Thursday, March 10, 2011

Wait, what? Lost in the signal chain.

I don't know if you've ever had a chance to smash up a hornet's nest with a light sabre but I wouldn't recommend going out of your way for it if you haven't. Hornet's nests, and the practice of smashing them, have inspired whole proverbs, so you might think that there would be a bit of a drama involved, complete with swarms of deadly little stingers, comic mishaps, and jumping over the fence into the drainage ditch to escape the excruciating pain.  As it turns out though, smashing up a hornet's nest is actually not all that exciting, even if you do it with a light sabre. Sometimes, though, you just need to go there.

I had access to a light sabre because for some reason the studio we're mixing my album in is full of awesome Star Wars stuff.  I keep forgetting to ask why, but pretty much every available flat surface up there is occupied by models of Imperial Walkers, X-Wings, Rebel Alliance robots and even a gigantic Millennium Falcon with a bunch of moving parts. That officially makes it the Best Studio Ever, and it's in a barn in Dairy Flat.  No collection of Star Wars stuff would be complete without a battery-powered light sabre and a Darth Vader mask with a built-in vocoder to make your breathing sound emphysemic, of course, so naturally it's go those too.

From now on I only want to mix in studios with Star Wars stuff on the monitors.

You may recall how a few months ago I borrowed an analogue synthesiser for the weekend, and my studio looked sufficiently similar to the bridge of a spaceship for me to get a little bit excited and blog about it.  Well, this studio, I'm sorry to say, makes my studio at home look like the bridge of a manky old Russian fishing trawler from a cold-war era action movie, the kind that you just know is going to get blown all to hell before the third reel.  This studio has got racks, and things that go in the racks, and more channels on the desk than we know what to do with, and auxiliary sends, and stacks of monitors, and those things on the walls to stop the sound bouncing round, and big flat screens and synthesisers and beaut old guitars, and a range of couches for flopping on and a nice cold fridge, but mostly it's got enough patch cables to drive you hornet-nest-smashing nuts.

Every one of those cables is a potential failure point.  So much potential failure.

We're being a little bit flash on this record, you see, and mixing it 'out of the box,' as they call it in audio engineer language.  If you're not extremely interested in audio engineering at all (and I gather some people are not), I suggest you go and have a look at these pictures of orphaned baby sloths instead of reading the rest of this post, because the rest of this post is mostly about mixing audio and you're likely to find it so boring that you'll want to eat your own elbow.  The sloths, on the other hand, set a new standard in baby animal cuteness, so you'll be fine over there until we've finished.

Mixing 'out of the box,' in this instance, means we're taking all the stuff I've recorded on my geriatric laptop and running it through a desk using a soundcard with heaps of separate outputs, then re-recording the desk output to produce a final mix. There are lots of boring audio reasons why you might want to do this, and lots more different boring audio reasons why you might not want to do this, and I understand that there are parts of the Internet where people spend a lot of time talking about this sort of thing and no doubt neglecting their personal hygiene. Mostly I just wanted to do the out of the box thing so that I could play with proper faders and dials and pretend to be Lee Scratch Perry for a little while, and see how long it took me to go talking-to-Jesus-on-the-studio-comms-mic crazy. It turns out the answer is this: not very long.

The reason for my speedy slide into insanity was the patch cables.  The patch cables, and their relationship to a slippery, slimy, elusive, spirit-crushing low frequency hum. There is a formula for this, but I didn't use it - something like the number of tracks you've got on your song times the number of channels on the desk divided by the square root of the cicadas in the roof plus Avogadro's number equals the number of patch cables you're going to need.  The thing is, each time you patch a thing into another thing, you add a bit more complexity to the system, which is another way of saying you create another point at which the whole thing can go disastrously wrong.  That's why when I was left alone in the studio this afternoon, and I started to think that I could hear this unwelcome hum, once I started looking for it it wasn't long at all before I got irretrievably lost in the intricacies of the signal chain. This is a laughably reliable route to toys-in-the-attic, the-lunatic-is-in-my-hall insanity.

Yeah, it's laughing at you.

The problem is, you can't see a hum.  You can hear it, of course - or you can think you can hear it. When there's all this other stuff going on and your ears are getting tired, the mind plays tricks.  Or I think it does.  Or maybe the monitors just have a little buzz.  Or maybe the model of the Millenium Falcon is resonating with the kick drum.  Or are the headphones just not handling the bass?  Or is one of the channels on the desk burnt out?  Did the fridge just turn on in the next room?  Maybe I just got a text? Or maybe I put the hum in on purpose and forgot? Or wait, has it gone?  What if I repatch the monitors?  What if I reassign all the channels?  What if I change all the compressors?  Can we rewire the studio? Maybe it's just the cosmic background microwave radiation.  What if there was never a hum at all?  What if it comes back?  Witchcraft? Aliens?  The government?  The answer to all those questions is: it doesn't matter.  The answers will mean nothing to you, because now you're crazy.

That's why you need things like light sabres around the place.  When you fall down the signal chain wormhole and lose your mind looking for a hum, running outside and attacking a hornet's nest with a light sabre can have a salutary effect on the constitution.  Not because of the clouds of hornets and the running around screaming - this was a very small hornet's nest, so none of that happened. As I indicated above, the actual smashing part was anticlimactic, particularly given what one is lead to believe about these insects.  Thing is, though, it's true what they say about getting out in the fresh air.  They might have been exaggerating on the hornet's nest thing, but I can confirm that sitting in a darkened room playing with machines all day will make you lose your mind. Going outside once in a while will make you saner, even if saner still means that you are wearing a Darth Vader mask, waving a light sabre around, and yelling about signal flow.  When you go back inside, that hum will have vanished, every time.


  1. Hey Sam. Once you've finished mixing the album, maybe you should take a little holiday at the seaside - get some fresh air? That's assuming you don't burn down the studio before then and walk around backwards with a hornet's nest on your head banging the ground with a hammer (like Lee Scratch Perry did - except for the hornet's nest bit).

  2. out Dairy Flat!

  3. ICSL (I can't stop laughing)
    Yo, it's all in the game D. all in the game

    oh yeah,that's right. we started watching the wire again from the start

  4. Oh and I forgot to say that "I don't know if you've ever had a chance to smash up a hornet's nest with a light sabre..." would be an excellent start to your first novel!