did some amp upgrade work (black face Fenders, deluxes I think) while a buddy of mine worked on the guitar-fret mill, string action and intonation stuff.  As he finished the job, he stuck little pieces of masking tape with the words “Patti Smith” written on them inside Ted’s birdland so that when the glue dried out in the future the tape would rattle around inside.  We enjoyed the thought of Ted shaking his guitar to get the shit out and discovering Patti Smith labels inside.

Moving back east in ’80 I started working for Blackmer and that stretch lasted until ’94 so I had a lot of mentorship time with him and his business partner Zaki Abdun Nabi.  Zaki was a great businessman with wonderful people skills, so I think I absorbed both technical and business knowledge from them.

What first drew you to Oktava mics?  What do you like most about them? 

The price!  $550 for a large diaphragm condenser mic in 1994 was cheap!  Plus, there had been a couple of pretty positive reviews in the European pro audio press that made it seem like Oktava would be worth checking out.  Even before I owned my first one I just loved the idea of the history of this company toiling away making products for domestic Soviet use.  I love the rough and ready finish of the 219 that is totally at odds with the refined sound it is capable off.  A beast with a heart of beauty.

What was your first successful modification? 

The 219 headbasket mod was the first successful mic mod I did.  Putting drop handlebars on my 3 speed Raleigh in 1969 was pretty successful.  And the rheostats I made out of #2 pencils to control the volume of the multiple mono speakers in my bedroom in 1968 was also pretty successful.

Which mod makes you proudest? 

The OktavaMod MK-319 Floating Dome PE is kinda special to me.  Before this, I had never seen a large diaphragm condenser mic with a 360 lateral degree headbasket—no side supports to cause internal reflections.  So that headbasket mod combined with the other acoustical mods and Premium Electronics upgrade creates quite a good price/performance value in my opinion.

In reading your writing both on the website and elsewhere (that’d be the TapeOp messageboard) I’ve noticed that you seem to see a certain element of transcendence in what you do.  Are you a person of faith?  If so, how does your faith interact with your work?  What its it that makes a microphone more than the sum of its parts? 

Good eyes!  I rarely get asked about this aspect of my work.  I’ll try and give an answer that makes sense in this context.  I am a person of faith.  I believe that the work I do is but one of many jobs along a nearly infinite and reiterative path of spiritual growth back toward the Universal Origin.  My work is essentially that of one who clarifies patterns and strives to reduce dissonance in communication systems so that messages can be heard more clearly.  I don’t sing the call to prayer but rather make it heard better.  The essential nature of my work is carried out with a cognizance that the materials I touch have the same ultimate origin as my own form and spirit.  So they are divine and have a “desire” to be reunited with their Universal Origin.  The manipulation of material objects—putting them right, is a small gesture toward this goal of reunification.  This idea is sometimes expressed as “God in everything” (which I acknowledge) but I’m usually more aware of this faith as a melancholic longing for union that arises from the Original Separation.  My faith has been strengthened and clarified by reading, at one time or another, the works of Hazrat Inayat Khan, Dane Rudyhar, Teilhard de Chardin, Dhyani Ywahoo and the Urantia Book.

As to a microphone being more than the sum of its parts:  If one accepts the idea on faith that the materials in a microphone are divine, and have been previously acted upon by the hand and mind of its designers and builders, and further can be organized to be in more perfect union, than one can see how the union of parts is itself a distinct identity—a meta form.  The degree to which this meta form is manifested is correlated to the degree of consciousness humans brought to their work in the design, building and modding of the microphones.

So as I see it, you’re basically describing microphone design, development and manufacturing processes as refinements of a divine spirit which is in all things.  Your role in all of this is to clarify what’s already there.  You put this into practice by “helping” the microphone reach its fullest potential.  Is that right?

I’m comfortable with that playback.  😉

On your webpage, you explain in some detail about the City of Tula, its heritage, and the Oktava factory there.  Is it just Oktava mics?  Are there other brands of microphones worthy of re-development?  In your mind, what separates the sheep from the goats? 

