I had a real sonic treat this morning, courtesy of WRTI, in my car at 107.7 FM, down here in Wilmington, DE.
My first music of the day was a good one: Gustav Holst’s “Brook Green Suite”.
What a nice trip back in time for me, hearing this lovely work again. Not only is this a fine work for string orchestra, it’s one of the first pieces of classical music I professionally recorded, as part of the live remote crew with “Magnetik Productions”. At the time, (it was probably mid-’84, ’85?) and we were recording the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, although back then they were called: “Concerto Soloists”).
It was a remote recording at Lang Memorial Auditorium at Swarthmore College, with the gorgeous spring/summer view of trees and flowers, through the 3-story glass wall in the back, and the works for those recording sessions included Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho Suite” and Gustav Holst’s “Brook Green Suite”.
Although I was classically trained on the piano, and had been to many concerts by then, it was still a revelation for me; hearing such an amazing chamber ensemble playing such beautiful music up close, setting up the mics, running cables, then hearing it all in the control room. What a revelation!
All in glorious analog technology, too: straight to 15 IPS analog Ampex 456 tape, Neotek Elite console, MCI-JH-110 2-track machines, no noise reduction, and no digital converters, either.
Isn’t it amazing how a piece of music can transport you anywhere in space or time?
True Storeis, #1
After over 35 years of professional experience, I have a long list of clients and stories that go with them.
This is an ongoing retelling of these stories as they occur to me. Some are good, some are bad, some funny, some bizarre, but honestly, they’re all ALL TRUE. Lots of folks in these stories are no longer with us, while many still are. I have no intention of harming anyone, their legacy, or causing problems for their estates. In borderline cases, or where I don’t want to really embarrass anyone, the names maybe be changed to protect the guilty. For the most part, this is all pretty much what happened, as I remember it….
#1 Hal Prince and previews/pre-production of “Parade”. (Originally “I Love a Parade”) in Philadelphia.
In 1996, I was doing a lot of projects for the American Music Festival in Philadelphia, from Cabaret to live sound reinforcement, to recordings, and so on. One of the things that AMTF did well was champion new plays and productions. Hal Prince was a good friend of the company CEO, Margorie Samoff, and it came to pass that Hal was going to come to town to direct a “workshop” (script in hand, no sets/scenery) production of a new musical with the working title: “I Love A Parade.” (Eventually simply called “Parade” – book by Alfred Uhry and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown.)
This was big stuff, since Philadelphia had long ago stopped being any kind of pre-Broadway tryout. Folks “in the know” were really freaking out (in a good way) that Mr. Hal Prince (the king of Broadway!) was coming to direct this. I was hired for “Sound design”, as folks in the theater biz call it: running the sound system, following the score, handling live sound for the singers and making a rough demo recording afterwards. Fair enough; this would be at the tiny, intimate 200-seat Plays and Players theater on Delancy Street in Philadelphia, and as for live sound; I was amazed they’d want to mic it at all. (The cast was going to be seasoned B’way singers, on their days off/vacations, doing this tryout for fun, experience, and a favor to Hal.) Always up for a challenge, I jumped in with both feet. (I knew Hal Prince only by his works and reputation; I was just fine with everything)
Before long, certain “staffers” and handlers of Hal Prince began to ratchet up the intimidation machine; Hal will want this, Hal will want that. Someone even went as far to tell me that, in all likelihood, Hal would probably at some point stop the production, and ream me out for something or other involving the sound. They said: “Just take it in stride, don’t worry about it, he does it to everyone.” I figured Hal was either impossible to work with, or he had a lot of incompetent folks handling his production needs. (Personally, my BS-detector starts going off whenever yes-men start this kind of nonsense. As it turned out, it was most likely the latter.)
We started production on the work, with my sound system and 16 microphones at the ready, including 12 rented wireless lavalier microphones someone ordered; for all of the principles and a few bit players. I was shocked and a bit worried: you folks are telling me we need TWELVE wireless mics for a cast of 18-20, accompanied by two pianos and a drum kit in a theater that holds 200 people, for a private audience?!?!? I could feel my gut tightening already…..
