Saturday, December 13, 2008

A One-Eared, One-Eyed Fly on the Wall

Recently I was in the audience for a Camerado concert in Brooklyn while sitting at home in my living room, thanks to a live webcast; and I was more engaged than when viewing a live network awards concert.

It's so easy to be seduced by the power and possibilities of expensive mics, preamps and digital 5.1 surround sound.  At first, experiencing the webcast's low fidelity audio and video made me think of a tenth generation analog dub of a recording, which was contrary to the exciting factor that it was live.  But it's the musical performance, and my enjoyment of it, that transcends the quality of transmission.  It's like the early days of AM radio when folks in the hinterlands tuned in far away urban soundscapes and listened through the static to bands playing live in New York City hotel ballrooms.  While hi-def may be able to put bad music on life support, lo-fi can't kill good music.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Within the past two weeks, I had the pleasure of performing in two very different, yet wonderful acoustic spaces.  One was an early 1900s rural opera house and the other, a modern suburban church.  One was built for secular purposes, the other religious; but in each case the room was built to be an auditorium - a room for several hundred people to listen.

Sometimes I'm stuck in an acoustically ugly space and do the best I can with or without sound reinforcement.  That's why I appreciate great rooms like these all the more; and it's when little or no amplification works best.  

This recent experience gave me a very strong image and understanding:  I was a mere string vibrating; the room was the great sounding board, the wooden box of a violin or guitar.  I will practice playing the room as an instrument.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Balance Meter

We're all familiar with American-British synonyms like fries and chips.  In the audio world alone radio is wireless, tube is valve, ground is earth, and calling a VU meter a balance meter is downright poetic.

Balance deals with more than just volume - it's a guiding principle in audio from design to production.  And it's a sensible approach to living: a balanced diet, finding balance between mental and physical activity, the familiar and the new, being with others and being alone, loving yourself enough and not too much.

So when I wear the symbol of a balance meter on my lapel I'm not only honoring the field of sound and audio which has been my passion since childhood and my profession since 1972, but reminding myself with every step and with every breath to keep my balance.  

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Vibration Imitation

Critical listening as a key to successful sound production resonates well with me. How else can the lyrebird make its incredible imitations? [Listen to the video clip: ] It's not born with these built-in sounds but with the ability to listen then mimic.

Hearing the lyrebird made me think of several friends who can listen to a guitar lick or a foreign accent, then easily employ it through fingers or voice with amazing results. One of them is dyslexic and this made me wonder if the aural part of his brain was compensating. Maybe so, but does it matter? They're all excellent listeners who analyze how the sound is produced, know their "equipment," then match their output with the sound in their minds. Is it any different for the best producers or comic impersonators? Can we do the same with sufficient practice?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Sound of Alarm

Whenever the fire siren cuts the air in my town I think about a couple of things: the terrified ones who phoned in for help; and the brave souls who leave whatever they're doing to go save lives and put out fires. After the siren summons the volunteers, the next sound is of fire trucks wailing and barking alarm, alerting drivers to pull over, clear the way. Sometimes we hardly notice these sounds as they blend into the urban soundscape.

My dad remembers a different sound of alarm. As a Brooklyn boy born in 1899, he witnessed a team of horses with nostrils snorting, hooves sending sparks as they rattled down the cobblestone streets, the wheels of the pumper roaring and a big brass bell clanging. And there was one other sound: a dalmation barking as it zigzagged in front of the horses, nipping at the heals of pedestrians to clear the way. A rich sound picture, isn't it? Which is probably why my dad remembered it so well and told about it so vividly. Like music, everyday sounds are historical, cultural and have the texture of time and place woven into them.

Be Still

The better the listener, the better the producer. And how does one become a better listener? Being still allows one to be more observant. It's analogous to the phrase, on a clear day you can see forever. On a quiet day you can hear farther.

There's good practice to be found at -- put on your headphones.

One of the features on this enjoyable website is the question: "What is the quietest sound you can hear right now?" That reminded me of a song I wrote several years ago for my students but never got to sing to them. As I was canoeing one quiet spring morning I witnessed a fish swallowing a fly at the water's surface, and wondered: how quiet would one have to be to hear that fish swim? Other examples grew in my imagination. The lyrics are reprinted below.

Be still. Be as quiet as a pond before sunrise.
So still that when a rainbow trout, fishing for flies,
Eyes a mosquito, you hear it swim. Be still.

Be still. Be as quiet as shadows at noon.
So still that when a red-winged blackbird, dropping a seed,
Disturbs a chipmunk, you hear it blink. Be still.

Be still. Open your ears and your eyes and your mind,
Open your heart and your spirit might find
A peace on this earth, the one home we share
Where we drink the same water and breathe the same air.

