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Audio Craftsmanship in the Digital Age

I started playing piano when I was 3 or 4 years old, almost 51 years ago. My grandmother had been an opera singer in NYC in the early 1900’s. When I was growing up she used to house various Juilliard students, usually the visiting Russian piano students or competition participants. So some of my earliest memories are of amazing virtuosic piano music filling the house. As a child I used to sit at the piano for hours with my forehead touching the piano, and letting the sounds of the struck strings vibrate through me, the evolving sound wash around me, like an ocean of possibility.

I have had a lifelong love affair with the topography of sound. (to·pog·ra·phytəˈpäɡrəfē/noun 1.the arrangement of the natural and artificial physical features of an area.) I experience sound as the sum and difference of the layers of detailed vibration in 3-dimensional space. I have a physical response to phase coherence that starts in my teeth. My brain and my ears seem to register detail at extremely fine levels. Pitch and intonation, heterodyne and dynamics, all register with me as a kind of flavor and what “feels” right.

When I teach about audio and mixing, I always talk about hearing the “intuitive correctness” of the Mix , the sense of proportion and detail with color and dynamics. This comes from listening on a deeper level, and also having heard many different approaches to a wide variety of styles and mixes. I talk about hearing completed mixes before even beginning the process. Michelangelo described his process as: seeing a block of stone and then removing everything that was NOT what he was seeing already buried in the stone. I feel the same about Mixing and Sound Design and Music. To really hear the essential piece, and then remove everything that is NOT the best possible presentation, to make every effort to move towards a completed sound.

I also love the exploration of psychoacoustics and sound. I am always curious how a different physical space can change completely the way something sounds and responds. I love finding clarity in a muddled mix. I love solving problems that seemingly cannot be solved. That is why I have spent the better part of the last 35 years studying and training and applying that passion to what I do. I believe that real Craft is a never ending learning experience. That Art is an iterative process, and with each iteration, each project teaches us something new that can be used on the next, and so on.

When I was in my early 20’s I studied and trained under a Master Audio Craftsman, Bruce Nazarian, who passed away recently. He was an extraordinary talent. He had perfect pitch and a photographic memory. He also had a deep and intuitive understanding of how sound really worked. I spent 4 years training as a Synclavier programmer and an apprentice and then journeyman Mixer/engineer. We became lifelong friends, and his recent passing effected me deeply. He was generous and strict, demanding and also a fantastic source of information and inspiration, and always encouraging me to be the best I could be. That kind of mentoring and sponsorhip is rare nowadays.

When I was working for Michael Jackson he would often ask us for something that was seemingly impossible to achieve. (At that time serious Digital manipulation was still in its infancy). We were tasked with finding solutions that were both creative and technical, but had never been done before, and we always managed to find the best of both worlds in that exploration.

These early experiences served to shape my perspective, and instilled in me a sense of wonder and a passion for exploration and problem solving at the highest possible levels. A deep desire to immerse myself in the evolving project of becoming a true craftsman through training, study, experience and curiosity.

I am also lucky that I started out as a musician, and continue that discipline to this day. I hear things in terms of rhythm and connectivity and dynamic flow, layers and subtleties, respiration and inspiration. There is a compositional element to any mix or sound design, and I believe that, as a musician, I can hear that layered interaction in clear and important ways.

Craftsmanship cannot and should not be replaced by expedience. Digital era media has a certain need for immediate gratification, and a tendency towards thinking that the tools of the trade define the craft. Technology has become a means to itself, and its inherent methodology of planned obsolescence, and a forward press towards ever more powerful and complex tools tends to marginalize the process of iterative learning and slow and patient acquisition of deep skill. This incessant forward march negates in some ways the need for real Craftsmanship by presenting expedient solutions, but without the fundamental foundation of Craft and methodological experience. Then these tools just become pretty lights and fun buttons to push, and then they form the foundation prevalent in modern production process of: “option anxiety”.

I also talk to my students and apprentices about “Two tin cans and a wire”. Meaning: it is never the tool that determines the solution, but rather the person using the tools at hand. Too often these days Mastery is thought of as knowing a particular Software tool or DAW, or which button to push, but in fact Craftsmanship is so much more then simply knowing how a certain piece of software works. It is the essential capacity of the Craftsman to have experienced many varied scenarios and solutions, and that by looking at a production issue or problem to be solved or explored, a clear and unfettered pathway opens up towards the best possible resolution.

As a freelance audio professional and human being, I am also always looking for deeper connections in terms of purpose and service. I am looking for projects that not only have high ideals artistically or creatively, but also seek to serve a deeper purpose than just pure entertainment. Although I love a good fun project, I also know that I want to apply my experience and skills towards problem solving and creative collaboration or projects that serve the greater good. I have worked for several non-profits as an A/V media consultant, helping find solutions for Live-streaming and Post solutions for non-traditional venues, and I have found that to be really rewarding.

