Editor's View: Overcoming Aural Adversity
I trace my start as an audio engineer back to my brother David, older by four years. He was already a good guitar player at 16, playing in a rock band that practiced in our basement.
More than anything else, I wanted to be in the band, too. And why not? I was getting better at the guitar and I could sing OK. Since I had nothing to lose, I swallowed my little twelve year old pride and begged — a lot.
"You're too young, not good enough and your voice hasn't even changed yet!," was his dismissive mantra.
Being a stubborn little bugger, I was not going to some minor technicalities stand between me and the band. So I tried a different approach: I pleaded my case that I could bring a unique musical angle to the rock band.
“No clarinet, final.”
Come on, man. What band doesn’t need an electric fuzz-wah clarinet? Hey! Gimme back my reeds!
Good thing I didn’t ask about my bass clarinet.
I decided to try another tack: I offered to be the "soundman" for the band, not that I knew what a “soundman” was yet. I found out quickly.
What's a Soundman?
A "soundman" is the one who runs upstairs and shuts the basement door when it is accidentally left ajar, preventing the "sound woman" (Mom) from shouting at us during rehearsal.
A "sound man" is the one who breaks down microphone stands, unplugs cables and cleans up after rehearsals - again, preventing the "sound woman" from becoming irate.
A "soundman" is the one who records the band's practices on my Dad's old two-track Revox reel-to-reel. Aha! Now we're getting somewhere.
So began my long quest to ever improve my engineering skills and make higher-quality recordings. Once I figured out that the individual tracks on the Revox could be recorded separately, I suggested to the band that we record the music first so they could concentrate on their not-so-stellar vocals later (yes, I am still bitter about them rejecting my "high-pitched girlie vocals").
The infectious Recording Bug bit hard, and I schemed about how to add tracks and improve fidelity. Complications arising from the Recording Bug led directly to my contracting the chronic Accumulate Audio Gear syndrome, for which there is no cure. Except money — or, more precisely, the lack thereof.
So I made do with what I had, adding new bits here and there. I bounced tracks between two cassette decks, and later, open-reel decks. I bought a noisy mixer and built my own electronic projects (thank you, Craig Anderton and PAiA).
At one point, I am embarrassed to admit, I dreamed of owning a couple of Radio Shack High Ball microphones for recording. Nineteen-seventies home recording veterans take note: that's the High Ball, not the better fidelity High Ball II model.
The beauty was that my budding audio engineering career could only go up from there. That is to say, there is inherent value in aural adversity.
Certainly I am a better and more versed engineer for having survived "innovative" recording techniques, time-consuming electronic kits and tedious troubleshooting. The old adage "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" comes to mind (although some of those improperly wired electronic kits came awfully close).
Most professional engineers, producers and studio owners will conceed that they started the same way: making the most of what they had available at the time.
And at that time, all my recordings had the same semi-musical opening - a wash of white noise hiss modulated by wow and flutter.
Maybe one day I'll be asked, "Daddy, why did you always start your old songs with the sounds of the ocean — and what's up with those high-pitched girlie vocals?"
Next Stop: Liechtenstein
Four countries in four days: Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Liechtenstein. And when in the Principality of Liechtenstein, you absolutely must visit with the gracious people of Neutrik AG, as I did earlier this year. Neutrik, headquartered in the breathtaking Schaan valley, is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary.
I had the pleasure of speaking to founder Bernhard Weingartner and Managing Director Werner Bachmann about Neutrik's genesis. Weingartner started the company in 1975 on a shoestring after he submitted, and subsequently won, a bid to provide XLR connectors for a large broadcast supplier in Europe.
Neutrik AG was born, operating out of a barn in Liechtenstein with just Weingartner and Bachmann as sole employees. It has grown quite a bit since then. Neutrik now has offices around the world, and its connectors have become standard in the studio, broadcast, live sound and contractor industries.
Over the years, Neutrik has developed improved versions of standard audio interconnects, and even created new ones, such as the Speakon and Combo (XLR and 1/4-inch) connectors. Bachmann says the company's philosophy is simple: Innovation. In other words, if they can't improve a standard connector, they don't make it. More than 79 patents, many additional patents pending and millions of installed connectors prove their efforts were worthwhile.
I have long been a fan of the company's products-especially the ones that made my life as a studio owner less stressful. After wiring up several studio and control rooms, you come to appreciate the little things - specifically, those thousands of little things that have to be attached to the ends of cables.
I wonder: If Neutrik interconnects were available to me when I was a kid, would all of those electronic projects I built worked the first time?