Working for the President

May 27, 2010 Comments Off on Working for the President

-by Errin

Yesterday was an exciting day.  The Glide Ensemble performed at a Barbara Boxer fundraiser at the Fairmont Hotel, and President Obama was the guest speaker.  I sang with the Ensemble and Dan and Betty engineered Glide’s portion of the event, so three of our Media One staff were in attendance.

Although the choir performed a full hour before the President even arrived, we were permitted to stay and watch his speech.  Surprisingly, Dan and I were even allowed to walk right up to the side of the stage and stand just behind the barrier that separated the crowd from the Commander in Chief.  The Secret Service was undeniably laid back—a real change from previous gigs that we’ve done for Michelle Obama and the Clintons.  They didn’t mind us standing there and taking photos throughout the entire half hour, although I think we annoyed some folks in the audience who’d paid dearly for their choice seats.

With my little point-and-shoot camera I captured the first 20 minutes of what I thought was an excellent speech.  Here’s a short clip in which Dan and I make a cameo:

Watch Video of Obama on Energy

I was nearly beside myself with excitement, and there is actually quite a lot of footage of me giving the camera the thumbs-up and grinning like I just escaped the insane asylum.  I will spare you that imagery.

But here are a few of my favorite pictures from last night:

President Obama @ the Fairmont Hotel - SF, CA.

Dan & the President

Errin & the President

It was a long, wonderful day, and one that I’ll never forget.

But if I do forget it, I’ll just listen to the tapes that Dan made.  Because he snuck in his recording equipment hours before the Secret Service arrived and set it up beside the press decks.  We may not have actually been hired, but Media One Archive just worked its first presidential gig!

Next stop: Washington.

The Importance of Archiving

May 26, 2010 Comments Off on The Importance of Archiving

-by Errin

Did you know that the media for the feature film Avatar required 52 petabytes of storage space?

Me neither.

Did you know that there was such a thing as a petabyte until just a second ago?

OK, I’ll confess.  I’d never heard about petabytes myself until I sat in on the Archive panel at last week’s SF Music Tech Summit.  Feeling like a bonafied member of the professional geek squad with my laptop perched on my knees, I quickly Googled the unfamiliar term, and learned the following:

There are 1024 gigabytes in a terabyte.
There are 1024 terabytes in a petabyte.
There are 1 million gigabytes in a petabyte.

And then I scrolled down and saw this written in huge block text:

A PETABYTE IS A LOT OF DATA.

No kidding.

I also learned that 1 petabyte is the equivalent of 20 million four-drawer filing cabinets filled with text, or 13.3 years of HD-TV video (about 58,292 movies).  20 petabytes is the amount of data that Google processes on any given day.  And the entire written works of mankind, from the beginning of recorded history, in all languages, only comprises 50 petabytes worth of space.

Wow.  It’s odd to consider history as something so compressible, but there you have it.  By this time next year they’ll probably be selling 50 petabyte Flash drives, and you can carry the entire written works of mankind around in your pocket.

I was a little embarrassed not to have known what a petabyte was, but as an archivist in the TV and travel industries, I never had to deal in storage capacities that exceeded a couple of terabytes.  Of course, much of TV’s archives are still stored on tape.  The animated programs that I used to work on were laid off to tape at the end of the series, and the hard drives were repurposed for the next program.  Times have changed.  I don’t even want to get started on exabytes, zettabytes and yottabytes, but you should know: they’re out there.

On the archiving panel sat Frederic Lieberman, who was representing the Grateful Dead Archives at UC Santa Cruz, Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive, John Spencer of BMS/Chace LLC, Mike Wells of Mike Wells Mastering, Elizabeth Cohen of Cohen Acoustical, and moderator Stephen Hart, of NARAS.  It quickly came to light that they had differing opinions about archiving practices.  But what they had in common was a shared frustration with the lack of an archiving standard.

“How many of you are storing collections in your basement?  Or in your attic?”  Hands went up around the room.  “We all know that it’s logical to make multiple copies of our digital assets, but are you storing your copies in a separate location?”  There were a few sheepish faces in the crowd.