Well, to follow on the “more than the sum of parts” idea from above I believe that Tula and its people, because of their particular history and actions leave a certain psychic imprint on Oktava microphones that is in part responsible for their sound.  There is a psychic confluence of 800 years of weapons-related metallurgy and a simultaneous desire for peaceful pleasures of tea (Tula, home of the Samovar) and spice cookies.  At a practical level, we’re talking about an electronics factory that has been making transducers since 1927, so that more recent history gets poured into their products as well.

I don’t know if there are other brands of mics worthy of re-development.  I’m a bit myopic here in that the Oktava experience has been very deep and rich for me and I haven’t felt a need to look to greener pastures.  There are a few individual mics that are stand out as mod candidates from other manufacturers, but an across-the-board brand that excites me and I feel is worthy of follow-on re-development?  I personally don’t see one right now, that is right for me.

Are there other “Tulas” in the world?  Do you see hope for other “future classics?”

Objectively, it would seem that the possibility exists.  I would look in geographic areas that have a long tradition of near-alchemical work—populations who have been involved in the transmutation of materials form one form to another for a long time.  Cultures where brass, bronze and iron bells are plentiful as well as a more recent interest in 20th century electronics.  Somewhere in Japan and China perhaps?  Speaking of China, once these manufacturers go beyond copying Neumann capsule designs and connect with their own psychic pasts then they may develop products that people respond to with the kind of affection that has been directed toward Oktava’s mics.

A number of other companies are operating in Russia making musical gear—Sovtek springs most readily to mind.  It seems as though price point isn’t the only issue—that there’s something special about the gear itself.  At the same time, I’ve met a number of people who lived in what was the USSR, and they all seem to view Soviet-era technology with an equal mix of admiration and disdain.  What is it about Soviet-era tech that draws such varied opinions?  What is it that draws westerners to this stuff?

Well the Soviet era is pretty universally regarded as a time of great suffering for millions of people.  The resultant polarization of the world into two basic political camps wasted countless lives and transmuted the precious resources of the earth into tools of destruction.  I suppose there may have been, in the early of years of Russian product availability in the West, a sort of transgressive or subversive attitude accompanying their use that resonated with the punk/DIY aesthetic.  But for me, working with Soviet-era tech is a small scale “swords into plowshares” activity.

At what point did you realize that this could be a viable business?

There were a couple of inflection points.  I started by offering a modification service on eBay.  I wanted to build a transaction track record that would put people at ease about sending their mic across the country to someone they didn’t know.  The eBay rating system helped me do that.  So the first proof-of-concept test was putting up an eBay ad and then making a few sales.  After I did a handful of mods that way and got some good feedback I figured the concept resonated with the marketplace.  The next challenge would be to scale up.  After about year it looked like OktavaMod could be a real business that might offer me the chance to work 18 hours a day and pay the bills associated life in a low overhead city.  Would have been tougher to start this in Cambridge where I was before moving to Springfield, MA.

How has Oktava responded to all of this?  It seems as though they’re fairly supportive.  Has this always been the case?

Surprisingly supportive, never a negative comment.  But I’ve always positioned what I do with Oktava mics as “different” flavors of the stock mics I’m crazy about.  I think they sense that I’m a real brand advocate.  And even though I have my own OktavaMod versions of their mics the brand is getting burnished along the way.  Oktava-Online, run by Denis and Natalia Kuzmenko contacted me about become an Oktava dealer and selling my modded mics through them for the European market.  Denis is the son of the technical director of Oktava in Tula and worked for four years at the factory.  I’ve got an excellent business and technical relationship with Denis and Natalia and through them a good line of communication to Oktava in Tula.

Who do you see as your primary clientele?  How does that motivate you?

In the beginning I think my earliest customers were bargain hunters who bought Oktava mics during the great Guitar Center blowout.  Over time as I got some A/B samples online and some solid testimonials I started seeing some “name” artists and producers sending me their mics as well.  So now it’s a mix of young bedroom recordists looking to buy or improve their first mic all the way up to guys like Adam Lasus (clap your hands say yeah) or Damian Taylor (Bjork et al…) to name just a couple.   My motivation is the same with either customer.  I treat everyone the same—I try to respond quickly, match the style of my answers to the style of the questions and modify every mic to the best of my ability no matter who purchased the mod.  This is a very liberating strategy because I don’t play up or down to anyone.  Seems to make folks at all levels of the professional spectrum comfortable.

