“The more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain.”
-Scotty, Star Trek III
My other job is software development. I tell computers what to do, and they do exactly what I’ve told them – which is often upsetting, because exactly what I told them to do tends to not be what I want to happen.
For the projects I work on, a “local environment” for development is very helpful. Instead of having to push my code up to a remote server to see any change I’ve made, all I have to do is reload a local web page. The sticky thing with my current project was that, until a couple of weeks ago, I did NOT have a working environment on my own machine. When the project was set up, we had taken the approach of having a “computer within the computer” handle one set of tasks, with the main computer running a whole different server for the interface.
You might not know what all that means, but if it sounds complicated to you, you’re on the right track.
It was complicated. Too complicated. And it didn’t work properly until I finally decided to back out and de-complicate the setup.
It’s working beautifully now; Even though the setup is still complicated, it’s not any more complicated than it actually has to be.
So what does this have to do with music?
Music production is actually very much like software development. You have a set of things that you want to do, and technologies available to help you do them. From recording a tambourine overdub to mixing 32+ channels of live music in realtime, there are all manner of gadgets and gizmos to get the job done. All the thingamabobs involved are interconnected in a logical way, and perform logical functions.
They do exactly what you tell them to do (assuming that they’re working properly). Just like with software, you can pretty easily dig yourself a hole by making a setup too complex. You think that you’ve put together a signal chain to do “x,” but you’ve really built a setup that does “y.” The gear doesn’t know what you want. It simply “runs the program” it’s able to run. The more unnecessary complexity you add, the more the risk of an unintended result goes up – especially if you exceed the limits of your own understanding.
Years ago, I watched a band chew up a large amount of their set time while fumbling with an FX rack for the guitar player. They had all this studio-grade gear bolted down, with all kinds of patching needed, and they weren’t really sure how to make it all interface with the rest of the guitar rig. They struggled and struggled until they finally got something they could use.
They could have been done in the space of a minute if they had just used a couple of stomboxes, or a multiFX floor processor. Instead of all the weird sorcery they were attempting, they could have plugged in a few, easy to understand cable paths and gone on.
Now, as often happens for me, let me be clear about what I’m NOT saying.
Technical production for music is not always simple, nor should it be. Big shows, for instance, can have a huge number of “moving” parts that interact in ways that are both fragile and bombastic. It’s just the natural state of putting together that kind of production. The thing is, ESPECIALLY with complicated production, the endeavor should not be made any more complicated than it actually has to be.
If it isn’t a problem, don’t solve it.
If you don’t have to constantly take it apart and put it back together again, don’t.
If it can all be wrapped up into one box while staying usable, don’t put it in three. (If it’s more manageable to put it in three boxes, then don’t put it all in one!)
If there’s a setup that will work with two cables, don’t insist on the “solution” that takes 10.
A rig or process that is just complicated enough to get you the desired result is what you want. Anything beyond that, and you may end up having to solve new problems that are sitting on top of the production problems you already have. Why subject yourself to all that stress? Simplify.
By my calculations, the music business should have completely ended at least 10 years ago.
Or, at least, it should have if all the predictions were right about the sky falling.
Every since the first MP3 files were traded by college boys on their .edu networks, the hysterics have been flying. Artistry was going to be completely destroyed. Recordings would stop being made entirely. Nobody would ever make any money at music, ever again. The Earth would fall into the Sun.
I was part of the hysterical crowd, by the way. I couldn’t see the opportunities for what they were. I was used to a world (actually, a fictional one) where the whole point of everything was to get picked. Some record exec would hear a great demo tape, sign you, and your troubles would be over. If the record companies went away, HOW WOULD THAT HAPPEN?
Well, first of all, it didn’t really happen anyway. Any really sizable record company is afflicted by “big corporation” disease, which makes them highly allergic to anything other than a reasonably sure bet. They either grab ahold of someone who already seems to be building something great without their help, or they manufacture something that fits the style of the month.
But the thing is this: The artistry of music. The beauty. The sublime charge of emotion and movement and mathematical relationships…
…it has basically nothing to do with capturing a signal representing sonic events, and then selling that capture to people.
“Phonorecords,” as we’re used to in a conceptual sense, have existed since about 1890 or so. Humans have been making musical noises, on the other hand, for millennia. MILLENNIA, FOLKS.
That is to say, if you reference good ol’ Wikipedia, you’ll find that humans apparently were making flutes 40,000 years ago. So, do the math. The business of recorded music, with all of its arcane wizardry, chicanery of accounting and contracts, dashed hopes and dreams realized beyond all anticipation, is about 0.3% of the history of music.
From the statistical shorthand that “it’s got to be 5% before it’s relevant,” recorded music is completely insignificant when compared to the human experience of music on the whole. I’m not saying that it’s a passing fad; I don’t believe that recording will pass away into the aether – but I am saying that, as a matter of comparison, phonorecords and the selling of them is yet a tiny spark of nothing in the great sea of sounds.
So, why do I point this out?
I point this out because the “sturm and drang” related to people supposedly not buying/ not valuing/ stealing/ recorded music is, in my mind, a distraction. We fail to see the whole picture of the musical experience, and we pin everything on demanding money for captured sonic events. Before anyone could even begin to think of selling something as antiquated as a physical record, there were centuries upon centuries of successful and unsuccessful musicians.
Piracy is not killing music. Streaming is not killing music. The music business is not killing music. Music is very much alive and well, because the emotional experience of it is what people can not help but crave. Artists who have made the most powerful of those emotional experiences are selling out venues of all sizes, all over the world. If music was actually dying – if the public no longer cared about it – that would most certainly not be the case.
Recorded music is no longer scarce. Our computers have seen to that. That lack of scarcity means that the demandable value of phonorecords is dropping. But that’s okay! Recordings can still be sold for something, and they’re still a valuable tool for you to get your art across to an audience. It’s just that they’re not the only thing, and maybe not the biggest thing.
That’s really fine, because, in my mind, no one has ever, EVER purchased music. What they have always purchased is an emotional experience that was packaged up in some way. For a few years, the king of those packages was the artificially-scarce phonorecord. Just because it WAS king does not mean it will always be, nor should it always be.
And let’s be honest – when you look at the numbers, that king was just a Johnny Come Lately anyway. Let’s all take a few deep breaths.
My end of this business is often driven by mythologies and half-truths.
“Class-A watts are louder!” (No. A watt is an SI unit of measure. You either have a certain amount of energy being dissipated, or you don’t.)
“Clipping any amplifier will destroy a connected loudspeaker.” (Sorry – incorrect. Clipping in itself is fine, though potentially ugly sounding. The problem is too much power, whether the red lights are illuminated or not.)
“You need a traditional kick-drum mic to capture a kick-drum.” (I’ve been proving this wrong on a weekly basis for quite a while. Tossing a beat-up MXL 990 inside in a kick sounds just fine, and saves me a little bit of floor space.)
Microphones, being somewhat mysterious fauna, are no strangers to being misunderstood. There are many specifications attached to them, and if you don’t know what they mean in context, it’s easy to misinterpret what’s going on.
A big, sort of “omnibus” myth is that microphones have some sort of magical ability to discriminate between what you want them to pick up and everything else. This myth manifests in such (understandable but spurious) notions like mics with higher sensitivity being necessary for quiet singers. The idea is that higher sensitivity allows the mic to “reach” farther from itself, and grab the sound of the vocalist. Also, the thought includes a guess that feedback might be reduced, because less post-mic gain is applied.
Like I said, this is understandable, but inaccurate.
Let me reiterate the title of this article: The loudest thing at the capsule always wins.
There, is, of course, nuance to this that bears digging into.
A Dumb Sensor Of Pressure
Microphones don’t have pattern-matching and synthesizing brains like we do. For all the sophistication in their construction, mics are rock-stupid devices which translate pressure events into electrical signals. They don’t know what you want and what you don’t want – they are only “aware” of sound-pressure changes.
If the sound-pressure change is what you want to pick up, that’s great. If not, too bad.
A mic with higher sensitivity relative to another model of transducer is not somehow able to “reach out and grab” a quiet source. All that the greater sensitivity means is that, for a given amount of sound-pressure, the mic has more output voltage. Without anything else going on in the room, the greater output might trick you into believing that the mic will give you more of the singer – but that’s not the case. When everything else on deck kicks in, the singer will be just as washed out as ever. Your problem is proportion, not absolute output level.
This also connects to the feedback problem. Feedback depends on the TOTAL gain through the “loop,” not just the gain from mic pres and consoles. Higher sensitivity means that (if you change nothing), the total gain through the loop is increased. Unless the high-sensitivity mic has a more feedback-resistant design overall, you will actually have a greater tendency towards feedback…until you reduce the post-mic gain to compensate for the increased sensitivity.
