Archive by Eddie Ciletti

Broadcasting Audio Science

Everyone is talking about the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act and the ATSC A/85 specification.

The goal is to resolve the perceived loudness discrepancy between programs and commercials (the latter a.k.a ‘interstitials‘). There is some humor in this – on multiple levels.

If you mix sound for picture, the North American standard for Program Loudness is -24 LKFS (-23 in the EU) – the voltage difference from there to 0dBFS is more than 10 times!!! This makes logical sense because that type of programming requires enough headroom to allow for a wider dynamic range – the sound of a truck, siren or explosion being enough to drown out a conversation and have impact. Logical, right?

By contrast, the people responsible for commercials ‘build’ them like pop records, with the goal of getting as close to kissing 0dBFS as possible. There’s almost no dynamic range in commercials in part because they are emulating current pop music – engineers are simply having too much fun abusing dynamics processing tools.

To reconcile the differences, the first question might be ‘whose job is it?’ Obviously it’s not happening at the source although the easiest thing would be to require -20dBFS to be the new 0dbFS at jingle houses… Next would be to have a dedicated audio person at the helm of every national and local broadcast facility. We all know that is not going to happen, for all sorts of reasons. Bottom line is that A/85 establishes standards by which program material can be measured, as defined by ITU-R Recommendation BS.1770. Having a target – combined with analysis tools – is part of the process.

NOTE
The ATSC is about to adopt BS.1770-3, which will clarify and define the following:

1) It introduces the concept of “gating”; think noise gate in that the measurement ignores quiet passages, making for better alignment with subjective loudness

2) It also intros a strict definition of True Peak measurement, which is of lesser value in the grand scheme of things but is nonetheless yet another step in the right direction.

;->

No matter what percentage of broadcast programming is pre-recorded, the ‘final assembly process’ is essentially LIVE, 24/7, either under human control / intervention, or automated. Now that all audio is digitized, there is also an opportunity to take advantage of metadata so that each audio stream can be ‘stamped’ with ‘loudness analysis’ so that the last device in the distribution chain can automatically change levels without altering the intended dynamics.

NOTE
Since LPCM is not delivered to the consumer, it’s Dolby Digital that we’re talking about here. The metadata value – dialnorm or Dialog Normalization – has been around ever since AC-3 has existed. Trouble is, that approach of relying on accurate metadata has not worked since Dolby Digital became the mandated codec for DTV some 8 years ago…Hence, the CALM Act! :-(

Yes, you can still game the system (not saying how!) but, that just means that something in the air chain will sit on your mix and make it sound like shite (again). As a wise man recently said, now that loudness should no longer be a differentiating factor, mixers can finally/once again gain audience share by using their ears and skills to make great mixes that stand above the rest in terms of all the metrics other than loudness.

;->

Now that managing audio broadcast levels has become a ‘law,’ the process is much more complicated, i.e., when between-program breaks become ‘interstitials.’ Can you tell I am still LOLZ about that new vocabulary word?

It is never too late to have an increased awareness of how your piece of audio fits into the larger sonic puzzle. And yes, there is software to assist in the process. This is not an endorsement, but someone has to do it. Batch processing will assist in this monumental task.

NOTE
Even public radio has great difficulty getting a consistent balance between presence / intelligibility and proximity effect from its many human sources – and we generally think of this institution as having higher audio standards. This tangent was a column topic in past years.

Mastering any of the audio arts requires a higher understanding of Loudness, Proximity Effect and the ability to monitor – aurally and visually – the full audio spectrum, from the harder to hear frequencies below 160 Hz to the potentially painful octave from 2.5kHz to 5kHz. It applies to all audio disciplines.

My thanks to OMas for the audio standards enlightenment!

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Busy New Year so far!

I started off 2013 with one less class to teach and was anticipating having extra time to make a dent in my to do list.

No Such Luck!

My extra time went into prepping and supporting a Rockabilly session at Minneapolis Media Institute. It was an all-analog, four-day session involving two former students, a stand-up bass and a collection of gear that was older than many of the participants.

