Friday, November 2, 2007

“Get a grip, it’s not all about the chips!”
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. An all too common illustration of this axiom is how consumer electronics customers think about Micro chips. The truth that leads to the lie is “not all chips are the same”. True, all things being equal, some chips are better than others. It is undisputable that certain ultra famous brand twenty dollar D.A.C.’s (digital to analog converters) are much better than two dollar, off-shore D.A.C.’s. It then stands to reason that that all products using the 20$ chips are better than ones using less expensive ones, right? Wrong! The missing piece to the puzzle that most consumers lack can be summed up in one word: Implementation.
“Little plastic caterpillars”
We have all seen said chips, little plastic caterpillars with a plethora of tiny, tin legs or a square, black Necco wafer fringed with a skirt of little metal knees. Powerful as these devices are, on their own they do nothing. First of all, they need power, with all the ‘clean power’ rhetoric bandied about these days; it should come as no surprise that the quality of a power supply design can affect the functionality and reliability of these tiny miracle workers. Even more important than the power is the accompanying circuitry. The analog output stage of a portable CD player is no match for a mid-fi home audio unit, whose performance is no match for a high end player, even if they did have the same D.A.C., due to the care and skill of the circuit designer, as well as the money spent on the associated electronic components.
More complex integrated circuits like surround processors and video scalars have scores of features available to the engineer designing the unit the chip goes in. It is unlikely, and probably unnecessary, for any one unit to utilize all those features; but to what good use and how many of the useful features end up in your setup menu all depends, once again, on the skill of the engineer.
“How many hardware engineers does it take to Screw in a light bulb? None, we’ll fix it in software!”
Once the features, uses and complementing circuitry are determined, a software engineer has to make them all work. The software to control a chip is often custom done by product and not something you buy off-the–shelf like the actual chip. Any home computer user is all to familiar with endless software updates and patches, often continuing for years after a product is released, sold and assumed to be ‘done’, because software can be pretty darn complicated. The chips them selves are unfathomably complex devices, their internal schematics resembling an all-inclusive map of Manhattan. The operating software must not only navigate the streets and buildings, but the rooms within those building and wires and pluming within the walls of those rooms, starting to get the picture?
“All things being equal”
All things are never equal. A famous and once revered video scalar chip company decided they wanted to sell more chips and get their name more out in the public. They sold their scalar chip to companies making low cost, poorly designed video processors, who proudly stamped the chip makers’ name on the front of the units. Some of those scalars performed terribly and were notoriously unreliable. Word got out and the consumers, albeit wrongly, blamed the chips. Shoddy implementation destroyed the only real asset any electronics company has, their brand equity.
“I’m in love with my car”
Automotive illustrations often ring true when talking about electronics, so here is a little story to further illustrate my point. An auto repair shop I once frequented had 2 very cool things lying around the place, a 1950’s MG roadster with no motor and a Jaguar V12 engine. The boys decided they would merge the two and customers ogled their progress over the months as they moved back the fire wall, modified the frame and basically completely re-built the car to accept the V12. One fine spring day the project was finally done and the pushed the car out of the garage to fire it up for the first time. No matter how gently the clutch was released, the car just sat in one place while the tires slowly spun at the idle speed of the engine. Even the slightest feathering of the gas pedal simply caused the rear of the car to jump up and down while it slowly rotated around front end, the car completely unable to gain traction. The mechanics had taken two fabulous car parts and created a vehicle that did not work at all. Poor implementation had done them in.
“There is more than one way to skin a cat”
The A/V industry is fraught with urban legends of electronics, units w/ this chip or that technology are always better, negative feedback is always bad, Class “A” amps are always better. There are many different ways to design a device for a specific purpose, if there were not, all stereos would sound the same, all TV’s would look alike and only marketing departments would be needed in our industry. Before you make a buying decision based on a touted technology, design class, a must have connector or a phantom surround mode, remember that none of that stuff is worth is worth a dime with out proper implementation. In our world full of false universal axioms, there is one you can take to the bank: All things are NEVER equal.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Nickle Creek Concert Review

Nickel Creek: Veteran Sound from fledgling troubadours.

The Broome Community College Ice Rink, located in Binghamton, N.Y., housed 1,600 filled seats for its’ first ever concert. The stage was set up on the long side of the oval, looking across the ice at the bleachers. With seats on just one side, the management apparently felt it only necessary to remove the Plexiglas barriers used in hockey games from less than half the rink. This forced critical midrange components of the sound to reflect back at the floor-seated portion of the audience. Despite this acoustical faux pas, the Nickel Creek sound man, utilizing the bands own mixers, effects and monitor system, did a good job of dialing in the sound and sending it off to the expertly placed and very clean-sounding front-of-house provided by Binghamton based Sound Concepts. The result was relatively good sound on the floor and exceptional quality in the bleachers, very full but never too loud.

The fairly conservative audience, made of more middle-aged folk and families than college students, roared thunderously when the band took the stage. They opened with my favorite cut off the new CD, “Smoothie Song”, and although it was a bit spoiled by some hurried sound tweaking during its’ first few moments, it quickly settled in to a premonition of the evening’s heart-warming musical feast.

The group looked comfortable on stage, the guys in T-shirts, violinist Sara Watkins looking most fetching in a spaghetti-strap top and all wearing blue jeans and sneakers. Sara played well to the audience, often strolling out of the main spotlights to get closer to the crowd, leaning forward and throwing bow flourishes like kisses to the crowd. Many songs elicited cries of recognition from the onlookers and the group moved and danced with the crowd as well as each other during especially passionate jams. Chris Thile was the most animated and led me to wonder, why do mandolin players tilt their heads when they solo? Some stage patter did sound rehearsed and stilted though, and a few stage movements looked a bit contrived. I suspect someone had chastised them for not being visually entertaining enough, like you would expect them to grab themselves and moonwalk or something.

My introduction to Nickel Creek had been their 2002 release, “This Side”, a tightly controlled, somewhat commercial product produced by Allison Krauss. That album, I guessed, had been born of the group’s desire to explore the more pop side of their creations and made me wonder if they knew where their strengths lay. Later, those very songs, heard in the context of that concert, kept their folk roots and blended seamlessly with the band’s more traditional tunes and inspiring instrumentals. I had also wondered if folks so young, (Sara Watkins and Chris Thile are a mere 21 years old) even with eleven years of playing out, would exhibit the musical maturity that often makes a seasoned performer far outshine a child prodigy. By the third song my words were eaten whole, as the quartet raised the hairs on my neck and brought a smile to my face with expertly executed and beautiful music.

What I saw was not the package for sale Ms. Krauss had created, but boundless, unstoppable musical joy. Rising and falling, first sweet, then nasty and grooving. At once a simple ballad, then suddenly metamorphosing through intertwining melodies combined in a way they had never quite been before.

Conversely, vocals were not the band’s strong point, with most of Sara’s and Chris’s vocals sounding breathy and almost falsetto. The players are aware of their vocal sound and apply it well in their songwriting, but the quality of the instrumentation points up the difference. Guitarist Sean Watkins, the elder statesman of the band at 25, has the strongest voice, but the most shy personality of the group, keeping him from using his voice often enough or to it’s fullest potential. Only on the fifth song of the evening, “The Face of Trouble”?, did Sara show her vocal mettle and Chris did not get his voice warmed up until late in the show with a blues tune and a Dylan cover. The whole group had better projection on harmonies than lead vocals as evidenced on a raucous cover of the Beatles “Taxman”.

Eleven of the thirty tunes were instrumentals, all every bit as fine as the creations of the elders of newgrass. Chris Thile's “House of Tom Bombadil” was a warm bluegrass tune, not the staccato sonic assault of traditional bluegrass. Flowing yet well defined by implied percussion born of chunky rhythms supporting arpeggios flying like wild winds. Late in the show they played “The Opening Song” featuring Sara’s fine fiddle work in a Mark O’Conner/Yo-Yo Ma style creation. Other instrumental tones ranged from the dissidence of modern jazz to technical acrobatics like those in The Dixie Dregs’ “Chips A’Hoy”. The second instrumental of the evening opened with a guitar/mandolin duet with obvious classical inspirations, morphed into a two-step, then flowed through modern jazz style dissidence and back again. A recent interview in the fledgling ‘Frets’ magazine had Sean commenting on taking inspiration from classical lately and this tune illustrated that quite well.