I see the challenges for the future of Audio Craft in terms of finding balance, (an apt metaphor I believe), between Technology and the creative human experience, by integrating tools with training and experience, and an innate sense of commitment to the path of true craftsmanship as a lifetime practice.

If you or someone that you know is working on a project, or know of a situation or company that needs cost effective and high quality audio services, that values craftsmanship and team oriented problem solving, please contact me. I would love to be of service in that way.

A few thoughts on the sacred nature of client relations, and providing service in the Digital Age.

What does it mean to “be of service”, in this age of digital access and high speed communication? In a culture where immediate gratification is a top priority, and the tools of production are ubiquitously and easily accessible. We have entered an age where the form of the tools, the surface, the “GUI”, has begun to replace the craft of experience and mastery. The surface of the tool, and a basic grasp of that interface, has become the means by which expedience has replaced craft.

The acquisition of Mastery and Craftsmanship is an important aspect of service. Mastery and Craftsmanship takes time. It takes failure and recovery. It is the steeping process that occurs in the crucible of time and attention and unflagging effort. Real problem solving is about having lived and worked through so many different types of scenarios and solutions, that multiple options and outcomes present themselves easily when a need arises.

My favorite story recently is about the nature of craftsmanship: “There is an old story of a boilermaker who was hired to fix a huge steamship boiler system that was not working well.

After listening to the engineer’s description of the problems and asking a few questions, he went to the boiler room. He looked at the maze of twisting pipes, listened to the thump of the boiler and the hiss of the escaping steam for a few minutes, and felt some pipes with his hands. Then he hummed softly to himself, reached into his overalls and took out a small hammer, and tapped a bright red valve one time. Immediately, the entire system began working perfectly, and the boilermaker went home.

When the steamship owner received a bill for one thousand dollars, he became outraged and complained that the boilermaker had only been in the engine room for fifteen minutes and requested an itemized bill. So the boilermaker sent him a bill that reads as follows:
For tapping the valve: $.50
For knowing where to tap: $999.50
TOTAL: $1,000.00”

The lost art of “knowing where to tap” is an essential ingredient in terms of how I perceive meaningful service and craftsmanship. I believe that to offer what we do, as Craftsmen/teachers/artists/problem solvers/etc…, in service to others, is a Noble act.

Over the last 35 years I have come to observe certain core truths for me, about how I need and want to conduct “business”. Things like selflessness, craftsmanship, integrity, punctuality, accountability, timely responsiveness, reflective and active listening, and a passionate desire to find the best possible solutions for my clients, are at the heart of my business and service perspective.

My clients are sacred to me, (and I use that word very carefully as I clearly understand the weight and important nature of that particular word, and I also recognize both the inherent importance of the client relationship as being unique and powerful), as they represent an opportunity for me to not only be of service, to utilize my aggregate skills and experience to solve complex problems, to fulfill my own needs of creating and participating in vital purpose, as well as generate livelihood for me and my family. I take that commitment seriously.

A key component for increasing quality of Life and connecting service and craftsmanship is described here:
“The three components of human happiness are a vital sense of purpose, beauty, and a sheltering sense of community. We always start by relying on ourselves and looking for these three things in power, order, and fellowship as the world understands them. Failing to find them there, we eventually seek them in the only way that makes sense-in Being, which transforms, fulfills and brings us to new life.” ~Karlfried Graf Dürckheim, Zen and Us

Work and career cannot just be entirely about the acquisition of material wealth, we need deeper connections and meaning that defines what we do, in combination with how we allocate the precious time we have here as human beings. Sacred collaboration and selfless service, for me, seems a logical and necessary aspect of what we do as Craftsmen, vendors and service providers in this Digital age of possibility and media production. Service to other is service to myself, because I know that I have participated in something that will go out into the world and have meaningful reciprocal benefit. Not just in the product created or the solution found, but in the unique and reciprocal connections created, and the opportunity to collaborate with others who have passion and vision and a desire to manifest in the world.

I am 100% certain that how I focus and utilize my skills and abilities to be of service and generate livelihood are a reflection of how I choose to live my Life. A great teacher once told me that “The quality of your life is dependent on the focus of your attention”. I choose to focus my attention on being of service and using my 40 years of experience and skills to help others. I am always looking for ways to combine my passion for service and craftsmanship with organizations and individuals who are seeking to collaborate in these ways.

The world is changing rapidly and there is a real and present need to re-imagine how we operate as an entrepreneurial culture. Imagine a world based on the ideals of mutual benefit and service? One in which the end result benefits everyone involved. Imagine a culture that shines a light on inclusivity, and honors service as a core value.

In this Digital age of unlimited potential I know that I choose this vision, and can see the benefits in my life and in the interactions I share with others seeking the same things. In this way I can live a life of service and also fulfill my own needs to explore and learn and creatively experience Life and career.

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson