TechTalk: On Being A Sponge

Jun 1, 2014 9:00 AM, By Kevin Becka

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Everyone knows the Chinese blessing/curse, “May you live in interesting times.” For me, the polarity-flipped blessing would be, “May you always be surrounded by those smarter than yourself.” For most of my life I’ve either gotten to hang with smart people for free, or I paid for it. When I was young and on the road as a guitar player, whether I was in L.A., Kansas City or Kankakee, I’d get a lesson with the resident monster. You just had to ask around and a name or two would pop up. The local gurus were happy to give a lesson and make some extra bucks, and I was happy to pick their brains.

As tech editor for Mix, I get a contact high from all the brains around me. At a party held during a balmy AES in NYC a few years ago, I sought a cool breeze so ventured to the roof and found Wes Dooley up with others checking out the city from the top floor. Wes can go deep on tech topics. We talked about tensions on ribbon elements, the history of RCA, and the varying output impedance of ribbon mics when the source frequency approaches the resonant frequency of the ribbon. I get the same buzz around David Royer. David is not only a microphone encyclopedia, he’s willing to talk about the extra attention to detail needed when your production is off-site and how he comes up with his ideas for new mics (some involving a hot tub in the desert and a six-pack). David and Wes not only give you a lot take to take away during a conversation, but you have plenty to chew on later.

Sennheiser’s Joe Ciaudelli and Volker Schmitt had a road show for a while, which taught me volumes about wireless, and so has Mark Brunner from Shure. Mark, aka Mr. Spectrum, sat across a table with me upstairs in the Shure booth at the last Winter NAMM and laid out what was going on with the FCC and wireless—chapter and verse. The issue is such a moving target that I learn something new every time I meet with Mark. White spaces, UHF, VHF, gap bands, guard bands and the latest—the voluntary *wink* FCC Spectrum Incentive Auction that will likely obliterate bandwidth currently occupied by wireless audio.

At my new gig in Nashville, the last year has been a bonus round of collaborating with big brains. Ken Scott showed us how if you detune an acoustic guitar double by just 1 cent, the combined tracks sound almost like a 12-string. I sat in on 10 completely different drum mic setups with engineer/producer Nick Raskulinecz. One setup was all SM57s, which through EQ and other tricks, Nick was able to make sound astonishingly great.

When challenged with the task of miking a resonant kick drum head with no hole, engineer Jacquire King placed his finger on the head near the rim, then slowly moved it toward the center while the player kicked the drum from the other side. When Jacquire found the spot that killed the resonance the most, he didn’t put the mic directly there, but between there and the rim to give the mic a better look “inside” the drum.

Engineer Toby Wright placed his snare mic into the drum from under the hi-hat to keep the cymbals out of his track. Then he placed his room mics off to one side of the kit in a tight spaced pair, the thought being that no one’s head is 12 feet wide, as room mics are sometimes placed.

Engineer John McBride gets an amazing kick drum sound using a Shure SM91a laying inside on the pillow and an RCA 44 about a foot outside the resonant head—if God had a band, John should record his tracks. Vance Powell told me how he got a unique vocal sound by recording a vocalist with two mics, one a Green Bullet sent to a miked guitar amp giving him an instantly grunged-out double. Yup, it works great.

One way of reacting to a plethora of smarty-pants in your life is to be intimidated. I remember in my teens I had a gig as a hotel bellman at the airport HoJo on the 405 in L.A. Other hops called the ace bellman, who got the lion’s share of tips, “The Snake.” While he wasn’t malicious, Snake would always outdo you by being in the right place at the right time. Someone wanted an iron in 633? Snake was on it, getting a $10 tip. While you were schlepping empty luggage carts from upper floors, Snake was greeting a bus of tourists in the parking lot, getting $100 for his effort. I remember the aha moment that came when I gave up being mad at him and tried to emulate and learn from him, creating my own good luck. It works for me to this day.

Being called a sponge can be seen as derogatory—someone who doesn’t do for themselves but hangs off of others. But good sponging is tied to the blessing: I love emulating brilliant people. It brings up my game.






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