Tag Archives: digital audio

On Apple & our wireless future

Never be an early adopter. Let someone else deal with the bugs, the problems with the code, the drivers that aren’t backwardly compatible, the higher prices that come from fewer products being in the marketplace, and the thousand other unforeseen problems. Sit back, observe, take notes and wait till the dust settles.

This kind of thinking was crucial to me back in the days when I had very little money and couldn’t afford to make a mistake with a tech purchase. Hanging back and waiting saved me from buying a laptop with the utterly laughable Windows 8, and before that it saved me from the god-forsaken Vista. This week it’s stopped me being an unofficial and unpaid beta tester for Apple’s iOS 10.

Ah, yes – Apple. The company that doesn’t like headphone jacks. Our subject today.

The iPhone is a digital device, and the music files it plays are digital. Why would you want to use analogue headphones to listen to your digital music files?

Why, indeed? Come to that, why would I want an analogue, valve-driven guitar amplifier? That weighs about 45 kilos and also functions as a space heater? Why are my vintage condensor microphones worth more today than they were when they were made, even though they don’t contain a built-in AD converter and can’t transmit audio data via Bluetooth?

I’ll stop with the sarcasm. I promise.

It’s entirely possible that, as with the demise of floppy disc drives and CD drives, a superior technology will take hold in such quick time that we’ll look back in a year or so and wonder what we ever valued about the 3.5mm headphone jack.

On the other hand, I’ve got several pairs of headphones, earphones and earbuds (none mega expensive, but none super cheap either), all for different purposes, and I take audio quality seriously. I’m not made keen on paying for Apple’s Airpods, or anything by Beats, with their ridiculously hyped low end and utter lack of detail. Frankly, I want to use the headphones I want to use, the way they were designed to be used, not with a Lightning adapter, thanks. From my perspective, Apple’s dropping of the 3.5mm jack feels like the same old game tech companies (hell, all companies – even my bank did this to me, abolishing my current account and forcing me to have their new one, with doubled monthly charges) all play with consumers.

Got a load of perfectly usable gear? Get our new stuff instead! And just in case you don’t want to, we’ll force you to by withdrawing support for your current stuff!

Thanks, Apple. Good to know you care.

And that’s without considering the reduced quality of wireless audio, and the potential for disruption to the signal. There is a reason that no recording studio in the world contains any wireless devices except possibly a wireless mouse. Guaranteed signal flow is kind of the basic, rock-bottom requirement for audio.

I’m not anti-Apple, by the way. I have an iPhone, a Mac and an iPod. But the day they withdrew the iPod Classic – the one that actual music fans love for sheer storage space and who cares about touchscreen – they showed how they view their customers. If we were in any doubt.

Advertisements

On Recalls & Mixing in the Digital Domain

At the moment I’m working quite hard on a couple of recordings I’ve got in progress. I’m a one-man-band kind of guy, playing all the instruments, and recording and mixing the tracks myself. That necessarily leads to a certain way of working if, like me, you have a full-time day job. I fit recording and mixing work into spare hours and half-hours whenever they occur, or save up a few tasks to justify the effort of setting up a drum kit, or a guitar-and-amp rig, and placing microphones. In the past, when I was a freelancer and worked from home, I could block out chunks of time to record pretty much whenever I wanted to, and could have the recording of a song mixed within 24 hours of writing it. Nowadays it takes a few weeks usually. It’s a drawn-out, accretive process.

This way of working is dependent on the ability of DAW software to recall every aspect of the audio project for me. I load the project file in my DAW of choice (Cubase), and every channel is the way I left it: all the inserts are there with exactly the same settings I was using before, the tracks are all routed to the same busses, all my automation data is the way it was last time. What would take hours of work in the analogue realm is reduced to the 30 seconds or so my laptop and edition of Cubase require to load a complicated project.

The implications of this technology for the way music is mixed and the way it sounds when you hear it on the radio are enormous, and are probably only truly understood by recording engineers, especially those who learned their trade during the analogue era.