Audio gear has traditionally been very expensive.  The price point on a lot of gear seems to be dropping, but at the same time it seems as though there is a lot of cheap junk showing up on the market as well.  You have established what is basically a cottage industry converting decent low-price gear into boutique-grade gear at a price that’s reasonable by any measure, and you seem to be doing quite well for yourself.  What do you think this says about our economy?  About recording in general?

I’m not sure what it says about the economy, but in terms of recording I think people are beginning to realize that they’re surrounded by a lot a stuff with tremendous potential.  Ha—just like humans!  Improving what is already owned has a sustainable-use vibe about it and seems less consumer/consumptive.  I know my clients love the idea of having something they already like perform even better for them.  I guess it’s sort of like putting new strings on an old guitar and practicing a bit more instead of buying yet another guitar.

Do you have any plans for further development, or are you content with things the way they are?  Any interesting surprises waiting around the corner?

Oh man, I wish I had time to finish metalwork parts for my 319 Bottle mod.  I’d love to do a tube mod for some of the Oktava mics as well.  I’m working on a project with a client studio in New Delhi.  We think it will be possible to use OktavaMod mics to emulate the long-term spectral response of a couple of highly regarded Neumann mics.  This project is driven by the needs of the Indian audio market to both have great sound, but have really affordable equipment.  The Neumann M149 is a favorite VO mic there.  We’ve had some initial successes emulating it and I think we can get close enough that many studios will jump at a chance to buy a mic that will give them 95% of what they’re used to for 10% of the price they’re used to paying.  And India is a big audio market.  😉

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Black Light/Black Death Part the Second: Resurrection

I’ve been able to do some work in the studio these last couple of days, and have some actual progress to report! Tracking is finished on the Black Light/Black Death project.


I’m seriously hoping to get caught up enough that I can start posting “normal” blog entries… you know, regular little updates on what’s happening with the project.

I think.  

One never really knows with these things.  There may be some insurmountable problem in one of the core tracks which would be easily solved by a punch-in, or even re-recording a track here or there.  Of course, that’s not necessarily in keeping with the nature of the project, so I’ll keep it to a minimum–only for the real dealbreakers.

When last I wrote about this project (post before last, actually) I’d gotten as far as describing the original songwriting and tracking process.  After a week spent in the lukewarm potholes of heck, I had the core tracks recorded.  Three songs were complete, and a fourth had reached some sort of weird plateau.  A fifth song, “Black Light,”was struggling for life.  It was stuck in some weird sort of artistic ether: too cringeworthy to merit development, but far too cool to ignore.

I threw a quick mix up on the desk and was surprised at the results– this was fairly not-bad, considering how horrible I thought it was going to be.  And then things began to go horribly wrong.

The unfinished nature of “Black Light” hung over my head like a stormcloud.  I’d been trying to stretch myself when I started it.  My guitar skills are sort of “rough hewn” (to say the least), so I left large, open spaces to be filled with guitar leads.  I also left plenty of room for lyrics, since the chord progression and main hook showed up before the words (or even the concept).  I had a basic idea of where the song was going, but beyond that nothing much.  So rather than creating a scratch track and playing along with that, I tracked drums to go with what was playing in my head… only I lost count somewhere in the middle.  So now I had a song which had no lyrics, needed seasoning with guitar chops I had yet to develop, and which was structurally flawed.

That, and a hook that just would not quit.

It was demoralizing.  And worse still, I couldn’t just move on to something else.  I recorded this project using unusual techniques (unusual for me, anyway), so I couldn’t just sideline the project.  I had all my compressors set up to run in parallel; the drums were all connected onto one buss, and so on.  If I was going to work on another project, I would have to undo all that work– writing everything down first– and park this project in the weeds.  That would be the end of BL/BD.