- To pull off the analog part, a tape machine had to be integrated into the patch bay. This was my second ‘DL connector refresher course’ in recent months!

- After getting some TLC, the Otari MTR-90-II was aligned for 15 IPS, +3/250nWb/m, IEC EQ on recycled Quantegy 499 tape.

- My vintage outboard rack was brought in to augment the studio’s gear rack. At the eleventh hour, my heavily modified Pultec MB-1 preamp got an optical limiter implant that when combined with an RCA D77 ribbon mic, the vocalist and real tape delay authenticated the Rockabilly vibe we were looking for.

- With the exception of one condenser mic (a Sony C37a on Snare) and two dynamics – an EV-664 (kick) and a Sennheiser e609 (bass amp), the rest were ribbon mics. The producer brought a Turner ribbon mic that he had re-ribboned. It complemented the stand-up bass mic, providing much needed ‘note focus’ where needed.

- The ‘guest’ who brought the C37a also provided two tweed-era Gibson guitar amps, a Fender spring reverb and an Echoplex tape delay. By now you should be guessing that all the tube gear gave the space a very vintage aroma. As the Echoplex warmed up, however, it needed some TLC. The next day – with spare parts in hand, I replaced the tape as well as the power supply filter caps.

- We did the entire session live, no click, no grid and no headphones.

The session was a success, my assistant and I are making progress on the Serge Modular synth (mentioned in the February issue). I have a Sony C-500 condenser mic on the bench that needs its DC-to-DC converter rebuilt (no polarizing voltage) and I sold a few LA-4 opamp and opto upgrade kits.

PHEW!

I hope to give y’all more details about some of these items in my March column.

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Happy Synthyntyne’s Day!

“ASK EDDIE” is both the name of a column and a blog and yet, you may have noticed there aren’t always questions. At first I wondered if perhaps the column was misnamed, but after some thought I can reconcile the disparity with this caveat: the title has been abbreviated for clarity. The full title is, “Ask Eddie if he can fix this gizmo that few people have any experience with and is more likely to be a restoration than a repair and for which there is little to no documentation…”

That said, please know that you are always welcome to submit questions.

Happy February!

Truth be told, my February column on the SERGE modular synthesizer wrapped just before the holidaze, but it didn’t end up in the January edition, which I thought traditionally was the NAMM issue. On the plus side, collecting 3 1/2 perspectives on the Serge was insightful.

With the holidaze out of the way, I had a fresh new set of troubleshooting ideas to attack the intermittent sequencer problems we’d been having.

So, check out the history and admire my photographic skills. I plan to have some sound and images once the Serge is fully up and running.

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Power Serge!

In college, I got involved in the theater group doing sound for a Noel Coward play called Blithe Spirit. Things were pretty simple then – no mics – only sound effects. Mine were on tape and my partner, Jim Zubernis, brought his Mini Moog! Now this was back in the mid seventies and Jim was smart enough to rent himself and his synth for session work. Synths were ‘complicated’ in those days and when peeps got punchy from working all night, they called them ‘sillysizers.’ True story!

My first post-collegiate gig was as a keyboard tech for Hall and Oates – the ‘silver album’ that Barry Rudolph recorded. I didn’t know him then, but his back story is that his grand experiment was to use all SM57s on the drum kit.

Fast forward seven years and I’m at a studio called Noise New York. The owner, Frank Eaton, is an Oberlin grad who built a Serge modular synth from a kit. Thirty years later, Frank is a bankruptcy lawyer who wants to enjoy his vintage toys.

I know my way around Moogs and Arps, but the Serge is a different animal. From the tech perspective, it’s pretty basic stuff. Some loose and scratchy pots and a sequencer that skips a step every now and then.

Of course to put it through its paces ya hafta know how to use it and very few synth peeps have ever seen a Serge, let alone played it. On a whim I even asked Wendy Carlos, but she wasn’t familiar with it.

