There are truly few weird and wonderful places left in San Francisco today. Yes, I’ve talked about the relics from the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition and 1938/1940 World’s Fairs that are on display at the Musee Mechanique, but a place I had forgotten about was brought to my attention the other day — The Audium.
The original concept started in the 50’s when experimental music was in a bit of an underground heyday. Enhanced by somewhat more affordable recording technology there were lots of people who were creating music from the sounds of the world around us or Musique Concrète. These were some of the early days of electronic music as we know it today. The music as it were could be the sounds of construction, cars driving by, people talking which could put you in a place without having to go there, or it could simply be a bizarre array of sounds that you really wouldn’t know what to make of it.
The Audium would fall into a bit of the later category. The room is circular and looks a bit like a space ship on the inside. From the ceiling are 136 hanging speakers as well as built into the walls at it’s current location at 1616 Bush Street. The Audium is best experienced rather than described. With all of those speakers individual sounds can be moved around the room in a way that 5.1 Dolby Surround or even 7.1 Dolby Surround can’t replicate. After you enter and take a seat the low level lighting is lowered to complete darkness. The room isn’t really warm or cold, but everything is set up so that the main focus of the evening is on your ears and the story that the sound will play for them.
Each work is performed live by Stan Shaff every Friday and Saturday night who mixes the taped audio in a different way each time. You could probably make the analogy that Stan is like a 3D sound DJ. Call it genius or insanity, but after you’ve experienced it once you’ll have a completely different idea of what sound it. Tickets for each performance are $20 [cash only] and a limited number of tickets are available pre-show through the City Box Office. Children under 12 are not allowed as, well, it’ll probably be a bit weird for them and they’ll start asking questions which kind of defeats the purpose.
The Audium is a place that everyone should go to at least once in their life if they intend to spend any time in San Francisco. It’s just a little bit of weirdness that helps create the character of our City.
After an experience I had yesterday morning I decided that a look at musical technology was in order. Being a guitarist and keyboardist I’ve got an arsenal of gear in my house. It used to take up a whole lot of space and it cost me an arm and a leg to get it. I’ve pared down over the years because the technology has increased. I used to have a Marshall Stack that cost me $800 for the head and $400 for each of the two cabinets. I sold them both to get a PODxt Pro which gave me a choice of 32 different amp models plus 22 different cabinets plus a huge selection of effects and modeled mics for the cabinets to get the same studio sound for $799. They now have a newer version that does even more for $300 less. They say modeled because they can’t say duplicated, but when a friend of mine came by and told me the amps he wanted to play through and what setting to give it he was surprised at how close it came.
Now it’s time to up the ante. Yesterday I just happened to run across a few iOS apps for the iPad that bring the price barrier down even further. In the early 80’s there were two synthesizers that were vying for the top of the heap as being the best and most expensive synthesizers in existence. These were the Synclavier and the Fairlight CMI. You have to remember back in these days most computers had about as much power as your bottom of the line cell phone and they were big, fat and ugly. While the Synclavier has sort of fallen away into the history books, Fairlight CMI decided to take a step forward. The original Fairlight CMI cost around $40,000. Well outside the range of the average musician. Now Fairlight has release the Fairlight CMI II as an iPad app for $9.95. You can get the pro app for $49.99 or if you bought the cheaper version through an in app upgrade of $39.99 and this included the entire CMI III sound banks.
Granted you have to deal with 80’s styled synth sounds, but retro has always been cool. The other downside is that you have to deal with the same interface as you did in 1980, but at least it’s on an iPad which makes it a bit cooler. The original used to take up the equivalent of a six foot table with a large box underneath that you had to insert 8″ floppy disks into that were a bit on the fragile side. Now you can hold the entire thing in your hand and walk around using it. Very cool in my book and I’ll be getting a copy of it soon.
The next piece of software is the Mellotronics M3000 that recreates the original Mellotron built by a British company in the 60’s that you’ll all know as the flute sounds in the Beatles, Strawberry Fields. It was the first sampler that used blocks of audio tape that had the recorded samples of the instrument and it was rather fussy at times and the tapes wore down. Now it’s on the iPad and you don’t have to worry about the tapes wearing down because it’s all digital. This is a really good version of the original seeing as the builders of this app have joined forces with the original Mellotron makers to perfect it.
There are lots of other synth programs for the iPad like NLog and Rebirth [being a fraction of what the desktop version is] that offer MIDI interfacing so you don’t have to use the iPad screen to make the music and there are lots of apps out there for the iPad that works as recording studios letting you record anywhere from 4-16 stereo tracks. This is something twenty years ago that no one would have believe to be possible. If you’re not a synth wizard, but a guitarist or bassist you can always download Amplitube and turn your iPad into any one of a number of amps for literally pennies. Granted for most of these things you’ll need a few extra bits of hardware, but I can definitely see now that we’re entering into the post-PC world as Steve Jobs said that in the next few years recording studios are going to shrink down to a table with an iPad or two plugged into a speaker system and be very streamlined.
Somewhere in the mid 90’s I wrote an article on my music website, saundhaus.com that talked about Audio for the Masses and how at the time for under $5000 you could put together a recording studio that would surpass the level of studios from the 70’s and even 80’s. Now today you can get an iPad for $499 and for another $100 add in what you need to make it pretty awesome. If you search youtube.com you might find a few people like this who are already using iPads to play concerts [now if they could just get the singers on key]. Life can be weird, yet amazing at times.
