My Favorite Music

Image courtesy of Paulo Philippidis

Image courtesy of Paulo Philippidis

A few weeks back, Van and I did a show about music we love to listen to. The overarching principle was that as audio engineers, we need to know what music sounds like, and thus, we need to listen to a lot of good music. The challenge sometimes can be finding good music to listen to. While it’s not impossible to find really well produced music made in this decade, it is hard. The reasons for this are quite simple. 

First, bands simply can’t afford to spend the time in the studio they once did. Back in the ‘70s, ‘80s and even early ‘90s, bands might spend several months in the studio recording and mixing a record. Some of my favorites were recorded over the period of a year or more. It’s really hard to achieve amazing, blow your mind quality when you have to track three songs a day. 

Second, the loudness wars are still raging on, and it’s hard to find modern music that has dynamic range. Now I’ll admit that this has been going on for a long time, but it’s arguably worse today than it was 20 years ago. Finally, there was more money available on a per-album basis 30-40 years ago than there is today. There are so many more people making music today than back then, the pool of funds, while up, is diluted. So it’s hard for a band or label to be able to spend the money necessary to make something truly amazing. Again, it’s not that it never happens, it just doesn’t happen very often.

To find great stuff to listen to, you almost have to go back a ways. In fact, I think the newest stuff in my favorites category is 10 years old. And that was made by bands who were making some of my favorite music 30 years ago. So get out some great headphones, in-ears or high-end speakers (step away from the iPhone headphones and no one gets hurt), and take a listen. Ideally on CD. Or HD tracks. Spotify extreme quality if you must. In no particular order…

Boston Boston Their first album is arguably the best. I maintain that the B-side is better than the A-side. Van will say that Don’t Look Back and Third Stage are also good albums, and I won’t disagree. But the first one is the best. The writing is great, the musicianship is amazing and the production values are top-notch. 

Kansas Left Overture This was their big, breakout album. A lot of money was spent on this one, and it sounds fantastic. The eclectic instrumentation is very unique, and the soundstage is pretty amazing. 

Steely Dan Aja This is, in my opinion, one of the best-sounding albums of all time. My new hi-fi speakers arrived today, and when I cued up Black Cow, I was immediately blown away. Again. For an album produced almost 40 years ago, it stands the test of time. Again, it helps that they spent nearly a year recording and mixing it. You could also listen to pretty much anything Steely Dan did after (or before) Aja. Two Against The World and Everything Must Go sound incredible, though I really like the songs on Aja.

Sting All This Time This is another one Van & I brought up on the podcast. It’s a great collection of world-class musicians hanging out at Sting’s villa in France or something just crushing some classic Sting and Police songs. It’s also very poignant, as it was recorded on September 11, 2001. The emotion is palpable through the recording. The video is also great. 

Pink Floyd Pick pretty much anything. Personally, I’m a big fan of Wish You Were Here and Dark Side of the Moon. Van will cast a vote for Meddle and Delicate Sound of Thunder. I won’t argue those. The Final Cut is also pretty great-sounding, but it’s really dark from a lyrical standpoint. 

Natalie Marchant Tigerlily Natalie has an amazing voice. On this album, she shines. This is an album I can listen to on repeat and not get sick of it. Her vocals are so pure, so haunting and the mix so good, I just shake my head and think, “Wow…” You could also cue up some 10,000 Maniacs or any of her other solo albums and be amazed. 

Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris Real Live Roadrunning This one has become one of my newest favorites. I just picked up the DVD and spent Saturday night in front of the TV, UE11s in my ears, marveling at the incredible talent both on and off the stage. It’s brilliantly performed and mixed just as well. If you’ve ever wondered what live music should sound like, listen to this. 

Paul Simon Graceland He took some flak for this when it came out, but the fact remains it’s an incredible-sounding album. The vocal harmonies are lush, the instrumentation clever and the musicianship flawless. The mix is pretty spot-on, too. The 25th Anniversary edition is very cool because it also includes a bunch of demo tracks. It’s pretty neat to hear where some of the songs started out.

Eagles Hotel California, Eagles Live, Hell Freezes Over You really can’t go wrong with any of those. Arguably, Hell Freezes Over is the best-sounding, but it’s also the newest. If you grab the DVD and can listen to the full DTS version, it’s pretty spellbinding. That said, the acoustic guitar in Hotel California is the standard by which all others are judged. Bonus round, Don Henley’s solo work is pretty great, too. 

Billy Joel The Stranger, Turnstiles, Nylon Curtain, The Bridge I don’t even know where to start with this. It’s all so good, and so different. Joel’s style evolved over the years, but every album remains great, and a great listen. Scenes from an Italian Restaurant is one of my all-time favorite songs. I just picked it up as an 88.2 Khz, 24 bit HD track; it’s solid. 

Tower of Power 40th Anniversary Live Just a great album. Tons of power, energy and talent. The music is so tight, it’s great for tuning PAs. David Garibaldi is a monster on drums and the rest of the band is just as amazing. Very well mixed for a live album, too.  