Soon enough, the week of rehearsals leading up to the performance was underway. I met the cast, the composer/music director, and most of all, Hal – Mr. Prince. He turned out to be a lovely man, nothing at all what I’d been warned about. We fell into a good working relationship quickly, and I was Johnny-on-the-spot in getting soloists up in the mix, following the script, and giving Hal his very own monitor at his producer’s table, stage left.
Troubles began soon enough, though, as the production got louder, and louder, and….louder! Some cast members would sing full voice, others were “marking”, and some simply hadn’t learned their parts yet. To be honest, they all had singing jobs to go back to; so it was a little like pro sports: all completely understandable. As anyone who’s worked in live sound might have suspected, it was fast becoming a case of “more me” in the mix for everyone, as the mix volume climbed and climbed. One of his handlers told me Hal was having some hearing issues at the time, and although we did everything we could to make him comfortable, trouble was brewing, and Hal was getting cranky.
By the second day, this wonderful new musical was going from a simple “reinforced” type of sound to live pop/rock, and it was making folks (including Hal and myself) really uncomfortable. Cues became more and more urgent, and little touches and subtleties were rapidly being lost in the overall din. A fine little musical/acoustic experience was turning into a blaring, ugly mess. An exasperated Hal finally turned to me during a break and said: “Good lord, why does this have to be so LOUD?!?!? Can’t we do something about this?” I said: “I thought you wanted everyone mic’d individually?” He said: “Hell no!!!! “I” didn’t ask for that. THEY told me it was necessary. I remember when people just SANG naturally, to a full house, with little or no mics at all. I HATE this stuff.” I said, “Hal, I couldn’t agree more. Let’s talk!”
We never quite figured out who “they” was, but I offered Hal a solution based on my operatic and classical recording experience. Since no one was really moving around (or dancing, etc.), we created a chorus “zone” with one stereo mic pair for all the accompanying singing, and solo spots for the big numbers. (If memory serves correct), we dropped most (or all?) of the wireless lav mics, and went with solo mics on stands, in front of their music stands, since everyone was working from a score. Suddenly, the sound opened up again, people could be heard, the noise floor dropped, and the production moved forward. Hal was again happy. So was I!
Two other anecdotes come to mind from this experience; The first was the sheer number of major Broadway producers, directors – movers and shakers – in the audience for the two big tryouts, in this tiny little theater on Delancy Street in Philadelphia. I don’t recall the entire list (and wouldn’t reveal them here anyway), but the general consensus what that if someone dropped a bomb on the theater that day, Broadway would have gone dark for a long, long time.
The other story is my favorite moment of the entire production: One day about midway through the week (and probably while we were still “fixing” the above sound issues), a break was called, and most folks left the building for lunch. Hal chose to “eat-in” and work on some cues with the musical director, and I stayed behind as well, with a lot of sound “housekeeping” issues to deal with. Of course, the lackeys and wanna-be’s got lunch for Hal, and ignored the rest of us. I was resigned to an empty stomach for the afternoon until Hal looked up from his own sandwich, (a turkey club, I think) and said: Hey, what are you eating? I said: “nothing; looks like I’m fasting.” Hal said: “well, here; take half of mine; I don’t want all of this anyway.”
So, there I was; sharing lunch on a make-shift table top over some theater seats with Mr. Hal Prince. I have never forgotten this simple act of kindness from one of Broadway’s giants. (And Hal probably doesn’t even remember it!) He could have munched away, gone about his business, and ignored my situation. Instead, he was down to earth and gregarious enough to simply split his sandwich and chips with me. So much for advance reputation, and so much for lackeys and sycophants.
I believe everyone starts with an “A”, works down from there. I also believe everybody puts their pants on one leg at a time in the morning, too.
Anyway, thanks for lunch, Hal! (Nice musical, too. It opened successfully on Broadway in 1998 as “Parade”, followed by numerous touring versions. I still have the raw demo cassettes around somewhere.)
Time Travelling Again…
Even during this hectic, crazy time of year, I had two unexpected trips back in time to the 1970’s, both about as different as could be.
The first was a pleasant surprise; I got a CD copy in the mail from an old friend who had found a cassette tape of a band I had performed in, back around 1975 or so, in my younger days in the clubs. Thinking it was just a dub of tapes I already had, I wasn’t expecting much.