Of course, multiple things can change when you swap out a microphone. A microphone may, for example, have both greater sensitivity AND a tighter polar pattern in comparison to another unit. This can make the mic seem like it can “reach farther,” because the capsule is less sensitive at certain angles than others. However, move things around until an undesired noisemaker is at the same angle to the capsule as the thing you want to hear, and you’ll see that your problem comes roaring back.
(This is not to say that a tighter pattern can’t be helpful in working through certain issues. It’s merely to say that it doesn’t magically make the mic discriminatory for sounds arriving at the same angle.)
So, What Does It All Mean?
The upshot for you is that what you want to pick up should be – from the mic’s perspective – VERY loud in comparison to everything else. If it isn’t, then the mic is just helping you amplify a bunch of what you don’t want.
If, at the mic capsule, a singer is being almost totally drowned by a guitar amp, cranking up the mic through the monitors isn’t really going to help. The signal coming off the mic is a little bit of singer and a lot of amplifier, which means that more monitor means a little more vocal and a lot more of the guitar rig. And that very likely makes the problem even worse for the vocalist.
On more than one occasion, I have worked with bands where I was really on the gas with the vocal mics, and I was hammering the PA limiter. I was NOT hitting the limiter with actual vocal. The gain reduction indicator was perfectly in time…with the snare drum. (!) There was nothing wrong with the PA, or the equalization of the PA, or the mic choice. The problem was that the singers couldn’t “hang” with a rock drummer, and the rock drummer wouldn’t make space for the vocalists.
On another occasion, a drummer specifically asked me to hang some overheads above his kit. He also had me dial up a TON of the rest of the band in his monitors. Midway through the show, I soloed up the overheads into my headphones. I certainly heard some drums, but I heard at least as much of his monitor mix bleeding into those overheads.
The overheads were not something I wanted to put into the FOH mix – they would just be making the rest of the band louder, not bringing the drums out more.
The loudest thing at the capsule wins. Good mics are a fine investment, but some sort of inherent imbalance that the mic can “hear” requires fixing at the source. You have to make sure that mic is getting what you want it to get, because you’re the one with the brain.
Before you bail on this article because you’ve already heard a million exhortations to “turn down,” I want to make something clear:
This article is not about letting the audio human control your sound. That’s actually not even a universally desirable thing, especially if the noise-management creature du jour is grossly inexperienced, malicious, stupid, or just plain absent.
This piece of writing is not about the economics of selling food and drink, and how that requires people to communicate with waitstaff. You already know all that.
This missive is not about safety and career extension via the taking care of your ears. You’ve had that talk so many times that you can quote all the major themes from memory.
This article is about psychology.
In this business, we talk about so many things at a “mechanical” level, as I referenced above. We talk about technical reasons for things. Business reasons. Safety reasons.
But a theme that I’ve started to see emerge in the last few years is a topic that is rightfully taking its place in the list of Things That Music People Need To Think About. It’s the issue of the audience’s emotional involvement. The audience’s emotional involvement with your tunes is probably THE driving force behind a career that satisfies you. It’s probably THE propellant that fires a live show into the stratosphere.
If an audience isn’t emotionally engaged with your songs, what’s the point? The most awkward and depressing shows are the ones where the musicians and the listeners fail to connect.
And I can tell you with a great deal of certainty that volume causes a disconnected audience (or an audience on the fence) to disconnect MORE. They are getting something they do not want, and they are getting it in quantity. That’s not a good situation.
The Objection and The Rebuttal
Whenever I talk about “loud,” there’s almost always some pushback. The most relevant pushback in this case goes something like this:
“I was at a show for [National Act] the other night, and nobody told [Famous Musician] to turn THEIR rig down. Everybody was loving it.”
The unspoken assumption is that the Sound Pressure Level (SPL) of the show created excitement in the crowd, and that same amount of overall level at any other show will help to create the same excitement.
The people at that show were already “amped up” BEFORE a single note was played. They were excited enough to experience live versions of beloved tunes that they stood outside in uncomfortable temperatures, so as to have the privilege to fork over tens of dollars, so as to have the privilege of being in the crowd. That’s what the all-important emotional connection does.
And yes, they did “like it loud.” They liked it loud because they already liked it. The pre-existing emotional connection was in place, and a bit of extra level acted as a sort of flavor enhancer. The audience had ordered up a scrumptious musical meal of all their favorite comfort-food songs, and they got heaping portions of it all. Of course they were happy.
