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On becoming a “documentarian”

10 Dec

So how does one become a “documentarian” anyway?  Well, like most things, there’s a bit of nature, a bit of nurture, and in my case, some great parents!

My mom had a pretty cool gig in the fifties, she was the secretary to the head of the Technicolor department at Kodak.  While secretaries didn’t make the biggest paychecks back then, there were some perks.  One was that the company gave her a nice Kodak 35mm camera.  They’d also give her & the other staffers free rolls of new test emulsions (ektachrome & others) to “shoot over the weekend” so they could evaluate their pictures on Monday.  Free film & processing, what a deal!   As a result, we have a lot of cool family photos.  Thanks Kodak.  My mom gave me the Kodak at the Grand Canyon in 1977 and when I got the photos back, I was in awe.  The consummate mother, she had one shot enlarged and framed & hung it in the family room, I was “published.”  Thanks mom.

The earliest memories of loving music I have are some Aaron Copland records that my father enjoyed playing really loud (after a long day at work at the Ventura County Mental Health Department.)  I believe I was about 2 years old at the time & I decided that loud orchestral music was pretty darn cool!  Dad was a bit of a Hi Fi stereo nut (a common 50s & 60s pursuit for many) and had a fairly nice hi-fi ‘rig’.  A Fischer tube tuner, his home assembled Dynakit amplifier, and the loud JBL 12″ speakers with the metal bullet tweeters.  Wondering what a bullet tweeter looks like?  Well here you go:

Dad was always playing one cool record or another throughout my formative years and as a result, I fell in love with music, all types.

The final piece of the documentarian came into place at a friend’s basement, the Schwarz residence.  Their father, John “Little Man” Schwarz was a WWII vet, musician and director of the Maumee Ohio High School choir.

In the summer of 1977 we found the reel-to-reel tape machine he used to record their performances in a corner of the basement.  We learned that it had an awesome capability, sound on sound.  Basically this allows you in real time to layer parts over one another to create a massive soup of sounds, all playing at the same time.  We spent many an afternoon playing with the recorder, making ridiculous explosion collages, like we were the foley artists scoring The Bridge Over River Kwai (1957).  We were recording whatever we could find that might make an interesting sound.  This recording stuff was fun, I was hooked for life.

The groundwork was laid, all before the age of 11.

Hello New Students! Ready to learn about Recording Technology?

10 Dec

Well, I hope so!

I immensely enjoy teaching Recording Arts media classes at Owens State Community College and helping students to understand what being an engineer in 2011 is all about.  Some things have changed in the past nine decades of audio recording, others have not.  So let’s start with what hasn’t changed.

The first thing you should always remember is this:  engineers fix things.  It’s the absolute first thing you should commit to memory –it’s importance is paramount.  If something breaks or isn’t working properly, you’re expected to fix it.  Or, at least, workaround the problem.   That’s your job, you’re the engineer, that’s why the ‘talent’ hired you.

So where do you start if there is a problem?  This is why you are here, to gain experience from which to draw from and thus become a valuable ‘team asset’ to a production or company.  Some troubleshooting methods are learned the hard way through years of field experience.  But in this day and age of the internet and Google, you can often “stand on the shoulders of giants” and become competent much more quickly than in the bygone era.

Before Google, we had flowcharts.  Every repair person on the planet follows some type of flowchart, mental or printed, to solve problems and move forward. Here is a flowchart to diagnose a non-starting automobile from www.ifitjams.com (hint: if you click on the graphic it’s easier to read.)

A Flowchart for getting a car to start

A Flowchart for troubleshooting an automobile.

Engineering implies, by the vary nature of the term, a commitment to protocol, standards and organized thought.  Great engineers are disciplined and understand the physics of sound and electricity.  There was a time in the not too distant past that if you didn’t have an Electrical Engineering degree (EE as it’s known) it was very hard to find work at a recording studio.  In 2011 you are expected to be “computer competent” and know the basics of music theory & musicianship.  The three elements of music are melody, harmony and rhythm.

As the recording engineer, frequency is the most important concept to understand.  Frequency in music in the number of vibrations per second an instrument or voice is producing, commonly referred to in Hertz (or Hz for short.)  Humans with perfect hearing can hear pitches from 20 to 20,0o0 vibrations per second.  The open A string (5th string) on the six string guitar is 110 Hertz, by the way.  Here’s a link to an interactive “frequency ranges of modern instruments” chart that you should be committing to memory as soon as possible, as it is the foundation of any good engineer.  The link is interactive, the graphic here is static (a picture.)
Independent Recording dot net Frequency Chart

Interactive Frequency Chart from Independent Recording.net

These days, the EE degree has been replaced in many environments by what I term the CE, for Computer Engineer.  The cold hard truth is that digital recording technology, and the computers that enable said technology, have taken over most of the studios of the world.  It is for this very reason that we begin class making sure you know the basics about contemporary computing platforms, with an emphasis on the Apple Macintosh that the school provides for us.

For a little “fun” here’s how the RAND corporation envisioned a home computer to look in 2004.  (I particularly like the steering wheel.)

Well they do have a keyboard and a screen.

So in PA140 we use 27″ iMac computers with i3 processors.  The Apple Macintosh may be intimidating at first, however, trust me here, it becomes ‘very friendly’ after just a brief period of adjustment.   Apple even has a nice PC to Mac series of videos, right here.  Also it is good to keep in mind, that 19 times out of 20 the problems on the computer turn out to be “user error.”  Wikipedia has a nice definition for you here.

In the professional audio/video market and for the nation’s stars,  the Mac is more popular.  Don’t believe me?  Have a look for yourself.  🙂

Jay-Z & Beyonce using their Apple Mac Laptops.

Another rule of thumb is: “It’s not IF the computer will crash, but WHEN.”  Thus, you should ALWAYS BE SAVING and backing up your work.  If you follow that sage advice, you’ll be in great shape.  When the following BSOD (Blue Screen of Death) and Mac Kernel Panic screens appear (Often preceded by a SWOD –Spinning Wheel of Death) you’ll know what to do, right?  Just RESTART!  (You saved your work, right?  Then “no worries.” 🙂

Windows Blue Screen of Death Screenshot Apple Mac "Black Screen of Death"

Brief review: You, the engineer, will fix things.  You will constantly be saving your work.  You will look at the Apple videos to become less intimidated by the iMacs (if you’re a new Mac user) and you will be willing to admit that problems you’re experiencing are often ‘user error.’  Lastly, you can’t learn if you’re not there, so attendance is of the utmost importance.

Welcome to Class!   I’ll do my best to help you understand and master this intro class to the exciting field of media production.  When not in class, email is always the best way to reach me, through Blackboard.

Good Luck!  Let’s make some great music this semester!  🙂

Walt

Links for the aspiring computer based Artist/Audio Engineer
Kernel Panic wiki

User Error wiki
PC to Mac 101 Video Series direct from Apple (good review for Mac users too!)
Independent Recording dot net Frequency Chart