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Friday, November 20, 2009

Horned Audio Territory

Now for something completely different.

Acousticians have known since even before the beginning of speaker design that horn loaded speakers are the most efficient way to amplify audio That's because, unlike most of the cone loaded speakers that we're used to, horns are very directional and don't waste energy pointing sounds in a direction other than where the audience is seated. Who cares if the spider on the ceiling is hearing a playback as well as you are?

While horn-loaded speakers come in and out of style, they're always with us in some form. The latest foray into horned audio territory for the home is the La Grande Castine speakers (pictured left), designed by the French company Musique Concrete (can't find a website for them). Their large size and acoustic shape allow them to deliver sound in the 108dB range with a mere 3 watt amplifier. Now that's efficiency! They'll cost you though - about $100,000 per pair.

While we see speakers like the La Grande Constine occasionally used in the home (not that often because they tend to be on the large size), horn-loaded speakers are usually found in a professional setting. The reason why horn-loaded speakers have such a place in our sonic history is the fact that when film's first changed to "talkies" in the 20's, amplifiers were in their infancy and only rated around 5 watts at best (by comparison, today's theater amps are usually over 1000 for just the woofers in a large theater system). In order to cover the entire theater with sound, the speakers had to be the most efficient possible, which is why horn-loaded ones were chosen. Altec was the leader at the time (although RCA made the first ones) with their "Voice of the Theater" line (pictured left).

Usually you'd find a set of three of these speakers set behind the screen. The bigger the theater, the larger the speaker. In fact, in many large theaters that project Sony's SDDS format films, you'll find an array of five sets, although they'll probably be from JBL since Altec has regrettably left this area of the business some time ago.

When I was a kid in a few of my first bands, we used a pair of Altec A7 speakers (pictured left) in our PA system and always got raves for how great they sounded (the speakers sounded better than the band sometimes). Altec has now reissued the venerable A7, but at a $4000 per speaker price, which is totally ridiculous. They were good, but not that good, and there are a lot better choices available today for a lot less money than an old A7.

Probably the most widely revered and sought after horn-loaded speaker is the oldest - the RCA "Ubangi," which was used in the original theater sound systems until about the 60's and latter utilized as the primary piece of Allen Sides famed studio monitors of the 80's and 90's. Since almost all theaters that used these have either closed or upgraded to newer gear long ago. If you have any pictures of a Ubangi, please send it along.

I'm not sure how this post became the brief history of horn-loaded speakers (very, very brief), but it sure was fun, and I didn't even get into some of my very favorites. We'll leave that for a future post.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Copyright Time Bomb

If you are a record label or publishing exec, you knew this day was coming. Still few made plans for what would happen when some of the provisions of the U.S Copyright Act of 1976 came due until now.

What's the problem? Only that the act gives authors or their heirs the ability to terminate copyright grants, which means that the lucrative catalog income (the only major income stream for some record labels these days) could come to a crashing halt.

So why does a law passed way back in 1976 strike fear into the hearts of industry execs today? Under the Copyright Act, if an artist or author sold a copyright before 1978, they or their heirs can take it back 56 years later. But if the artist or author sold the copyright during or after 1978, they can terminate that grant after only 35 years. That means that record labels could lose any sound recording copyright they purchased in 1978 beginning in 2013. For music from 1953 and before, those grants can already be terminated.

Many superstar acts (including the powerhouse The Eagles) are already preparing termination notices that they intend to file by the end of the year, according to (there's a five year window in which you can file notices). While superstar acts may be better off going it alone without a record label since many already have distribution infrastructure in place, many B and C level acts will probably just renegotiate for a better deal and leave their copyrights in place, which is what the labels are hoping for. Still, it's going to cut into their income stream big time, just when they can least afford it.

The Copyright Act isn't just about music though, it covers any type of copyright, so every facet of the entertainment industry will be affected. But the entertainment lawyers are already smiling since their big payday is just beginning. If you ever wanted to go to law school, now is the time.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Two Secrets Of Soundproofing

While much of the art of acoustics is found in the design finishing touches that determines how a room sounds and feels, the hard science is in the basic construction which starts with some acoustic principles that provides the soundproofing ("isolation" is the more scientific term) that every studio needs.

Because most musicians and engineers aren't able to hire a real acoustician to design their rooms, they usually apply the only the finishing touches when they attempt to do it themselves while overlooking the basics, and their room never meet their needs in terms of isolation as a result.

That leads to the first question that both musicians and engineers ask regarding acoustics, “How can I make sure that my neighbors won’t hear us?” Here are the "secrets" of soundproofing, although they're really some basic acoustic principles.

First, all it takes is mass, which is our first principle. Simply put:

Acoustic Principle #1
The more mass your walls have between you and your neighbors 
(that includes walls made from cinder block, brick, wood, drywall, etc), 
the more you’ll be keep the outside sound from getting in, and the inside sound from getting out.