It turned out to be a live recording of a club date that I didn’t have in my archives. Even the though the recording itself was horrible by today’s standards (noisy cassette, auto-level recording, too close to the guitar amp, etc.) I could still make out the songs, the various band-members who were singing on them, and the in-between song patter.
The drummer (and lead singer) Peter Wells, is no longer with us, sad to say, and I’ve lost contact with the bass player (Rob Viola) and the guitarist (Dal Bauder). Even so, the energy, excitement and exuberance just pops out of the songs – everything from the Doobie Brothers to the Beatles to Chicago to Stevie Wonder. This band was FUN, and made some great music. (Dal, you were SMOKIN HOT on that Strat, buddy!) I really miss you guys! Would love to get in touch with them and catch up, and give them copies of this and the other masters I saved from those days.
The other fun trip back in time was also a labor of love; I’m involved with the newly-launched Bruce Montgomery Foundation, and I have been working on restoring some of Bruce’s works, as well as making CD and DVD copies of his various projects from his amazing and varied career.
One of Bruce’s CD private compilations contains a work commissioned by William Smith and the Philadelphia Orchestra, entitled “Herodotus Fragmnets” – an orchestral and choral piece, inspired by the futility of war, dating back to the days of Sparta and Thermopylae in Greece. The recording is from the work’s premiere performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra, in the Academy of Music conducted by William Smith on April 28, 1970.
I don’t have any production notes with the original analog master tape, but judging by the logo sticker on the box, I’m sure it was recorded by none other than my predecessor at Magnetic Recorder Reproducer Company, Mr. Albert Borko.
I never met Al; I came to the company when it was rechristened “Magnetik Productions” in the mid 1980’s, but it’s thrilling to hear something done correctly. (It sounds like it could have been done yesterday, actually.)
Nice job to all! I’m humbled to be helping preserve the work of Bruce Montgomery, William Smith, and Al Borko….and a little bar band playing rock’n’roll in a smokey club somewhere in Willow Grove, PA.
This topic has been on my mind for a long time, and on the auspicious occasion of my age now matching the speed limit in most states, I present it here. You may find these things as annoying as I do.
What jump-started the topic for me again was a recent blog entry, from “Life’s a Pitch”. Read this list, and then come back “after the jump”.
Ok, now that I”ve said it; “After the jump” is one of my new pet peeves. What the HELL does that mean??? What jump? Who’s jumping? Is there a big invisible hole I’m missing somewhere? Half the time I see this sort of thing on Yahoo, AOL news, whatever; there’s nothing even remotely resembling a “JUMP”. Once in a while, there’s a video clip. Is THAT what they’re talking about? Who started this nonsensical phrase?
I for one am NOT jumping. It doesn’t make it more exciting, and it doesn’t spruce up a lame news story. Get over it. No one’s jumping; up OR down. This is the first of many new web-based phrases we need to excise. Just stop saying it, right now.
Another one – this from the music biz – is an expression used when an artist or group releases a new CD. Some advertising wanna-be coined the phrase “Drops” and now it’s grotesquely overused, let alone silly and inane. So-and-so’s CD “DROPS” today. Oh REALLY….. reminds me of BIRD-POOP dropping, or something falling out of the bottom of a box. Another image that comes to mind is bad sales: If a CD is DROPPING, wouldn’t that imply it’s falling off the charts?!??! Just another BS term made up to impress us with something ho-hum. Drop it, indeed. My clients RELEASE CDs, and it works just fine for them. (Of course, with all the doom & gloom predicted for the CD industry in general, most music releases now go out as digital downloads more than physical CDs, so maybe this one will just crawl off and die somewhere, hopefully ignored and forgotten.)
Another expression that drives me batty – and should be banned from the face of the earth for at least 10 years - is any phrase that includes these two words: “Literally Skyrocketing”. AAAAAAAAAAAAiiiiiieeeeee!!!! It’s like having a screwdriver shoved in my brain, any time I hear this, esp on TV news reports, at least once a week. My mind thinks of a fireworks display, and someone has linked the item in question (Gas Prices, Inflation rates, Summer temperatures, Susan Boyle CD sales, etc.) to this phrase. “Prices at the pump are literally skyrocketing today“…….Uh, no, they’re NOT. Not unless you have tied a trash can filled with pyrotechnic devices to the thing and lit the fuse.
Seriously, can’t news reporters and journalists agree on an indefinite moratorium of this meaningless phrase and find a better way to say: “Going up” ?
Here’s another ridiculous expression you’ll hear when you’re travelling on an airline, although I have to credit George Carlin for this: “…until you’ve reached your final destination.” Say what!? The word “Destination” contains the very core word: “Destiny” in there. Final/Destination are mutually inclusive terms. You DONT NEED FINAL in the phrase. Too many words.
One makes “Connections” along the way to our “Destination”, but one doesn’t make several “Destinations” before reaching the “Final” Destination. If there IS such a thing, I think we call it “DEATH”, don’t we???
Now, lest you think I’m just a total grouch, I do enjoy and appreciate the act of turning a noun into a verb. (Things like: “He googled her name to see if they were related”, and ”She just friended him on Facebook.” ) New technologies, and new situations. I have no problems with that. Here’s a good article about the fine art of ”Verbing” here:
Two more come to mind; the first is that tired old chestnut: “…waiting online at the bank.” I remember Johnny Carson and others of his day using this expression, (was it a NY or LA thing?) and it always felt wrong to me then, as it does now. Doesn’t one wait IN a line? Even more so these days, when using a computer involves getting ON-line. Minor quibbling, to be sure, but it still bothers me whenever I hear it.
I’ve saved my biggest peeve for last: The term ”Reaching out” is currently the most annoying and over-done, ”new” phrase going. I remember when “reaching out” to someone was a big deal emotionally; you’d reach out to someone for a serious favor, a handout, a charitable contribution. You might even “reach out” to a stranger, a competitor or even an enemy in some special dire situation. To me, it’s a serious act of connection, to be saved for special, important situations.
But when I get an email from an organizaton that just wants my business, or time, the bile starts to rise in my throat. Just this past week, a client’s secretary emailed me, to “reach out” to me to make an appointment. Arrrrggg….what she REALLY meant to say was she was contacting me to set up an appointment. Period. Please, there’s no need to get all warm & fuzzy on me just to set up a meeting! A while back, an old high school colleague (who really SHOULD know better) used the same phrase: He was “reaching out” to me. At first I thought he wanted a contribution to a charity; turns out he really want to just ”CONNECT” to work together on a project. Why didn’t he just say so?
Anyway, that’s a few of the most annoying ones, off the top of my head, and I’m sure I’ll add more when I remember them and have time to post here.
Here’s to sane and sensible expressions, old AND new!
PS: Not very terrible, but already overused nonetheless: “At the End of the Day” has all but replaced “When All’s Said and Done”. Got any more? Respond here; maybe we can make a list and call it “Chicken Soup for the Lame Phrases”. Or something.
Well, it’s been a while since my last blog post. I’ve been remiss; got busy and caught up with work, clients, family etc., and haven’t been posting much. I’m hoping to fix that in the next couple of weeks, during the summer break.
As the 2009-2010 season wound down, we had a number of clients wrap up their season with some excellent concerts and events. I can’t say enough good things about our wonderful clients who’ve bravely toughed-out the last 18 months in this insane economy. Since so many organizations have to plan far ahead, the Arts in general suffered a slower, more protracted “punch” after the big stock market crash. There were lots of changes and shake ups (witness the Kimmel Center’s re-shuffling this past spring!), but it’s looking like that old saying still holds: “that which doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger” - or something like that.
The Bucks County Choral Society and St. Thomas AE Gospel Choirs performed a joint concert on June 5th and received some great press in for their efforts. (read Annette John-Hall’s review here: http://www.philly.com/philly/news/local/95836954.html Happy to say, we fit it all onto double-CD set, which is now available to all choir members. This one’s a keeper!
We also captured the debut of new music director Dirk Brosse’ with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, in a pair of family concerts in Bryn Mawr and at the newly renovated Baptist Temple Concert Hall in Philadelphia. HD Videos of the entire concert are now up and online at The Chamber Orchestra’s YouTube site. You can see the entire concert here in separate clips: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=chamber+orchestra+of+philadelphia&aq=3
We’ll be recording more of the perforances there at the new hall; look for more videos online as they’re recorded in the 2010-2011 season.
