Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Art of Listening (continued)

Physical factors contribute to the ability to listen well. Early in my career, circa 1980, I was mixing the band Sargent at a bar in the south-side of Edmonton, Alberta when I had a striking demonstration regarding hair length and audio frequency response. But first, to set the stage - Inner Canada seemed about 3-5 years behind the rest of the world in music and fashion trends. The 60's lasted until about 1976 or '77. Punk rock was just starting to catch on in 1980. I first became aware of it when Sargent's drummer, Ian Grant, began sporting short spikey hair and ripped up clothes held together by safety pins as a fashion/lifestyle statement. I became aware of punk fashion before I heard the music. At Ian's insistence, Sargent began incorporating some of the less abrasive punk songs into their Top-40 playlist like Planet Claire and Rock Lobster by the B52s and The Clash's cover of Brand New Cadillac. I began to appreciate the energy of the music but passed on dressing up in the punk uniform. I had very long hair and frequently wore a hat that was a cross between a top hat and a bowler with buttons exclaiming abstract positive statements affixed to it. Yes, I confess, I was a hippie of the chic persuasion in both appearance and ideology. On days off in Calgary, my friend Karen Ralph and I, would go down to the Calgarian Hotel or sometimes The National where the punk bands played and dance all night. I in my hippie get-up and Karen dressed in very original do-it-your-self punk rock attire. Once she crafted a dress out of nothing but black, plastic, garbage bags. We made quite the anomalous looking couple. It was very exciting being in on the birth of a genre in our area. I recall watching one band playing, and thinking that this is what it must have felt like to see The Beatles play at The Cavern Club in Liverpool.

Long hair was anathema to punk rock political correctitude. I was the only one in these clubs who dared to dress like the "dinosaurs" punkers were rebelling against. You could tell pretty quickly  the poseurs jumping on the fashion bandwagon like lemmings at a cliff apart from the individuals searching for unique artistic expression in the punk milieu. So, during the middle of this week long engagement in Edmonton, Ian's girlfriend, Elizabeth, offered to "trim" my hair. Though they both partook of the punk rock aesthetic, they were friends and didn't seem to hold my long hair against me. The trimming she gave me cut about half of it off and was so bad that I went to a barber and had him finish the job into not quite a buzz cut but still very short. In retrospect I'm glad this radical change in hair length took place. It probably wouldn't have happened, at least not then, if Elizabeth hadn't done her Delilah bit to weaken my attachment to hippiedom. As soon as Sargent started playing, I thought that the bass bins weren't working. We had a pretty standard 3-way P.A. for bar bands at that time - 18" subwoofers in bass reflex cabinets, 45-60 mid-range boxes, and radial horns for the high end. I began running around attempting to troubleshoot the problem only to discover no problem existed. The radical change in hair length also radically changed the frequency response/receptivity of my ears. I have kept my hair short ever since. About 10 years ago I grew tired of having to get it cut every week or two to keep the desired length and shaved it off completely. Somehow, a shaved cranium sharpens my listening focus. I can even tell the difference with just a few days growth. I mentioned this once to my assistant, Jonathon Chu, when I did sport a light growth and he jokingly reparteed with, "So does this mean you're not giving us your all?" I'm not advocating for engineers to shave their heads, everyone has their own methodology for listening. It still seems to be how you use your attention to listen along with  physical attributes. The other reason I shave my head is because hair doesn't conduct electricity. A few years ago my head started getting with the program and began thinning considerably on the crown. Now I can add vanity as another reason to go with a hairless head.

Carefully monitoring the nervous system's bio-chemistry through food and drink intake, and exercise has helped considerably. I refer people to Stage14, the Neurosomatic Engineer in Timothy Leary's The Game of Life for a comprehensive and extensive study in this department.  I can only say what has worked for me, everyone is different.  All generalizations seem wrong in the long run and that likely includes the statement that "all generalizations seem wrong" though I don't know never having encountered one appearing absolutely right.  A generalization consists of an abstraction made by the human mind.  No specific case exactly matches any generalization it might be grouped under, and you always can find an exception to the rule.  I preface my remarks hoping to not be misunderstood as advocating or eschewing any particular health regimen or morality.  Generally, "whatever gets you through the night, it's all right, it's all right" as the song goes.