The analogy holds when things are going the other way, too. If somebody is served a meal that they aren’t particularly interested in, or worse, that they just don’t like, is the answer to serve them more of it? Is the answer to hold them down and spoon it all down their throat? If that were you, don’t you think that you’d just get more and more pissed off at the jerk who was forcing you to eat?
That’s what happens when you’re too loud for your audience’s pre-existing acceptance of you and your music.
Offhand, I don’t have any scientific studies to cite in defense of my position. What I have is the veracity of my analogies, my own experiences, and the experiences of others that have been related in various ways.
I recall a story told by an engineer who worked on (what I believe) were Tejano shows. The crowd was so into the music that they weren’t satisfied with the level until the system was driven to audible distortion.(!)
Another audio craftsperson related the story of a show played to some older folks. Whether it was the break music or an earlier act is something I can’t remember, but I do remember that the music wasn’t what the crowd wanted. They kept demanding that it be turned down, and turned down, and turned down. The engineer assumed that they just couldn’t handle the level. Then, the main act came on, which was big-band music that the crowd adored. Suddenly, people in the audience were complaining that it wasn’t loud enough.
I once worked a wedding where the mother of the groom was very upset at how loud I was playing the dance music. It ended up being so quiet that a couple of people were standing next to one of my main loudspeakers and easily holding a conversation.
I once ran Front Of House (FOH) for a local pop-punk band that was giving a farewell show. The kids in the audience were ecstatic to be at the gig. I got a mix going, and it was very much at “rock” level. I was glad that my earplugs were in. A camera operator got my attention, and I assumed that he was going to tell me that I had gone too far. What he basically said was, “Man, it needs to be WAY louder.” We were in the very back of the room, and the entire band was clearly audible over the crowd.
Loudness as an experience enhancement is a special privilege that is not granted easily. If 90% of a crowd is unambiguously begging for more volume, then it’s okay to give them a bit more level. (Not too much, though.) If the previous sentence is not what you’re experiencing, then don’t take the risk of alienating the audience. Too much level can quickly turn the listeners into your enemies.
Loud doesn’t create excitement. Excitement, on the other hand, will sometimes allow a bit more level to be acceptable.
Performance video is something that I readily place in the category of Very Good Things™. Why try to describe the experience of your show to someone when you can just show them? In HD. Over the Internet.
Seriously, it’s a no-brainer.
The argument for it, I mean.
What IS a “brainer” is the process of actually filming a performance. Especially if you’re trying to do it at a professional level, interfacing video production with the normal production of the show is not necessarily a trivial thing. To be brutally frank, shooting video (really shooting it, I mean) is a disruptive addition to the performance. Even if there’s only one video craftsperson involved, what has suddenly happened is that there is a whole new layer of crew at the show. These people have their own needs for space, power, audio, and lighting, and those needs don’t always line up neatly with everything else.
This is not a bad thing. It does NOT mean that video is evil. It does mean, though, that trying to do a serious job with video at your show requires a lot more than just having a person with a good camera on hand.
Advanced Notice, Advanced Arrival
One thing that really grinds my gears as an audio human is the sudden appearance of a “pro” camera operator with the show only minutes away from downbeat.
What grinds my gears even more is the sudden appearance of video after the show has already started.
It’s not because they have a camera, or are taking up space. That’s just life. What bugs me, though, is that they have a knack for needing things from me, in a hurry, during a “pressure situation.”
“Is there any extra power, dude?”
“Where’s an okay place to put my tripod, dude?”
“Can I get a board-feed, dude? I have adapters for [literally everything except what would actually make it easy].”
What I want to say in reply is, “There was a convenient time for all of this to get sorted out. That time was roughly two hours ago. Other things are currently demanding my attention. Why did nobody tell me you were coming, and why could you not manage to be on time?”
I don’t say that of course, but the desire is very strong.
The point is that knowing about video’s arrival in advance is more than just courtesy – it’s extremely helpful in making it possible for me to be useful to the video crew. If I know that video is coming, and have some general idea of what they need, then I can “do some homework” and be ready to interface smoothly with both them and you. If I don’t know that video humans are on their way, and I have no specific clues about what they might need, then assisting with any issues will very likely require me to interrupt some other production task so that I can “babysit.”
Ask yourself: When the pressure’s on, do you want me to paying full attention to your show and your needs on deck, or do you want me to be splitting my focus between you and an unprepared video dude with non-trivial issues?