Nickel Creek played at the Country Music Awards on Nov. 6, 2002 and were nominated for the Horizon award and Vocal Group of the Year. They took home no awards, but to be nominated is surely a good thing for a group that I would not even call country. With Jerry Douglas taking home Musician of the Year, the CMA show they are there for more than just Alan Jackson fans, (who swept the awards) and know quality when they see it.

What lies ahead for Nickel Creek? Already on CMT, how about VH1 or even MTV? Will there be Creek-heads, following the band to every venue and selling out every show? Can we expect Chris Thile lunch boxes, Sean Watkins cologne and ‘Barbie’s fiddl’n friend Sara’? How about Nickel Creek tribute bands with names like ‘Penny River’ and ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’. Assuming they avoid the many pitfalls of young stardom, the sky is the limit for these fledgling troubadours.

Monday, August 27, 2007

How equipment was Placed in "The Departed" movie

Anatomy of a Placement

Tuesday, March 22, 2005
An industrial style window, placed high to foil the occupants’ attempts to have a view, let in the spring morning sunshine at a crazy angle. Segmented by horizontal blinds, the light threw stripes of glare and shadow that ran across floor then bent wildly up across the figure behind the desk, striping her blouse and face like masked bad guys in an old Disney cartoon. She looked up at the sound of the knob turning on her closed door; a silhouette was visible through the frosted glass pane with the etched letters, ‘ffoG yllaS’.
A figure in an open, rain-spotted trench coat and Fedora stepped in, a woman with a face that could silence a stereo salesman, hair finer than the strands in a high-end speaker cable and voice like a lunch-box filled w/ toy cars… no, wait….that was the phone….
O.K., so life for Sally Goff, Director of Marketing and P.R. for McIntosh Laboratory may not be as exciting as a Mickey Spillane inspired film noir, but the call was about a detective story…
Jennifer Chalhub, Sr. Account Executive for Warner Bros Pictures had a request. She was currently working on a ‘little’ Film for Warner Brothers, “The Departed”, Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson. Set Decorator Leslie Rollins had requested McIntosh for the set of Matt’s apt, where a scene takes place involving a stereo system. This was not unusual, the timeless, classy look and bright, illuminated meters and faceplates make McIntosh equipment look great on film and a favorite of set designers. Sally assured Jennifer we would be happy to help. Ms Chalhub promised to get back soon with an equipment list.
After a long look at, Departed set decorating personnel went on a field trip to a McIntosh dealer to check out the toys. A month later, they came back with the ‘wish list’, and it was not small. An MX119 Home Theater Preamp, MVP861 DVD Player, MA6500 Integrated Amp, C2200 Tube Preamp, MR85 Tuner, MHT200 Home Theater Receiver, MC207 Multi Channel Amp, MCD1000 CD Transport and five XLS320 Bookshelf speakers.
The Production Resources Agreement arrived from Warner Brothers.
Obviously designed for paid placement, the contract stated that McIntosh agreed to pay the sum of Zero Dollars for placement of the equipment in the movie, there was no guaranty that the equipment would appear and that McIntosh was not obligated to pay the Zero Dollars, should the gear not ‘recognizably appear’ in the final cut of the film. McIntosh does not pay for placements, despite the fact that it shows up in several TV shows and movies each year. With the paperwork completed, the search for the gear began.