On the heels of editing that, our tireless and dedicated video producer/director Matt Conant completed a promotional video (“Don’t You Want MORE?” ) for Longwood Gardens, who’ll be hosting the APGA conference next season in Fall, 2010 and everyone’s thrilled with the result. View the clip here:
This past week, we recorded the Ocean City Pops performance of Mozart’s “Requiem” on July 11th at the performing Arts High School on 6th St., and we’ll be back to record the Three Tenors concert on the Music Pier on the 25th.
Last but not least, we’ve moved our off-site archive storage to a beautiful, new climate controlled site in Wilmington, which makes for faster turn-around times when retrieving clients’ tapes for revisiting old projects, making new copies, etc. (No more elevators; we’re on the ground floor with an outside entrance, literally next to the entrance door. Sweet!)
Hope everyone is keeping cool and enjoying the down-time before the fall season starts!
More as it happens…
Ok, with a name like JoeCo, how could I resist?
Seriously, it had nothing to do with the name; I was hooked on this box and what it could do for us the moment I saw it at AES last fall in NYC. I wanted one as soon as they got the bugs out and had them in production in the USA. I had dumped our clumsy Fostex 24 tracker a while ago, and was in the market for something with high track counts for our larger concert recordings and soundtrack work. The JoeCo Black box is perfect for our needs.
Our first offical use of the box was Saturday, May 1st, and my assistant Charlie Kaier got his feet wet with it quickly; we recorded a double bill at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman theater, recording the final night of Jazz Upclose, show #5, with vocalists Denise King and Vanisaa Sante, each with their own bands. We run a 1-to-1 27-pair split from the onstage mic lines, with our own console backstage, so the JoeCo couldn’t be easier to implement with 24 insert (or balanced line) inputs, via D-25 connectors.
Just a little bit more techie info for those wanting to know more: It’s a stand-alone, single space rack unit that uses your own USB 2.0 Hard drive (Formatted to FAT32) and very little else. User controls are all on the front panel, and the users manual takes about 15 minutes to master. We were up and running fast; as soon as we got the console & mic cables plugged in. It’s really that simple.
Afterwards, back in the studio, all the files came up as standard broadcast .WAV files (in our case, 24/44, but it will go as high as 24/96, 24 tracks, with no issues.) MIxing in Sequoia was a breeze, and the files worked perfectly; the sound is flawless and totally transparant. Aside from a few minor issues with the control buttons (look for more in a MIX review to come soon, from Mix’s Technical Editor Kevin Becka), the JoeCo Black box does exactly what it’s supposed to do, without a glitch or hitch anywhere.
One more pic of the JoeCo black box from the rear, with more info at: http://www.joeco.co.uk/main/products.html#
(Thanks and a big shout-out to Ben Porter at Sweetwater for getting our unit out quickly and in time for the gig!)
On April 29, 30 and May 1st, I travelled to Baltimore to record Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony orchestra, featuring a world premiere work by Jonathan Leshnoff, entitled: Starburst, as well as Violinist Gil Shaham in a performance of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major and last but not least, the mighty Rachmaninoff Symphony #2, which will be edited and posted online for BSO fans and subscribers. What a wonderful orchestra; great staff and hall. The Meyerhoff is a gem of space to perform and record. Bravi!
On Saturday night – 4/24/10 I returned to my alma mater for the priviledge and honor of recording the first public performance in the newly renovated (and quite stunning) Baptist Temple on North Broad St., at literally the epicenter of Temple University. (Actually this was the building that started it all, hence the name “Temple” . (For more information, visit their website: http://www.thebaptisttemple.org/
The Mendelssohn Club Chorus, ( http://www.mcchorus.org/ ) directed by Alan Harler and accompanied by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, (http://www.chamberorchestra) debuted in the new hall with a majestic and powerful performance of Roberto Sierra’s “Missa Latina”, with soloists Heidi Grant Murphy, soprano, and Nathanial Webster, baritone. This inspiring new work was captured for posterity (and a forthcoming archival CD) by us, using up to 16 mics on the chorus, orchestra, soloists and hall. George Stevens was onboard as an indispensible A2/helper, helping get it all together in time for a tight rehearsal/soundcheck, Friday, the night before.
