Monday, December 10, 2012

So You Think Audio Is The Career For You?

People often ask me how I got my start in the music industry, and how can they get in for themselves. I got my start just shy of twenty years ago in the local scene around the Tampa Bay area. My first foray in the industry was as a music reporter, first for my high school newspaper, and then later for local and regional magazines. This allowed me to make many new connections and start building my professional network. About a year after I had been working for the magazines, I was at a local rock fest and met a husband and wife team that produced a local video show called Metal Masters. My journalist background gave me enough credibility to request an internship which later led to employment with them and I signed on as a Production Assistant, learning to handle everything from pre-production, lighting, camera operation, editing and other post production techniques. The five years that I spent with the show was invaluable for the amount of training, skills and contacts that I acquired.  I later returned to school and got my audio degree, and that plus my experience is what has propelled me forward in the industry. While reporting or video might not be your thing, if you really want to get started in the industry, look around where you live. Start locally by finding an artist or someone already established in the industry and start pestering them. Read up on what you need to know to be a stage hand, a drum or guitar tech, and never be afraid of hard work.

I hear this often, “I went to school, why isn’t anyone hiring me?” What did you do in tech school? Did you only stick to the projects assigned or did you seek out other projects as a student to build your portfolio? Training from the pros is necessary, school is expensive, but the right program will give you many of the skills needed to get your foot in the door, however, alone it is not enough, especially when it comes to live sound. Check out what is available for audio engineering training, schools like Full Sail University, International Academy of Design andTechnology provide the environment and training needed to understand the basics. However, the people you are looking to work with often times have more practical experience than you, the newbie have in life years. Showing up on a production company’s doorstep with only a degree in hand will get you a chance to push a broom, if that, in most shops. What they are looking for today is knowledge, training and practical hands on experience. One person with no degree but five years on the job training will get hired before the person with a fancy degree but no practical knowledge. Volunteer while in school, take on projects that may not pay right now, but will give you an edge over the next person applying.

There are other mistakes that people make not realizing it can jeopardize their entire career before it ever has a chance to take off. According to Karl Winkler, a regular contributor to ProSound Web’s blog, there are seven mistakes that rookies make that get noticed, even if you don’t think they do. In his article, “What Can Go Wrong?Seven Habits That Can Ruin Your Audio Career”, one of the seven things he points out is being the “Know It All”. I have personally seen this one in action. When new to the scene, it is best to not approach a gig with a know-it-all attitude. The affects of this can range from simply being annoying to potentially damaging equipment, hearing or even injury to yourself or someone on the crew. Remember what you have learned and apply it, but always take into account the instructions of your crew chief or head engineer.

When you are dealing with a new crew, never assume anything. Just because the last company you worked for did things one way, doesn’t mean that this one will do it the same way. Certain things are universal and signal flow only happens one way, however, other things from mic positioning, monitor placing and cable laying and wrapping differ from company to company, engineer to engineer, and even show to show. Never hesitate to ask a question, the only dumb question is truly the one you didn’t ask, or as Winkler suggests, “Be humble and ask the right guys how to do those specific things. Then listen carefully and don’t ask them again – just do it right.” Asking questions is good, asking the same question over and over will only annoy your boss, and may guarantee they won’t be calling you back. Another suggestion that Winkler makes is to show initiative. Again, this is something that I highly recommend as well. Doing only your job, and then standing around will not endear you to those higher up in the chain; neither will other bad habits like taking too many breaks and pulling out your smart phone while on a job. When you have completed the tasks assigned to you, go and ask, seek out any other work, or if anyone else needs help, because in the business of live audio the mantra to remember is “time is money”. The more you show your interest in seeing the entire team succeed and meet their deadlines, the more you will boost your own image.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

We've Always Done It This Way

Old ways are the best, this is how we always do it, if it’s not broken don’t fix it. All of these are examples of what any new engineer on the scene hears from other more seasoned veterans, and that’s perfectly fine, to a point. When do we reach a point though where it must be accepted that for as fast as today’s technology develops and then becomes outdated, is it not possible that our practices and personal stamps on the industry might need revising as well? As an example, at a show last month, the FOH and monitor mix engineer, was setting up the board for the show, much the same way he has done for over twenty-five years. When I asked him what he planned on doing for each band, he looked at me like I had spoken another language, as if to say, “What do you mean?” That’s when it hit me, this person is still mixing the same way he did when I first worked with him in the early 1990’s, with total disregard to the last few decades of advancements in our industry. In order to keep up with the new types of artists and their constant blending of genres, one must keep up with the newest and best ideas from all available resources and build your own “bag of tricks”.