2005 was a very busy year for trade shows, dealer events and equipment reviews. Nearly every piece of show stock equipment was spread out around the globe at about 10 different events, including a good size pile of gear down in Florida on the set of “Miami Vice”, so it was time for ‘Plan B’. Usually, McIntosh units used in movies and TV shows simply need to light up and look pretty. McIntosh Service Manager John Messemer had several of the listed models , either untested or yet to be repaired units that lit up just fine, we could simply tape over the inputs on the back, label them “do not use” and be all set.
Just to be sure, Sally flashed off an email to Jennifer Chalhub, would they be expecting the gear to play music or would it be OK if they just ‘lit up’?
“I’m just a little afraid Jack or Matt will want to turn it on and listen to it. I’ll just have to let them know in advance they can not play anything on it.” Ms Chalhub replied. Sally had heard Jack Nicholson liked to play with everything on set and wanted it all to work. They knew Jack was a McIntosh owner and had previously requested McIntosh as set dressing for “As Good as it Gets”. The decision was made; the units would HAVE to work.
Turning a pile of new stock into “B” stock is not a desirable business practice, but it became obvious that at least some of the units would need to come from new stock. Sales and Sales Administration were consulted, they gave the green light to use some new stock and by the first of June, 2005, the shipment was ready to go. A combination new, show and engineering stock provided the 13 units for the departed. More complications arose as time went on, The Departed requested old Mac boxes for set dressing, and in June, 2006, whole scenes needed to be re-shot, so some pieces had to be re-gathered and reshipped, but eventually, it all came home, in excellent shape and perfectly re-packed.
On Fri. Oct 6, 2006 The Departed opened in the U.S., at one point in the film, the big, blue MA6500 VU meter covered more than 60% of the screen, presenting viewers with a 40 foot McIntosh Meter during a tense moment in the film. At the final cut, only 4 of the units and 2 of the speakers were visible in the flick, but they played a visceral part. As the female lead character ran to the Mac stack to turn it on, she makes three obvious turning-on motions, and three loud, poignant ‘clicks’ ring out in the sound track. As the camera pulls back, only two units appear to be on, but a slow motion viewing revealed the editors loved the look of the MA6500 turning on so much, they basically showed it turn on twice, giving the dramatic beat of ‘click’, ‘click’, click’!
By the following Monday morning customers were mentioning in web-site emails and tech calls they had seen the gear, and it was fabulous! In February, 2007, The Departed received four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, the perfect Hollywood ending, or was it?
In preparation for this article, a letter was sent to Jennifer Chalhub, requesting permission to use some stills for it. Jennifer replied she was working on it and, by the way, the set decorator was now working on another Warner Bros. feature, “Get Smart”, starring Steve Carell and “The Rock” and was interested in using a similar system. And so, here we go again!...