The funny thing is that, while the unit hails from ‘my era,’ there is a whole new generation of people who are getting into modular synths – playing, restoring and building. Modular might even be more alive now than in its heyday.

In my January column, I’ll share some pix and links and some perspective from a younger generation of synth enthusiasts.

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Non-Technical Sensitivity Issue

This blog is always about audio gear, but this one was inspired by a ‘Sensitivity Issue’ as it pertains to how we treat each other, especially on these here InterWebs. There’s no shortage of passion and excitement in this biz, but it also has a way of putting all of us – regardless of experience – in our place.

One REALLY BIG LIFE LESSON that I have learned is that many of us Audio Geeks have personality / social ‘challenges’ that are as much an asset as a liability. I include myself in this group! ‘Audio’ calls to us because there is room and a need for our obsession. That said, you must have a thick skin and be sensitive – which may seem contradictory…

THE GIVENS
There have always been pissing contests. Those who need proof of competency will judge you ‘only as good as your last project.’ We move in circles that sometimes make us the big fish in a small pond while at other times, we are one of the little fish. We must learn to negotiate that transition. There will always someone out there who is ‘better’ in some way or another, socially or technically. Learn from them!

Many of us have a need to share a recent accomplishment, a light-bulb moment. By putting yourself out there you are inviting comment. My first official EQ column in 1994 included a 2.2dB error that I got reamed for in a ‘Letter to the Editor’ by a very knowledgeable person (who eventually became a client). It was embarrassing, but it taught me a lesson: “Know the material inside and out before sharing with 30,000 people!”

I have alot of experience as both engineer and technician, much of which is more subtle than readers expect. I have had close encounters with the famous, but my accomplishments are measured by what I have learned, not the least of which is that in this one discipline alone, there is a never ending list of things to learn.

For every time that I have tried to help someone (in an e-mail, for example), there is a pretty good chance that the seeker has also asked someone else (in a public forum). Options are great for the seeker, but in a public forum there is the potential to put the mentor in the position of being the ‘mentee.’ The key to making this work is patience and sensitivity – for ALL involved parties – be prepared to not be the authority and not take it personally. And, when it’s YOUR turn to be the authority, be kind and patient. Also, when ‘seekers’ are sorting through all of the opinions, try to frame questions in a way that is not pitting one ‘genius’ against another.

Seekers should understand that ‘the simple answer’ is an easy way to accept a basic concept but should be prepared to re-examine the subject in more depth. There is often too much info to absorb all at once – patience grasshopper – OR seemingly ‘too much work’ to get the job done (a sweat-equity investment is often required). Be ready for the unexpected – an explanation that is contrary to the accepted ‘belief.’ In short, we must all be aware of our shortcomings and be eager to learn from anyone with the patience to share. Conversely, those with the wisdom should exercise a similar amount of patience.

RAZOR OPTIONS AND THE SONIC TAPAS BAR
All of us may think we are using the Occam’s Razor approach – the simplest, most effective and fastest tool for the job – but one look down the aisle of ‘available razors’ reveals that there is a blade for everyone!

As a result of Audio-Eccentric web sites, many audio obsessives are feverishly ‘tasting’ all available gear to see if one person’s passion and taste translates to their own (or aids in their sonic quest). With all the resulting ebaying, craigslisting and shipping, however, I am not sure that the ‘samples’ are given the time to be fully appreciated – OR – are representative of the supposed ‘gold standard.’

Whether new or vintage, complex gear has a learning curve and vintage gear may require maintenance. Either way, not investing the time is one reason some gear is misunderstood, (broken?) or under-appreciated. This results in gear that changes hands, without finding a permanent home until it finds a patient user.

I do not worship gear, though I confess to being curious-to-a-fault. The upside of being a technician is that I get to know what’s under the lid – how it works – so I can best exploit it. Some tools have more magic than others, true enough, but I believe the tool itself is secondary to my ability to learn and use all that tool has to offer. Some gear is hype in a sexy package.