I mixed “The North Shore,” which is that song I resurrected from seminary days.  I threw down a mix or two of “She’s Haunting” for future modification.  A third piece– I was referring to it by it’s working name, “Sodden Antichrist Tortilla–” made a couple piteous attempts to rise from its plateau.  “Black Death Girl” was on a separate reel of tape.  I was afraid to touch it, because I feared it had an insurmountable flaw in one of its core tracks.  And “Black Light” kept nagging at me.

And then everything went wrong again.  I’ve been at odds with a particular medical condition these last couple of years, and in January suffered a major setback.  I was couch-bound for the most part, and in enough pain that at times I lost track of my surroundings.  When I could, I would get up and try to do things.  One of those things was writing–if nothing else, it would help me keep track of what was happening in my life.

And eventually, lo and behold, I found myself thinking about “Black Light.”

And writing lyrics for “Black Light.”

Only instead of fixing my rotten lyrics, I started thinking about what made me want to write the song in the first place.  And the rotten lyrics faded away in the face of something much better.  New lyrics fell out of my pen onto the paper–new lyrics in a new format that again required me to stretch musically.  Only this time it wasn’t forced.  I just let the lyrics and melody fall recline on the song structure, allowing the structure to stretch the song’s concept to fit the established parameters.

Working a few minutes at a time (as my back allowed), I was able to piece together the actual structure of the song–the drum part I’d actually recorded, not the one I meant to record.  It took a several days (and a few courses of muscle relaxants), but I got it.  And the lyrics fit pretty well.  And my vocal style stretched nicely to accommodate the new technique.  Meanwhile, my ability to address my health problems improved.  The symptoms decreased, and by the time Tala Vera asked us in March to play a show at the end of April, I was well enough to consider giving it a go.

There’s a lot of Andy Smash material that’s not really Hotrods material.  I didn’t expect that any of the songs from this project would work with the Hotrods, but just for laughs I busted it out at practice.  Much to my surprise, everyone loved it.  Including me.  By the time we went on stage, “Black Light–” the ugly duckling of the project– was the centerpiece of our set.

Black Light 1

Screen grab from Tala Vera.

(Tala Vera records their shows, and streams them live as well.  As of right now, the video’s still up.  You can see it here.  Set’s about 40 minutes long.  “Black Light” is  second-to-last; starts at about 34:30.)

So anyway, here it is the end of May, I’m back on my feet, and tracking is by and large finished.  What’s more, two songs are already mixed, and I don’t anticipate too much trouble mixing the other three.  Then mastering, then artwork, then duplication, and ultimately (hopefully) some sort of hard-copy release.  Things are looking good.

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The Flexy-Headed Ratchet and The Great Engine Pile

So, have I ever told you about my flexy-headed 1/2″ ratchet?

No, I haven’t, because it’s only recently that I’ve reached the true heights of extreme boringness.

Lucky you, you get to hear about it anyway.


The Flexy-Headed Ratchet in its native environment.

The Flexy-Headed Ratchet in its native environment.

I got the ratchet about a million years ago.  It was in this huge toolbox full of beat-up old Craftsman tools at a flea market outside of Philly.  I paid like, $30 for the whole lot, and probably doubled my money by exchanging the beat-up Craftsman tools for brandy-new Craftsman tools over at the nearby Craftsman Tool Center.  (Craftsman has a lifetime warrantee.)

But this particular ratchet was not Craftsman.  It was… something else.  Something less.  It was made in Taiwan, so right off the bat I assumed it was junk.  Besides, what good is a flexy-head 1/2″ ratchet?  You use 1/2″ sockets for heavy work, and flexy-things break when you put a lot of stress on them.

So this thing went in my “junkyard tool box,” which is where many no-warrantee tools usually go.  (You don’t want to lose the tools with the warrantee.  You want to break the tools that have the warrantee.  You want to lose the ones that don’t get replaced for free.  Although ideally I suppose it’s best not to lose or break any of them.)

It kicked around for a while being occasionally useful.  Nothing spectacular.

Then one day I went over to Zerniak’s–a local boneyard–to look for a set of Big Block Mopar 452 heads to have re-done, I think.  Cousin Dan went with me.