The days of the walls of PA’s, the massive amounts of power required to push the sound, the huge stacks of guitar amps, all of the large amounts of equipment required to put on a show, especially an outdoor event are long gone. According to some of the pros, one in particular, it is accountants that began the demand for smaller, more portable, and cost-effective replacements for the large amounts of equipment and the cost to transport it. This is the theory of one of the most respected names in the industry, Bruce Jackson. He states in an article he wrote for MixMagazine online, The Live Sound Industry Grows Up (and slims down) that, “It's expensive to cart truckloads of heavy speakers around the world, let alone unload them, put them up for the show and put them back in the truck to go to the next gig. I guess too many acts went out on the road for an extended tour, only to find that production costs ate up profits. The pencil-pushers eventually came into positions of power and demanded more efficiency from sound companies, and they responded.” The sound companies certainly did, slimming them down from big heavy arrays, to “tall, slender and lightweight columns of beautifully engineered loudspeaker technology, known as line arrays”, said Jackson. The line arrays of today are lightweight, coaxing each speaker to work with it’s neighbor, to create an even sound for the entire audience, and delivering unbelievable amounts of control of the coverage pattern. Such as in the case of the Clair Brothers line arrays, world famous for their innovation and technology to meet todays live sound needs. US based JBL also has a huge selection for all audio needs as well, still staying lightweight and powerful.

As another example, while it is not necessary to utilize a fully digital board, the newer advancements have been responsible for making it easier for an engineer to go in and make adjustments with surgical precision. The older mixers as they got more complicated adding more stages of electronics to increase routing, bussing, patching and other functions, the sound quality was degraded. Newer analog and all most digital consoles of today have solved this problem by using better internal connections, and enough “internal mathematical precision to deliver mixes with zero degradation,” Jackson also stated. However, all digital consoles are not created equal, so it is best to give them a listening test before investing. Also with the advent of the digital age, processors have become the real winners. Previously unavailable signal processing options such as digital delay, reverb, AutoTunes, pitch shifters, and new filter shapes for EQ’s, again allowing for that surgical precision previously unheard of. Processors of choice by the pros vary; however, some of my favorites are the dbx Drive Rack220i, Empirical Labs EL8Distressor, the Lexicon MX400XL, and the Solid State Logic XRack Stereo EQ.

Knowing all of this new technology that is available, while not forgetting some gear is classic and always present because it still works just as well now as it did twenty-five years ago, should make for a homerun on every show, but sadly there are those that are still clinging to the old practices and mixing the same way they did then too. In order to take a show from mediocre to unforgettable, it is vital for a production company to stay current and knowledgeable about advancements in the music industry. We must not be threatened or afraid of new ideas and new ways of getting things done; in an economy that doesn’t permit mistakes or an audio foul up. The difference between your band plugging into the house system and playing despite the acoustics and the guy behind the board versus properly setting up and playing with the full accompaniment and the power of the system is what will make or break not just a show, but the artist as well. New technology, new and fresh ideas mixed with old standbys should be what today’s engineer blends for that perfect balance of the best ways to make a show rock.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

AES, The Membership You Can't Live Without!

There are many associations and sites for the music industry that professionals can utilize and refer to, however the best one for engineers is without a doubt the Audio EngineeringSociety (AES). This is vital to any audio engineer, studio, live sound, video game/Foley, you name it, and this society, unlike any other, is devoted entirely to audio technology. For the engineer that needs to be in the know, this is the site for you. Founded in the US in 1948, the now international society “unites audio engineers, creative artists, scientists, and students worldwide by promoting advances in audio and disseminating new knowledge and research.” It is in essence another vital tool in building ones professional network.

With 95 student centers along with multiple branches of the society in place, they hold activities in each area, guest speakers, technical tours and demonstrations, and social functions. Utilizing these various levels of education mixed with social interaction, allows it’s members to mix in different settings and environments, a chance to make connections with different areas of the business that one person on their own may not have otherwise come in contact with. This is in addition to the annual conventions, periodic conferences, and regional summits that include scientific presentations, student activities, workshops, and exhibitions.  

The AES website is a huge plethora of information, and if you are a member, it’s usefulness is un-measureable, and very much worth the membership dues. There are research papers previously presented at conventions, tutorials, technical reviews and documents, and much more contained just in the E-Library. AES also uses the monthly publication, Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, to educate and inform the industry on the latest tech papers and reports, feature articles on the newest and best of audio technology. This publication, it’s findings and reviews have been essential to my learning both as a student and a professional in the industry and it’s highly recommended for anyone in the industry because of it’s constant finger on the pulse of both the people of the industry and the technology that makes us all sound better.   

The other extremely important role that this society plays in the music industry is one so vital yet not always widely known. Given the scientific nature of the society, they are charged with the creation and maintenance of the international standards in the areas of digital and analog audio engineering, communications technology, acoustics, media preservation and creative practice. They have and continue to stay current with all established and emerging audio technologies and techniques. As we move into this new century and new ways of doing things on smaller scales to get the same big effects, this society and it’s constant updates of its findings will benefit all in the industry. The ability to really know ahead of time before buying how a product or design will perform, the best way to go about it and the best way to implement it as vital to the producers as it is the engineers.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Think Globally, Act Locally....Not Just For Greenpeace Anymore.

It was a seemingly endless search, looking for a speaker that inspires me sounded difficult at best because there aren’t many who are vocal, that really seem to capture the art and the power of music without turning it into only business.  Until, that is, I happened upon a strange title, just enough to catch the attention. “Abigail Washburn, improving us-china relations…by banjo.” I was intrigued, enough that I clicked on the selection on the TED website and for six minutes and thirty-four seconds, I was spellbound.

Abigail Washburn started out life in law and Washington DC, with intentions of going to China to study their laws, and help improve relations. According to her speech, before she was scheduled to leave for the Far East, while at a party, she heard her first banjo tune. She said “in that moment, I knew I had to take a banjo with me to China”. Described as a clawhammer banjo player, she cites many influences, but strives to incorporate many genres and techniques, even blending Chinese and American styles into her own unique music. 

After leaving college, she traveled through the Appalachian Mountains, home to bluegrass and country n’ western, learning traditional songs straight from the source. It was in Kentucky at Bluegrass convention when a record executive from Nashville approached her about cutting an album. The rest, as they say, is history, and two full solo albums later, she is a much sought after artist for shows all around the US and China.

The inspiration in this woman’s words is her absence of guile about why she plays and sings the music she creates with such passion. Ms. Washburn’s statement, “I see the power of music, I see the power of music to connect cultures, to connect hearts,” is one that should hit home for all of us in the industry. That is what we are here for, that kind of passion for the art is what touches that flame in all of us, and is what we, as industry professionals, should never forget. Sadly though, this get taken out of the equation more often than not.

She also illustrates the power of music when describing one of her trips to China to help with the Sichuan Quake Relief efforts. She was performing at one of the relocation schools for the children of the quake, and how a little girl who had lost her mother asked to sing a special song to Ms. Washburn. Her description of it was so powerful and moving, to see how music connects us all, not just by country but as human beings is a moving illustration of the power of music. “In that moment, we weren’t are American-selves, we weren’t our Chinese-selves, we where just mortals, sitting together in that light that keeps us here.” It is that light that music brings, that light that moves us, reminds us just who we are. She also states that in that moment she has realized her true calling. “I want to dwell in that light with you, with everybody, and I know that US-China Relations doesn’t need another lawyer.”

 Her idea to think globally and act locally is one that every person who wishes to make a difference must do. Start where you live, find the next big thing that touches a part of you, and then figure out how to get it out there so it can touch everyone. Most of all teach and foster those that will follow you. That, in essence, is at the heart of everything I do in music. I think globally and act locally believing that there are good people out there, like me, trying to make a difference, not just make a buck. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Microphones, To Sing Or Not To Sing?

Microphones, To Sing Or Not To Sing?

Using the right mic for the right application is the key to success or the element of failure to a live show. Determining what’s the right mic for the right application is vital. Vocalists and instruments use different types of mics to get the best sound quality for live shows. It is a good idea to do your research when planning what to pack in your live rig.

Typically for live vocals, the standard mic to always have on hand is the Shure Beta 58. It is a dynamic mic with a high output and a durable steel mesh grill making it ideal for live vocals. For high volume vocalists that are going to be pushing the limits of the mic, investing in a higher end dynamic mic is highly recommended. The Electro Voice N/D967 is perfect for vocalists that love to hit those power notes because of it’s super cardioid pick up pattern with the highest gain before feedback to prevent peaking.

When selecting instrument mics, one of the best choices is one that is known as the workhorse of the industry, Shure SM57. This mic has been an industry standard for many decades, and for good reason; dynamic, durable, and versatile, the SM57 can be used for many different applications. Typically it is best used to mic the snare and high hat on a drum kit, and for the mids and highs of the guitar amp. This dynamic cardioid mic can be spotted on practically any stage around the world, and will always be one of the basic requirements of any live set up. In a pinch, it can also be used to mic the bass amp, although a better choice for that would be the AudixD6. This mic is made for extended low frequencies, with lower impedance than standard ones, which leads to less chances of interference.

Investing in a mic kit for drums is the most economical and practical way to go, as it will give you the basic requirements for the majority of the drum kit. Sennheiser’s E-600 drum kit is an excellent choice for most standard kits, it includes four tom mics, kick drum mic and two condenser mics for the overheads, allowing for full range capture of the drums. In addition to the mics in the drum pack, it’s a good idea to also include an additional mic for the bass tom. Using the Audix D-6, and placing it under the bass tom will allow for the full bottom range of the tom, giving the kit a richer and wider sound, along with two SM57’s, as mentioned earlier for the high hat and snare.  Proper placement of these mics is also essential for the best drum sounds, and ensures they stay out of the drummer’s way.

As always, when searching for the best quality and fit for your budget, do your research. Utilizing sites such as Gearslutz and Harmony Central will give you ratings and professional opinions from those in the know.