Thursday, March 31, 2011


The Shot Tower - a building so good they put it inside another building.

Last weekend Ms. Millicent Crow and I went to have a look at what Melbourne's been up to lately.  We like to keep things authentic when we travel, so we were pleasantly surprised when we arrived at our hostel and discovered that, due to my reluctance to read fine print and general lackadaisical approach to booking things, it appeared that we had inadvertently availed ourselves of an opportunity to celebrate Australia's convict heritage by staying in accommodation that painstakingly recreated the conditions in one of the earliest European buildings in the Port Philip colony, which was of course a manky old jailhouse.  Since it was me who booked the 'room' (and I don't use inverted commas lightly, so believe me when I say this was actually a 'room,' rather than a room) I got to be the one who slunk down to reception to have a chat with the night clerk, a man who turned out to not be my best-ever interlocutor.

Note the grimy curtains, concealing the horrors within.

"Um... mate?"
"I was, that is, ah, we were wondering.  Ah...  What are the chances that we could maybe change our room, would you say?"
"It's just, do you have any that have, like, windows, at all?"
The man just did a sort of grimacy eyebrow-raise.
"Or even one where the walls go all the way to the ceiling?  Ours don't seem to do that."
"You on level two?"
"Yeah, level two."
"None of the walls go to the ceiling on level two."
"Says on the website."
"Ah. OK. What's the, ah, the window situation then? Is there any chance of a window, would you say?"
"Mate. The Grand Prix's on.  We're full up all weekend."

After having spoken to several native Australians and a few foreigners who have been there long enough to learn the culture, I now understand that the correct thing to do at this point would have been to offer the man a bribe.  Apparently this works for all official functionaries from Night Clerk right up to State Premier level (with the exception of sworn-in police horses, who are incorruptible) and is a cornerstone of the Australian way of life.  All I can say in defense of my failure to uphold this custom is that I'm bad at picking up on social cues, I suppose - and besides, if I was into paying extra for things I probably wouldn't have booked the absolute dirtbag-cheapest hostel in all of downtown Melbourne in the first place.

Police horses, Swanston St: The last honest public servants?

In fairness, though, it's a bit inaccurate to compare our hostel to an actual prison.  In prison, for example, they usually have delousing protocols that take care of the vermin, and you don't have to pay a key deposit.  And, while the strange odours, noises in the night, unsanitary blotches on the flooring, and the casual racism of the other inmates may have put us in mind of old Sing Sing, we should remember that in western democracies at least, prisons are generally expected to adhere to certain minimum humanitarian standards that just don't seem to apply to hostels. The real-world outcome of this is that, while in both types of institution you'll see bossy little signs on every available surface laying down the law on a whole range of human behaviours, only in a hostel will the signs be laid out in that least humanitarian of fonts, Comic Sans.  That is cruel and unusual and it will not stand.

 This bossy sign is actually from the train station - in our hostel, spitting on the walls, floors or stairs was one of the few activities not expressly prohibited.  Although by God it should have been.
None of this was a problem of course, because we didn't go to Melbourne to sit in a hostel reflecting on our life of crime.  Having lived in that town for a little while a few years ago, we mainly went back there to look at bats and ride on trams, both of which goals we achieved early and in abundance. We also wanted to find a statue of a giant owl that had been making us feel mysterious for the past four years or so, ever since we glimpsed it on a wintry morning from the window of the train that hauled us and all our bags and boxes out of the city and away from our insane flatmates and jobs in call-centres, to deliver us to Sydney and sunny points beyond. We wanted to see if the owl was as awesome up close as it was in memory - or if it was even actually real, because you know how sometimes when you've got all your bags and boxes on a train and you're leaving town early in the morning, you might accidentally makes things like giant owls up in your head? Well it turns out that it is real, and it lives on a traffic island on top of a big concrete pillar, and it might actually not be an owl, but a parrot. It looks very ancient, like it's been there a lot longer than anything else around, and it's as if maybe they found this giant owl statue perching there on the Yarra floodplain and said Bonza mate, let's make the town right here. Anyway, owl or parrot, it is just as mysterious and wonder-inspiring as we had remembered, and I'm not too sure but I think it was happy enough to see us back in town.

This is what calm and mysterious looks like.

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.