For me, alcohol doesn't work for concentrated listening.  I never minded the effects in moderation and sometimes not, and never had a problem apart from the occasional nasty hangover.  It just simply doesn't help me hear better.  The science of what alcohol does to the nervous system bears this out.  I've worked with many producers and engineers mostly in New York and California, but  also all over the world, and no one drinks when they're working in the studio except maybe the occasional beer, but even that is rare.  Sometimes artists will use alcohol to help stimulate a mood but they are not as involved with critical listening. I found that good ginseng helped with hearing and endurance.  Marijuana can enhance the hearing but it can also space one out.  Again, any generalization about it is wrong for a variety of reasons.  There's no such thing as generic marijuana just like there's no such thing as a generic person.  It's effect has to be taken into the context of however else you operate your nervous system.  It does classify as a psychedelic therefore the guidelines of set, setting and dosage apply.  I would suggest a homeopathic size dosage if it's felt to be necessary.  I recommend not using it at all when producing or engineering.  Most clients don't like it, and you can get arrested.  All the positive attributes can be had in other, healthier ways through yoga, martial arts, meditation or through using a floatation tank.

Standing on your head for 5 minutes is a quick way to completely rejuvenate your hearing.  I used to find it ironic when mixing that the moment you needed to listen most critically, when you were committing the mix to tape, was when your ears were the most fatigued.  We sometimes got around this by leaving the mix set up over night and coming in with fresh ears to make the final evaluation the next morning.  That only worked with projects that had a budget to support this.  I remember mixing Blind Idiot God several years ago at the Hit Factory in New York, many of the songs  featuring Andy Hawkin's massively loud guitar sound.  We mixed about 4 tracks per day.  In between, I would go into a quiet room and do a headstand to get my hearing back into shape while my assistant set up the next song.  Well, ... I hear objections, I can't do a headstand.  Neither could I, it took me about two weeks of trying everyday at yoga classes and with people spotting me before I got the balance of it.  Once you get up there, the body never forgets, like falling off a bicycle.  Once you fall off a bike, the body never forgets how to get back up there and fall off again, heh heh. But you don't even have to do a headstand to achieve this effect.  What recharges the hearing is the anti-gravity result of the blood flowing to the head and ears.  The same result is possible simply by lying down with your feet above your head.  I just find a headstand more fun, but each to his own.  Revitalized hearing in this way is represented in the tarot by the Hanged Man card ... c'mon, don't give me a hard time, I've heard far wackier interpretations.

This leads right into a long-held belief of mine: that the most significant piece of audio processing equipment in the recording studio is the brain and nervous system of the producer(s) and engineer(s), what I now call the "human biological machine," a term that E.J. Gold likely adapted from John Lilly's  Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer.  The proof of this pudding is in the eating of it, ie the rapid advancement of my audio career.  I got into using a floatation tank right around the time I began my internship at Platinum Island Recording in New York's Greenwhich Village.  I also lived at the Sivananda Yoga Center on 24th Street because the rent was cheap, and included all the hatha yoga classes you cared to take.  I wasn't a disciple or devotee of their guru, Swami Vishnudevananda, but, unlike some religious practitioners, the staff was very tolerant of my Crowleyian/Gurdjieffian studies and experiments.  I took to floating like a fish to water.  Part of the yoga center deal was that you had to participate in their six o'clock morning obligatory which began with a half hour of seated meditation - pretty much torture, for me.  Meditating and deeply relaxing in the gravity-free, sensory attenuated environment of the floatation tank felt natural and enjoyable.  After emerging from an hour of floating, I felt energized and alert with all my senses sharpened much more than usual.  The "floatation tank" link above goes to a page with a testimonial I gave about 10 or so years ago.  This wasn't intended.  I was searching for a definition and thought to go to the website of my friends who own and operate the Samadhi Tank Company, and there it was.  When you start invoking John Lilly, Coincidence Control won't be far behind, it seems.