PS: In public forums, I often write on a netbook, where the combo of small keys and screen, ‘eyesight’ and lack of patience often contribute to embarrassing typos…

PS: This article was inspired by someone I know who had been treated badly. It was tempered by my own personal experience.

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Crash Course in Analog Tape Machines

What if you were enlisted to assist on an analog recording session? One of my students is headed out of state to do just that. It’s been a year since we’d ‘analog’d’ together, so I figured he needed a few mental refreshing bullets, so here goes…

FIRST THING

- Make friends with staff
- LEARN HOW TO THREAD THE MACHINE ASAP
- STAFF will likely do the alignments, but you will want be sure to query the engineer as to the preferred Operating Level, Tape Speed and EQ (details below).
- Take every opportunity to observe when geeks are melding with machine.
- ALWAYS put the machine in SAFE MODE after a take until you are sure it is time to record again.

DAILY MACHINE MAINTENANCE

Heads should be cleaned throughout the session especially at the beginning, so you get a feel for the tape’s condition – even new outta-da-box tape may shed – some more than others – this kills High Frequency (HF) response. Use 99% alcohol or denatured alcohol. Dedicated cleaner may be extremely potent / caustic, so keep far away from plastics (like VU meters).

LOOK closely and you’ll see a technique I use to make oxide buildup – and head wear – visible. I lay a sheet of white paper on the deck plate in front of the headstack. Good, non-glare, overhead light reflects on the paper to the head.

Do not use alcohol on the pinch roller – either a dedicated rubber cleaner or diluted windex / formula 409 on a cloth / paper towel is better. Be wary of pinch roller degradation warning signs – when the ‘puck’ transitions from firm to soft / tacky / gummy.

Be super aware of hidden magnets and their proximity to tape and machine – Laptops, speakers / monitors / tools…

SESSION ORGANIZATION

- Tape obviously has no time stamp so keep really accurate notes.
- Set 00:00 at the head (beginning) of the tape. ,
- tapes are stored PLAYED = Tail Out
- Label the reel, label the box, and if you’re handwriting sucks, use your laptop for session logs and make sure to get access to the local printer.

HEADS UP
- Tape machines have Erase, Record (sync) and Playback (repro) heads.
-’Print’ tones at the head – one minute (minimum) each: 1kHz, 10kHz, 15kHz, 100Hz, 50Hz.
- Insert Leader tape after the tones.
- Waver of more than 1dB @ 15kHz is not an encouraging sign.
- In SYNC mode, The machine will automatically switch to input when recording just like PT!
- Obviously the remote let’s you choose monitor modes – INPUT, SYNC (for overdubs) and REPRO for mixing.

TAPE SPEED

I pretty much use 15 inches per second because it is both economical (a 10-inch reel lasts 1/2 hour) and good for rock because the low frequency response is extended compared to 30 IPS, a speed that does not allow you to push low end, especially kick drum. At either speed, I do not recommend EQ-ing (boosting) low end to tape – esp @ 30IPS – low end boost is better to do on playback.

The first image in this link shows how tape speed affects frequency response.

OPERATING LEVEL

Standard operating levels are expressed two ways: in nanoWebers per meter (185nWb/m, 250nWb/m, 320nWb/m or 520nWb/m) or in the amount of dB above standard operating level, as ‘plus 3, plus 6 or plus 9.’ For example 250nWb/m is +3 above 185nWb/m. Follow this link for details…

If, for example the test tape is @ 250nWb/m, but the eng wants to run 3dB higher (approx 320nWb/m), set the test tape ref tones for REPRO and SYNCH at -3dB VU.