One of the ways that most pro studios accomplish soundproofing is by building a room within a room, which is done by putting the floor on springs or rubber, and building double or triple walls with air spaces in between on top. Needless to say, this gets really expensive and is impossible to do if you start out with a small space like a 10 foot x10 foot to begin with. But there are other ways to improve your isolation that can really be effective (though never as completely soundproof) that are quite a bit cheaper. All it takes are some construction tools and a little time, so here we go:

Step 1 - Add some mass to the walls and ceiling to increase your isolation. The least expensive way to do this is with 3/8” cement backing board. This is the same thing that’s used in showers and is sometimes called “Cement Board”. Home Depot sells 3 or 4 kinds and it does a great job for just a little bit of money. Plus, it doesn’t take up a lot of space and is way more efficient than regular drywall. It usually comes in 5’ x 3’ panels, but they weigh about three times what a panel of 4’ x 8’ drywall weighs (and you want all that extra weight to increase the mass, and therefore, the isolation). Make sure that you both glue and screw the cement board to the existing wall, since anything that isn’t absolutely tight will either rattle or give the room an unwanted resonant ring later, and defeats the isolation (see Principle #2).

Acoustic Principle #2
Think of air like water.
Any space between any construction joint lets the air out (or in)
and acts the same as if the room was filled with water,
so the idea is to make sure that there are no air leaks.

Step 2 - Get the thickest solid oak door that you can afford, then make sure you get a doorjamb. The trick here is to make sure that there are no air spaces around the door, and you do this by applying weather stripping around it on both sides. Most commercial studios use a double door “airlock” with a door attached to each side of the wall to maximize the isolation. You might get by with just a single door as long as you eliminate all the air spaces around it (see Principle #2).

Step 3 - Glue and screw some strips of ¼” low grade inexpensive industrial plywood to the cement board, and then glue and screw ½” regular drywall on top of that. The drywall is there primarily so there’s an anchor to attach the wall treatment outlined in step 4 in a later post.

As you've noticed by now, these 3 steps just aren't possible in a lot of home recording situations, but they're the only way that you can ever hope to truly isolate yourself from your neighbors and them from you.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Are Music Game Sales Coming Back To Earth?

Last week's video game sales report had many in both the gaming and music industries thinking what was once thought to be unthinkable - music games have finally run their course. Not a single music game could be found on the top twenty in the game charts, a far cry from when Guitar Hero and Rock Band ruled.

In October 2007, when the Guitar Hero craze was at its height, Guitar Hero III moved 1.4 million copies in six days, then sold another 1.9 million the next month. Compare that to September 2009, which saw the launch of both Guitar Hero V and Beatles Rock Band, where the combined sales of these two games sold just a tad less than 1.1 million copies over nearly a full month.

But there’s another completely new game missing from the October charts that's a big surprise to many people — Activision’s DJ Hero. During its five days of availability, the game sold a mere 120,000 copies across all four platforms. Considering how widely anticipated and marketed this game was, its feeble sales comes as a surprise. So why did a game that supposedly had so much going for it meet with such weak sales? Many theories abound but it seems like industry insiders agree on a few things:
  • It isn't a great party game. It's a game for single players. The DJ culture is not collaborative in the first place, so the game isn't conducive for multiple players.
  • It's expensive. As Ken Kuchera states in his post on ars technica - "The Renegade Edition of the game was $200. The standard edition, $120. That's a tough sell in a market where price point is so important. For $80 more you can get yourself a Wii or an Xbox 360 Arcade model. Right now at GameStop you can spend $20 less and pick up a game, a guitar, a microphone, and drums with the $99 Rock Band 2 Special Edition. The music is more accessible, you can pay with friends, and you get more hardware for less money. The turntable included with the $120 DJ Hero release is a high quality accessory; you won't feel ripped off if you buy the game. The trouble is that at that price, with only one accessory, not many people are going to be willing to find that out."
  • You probably don't know the songs because they're all mashups. DJ Hero has name artists, but they were free to chop up the tunes they worked with at will. Innovative maybe, but not exactly what the average game player wants. What fun is playing a music game if you don't know the songs?
  • Does the average person know how a turntable works? Everyone knows how a guitar or piano is played even if they can't play it. Not so with a turnable.
  • None of the famous DJ's are even featured on the box. Why spend money on big names if you're not going to take advantage of their brands?
Game revenue has become an important income stream for many artists, so a slowdown in sales of music games is the last thing anyone needs. Are we witnessing a true waning of interest in the genre, or is the market just waiting for a new evolution in music gaming? Only time will tell.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Most Revolutionary Musical Instrument In 60 Years?

According to the company, the Eigenharp Alpha is “the most revolutionary musical instrument of the last 60 years.” Don't know if that's true, but the instrument is truly unique and one of the most unusual that we've seen in some time. It combines breath and finger input in the form of a bassoon, but with the extended physical control that comes with having a computer interface and custom software.

That being said, the Alpha doesn't have an internal sound source of its own. The breath input comes from a mouthpiece just like a bassoon, but that's nothing more than a controller (remember the DX7 mouthpiece?). When combined with the finger control from either the touch strip, a fretted light-up keyboard, or keys, it's said to have much more expression than a physical instrument.

At about $6,500, I don't know how soon we'll be seeing the Alpha show up on a stage near you, but it's about the only instrument worth a notice in a long, long time.

Here's an interesting piece on the Alpha from the BBC entitled Do you drum it, strum it or stroke it?


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