Category: Music


Vinyl Records

Vinyl has become trendy again, and record pressing plants are pumping out as many new records as the plants can produce.  Some plants are even expanding.

Vinyl records have a mythology around them promulgated by audiophiles.  It is said that they are analog (they are), and thus more accurately reproduce the original audio than the digital “stair steps” (they don’t), and that, somehow music heard via vinyl is “purer” than digital music.  Almost exactly the opposite is true.

I hate to break it to you, but vinyl is a terrible medium for reproducing audio, and its various deficiencies require countermeasures that significantly change the audio.  Tom Scholz, the leader/recording engineer for the rock group Boston, supposedly tried to get the first Boston album recalled when he heard what his mixes sounded like on vinyl.  Tom Scholz’s experience aside, many of the countermeasures make changes to the audio that audiences can find pleasing.

These countermeasures were implemented in the process of “mastering”.  Originally, mastering was just creating a master disk, from which the pressing plates for the vinyl records would be made.  The mastering setup was simply a cutting lathe that created the sound groove in a metal plate.

One of the physical properties of a vinyl record is that the width of the groove is determined by the volume of bass frequencies.  When music started being recorded with electric bass, mastering engineers found they could often only get five or ten minutes of audio per side of a long-playing record, instead of the normal 15-20 minutes, because the grooves were too wide.  This resulted in them adding devices to the mastering setup to do compression and limiting on the bass frequencies.  The same measures are required for classical music with lots of tympani and/or low brass, and jazz with a prominent bass part.

Another issue with vinyl is that it does not reproduce high frequencies well, and midrange frequencies tend to be prominent.  Mastering engineers added equalization to their mastering setups to partially compensate, and recording engineers would often boost high frequencies in their mixes to help them be audible on the record.  Even with these measures, high frequencies on records gradually disappear toward the top of our hearing range.

The dynamic range of vinyl–the range in loudness from the quiet background hiss of the record to the loudest sound it can produce–is much smaller than that of our ears.  On vinyl it is about 70-80 db, while our ears have a range of about 120 dB.  Every 3 dB represents a doubling in loudness, so the extra range can be pretty important.  For music that goes from being quiet to very loud, it can exceed vinyl’s limits, so the quiet parts are buried in the background hiss.  To deal with this issue, vinyl mastering engineers compress the entire mix (as well as adding extra compression and limiting for the bass frequencies), which reduces the dynamic range.  This technique is used on all types of music, but it is most important on classical recordings because they often have wider dynamic ranges.

There are other, more arcane, measures taken in mastering, but many listeners find the ones I’ve described add a quality pleasing to the ear.  Overall compression makes it easier to hear all the parts, bass compression often makes the bass sound better, and the rolling off of high frequencies results in a sound many describe as “smooth” or “warm”.

At least part of the blame for the vinyl mythology has to do with a shortcut record companies took.  When Compact Discs first came out, the record companies believed that they didn’t need to do any mastering for digital because digital didn’t have vinyl’s limitations.  They sent the master tapes to CD manufacturers with no mastering, and the CDs that were produced did not sound anywhere near as good as vinyl.  They didn’t have any compression (or only what the recording engineer used), and because the high frequencies were boosted for vinyl, they sounded “harsh” or “tinny”.

These problems were caused by a lack of mastering, not, as audiophiles believed, an inherent flaw in digital audio technology.  It took a few years for the record companies and engineers to figure out that, in order to sound good, a similar mastering process was required for digital media.  CDs manufactured in the early 1980s often have these sonic problems, while later “remastered” versions mostly sound better (to my ears) than the vinyl, or at least more similar to the original master tape.

Today, great tools exist for mastering digital recordings, and pretty much every digital recording, whatever medium, gets mastered.  Mastering engineers have built on the vinyl techniques to create a large bag of tricks that make recordings sound better to listeners.  Over time, the ears of audiences have adjusted to being able to hear high frequencies without cringing, so they accept recordings where you can hear what the cymbals really sound like.  As a friend of mine who is a mastering engineer said to me yesterday, even an mp3, if it has a reasonable bit rate, will sound much closer to the original than vinyl will.