Thursday, August 23, 2007

What IS High-End?

What is high-end Audio?
The 60’s Art-Rock group “The Moody Blues” best album was a movie for your mind in the form of an LP entitled “”In search of the Lost Chord”. This may well sum up high-end audio. In same way listening to a song on a clock radio may never reveal the bass guitar line to you, the stereo systems most folks listen to will seem to reproduce all the music, yet subtle details you never miss are never the less there for the hearing, given the proper equipment.

One of the greatest complements one can give a system is “I’ve heard that recording hundreds of times and I noticed things I’d never heard before.”. Even with a system so revealing as to elicit that praise, it is unlikely to trick you into believe there is a marching band in your living room.

What are the elements in live sound that elude the Sound reproduction system? One is frequency range.. sound is created by moving air, when you consider the bass drum in that marching band is a 24 “ membrane hit by a cloth-wrapped hammer, it is obvious that deepest fundamentals in music such as the 16 Hz (largest) pipe in a pipe organ is not going to be accurately reproduced by the 4” speaker in your Bose wave-radio. It requires many, large drivers (woofers) working in unison to move the equivalent amount of air.

The next hurdle in accurate reproduction of live sound is dynamic range; this is the difference between the softest and loudest passages in a piece of music. An orchestral piece can range from the sound of quiet conversation, at around 50dB, to the volume of a police siren next to your ear, around 126Db. An efficient loudspeaker can produce 90dB, about the noise level of a busy NYC street corner, from one watt. One would imagine said speaker could easily reach the 126 db to recreate the peak level of the aforementioned orchestra, an increase of only 36dB. Herein lies the rub, it is commonly assumed that a doubling of watts in an amplifier yields a doubling of output, but not so, twice the electrical power (watts) yields only the smallest easily noticeable increase in volume, 3 dB. We need to gain that 3dB 12 times to hit our 36dB increase, and so have to double our mere 1 watt, 12 times! 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,024, 2,048, 4,096 Watts!

This leads us to yet another impediment to realistic reproduction of live music, the dreaded distortion. The smooth rising and falling wave of a pure tone as seen on an oscilloscope is bent out of it’s smooth shape by the effects of normal amplifiers and speakers, the wave is distorted. Only the finest components, with the most expensive materials, designed by brilliant engineers through thousands of hours of labor can reduce those distortions beyond the point where the remarkably sensitive instrument the human ear is can detect.

Not only do we need a battery of huge woofers and gigantic, multi-thousand Watt amps, but they must be built with precision akin to the technology in the Hubble telescope. I half jokingly tell customers that, just as it takes 10 times the power to double volume, it takes ten times the money to double sound quality, but this is no joke, as even the finest sound systems in the world, costing a few hundred thousand dollars, still fall just a bit short of the ultimate goal, truly reproducing the sound of live music. So the struggle continues and the worshipers of high-end audio diligently continue their quest, no matter what it takes, and that, is what high-end really about.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Leo Kottke, Mike Gordon "Clone" Review

Like a scene from “That Seventies Show”, we sat in someone’s basement, smoking Marbs or Luckies and watching the stack of wax fall every 22 minutes while the fight raged on:
“Ritchie Blackmoore is the greatest guitarist alive”, one ranted.
“Way not, man, Steve Howe SMOKES him.” This discourse raged on while the godfather of the eighth grade, known as ‘Wacky’, rocked back on the hind legs of his chair and smiled smugly.
“You guys have no idea what a great guitarist is.” Wacky waxed as he scratched the needle off Peter Frampton and removed the pile off the record changer. He pulled out an album with a funny looking guy in black and white juggling orange balls on the cover, Leo Kottke’s “My Feet are Smiling”, we never looked back.

Leo has just recorded with Phish bassist Mike Gordon, which at first glance is a fractured, almost schizophrenic work that divides itself into four parts, songs penned by Leo, by Mike, by both and covers.
As a bass player with 27 years experience, I would know better than to try and play with Leo Kottke. Mike finds this out, especially on the songs penned by both, where two busy instrumentalists sometimes ram each other with conflicting rhythms and unintentional discordance.

The Covers seem to be chosen by Leo and sound tight and smooth, with Leo getting less busy to concentrate on vocals and Mike getting tasty and simple like a good sideman.

When the Mike Gordon originals come around, one gets the impression the album is named “Clone” because Mike sings harmonies over his already mediocre voice, giving us two of a bad thing. These tunes are self indulgent and silly, though pleasant, and “The Collins Missile” is a cute story.

The Kottke originals are excellent, and Mike starts to ‘get it’ on these, sounding like the alternating thumb-played bass lines Leo uses on his ‘sounds like two guitars’ solo stuff.

I suspect this disc was burned in the order the tunes were recorded, as the first song is a bit of a train wreck, with both Leo and Mike lacking musical understanding of each other. As the disk progresses, both players learn and grow until, by the end they seem to trade places. On the Gordon instrumental “Whip” Mike thinks like Leo and the chugging , staccato, finger-style tune could have easily been penned by Kottke. On tunes toward the end Leo ‘steps away from the box’, lets some notes ring and plays a few jazz chords. He seems to get the Phish thing and it adds a new dimension to his style. I suspect future releases from both these gentlemen will reflect the lessons they learned here and we, the listeners, will reap that harvest.

I think that many listeners will just burn three or four songs off this disc, (different ones for different folks) but I believe I will always play it end to end, enjoying the twists and turns of this little sonic trip, and going where it wants to take me.