Almost any record you care to name from the pre-digital era (digital recording that is, not digital playback) has flaws or idiosyncrasies in it that could have been ironed out with one last recall session, but which weren’t worth the time and effort required to do the recall. If you were working on analogue tape with a console, doing a recall to make a couple of tweaks to the vocal level was an expensive luxury few could afford. To allow the tweaks to be made, the engineer or the engineer’s assistant would have to reconstruct the mix on the desk, using notes and snapshots taken during the previous session. Hardware audio processors would have to be re-inserted over the correct channels, tracks bussed appropriately, EQ settings precisely dialled in. It took time, and it wasn’t always easy to get everything exactly the same. An engineer skilled at quickly and accurately recalling a mix was worth his or her weight in gold to a producer or mixer.

Even so, a band was unlikely to get the producer to consent to a recall unless the producer felt the tweaks the band wanted were justified. A recall meant 3-4 hours’ work, and time is money in the recording studio, as it is anywhere else. Digital mixing consoles began to include some recall functions in the 1990s, which sped up the process a bit, but these desks rarely sounded as good as the real analogue deal, and they only went so far: no console can actually plug in an LA2A for you.

It was the DAW that allowed the situation we have now, where any mix can be perfectly recalled, tweaked and printed (that is, mixed down to stereo) whenever the band or producer want. As with anything else, it’s a double-edged sword. When listening to other people’s music, I may decry the primped sterility of the end result: recordings that have been airbrushed to within an inch of their lives, where every instrument and vocal performance is in fixed audibility at all times in a way that could never happen in a live performance captured to tape, and with no technical flaws or blemishes, no matter how tiny, allowed to make it through to the master. Yet I’m dependent on that same technology to make any recordings at all, and I’m as guilty as the next man of stewing over a mix for several days before going back in and systematically fixing all the things that bugged me about the last version.

So what else is new? Replace “digital mixing” with “CGI” and let a movie buff give you their cri de coeur on the superiority of in-camera practical effects work. This is simply the world we live in. When you next hear a brand-new recording straight after a classic on your iPod or on the radio, listen to the differences. Feel them. I know which I prefer to listen to, and sadly, I also know which kind of recordings I’m making.

recall
Doing a recall in 2016

Judith – Heather Duby

Let’s fast-forward 10 years from the heyday of the Pixies.

More cynical souls than me might deny that there ever was such a thing as an alternative rock movement, but if it ever did exist, by the late nineties it was done, and its signifiers – dirty guitars; long hair; a general, to quote Jack Endino, ‘loud intent’ – had been put to bed. Distorted guitars were now the preserve of nu-metal bands. Pointy guitars with Floyd Rose vibrato units were back. 7-string guitars were selling in thitherto unknown quantities. Light-grunge records still did pretty good business, but Pearl Jam aside, the big beasts of a few years before were all defunct.

Artists with one foot in singer-songwriter world and another in the world of alternative rock music who might, a few years ago, have looked to dirty up their music with a Les Paul and a Marshall, now looked to other means to add a bit of edge. And there are always other means. Dirty basslines and thumping drum loops were one way, some electronic flourishes, different textures. A little bit of what Soul Coughing were doing. A little bit like what Folk Implosion were doing. I don’t know who had the thought first, but suddenly these arrangemental ideas started turning up in all kinds of places. PJ Harvey’s A Perfect Day Elise and Smashing Pumpkins’ Ava Adore, for example, were pretty successful singles demonstrating a lot of these production tics, but they were far from alone. Electronica and big beat were big business, and presumed by rock writers to be much more forward-looking than the heavy guitars of a few years before, which were just updated Black Sabbath.

