Monthly Archives: June 2016
Monthly Archives: June 2016
On Saturday I attended the The High End Audio Show in Anaheim, my first hi-fi show in probably a decade or more. Normally I don’t go to these things, but my friends at Wireworld Cable Technology (thanks Larry and David) were gracious enough to supply a ticket, so I braved the traffic (unusually bad for a Saturday) to see the latest in the world of high-end audio gear.
First let me say that the hi-fi world has changed in some ways and not in others since I last tasted it. One thing that was surprising was that the players had changed a lot, meaning most of the company names were new to me. The big thing that didn’t change was that most of them were pedaling way-overpriced gear that really didn’t sound that good.
Most of these were speakers, and many were in integrated packages complete with the amplifier and/or “controller head” where one couldn’t be used without the other. What I noticed was that most speaker manufacturers tended to concentrate on one part of the audio spectrum only. In other words, the speaker would have a lot of lows because that’s what they felt was important, or lots of highs, because high-end sparkle was their specialty. Very few had a good balance across the entire audio spectrum. Now considering that many speakers where powered by amps that were well in excess of several hundred watts (many above 1,000 watts) per channel, you’d think that they’d sound at least as good as the normal mid-priced powered speaker monitor used in the studio. That wasn’t the case though, as there were very few that I’d even consider to grace my control room, especially since the price was on average $10k and up.
Another thing that was interesting is that most company’s used a test audio source that varied between good old fashioned audio tape from a reel-to-reel tape machine, to a vinyl record played from a very hi-end turntable, to the streaming network TIDAL. I was very surprised that none used any of the 96/24 files that you can download from HDTracks, iTrax, or ProStudioMasters, which would have been the best choice in most cases.
There were 2 very intriguing companies that I spotted at the show, however. One was a company out of Canada called highfidelitycables.com which made cables that were made out magnets and waveguides (pictured to the right) with no actual wire involved. They also had a prototype speaker systme there that was equally interesting in that it didn’t use wire between the speakers, had no crossover between the woofer and ribbon tweeter, and had an open back like a guitar amp. I have to say it actually sounded pretty good, but I’m not so sure about the “cables.”
The other was the high-end audio company MBL out of Germany, which had the only speaker system at the show that I’d ever consider using in the studio, since it was absolutely stunning – the closest thing to “being there” that I ever heard! The problem was that a pair of these baby’s will set you back $256,000, but I’d have to say that if you wanted to have the absolute finest audio reproduction, this would be it (although I don’t know how well they’d hold up under normal every day production pounding – the achilles heal of all hi-fi speaker systems) The company also has less expensive speakers that run only in the tens of thousands of dollars as well, but these weren’t on display.
The speakers are built around a very cool new driver that has a lot in common with normal old-fashioned speaker technology in that it’s built around a couple of voice coils that point upwards to energize some strips of paper-thin composite material (see the figure on the left). This means that the speakers are omnidirectional. Frankly, I would’ve placed them on the sides of the listening environment instead of in the front, but that might’ve been too outside for the attendees.
Speaking of the attendees, I was surprised that the turnout was so high. I was told it was around 6,000 and I believe it based on the fact that it was difficult to find a place to park. It also wasn’t composed mainly of older rich white guys, which is what I expected. Sure there were lots of them, but there were more 20-somethings and women than I would’ve ever imagined. It’s a good sign that more people are into audio quality, although they might not being getting their money’s worth thanks to the many $100k+ plus systems on display.
In the end, I’m glad I braved the traffic to attend the T.H.E. Show, but I think I’m good for another 10 years now.
As I’ve stated in other previous posts, virtual reality is coming on like a nearly invisible distant freight train. It’s not apparent to the public yet because all the movement is behind the scenes, but believe me, it’s coming hard. Just like in the early days of surround sound, it’s still like the Wild West, with tools and techniques being developed every day with virtually no standards yet. Facebook, which owns Oculus Media (which hopes to be a giant player in the headset market) has jumped on board the VR audio train by acquiring the boutique immersive audio company Two Big Ears. The Edinburgh-based company has been around since 2013 and specializes in spatial 3D audio for both movies and gaming.
The best part of the acquisition is that a set of VR tools that company used came with it, and now Facebook is giving away that package for free. Called the Facebook 360 Spatial Workstation, the package consists of 5 components:
The VR Video Player is a big deal, since synchronizing VR audio and video is now one of the more difficult things in VR post. Hopefully this will make things go a bit easier.
The Facebook 360 Spatial Workstation only works with Pro Tools 12, Reaper, and Nuendo, but it looks like it’s a dynamite set of much needed tools. And you can’t argue with the price.
The Steve Miller Band has been going strong for almost 50 years now, and if you hear them live today, they’re better than ever. That said, most of Steve’s hits came in the 70s, but they’re still played heavily today and just about everyone knows them from countless plays on the radio.
It’s very easy to forget that even though his songs were somewhat Top 40 in nature, for the most part they were really well-made, especially give the time. Today we’ll listen to the isolated vocal tracks from one of his most famous hits – “Fly Like An Eagle.” The song was covered a number of times by artists like Seal and even The Neville Brothers, and has been used on commercials by the US Postal Service.
Here’s what to listen for (it begins at 0:15):
1. The vocal has a nice medium-long delayed reverb that’s pretty dark so it blends into the track very easily.
2. The vocal is doubled very closely, which was somewhat unusual for a recording in 1977, since the production concept of “tight” was much normally looser than this.
3. The vocals are also compressed very heavily, and although you don’t hear it in the final mix, you can clearly hear compression artifacts when it stands alone.
4. One thing about Steve Miller records is that they’re very disciplined when it comes to the parts. There are very few ad libs, and “Fly Like An Eagle” is a great example, as every note is in precisely the right place with nothing more added.
5. Another thing to notice is that there’s not a lot of leakage or noise. You can hear some faintly in the distance, as well as the inevitable tape hiss of the time, but the disciple extends to recording as well.
“Fly Like An Eagle” is actually a very modern production, even though it was made way back in 1977. Except for the slick automation that adorns all mixes of today, this is a song that still holds up very well.
Wireless mics are everywhere at a big concert or awards show, so much so, that there’s always a dedicated tech just to make sure that not only do the mics work, but their transmit and receive frequencies don’t interfere or be interfered with from outside sources. We’re talking expensive rigs here, and lots of them (as many as 50 or more), but it’s some inexpensive tinfoil baking trays that really make the entire setup work.
In a great article in rfvenue.com, James Stoffo (who’s acknowledged to be the father of the technique) explained how the technique came about.
“The A1s, they wanted me to keep the wireless on all time,” he remembers, “so they could PFL them, to make sure they work—this was before people trusted me. And so I said, ‘Okay, well if I have to keep these transmitters on, there are going to be intermods all over the place.’ I had to come up with something quick, and that’s when I built that first box with my dad. It just evolved from there until, now, everyone is using them. At least guys and girls in the know.”
Essentially, if you put a bunch of wireless transmitters on a table so you can test if they work or to change capsules, the radiation between them really makes them impossible to accurately test because they’re in such close proximity. James’ idea to place each one in a very inexpensive K-Mart-style tinfoil baking tray eliminates all of interference between them, since each transmitter is essentially has its own Faraday cage, thanks to the tray. Genius, right?
This wasn’t some lucky accident though – James got his chops in electronics and RF systems during his time in the US Navy Submarine Service. Afterwards he worked for many years in professional audio with early versions of commercial wireless microphones. That’s when he discovered that multiple transmitters kept next to one another backstage, powered up, created intermodulation that could compromise hours of careful coordination work, and lessen the ability to accurately monitor RF and audio levels at the receiver rack.
So here’s to James and his inexpensive solution to a tricky problem. Tinfoil baking trays to the rescue!
Before the first session begins, a host of decisions have to be made that range from the mundane to the important. Here’s an overview of the many production considerations a producer is confronted with in a typical project before a tracking session begins. This is an excerpt from the latest edition of my Music Producer’s Handbook.
1. Who is the engineer (or engineers)? Your choice of who engineers the project is critical, and, like many other aspects of production, this is not an element to cheap out on. A great engineer is your safety blanket. He’ll make things sound great even with gear that’s not up to snuff and provide useful technical advice, audio expertise, and even production suggestions when you need another opinion.
Many producers will use a top engineer for basics and mixing, then use a less expensive one, or engineer the overdubs themselves for overdubs in order to save some money. While this can work, the continuity of having the same engineer all the way through a project will keep the quality uniformly high and actually save time and money, since there’s the possibility for confusion when projects are handed off between engineers.
2. Is any rental gear required? Even the most well-equipped studio in the world probably still won’t have something that you’ll want or need for the session, be it an esoteric piece of audio or musical gear, or just something that’s essential for you to get your desired sound. Make sure you plan ahead for when you’ll need the rental, and then schedule around that. An example of this could be the rental of a grand piano or a Hammond organ. You’ll want to use it as soon as it arrives, instead of paying rental time for it to just sit around.
3. What’s the best time of day to record? This question can actually be a loaded one. While most bands would rather start early in the day to stay fresh, many singers don’t feel as though their throats open up until later in the day. While you might need only a guide vocal from the singer when the basics are being recorded, you certainly don’t want the singer to be harmed or feel abused, and herein lies the dilemma. You don’t want to start recording too late in the day, since you’ll end up having everyone burn out early and you might lose the advantage of a few hours of the studio’s daily rate that you’ve paid for. While starting the session at 10 a.m. might not work, try to start no later than noon if possible. Many musicians want or need to get home at a reasonable hour to be with their families, and working too far into the night can upset your body clock if you’re not used to it.
4. Are there any additional musicians required? Once again, it’s best to plan as far in advance as you can so you can schedule the other players as needed. The more players you need to have together at one time (like a string or horn section), the more time in advance you’ll need in order to schedule them.
5. What format and sampling rate will you use? While it’s possible that you might still want to break out an analog tape machine to record your basics, chances are that at some point in the project you’ll return to the comfort and flexibility of a DAW (most likely Pro Tools). Your choice of bit depth and sampling rate can be critical to the amount of hassle that you’ll encounter down the road. Here’s a chart that can help you make your choice.
Once again, the name of the game is efficiency and trying not to overlook anything before you start your tracking session and begin paying for a studio and/or musicians.
You can read more from The Music Producer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.