If you love the sound of vinyl, please enjoy it with my blessing.  Apart from the sonic aspects, I find the 15-20 minute album side a more satisfying chunk to listen to than a 3-minute mp3.  Just let go of the idea you are hearing what the recording engineer heard when he was mixing.

Now that I’ve rained pretty hard on the vinyl parade, do I have an alternative?  Is there a different technology that I think will serve listeners even better?  Stay tuned for Giving Good Audio for Music Part II: 24-bit Audio.

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Crowdsource Me!

Many of my creative friends have been looking at raising money for a project using a crowdsourced funding site like Kickstarter or IndieGoGo.  I’ve been reading the advice available for them on the Internet, and having backed a number of projects on these sites, there is information I think would help them that I haven’t seen anywhere else.

Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, if you aren’t familiar with them, sound almost too good to be true.  You just put your project up there and thousands–perhaps millions–of dollars roll in through the magic of the Internet!

The truth is that this does happen to the projects with the greatest appeal and best presentation, but many projects get little or no money.  On Kickstarter, as of this writing, just 44% of projects reach their funding goal.  Their site requires that you meet your funding goal, or they never collect any money from those who backed your project and you get nothing. 56% of projects–that’s more than half–end up this way.  IndieGoGo allows you to create a project where you will get what is contributed (minus their service fee) even if you do not make your goal.  On IndieGoGo only 10% of projects meet their funding goal.  There are other crowdsourced funding sites, but these are the biggest ones.

I’ve looked at more than a hundred projects I considered backing at one level or another (I know a lot of creative people), and it’s clear to me that the creators of some of these projects don’t understand the thought process a backer goes through.  I’ve made some suggestions how to make your project attractive to backers below.

Of course, your project, whether it’s a CD or an electronic kit or a book, needs to be something that appeals to backers.  If it cannot capture people’s interest, no matter how professional your presentation, people will not back it.

  1. Do everything you can do without the money.  When I was involved in a startup company and talking to investors, this was the advice they gave me.  People who back projects think much the same way; they often expect you will get the project to a fairly complete stage.
    Before you put the project up on a funding site, you should, as much as possible, have all the difficult creative parts finished, leaving only the straightforward parts that can be done easily if you have money to get them done.  Of course some kinds of projects (a film, for instance) this may not be possible.
    Most successful CD projects have the music written, recorded and mixed, and the artwork completed so all that is left to do is manufacturing.  If you are putting out a book, try to have it written/drawn, edited, etc. and ready for the printer.  If you are doing a consumer product, try to have a run of prototypes already made and beta tested, and the final version quoted and lined up at the assembly plant.
    I’ve noted projects that ask for funds to finish the initial creative work often do not meet their funding goals, and when I’ve backed such projects, they more often do not deliver.  That said, some have been successful.
  2. Be specific.  If you are creating a CD, tell backers the names and lengths of all the songs.  If you are creating a book, tell them how many pages, the page size, and how many pages are in color if you have pictures.  If you are making a consumer product, give the exact specifications.  Backers want to understand what they are backing, and nothing will turn off a backer faster than vagueness in the description of your project.
  3. Know what you plan to do, and stick to it.  I recommend, before you create your project, to get a group of advisors.  These can be normal folks who you think might have an interest in backing your project and/or people who may have done their own projects.  Show them your proposed project before it goes public, and have them ask questions and make suggestions.  Try to anticipate any concerns your backers will have.  Make any changes necessary before you go public.  While you may add to the project for stretch goals (funding goals beyond your initial goal), do not change the core project.
    Once you start changing things, it will be hard to say “No,” to other requests for changes, and many backers will defer backing until they feel the definition of the project is final, which will reduce your ability to hit your funding goal by the end date.
  4. Have the first batch of backers lined up.  Nothing says “failing” to potential backers like a project with just one or two backers.  I recommend you get 20 or more people lined up ahead of time who agree to back your project on the day it goes public.  This gives your project an initial momentum that will inspire other backers.  Encourage your 20 initial backers to share the fact that are backing you on social media.
  5. Look at successful projects.  Get ideas from other projects that have worked well.  Here are a couple of my personal favorites.  Spock’s Beard offered all their older musical instruments as premiums that people could get for higher levels of backing.  Girl Genius had an inspired strategy for stretch goals.
    Spock’s Beard CD
    Girl Genius
  6. Read the rest of the advice.  There is lots of good advice out there about crowdsourced funding; I’ve just tried to cover some practical aspects that others are not covering.  Some good advice can be found at these links:
    Smart Blog
    Music Think Tank
    99U
    Young Entrepreneur Council

