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Smokehouse/BBQ stands and gentrification

I live in an up-and-coming neighborhood in Portland Oregon.  Up-and-coming is another way of saying “gentrified”, which describes when poor neighborhoods (usually populated by minorities) get bought up and taken over by comparatively wealthy white artists and progressives.  It’s always a mix of good and bad: on the one hand properties get improved, crime goes down, and new businesses flourish; on the other hand, poor people are essentially driven out.  The fact that it’s so often tied to race makes the situation especially delicate and frustrating.

One poignant sign of this change is the regular, repeated failure of smokehouse and BBQ restaurants and stands.  They spring up like dandelions, and they go out of business not long afterward.  These businesses are usually owned by Black people.

I understand the motivation to open such a stand: if you’re good-enough at BBQ that all your friends say you should have a restaurant, and you can scrape together just enough money to open up a cart or small shop, then it seems like a good idea.  After all, everyone loves your food, so they will come eat at your stand.

Unfortunately, there are two huge roadblocks:  First, meat is very expensive, so a plate of smokehouse BBQ meat can easily cost $11, while a very filling burrito at the “taco truck” down the block can be closer to $5.  Second, the population that normally eats this food is increasingly leaving the neighborhood—and the ones who stay generally can’t afford to pay $11 for a meal, at least not often enough to keep the cart in business.  The flood of hipsters and young white parents that moved in are more likely to eat falafel, tacos, waffles, pad thai, vegan wraps, and other foods less heavy on the meat.  They also don’t particularly like the sides that customarily accompany BBQ plates: cold cornbread, boiled greens, Wonder bread, and tiny servings of suspicious mayonnaise-y potato salad or coleslaw.

It’s almost a lost cause.  But there is an earnestness in the persistent opening of new smokehouse meat stands, like individual villagers standing against an army.  It’s almost a heroic attempt to save the earlier culture of the neighborhood, and also a canny reach for the money that is moving in.  But earnestness and heroism cannot pay the bills, and the money won’t come to you if you don’t cater to the new population.

I have ideas about what they should do.  Smaller meat portions, served with fresh vegetables and brown rice, or in corn tortillas, would significantly lower the cost per serving, and appeal to the new crowd.  But these are not my businesses, and it is not my food, and I am an invader in this neighborhood.  It is not my place to tell people to change themselves and push down their traditions, just to meet the expectations of another race or economic class.  All I can do is look on with a stabbing pain in my heart each time I see a new BBQ stand open up, and watch as it sits empty of customers for however many weeks or months it takes the proprietor to give up and shut it down.  I wish I could post an open letter to them that they’d actually see before they invest all their hard-earned money into a fragile new business.

Of course, posting such a letter around the neighborhood would be considered racist.  Even this blog post might be taken badly by some readers, but I truly hope not.  My intention here is to support efforts that may succeed, and lament efforts that persistently fail—and to remark upon an upsettingly recurrent signpost of the drawn-out painful changes that a neighborhood can experience.

Postscript:  On one nearby street, there is a BBQ place right next to a taco truck.  The BBQ place has the strictly traditional menu, and zero customers.  I mean I almost never see anybody eating there.  The taco truck next door has their traditional menu, but they also have a big colorful sign advertising a full menu of vegetarian and vegan options.  They stay busy!  There’s usually somebody placing an order at any hour they’re open.  Those guys are smart—they did not lose their culture, they did not change their appearance, and they did not leave their neighborhood!  They just adapted, and their business seems to be thriving.

Feel free to leave constructive replies and suggestions below.

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Small biz owners: do you speak for your brand?

If you spend much time on internet forums for musical gear, you will have seen (or been) the owners of small companies posting answers to questions or challenges about their products… and you will have seen some of those conversations go very badly.

The fact is, forums can be brutal places, full of keyboard warriors and idle hotheads.  But you cannot just ignore those venues, because they are a fast-moving word-of-mouth network about your goods and services, and if they spread bad words then your business could go down in flames without you even knowing what happened!  So you have to participate—and if you are not so great at communicating via the internet, then you really ought to get somebody who is good at it to do the talking for you.

I can name so many examples.  Ken Smith is a classic—he has been banned from public forums several times due to his foul, mean-spirited attitude; and I personally will not ever buy anything from him.  You may argue that a consumer is buying the goods, not the attitude of the company owner—but many consumers, like me, don’t want to send our money to a person who has insulted or attacked them, no matter how good the products may be.

A contrary example is Genz Benz: their public communication with customers is so good that I very much want to buy Genz Benz products—without even trying them!

A bass builder I’ll call “D.C.” is another negative case: he started out selling fake Fender guitars made from cheap Chinese parts with a Fender decal on the headstock.  Then people on forums called him on it, and he got defensive and outraged.  D.C. went ballistic, calling everyone on the forum idiots and other names, and fighting viciously with anyone who pointed out his obvious shenanigans.  Then later he stopped putting the fake Fender decals on, and posted “see?  I don’t use fake Fender decals”.  And later he started using a less obvious supplier of Chinese parts, and said “see?  Everyone who said I use those other parts is a moron and a liar”.  Obviously this is not a person I would do business with, and many people that saw how he behaved feel the same way.  The sad thing is, if he had been honest and civil from the start, he would be in a much better position now, because there’s nothing inherently wrong with the quality of the products he makes.

In most of these cases, the hostile brand owner thinks they have the right to talk that way.  Ken Smith says “I’m a New Yorker, this is how we talk”.  But the New Yorkers I know personally are just brusque or direct in their speech—not actually mean or nasty.  Another guy I dealt with said it was because he was Irish, he couldn’t help flying off the handle.  D.C. said “I was being attacked on the forum, wouldn’t you want to defend your livelihood too?”  But the thing is that if what people are saying is true, then you have no right to get upset; and if what they are saying is false, then you should be able to calmly and maturely demonstrate evidence that supports the real truth.

So you and me, let’s take stock for a minute.  Are you a hothead sometimes?  Do you flare up when people say things you don’t like?  Do you find yourself arguing on the internet more often than not?  Does it seem like everyone there is dumping on you for no reason?  When somebody says something bad about one of your products, do you immediately think “there goes another keyboard warrior big-mouth who doesn’t know what he’s talking about“?  When somebody questions your attitude, do you get upset thinking they are saying something bad about your products?

All of those are warning signs that you might not be the best person to represent your company on the internet.  I know, money is tight, you can’t afford a PR person to just sit around happy-talking with everyone on the net; but surely there is somebody in your company or in your family who has a level head and a cool manner?  Stop thinking about how much it will cost you to have them do the talking, and start thinking about about how much it already costs you in lost sales every time you open your mouth defensively!  Remember, you may be responding to only one or two people directly, but hundreds, maybe even many thousands of people will read what you just said!  And they are all potential customers.

Another, much more innocent angle is older people who are not comfortable with communicating via email and the web.  Many people who have the experience, the inclination, and the capital to start a small business are people who already had a long career (perhaps as an engineer, or a builder for a larger company)—and that means many of those people are older.  A lot of older people just aren’t familiar with the current norms of internet communication, and this can lead to some terrible misunderstandings and even fights.  There’s an amplifier brand trying to get off the ground, and they’re having a lot of trouble right now because the owner has made some very clumsy communication gaffes; and he doesn’t know how to stop the cycle and get out of that hole.  He’s doing the best he can, with good intentions, but everything he says seems to make matters worse, and it’s just not working for him.

If that sounds familiar to you at all, take stock and consider whether there is anybody else in your company or family who might know how to handle these things better.

Even if you are the one person who knows all the answers about your products; even if you are the one person able/authorized to make commitments about service, prices, or other obligations; even if it’s just you, nobody else in the company—if bickering on the internet has been a problem for you, then take this seriously: you will really benefit, and survive longer, if you delegate the communications to somebody else.  They can relay important questions to you, and then they can take your answer and deliver it to the person with the question or problem.  Let somebody else do the talking.

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Greenwashing make Hulk mad.

OK, this doesn’t have all that much to do with audio electronics, but I just have to take a moment to vent about greenwashing.  For those that haven’t heard this term yet, greenwashing is when a company uses bogus or flimsy ecological claims to advertise and promote their goods.


—A car company that has a hybrid model, where the ads are full of trees growing, flowers and grasses sprouting everywhere, innocent deer, and the syrup-voiced announcer assuring you that buying this car will save the planet for future generations.  News flash people, buying a car does absolutely no good for the earth!

—Detergent that comes in a bottle made of 10% recycled plastic, where the detergent company wants you to know how much they are doing for the planet and the children.

—Mayonnaise made from “only real ingredients” because they care about your health.

—Oil companies that advertise they are committed to sustainable energy sources such as wind, solar, nuclear… and oil of course.  Like they really give a crap about windpower.

—Garbage bags that are biodegradable, which is supposed to be so earth-friendly, except that when the bags break down they just disperse plastic particles all through the groundwater and food chain.

—A chicken company that brags their chickens are “all natural” because they don’t pump their birds full of water and salt… even though everything else about the chicken factory is horrible.

—And my favorite, where the announcer says “green isn’t just a color nowadays; green is everything from the foods we eat to the cars we buy… so we thought we’d help you save a little green, by taking 10% off our everyday low prices.”

You see and hear these sorts of advertisements every day.  Seems like every other ad on TV is crowing about some eco claim, saying they’re protecting the planet, and soothing you with pictures of trees and birds.  It pisses me off, because the large majority of their claims are badly exaggerated or outright empty.  For some people this will result in buying lots of consumer goods that don’t do diddly-squat for the environment.  For others this will annoy them into a reactionary attitude of “screw those hippies and their eco nonsense”.  Neither of those results is good for the planet, the environment, or the future.

There are legitimate eco products and businesses out there, but most of them don’t have the kind of advertising budget it takes to get on national TV or major radio shows.  So all we see all day are ads from companies that don’t really have anything good for the environment, but they DO have massive advertising budgets, and they are willing to lie to you through their smiles and computer-generated acres of trees and flowers.

I don’t really have anything constructive or original to suggest here.  I just hate the empty promises we get barraged with all the time, and it makes me especially mad when those empty promises play on people’s desire to “do the right thing”.  It turns us all into fakers, hypocrites, and reactionaries.  You want to do some real good?  Don’t buy so much stuff!

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Snake Oil! (part 4, tubes/valves)

Is there anything, in the world of musical equipment, more hyped than tubes?  Every catalog and every gear website is laden with chatter about the warmth, fatness, and “vintage tone” you’ll get from their tube pedals, preamps, amps, rack processors, and gadgets of every type.  The ads for some effects boxes say they’ll give you all the rich, creamy tones of a classic tube amp, even if there’s just one tube stuck in there with no clear function.  And sellers of tubes will go on at length about the amazing tone, clarity, frequency range, smoothness, and “depth of sound stage” that their special tubes will provide.

It’s not all lies, exactly, but there is an awful lot of empty and meaningless hot air in there.  Here’s why:

The classic/vintage designs of tube equipment include preamp tubes, an output transformer, large filter capacitors, and (in the case of a tube amp) a bank of power tubes—and all of those elements have a cumulative impact on the sound.  Additionally they are designed so their tubes are supplied with ideal amounts of voltage and current for optimal performance.

Compare all that against a typical preamp or pedal marketed as having “a real tube” for warmth and fat vintage tone: it will have one or maybe two preamp tubes, but none of the rest of those other components and qualities.  Often the voltage and current are just barely enough to operate the tube, with no regard for whether the performance of the tube is even any good, let alone having the tone qualities they advertised.  Sometimes the tube has no perceptible effect on the sound; sometimes all it does is add noise; and sometimes the “vintage” tone it gives is just a mushy, inarticulate degradation of the signal.  Among people who understand the difference, these products are called “toob” effects/amps, to mock the bogus use of a tube for marketing purposes.

To be clear, not all preamp-tube devices are bogus.  A skillful engineer, using design principles for optimal performance rather than convenience or low cost, can get amazingly good tones out of a single preamp tube.  But the unfortunate majority of musical equipment products on the market were made with convenience and low cost, the bottom line, as their primary design goals.  Even reputable brands fall into this trap: one of their engineers may come up with a great new product, but then the marketing and accounting departments tell them “the retail price will be too expensive, and the parts are costly and hard to source, and we don’t have assembly/repair workers trained in handling high voltages.  So make it cheaper, with fewer parts, use a standard 12AX7 tube, and make it run on low power.”

To make the accountants and executives happy, a lot of the time these engineers (under pressure for both cost and delivery time) just borrow an existing prefab simple low-voltage 12AX7 gain stage design, and stuff it into whatever preamp or effects pedal the brand is making.  So now the brand doesn’t have just a delay pedal, they have a TUBE delay pedal, with thick, warm tones just like the greatest classic-rock guitar solos!  Or instead of a bland amp with no great features, now they have a super-versatile dual-function preamp that can give you everything from crisp modern tones to rich, fat vintage tones, at the flip of a switch!  Sometimes those proclamations are just hyperbole, where there is a tonal effect but it’s not that great; but too often those claims are outright mealy-mouthed lies.  And their whole purpose is to gull you into buying another new product, even if it can’t deliver what it promises.  And you know what—they can get away with it, because claims of tone are subjective; so as long as there is “a real tube” in the circuit, the manufacturer is not violating any truth-in-advertising laws.

To complicate matters more, all of these tone descriptions—whether legitimate or bogus—are totally relative.  What sounds “amazingly rich and detailed” to one person may be far too subtle for another person to even notice.  Imagine you hear someone describing a car they just test-drove, and they say it had terrific handling, impressive acceleration, and better fuel efficiency compared to another car they tested; how do we know their frame of reference?  Are they describing the difference between a new Honda Accord and an old Dodge Ram Wagon–or the difference between an Accord sedan DX and an Accord sedan LX?  There’s no exaggeration in that analogy—sometimes one product really does sound remarkably different from another, but very often when people describe the difference between tubes, they are describing qualities that the average listener just would not perceive unless they were told to listen for it.

That of course leads straight into the problems of biased perception, that I have mentioned in previous posts.  We see and hear what we expect (or hope) to see and hear, almost universally.  It is very difficult to avoid these distortions our brains and ears impose on the objective, testable reality.  When people “roll” tubes (swapping various different tubes into one piece of music gear), there is almost no way to prevent hearing some very biased and distorted version of the truth—no matter how perceptive and well-intentioned the listener is.  When you are just listening for your own benefit, there is no problem with those perceptions, they are as good as reality; the problem arises when you read other peoples’ opinions and claims.

But wait—there’s more!  In addition to the real or perceived differences between tubes, and in addition to the question of appropriate voltage and current supply, the fact is any tube gets a large part of its tonal qualities from the rest of the entire circuit it’s built into.  Some preamps (for example) are designed in such a way that a Telefunken ECC83 will sound very different from a JAN GE 12AX7 or a modern Chinese generic; while other preamps will sound pretty much exactly the same regardless of what tube you use.  Sometimes a careful tube designer will actually choose a specific Chinese or Russian generic 12AX7 and design their preamp around the performance characteristics of that tube, such that “upgrading” to an expensive vintage tube could actually downgrade the performance of that preamp–or at least not result in the positive tone change you hoped for.  Also, there’s no one correct understanding of what “tube sound” is anyway—tubes can provide mild grit, subtle warmth, raging fuzz, and even sterile cleanliness!  Some of the most high-fidelity sound reproduction systems use tubes.  It all depends on the circuit design; so when looking at gear to buy, you have to ask this question: what is this specific product designed to sound like?  Just because it has tubes doesn’t mean anything, so is it intended to sound even remotely like what you want?

Bottom line, you can’t make assumptions.  Some of the variables are hidden; some of the language is wide open for interpretation; and some of the sellers are liars.  Always listen for yourself, and never trust the hype.

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Snake oil! (part 3, speakers)

Among musicians and pro-audio people there is a lot of confusion about the power handling and frequency range of speakers and speaker cabinets.  Part of this confusion comes from not quite understanding how to interpret the ratings, and part of it comes from the fact that a lot of the published ratings are terribly misleading, and some are outright lies!

The power handling of a speaker is usually determined by feeding “pink noise” (a wide spectrum of frequencies all at once, with lower frequencies having higher power) through a power amp into the speaker.  The amplitude of the pink noise signal is gradually increased, proportionally raising the wattage output of the power amp, until the speaker burns out.  The manufacturer then picks a nice round number (like 300 or 1000) of wattage just below the point where it burned out, and publishes that as the power handling of the speaker.  It’s technically “true”—but the reality is that actual music has drastically spiky peaks in amplitude (very different from a stable sine wave) that are focused in narrow frequency ranges.  A test tone or pink noise causes very steady, smooth speaker motion, with one level of wattage; while the intense transient spikes from instruments and music can produce a huge range of wattage peaks and valleys, and can make the speaker work much harder.  This essentially renders the pink noise rating meaningless, or at best excessively optimistic.

Speakers have more meaningful specific technical attributes, such as Xmax or Xlim, that describe their actual handling of the physical work of producing sound waves; these attributes paint a much more accurate picture of the amount of abuse a speaker can take, in real-world applications.  Unfortunately many speaker retailers don’t publish these specs, and even when they do, you almost have to have a college degree in speaker design in order to understand and interpret those specs correctly.  This is where it’s good to make friends with somebody who actually does have that type of education and knowledge.  My point here is not that you should look at Xmax and Xlim specs, but rather to show how little it helps to even bother with the wattage ratings the manufacturers publish.  With not-so-great mechanical handling specs, the speaker will “fart out” and distort long before it reaches the max wattage it’s rated for.

To compound matters, the physical performance of a speaker is heavily dependent on the cabinet it’s installed in.  The physical structure of the box, its porting, and interior baffles and shelves, have a huge impact on the efficiency and useful frequency range of the speaker.  So a speaker that is rated for 20 Hz to 20 KHz may only be able to usefully project from 80 Hz to 10 KHz (for example) when installed in a non-optimal cabinet.  And the design of the cabinet also hugely impacts the volume various frequencies can reach without speaker distortion, so again you’re looking at a situation where the wattage rating of the speaker has pretty much nothing to do with how loud the speaker cab can get before breaking up.

The sad thing is that speaker cab manufacturers intentionally take advantage of what the general public doesn’t know.  For example they publish that their cab is rated down to 35 Hz, even though the tuning of the box means the true 3 dB down point is more like 50 Hz.  The cab maker will fudge these numbers by testing at different distances, different volumes, and in rooms that reinforce those low frequencies; and they get away with it because they are not obliged to follow any official standard for testing.  Even “good” brands do this, and they excuse it by saying that’s the only way they can compete in the market against the other dishonest brands.  After all, if a typical consumer wants a wide frequency range, and if they don’t know the science behind acoustic design, they will just read the specs provided by the manufacturer—and that’s perfectly normal and reasonable to expect!  But then the consumer will read specs saying one cab has a range of 20 Hz to 20 KHz (a lie), and another cab has a range of 60 hz to 10 KHz (the truth), and which one do you think they’ll buy?  So even good brands are essentially forced to lie, in order to compete.  This has resulted in a very unhealthy market where almost none of the specs can be trusted.

Really there are only two practical solutions to this dilemma: either get yourself deeply educated on the science of speaker design and acoustics, or identify some reliable people who are in fact educated in these fields, and ask their advice.  Don’t just take the word of your neighborhood amp tech, or a guitarist buddy, without checking up on their claims.  There’s a lot of people out there reciting old myths, bad science, and falsehoods, and proclaiming them as indisputable facts.  Even the speaker, amp, and cab manufacturers do this!  So ask around, and get as many responses to your questions as you can, even if the question is as simple as “how much power can this speaker handle”.

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Snake Oil! (part 2, power cables & conditioners)

In the previous post I talked about audio cables, and how there really can be audible or functional differences between them, even though you can’t believe the manufacturers’ claims.  The same is true with power conditioners, but unfortunately with “audiophile” power cables and outlets, there are no facts supporting the claims around those products at all.

The proof against audiophile power cables and outlets is easy and clear.  Nearly all powered musical equipment runs on DC power internally—the power from the wall is converted from AC into DC immediately, before the power connects to any part of the audio processing.  Sellers of special power outlets and cables rave about how their products correct the phase of the power, and smooth or filter any irregularities in the AC waves—but DC doesn’t have waves! DC doesn’t have phase!  It doesn’t matter what those outlets and cables do to the AC, because the power is converted to DC before being used, and any changes made to the AC are completely eliminated in the process.

Additionally, most electronics already include noise filtering in their power conversion circuit.  With the exception of a tube amp or preamp using AC to power the tube filaments, there is literally no way that these boutique power cables and outlets can have any impact, audible or otherwise, on the operation of your gear.  And even in the cases where AC is used internally, there are lengths of thin wire carrying the power from the external cable to the internal components, and these wires essentially undo any benefit of the thick, scientifically-braided, phase-corrected external cable.

You’ll see plenty of testimonials supporting these products because people do convince themselves they hear differences, but in every case it is just placebo effect.  The only thing you should look for in a power cable is sufficient wire gauge, and decent construction.  Inadequate wire gauge can perform worse, so if you want to upgrade from a flimsy factory-supplied IEC cable, just get one with thicker wire gauge (inside the insulation).

Power “conditioners” are tricky business, like audio cables.  They do perform a legitimate function, and there are differences between them; but again the manufacturers and sellers of these products make such outrageous claims about the supposed benefits of their devices that you really can’t believe a word of it.

Most conditioners are just a strip of outlets, like a cheap power strip you’d buy at a hardware store, with some simple noise filtering and surge protection.  The amount and quality of the noise filtering is usually not any more or better than what is already built into the equipment you’re plugging in.  Only quite old, cheap, and home-made gear may not have any built-in noise filtering, and would benefit from the filtering in the conditioner.  And the surge protection, while useful and completely valid for all equipment, is usually not any better in a $200 Furman or Monster deluxe power conditioner than it is in a cheap office-supply outlet strip.

Note too that the surge protection components in all of these devices are self-sacrificing, they self-destruct when hit with power surges.  So a $200 conditioner becomes almost worthless after only a few surges–but you’d never know it externally.  There’s no smoke or indicator light telling you that the device is now just dead weight in your rack.

The main actual benefit of a rackmount power conditioner is that it conveniently mounts in a rack; but you can easily screw a regular power strip onto the back lid of any rack.  Some of these devices come with lights or outlet testers, and those are fine but they are also available more cheaply in other forms.  Some may have sequenced switching or isolated outlets—those are among the few features that I feel are actually worth paying for.

Many people believe a power conditioner will correct any problems with low or high voltage from the wall, but that is false.  Of course the manufacturers lead you on with those beliefs, talking about the “clean and pure” power their conditioner will deliver; but they are just weaseling around with misleading words.  A power “regulator” will provide that voltage-leveling function, but those cost at least twice as much as a power conditioner, and sometimes quite a lot more.  Additionally confusing the issue, in earlier decades the word “conditioner” was used to mean a regulator, but that hasn’t been the case in a long time.

Making matters even more difficult, power regulators and conditioners can limit the amount of current available for your equipment to draw.  For most rack gear, keyboards, and other electronics, the current available through a conditioner is entirely sufficient; but a large amp, especially a high-wattage power amp, needs to be able to draw a lot more current than a typical conditioner can provide.  So you can actually downgrade the performance of your amp by plugging it into a power conditioner.  Many amp manufacturers recommend against using conditioners for this reason.

So what do I recommend?  Run your high-wattage (high current draw) items direct from the wall, unless you get a conditioner that states it has a high current capacity.  Don’t pay too much for a conditioner, when a cheap outlet strip is just as good in most cases.  If you need lights, get a clip-on book light.  If you need an outlet tester (which is a very good idea!) get one from a hardware store–they are small and inexpensive.  Sequenced switching is useful for making sure you don’t send loud power-on surge “pops” through your speakers, but the same thing can be achieved by just switching your power amp on/off by hand separately (you just have to remember to do it).  Isolated outlets can be beneficial, because different devices are designed with different grounding (earthing) systems, so sometimes ground loops or other noise problems can show up if two devices share a common ground.  Not every device or rig will benefit from isolated outlets, but it can help sometimes, and it can’t hurt—so I do look always for that feature.  The TrippLite Iso-Bar product line has isolated banks of outlets, and they are well-designed in general, and you can find them at reasonable prices on Ebay.  No snake oil, just honest verifiable functionality.

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Snake oil! (part 1, audio cables)

OK, this post will seem obvious to some of you.  Not my most original or novel thinking.  But people do regularly email me asking my opinion about audio cables, power cords, power conditioners, and other “audiophile” concerns, so I figured I should set those opinions in one easy-to-find place.

Audio, instrument, and speaker cables: Tricky business, because on the one hand there really can be audible differences between cables, under certain circumstances; but on the other hand, most cable manufacturers tell so many lies and exaggerations about their cables that you pretty much can’t believe anything they say.

The first thing to know is that cables have a property called capacitance, which is their ability to temporarily store a charge, like a battery.  The capacitance of a cable is chiefly determined by the length and diameter of the wire.  Capacitance is a key part of any filter (a circuit that adjusts the relative levels of certain frequency ranges, like EQ).  In the simplest terms, in the filter formed by a cable connecting two pieces of gear, the higher the capacitance = the more the high frequencies will be rolled off.  This is how a passive tone pot on a guitar or bass works.  This effect is responsible for the vast majority of audible differences between cables.  For example, if you have two identically-designed cables, one of them 2 meters and the other 10 meters, the 2 meter one will sound brighter and more energetic.

It is possible to design a cable for lower or higher capacitance without changing the length of the cable, but this is where it gets shady.  Monster advertises some of their cables as “enhancing bass frequencies”—but what they really do is reduce the high frequencies, making the bass seem louder when you turn the amp up.  A large percentage of the “technology” and “advanced design” that cable brands advertise are just bogus, not actually providing any benefit to you.  All the fancy graphics, charts, and techie words on the package were just whipped up to get you to spend more money.  Really what it boils down to is: trust only your ears, not what is written on the package or on the brand’s website.  Of course your ears can and will mislead you too, but they do it innocently and harmlessly—your ears are not trying to take your money.

The biggest quality I look for in a cable is reliability.  How well were the plugs made?  How good is the soldering that connects the wire to the plugs?  How flexible and resilient is the outer insulation?  Is there some sort of stress relief boot where the cable joins the plugs?  How thick is the wire?  Don’t assume that the outer thickness of the cable indicates the diameter of the actual wire—cheap cables often have very skinny wire hidden in very thick insulation.

Believe it or not, gold-plated plugs are not a sign of quality!  They work well when new, but when used in a humid environment the bond between the gold plating and the cheap metal underneath can corrode, causing worse conductivity.  I like nickel plated plugs instead, as they resist that sort of breakdown.

Good brands of bulk cable include Canare, Belden, and Mogami (although Mogami’s consumer-packaged prefab cables may not be all that special).  For a guitarist, a super-low-capacitance cable like Elixir or George L may be beneficial for their extra high frequency capability, but for a bassist those extra high frequencies are not always wanted or useful.

Many people say they are willing to pay extra for Monster cables because of the replacement warranty offered by Monster—and it is a legitimate warranty—but there are two things to consider: (1) the actual quality of their goods might not be worth the high price, without the warranty; and (2) lots of other cable brands are now offering very similar warranties, so you have plenty of options.

As far as the super high end of audio cables, personally I think it’s all a bunch of nonsense.  There is not any real science to support the claims made by most of these companies, and they rely on people being willing and able to fool themselves into hearing amazing improvements in the sound.  That’s why there are so many testimonials and reviews proclaiming that these high-end cables are so incredibly great: because people will in fact hear what they want to hear.  This is just a simple, reliable, well-established fact of human psychology and physiology.  It is not an insult to anyone.  People expect to hear a difference (or they expect to hear no difference) and sure as daylight, they hear it.  This has been proven countless times.  In one study it was shown that people could not reliably hear the difference between a Monster speaker cable and a length of coat-hanger wire, if they couldn’t see which one was being used.

It works for the other senses, too: another study involved renowned wine connoisseurs, where cheap wine was secretly poured into bottles from expensive brands.  When the wine was poured for the tasters from the cheap-label bottle, they described it as bitter, crude, and unpleasant; but when the same wine was poured from the expensive-label bottle they without exception described the taste as lovely, refined, and full of subtle nuances.

Again, this should not be taken as an insult by anyone who has formed their own opinions about one cable or another.  You heard what you heard, and that’s undeniable.  Just be aware that what you heard may have only existed in your experience, and may not have an objective reality that will apply to anyone else.  And most people don’t have regular access to double-blind ABX testing environments, nor would they want to go to the trouble—especially when all that really matters is what the individual user hears.  All I’m saying here is, don’t get fooled by other people’s intentional or accidental pressure for you to believe in or expect glorious results from an expensive product; and when telling others about your experiences and opinions about any cable, don’t assume that what you heard is what anyone else will hear.  Our perceptions are so funny, in that all reality has to first go through the filters of our brains (full of expectations and patterns), before we consciously perceive anything.

Post Script: I have just learned of a boutique 1-meter-long USB cable, costing about $3000 USD, intended for audio interfaces.  It has metal mesh around the insulation, and it’s like 20 mm thick.  The person reviewing it gushed about the “amazing tone” and “lack of harshness” from this cable.  People, it only carries binary data!  It literally cannot affect the tone of your music, or add/remove harshness!  The data is the same no matter how “good” the cable is.  I mean, an actually bad cable can potentially corrupt data, but any cable that is not defective will convey the exact same data!  Which means the exact same sound.  It boggles the mind that anyone would fall for such an obvious fraud.

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Electro-Harmonix: a love/hate story

Electro-Harmonix has held a position at the forefront of the effects pedal market for decades.  They have consistently come up with a stream of novel, interesting, and vivid-sounding circuit designs over the years, many of which have become classics or even legendary collectibles—and they show no signs of slowing down.  So obviously EH deserves some respect and admiration.

On the other hand, EH has also bungled a large percentage of those designs, in the actual implementation or manufacturing.  Sometimes it’s a problem with poor quality control, with components falling apart, switches failing, and other electromechanical problems.  Sometimes it’s a question of designs put to market before they were fully thought out or tested in the real world.  And some of their products have elements that make you palm your forehead and say “what were they thinking?

I recently discussed this with a friend and we both realized it seemed very much like EH’s designers would come up with a novel circuit or a neat design concept, and right away the product would be packaged and put on the market with no further consideration.  In a sense, there’s logic in throwing a hundred ideas against the wall and seeing which ones stick.  But the flaws there are (1) some ideas would stick better if they were developed a bit more patiently and thoroughly, and (2) the ideas that stick are almost never given further development after the initial market release.  Once a pedal is out there, that’s how it stays, in all but a few cases.

I’ve owned about a dozen different EH pedals, and I had this love/hate relationship with every one of them.  Again, some were great ideas, but poorly implemented; some produced wonderful sounds, but broke down too easily; and some were a mix of good ideas and frankly bad ideas.

The most recent one I bought, the one that made me finally write this column (which has been brewing in the back of my mind for a long time), is the Bass Metaphors.  Now, I have to give EH credit for one more thing: they have produced more pedals meant for bass players than just about any other brand, especially in recent years.  This Metaphors pedal though, is a real forehead-slapper.  The EQ is a high-pass filter combined with a low-pass filter, which results in a mid-scoop at most settings.  For years, the #1 complaint about the major competing product, the Sansamp BDDI, has been that its EQ scoops mids too much—so when EH designed this one, did they say to themselves “let’s take the one feature everyone hates most about the Sansamp, and make it worse“?  Then there’s another brilliant bit of design: if you plug a regular unbalanced guitar cable into the 1/4” output, it automatically makes the DI output unbalanced as well!  Who at EH thought that made any sense?  You’re fired!  I also discovered that the XLR jack was not even attached to the housing—it was just sitting there, with screws resting loosely in non-threaded holes.  So somebody was asleep at the assembly and QC lines.  Lastly, the compressor circuit they chose to include in the package was one of their noisiest and least popular designs, the Soul Preacher.  So they must have thought “hey, let’s take a failing, badly-reviewed product and use that as a key part of our new bass preamp!”

Seriously, guys.  What’s the deal?  Are you under some dictatorial management pressure to release a certain number of products by a deadline, even if the designs are just barely thrown together?  Do you just not care?  Does anyone at EH read their product reviews, read discussions about their products on the forums, or let gigging musicians outside the company test the new designs in actual stage and recording circumstances?

Again, I don’t want to seem ungrateful for the sheer number of new and interesting products EH puts out, or the percentage of them that are compatible with bass guitar.  And honestly, many of their effects sound fantastic and have earned their legendary status. But it really does seem like EH has some attention deficit disorder when it comes to the actual design, implementation, and construction of their products.  This has really held the company back in many ways.  I write this article in the hope that people can see the self-destructive imbalance here, and use that information to make sure their own companies do not suffer from a similar imbalance.

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