Wednesday, October 29, 2014

I Got Speakers

After literal years of hemming and hawing, I finally got off my ass and got some good speakers (or, as we call them in the audio engineering world, powered monitors). They are JBL LSR308's. Why did I wait so long to get them? How did I listen to music (much less try and mix it) without speakers? And why did I buy them now? All good questions. Now, some answers.

What are powered monitors?
This is an easy one. Powered monitors are speakers that have amplifiers built into them (as opposed to the amplifier being a separate component that powers standard passive speakers). The amplifiers are designed specifically to power to the drivers in the speakers (known in the consumer world as "woofers" for low frequencies, and "tweeters" for high frequencies). There are many different kinds of monitors. Some have one driver, and some have two drivers; some have three or more. Unlike consumer speakers that are voiced to make music and other audio sources sound appealing to most people, professional powered monitors are designed for accuracy. What you hear coming through a well-designed monitor is exactly what's being put into it. It's not sweetened. It's not boosted in the bass or treble frequencies. The reason for this is that pro monitors are what's used to create and mix recorded music, and you want to be able to make fine adjustments to your sound without worrying that the speaker itself is adding coloration, or not equally representing all the frequencies. We engineers say that the most important aspect of a mix is that it "translates"... i.e., it sounds good no matter if its played back in a car, on iPhone earbuds, through a home entertainment system, and so on. Making mixes that translate require professional monitors, which I now have.

Do all people agree on what speakers are great versus those that aren't? Oh, hell no. Listening is as subjective as taste; think of it like ice cream. Some people like strawberry and some like chocolate and some like pistachio, and no amount of arguing ever convinces someone else that their favorite ice cream flavor is somehow "wrong". I therefore always avoid any and all pointless arguments about speakers, microphones, guitars, and ice cream.

The back of my new JBL LSR308. It has a big-ass port (that's a technical term) to allow for better bass reproduction, as well as both XLR and 1/4" TRS inputs, an input sensitivity switch for +4dBu or -10dBV, trim controls for each individual driver, a volume knob, an on/off switch, and a power pluggy-inny.

Cool! Why did you wait so long to get them, then?
Well, like most good things in life, professional monitors are expensive. And to be completely frank, I never had a serious need for them. When I'd record things like the music for my last solo album, the actual recording was done in a professional studio, as was the mixing. The stuff I record here are simply "demos"; early versions of songs that simply capture the idea, and not intended as final versions. But again, good monitors are not cheap. It's not uncommon to see good powered monitors that range from $1500-$3000 for a pair. And that's not even close to the high end. My JBL LSR308's were based on technology that JBL developed for their M2 Master Monitors, which go for $20,000 per pair. Yes, you read that right. Twenty thousand dollars. So, since I wasn't about to spend an amount of money I'd usually associate with a new car on speakers, that wasn't going to happen. But then, JBL introduced this new, much more affordable monitor series. At first I was skeptical, but then I heard them and was really impressed, and then found out that a lot of other people whose ears I respect were also raving about them. For the price, they're probably the very best powered monitor available, in my opinion. So I bought some.

Uh, what were you using before you got these?
Mostly headphones. Good headphones from Sennheiser, but headphones nonetheless. When I wanted to listen to something without phones on, I'd have two options: plug in a little boombox I keep here in this office/studio, or take it out to the car and listen there. As I said, I really didn't have a good reason to get speakers before, and I wasn't going to get some crappy-ass "multimedia speakers" just to meet my budget. So I just waited until some really good speakers were within my budget. See? I'm smarter than I look.

So now you're going to mix records there with these awesome speakers?
No, I'm really not. Ha ha. Let me explain. First, I need something better for simply playing back audio here, even those demos that I'm working on for my band They Stole My Crayon. But the fact of the matter is, I'm a freaking musician who records, and it's just stupid that I didn't have a good pair of speakers to really hear what I'm doing. Running back and forth to Kat's Jeep every time I wanted to have an idea of what a song sounded like was getting old. And also, I spend most of my time in here, and just for things like watching movies or listening to music (as I do often), it was high time to have a good listening setup. That having been said, having these JBL's here will definitely make our creation of demos that much better, and will indeed add to our creative process.

So there you have it. By the way, I did purchase these from my very old friends at GC Pro, the professional division of Guitar Center who've been a client of my marketing business for over 10 years. I'm not telling you that to pimp them; just to say that they are cool people, and they gave me a fantastic deal on these already reasonably-priced monitors. Hats off to my bros at GC Pro. And now, I'm going to start planning how I'm going to rearrange this office/studio to best set up these new monitors... something I won't be able to do until the weekend, so for the moment, sadly, my new speakers are just staring at me in silence. Not for long, though!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Windows on the World (10.26.14)

It's been a little while since my last blog post, for the simple reason that I tend to use this blog primarily to talk about my live music shows (which are mostly in the virtual world of Second Life, as anyone reading this is already aware). And the fact is, for a few legitimate reasons, I've been doing less live shows lately. There are two aspects to this relative lack of shows. First and most importantly, my time is limited, and the amount of time I can devote to music has been somewhat preempted by my work on the upcoming album by my band They Stole My Crayon. Speaking of The Crayon, if you didn't notice, we have a shiny new web site that's been designed by yours truly to be optimized for all manner of desktop and mobile browsers. Check it out, if you'd like.