Sam Zeiger, who runs Blue Light Floatation ( still in business from what I understand, located on 23rd St, between 6th and 7th Avenues) where I initially floated, and I quickly became friends.  Sam also introduced me to various consciousness inducing materials released by E.J. Gold and associates.   When Zeiger upgraded from a Samadhi tank to a floatation room, he gave me a great deal on the tank.  I was now able to float everyday before going to work at Platinum Island.  I remember the first time, as an intern, that I was allowed into the Control Room of their smaller studio.  I thought, there's no way I'm ever going to able to learn to run all this gear, it looked so complex and daunting.  Sure, I had finished a year and graduated from the Institute of Audio Research (mostly theory, very little practice) and spent four years before that on the road mixing live sound, but it still seemed way beyond my grasp.  Less than three years later I was setting up a portable recording studio in the hills of Morocco and recording the Master Musicians of Jajouka amongst quite a few other incredible projects.  It wasn't just from fine tuning the nervous system, Coincidence Control certainly helped - meeting Bill Laswell, and even getting hired at Platinum Island which was up and coming when I joined so hadn't solidified their staff.  At more established New York studios you can languish as an intern anywhere from 6 - 18 months because all the assistant spots were filled.  I began assisting after only a 3 month internship.  But I do believe that floating and other consciousness raising practices gave me an edge up and played a factor in Bill's gamble to place me in situations of great responsibility incommensurate with my experience.

In 2003 I was asked to participate on a panel of engineers and producers at the 2nd annual Tape Op Convention in Sacramento.  Tape Op is my favorite recording industry magazine.  It was there that I met Larry Crane, the Editor, and discovered that he grew up in the Grass Valley area where I've been living since 1993.  I was already friends with John Baccigaluppi, publisher Tape Op, from working at his studio in Sacramento, The Hanger.  I don't exactly remember the subject of the panel but do remember talking about the role attention plays in the hearing process.  I gave the example of being at a crowded party and hearing something in the din, like your name, that grabs your attention.  If the people are close enough, you can then tune out the roar of chatter surrounding you and hear their conversation should you wish to do so.  It's selective attention that allows this ability.  I'm not aware if either John or Larry attended that panel, or if they might have heard the recording made of it, but I was recently quite delighted to see a quote about the use of attention in the recording studio in Tape Op.  A few weeks ago, I was working at Mighty Dave Pelliccaro's Lucky Devil Sound in Oakland mixing his band Materialized when, on a listening break,  I flipped open an old Tape Op to a Brain Eno interview conducted by Larry and John and saw this quote from Eno that had been highlighted and pulled out from the main text:

I come to think that attention is the most important thing in a studio situation.  The attention to notice when something new was starting, the attention to pick up on the mood in a room and not be emotionally clumsy, the attention to see what is actually needed before it is actually needed, the attention that arises from staying awake while you're working instead of lazing into autopilot.

 - from Tape Op No. 85

Of course, I would add the attention to detailed and focused listening, and the attention to know when to give your ears a rest.  I try to break at least 5 minutes every hour when mixing. In the old days back in the Neolithic Age when analog abounded, your were guaranteed a couple of minutes away from the music while the tape rewound at the end of the song.  Now, with Loop Playback, you can listen constantly until deciding to stop.  I whimsically conceptualized the "rewind plug-in" which would force you to periodically take short breaks.  Kudos to Eno for realizing the role of attention and kudos to John and Larry for noticing the importance of what he said and bringing it to the forefront.

More on the art of listening when we get back from wherever we are going...

1 comment:

  1. Great post. Sam Zeiger still runs his floatation business -- I just floated there last month. However, he told me he's getting a little tired of it, so may not continue much longer. Somewhat related to your post, I love this Thelonious Monk story: Monk enters the studio and starts playing, the rest of the musicians join him. After few minutes of play the technician from his room shouts and stops the band.
    Monk: "Why did we stop?"
    Technician: "I thought you were rehearsing."
    Monk: "Aren't we always?"