Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Large -- Mary's Song

I set out a couple years ago to write a Christmas album. This is the only one I've finished so far. It's my gift to you. Merry Christmas!

<a href="">Large -- Mary's Song [featuring Courtney Ramsey] by Gabriel Beddingfield</a>

Note: link to bandcamp page

Thursday, August 13, 2009

EQ (or, how to turn down the "suck" knob)

Warning: this blog post contains a science experiment.

So your sweet guitar tone sounded like crap when you got to the concert. Or maybe band practice was awesome... but things sounded really bad at the gig. Why does my stereo sound so bad when I turn it up really loud? Or down really quiet?

The answer: it's your ears.

No, I'm not saying "it's a personal problem." You are normal. But, your ears have a built-in equalizer... and the EQ settings are different depending on how loud the noise is. Scientists have studied this, and the result is called the "Equal Loudness Curve:"[1]

If you're like me, you're wondering, "huh?" Each line is an "equal loudness line." The bottom line is the threshold of hearing — stuff we can just barely hear. The top line is dangerously painful sound levels. In the middle (around 1000 Hz, about a high C) we hear sounds the easiest. In comparison, the bass sounds have to work harder and move the air more harshly. Likewise with some of the higher frequencies.

But even more interesting is that the curves are shaped differently depending on how loud it is. This means that if you change the volume, the balance between hi/lo/mid will change.

Ok, time for a science experiment. Get your MP3 player or iPod and sit down with a "large" song (like Steppenwolf's "Born to be Wild"), and do this:[2]
  1. Turn it down until you can barely hear it. This is the bottom line on the chart. What do you hear? You can hear mostly the cymbols. A little bit of guitar and vocals. Probably can't hear the bass guitar or any other drums.
  2. Turn it up a little so that you can hear it clearly, but still quiet (about 20%). What do you hear? You can probably hear the vocals, guitars, keyboards, cymbals, snare, some of the drums all clearly. Hardly any bass guitar... or tone.
  3. Now turn it up so that it sounds "full" (probably about 50%). You can probably hear everything clearly... but the stuff in the middle (like the cymbals) are starting to get annoyingly loud.
  4. Turn it up more... so that it's "a little loud." Chances are, this is the first time you heard a decent bass guitar sound. Notice how all the other volumes have changed dramatically... but not the bass?
  5. Turn it up really, really loud. Now, you probably can't stand it because the drums, guitar, and keyboards are overdriven.
So, as you changed the volume... you got a big response on the mid and hi frequencies... but the low frequencies were slow to respond. This is exactly what the chart above is showing us.

This has a couple implications::
  • Loudness is subjective. That's why the developed the A-weighting for decibel meters, because this reflects the way our ears work. In contrast, the C-weighting has a flat frequency response and is useful for scientific measurements.[3]
  • You have to change your EQ settings when you change the volume. You can't set the tone knobs in your room and then turn it up for the gig. It will sound different.
Here's another experiment to try:
  1. Get some kind of media player with an equalizer (5 or more bands, e.g. WinAmp or Amarok).
  2. Set all your EQ's to 0.
  3. Set the volume to about 50% and get a feel for how it sounds (even if it's not good).
  4. Now set the volume to be about half as loud. Change the EQ settings until it sounds about the same as it did at 50%. If you succeed, chances are that your EQ looks like the chart above. You had to push up the bass... but the rest didn't need much adjustment.
  5. Now set it even lower and try again. You probably had to turn down the mids and trebles to make it sound like the bass was louder. (Kind of like the curve above.)
  6. Now turn it up pretty loud (75%) and see what you have to do. For me, it ended up looking a little like a line that gently sloped downward toward the high frequencies.
What's the takeaway? For recording, this means that your mix will sound different at different volumes. If you're doing it yourself, you need to be careful that you're always mixing at about the same volume. In live music, people want to be moved by the lower frequencies: the bass, the kick, the rhythm guitar. When you turn it up, you will have to turn down the higher frequencies (lead guitar, keyboards, vocals, snare, cymbals) to keep them in balance.

[1] Source:
[2] If you can, set all your EQ settings to 0.
[3] See
[4] See also the last post, which discussed loudness.

Crank it up, man!

Rock'n'roll is supposed to be loud. Is not just a childish attempt to rebel or a substitute for real art. There is something that sounds different when the music is loud. When the kick and the bass are physically shaking your body. There is something inspiring about how a guitar sounds when the amp is turned up to 11. It is not just a fad.

But sometimes you wonder, "is it too loud? Am I going to damage my hearing? How loud is too loud?"

The simple answer is that musicians are typically exposing themselves to levels that are OK for an audience... but too loud for the musicians. Let me explain...

There has been quite a bit of research put into how much volume our ears can take before it damages them. The standard benchmark is the OSHA guidelines:

Duration per day, hours | Sound level dBA slow response
8..........................| 90
6..........................| 92
4..........................| 95
3..........................| 97
2..........................| 100
1 1/2 .....................| 102
1..........................| 105
1/2 .......................| 110
1/4 or less................| 115

So, if you're going to be exposed to noise for 8 hours a day... you need to make sure the noise is less than 90 dBA to avoid damaging your hearing. On the other hand, if you want to crank it at a rock concert... you need to keep it below 95 dBA.[2]

That's great... but what the heck is a "dBA slow response?" First, here is a table with several relative loudnesses to help give you a feel:

dBA | Equivalent event
0 | threshold of hearing
10 | rustle of leaves, a quiet whisper
20 | average whisper
20-50 | quiet conversation
40-45 | hotel, theater between performances
50-65 | loud conversation
65-70 | traffic on a busy street
65-90 | train
75-80 | factory noise (light/medium work)
90 | heavy traffic
90-100 | thunder
110-140 | jet aircraft at takeoff
130 | threshold of pain
140-190 | space rocket on takeoff

"Cool... but what's a dBA?" See below.[4]

So, for a music performance (1-4 hours), the audience can take 95-105 dBA without damaging their hearing.

But for the musician, regular exposure 95-105 dBA will result in long-term hearing loss.

This is a real problem, because:
  1. Musicians are taught to "practice to perform." That is, practice as if it was really the performance.
  2. Balance, levels, and dynamics have to be set at performance volumes. Things literally sound different when you change the volume.[5]
  3. Musicians love the way it sounds at performance volumes. Can't get enough.
Here's some tips for musicians to protect their hearing:
  1. Ear plugs. Not the 35 dB instrustrial kind. Get some light 5-10 dB earplugs.
  2. Turn it down for practice... especially if it is not on a performance day.
  3. Turn down your MP3 player. Typically 50% or less. See this.
Be a man! Use earplugs.

Next post: Why does it sound different when I change the volume?

[1] 29 CFR 1910.95(B)(2), Table G-16 (link)
[2] For any of my friends at New Hope... don't freak. We've been measuring dBC. With our mix, 105 dBC is probably around 90 dBA.
[3] I found this list here, which attributes the Encarta 2005 encyclopedia.
[4] To be more specific, a dBA is the decibel reading that you get from a decibel (dB) meter that is set to the A-weighting and set to a slow response. A decibel (dB) is measures the air pressure that is stirred up by the noises. The A-weighting applies the principles of the "equal loudness curve", and it considers the fact that our ears don't pick up very low and very high frequencies very well. (More on that in a future blog post.) Most decibel meters that you buy will have the A-weighting available.
[5] This, too, is the equal-loudness curve... see [4].

Monday, August 10, 2009

Over and Under

Properly coiling your audio cables is the most important thing you can do to care for them. Most of you probably already know how to do the "half-twist" when coiling the cable. However, recently my friend Jeff showed me an even better way to coil cables.

To coil with the standard half-twist method, you gently twist the cable while making each coil. This removes some of the twisting tension in the cable. That tension would normally make the cable want to twist up and tangle. However, since you removed the tension, it is as if you had coiled the cable on a spool. This is excellent practice and provides years of reliable use.

But, if you have done this for many years, you have noticed some problems with this. First, to keep the cable from coiling like a phone cord, you have to diligently unwind the cable -- putting back your half twist with every coil. Further, these coils do sometimes get tangled without much effort. The cable also takes on a permanent coil and does not lay perfectly flat or straight.

This is where the over-and-under method comes in. This method will literally allow you to throw a 100-ft cable and it will not get tangled:


What's cool is that it works for more than just cables: garden hoses, ropes, and... erm... that's all I can think of.

You can read more about it on Wikipedia.

[1] Video from Chris Babbie Location Sound

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Ugly Tree

Ugly Tree[1] is Michael Nagel's[2] first full-length album, but the songwriting and album craft bear a maturity that most artists don't achieve until their 3rd or 4th album. The album struggles mainly with the contrast of the church and the homeless. It's available for download from BandCamp[1], with a name-your-own price (including $0).

From the very start, it's clear that he's trying to make "main-stream" Christians uncomfortable:
A cigarette
To keep you warm
A cigarette
Praise the Lord!
— "Alison"
The whole album is full of subtle, piercing observations like this. This one sums up the whole album:
And April Fifth was freezing.
Alison had lost her coat,
And St. Jude's Cathedral
Was closed.
— "Jesus on the Sidewalk"
The words and folk instruments paint the pictures and emotion in such a way that you can't help feel empathy for the people he's writing about... and meanwhile feel shame that you haven't already done anything about it.

Nagel himself describes the album like this:
I wrote these songs while struggling with some difficult ideas about the Kingdom of God based mainly on experiences I've had with some homeless folks in dallas, conversations with ryan, and reading these books: Jesus for President, Jesus on the Non-violent Revolution, Does God Need the Church?, Politics of Jesus, Prophetic Imagination.[1]
While the songwriting takes center stage, the music is no slouch. The main instruments are his voice, acoustic guitar, an old analog synth, accordian, possibly a harmonica, and various percussion (shakers, thighs, etc.). Possibly the thing he does best is let the words step aside and allow the reeds in the accordian weep for us. The same technique in "Leaves" gives us space to be happy... as though we're floating quietly down a stream. It's full of haunting, singable melodies. However, some of the songs have a little too much space, and it's hard to pay attention (e.g. "Jesus on the Sidewalk" develops very slowly).

My favorite songs on this album are "Leaves (Intermission)" and "Following a Speck." Leaves is a beautiful love song that also gives us a much needed break from the heavy subject of the album. In "Following a Speck," the song just has a way to make you want to move. This is the first time I've heard Nagel play slide guitar — anywhere. It's a welcome compliment to his musical arsenal.

This isn't an album for everyone. It's well crafted, prophetic, political, and folky — and a lot of people will have trouble paying attention to this album. It's not immediately accessible like his other songs (e.g. "Robot"). In many ways, the structure and techniques used on the album remind me of David Crowder*Band's "A Collision."

The entire album was recorded on 4-track analog tape... which is sometimes hard to believe with the detail that is put into it. For example, Nagel's voice is recorded with a "room" sound in several songs where it fits well (e.g. "Noise, Noise..."). Other songs have a very tight vocal recording that fits those songs well (e.g. "Alison").

However, because the music on this album is slower and has a lot more space, the 4-track is more of a limitation than a feature.[3] Many of the rich tones and combinations sound like they're coming to us from a transistor radio. With all the pregnant melodies and instrument combinations, it's like we're missing out on something that is much more grand.

This is an excellent piece of art. Any music lover should take advantage of the free download this and listen at least once. If you like it, go back and pay for another. :-) People who like lo-fi songwriting (like Bob Dylan, Jon Foreman, Bruce Springsteen, Jewel, etc.) are more likely to enjoy this album.

[image] Shamelessly used without permission.
[2] Full disclosure: I'm priviledged to call Michael Nagel a personal friend... but I promise I'm not pulling any punches. :-)
[3] In his collection "Fuzzy Comotion" , the 4-track analog added charm to the songs.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Filling me up with your rule...

For the past couple of years I've been focusing, in my own songwriting, on praise and worship music. I'd like to see P&W music be more... exciting as an art form. Exiting in a Radiohead way... not a snake handling way. :-) Along the way I've gathered lots of rules (from others and from my own personal convictions). Rules like:

  • Avoid overused cliche's

  • Try not to make Jesus your girlfriend

  • Make the melodies singable (2-3 notes)

  • Needs to be something people want to sing (to God)

  • Needs to convey some manner of truth

  • ...but not to much (we don't want hymns, after all)

  • No wierd chords or wierd meters

  • Try to stay away from G-C-D-Em

I'm finding that under the weight of all these rules... I'm really not enjoying songwriting. I'm finding myself following perfectionist tendencies. I'm not producing as many new songs as I should be. Ideas that I'm excited about become neutered under the weight of all these rules that I have to navigate.


I'm just going to write songs that please me. If it happens to be a worship song... cool. If not, still cool. I'll let you know how it goes.

So... what are the rules that you need to break? What's got you in writer's block? (Whether it's songwriting or prose or poetry or what...)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Guitars: How to change your strings

D'Addario and Planet Waves have an excellent video on how to Restring a Guitar. It's great for both beginners and experienced players.

After changing your strings, it's common to have to retune it constantly. This only happens if something "gives." Often, it's the extra slack that is found in the 3 to 6 wraps that the string made around the tuning peg. As you play, the slack gives... and you're out of tune.

In the video, they do a lock wrap. (Put the string through the peg, wrap it back around and then under itself. When you turn the peg, the string will wrap over itself.) This is a lot like a clove hitch, one of the strongest basic knots. Because it holds the string so well, you can have fewer wraps. (I often don't even have a complete wrap on my bottom strings.) With fewer wraps, you have less slack. Your strings can be "broken in" in minutes rather than hours.

I've been stringing all my guitars this way (except the nylon-string guitar) for about 3 years now. I've even changed strings just before performing (usually not done because of constant retuning). It works great and I recommend it without reservation.

(a) I did try to embed the video... but I couldn't keep it from playing automatically.
(b) This didn't really work as well with nylon string (classical) guitars, for me. I think it's because the pegs have a larger diameter, the strings are a lot slicker, and the strings stretch so much. So, I haven't found any advantage to using this method with classical guitars.