In 1998, then, ambient noises on top of a dirty groove seemed like alternative rock’s future, and it came about partly as a function of fashion, partly out of a development in technology. The year before, Digidesign had released the first 24-bit, 48-track iteration of their digital audio workstation (DAW), Pro Tools. Pro Tools had begun life in the late 1980s as Sound Tools, and at that time was only capable of handling a mono or stereo signal, but Digidesign’s ambitions for it had always involved it becoming a multitrack recording environment. The limitations of the era’s computers and audio convertors simply didn’t allow it yet. This new version of Pro Tools not only allowed direct-to-disk multitrack recording, but in-the-box mixing as well. As a fully fledged production environment, it was expensive – beyond the means of any home recordist who didn’t work as a Wall Street trader – but seemed to many pro musicians an obvious road to go down. And this started affecting the nature of the music you heard on the radio pretty quickly. Loops and samples started to replace live drum tracks on records at a rate of knots. After some years of frankly undanceable music, this wasn’t unwelcome.

Steve Fisk was Washington-based engineer, producer and musician. He’d been a producer on Soul Coughing’s second album, Irresistible Bliss and his own project Pigeonhed was in the same sonic ballpark. But he’d been active during the grunge boom years, too, engineering Nirvana’s Blew EP sessions, the Fopp EP by Soundgarden and much of the Screaming Trees’ SST-era output, as well as records by Girl Trouble, Negativland and Beat Happening. He had, in other words, been around a while and was a respected figure in the Seattle music scene.

So when he expressed an interest in working with Heather Duby, a young songwriter, still at college in Olympia, this was a significant break for her. It guaranteed her that influential local figures would hear the results, and pretty much ensured the record would get at least an indie-label release. When it did, it was on Sub Pop, a label trying hard to shake off its past and establish a new identity for itself.

Her first single was a song called Judith, and it exemplified almost all the trends we’d identified above: programmed drums, augmented by live drums for the choruses, spacey keyboards, soft, high-register vocals (the sort almost always described as ‘ethereal’ by hack writers) and a huge bass line, in this case an enormous, surging synth part in the choruses, double tracked and panned hard left and right, placing you right in the middle of it. It’s a pretty amazing moment the first time you hear it on a good pair of headphones.

The sonic world the parent album exists in – Post to Wire – is a weird mix of stuff that still sounds really cool and stuff that sounds very much of its time; the faux-fi crackle effect on A Healthy Fear of Monsters, for instance, is pretty risible, an example of what could be achieved very quickly with a couple of cheesy filter plug-ins, but would have been better off not achieved at all. You Loved Me’s low-register grind and lo-fi drum loop, however, sounds vital today, and For Jeffrey’s mix of eastern-sounding vocal harmonies, harmonium-style drones and tablas is still ear-grabbing.

The more gothic aspects of her music would recede over time and by the time of the Latency EP of January 2011, her music was a lot drier and closer, more organic-sounding and built on what seem to be live-band basic tracks. Judith remains an awesome single, and the moment when Duby’s songwriting approach meshed most seamlessly with Fisk’s production.

Sadly, Duby was involved in a bike accident in 2011 that seriously damaged both her hands and left her unable to play music. It could apparently have been a lot worse; her doctors were at one stage considering amputation. A benefit was held in Seattle to raise funds for treatment and physical therapy, but what information I could get online suggests she hasn’t yet been able to return to making music. Let’s pray that in time she can.

Update (23 January, 2017): The year after I wrote this, she did! Duby was credited with both piano and vocals, so it seems her injuries were repaired well enough to give her good use of her hands. Great news.

Image

Heather Duby, 1999

Mexicola – Queens of the Stone Age

Anyone who went to a Queens of the Stone Age show on their breakthrough UK tour in November 2000 will remember the eardrum-threatening volume. I went to one of their two shows at the London Astoria with my friend Yo and I certainly remember it. I suspect he does, too. I particularly remember the bass guitar signal forming a monstrous standing wave at the back of the hall during the last song that scattered the crowd very quickly, and did funny things to the stomachs of those who tried standing their ground. I’ve never seen My Bloody Valentine or Dinosaur Jr, but Queens were so loud I can’t really imagine anything louder.