I was thrilled with the look and feel of the new hall, and I’m anxious to sit down in my studio to work on the mix. (I hope it sounds as good as it looks!) The stage was/is luxurious; 40×40, plus the raised orchestra pit, which was more than enough room (as you can see in the pics) for this size orchestra, with the singers up in the loft in the back. (And no, those scary-looking speakers overhead were never on; they do look pretty intense!) For a pleasant change, everyone had ample elbow room, and we had no trouble placing our mics and stands to cover everything. Even though it was a live concert, it has the vibe and feel of a soundstage. (This place should be PERFECT for future sound track recordings; there’s a full size, drop-down movie screen along the back wall, and a projector & video link in the front booth.)
I took these shots in the middle of the performance, with a NIKON D5000, w/settings at “Auto”, no flash, and (believe it or not) shot through plate glass at the 2nd floor balcony level. (Couldn’t risk going inside and tripping over my own feet just to get a shot.)
More on this event once I process it all and get a mix in to Alan for review, and hats-off to TU for saving this landmark treasure for the next generation of concert-goers to enjoy. The staff (Sean Roche & co.) did a superb job of helping us get in and out easily, setup, and do our job without the slightest problem.
On a side note, right next door to the Baptist Temple is “Mitten Hall’, my old hangout for a snack & a few stolen moments nappping between classes, back in the day (1975-’77 or thereabouts).
Joe Hannigan, (BA, 1978, TU).
The Death of Terrestrial Radio (Or, park your car and go to the mall)
I’ve noticed something has gotten worse over the last few years (if that’s even possible in this case):
Commerical FM Radio. It Sucks. Really hard. Lest you think I’m competing for Denis Leary’s new career for picking on the wrong people, let me first exclude just about all of NPR, Classical and serious Jazz stations in this rant. I love you guys, and I’m NOT talking about those portions of the FM band.
I’m not talking about content, either. There’s a niche out there for everyone, and to each their own. I’m talking about the SOUND of commercial FM radio. More accurately; whatever the hell’s been done to it over the years in terms of compression, loudness and overmodulation, all in a sad, sick way to entice more listeners by being the loudest station on the dial.
Like most other audio professionals in the last 10-20 years, I’ve been caught up in the digital revolution, making my living with all the same toys and gadgets you and I now take for granted. I assumed (wrongly so, it seems) that FM commercial radio would keep up with the rest of us, embracing all the changes (mostly for the better) in equipment and sound delivery.
A few other things have happened in my life that have brought me back to listening to terrestrial FM radio again. I recently got married and moved to a more suburban location that requires a little more drive time to most of my remote recording gigs, so I’m in the car for slightly longer stretches nowadays. I have also stopped lugging around CDs (and cassettes before that) and now have – like so many others – most of my favorite music on my trusty MP3 player. I can even plug that into my car stereo’s input jack. (Thank GOD for that feature, but we’ll get to that in a bit.)
With my new family, I also travel a bit more to places like the beach, nearby resorts, towns, shopping malls, and so on. I also bought a new vehicle; a fairly standard Toyota Sienna 2006 minivan, with a stock radio & CD player package. On our frequent road trips, we invariably put the radio on for traffic, news, and when the MP3 player’s battery dies, we then check the commercial music stations. On some recent trips from the East Coast to the Chicago Ill, & Wisconsin areas for example, I enjoyed an old pastime of every long-distance driver: checking out the different flavors of FM radio stations that fade in and out as we drive from one locale to another.
As I mentioned already, news, classical and jazz stations were/are always a joy to listen to; never any harshness; clear as a bell whenever we could pick them up. Sorry to say, the commercial stations – literally anywhere we went, city or town, big or small, in my car or rentals – were/are a sonic abomination.
How is this possible, in the year 2010, with all the improvements we have at every point along the audio chain? The FM radio format in toto surely doesn’t have to sound so bad – we have all the non-commercial. stations proving that every day. It can and does sound GREAT in the right hands. Even with all of its shortcomings, the format is entirely useable in its native, purest form.
Yes, I know it’s true that so many popular recordings nowadays have insane loudness curves and uber-compression, but things are beyond the pale now. Has anyone reading this really LISTENED to their car radio playing a song, then switched over to the same track on their MP3 player??!? (And they say MP3’s are bad….sheesh….my iPOd sounds spectacular compared to the same song being mangled by commercial FM stations!)
Trying to be scientific about it, I’ve ruled out my car’s FM tuner itself, as other broadcasts like NPR, the news, classical and jazz stations sound great on my car radio; so does my iPOD going into the line/aux jack. (It’s even worse listening at home in my living room or my studio’s FM receiver.) So, why I am I hearing over-cranked and tubby bass, distortion, clipping, and no discernable dynamic range whatsoever on songs I have heard countless times – some for decades? On terrestrial FM commercial radio, songs we all know and love are all but unlistenable nowadays.
What has exacerbated this phenomenon for me is all the other places I go now where music – even background music – sounds great; sometimes better than great. When did the modern day replacement for “Muzak” start to sound so much better than my local FM radio station?
I find it absurd that I can go into just about any store in any mall in middle America, and hear terrific, butt-thumping (but sonically balanced) music on playback systems that blow the roof off any FM radio broadcast. Now that I have a wife and daughter (who both love to shop, btw), I have been coerced to go into more clothing, food & specialty stores in the last two years, hearing more playback systems, doing my own unofficial survey of generic, supposedly innocuous sound systems that are, to be honest, downright remarkable. (Talk about an incentive to shop! I hear new music (to me) all the time now, and it makes me say: “Who’s THAT? What’s THAT artists name? (My daughter thinks it’s hysterical, by the way…Dad’s an old audio geek who’s relearning NEW music.)
I’ve started looking up at these systems, since they’re usually hanging or placed up in the ceiling area, far above the goods, and out of harm & shoplifter’s way. In many cases, there are four satellite speakers around the store, and (at least) one subwoofer at one end or the other. I’ve seen Bose, EV, JBL, EAW and many other systems in no particular order. Who’s installing these things? The stores themselves, or the malls that rent them the space? Who cares! The point is the sound is full, robust, enjoyable, and – believe it or not – crystal clear, and NOT squashed or mangled by the idiots running the gear at FM stations.
You never hear a RADIO STATION being played on these systems, either, you hear either a CD player, an MP3 player, or a satellite feed of uninterrupted MUSIC. (Forget the commercial breaks as a reason; maybe they just don’t like the sound of FM??)
True story: We recently visited a Hollister clothing store in a big local mall that had subwoofers underneath a “front porch” entrance area that entices shoppers to venture in to the store itself, with great left & right imaging from semi-professional speakers hung above shoppers’ heads as one entered. I sat on this “front porch” area in a recliner chair, reading complimentary surfer & photography magazines, soaking in Green Day, Maroon 5, and many others, in sonic bliss, while my wife & daughter shopped. The system wasn’t so much loud as it was pure; well setup and calibrated, playing the same material that is currently being destroyed on FM radio. I told them to shop as long as they wanted. I was having too much fun.
Since I started paying attention to all this, I’ve heard some of my favorite “old” tracks – from the 80’s, 70’s, 60’s and even before that, on systems similar to the above, with stunning clarity and depth. I’ve heard subtleties on these systems that make me want to go buy the remastered CDs of these things, just to experience it all again. I was stopped in my tracks recently to hear Blues Image’s “Ride Captain Ride” in supberb remastered hi-fi in the checkout line at….IKEA, of all places. Talk about a Swedish time machine!
Not too long ago while waiting for a prescription in my local Walgreens, I was treated to a remastered playback of “Let’s Dance” (the surf/party single from the 60’s, by??..) I couldn’t believe I was hearing NEW things in an old recording I THOUGHT I knew, thanks to their superior playback audio, and non-mangled CD/MP3 playback system. (yes, I checked with the manager as to what they use. I AM an audio geek, remember!)
When was the last time something like that happened to you while listening to the radio!? I NEVER hear that with today’s FM commercial radio. It’s syrupy, goopy, over-EQ’d, (ear-scalding zippy high end, and cone-rattling, over-extended bass) and more. I suspect the real problem, like everything else, is the goons in the advertising department always want MORE VOLUME to make their signal jump out of the speaker when listeners go down the dial, so they beat up on the guys in engineering to seriously crunk, er….crank it. (Trust me, they’ve been doing this since the medium was invented; it’s inherently nothing new, but the damage is worse with today’s digital tools.)