Further, the video crew being able to show up with lots of time to spare has a VERY large bearing on how much can be done to accommodate their needs. I have no problem finding extra power, discussing camera placement, changing stage layouts, tweaking light-cue choices, and digging around for appropriate audio I/O…if it’s all being done with lots of time (say, one or two hours) before the doors open. If the show is minutes away from happening – or in the process of actually happening – I’m going to do the minimum possible to get video out of my hair. It’s not that I don’t want to do more, it’s that I CAN’T do more when other things are at the top of the priorities list.
To be blunt, shooting video for later presentation is not on the critical path for making a show happen. If getting video squared away threatens the execution of tasks on the critical path, video is going to get ignored until such time as the critical path is completed.
It’s A Personnel Problem
So, what’s the overarching principle here? In my mind, it’s pretty simple: When finding someone to shoot high-quality video of your show, the key thing to look for is professional people, as opposed to professional gear.
Now, I’m not saying that decent cameras and “pro-level” ancillaries aren’t necessary. They are. But what has to be realized is that the only thing required to get one’s hands on a good video camera is money. There are lots of folks with the money for very nice cameras, but who have no clue about how to be a functional part of the chaotic vortex that is live music. It’s much the same as a high-performance car. There are plenty of people driving around in Lamborghinis who simply could not handle themselves competently in a real race.
If you want to do pro-level video at your show, look for videographers who will do some real homework with you about what you want and need, ask technical questions of you and the venue, and arrive at an appropriately early time in order to get everything sorted out in practice. Sometimes, people like this will have the very latest and greatest gear, and sometimes they won’t.
It doesn’t matter if a person has a cinema-grade 4K camera. Understanding how to function as a professional at a live show is make-or-break factor. Everything else is gravy. If you want to make a killer video of your show, my advice is to find professional attitudes first. You can always fork over some extra cash to have those truly varsity-level-attitude video humans equipped with high-end gear.
But professional poise is not something that I’ve ever seen on a list of rental stock.
We see it everywhere in the music biz: [Insert Artist Name here] has a new single!
But, what does that really mean?
Well, to break it down, there are SINGLES, Singles and singles…
The SINGLE- AKA Major Label Release or the Times Square Billboard
When a major label artist releases a single, it’s a big deal. It’s a big deal because it means the label is investing tens of thousands of dollars (yes, that much) in advertising and promotion to get that single out there in the market. They literally have teams of people calling up individual program directors on a daily basis to get them to play the single on their radio station. This involves both relationships and favors. For example, a label radio promoter might ‘sweeten the deal’ with a program director by offering free tickets to a big name artist show in exchange for spinning a lesser known artist’s single. It happens all the time. Major labels pretty much own the content that gets played on major radio stations, which is why you hear the same playlists over and over.
And, just so you know, a #1 song in the country market will make a million dollars. So, if all the promotion works, it pays off big for the label, the artist, the publishers and the songwriters.
The Single- AKA Legit Indie Release or the Highway Sign
When a legit indie label or indie artist releases a single, they can hire radio promoters to work their single at radio for a fee or they can run a professional DIY campaign.
Now depending on the charts they are targeting, fees vary widely from a few thousand for the ‘life’ of the single – or however long it is still moving up the charts – or a few thousand a month. In country radio, for example, major label artists typically release and promote to Billboard charts and up-and-coming artists generally release to secondary charts (Music Row, Billboard Indicator). Even these secondary charts come at a pretty hefty price tag, and artists I know have spent $20,000-$30,000 on promoting one single. Because of royalty rates, don’t expect to earn a bunch of money back either. A few years ago, I was a writer on a song that reached the top 60 on the Music Row charts and it paid a whopping $30.
For myself as an indie artist, I’ve found a great option in radio promotion in the UK and Ireland. I partner with KEMC Global; they are reasonably priced, and they get results that turn into actual revenue because the royalty rates are so different there.
If you do hire someone to help you promote your music, make sure they have a track record of working with artists in your genre. And, as always, ask around to see what other successful indies are doing.
The single- AKA I’m Saying it’s a Single or the Yard Sign
This brings us to the last type of single. This is basically when you say you have a single, but what it really means is that you put it on iTunes and maybe your hometown radio station is playing it. It’s sounds cool, yeah, but it’s just not the same as the two types of singles described above. At the very least, if you’re serious about your career, consider trying a DIY campaign around a new single or album, or clarifying your release as an iTunes Single release.