But even if that wasn't the case, I'd still be doing less shows in SL. The fact is that fewer and fewer venues are able to offer the compensation that paid performers like me require. Ultimately, my own ethics prevent me from charging fees to certain places while playing for tips/for free at others. And even if that wasn't true, my beliefs are also that all creative people should be paid for what they do, and even on the small scale of SL, I stand by that conviction. So, I'd rather do less shows than devalue my music and the work that goes into performing it.

Enough on that. Sunday evening, I was hired to play at an SL venue I hadn't performed previously, Windows on the World. I was looking forward to it, but before I'd even strummed a note, it seemed I had a couple of strikes against it being a good show. First, many of my friends/fans were busy wrapping up the Twin Cities SL Jam, so I knew beforehand that most of them wouldn't be able to attend. Second, I'd noted that my show didn't seem to be listed in SL events, something that my manager Maali Beck and I are clear about when I am being booked. And finally, when I arrived, the staff there seemed to have no idea that I was even scheduled to perform.

You have to understand that as a live performer, you don't want things like this affecting your mood, and therefore impacting your ability to perform at your best. It's not a matter of being a prima donna. Ask any person who plays live music if they'd prefer having things go smoothly right before their show, with no technical problems or scheduling mix-ups or the like. You will get a 100% response to the positive. At that point, it's up to each performer as to how much they allow these things -- which, by the way, are inevitable from time to time -- to cause their performance to suffer accordingly. I will say that up until about two minutes before my show, I wasn't exactly happy about how things had been handled thus far, and fortunately I was able to allow Maali to handle those admin details while I finished preparing to play.

Photos by Kat.

And, I should say, from that point on, everything went smoothly, and the show was fine. I was probably not at my usual level of upbeat positivity when I first started, due to the aforementioned situations, but by the time I was a couple of tunes in, everything went just fine. And here, then, is my advice for performers: your audience doesn't know and doesn't care what happened to you earlier that day. They shouldn't have to give a crap whether your gear is working like you want. It's not their fault if you had a fight with your boyfriend, got yelled at by your boss, or dropped your ice cream cone in the dirt. They're there to see a show, and when you step up to the mic, nothing that happened previous to that moment matters. Is it always easy to put on a happy face and focus entirely on making good music while you're still fuming about some situation? No! But that's your job. Be angry after the show, if you must. But while you're playing, the only thing that matters is playing. Taking out your bad mood on your audience affects only yourself... and not in a good way. Shut all that other shit out and do your job.

As far as the show is concerned, I'd label it "Typical Zak Show #3724". I did some originals, and some covers, and since the venue seemed to be slightly formal and not really the right place for my more adventurous or provocative songs, I left those out and stuck to some more tame stuff that everyone there could probably enjoy.

Windows on the World set list...
Low Key (Tweedy)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Carey (Joni Mitchell)
Never Run Away (Kurt Vile)
Sex and Candy (Marcy Playground)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
Man on the Moon (R.E.M.)
Fire and Rain (James Taylor)
Mad World (Tears for Fears)
1979 (Smashing Pumpkins)
Landslide (Fleetwood Mac)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)

Many thanks to everyone who helped support my show!

RoxxyyRoller Resident, Elrod Enzo, Alexis Fairlady, Kat Claxton, Christine Haiku, my wonderful (and patient) manager Maali Beck, and WotW owner Wallace Locke.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Solar Winds (10.09.14)

I've mentioned many, many times that I like any opportunity to perform at a Second Life venue that is new for me. I was excited, therefore, when I saw my manager Maali Beck add a show at Solar Winds to my schedule. I'd gone and checked out the place. Cool build, on a sim that looked like it was in a bubble in deep space. Right on.

But sometimes, the gods of music decide that a challenge is required, lest the mortal musician become too complacent in his/her ways. So, what seemed to happen to me on an otherwise fine Thursday was that I ate lunch and... well, things started going less well after that. Basically, without going into TMI detail, I had a stomach issue throughout the afternoon, and for a short while, considered canceling the show. But sometimes, you just have to push past whatever is bothering you and keep a stiff upper lip and persevere and never surrender and all those cliches, and just try and do the show. What's the worst that could happen? I'd have to end early? Not a big deal, and fortunately, right around the time I was starting my first tune, my tummy started feeling better and the show went just fine. See? Being my first time at a new place, I decided to keep my set list fresh as well with a couple of tunes I'd never played before, both also happening to be songs that have just been released (or in one case, yet to be released).

Solar Winds set list...
Shame Chamber (Kurt Vile)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Blew The Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
*Low Key (Tweedy)
Wonderwall (Oasis)
Sleeper in the Valley (Laura Veirs)
Things Under Trees (They Stole My Crayon)
California (Joni Mitchell)
Say Goodbye (Beck)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
*Here I Land (Nicholas Stevenson)
Things Behind the Sun (Nick Drake)
Tribute (Tenacious D)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL.

Big thanks to Solar Winds for inviting me to perform there, and to the folks who helped support my debut show!
Noma Falta, Sesh Kamachi, Aurelie Chenaux, Christine Haiku, and my always-great manager Maali Beck!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"God Only Knows", the BBC, and My Son

I want to spend a blog post talking about my son. Yeah, weird, huh? I've made generic mention of him many times, but you may have noticed that I don't ever reveal his name or mention any other specific details about him. I've hardly ever posted pictures of him. There's a reason for this. Several of them, actually. First and by far foremost, I'm aware that there are some sick motherfuckers out there in the world, and I will always err on the side of caution in terms of protecting his safety and security. I'm less rigid about this now than I used to be; physically, the kid is now almost my height and outweighs me by a little bit. He's a teenager and can handle himself just fine. Still, even now, you won't see me talking much about him, whether it's bragging about his successes or complaining about his shortcomings. Let it be known that I am always proud of him, and care about him more than anything in the world. My relative lack of mention of my child is purposeful, and I have no plans of changing that at least until he's an adult... which is only a few years away, frighteningly enough.

Long preamble aside, that's not why I'm writing today. This morning, I awoke at 6AM as I do every Monday through Friday. This allows me to semi-leisurely shower, dress, check some email, and sip coffee before taking the aforementioned kid to school at 7:25. I hate being hasty in the morning. Anyway, early on this particular morning, I saw a news item about a new BBC Music promotional piece. In case you're unfamiliar, these BBC pieces showcase various musicians -- some famous worldwide, others hardly known outside of the UK -- covering a well-known song, usually in connection with a charity. Back in 1997, they did a similar treatment of Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" that I really liked, so I checked out the new one, this time for the classic 1966 Beach Boys song "God Only Knows".

As I listened groggily in the early hour, it struck me (not for the first time) that "God Only Knows" really is one of the most amazing pop songs ever written. Granted, this is hardly news; Pitchfork called it the single best song of the entire 1960s, and it is often listed among the best pop songs of all time. It's Paul McCartney's favorite song, for crying out loud. I was humming the well-known melody the entire time I showered and dressed. After my son was up and about, I called to him from my upstairs office and asked if he had a minute or two. He came up, and I pressed "play" on the BBC video.

"Hey... is that Pharrell?" he asked.

"Mmm hmm. Sure is."

We listened, seeing both familiar and unfamiliar faces and voices go by. I'd point out some of the people I thought he probably might not know.

"Chris Martin from Coldplay."


"That's Stevie Wonder. He's a musical genius."


"Brian May of Queen. Check out all those Vox amps."


"One Direction."


"There's Chrissy Hynde. She was in the Pretenders. She's awesome."


"Hey, there's Dave Grohl."

"Yeah, I know him."

"And this guy, Brian Wilson. He's the guy who wrote this music and sang the original song."

"Wow. That was amazing."

We were quiet while the last notes faded, a barrage of feedback presumably from Brian May's wall of amplifiers. I told my son a bit about the background of this song, and how it's perceived as being among the best. I told him a very brief tale of Brian Wilson, mentioning both the brilliance and the insanity. He seemed interested, though both of us were in a hurry to finish getting ready and get rolling. As I took him to school -- only a mile away, but I always enjoy the brief time we spend together every morning -- he was still asking about "God Only Knows". I told him that the Beach Boys were from Hawthorne, a city just a few miles north of where we live, and that they name-dropped our city, Redondo Beach, in one of their songs. He mentioned that he'd never heard the original version of "God Only Knows", and I said that I'd be glad to play it for him this afternoon when he got home.

"Maybe I'll just listen to it on my own before I get home," he said with that high school-ish note of independence in his rather deep voice, and I shrugged and said that was fine with me. Then I pulled into the school parking lot drop-off area, told him to have a good day as he got out and slung his backpack on his shoulder, and I returned home. But I had to smile; my kid noted something special about a song that was born three years before I was. I doubt a whole lot of his classmates would bother checking out a tune from 1966, but he will. He has a true love for music that goes beyond a typical person's, and I don't know if that's through nature or nurture... and honestly don't care. I'm just happy that he finds the level of enjoyment that I always have from listening to music, and that he's capable of recognizing a great song when he hears it. Those are the moments when you know how much that being a parent has enriched your own life. And to wrap up this post, God only knows where I'd be without music, or without my son. Both bring me joy every day.