Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Like OMG!

In my fledgling days in radio I got a number of request calls for certain novelty song by Frank Zappa. I had no idea at the time that I was taking part in a shift in the portrayal of women in our mass media culture. The year was 1982. The song was "Valley Girl."

During the 1970's feminism had been the rule of the day. Women sought equality in every sector of life: equal pay and nonstereotypical roles in the workplace, at home, and in the media. Helen Ready sang "I Am Woman." Cher told Sonny to hit the road. Maude was more than a match for Archie Bunker. And Billie Jean King handed Bobby Riggs his male chauvinist hat on the tennis court. Woman were not to be disrespected anymore. Women were smart. Women were strong. You don't tug on Superman's cape, and you don't mess with Linda Carter as Wonder Woman either.

That all got flushed down the toilet with a single weird novelty song and a 14 year-old girl named Moon Unit.

Zappa's song was meant as a poke at the SoCal subculture known as Valspeak: a corruption of the English languish bred in the well groomed San Fernando Valley where female teenage angst usually centers around not having enough shoes or just the right color of nail polish for a sweet sixteen. These girls, born in the mid-1960's, had somehow grown up knowing nothing of Vietnam and thinking Watergate was some form of birth control. Zappa was astounded by the shallowness of these people's lives, and his daughter was able to supply the lingo that brought it all to life. He never intended to have by 1983 every girl in high school sprouting "Gag me with a spoon."

But that's what happened. The age of irony and arrived, and those who were in on the joke inflected their daily conversation with Valspeak the same way we might do the Homer Simpson "Doh!" when we make a mistake or do Doctor Evil's slow "Rrrriiiight," when we hear something nonsensical. We never meant for it to become a national trend, and we certainly never meant to make this a role model for our young women. But the damage had been done.

Soon, Madonna was proclaiming herself to be a Material Girl in a video that echoed Marilyn Monroe singing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." Cyndi Lauper took it in a slightly different direction, but basically the message was the same in "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." Julie Brown sent it all up again with her novelty song "I'm a Blond." As time wore on supermodels became full-blown celebrities, Paris Hilton became famous for no apparent reason, and female tennis stars now emit such extreme vocalizations during a match that I blush and hit the MUTE button when my wife enters the room.

Guys are not totally blameless. Somewhere along the line it became OK to call women "chicks" again, but in our defense we picked up on it only when women started calling themselves by that name. (ex: The Dixie Chicks) And speaking of country music, nobody was more surprised than the group Confederate Railroad back a few years ago when they released a song called "I Like Women Just a Little On the Trashy Side" and fans started requesting it at their concerts. Female fans. Dressed, you know... a little on the trashy side. You've come a long way, baby - in the wrong direction.

So, the next time you turn on your TV and scan into something like The Hills, Laguna Beach, Top Model, Gossip Girls, The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Dating in the Dark, or anything where girls are sitting around having OMG moments over what dress to wear and what purse goes with her Benz, just remember it all started with "Valley Girl." It's the Zappa Curse, and we're still living with it.

Here is the original just to prove my point. Tell me this isn't the prototype for every girly reality show on the air. At least it's less than five minutes. That's more than I can say for its television offspring. Rated PG for being a bad influence and for being like grody to the max.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

What a Wonderful Smell You've Discovered, Your Highness

Word has it Star Wars is coming out on Blu Ray. Well... next year. The Fall of next year. But they are on the way, the "Adventures of Luke Skywalker" trilogy, with lots of special features. And you better believe the picture and sound will be awesome. Of course, the prequels will be released as well. Let's hope you won't have to buy the whole mess just to get the good stuff. (Like they did with James Bond.)

Oh, and these will be the Special Edition releases of the films, not the original cuts. For me, that's not really a deal killer, but I'd rather see the original cut of "A New Hope" and watch Han Solo fricassee Guido the way it really happened. According to Sound and Vision Magazine:

"Unfortunately, Lucas said that the Special Editions would be used for the original trilogy, because transferring the original cuts of the film would be too expensive."

Huh? Too expensive? To put both versions out on Blu Ray? You gotta be kidding. This is Star Wars we're talking about: the biggest movie franchise in history second only to that 007 guy. Since when is anything too expensive for Star Wars? Hell, George Lucas could buy the frickin' moon and turn it into the Death Star (TM), fly the 1977 negatives up there, move Technicolor up there to process new prints, and build the world's biggest 70mm projector and show the original cut to the entire western hemisphere. Too expensive? Yeah, right. More like you don't want to admit the less-than-perfect original cut was better.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Mic Reviews

Check out these mic reviews at Recording Hacks. I was invited to take the blind taste tests for these mics and give my opinions. I have some additional comments, but first read the Recording Hacks reviews. (And bookmark the site. There's a ton of useful info there.) Then come back.

Click here.

Welcome back. First, let me say it was a pleasure to be asked to participate. I do not pretend to hang in the higher circle who record musicians in project studios, although I've worked in such studios in the past, mainly as an assistant. I work in broadcasting and operate my home voiceover recording studio. It's not in the same league, but we do have much in common. Mainly, we want the best sound for the project.

Each reviewer brings a certain number of prejudices and expectations when he listens to a microphone. No two people agree exactly on mics. For every person who thinks the AKG C12 in it's current state is a shrill disappointment, there are those who love it. For figure. All I can say is the Avatone knock-off served Taylor Swift quite well at a fraction, and I do mean fraction of the cost.

With vocals, I bring my radio and voiceover background, which wouldn't truly serve the needs of a vocalist and would run counter to much of what a musical producer is trying to achieve. Voiceover guys want clarity above all else. I'm willing to sacrifice a little low-end grunt in order to be heard against the clutter. I'd be OK with the Sennheiser MKH 416. But, for me, the perfect mic adds low-end grunt within reason while keeping the clarity. In other words, I'm a U87 kinda guy. Fine. But that's just me.

When I hear a folk/country vocal, I tend to think back to Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Simon and Garfunkel as my benchmarks. As it happens, these legends recorded at Columbia in the '60's - thanks to Mitch Miller. So, my bias is based on the techniques of the Columbia house style of another era. And, while this is embarrassing, I also herd a great deal of John Denver in the '70's. That's going to leave a mark.

I know even less about recording acoustic guitar. All I know is I know what I like. Usually, in a pop or country recording, the guitar is processed to stand up to the mix. String scrapes are avoided because the average listener thinks they shouldn't be there. (Hear any on the original Classic Gas?) Think of that power strumming in the Electric Light Orchestra's Fire On High. That's not natural. Very little about ELO is. And yet, that's what our ears can become accustomed to hearing. The only cure is to pick up a Gibson and strum a while. Learn what a real guitar sounds like. In my opinion, the person most knowledgeable to record the guitar is the person who actually plays one.

I truly believe all the reviewers' opinions reflected their preferred method of listening. I like to do critical listening on AKG K240 headphones. My JBL nearfields are not powerful and lack the complete low-end reach. (A sub would cure that, but then I have to upgrade my amp.) Speakers vs. headphones could make all the difference between thinking the Gemini II was great or just so-so.

As for the mics themselves, I have found a new respect for MLX, a brand typically thought of as a bargain knock-off. The Revelation is one serious recording tool. I'd love to A/B one to an AKG C214 or just about anything from Neuman just for fun. BTW: I've seen a 100 dollar price drop on the AKG. Somebody's nervous.

The Gemini we reviewed hasn't quite won me over, but it definitely has some chops. I'd like to hear a jazz vocalist try it out. Definitely got to hear it on a VO. It has potential. If you're mic shopping, try it out.

The real sleeper of the bunch was the MXL V89. Priced at around $330, this mic held its own against these U87 contenders. I absolutely MUST audition one of these for VO work. It could be the best bargain out there.