- BEFORE record alignment, a known +4dBu reference tone is sent to all channels.
- Machine is switched to input and INPUT CAL is adjusted for 0VU.
- DURING Record alignment, machine is switched to REPRO. Adjust REC CAL / Level for 0VU.
- Record alignment begins with bias – read article above as this should be done by staff – then INPUT cal, record level and finally by HF record level..
- BIAS is primarily to minimize low frequency distortion and maximize punch. BUT, Bias affect High frequency response as well.
- Bias is typically adjusted for a peak @ 10kHz and then increased (CW) until 10kHz level falls ‘x’dB – the amount will be specified by the machine and / or tape manufacturer. This method is called ‘overbias’ and a few dB of HF are sacrificed in the name of Low Frequency (LF) punch and low distortion. The HF loss is made up via the HF record level adjustment.

EQUALIZATION

- American EQ standard is NAB for 15IPS and AES for 30 IPS.
- Euro EQ is called either CCIR (seventies) or IEC
- European EQ hides noise better.

good luck, and may the Electron Goddess bless your tweaker.

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I WANT MY EMT-V!

Hi! Remember me??? Good! Who am I?

Looking back on this past year, I feel like I couldn’t possibly have done more. Invariably, just saying that is an automatic ‘hat throwing’ into next year’s ring…

This month’s reflection is about 2012′s projects that will find their way into 2013 articles…

But first, there’s one more column for the year coming up in December. It’s not officially labeled a ‘Part-1 in a series,’ but it is very likely to be just that. Not only does it represent one of my own life-long obsessions but the same applies to Greg Reierson of Rareform Mastering, the proud owner of a Neumann lathe!!!

If you grew up playing records as we did, then you will be very interested to follow our travelogue about bringing a seventies-era Neumann Lathe into this century. December’s article is mostly a ‘romance novelette’ about how we each got ‘the calling,’ a combined love of music and a fascination for the medium that delivered it.

What’s in store for 2013


I want My EMT-V!

Earlier in the year, my assistant and I rebuilt several tube preamps (including Demeter and Mastering Lab) as well an EMT Plate Reverb amplifier. Soon afterward, the client had my assistant install new pickups in the hopes it would improve the tone. They didn’t, but a few months later I discover the real problem during a ‘tuning session’ – the driver coil was rubbing against the magnet assembly. Once that was resolved, the preamps had to be retrofitted with high pass filters to compensate for the improved low frequency response of the new pickups.

I will be fleshing out the EMT-140 story with pix and calibration details after the January Issue.

Here’s a link to sound samples…

SERGE, the synth!

Yes indeed, earlier this year I had an assistant. Those were the daze. Now he works at Great River Electronics, a mere 15 minutes from here. My new assistant is ‘Tom Zos,’ I use that name in quotes because Tom is not his real name but his ‘slave name’ – his words not mine. His real name is very Greek, and I’d have no problem learning it if he would only go by one name! But, to try to make it more ‘user friendly’ he is constantly ‘remixing’ it…

That said, Tom is really into synths and a real asset to have in the shop. He’s learning a ton about basic electronics. We’ve already improved the sequencer’s ability to latch on to a wider frequency range of clock signals.

Pix and samples to come.
Happy Thanksgiving!

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Zen and the Art of…

That’s my column theme for November. My editor, Tom Kenny, suggested I read the classic 1974 book about ‘Motorcycle Maintenance’ by Robert Pirsig. It is, of course, not exclusively about keeping your bike running so much as it is about the philosophy of the ‘je ne sai quoi,’ the elusive quality of ‘quality.’

I’m only 120 pages into the e-book version and there are so many parallels to our industry that it’s worth reading if only to remind us cave dwellers to zoom up, out and away from the extreme scrutiny we place on, uh, EVERYTHING!

Our industry is such a mix of Art and Science that there will always be avenues to explore, new things to learn and new techniques to try. Ours is undeniably an environment where Steam Punk lives! We embrace and interface vintage vacuum tube and analog tape technology with digital interfaces and computer-based workstations. We have Zen Masters who can speak several geek languages.

For such a niche industry, there are so many sub-niches…

As a technically inclined person, I have learned how to think geek but speak in emotional terms that non-geeks can understand. There are plenty of people in our industry who are artists first and technicians last, but the reverse is equally true. We have famous engineers like George Massenburg who design gear that is an extension of the way they work – George’s recordings and mixes are uniquely his.