I could go on, but this should get you started. This is, of course, not a definitive list. It’s what I could think of as I’m sitting up in the Palatial Listening Room auditioning my new Canton Vento 820.2’s. Which sound frickin’ fantastic, by the way. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some more CD’s to try out…


Total Cost of Ownership

Image courtesy of Chris Potter

Image courtesy of Chris Potter

Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) sounds like a highly abstract concept. But it’s really not. It’s also something that churches—sadly—tend to miss out on. TCO is simply a calculation of what a particular product or service is going to cost you during its life. TCO has become popular in automotive circles, with some manufacturers boasting about the fact that while their car might cost a little more to buy, it will cost less to own. At least in theory.

Missing TCO Calculations

TCO can be missed in several ways. Sometimes, a church will buy a particular piece of gear—sometimes a very expensive piece—that will dig into their cash reserves pretty significantly. Projectors are a great example of this. A really bright, say 15K, projector can cost well over $20,000-50,000. That’s a lot of money. However, it will also cost somewhere between $2,000 and $6,000 to re-lamp it. And at that brightness level, re-lamping is going to happen every 500-800 hours of use, which is right around a year (at least for many churches).

So not only did you spend, let’s call it $30K, on a projector, you can figure on another $20K in lamps over the next 5-7 years of life. And we haven’t even talked about filter replacements, electricity costs or service. Costs on this imaginary projector (that’s not that imaginary) will easily exceed $60K over the life of the unit. Did anyone think about that or did the initial purchase price double as a complete surprise?

Other times, a church will buy the cheapest piece of gear they can find, thinking they are saving money. However, what they find out is that the consumables cost of that gear is far more expensive than a slightly more expensive piece of gear. Ink jet printers are a classic example here. I’ve seen churches replace older, heavy duty color laser printers with newer “cheaper” ones because the toner cartridges are 1/2 the cost of the old ones. What no one noticed was that the new cartridges print about 1/8 as many pages, which quadruples the per page costs and irritates the users who find the printers always out of toner.

Do Your Homework

Sometimes, it’s hard to choose between two seemingly comparable pieces of equipment. What you need to look at, besides initial cost, is total operating costs. I’ve compared projectors based on bulb and filter life plus electricity and found brand A to be almost 50% less expensive over a 5 year period than brand B. And these are two projectors with output and picture quality close enough to be called “the same.”

Rechargeable batteries are another great example. Yes, it might cost you a few hundred dollars to get into the game once you purchase chargers and the initial stock of batteries. But from that point on, your annual battery costs could drop to under $100 to handle replacements. At my last church, we went from spending over $1500/year to about $200; and the only reason I spent that much is because we had 5 rooms using rechargeable cells, and the ones in the student rooms go missing more regularly. 

It’s Real Stewardship

If you want to win friends and influence people—especially your senior leadership—continually present them with plans that demonstrate you know how to make purchases that represent an excellent value over time. Showing them that you’ve done TCO calculations, and have chosen equipment with that in mind will show them you’re serious about leading your department well. 

Of course, TCO doesn’t tell the whole story; it’s just one data point. But it’s an important one. You still have to consider usability, whether the product fits your needs and if the volunteers can use it. Still, TCO can often be the tipping point between brand A and brand B. Choosing the one with the lower overall lifetime cost will pay off in more ways that one. Trust me.

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Photo courtesy of Flaxe

Photo courtesy of Flaxe

Back in the day, Heinz ran an ad campaign for their ketchup called “Anticipation.” If featured all sorts of people eagerly anticipating something, which of course, ran parallel to their eager anticipation of the delicious red sauce coming out of the bottle. It was clever, and by licensing the classic Carly Simon song, memorable. 

The Mac Dictionary App defines Anticipate with the following two possibilities:

1) guess or be aware of (what will happen) and take action in order to be prepared: they failed to anticipate a full scale invasion.

2) look forward to: Stephen was eagerly anticipating the break from the routine of business.

Heinz was referring to the second definition. Today, I want to focus on the first; to guess or be aware of what will happen and take action in order to be prepared (especially the last part).

I am becoming convinced that one of the keys to being a great tech leader is to anticipate. We need to be aware of what will likely happen, and prepare in advance for that eventuality. This is not nearly as hard as it sounds.

For example, take a look at the service order around Wednesday or Thursday. See an interview on the list? You know that means you will likely need a handheld or two prepped and ready to go for service. Don’t wait until 5 minutes before service starts for someone to tell you that they will need two handhelds for the interview. You know what is going to happen, and what will be required. Prepare ahead of time.

If your worship leader sometimes (but not always) stops and prays between songs, get in the habit of dumping the effects on her voice at the end of a song so if she does pray, there won’t be 3 seconds of reverb at the beginning of the prayer. Prepare in advance.

If you always do a big Christmas production that requires extra wireless mics and lights, start booking them in late October; don’t wait for someone to tell you about it in early December. 

When I was a TD, I was told on many occasions by my boss that he appreciated the fact that he didn’t need to manage me. I hear from a lot of tech guys that they hate how much “management” their boss exerts on them. The reason I didn’t have that issue is that I anticipated what needed to be done, and got it done it before he had to say anything. Thus, he never felt the need to track my movements and monitor my time. I just got it done, and he didn’t worry about it.

If you want to enjoy the same freedom, anticipate the needs and deal with them before someone else has to tell you to do so. This works in concert with one of my earlier posts, Do a Good Job. If you learn to anticipate well, and then do a good job, you will enjoy a level of freedom in your work that will make your job a real joy. Fail at those tasks, and expect to have a lot of micromanaging in your life. The choice is yours.