I was on the Muni metro the other day and happened to run out of things to do with my iPhone while traveling to my destination. I happened to remember that I had a decibel meter on my iPhone and decided to run it because the street car seemed a bit loud. I was pretty surprised at what it told me. It peaked at 105db and averaged between 90-95db. What does this all mean? Read on and find out.
A normal conversation takes place at about 70db. A loud rock concert can be at 110-120db. Anything over 85db is bad for your hearing in long bursts. Once you pass 85db you’ll start to develop hearing damage after 30 minutes. Pass 100db and in five minutes you’ll start to develop damage.
I luckily have a set of earplugs that reduce the noise by 60db and they’re reusable. I used to be the guy at rock concerts that was uncool because I wore earplugs. When I was managing the band Warfare D.C. we used to sell earplugs so that the people coming to the show and the musicians in the bands didn’t have to go deaf when performing.
I remember getting jeered at in the beginning, but some of the people didn’t like leaving the clubs with their ears ringing and started to purchase the earplugs. They were a foam type that you could throw away afterwards and selling them gave us a bit of an edge because it was one of the few ways to make extra money by selling everyone a disposable item for under a buck.
I never thought that the street cars would be so loud and now I might set up shop outside West Portal station or perhaps down at Embarcadero or Montgomery stations selling the ear plugs. Our transit system shouldn’t be so noisy, but it is. While I had thought about noise at concerts I never thought about noise in every day life and it’s pretty astounding.
If you go to work everyday on the streetcars like most people do, you’re exposing yourself to noise pollution of a high magnitude. When I was in a band and rehearsing we used to get the local police knocking on the door telling us that we were emitting greater than 75db from my house where we rehearsed and had to stop. I never thought about that, but essentially they were saying we were having a loud conversation that other people could hear. We weren’t necessarily endangering people’s ears outside the house, but the law is the law. I’m sure we were putting out more than 75db from the house, but the law is also sometimes leaning toward the neighbors of a nice quiet neighborhood. I suppose that’s why most rehearsal studios tend to be in industrial not residential areas.
I’m hoping that some of the San Francisco Supervisors and Mayor Ed Lee will read this and think about it. We don’t want a large majority of San Franciscans saying, what was that you said when they hit their 40’s. I’ve been so good with my protecting my ears from a young age that I can’t have my cell phone more than halfway up when I have the ringtone turned on because it seems too loud. My wife is taking a shower right behind me with a wall separating us and it seems loud to me yet only registers at about 55db. I hear the humming of the fans and electronic equipment like our refrigerator that most people never hear. When we get hit with the occasional black out everyone I know says it sounds weird and that’s because they can’t hear the 60hz hum of the power lines like I can.
I have become what people in the recording industry refer to as a GEB [golden eared bastard] because I can hear things other people can’t. It’s a bit of a blessing and curse at the same time, but I highly suggest if you work downtown or have to take public transportation on a regular basis that you try wearing earplugs for a month and see if you don’t start to hear better. Better yet, if you have a smart phone download a decibel meter app. I got mine for 99¢ test it everywhere. Trust me you’ll be surprised.
I went over to my friend’s recording studio in the Richmond District one day a few years ago to help him fix some problems he was having with his mac. We were upstairs and and he was running all about and he came to me and asked me if I could take over for him in the sound check downstairs because he had to run out to the store and pick up a few things for the two guys he was recording downstairs. I didn’t think anything of it because I knew my recording skills were good and my friend Pete had taught me a lot.
So we go downstairs and I start looking at where he was so far and and I hear him say, “Arlo, Jack, this is Eric he’ll be getting you set up.” I turned around from the recording console to be staring in the face, Arlo Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. I believe I should have been wearing diapers at the time. The first thing that hit me, other than shaking a little bit were the words, “You can get anything you want, at Alice’s Restaurant.”
Shit, Fuck, OMG. I was being asked to do a sound check for Arlo Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. I wasn’t too big on folk music and at the time I looked like your typical metalhead, but still, these guys were famous musicians and I freaked a little bit. Would they think I totally sucked? Would they yell at my friend Pete for giving the sound check and prep for two folk singers over to a METAL HEAD!?!?!
I took a breath. They could see I knew who they were were and kind of laughed at the fact that a metal head would feel nervous around them. Thinking back that was kind of a funny moment all in all. I sucked it up and sat down at the console and checked the levels and adjusted the mics. Pete had a heater running in the studio to keep their bones warm and that was something I had to make a few adjustments for but the studio was practically air tight so we could turn it off once they got their end together along with me.
What seemed like hours, but was probably only about thirty minutes Pete came back and took over and I went upstairs to fix his computer. A couple of hours later they took a break and invited me down to have a beer in the backyard with them. So there I was a metal head sitting with two folk legends and a man who was in the rock and roll hall of fame for producing the UK’s first psychedelic song [that was Pete, if you can’t make the connection] drinking beer and just talking. It was just one of those experiences that make you realize that people are people no matter how famous they are and most of the time you can just walk up and crack a beer with them and chat.
No I will not yell “Freebird!” and hold up a lighter. Ya’ll don’t pay me enough to do that.