And then there are those classic engineers like Bones Howe, who we pester for technical details but who claim the secret to their success like this. “I was never an engineer’s engineer. I was always happier on the other side of the glass, out in the room with the musicians. I think that a great deal of my success was due to the fact that I knew what it was like to sit out there.” Howe took pains to ensure musicians were comfortable, and he sat them close together, using the directional characteristics of microphones and room acoustics to enhance the sound, rather than recording them separately and mixing it all together at the end. As someone very astutely said, ‘If you record one track at a time, then it’s a ham sandwich and a cheese sandwich, not a ham and cheese sandwich.’

Our ‘tools’ come in so many forms, from microphones and monitors to plug-ins and hardware signal processors as well as the more conventional tools used to build, repair and adjust the gear we use. No matter what got you into this business, it’s a good bet that you’ll eventually get to use a screw driver, a wire stripper or a soldering iron. If you’re just getting started, my column has tool links and suggestions as well.

oh and uh, Don’t Forget to Vote!

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This Month’s Term Paper, er, uhm, Column

I am cramming to get my Education-related column done in time for the October issue.

Teaching has been a remarkably rewarding experience, certainly it has given back more than I would ever have expected. After eight years, I’ve got a few scars but have mostly succeeded – not only in my mission to share what I know, but surprisingly, I have gained a deeper understanding of the science behind the art.

As professionals, we take for granted the skills we have learned over the years. From start of project to completion, we may not all take the same path or have the same technical skills, but the end result creates a sonic diversity that keeps things interesting.

That said, how to break years worth of information into digestible nuggets is no small task. After much planning followed by the classroom experience, it is then time to lick one’s wounds before going back to the drawing board, a rewrite and then into the Colosseum all over again!!!

Feeding The Lions

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Being Green: Recycling Audio Gear

What to do with an aging, digitally-controlled analog console?

That was the question posed to the recording department at the Minneapolis Media Institute (MMI), former home of FLYTE TYME studios, where Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis made their home for nearly 20 years. The console in question – a Harrison Series-10 – had not aged well. We all know what time does to electronics, especially in a facility that was on 24/7. In addition, an interim studio owner let the humidification system go dry, resulting in the perfect environment for static electricity over several dry Minnesota winters. No amount of Static Guard could tame the beast and by the time MMI took over, the damage had been done. Countless static charged fingers gradually weakened the sensitive CMOS electronics inside until the console was a shadow of its former self.

Earlier this year, I stepped in to removed power from the I/O modules and master section so that only the mic preamps were functional. Channel-to-channel preamp consistency improved after a capacitor upgrade. While not know for a classic vintage tone, these preamps are neutral, clean, quiet and plentiful – 40 channels in all! Come September, the console will be replaced with a control surface and the preamps racked into groups of eight channels and rack mounted.

DIY CARD CAGE

A quick web search for ‘card cages’ yielded a company called UNITRACK. I purchased one of their Versacage models to protytpe the project and in about six hours had the unit assembled with modules. While there are still some tweaks to be made, but at least I know the mechanical side of the project is covered so we can order 4 more cages.

Harrison Aux modules doing their mechanical duty for the prototype.

The Harrison preamp module height, including top and bottom rails, is 3.5 inches – exactly 3 rack units (3U)! The mother board height, however, is not the same. When mounted to the rails the height is 4.5-inches – more than 3U but less than 4U. We’ll probably use the extra front panel space for labeling.

Once in the warehouse, the console will be disassembled. I am hoping to make use of the Light Meters and the Faders. Hopefully there are users who have need for the modules.

I got the idea from using a similar product years ago for custom patch bays with multi-pin connectors. It would be fairly easy to build a card cage for 500 series modules, for example, using the Versacage or similar Unitrack product.

Middle Atlantic Products also makes customizable rack hardware that is especially useful for mounting connectors, adding ventilation screens and fans.

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