The Closing Thought
So, there you have it. There are SINGLES, Singles and singles. While we can’t all be major label artists, the good news is that you do have options to run legitimate single promotions with an investment of time and money. And, remember if you want to be legit, then you have to work on getting your music on legit music industry charts,; ReverbNation doesn’t count.
Have any questions about radio promotions? Hit me- I’ll answer whatever I can!
I figured that I should probably write an article about an actual technical issue in live-sound, seeing as how Carlos always introduces me as an audio-human. I mean, it was getting a little ridiculous there (my piece about why some audio guys are unhelpful notwithstanding).
Some of you have instruments with non-preamplified pickups. That is, the pickup doesn’t run to any kind of processor, doesn’t need any batteries, and isn’t connected to an amp that you’ve brought along. Instead, the pickup simply turns your instrument’s vibrations into electricity, and that electricity travels down a cable that gets plugged into the audio rig.
…and some of you have had real problems. I have very definitely heard several variations on “When we played at that other place, we couldn’t get any level out of my pickup. I might need a new one.” It hardly happens to me every day, but I’ve encountered people with similar issues often enough for me to think: There’s something out there that needs to be addressed.
Let me start by saying that the news is probably good, actually.
It Probably Didn’t Break Between Rehearsal And The Gig
Yes – sometimes gear does get mangled on the trip to the venue. You can’t discount that possibility. However, if you just recently plugged your pickup into a practice amp, and everything was fine, it’s unlikely that your gear spontaneously killed itself.
Most instrument pickups that I run across are fairly hardy creatures in and of themselves. These days, the actual pickup part of the pickup should be able to withstand at least a bit of abuse before having an internal failure. (I’m not advocating that you do mean things to your pickup. I’m just saying that riding around in a gig bag probably won’t wreck the actual transducer.)
Oh – if you didn’t know, “transducer” just means “a device that converts one form of energy into another, corresponding form.” In this case, we’re talking about taking the energy of your instruments vibrations and turning it into electrical energy.
The actual transducer is usually attached to a cable. That cable, while probably not delicate, is likely to be far more fragile than the pickup itself. For that reason, it’s worth keeping a mental note as to whether or not that cable might have been yanked, bent at a sharp angle (especially near the plug or the pickup), stepped on, rolled over by a roadcase, smashed during transit, or otherwise treated poorly. That’s just due diligence when you have a problem.
But, what if everything seems like it should be okay? What if you’ve connected your instrument to the PA system via the audio craftsperson’s shiny, new, undamaged direct box…and all you get is a “tinny,” weak signal? Do you need a new pickup?
Short answer: No.
You Probably Have An Impedance Problem, Not A Pickup Problem
Impedance is really the “meat” of this issue. So, what is it?
Impedance, by itself, is not a complex idea. It’s the opposition to the flow of current in a circuit where the voltage changes over time. Yes, that’s right: The signal on your instrument pickup’s cable is a kind of alternating current. Sure, the voltage is much lower than the alternating current that comes out of a wall socket. Sure, the frequency content is complex.
It’s still alternating current, though.
The basic concept of impedance is not difficult to make sense of. What gets audio and music folk into trouble is that impedance issues can have profound effects on how our gear works. What also gets us into trouble is that we live in an age where a lot of “impedance matching and bridging” problems have been thoroughly worked out. We just don’t have to think about impedance issues very much (or at all), and so we forget to consider possible impedance pitfalls when a problem occurs.
I know that this is getting REALLY technical. Don’t panic. Yet.
The problem with us pro-audio types is that we predominantly live in a world that thrives on low impedance. Sending signals across “long” lines (like a 100’+ snake), and then applying a ton of gain to those signals are “Very Pro-Audio Things To Do.” The doing of Very Pro-Audio Things is facilitated by having relatively low-impedance signal paths. Low impedance is great for driving long cables. Low impedance is great for keeping noise manageable.
…and low impedance can make your instrument pickup sound awful. Getting into precisely how that happens is a bit beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that low impedance can result in signal loss, unwanted resonances, and the filtering out of either low or high-frequency signal content (depending upon the situation).
But What About That DI Box?
Now, at this point you might be saying, “But at my last show, we plugged my pickup into a DI box. It sounded terrible! DI boxes were made so that my gear would work with pro-audio gear, right? My pickup must be bad.”
Firstly: You’re correct that DI boxes are primarily used to help with getting different kinds of gear to play nicely together.
Secondly: Not all DI boxes are the same.