Be still. Be as quiet as a forest at midnight.
So still that when the temperature drops, freezing the sap
In the white pines, you hear it snap. Be still.

Be still. Be as quiet as a cloud in the sky.
So still that when the rainstorm is over and moisture is moving,
Evaporating, you hear it rise. Be still.

Be still. Open your ears and your eyes and your mind,
Open your heart and your spirit might find
A peace on this earth, the one home we share
Where we drink the same water and breathe the same air.

Be still. Be as quiet as if six feet under.
So still that when the tree you once planted, sends out its roots
And feeds on your body, you hear it grow. Be still.

© 1999 dB

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

How Loud?

A friend of mine recently sent me a sound article by Adam Sherwin, media correspondent for the New York Times. I'm always glad to see sound addressed in the media but I also felt the need to respond - first, to a comment or two by my friend, then to points made in the article.

dB: The writer makes some good points about volume and lack of dynamics in today's recorded music. What he fails to mention is that moderate compression was used in the vinyl days precisely to keep the needle from jumping the groove; and that serious compresson started not with records but with AM and FM radio's processing of the signal. First, it was done to get the signal to travel as far as possible and stay within the FCC's power restriction for that frequency; but then came the competition among stations -- who had the "loudest" signal on the radio band? Research and common sense show that listeners tune in stations that are loud and clear and if you're compressed, you increase the odds of being clear further away.

My friend: "It started with Dolby..."

dB: Dolby was a method that dealt with noise compression. When used appropriately it seriously improved the quality of analog mulit-track recording; and for better or worse Dolby (along with CrO2 and Metal tape formulations) extended the life of cassettes as a commercial and personal format. This led to the "cassette revolution" that democratized the album release, putting it in the hands of every garage band. The internet, recording software, websites, and downloads have fueled this revolution and major labels are the loosers.

My friend: "I feel bad for headphone listeners today."

dB: Yes, me too; and to make matters worse: 1) advancements in headphone quality allow listeners to turn up the volume more before distortion occurs; 2) advancements in headphone comfort invite listeners to wear them for longer periods of time. Both contribute to severe hearing loss.

Sherwin: "Dad was right all along - rock music really is getting louder and now recording experts have warned that the sound of chart-topping albums is making listeners feel sick."

dB: I was working for the American Forces Radio Network in Belgium in the early 70s. That's when bars and nightclubs started installing dual turntables so a DJ could crossfade danceable music just like radio stations did; and big sound systems so the music could be as loud as a live band played. The result was a discoteque, and it wasn't long before record companies jumped on the band wagon with a formula and created the marketing term "disco." A health issue developed (at least in Belgium at the time) that was labeled "the disco dump." With long wavelength bass frequencies so loud, it put pressure on the internal organs; and some lost bowel control on the dance floor.

Sherwin: "Record companies are using digital technology to turn the volume on CDs up to '11'."

dB: A good trivia question: What movie produced the "turn it up to 11" phrase? [Spinal Tap] And what do Spinal Tap and The Simpsons have in common? [Harry Shearer acts in both. Check out ]

Sherwin: "'Peak limiting' squeezes the sound range to one level, removing the peaks and troughs that would normally separate a quieter verse from a pumping chorus."

dB: No, peak limiting removes only the peaks but leaves the troughs. Hard compression removes both.

Sherwin: "The process takes place at mastering, the final stage before a track is prepared for release."

dB: Yes, but compression also takes place during mixdown as individual tracks can get compressed prior to the entire stereo mix getting compressed.

Sherwin: "The CDs induce a sense of fatigue in the listeners. It becomes psychologically tiring and almost impossible to listen to. This could be the reason why CD sales are in a slump."

dB: Yes, compressed music without dynamics is extremely fatiguing, but corporate CD sales are in a slump because of illegal downloads, and independent artists distributing their own music (CDs at concerts and downloads on websites). Much of this is not part of reported national CD sales.

Sherwin: "Downloading has exacerbated the effect. Songs are compressed once again into digital files before being sold on iTunes and similar sites. The reduction in quality is so marked that EMI has introduced higher-quality digital tracks, albeit at a premium price, in response to consumer demand."

dB: This is why I don't care for mp3s. Some people either don't hear the difference in quality, or don't care, or both. Free music (illegal downloads) and convenience (iPods and cellphones) are winning out over high fidelity.

Sherwin: "In an open letter to the music industry, he asked: 'Have you ever heard one of those test tones on TV when the station is off the air? Notice how it becomes painfully annoying in a very short time? That's essentially what you do to a song when you super-compress it. You eliminate all dynamics'."

dB: Questionable metaphor: 1) the test tone has no dynamics on purpose because it's supposed to provide a constant volume; 2) the test tone is in the mid-range (1kHz) where our ears are most sensitive.

You can read Sherwin's entire article "Why Music Really is Getting Louder" at: