I’ve lived in Cleveland, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and now twice in Nashville, but the city I spent the biggest chunk of time in is Los Angeles. I lived there from 1976 to 1994, which in great part set me up for careers in audio recording, publishing and education. I got my love of music from my dad, who would sing around the house and was always playing records. He wasn’t the feely touchy type, and in my kid-head, I believed I could have a better connection with him if I was excellent at something musical.
Everyone knows the Chinese blessing/curse, “May you live in interesting times.” For me, the polarity-flipped blessing would be, “May you always be surrounded by those smarter than yourself.” For most of my life I’ve either gotten to hang with smart people for free, or I paid for it.
We all deal with timing every day. From hitting the stoplights on the way to work to setting a song tempo, making business decisions and even our choices when recording—things always seem to come out better if we get the timing right. I got a memorable lesson on tempo when I first started engineering.
NAMM is in a couple of weeks. I’ve been going to these shows since the 1980s, and I always get the same buzz from seeing new gear, especially gear that brings quality and ease of use to musicians. So this month I’ve been thinking about portable rigs for musicians—affordable packages to keep their ideas flowing without emptying the wallet.
The last 12 months have been an interesting ride for our business. Dealers I questioned at Winter NAMM were lukewarm about business, but just eight weeks ago at AES, the news was more upbeat and the show revealed a lot of great new gear. No matter how 2013 treated you or your business, it’s been a great 12 months for gawkers and buyers alike.
I’ve talked about quality more than a few times in this column. I’m a firm believer that quality is cheaper when buying gear, and that great gear can help make great-sounding records. I’m not fooling myself, I know that the best tracked and mixed recording of badly performed or written music will always be an awful experience. But that’s not the point here—it’s the quality mindset.
I often have students, colleagues and Facebook friends ask, “What is the best mic, speaker, headphones, interface, etc., I can buy?” Since my job is to review hardware and software, learn about new technology and teach it to others, I should be the perfect guy to ask.
After 30-plus years in the business, I’ve caught the studio bug again. I’ve been building a small mix room for four months now and it’s almost done. The paint is dry, but I’m still playing with the acoustics, learning to trust how it sounds and even doing some mixes on a small laptop-based rig while I wait for a computer, balanced power units and interconnects. I’ll have gear from Lynx, Radial Engineering, Dangerous Music, Monster, Focal, Retro Instruments, Lindell Audio, Millennia, Steinberg, Avid, and some “vintage” hardware reverbs from Lexicon and AKG. On the digital side, I’ll have plug-ins from Universal Audio, SoundToys, Vienna Instruments and many more. It’s going to be a hybrid analog summing and in-the-box combo mix room, all run on a rackmounted PC from Rain Computers that’s more than 30-percent faster (and way less-expensive) than anything currently offered by Apple.
In my October column (“The Score: Consumers 10, Pros 0”), I talked about how manufacturers like Apple were reaching for the golden “consumer” ring and we, the pros, were being left out in the cold. However, this is not the case in all sectors of our business. Consumer trends and pop culture are driving sales in pro audio. For instance, in the past few years, there’s been a heightened awareness and buzz around portable listening platforms, including earbuds and headphones.
One of my rules when writing a product review is to never ask the price until the end. I’ll do everything I can to stay away from the figure after the “$” because I don’t want it to affect my perception of quality. Not so much in studio products, but in the audiophile realm, the idea “it’s expensive so it must be good” is king and drives sales. Now this isn’t to say that something expensive isn’t the absolute top of the heap, but it’s not always true.
Of all the great gear we use to record and play back sound, the only non-audio product in the signal chain is the personal computer. We’ve come to rely on either an Apple or a Windows-based hardware manufacturer to provide the goods. And while audio companies are varied—offering a range of flavors, prices and options—the computer side offers more narrowly focused products targeted at a broader audience. We have always been able to get what we need, but this is changing.
While I’ve always tried to center my career goals around creating music, it hasn’t always worked out that way. Fifteen years ago, the titles Educator, Magazine Editor and Video Editor/Producer weren’t even close to being on my list of “Top 10 Skills You Should Develop by 2010.” And while I wouldn’t call the video bit necessary for survival, it’s the one I’m having the most fun with right now. It allows me to communicate on a new level that, thanks to the Internet, is the hottest ticket in town.
I remember the first audiophile playback system I ever heard. It was in a high-end Los Angeles home in the ’70s, long before I was a recording engineer. I could tell I was hearing something special: A great system transcends simple physics and engages the listener on a visceral level. Since then, whenever I’ve heard other such systems, that feeling returns. It’s like a familiar taste in a great meal or a spectacular wine—you may not know exactly what flavors are spiraling your senses to new heights; you just love it.
Modern culture is all about connections: social, wired and wireless. Social networking has changed the way we interact with our friends, family and even professionally, and it can evolve overnight. I’m currently looking at tumblr as a way to get product news and reviews out because of its hockey-stick growth, which is increasing by a quarter-billion impressions a week (not a typo). I’ve also been finding it easier to get questions answered about products, company news and technology through Facebook rather than email. For me, it’s just a “follow the river” experience; I’m just floating along, keeping my eyes and ears open.
As I was learning the craft of engineering, I was fortunate enough to assist some of the best ears in the business, which gave me a rare opportunity to see and hear what they trusted. They all trusted their ears. That comes from working with great gear and putting in your 10,000 hours. (Google “Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.”) Their gear choices and techniques intrigued me, providing me with something I could quantify and immediately put into my own bag of tricks.