Extreme volume is a funny thing, particularly when dealing with the zero-sum world of digital audio. Faced with an absolute ceiling of 0dB, how can a band like Queens – who made the pursuit of volume their rasion d’être – make a truly loud record? One that sounds loud compared to everyone else’s on an iPod, not just when you turn it up on a good stereo? How can you be louder than everyone else when the volume knob doesn’t work any more?

Well, one way would be to call Joe Barresi. And so they did. Barresi, at least back in the nineties, had a way of making very loud records that didn’t seem squashed lifeless, that retained the punch in the drums that is absolutely crucial to good-feeling rock records. Presumably he did this through compressing in stages all the way along, rather than by allowing them to be brickwalled during mastering. Eventually even his work came to seem static and over-compressed, but he was so skilled at the loud game that his work stood up better far longer to the age of shock-and-awe mastering jobs that was in full swing by the time the Queens made Songs for the Deaf in 2002. That record, produced by Josh Homme, Adam Kaspar and Eric Valentine (mixed by Kaspar) is a sonic atrocity, a crying shame given the quality of some of the songs on it.

Mexicola, though, is from Queens’ eponymous debut. This version of QotSA was essentially a two-man crew: Homme and drummer Alfredo Hernandez, both former members of cult stoner/desert rock band Kyuss. From the sludgy bass riff (played by Homme, under the pseudonym Carlo Von Sexron) that opens it and the tiny SM58 vocal sound, to the guitar solo mixed hard right, it’s an immediately identifiable, bone-dry sound with few precedents in mainstream rock (Kyuss producer Chris Goss’s Masters of Reality are the most obvious forebear – Goss and Homme share distinct vocal similarities – but then, MoR were not a mainstream band. Perhaps the acid-drenched psych-grunge of Screaming Trees, with whom Homme toured as a guitarist, were the closest this kind of sound got to a wider audience).

But the social and geographical context of Queens of the Stone Age (the Palm Desert scene) is not to be overlooked here. Their sound had some key components in common with other desert rock mainstays such Fu Manchu. The use of downtuned guitars, shifting the instruments’ centre of tonal gravity downwards, created sonorities that are rarely heard in mainstream rock, where standard tuning makes everything sound, well, rather standard. Heavy use of the crash and ride cymbals in place of the hi-hat, creates a ‘washing’, hazy kind of sound to the drums (often emphasised by the trick of recording the cymbals after the rest of the drums, allowing both elements to be processed separately). The use of (formerly) unfashionable amplifiers and pedals resulted in a distinctive, unscooped heavy guitar sound, that got away from the scooped guitar sounds of metal and the thin gnarly sound of some of the grunge bands. The guitarists in desert rock bands have tended to eschew the Marshalls that are the sine qua non of commercial hard rock and metal, instead using amps by H/H, Hiwatt, Orange, Matamp and the ubiquitous Sunn, plus vintage fuzz pedals. Stuff found in pawn shops. Treble is dispensable and clarity is over-rated; thumping low end and boxy mids are much more deserty. Hi-fidelity guitar sounds are avoided in favour of huge slabs of hyper-distorty gunk-o-fuzz.

So in lots of ways, early Queens were the archetypal desert rock band. But Homme found his way out of this commercial backwater pretty quickly. The basic unit of rock songwriting is the riff, which tends to describe only very simple chord changes, or no chord changes at all, and this can lead to melodic stasis. Homme worked harder than most as a tunesmith, and once Queens began attracting attention in the early noughties critics fell over themselves to claim they’d known about Yawning Man, Fu Manchu and the rest all along. A likely story. When this scene was finding its feet, all eyes were on Seattle. Those that had noticed them dismissed them as purveyors of mere retro skater-rock, as if grunge was Vorticism or something.

Queens of the Stone Age would soon abandon this sound for a poppier and more conventional take on hard rock on their second album, Rated R. But for fans of Josh Homme’s original ‘robot rock’ concept (simple riffs played over and over again; Black Sabbath covering Kraftwerk, if you will) – and for a hardcore minority, it’s the only version of Queens worth bothering with – this is the place to come.

Image

Josh Homme