Beyond the risks of fire and flood, of insufficient storage facilities and weather damage, the panel lamented the general misunderstanding of basic archiving principles.  Frederic Lieberman told a story about an ethnomusicologist in Bali who contacted him with this urgent question: “My tapes got some fungi on them, so I wiped them down with alcohol and now they won’t hold any sound.  What do I do?”

“She’d wiped the oxide off the tapes,” he said, “and made them unusable.  So even the most basic archiving information is not yet common knowledge to most people.  It needs to be taught.”

I’m guessing that story predated the petabyte, but he still made a very good point.  Not only do basic archiving practices need teaching, but the notion of archiving at all has been slow to spread.  Lots of folks aren’t interested in the preservation of their materials because it costs more money, said Mike Wells.

“There is an ever-growing population that deals with digital media that has no concept of archiving, nor any inclination to do so, because it doesn’t fit into their budgets.”  I knew that to be true from personal experience.  When one of the animated programs I’d been working on at Nickelodeon was canceled, the producers had no interest in preserving the animated files, which represented two years worth of work.  The show was over, the staff was laid off and the budget didn’t allow for the man-hours necessary to neatly wrap the archive.  I’d had to argue persuasively to keep my job long enough to properly store all the data.

But although the show had ceased production, the brand was just kicking off.  Episodes were re-airing and products were being created around the characters of this children’s show.  The Creative Resources department was calling me daily, asking for imagery on which to base their new product designs.  Meanwhile, I’d been ordered to box up all our assets and stick them in a closet.  It was beyond frustrating because I understood that we were essentially putting a lid on the project’s potential.  But my job was over and I had to move on.

“Without preservation there is no monetization,” emphasized the panel.  “Opportunities don’t end with your deliverable.  If you want to repurpose or remonetize the output, you’ve got to know where your data is.  If you can’t find your asset, how will you make money off of it?”

I thought sadly of those boxes of tapes in that closet.

Every company, every individual, has their own methods of archiving.  Until some sort of standard can be introduced, we’re all on our own in deciding the best way to preserve our personal histories.  But the panel did give us some things to think about:

When conceptualizing how you’re going to create your archiving system, consider how many dependencies you’ll have, and how you’ll be able to access those dependencies in the future.  Are you using propriety software?  Keep in mind that companies get bought, or go out of business.  What sort of media are you storing your files on, and will that media be accessible in the future?  Understand that almost all media collapses before its projected expiration date.  Backing up is essential.  Consider how easy or difficult your system makes it to locate your desired assets.  People are much more likely to archive when their assets are easily accessible.  Who wants to spend hours poring through that box of tapes in the closet?

When the panel ended I wondered if I’d been left with more questions than answers.  I wasn’t sure if I’d learned much more than I already knew.  But it did re-emphasize to me the importance of archiving.  “Archiving means preserving the past, as well as the present and the future,” said Frederic Lieberman.  It means the availability of educational resources such as lectures, papers, interviews, and conferences.  Or the enjoyment of cultural events like programs and concerts.  If we preserve these materials, then we can share them, and ultimately broaden our experiences.

“You choose not to archive at your own peril.”  Although I wouldn’t phrase it quite the way the panelists did, I strongly agree that our history is our duty to preserve.  We all have something to leave behind for the education and enjoyment of future generations.  I personally have a whole lot of data to drop on my grandkids.

Probably not as much as a petabyte, but still.

Good Sound Requires Cooperation

May 4, 2010 Comments Off on Good Sound Requires Cooperation

-by Dark Star Dan

One of the most important things I have learned about live sound in my career is that good sound requires cooperation.  My greatest dissatisfaction as a live sound engineer is the issue of band members playing their instruments too loudly.  Amps that are turned up too high, stage monitors that are set too loud, and drummers who beat the heck out of their drums fall into this category.  This is a major issue for me when I’m trying to mix a “warm and rich” sound at Glide Memorial Church.

