Archive for Design & Execution

Adidas shoes: willful idiocy

Up until recently, my only knowledge or experience of Adidas was their association with Run-DMC, back in prehistoric times.  But a friend of mine got a job with them a couple of years ago, and he would lend me the employee discount card for the Adidas store.  So naturally I went to get some shoes.  I wear a 9.5E, probably the most common men’s shoe size in America.  I found that the large majority of Adidas shoes are not available in an E width—in fact most of them are only available in a narrower-than-average width, like typical European shoes.  You may say “well, they are a European brand after all”… but isn’t America a large enough customer base to warrant offering sizes that fit us?

It took me almost two hours, trying every non-cleated shoe in the store, to find a single pair of shoes that fit me—and that pair was a size 11!  They weren’t even long in the toe area either, they fit my 9.5E feet perfectly.  What the hell kind of shoe company makes a US 11 shoe that’s a perfect fit for a US 9.5 foot?  What’s even weirder is that the other size-11 shoes they had were too long in the toe, just as you’d expect.  But even they still felt too narrow.  I can even usually fit into a regular-width 9.5 shoe, it’s just not quite as comfy as the E width; however the 9.5’s at Adidas were far too narrow to even squeeze into at all.

I took home the one pair that fit me, pleased to have found a shoe that fit.  They were actually quite comfortable.  However, they had a keyhole-shaped hollow opening in the heels, supposedly for shock absorption, and this hollow space was exactly the right size and shape to pick up and hold several chunks of gravel, the sort of gravel you normally encounter while walking the dog or jogging.  The sole material would hold the gravel pieces wedged in tightly.  I’d pry it out with a stick, and within a dozen yards the heels would be full of gravel again.  This may come as a surprise, but gravel is not great for shock absorption!  It doesn’t feel good to walk with several pieces of gravel under each heel.

After putting up with this gravel idiocy for almost a year, I threw the shoes out, and went back to the Adidas store.  Surprise surprise, they didn’t have ANY shoes that fit!  Not a single shoe to fit the most common, normal men’s foot size in America.  The clerk told me this was something lots of male customers complained about, being unable to find Adidas shoes that fit.  He also said they were expecting a delivery of a wide-fit shoe (one model only) the following week; so I left, and came back a week later.  Sold out!  The one model of E-width shoe they received, sold out completely in just a few days—and they had no plans to re-order more.

Does that sound absurd and unbelievable?  It does to me, too, but it’s 100% true.  Adidas apparently is willing to ignore the complaints and obvious needs of one of the largest consumer bases on Earth, and also willing to ignore the sales reports showing an insistant and immediate movement of goods.  If there was some reason for this willful obstinacy, I’d be very interested to learn of it.  But it seems obvious to me that (a) Adidas should want the largest share of shoe sales in a giant consumer market like the USA, and (b) narrow feet may be common in Germany and Italy, but they are not the world standard, and certainly not in super-sized America.  Nike is more successful here than Adidas.  Nike has shoes that fit a wider range of feet.  Could it be any more clear?

The largest Adidas store in my town has closed down, due to lack of customers.  This store was sharp and modern-looking, and located on a prominent commercial intersection in a largely Black neighborhood—the ideal place to sell Adidas shoes.  They couldn’t even keep a store open there.  I’d like to see Adidas do well… but they are being willfully blind to some of their own self-defeating choices.  I’m certainly not going to suggest that you not buy their products—after all, if the shoe fits, wear it!  But I would hope that someone at the Adidas corporate headquarters sees this post and wakes the hell up.

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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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The noise you are hearing is perfectly normal.

I hate unintentional noise.  Background hiss, hum, buzzing, and the clicking-beeping noises of cell phone signals bleeding into the audio path, all drive me nuts.  There are a great many potential sources and causes of noise, and an equally large number of ways to prevent or mitigate the noise.  Here’s a great article on that subject.  But what really makes me mad is when a product is excessively noisy under normal and proper use, and the manufacturer refuses to acknowledge that there could be a problem.

T.C. Electronic, Audere, T-Rex, Glockenklang, Presonus, and Metasonix are all companies that have pulled this crap on me, and I’ve read that Phil Jones plays this game too.  How it goes is: I buy their product, and it is just too noisy, usually with a high hiss.  I contact the company to ask for advice, and they respond “our products have no noise” or “our products have lower noise  than any of our competitors”.  I respond that in fact I’m hearing a bad noise; they reply that I must be using the product incorrectly.  I ask them how they intend for it to be used correctly, and of course they describe the exact same normal usage as I was already doing.  Audere has a FAQ on their site about noise from their product; when I told them “I’ve read the FAQ and followed all of its advice, but I’m still getting hiss”, their actual response was “you should read the FAQ on our website”.

In each company’s case, after I insist that I have done everything they suggested and followed all the instructions carefully, and I’m still getting an unwanted noise, they all end the discussion with some absurd dismissal.  Audere said “you must just not like active electronics”, implying that all preamps normally have the same hiss.  Metasonix would not openly answer when I asked if his products normally had the loud hum I was hearing, but he said “for $150 I can cut some traces on the circuitboard, that might help”—implying that he knows there’s a problem, but it’s not his problem.  T-Rex and T.C. Electronic just flatly denied there could be any noise, end of story—implying that I am just imagining things.

For my part, I am willing to grant that there may be something particular to any one rig or environment that causes noise in a given new piece of gear, so conceivably what I’m hearing is not the “fault” of the item that sounds noisy to me.  But that concession loses most of its value when I change my rig and change my environment, yet the noise persists.  In trying to solve these mystery noises and “prove” the cause, I have bought many different preamps and listening devices, new cables, and a variety of power distribution systems; I have isolated each item’s chassis with non-conductive material; I have tried different outlets, different rooms, and different neighborhoods; and I have tried to get help from electronics experts.  Out of all of those experiments and efforts over the years, there were only two times where the noise problem was solved in that way—and neither of those times was with one of the brands I mentioned earlier.

Even so, I always make it clear when I’m calling or emailing a manufacturer that I know the levels of complexity in tracking down noise causes… so why do they refuse to show me the same respect? Why do they just insist there is no way their product could be noisy—and then why do they backpedal and try to say that the noise I am hearing is perfectly normal?

Manufacturers:  Don’t try to cover your butts in the short term, trying to avoid dealing with this sort of complaint.  You only alienate and anger your customer that way, ensuring that they will never buy your products again.  Instead, work with them—acknowledge that they might be right—and earn their respect.  That way, even if they never solve the noise problem with that one product, they will still think well of your brand, and buy other products from you in the future.

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Mumble mumble in movies

In too many movies over the last few years I have seen (heard) a very annoying trend: poorly recorded or poorly mixed speaking voices.  Producers apparently spend hundreds of thousands of dollars making sure we hear every creak and booming rumble, and making sure the explosions are loud enough to deafen everyone in the theater, but they do not care if the actors speaking can be heard or understood at all.  I have to strain to catch what they’re saying, and then grit my teeth when the soundtrack blasts some obnoxious noise over the top.

It would be easy to blame the actors for failing to enunciate clearly, and indeed I think enunciation  is considered “uncool”—so actors choose to mumble just the way they do at home, with no regard for the fact that mumbling in the rest of the soundtrack mix is like trying to converse while a freight train rushes by.  But in fairness I think mumbling should be a legitimate part of an actor’s vocal range, so the onus is on the recordist and the engineer to make sure the mumbling is heard clearly, at a decent level, with the absolute minimum of obstruction from background foley and music.

One movie that absolutely galled me in this way not too long ago was “The Incredibles“.  It’s a great movie, very entertaining, and I’ve watched it several times.  But the vocal performances and mixing are terrible! I honestly can’t understand how anyone let such godawfully unprofessional audio work get out of the studio door.  The voice actors sound like they are talking into their sleeves, or reading the lines just for practice.  They sound flat and dry and distant—you can practically see the actors standing in the studio, reading their lines, with no sense that they are the voices of the characters onscreen being chased or blown up, or that they might have to enunciate or speak up in order to be heard over the other noises.  And there was no effort made by the engineers to fit those voices into the audio environment of the movie!  Even given the dry, dull, mumbling recorded performance of the actors, the engineers should have been able to massage those sounds into an appropriate mix.  A little careful EQ, scene/room-appropriate reverb, harmonic coloration, and the right levels, and those recorded performances would have been saved.

Another hated example is the Tim Burton remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Actually the spoken lines of the actors are intelligible enough, but the sung lyrics by the Oompa-Loompas are utterly obliterated by the overblown and excessively loud music Danny Elfman chose to blast out.  The whole point of having the Oompa-Loompas sing at all was so they could directly convey the moral messages that were the foundation of the story!  Roald Dahl wrote them in specifically to make his message clear.  So for Burton to turn their scenes into cheap pop-culture pandering, and for Elfman to render their lyrics completely unintelligible, was to spitefully crap all over both Dahl and his writing.

I could add many, many more movies to this diatribe, and I probably will as I recall them.  I can say now though that it’s a recent trend.  Even the poorly-acted and cheaply-recorded B movies of the 70’s had more intelligible speech.  It seems to me that many movie producers of the last two decades or so have decided the public just wants a lot of noise, and doesn’t care if the actors can be heard and understood.  Which is frankly a massive insult to both the audience, and the actors themselves!

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Speaking of things designed to not fit…

Previously I wrote about the trouble with racking up half-rack-width processors, but there are a lot of products out there where you have to ask “what was the designer thinking” because the products don’t fit into their normal context of usage!

For example, Phil Jones makes a high-end rack preamp which has large rubber feet bolted to the bottom.  These feet prevent the user from mounting anything in the rack space below the preamp.  The feet cannot be unbolted from the outside, you have to open up the housing to get at them.  To top it off, the manufacturer states that opening the unit up voids its warranty.  What the hell!

Another example: Aguilar is a boutique amplifier brand that has started making pedals and outboard processors in the last couple of years, and they have made several big blunders.  Before I say anything further, I should mention that I’ve had some positive exchanges with Dave B. at Aguilar, and in particular he responded to one of my criticisms by taking my suggestion and supplying the needed solution to his customers.  That’s how this is supposed to work!  But he could have saved himself some grief by asking everyday users for their advice before going ahead with some of these designs.  Their first effect unit was a rackmount distortion; however distortion is the sort of thing that usually sells best as a pedal, and most people wouldn’t give up a rack space to just one analog effect these days.  They made their next product (a preamp/DI/EQ/overdrive) into a pedal–however it is huge, requires a special power supply, and the housing design makes it difficult to mount to a pedalboard.  Additionally, the overdrive function of the preamp cannot be set to unity gain.  These are the sorts of things that a designer will come up with when they are thinking “in a vacuum”, but which any practical consumer/user could have told them were not good ideas.  I really feel the distortion and the preamp could have been massaged into much better form factors and functionality with a bit more effort.

Then there’s the Carl Martin “Classic” series of pedals.  These pedals have a unique retro look, very Atomic Age, and I can totally understand why a visual designer would have come up with that look.  However these pedals are total pigs when it comes to fitting them onto a pedalboard, they occupy a lot of space.  Yet the actual circuitboard inside is quite small!  The big retro-look housing is mostly empty air.  A designer who was in touch with their consumers’ actual usage would have sent those big empty housings back to the drawing board, and instead gone with a more space-efficient model that still could have “looked cool”.

HHB made the “Radius 3 Fatman” compressor; it’s a half-rack wide and three rack units high!  Were they high?

Again and again I encounter preamps and processors where the in/output connectors, or the signal levels from the devices, are incompatible with normal purposes and with other gear that you’d normally connect to it.  There’s a rack compressor with balanced inputs and only unbalanced outputs.  Why?  There are many pedals which only work well if your instrument has a certain range of output, such that if your signal is “too high” it will clip, squash, and sound like crap, while if it is “too low” the effect doesn’t seem to work.  This is easy to avoid if the designer gives a damn.  And lastly, most buffer pedals have a passive volume pot at the very end of the circuit, and this pot raises the output impedance, drastically reducing the benefit of the buffer.  DUH!

I could go on, it seems like I run into this sort of thing all the time.  I’ll probably add to this post later on, when more examples of dunderheaded incompatibility crop up and anger me.

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Why no standardization of half-rack units?

For almost as long as audio equipment has been built to fit the EIA standard rack size, some manufacturers have built “half rack” units that fit in one half the width of a rack space (up to 3RU high).  Although this practice had a peak of popularity in the 1980’s for consumer-musician effects and processors, there has been a resurgence of this format in the high end recording equipment world in recent years.  Some of the finest brands make half-rack gear.

But how the devil do you mount them in a rack?

Yes, you can buy generic rack shelves with an array of screw mounting holes, but in my experience these almost never work.  First and biggest problem: height. By the time you have attached your half-rack unit to the shelf, very often it is slightly taller in total than 1RU.  And even in cases where the mounted unit is not too tall above the shelf, very often the mounting screw heads on the bottom of the shelf protrude too far.  In either case you can’t fit other rack units above or below it without damaging them.  Second problem: sometimes there are no tapped screw holes in the base of the half-rack device.  So how are you supposed to attach it to a shelf?  I have used double-sided tape, but the thin stuff doesn’t hold well, and the thick foam tape always makes the mounted device taller than 1RU.  Plus I have had a very difficult time trying to remove leftover adhesive residue from both kinds of tape, after un-racking the device.

Individual brands sometimes make and market a special mounting system for their own devices, but in every case these systems only work if you have two half-rack units from the same brand. If you want to rack a preamp from one brand with an EQ from another brand, you’re hosed.  And there are a surprising number of manufacturers that don’t even bother to make a mounting system for their own half-rack units.

In the short term, there is no practical solution. In the long term, here’s what I want to see: manufacturers should design their devices so they will be easy to mount in a rack without exceeding the standard rack height by even 1 mm, on either the top or the bottom.  Manufacturers should be alert to these practical considerations in every product they design, and they should ensure that customers will not be frustrated by the most basic use of the equipment.  Designers!  Your products do not exist in a vacuum, they have to interface well with other brands’ products, and they have to FIT!

In a perfect world, I’d like to see some standardization, please!  The EIA rack unit has been a terrifically successful model; why not extend that success to the half-rack width?  How hard could it possibly be to design half-rack modules to use the same screw-on rack ears and center connecting plates across brands?  I’ll tell you now, it would not be difficult at all, and in fact that standardization would be a cost savings for design teams!  In equipment manufacturing, the more standard non-proprietary parts you can use, the less expensive the product is to manufacture.  Combine that with the assured increase in popularity of the goods once they are no longer hellishly frustrating for the average consumer to use, and it’s a solid home run for everyone involved.  The half-rack module format has been around for decades, and it doesn’t appear to be going away.   So manufacturers, take the next step and make it work well!

To consumers looking for advice on the best way to mount your half-rack gear, I have only two suggestions: either buy two products from one brand, to mount together with that brand’s proprietary racking system, or give up entirely.

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Rack preamps for bass: why designed with low output?

Far too often I find that rackmount preamps for bass guitar are designed with main (non DI) outputs that are unbalanced and that put out fairly low levels (under 1V RMS).  Yet the PA-style power amps that people expect to drive them with tend to require relatively high levels of input signal (over 1V RMS) for optimal operation, and very often the signal at those inputs is dropped by a further 6 dB if the input is unbalanced.

There are certainly exceptions: some power amps have low input sensitivity ratings, some preamps have sufficiently high output levels, and some combinations of them are ideal (or at least adequate) whether balanced or not.

But the majority trend is out of whack.  As a result, many bassists have gotten far less efficient (powerful and toneful) performance from their rig than they could have gotten.  And there has been a great deal of misunderstanding about why one preamp or power amp will sound wimpy (weak or toneless) compared to another, when almost every time the real problem was a mismatch of levels.

I once raised this complaint on a bass forum, and most the replies fell into one of two categories:  engineers who agreed, and non-technical types who said “you’re crazy, professional rockers have been doing it this way for decades, nobody ever had a problem before!”  The thing is though, just because large numbers of people have made do with what they had, doesn’t mean they couldn’t have done better. Face it, most musicians are not trained in the more technical aspects of their equipment.  And when confronted with technical issues, many of them say “quit listening with your calculator–music is about feeling and intuition, not science.”  But what needs to be brought forward is the understanding that knowledgeable application of science can make your feelings and intuitive artistry come out louder, clearer, and better!

After all, what makes an amp/cab rig sound great is how well it was designed, and how well the components work together.  Most people wouldn’t hook a 10 watt solid-state amp up to an 8×10 fridge cab, or hook a 1,000 watt PA amp up to a single 10″ speaker.  Those are obviously extreme examples, but the exact same idea applies matching the in/output levels and un/balanced connections between preamps and power amps.

Again, the handful of engineers that I’ve talked to all agree, and consider it basic obvious information.  So why do the engineers that actually designed the preamps not understand this?  Why is there such a blatant disconnect between preamp designers and power amp designers?  More particularly, since PA power amps are comparatively large-scale commodities, and bass preamps are very small productions, why don’t preamp designers make it a point to ensure their products will operate ideally with the large majority of commercially-available power amps?

What’s especially weird about this disconnect is that mic preamps and channel strips designed for recording almost always have the correct type and level of main output: +4 dBu, balanced.  So the ridiculous failure to communicate is almost entirely on the part of bass guitar preamp designers specifically.

Note to industry: open your eyes!

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