Sadly, with this digital processing, it’s gotten so far out of hand now, it’s unlistenable. And the kids running the Optimods nowadays have no clue; they disable the factory presets, and smash the hell out of it all.
Did I mention it SUCKS?!?!?
I hear a constant “zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz” sound riding along on just about all commercial FM radio; it’s there on the better stations as well (including news, classical, etc.) but it’s so much worse and ever-present with rock & pop stations, I usually just have to turn it off.
Listen to the lead vocal on any commercial rock/pop FM station and you’ll hear it; it’s like an outline or sonic edge to everything; a distorted, zippy bzzzzzzzzzz sound to everything. (Most likely, this is a clipped waveform artifact; the leading edge of a very non-musical square wave.)
Lest you think it’s my age or my ears, I just got a clean bill of health from my ENT specialist. After my 53rd birthday, we did a battery of tests to establish a baseline for going forward for the rest of my career. I’m not delusional that things can deteriorate with age, but so far, so good. I’m still hearing well into the 17k-18k range, with minimal loss in either side, thankfully.
Anyway, I’m not hearing things that aren’t there; I have been pointing these artifacts out to others, and it’s apparent that the whole thing has gotten out of hand – ironically, far worse than all dire predictions about bad sound coming out of MP3 players.
Maybe no one cares enough, maybe it’s “good enough” for 90% of the people who are speeding along in their cars, or listening to radios wayyyyyy off in the background.
I for one can’t stand it, and I switch it off as fast as I can, whenever I can, and I blame YOU, the people who program and broadcast commercial FM radio.
As nicely as I can say it: Your signal SUCKS folks, and if there’s anyone to blame for the decline of this media (at least in the USA), it’s YOU GUYS. You know who you are – you’re the ones who’ve dialed in the bogus over-EQ on the consoles, cranked up the gain on the Optimods, defeated the factory defaults, and fly in the face of (and right up against) FCC rules for overmodulation and insanely high levels, with the same Hitler-youth defense of “We’re only following orders” or this other lame excuse: “Hey, it’s what the people wan’t.” (Trust me: no, we don’t.)
You should be ashamed for killing a once-great American medium. It’s now just a sad joke, and as it dies a slow death from indifference and lack of integrity, you’ll no doubt blame it’s decline on the usual suspects: Satellite radio, Cable TV, ipods, text phones, video games, and even the Internet itself.
Wake up, people. The fact remains that your signal just sounds awful, and it doesn’t have to. Someone should fix it, but I suspect it’s already too late.
Me, I’m going to the mall for some REALLY good-sounding music.
Ok, well, here we go….I finally decided to start a blog. And the big question on everyone’s mind, I’m sure, is: “WHO CARES?” (I agree, but if you can’t beat ‘em, blog ‘em, I guess….)
I have no intention of ever twittering (I repeat: who would care?!??), Facebook seems incredibly stupid and tedious (What IS this “so-and-so-wrote-on-your-wall” wall stuff? Snowball throwing? IMs? Who’s got time for this?? Doesn’t anyone remember AOL in the 90s the FIRST time this stuff was trendy?)
In any case, I’ve come to the grudging conclusion that this is a good place to put opinions not quite fit for professional publications like MIX (where I do occasional product reviews) or on my official Website of “WestonSound.com”. Some things are better said in blogs, as I’m finding out, and if the occasional cyber-passerby finds these and thinks they’re helpful or have a good point, then it’s a good thing. Some folks close to me think I should have done this a long time ago (instead of pounded their ears with this stuff directly, but that’s another story for another time…)
Most of my posts will be about music, audio, and life’s strange twists and turns as I come to terms with the digital age. I am always thinking about how those of us who have a foot in both worlds (Analog and Digital) deal with it all. I hope to make you think, laugh or just help process it along with me.
So, off we go, good peoples, and let the ramblings begin! As always, your mileage may vary, responsible comments invited, and please stop back in once in a while for updates.