The first issue we have at Glide is that the band members are too close to each other – and to the choir – due to space limitations onstage.  As a result, the band members have trouble discerning their sound because of the volume of the instruments around them.  So the musicians tend to A) turn up their instrument volume to hear themselves better, and/or B) ask for more monitor volume to hear themselves, the lead vocalists, or the choir better.  Then the microphones designed to pick up individual instruments and choir sections tend to hear too much bleed from the other instruments in the sound field around them.  And the overall clarity of the sound suffers.

Now at Glide, a common complaint I get is, “Why it is so loud?”  This actually hurts me to hear because there’s nothing I can do – and the loud volume hurts my ears too!  To answer this question, a good starting point would be the issue I raised above.  But also, when we installed our brand new Meyer Sound system in September ‘09, we didn’t have a budget for acoustic treatment of the room.  What we need is high-density, fiberglass padding for the hard, reflective spots, to tame flutter echo and primary reflections in the main room.  We also need broadband corner bass traps to manage the standing waves from the large, low-end bass sine wave that gets caught in the corners, and in the space below the balcony.  Without such treatment, sound waves tend to bounce all over the place, creating a big mess of unclarified sound.

Sound is essentially created by pushing air through a controlled space, and volume is known as Sound Pressure Level (SPL) and measured in Decibels (dB).  The higher the SPL, the louder the volume.  When the attendance at Glide is low (meaning lots of empty seats in the church itself), we don’t have enough warm bodies to absorb all the reflection and SPL coming from our combined 90-person choir, 8-piece band, and multiple lead vocalists.  The result is sometimes not pretty, especially for a loud and rocking song.  When those loud songs are played, the Sound Pressure Level simply overwhelms the room.  I liken it to blowing up a balloon inside of a box: only so much will fit before it distorts and eventually pops, creating just “noisy air” with no definition.

Just last Sunday, the overall volume of the band – especially the snare drum – was at such an extreme level that I only dared to put vocals and choir in the mix.  Halfway through the first song, a pastor complained to our technical director that it was too loud, and he came racing up to the balcony to relay the message to me.  But when he saw my mix he had to concede that the volume was coming all from the band onstage.  No wonder our drummer and guitar player wear ear plugs!  But how are you supposed to hear a vocalist over that din?

The whole issue is a darned shame, because to have one of the premiere sound systems in the world (Meyer Sound) and essentially not use it seems like a terrible waste of money.  Every week I implore the band to play softer so I can create a balanced mix, but my pleas just fall on – if you’ll pardon the expression – deaf ears.

My hands are tied.

And this isn’t to imply that we don’t get a gorgeous sound at Glide, because quite often we do.  But many factors play into the sound quality, such as the amount of attendance, the chosen songs, even the weather conditions on a given day.  As I mentioned, sound is essentially the pushing of air through a controlled space, so whether it’s raining or sunny, hot or cold, humid or dry, each of those conditions has an effect on the sound itself.

Speed of sound depends on wind conditions, temperature, and humidity.  It does not depend on frequency; all notes travel at the same speed.  With every degree rise in temperature above 0 degrees Celsius, the speed of sound in air increases by 0.6 meters per second.  Sound travels in water about four times as fast as it does in air.  In steel, the speed of sound is about fifteen times faster than in air. That’s why you can feel the distant vibrations of sound when leaning against a wall or girder.

So this leads me back to the title of this blog:  good sound requires cooperation.  If the musicians could learn to play at a reasonable volume level, or wear in-ear monitors, we could set the stage monitors lower, and prevent reverb and delay in the main room.  The choir could hear their cues better, the lead singers could hear themselves sing and stay in tune, and most importantly, it would allow for a balanced, rich, and warm mix of sound to come through a gorgeous sound system.

This would only enhance the overall harmonious experience of a great musical aggregation.  And truly, it would enhance my job satisfaction.  Because nobody should have to wear ear plugs while trying to enjoy a Sunday celebration.

Can I get an Amen?



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