Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Argument ad Populam

One of the easiest ways to get Jacked is to fall for The Argument from Popularity.

"Ninetynine out of a hundred thugs bust dey ill rhymes on an Avalon Mic Pre, yo, so you know its be da KRUNK."

"Almost all emo-weenies have a baritone guitar, so baritone is the best!"

"no one has ever heard of your product, so it must suck."

Sound familiar? The very idea that the popularity of something is a direct reflection of its quality. Could it have more to do with Ad Money? Nah, couldn't be...

By this same argument, Brittney Spears is better than Black Sabbath, because Brittney sold more albums

If you buy that, I have some prime real estate in the Phoenix Housing Bubble for you.

An extremely parasitic parallel to this is when you hear "industry standard" used to describe a product that no standards organization exists to bestow such a title upon it. When a sales weasel is fast and loose with the term "industry standard" you may be a mark for someone thinking you an easy target to play fast and loose with your wallet.

Judge any purchase on its intrinsic quality, rather than its popularity and you won't get Jacked.

Victim #1. Let the arrows fly

OK, I warned that this blog would be controversial. I said I wasn't going after the easy stuff. I won't be the least bit surprise if my reputation goes down even lower than the sad depths it already wallows in, but I call em like I see em.

So without further ado, I present, Victim #1. Analog summing boxes

Oh, I can feel the heat now. Attacking this sacred, holy grail. But so be it. Living at the intersection of the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, heat is what I like!

When it comes to really evaluating audio, there are a few actual, meaningful measurements we can make. We can measure frequency response. We can measure distortion. We can measure noise. We can measure dynamic range, not just in signal to noise, but in signal to error, depending if we are looking at analog and/or digital.

Let's look at that evil digital summing.

Frequency response? Once the signal is digitized, unless you intentionally filter it, the frequency response here is going to be unity gain across its entire domain. Of course it'll be down a bit near the edges near nyquist, when it goes out the D/A, but nothing is going to happen to it in the DAW unless you want it to.

Distortion? Not unless you go over 0dBFS (and technically, not necessarily even if you DO go over)

Noise? Not unless you add it.

Signal to Error ratio? At 64 bit float, or even 32 bit or whatever some of the DAWs are using, who cares? And with today's levels squashed so hard that 8 bits would sound just fine, what are we worried about?

So just what is it we're trying to achieve with an analog summing box?

That Vintage Magic

You know, that unquantifiable, something that does something to your signal. To tell the truth, there are PLENTY of devices and functions we use that either add distortion or change the frequency response, or limit the dynamic range. For a point in the summing boxes' favor, we don't always WANT transparency.

But what do they claim?

"• Incredible Imaging
• More Punch and Detail
• Unbelievable Headroom "

If anyone can link me to the now famous post by Nika Aldrich about the claims regarding noise a few years ago, I'd love to post the points here, but even these three are enough to go on.

Incredible in my DAW when I pan something it doesn't actually go where I pointed it? Or does this mean something else?

More punch and detail..."punch"? In today's square wave, white noise approximated hypercompressed brick mixes? Ummm, OK. "Detail"? What do we use to measure that?

Unbelievable Headroom? You're right, I don't believe its going to give more dynamic range than 64 bit float.

Lets be honest, if there is ANYTHING these boxes are going to do sonically, its distort. A DAW is inherently WYSIWYG or it's broken. If this box does anything, its breaking the signal. Maybe its breaking it in a pleasing way, I'm not ruling it out, but let's not pretend that something can be more accurate than 100% accurate.

Let's go applying our earlier rule to these devices:

"If only I had used an analog summing box, this song would have been a hit"

Are you serious?

Far be it from me to paint an entirely negative picture, I'd like to give an example of one GIANT benefit these boxes will have for some people in some situations. Some of these analog summing units make it very easy to patch in and insert a piece of hardware gear. Your favorite compressor or EQ or whatever. Traditionally, DAWs have made this process a PITA, but some responsive DAW coders are even changing that. Still, in the case of these summing units, it is one less AD/DA when using the insert, so there's another point.

To summarize, I'd like to say, that these boxes may have their uses. But as the deciding factor in a mix? Not hardly. As something a "sales engineer" should be pushing on a noob? Hell no!

Maybe this device is right for you, but think before you spend, and you won't get Jacked.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Re-introduction to Critical Thinking

I would like to introduce a rule of thumb that should help greatly whenever considering a purchase, an upgrade, maybe even a fader move.

Ask yourself this question:

Will I ever hear, "if only (insert gear name here) was used on this song, instead of (insert whatever here) it would be a hit" ?

Substitute some pieces in there and you can get an idea whether or not something really matters much, if at all. For instance:

If only I had recorded at 192khz instead of 44.1khz, that song would have been a hit


If only i had used a Distressor on that guitar, the song would have been a hit


If only I had blindly followed the advertising/"articles" in Mix Magazine, that song would have been a hit.

So ask that, and keep asking it. Your wallet will thank you. What you may not realize is that your SONGS will thank you! That's right. Spend time and resources on the things that matter instead of the things that don't and you will always be that much further ahead.

Of course there are a few counterarguments to this rule, here's one of them:

I like to call this the "Accumulation of burrito wrappers over time leads to used diapers clogging up the Salt River"

Another way to look at this is to say "well, maybe that crappy thing by itself won't make much difference, but when there are a bunch of stages like that, of course it'll be worse!" Bad enough to spell the difference between a hit and a dud? Maybe, maybe not.

So lets follow this line of thinking. Let's say you had the noisiest, most distorted mic, feeding a severely bandlimited, noisy mic preamp, going into an 1/8" adapter on a consumer soundcard. You record and mix it in who knows what and record it to a cd player by running out the analog 1/8" jack into the CD Burner's RCA inputs after a radio shack adapter

That would be pretty bad wouldn't it?

Well, yeah, but that is an absolutely CATASTROPHIC chain of failures. Are you really going to do that?

Worry about the things that actually matter, and you stand a lot less chance of getting Jacked

Welcome to Don't Get Jacked

Hello this is pipelineaudio. For those who don't know me, I am an uneducated, uncouth, unreasonable audio engineer and a general loudmouth across the internet's many "pro" audio haunts. I am here to bestow the accumulated wisdom of my years and years of inexperience regarding the purchase and evaluation of audio engineering techniques, philosophy and gear. In case you haven't noticed, the forces of the MI Marketing Machine are so powerful at this time, that you can reasonably and accurately predict which exact brands and models (and often in what quantity) of gear you can expect to see in a noob's rack. But of course, this isn't just for noobs!

The point of this blog isn't just to tackle the easy stuff, like Monster Cables, painting your CD's green, Shakti Stones, etc. No my friends. I will be taking aim right at the most holy of holies. The Untouchable, Unassailable Sacred Cows upon whos' udders many of the highest profile gear pimps greatfully suckle.

Yes, I will attack your favorites, Rodger's favorites, even MY favorites, with a critical thinking approach to see what really matters to the sound that reaches the end consumer who would rather steal than buy your music anyway.