Zerniak’s has this huge engine pile…

See, when steel prices went high back in the mid-80s, Zerniak’s decided to crush out a whole bunch of their barges from the ’60s and ’70s.  A lot of those cars had some pretty valuable high-performance engines in them, even in their “grocery-getter” configurations.    So Zerniak’s yanked all the engines before crushing the cars & selling them.

They got the rear end assemblies, too, and put them in an old semitrailer, or school bus or something.  But they didn’t have a place to put the engines.  And engines are freaking heavy.  So they just put them in a big ol’ heap near the head of the yard.  Seriously, this pile is probably 20 feet high at the top.

Over the years, anything valuable got picked off the engines on the outside of the pile.  But what’s in the middle of that pile?  God only knows.  They’re engines.  They’re not the kind of thing you can just dig through.  There maybe a Hemi or two,  there may be a Cobrajet… could be just about anything.  May even still be rebuildable.  Some of that stuff is worth thousands of dollars, even in absolutely horrid condition.

But the outside of the pile?  The outside is pretty well picked over.  In fact, it was so picked over that the guy at the counter kinda forgot it was there until I mentioned it to him.  It was no surprise when I didn’t find anything good, not that I didn’t try pretty hard.

Anyway, the seasons passed, the rains fell, the snow fell, spring came again, and the earth was blessed with the warmth of summer.  Projects came, and projects went.  I have no idea how many times this happened, but it was at least a year.  Maybe two.  And over time, I noticed that my flexy-head ratchet just wasn’t rising to the surface any more.

I missed the little guy.  He was kind of handy, in his way.  Great for changing spark plugs. Great for a lot of things, in fact.  But bear in mind that I still had two big ol’ Craftsman 1/2″ ratchets.  Life went on.

You know, I kinda missed him.  But that’s the way of the gearhead.  Tools come, and tools go, and it’s best not to get too attached to any of them.

And then…

Whilst putting the finishing touches on our ’74 Satellite Wagon (a.k.a. Skylab 2) the oil dipstick tube busted.  Nobody but nobody had a part as obscure as a Big Block Chrysler dipstick tube for a station wagon in stock.  None of the generic hot-rod parts would fit–they were all far too short.  The stores were all closing up shop for the weekend.  And I really, really, really wanted to get that thing running.  And all it needed was the dipstick tube.

Cousin Dan was in town for a visit.  And we were racking our brains, trying to figure out where we were going to get so obscure a part.  Even the local boneyards didn’t have anything to help us, because all that vintage iron is completely gone here in the Rust Belt.

But then I remembered the engine pile at Zerniak’s.

We talked our way into the yard somehow, and began looking for a Big Block Mopar engine with an intact dipstick tube.  This led inexorably towards the engine pile.  I climbed to the top of the pile, the low sun casting long shadows around me.  My eyes were prying everywhere, looking for that peculiar turquoise that marks all Mopar engines from the mid-70s.

And then I saw it.

No, not a Chrysler 400.

I saw my ratchet.  Just lying there, covered in rust.  Right on top of a nasty old 360.  Right where I left it.

“Ohhh yeahhhh!  That’s where I put that stupid thing!”

We eventually solved our problem.  We didn’t find a dipstick in the engine pile (no surprise there).  But Cousin Dan did come up with the brilliant idea to pull a super-long one from a van, and cut it down to the right size with a tubing cutter, which works just fine.

And as for the flexy-head ratchet… I took it home, soaked it in oil, and it worked just fine.  Well, not just fine… it was always a little funny.  But it did what it was supposed to do, and it did a good job of it too, for years.

It finally died this morning.  I had to change out Grendel’s studded snows for his summer tires.  I was marveling at how helpful the flexy-head was for this particular task when it finally ceased its ratcheting.

I’ll miss the flexy little guy, but I’m not going to buy another one.  Some things just can’t be replaced.

Because I’m too cheap to replace them.


Good night, sweet prince.  And may flights of angels speed you to the scrapyard, where you will fetch about 11¢, be shipped to China, and made into about half a Prius.

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