I attribute my start as an audio engineer to my brother David, older by four years. He was already a good guitar player at 16, playing in a rock band that practiced in our basement. More than anything else, I wanted to be in the band, too. Since I had nothing to lose, I swallowed my little pride and begged. A lot.
“You’re too young, not good enough and your voice hasn’t even changed yet!” I was told repeatedly.
Being a stubborn little bugger, I was not going to let a small obstacle like that stand between that band and me. So I offered to be the “sound man” for the band, not that I knew what one was. I found out quickly.
A “sound man” is the one who shuts the basement door when it is accidentally left ajar, preventing the “sound woman” (Mom) from shouting at us. A “sound man” is the one who breaks down microphone stands, unplugs cables and cleans up after rehearsals – again, preventing the “sound woman” from becoming irate. A “sound man” is the one who records the band’s practices on my Dad’s old two-track Revox reel-to-reel. Aha! Now we’re getting somewhere.
So began my long quest to make better and better recordings. Once I figured out that each track on the Revox could be recorded separately, I suggested to the band that we record the music first so they could concentrate on their not-so-stellar vocals later (yes, I am still bitter about them rejecting my “high-pitched girlie vocals”).
The infectious recording bug bit hard, and I schemed about how to add tracks and improve fidelity. Complications arising from the recording bug led directly to the chronic accumulate audio gear condition, for which there is no cure. Except money – or, more precisely, the lack thereof.
So I made do with what I had, adding new bits here and there. I bounced between the cassette and open-reel deck, bought a noisy mixer and built my own electronic projects. At one point, I even dreamed of owning a couple of Radio Shack High Ball microphones for recording. Home recording veterans take note: that’s the High Ball, not the higher-fidelity model, the venerable High Ball II.
The beauty was my budding audio engineering career could only go up from there. That is to say, there is inherent value in aural adversity. Certainly I am a better and more versed engineer for having survived “innovative” recording techniques, time-consuming electronic kits and tedious troubleshooting. The old adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” comes to mind (although some of those improperly wired electronic kits came awfully close).
Most professional engineers, producers and studio owners admit they started the same way: making the most of what they had available at the time. And at that time, all my recordings had the same semimusical opening – a wash of white noise, modulated by wow and flutter.
Maybe one day I’ll be asked, “Daddy, why did you always start your old songs with sounds of the ocean · and what’s up with those high-pitched vocals?”
Next Stop: Liechtenstein
Four countries in four days: Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Liechtenstein. And when in the Principality of Liechtenstein, you absolutely must visit with the gracious people of Neutrik AG, as I did earlier this year. Neutrik, headquartered in the breathtaking Schaan valley, is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary.
I had the pleasure of speaking to founder Bernhard Weingartner and Managing Director Werner Bachmann about Neutrik’s genesis. Weingartner started the company in 1975 on a shoestring after he submitted, and subsequently won, a bid to provide XLR connectors for a large broadcast supplier in Europe.
Neutrik AG was born, operating out of a barn in Liechtenstein with just the two employees. It has grown quite a bit since then. Neutrik now has offices around the world, and its connectors have become standard in the studio, broadcast, live sound and contractor industries.
Over the years, Neutrik has developed improved versions of standard audio interconnects, and even created new ones, such as the Speakon and Combo (XLR and 1/4-inch) connectors. Bachmann says the company’s philosophy is simple: innovation. In other words, if they can’t improve a standard connector, they don’t make it. More than 79 patents and additional patents pending prove their efforts are worthwhile.
I have long been a fan of the company’s products-especially the ones that made my life as a studio owner less stressful. After wiring up several studio and control rooms, you come to appreciate the little things – specifically, those thousands of little things that have to be attached to the ends of cables. Hmmm · maybe if Neutrik was around when I was a kid, all those electronic projects I built would have worked the first time.