(I’ve actually written a whole article about this on my own site.)
These days, a lot of the most affordable DI boxes are basically meant to serve one purpose: They take an unbalanced, actually low-ish impedance signal that might be a bit too “hot” for a mic pre, and turn it into a balanced signal that’s at an even lower impedance, and has been reduced in voltage to a mic-pre friendly level.
These DI boxes are passive, meaning the only electricity that they need is what they get from the signal source plugged into their input.
Let’s be clear. “Passive” does not mean “bad.” I myself have a handful of passive DI boxes that are perfectly adequate – when they’re being used for the correct purpose. The issue with passive DI boxes is that they are simply not the best choice for high-impedance devices, like your “stick it in the soundhole” inductive guitar pickup.
Further, passive DIs are a THOROUGHLY AWFUL choice for really, really, really high-impedance devices, like that “no installation necessary” piezo pickup that sticks to your classical guitar/ mandolin/ violin/ whatever.
The reason is impedance. A passive DI box’s input impedance just isn’t that high, especially for a piezo pickup. A magnetic pickup might get by with some “ultimately tolerable yet still disappointing” loss of high-end, but a piezo pickup might seem like it has no output, no “body,” and a rather disgusting sort of “nasal honk” if you can get enough gain applied to hear anything.
On the flipside, active DI boxes and preamps designed for instruments DO have high-impedance inputs. This is why the question of “did your pickup work with a practice amp” is an important one to answer. If your pickup worked with the practice amp in rehearsal, then the problem at the gig might just be DI box’s impedance. Mate your pickup to an active DI, and chances are that your pickup problems will “magically” resolve themselves. Active DI boxes have undergone significant price drops over the years, to the point that they can be had for only slightly more than a passive model. If you’re using an instrument with a passive pickup, you might want to invest in an active DI or preamp of your own…
…because even an otherwise competent audio human might not be aware of the above, just as you weren’t aware of it. Which leads me into a bit of a rant:
We Seem To Also Have An Education Problem
I don’t want to get too “tinfoil hat” about all this, but it seems like the constant drive to reduce packaging and reduce costs has resulted in the death of The Truly Helpful Instruction Manual. Back when I was much younger, it seemed like all kinds of things shipped with thick, detail-oriented instruction books that did more than just tell you how to plug things in. These Truly Helpful manuals had all kinds of background information in them, which helped you to understand how a product actually worked. If the customer actually bothered to read the book, they stood a good chance of understanding enough to know WHY something might be acting up.
Now, as many things have gotten highly commoditized and much more “stupid resistant,” manuals have been reduced to quickstart guides that tell you very little about the whys and wherefores of your gear. In some cases, this is excusable…especially when the manufacturer has truly eliminated most of the guesswork involved in using the product.
The issue with passive instrument-pickups (and other things) is that the informative manual has been eliminated while the uncertainties remain. Active or preamp-equipped instrument pickups can be plugged into almost anything and work acceptably, so a manual that talks about things like DI boxes and impedance issues would be nice…but not 100% necessary. On the passive side, though, it’s troubling as to the lack of information that would help customers understand what affects their gear – perhaps profoundly.
Of course, this lack of education on the part of equipment manufacturers helps folks like me, in terms of giving us consulting gigs and letting us write articles like this. In the case of someone’s live-performance, though, I think that the cost of saving money on the manual might just be a little high.
I dunno. Maybe I’m wrong.
But I do miss informative, well written, engagingly illustrated instruction manuals.
Anyway – your pickup probably isn’t broken. Just remember that impedance is a factor, and be ready to try a couple of different things when the unexpected occurs.
We’ve all heard it: “The band is currently in the studio, working on their next full-length album. It’s slated to be released…”
For those of us who grew up in the era of dominant physical media (CDs, vinyl, cassettes, and all that), this phraseology was common and expected. Your favorite band would go to work on a project, withdrawing into the mysterious confines known as “the studio.” All you’d have to remember them by were the recordings already available to you.
Months, or even years later, the band would emerge again, their new record held aloft like a trophy. “Here it is!” they would proclaim, and then they would start touring to support the release. It was one of the defining “rockstar moves” of that time, and it remains imprinted on musician psychology to this day.
The problem is that I have this nagging feeling about it not being the best idea these days. In my opinion, it wasn’t the best idea back in those days – it’s just that it was necessitated by circumstance.
How I See The History
As far as my experience goes, I feel that recording and releasing music was a much bigger “to do” in the days when physical media was king. That doesn’t mean it was more significant than it is now, just that it was more logistically challenging. Even when recording equipment underwent a precipitous price-drop, and we had “The Triumph Of The Amateurs,” actually releasing a recording involved a lot of logistics.
Even if you were going to self-release, you still had to get a gaggle of copies manufactured, packaged, and shipped somewhere. If you were a major artist, and wanted to reach a huge audience, you had to get a TON of copies made, assembled, and shipped to a lot of different destinations.
Getting a bunch of duplicates made was decidedly non-trivial, and recording time was both expensive and demanding of a lot of coordination. When this is the case, there is a very strong incentive to go through all that hassle as few times as possible. Thus, the tendency is to go and do all the recording at once, record as much material as is practical, and release it all in one package.
Now – this isn’t to say that “concept albums” aren’t an entity in themselves – an entity that can require a certain workflow for certain approaches. It’s also not to say that people didn’t release one-offs and hit singles. Obviously, they did.
Even so, I’m convinced that the phenomenon of disappearing into the studio was heavily driven by essentially non-musical concerns. The problem is that many of us came to believe that this peculiar sort of hibernation was THE way to handle recording. We erroneously correlated the form of the process with the success of the outcome – we got the notion that doing things that way was the right way, because that’s how the big artists did it.
…and just like the mistaken belief that utilizing stadium volume makes you stadium worthy, I think that adhering to this practice isn’t necessarily helpful.
Off The Radar And Repackaged
I don’t want to give the impression that disappearing into the studio to work on a big project is universally harmful. I DO want to say that I think it can be detrimental to bands trying to connect with a modern audience, often unnecessary, and excessively stressful. Again, sometimes its appropriate to carve out a big block of time to work on a single effort “all in one go.” However, I want to challenge the idea that the classic approach is THE way to get a release built.
The way I see it, the world is becoming more and more “real time.” That is to say, the consumption of information and media is very much a process of experiencing smallish “packets” of content in a near-continuous stream, rather than digging into large, monolithic releases.
Obviously, there are exceptions. The whole Netflix-binge thing, where multiple seasons of a show are devoured over a few days, is a counterexample. Still, these exceptions tend to be rare. Listening to an entire, packaged release of songs (an album) is much less common than it used to be. People tend to build their own packages (playlists, that is) out of individual songs from a number of artists. Technology has made this basically trivial.
This phenomenon of “consumer repackaging” means that putting enormous effort into a monolithic release can be a bit of a waste. If you’re not working on a concept album, and you can do most of the recording work yourself, there’s simply no logistical need to structure a project for release as a big batch. People will probably just break up that batch anyway.
Also, the “real time” experience that people have embraced means that disappearing into the studio can cause you to drop out of people’s consciousness – even if only partially. If a lot of your attention comes from live shows, for instance, then taking a hiatus from the stage in order to craft a bunch of studio material is actually counterproductive for you.
With media consumption going the way it has, I simply don’t see any particular advantage in musicians locking themselves away for an album project, unless the project’s artistic aims specifically demand it. I do, however, see a number of advantages in recording and releasing songs incrementally:
The experience is far more “real time.” As you finish a song, you can release it immediately and have it start generating interest immediately. On your end, there’s less of a wait for the “payoffs” associated with having a release “out in the water,” and for your fans, there’s less of a wait for new material.
Because the experience is more “real time,” you don’t drop off of people’s radars. Instead, you stay firmly in their consciousness – even more so if you keep to a regular release schedule.
The experience as a whole is far less “do or die” for you. Incremental releases mean that, as a band or artist, you don’t have all your eggs in the basket of a single project. The whole thing doesn’t have to be perfected as a complete package, with all the stress that entails. You just have to get each bit to an acceptable place, and then you can see what’s received well and what isn’t.
You can progressively build up to an EP release, and then a full-length release. Releasing each song individually doesn’t prevent you from packaging them later. In fact, doing so later on means you may have an opportunity to capitalize on the attention you’ve been getting from the individual releases. Because you’ve stayed visible, you’ve preserved your momentum with your fans, and this momentum can help propel the packaged version of your songs. (Just remember to make the album memorable in itself. For example, you could hold one or two songs back until the album release, which then provides an incentive to buy the whole product.
No, the concept album isn’t dead – but technology is at a point where the necessity of approaching every recording project as being similar to a concept album is pretty much gone. You may as well find a way to leverage the advantages of this.
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