All-in-all, it is quite possible to create a successful crowdsourced funding project; it just takes a bit of thought and planning.  Good luck on your project!

Zappa Perfected

Music Box Theatre

Music Box Theatre

Friday night Kathy and I went to see Dweezil Zappa Plays Zappa at the Music Box theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood.  In case you haven’t heard about what Dweezil is doing, he’s put together a band of crack musicians (not musicians on crack), who perform the music of Frank Zappa, just as written.  

You may have heard of Frank Zappa, and know a lyric line from one of his songs (probably “Titties and Beer” or “Valley Girl”), and dismissed him as merely a scribbler of profane lyrics.  He was much more than that.  For one thing, he was a great composer.  Don’t take my word for it; the classical composer and noted conductor Pierre Boulez says so, and he conducted some of Zappa’s classical works, which were composed near the end of Zappa’s life. 

Aside from his classical works, the music his various bands performed has been studied and admired by generations of musicians.  Zappa was famous for putting together some of the best musicians on the planet, and challenging them with compositions that pushed them to their limits.  His songs often contained musical jokes, where he took a recognizable riff from a popular artist and had fun with it.  Plus he was one heck of a satirist and storyteller.

Dweezil’s band focuses on the music Frank recorded with his various bands.  He had the challenge of putting together a band that could actually play Frank’s music, and of learning the ridiculously hard guitar parts himself.  He had the benefit of a catalog of music spanning three decades, with many die-hard fans and pent-up demand to hear the music performed again.  To put it in business terms, Dweezil had a strong “brand”, but when a new person tries to carry a brand forward, there is always a danger that the brand may be seen as cheapened.

Frank plays with the band during sound check

Frank plays with the band during sound check

I had seen Dweezil and the Zappa Plays Zappa band twice before, and he has always done a credible job with the music.  He always looked great (he bears a strong resemblance to David Krumholz of Numb3rs fame).  His parts were well-executed, and the rest of the band is amazing.  Most of the same players have been playing with him for years.  The arrangements were flawlessly executed, and they achieved the technological feat of having Frank make a few appearances on a video screen during the show to play and sing along with the band.  I always left feeling like I got a very good and satisfying show, but I thought that Dweezil didn’t quite measure up to Frank in his solos.  That’s changed this time around.  Dweezil, while not the same person as his father, was certainly at the same level in his playing, and Friday had one of the better guitar virtuoso performances I’ve seen.

George Duke during sound check

George Duke during sound check

Zappa Plays Zappa often has a musician who played with Frank as special guest, and the guest plays a few songs with the band.  Friday, it was the amazing keyboard player George Duke.  While many Zappa fans might also know him for his work with people like Billy Cobham and Stanley Clarke, George Duke had even greater success as a solo recording artist creating great R&B funk records.  He is also a successful record producer. 

We got tickets that let us watch the sound check before the show.  It was a lot of fun to watch the band interact and figure out last-minute changes to the arrangements.  George Duke was also there playing and getting his parts integrated.  At one point he was really wailing during a solo, and a couple of the band members took out their cameras and took a picture of him.  They were clearly fans.  Interestingly, George has all of his keyboards painted flat grey, so he does not advertize what kind of keyboard he is using.  He’s had that policy for more than 30 years.

Music Box Theatre wallpaper

Music Box Theatre wallpaper

The Music Box is an old Art Deco theatre.  Inside the theatre, the walls have 40 foot high wallpaper that displays a famous image from the Hieronymus Bosch painting “Garden of Earthly Delights”, painted about 1490.  It bore a certain resemblance to some of the surreal Zappa album covers.

Downstairs, the theatre has no seats on the main floor (there are booths on the side, but they offer a poor view of the stage).  We opted to go up to the balcony, where we could get a seat, and have a great view of the stage.  We managed to get the first row of balcony seating in the center section (the seating was not assigned).

The show was great from start to finish, and the balcony was the place to watch from.  After opening with Gumbo Variations, they played all the songs from the Apostrophe album in the same sequence as the album.  Released in 1974, it has always been my favorite Zappa album.  Frank got the opportunity to record with lots of top musicians on that record, and it was a creative high point for him.  Getting to hear George Duke play and sing live on Uncle Remus, which he co-wrote with Zappa, was a real treat.  Cosmik Debris had Frank on video doing the vocals.

After that, they gave us another 8 songs, including RDNZL, Pygmy Twylyte, Inca Roads and City of Tiny Lights.  George Duke played with them on a number of these.  The encore included Baby Snakes, Chrissy Puked Twice (AKA Titties and Beer), and the Muffin Man, with Frank playing guitar on the final tune.

Leaving the show it occurred to me that Dweezil has achieved something his father never quite managed.  Frank’s bands, several of which I got to see, had great musicians, but they were always experimenting to one degree or another.  Dweezil has managed to take his band and the music into a more consistent and polished state, which is great for audiences.  You really owe it to yourself to catch this great band at least once.

Links:
Set list for the show I saw
Tour Dates

Zappa Plays Zappa On Stage

Zappa Plays Zappa On Stage

Jon Anderson Solo

This past Wednesday, Kathy and I got to see Jon Anderson, normally the vocalist for Yes, perform a solo show.

Jon was scheduled to be on the last two Yes tours, but due to two severe asthma attacks and acute respiratory failure, he was unable to be on either tour.  (Instead they brought along a singer who has performed with a popular Yes tribute band.)  Doing better now, Jon recently did a tour of the UK with Rick Wakeman, and is now doing a solo tour of the U.S. and Canada.

Orpheum Theatre

Orpheum Theatre

The show was at the Orpheum Theatre, on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles.  It is a magnificent old Art Deco building, and often is used for small tours of progressive rock folks.  We recently saw a Keith Emerson and Greg Lake (but no drummer) tour there.

Jon has a positive energy, despite his health challenges, that is palpable when he is on stage.  I have no doubt that the name Yes was his idea.

Jon got to play his versions of many Yes songs, as well as a few non-Yes songs.  He mainly played acoustic guitar, but he also played a bit of dulcimer and piano to accompany his singing.

When he sang the Yes material, the vocals were the same glorious vocals we hear on the albums, but the chords he played were COMPLETELY DIFFERENT!  At one point, he explained that he was playing the songs “as I originally wrote them”. 

This led me to imagine the Yes recording process starting with Jon recording his acoustic guitar and vocals, and then the band replacing his guitar with completely different music.  This was a bit of a revelation to me, as when I have played Yes music, the relationship between the music and the vocal part is not always obvious.  It makes sense that  they were not necessarily written by the same person.

Jon Anderson on stage

Jon Anderson on stage

Jon was relaxed and quite entertaining.  His vocals sounded great, and he told some fun stories.  One that I remember was about Yes doing a worldwide tour after Owner of a Lonely Heart became a big hit.  They played in Brazil for a huge crowd, and their next performance was in Argentina.  But just a few months before, Britain had been at war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.  It turned out that Yes were the first British band to go to Argentina after the Falklands business, and there were death threats, saying that they were going to shoot someone.  At that point, Chris Squire (bass player in Yes) told Jon, “Well, you’re out front, so I guess you’re the one who’ll get shot.”  Jon reported that they played the gig and no one got shot, but that he moved around a LOT.

