November 2012 MIX Zen and the Art of Audio Everything
eddie ciletti

When my editor suggested this issue's theme, I downloaded the e-version of the classic book to which this column is referenced. Then I wondered what my editor had in mind. Should I read this book in hopes of improving my writing? Writing is a bit like songwriting. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and the words just pour out as if the column were writing itself. Other times it is a struggle to find the right words and organize them into cohesive thought.

Within the first 120 pages of 'Zen,' there were several 'chatauquas' or philosophical observations from which parallels could easily be drawn between the book, motorcycles and life within our own niche audio environment. The story begins as the author / narrator Robert Pirsig is riding from the Midwest to California. He has a vintage bike that he maintains along the way while John, his riding partner has a new bike and no interest in knowing how it works, no matter how thee author tries. Thus the two opposing views Classical and Romantic the Zen man-is-one-with-the-machine style of DIY maintenance versus the hands-off 'professional' service preferred by John. 

In our world, it doesn't matter if the discussion is recording, mixing, design or repair there are as many tools as there are ways to get results from them. Some users are technicians whose approach is organized, methodical and scientific while others create their art from a more emotional, random and even haphazard way. There is no black and white - everything is a mix of art and science - plus that essential bit of business sense to get products to market and remind us how important it is to stay in the black, even if just barely. Our business is proof that happiness is found in the journey and not necessarily in the collection of wealth although all donations accepted!

In 'the process' of getting the job done, we are constantly zooming so far in that it can be a struggle to zoom all the way out. That happens when mixing, mastering, troubleshooting, writing code and sorting out what is essential to this column how much detail do YOU need? How perfect does it need to be? 

There is a discipline required to distill a topic and its necessary tangents into 1200 cohesive words it is the 'album' when compared to Blogging's 'single.' The latter being easier because the focus is singular with no target word count other than being as concise as required to get the job done. At minimum, feedback confirms that our work reached its target audience and better yet, helps us to fine tune and improve. That said, you might think a real-time classroom environment might be the best way to get instant feedback, and yet I have to push students to speak up and ask questions in order for me to know whether they get it or not.


My most recent experience in the land of endless detail was when a friend, Jason Miller, purchased an Otari MTR-90 24 track recorder for about the price of one headstack! Despite the obvious sonic preference for analog or digital 'storage,' initial interest in analog tape recording is often a reaction to the 'formula' currently being applied by those working in the box record to click, edit to grid, make it perfect. A thousand technical questions followed, from 'where to buy quiet fans' to correlating VU meter level with digital's peak metering as well as the ever challenging machine calibration and alignment. I did my best to answer as many questions as possible only to realize there is a limit to how much can be absorbed, not matter how 'smart' the receiver is. I get it!

Motorcycles and Tape Machines have 'user performance preferences' in common. There are so many tweaky options that the real answer to Jason's questions is TIME. It takes time to learn a machine or software well enough to know how best to work around or best exploit its idiosyncrasies. This is liberating for both the user-student and the teacher-mentor because is simplifies and paces the questions in modern parlance, we may be unaware of software's 'default preferences' until we learn it well enough to have preferences of our own. In 'Zen' Pirsig points out that two motorcycles from the same factory will feel completely different after years with their respective owners. It's the same with tape machines and tools!

Being an audio person has always been a multidisciplinary effort the major delineations include live sound, post, studio and road warrior. Each has their own standard tools and spare parts kits. I am not a musician, but as a recording engineer, I own a drum kit, electric bass, acoustic guitar, small bass and guitar amps, a drum key and a piano tuning kit (hammer, felt, rubber wedges). 

A standard student tool kit should include a pair of needle-nosed pliers and flush cutters with emphasis on their use for 'light' electronic work. Each kit should also include a large and small screw driver set with flat and Phillips tips (#2, #1 and #0 , #00, respectively). It's worth spending the extra bucks on a temperature controlled and regulated soldering iron like the Hakko FX 888 (link below), with 1.6mm, 2.4mm and 3.2mm screwdriver tips (sold separately). There are Solder options too that have - or determine - which flux and flux remover to use, de-soldering braid, plus standard cleaning chemicals (alcohol, acetone and a contact cleaner / de-oxidizer / lubricant).

Tech stuff to buy and where to buy it
Basic Tool Kit
Soldering Iron

The long and short of it is that we are all in the pursuit of putting our unique stamp on what we do. I see it in people like George Massenburg whose equipment reflects his mixing style clean, crisp, punchy, tight! The way George uses his tools is transparent - as if he's not using processing possibly because he knows exactly what he wants and how to get it. 

I recently had the good fortune to connect with Bones Howe online. Like many engineers, he gets asked lots of questions about how he made classic recordings with Elvis, BB King, The Turtles, The Association, The Mamas and the Papas, to name a few. While I am still compiling details, I got this excerpt from his website... "I was never an engineer's engineer," he says. "I was always happier on the other side of the glass, out in the room with the musicians. I think that a great deal of my success was due to the fact that I played on some records and I knew what it was like to sit out there." 

Howe took pains to ensure musicians were comfortable, so he sat them close together, using the directional characteristics of microphones and room acoustics to enhance the sound, rather than recording them separately and mixing it all together at the end. "As someone very astutely said, 'If you do it one instrument at a time, then it's a ham sandwich and a cheese sandwich, not a ham and cheese sandwich.' 

Another cadre of examples is on the tech side. Larry Janus (Tube Equipment Corporation), Dave Hill (co-founder of Summit. Founder of Crane Song and Dave Hill Designs) and Dan Kennedy (Great River Electronics), are multidisciplinary nerds on so many levels. Larry makes a very high percentage of his products onsite metal work, paint, engraving, circuit boards PLUS software analysis for vacuum tube sorting and transformer analysis. (He's also RF literate.) Dave customized his manufacturing equipment so he could control more production on-site, he has a surface mount pic-and-place machine that he makes custom component carriers for. In addition to analog and digital hardware, Dave also writes code for plug-ins. 

All of these guys do their own circuit board layouts and I have personally watched Dan as he 'corrects my work.' There is easily as much science as there is art and aesthetic to the layout process. All of these people and so many more are as much artists as they are technicians all are Zen masters! Like so many recording engineers and mixers, our boutique manufacturers put a piece of their souls into their quality products, stand by them and build them in the USA despite the Harvard Business School mentality that puts profits over quality...