The part I think Kathy enjoyed most was when Jon sang a song he and Vangelis Papathanasou (yes, that Vangelis) wrote together called State of Independence.   Chrissy Hynde also did a version of the song that Kathy is partial to.

All in all, it was a fun evening and a good and revelatory show.

If you have a significant geek factor, you may have more than one computer in a room at home.  Sometimes you have your old computer plus your new computer, or your home computer plus your laptop from work, or a large stack of machines tracing your computer history over the last decade.

If you find yourself in this situation, you might find a use for a device I have never seen in any computer store or swap meet.  Fortunately, with very minimal soldering skill, you can build it in an evening very cheaply.

The problem this solves is what to do with the audio from both (or all) of those computers.  With this computer audio mixer, you can use one set of powered speakers and have the audio from all of your machines come through them. 

Note: this only works for powered speakers.  The mixer does not work for unpowered speakers.

For my setup, I decided to have four inputs, but you can use the same approach for however many inputs you need.  Here’s the schematic:

Here’s what the circuit board looks like assembled:

 

 You can use either 1/4 watt or 1/8 watt resistors.  Here’s what the board looks like from the other side, with the locations of resistors shown:

 

 Here it is built into a box:

 I used some parts I had around the house, but you can build it from the following parts from Radio Shack:

Name Part Number Quantity
Proto Board 276-158 1
10K Resistors 271-1335 2
1/8 inch Stereo Jack 274-246 5
Box 270-1805 1
1/8 inch Stereo Cable 42-2387 4

Just use the stereo cables to connect the speaker outputs of your computers to the inputs of the box.  Then plug the powered speakers into the output.

Preamp Heaven

Musicans and audio people tend to go through a progression.  First they are fascinated with musical instruments.  Next they are fascinated with microphones.  But eventually they become fascinated with preamps.  It sounds like it should be a very minor accessory, something like a cup holder on an SUV, but over time one comes to realize that the preamp may be the determining factor in how your music sounds, whether you are playing live or recording, or just building a great stereo system.

A confusing array of preamps are available running from under $100 to many thousands of dollars.  The factor I was really looking for in a preamp (which many musicians look for) is referred to as “warmth”.  This is an imperfection (referred to by engineers as a “nonlinearity”) that was common in early tube-based audio equipment.  This imperfection tended to make louder sounds harmonically richer (adding even-order harmonics), and made them be less different in volume from the quieter sounds.  Eventually, engineers built chips (called operational amplifiers) that did not have this imperfection (our engineer would say they are perfectly linear), but when people heard the new perfect sound, it did not please them.  They said it was “cold” and lacking the warmth of tubes. 

This led to a fetish for vintage equipment from the era before the new chips started being used.  But equipment does not have to be vintage to have the warmth that makes it pleasing to the ear.  It also does not have to have tubes in order to have warmth.  There is a type of transistor called a FET (field effect transistor) that has a similar nonlinearity to what preamp tubes have.  With all this in mind, I decided to create my perfect preamp.

This week I built the first model for actual use.  There were lots of prototypes over the last year, and I created a couple of different printed circuit boards along the way.  The preamp has two channels, and each channel has three stages.  The first stage has a FET transistor, the second stage has tone controls, mimicking those on a Fender Twin Reverb guitar amplifier, and the third stage is a gain stage that uses one of those operational amplifier chips, which will perfectly reproduce the warm sound of the FETs.

Below are pictures of the preamp.  I have used it with my Chapman Stick, electronic keyboards, and a Taylor acoustic guitar (with a mic and a piezo pickup) with good results on all of them.

Preamp Front

Gloster Preamp Open

Gloster Preamp Circuit Board