News From The Woods - October 23, 2009


By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published June 12, 2010

"The State of the Studio"

I know - you haven't seen much from me here lately.

I'm sorry.

It hasn't been intentional, or for lack of interest. I realize that for some of you my News From the Woods articles may be the only contact you get from me. I know some of you are my relatives, keeping up with me vicariously through my articles. Some of my lifelong friends nudge me on Facebook, or Twitter, or at least by email. Any of those I have known that only write letters anymore are out of my radar. There are so many online outlets for information that I forget what I said where… or which forum that reply was from…..or the link I got Tweeted with a month ago. Then I sit down and realize with all the updating I just did to my 273 personal websites, I need to "write something" for News From The Woods.

Times have changed.

I remember how my mother spent her down time waiting for the Lake Norfork ferry to take her across the lake. For about a quarter mile, Arkansas State Highway 62 was under water, so there was waiting for the next barge to arrive and of course the 15-minute ride across the lake - to and from Mountain Home. Back in those days you really needed to go to Mountain Home to warrant waiting out the ferry on a hot July day.

Mom used to carry boxes of stationary in the back seat of her car. She'd could compose two or three little "jot 'em downs", as she called them, or spend the entire fifteen minute ride telling a lengthy story about some recent escapade of my fathers to her cousin in St. Louis. She used the time wisely and not only kept up with family and friends but also with many former guests of the resort I was raised in, Blackberry Hill Lodge.

She sent and received mail daily. My parents had a small wooden office desk that they both used for correspondence. It contained several sizes and types of stationary in addition to the official resort stationary. There were drawers for writing utensils, drawers for envelopes, drawers for stamps, pads and ink; rubber bands, paper clips, and pencil lead for mechanical pencils. The entire desk was designed and built specifically for correspondence. There was even a typewriter on a spring-loaded stand that would sweep out and up from the left side of the desk.

A stapler and a 12" ruler always rested on the right side of an ink blotter desk covering. There was always some kind of "spring animal" (like a weenie dog or fish) that held recent letters in its springs. A paperweight was another essential, and on our desk resided an elephant with a rounded bottom covered with ink blotter. There was a stamp pad in the upper right hand drawer and several hand stamps which read "invoiced", "paid", and "Member of the Twin Lake Playgrounds Association" as well as a date stamp with little lettered bands for the month, day(s) and the year. A hand-cranked pencil sharpener was screwed to the right side of the desk. And when you sat down to this desk you knew it was to write.

The Age of Computers changed word processing forever. And that in turn changed the way we communicate. A modern "mom" today casually pulls out her phone and sends a text message and receives instant gratification in mere seconds. However, only short casual text bytes have replaced whole conversations. Trying to shorten words for economy has resulted is completely bastardizing our English language. Acronyms have become a way of life for the corporate flunky and the skateboarder alike.

I know all this is supposed to be advancing our civilization, but I can't help but think that we might also be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Here is a case in point:

I spent the better part of my life in my career as a sound engineer perfecting the way I record instruments and voices, keeping the integrity of the sounds and the song as pristine as I could, by using the finest equipment available to me and played on the most accurate speakers I could lay my hands on. After carefully taking everything into consideration I then set about to arrange these sounds in a "soundscape" that is not only pleasing to the ear, but also holds the interest of the brain for three minutes and forty-five seconds. It is then out of my hands and goes to the record pressing plant or tape duplicating plant and is out of my control. In the industry, it is a given that mastering houses take these mixes and even further massage them to prepare them to be heard on a specific media to their optimum listening experience.

Then along came digital. It the early years it was a cold, lifeless annoyance. However, in time the brains figured out that the secret lies in the thing that you plug the microphone into, and they improved the sound. Actually, they didn't really improve it all that much, they figured out how to re-introduce harmonic distortion to make digital sound more acceptable to our analog ears. There's hardware, software, and "wetware". We're the "wetware".

Anyway, here we are….With the entire industry working towards the sweetest sounds we can conjure up for music, and then the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers introduced us to "data compression", which for music playback evolved into what we now simply refer to as an "MP3" file. This song that we all spent so much time on trying to get it "just right"…… this song is now - thanks to Math, that horrible subject we all hated in school - compressed down in "packet size". Essentially, what it does is remove just enough 1's and 0's that we cannot hear (!) the difference to our ears. The packet size is only a fraction of the original .WAV file and therefore takes less time to send via an Internet connection. Yes, that's correct, friends… We have finally managed to get that elephant down through that tiny straw.

And you can't tell a difference?

Well, I will admit that my hearing loss makes it difficult to hear a distinct difference between an original audio .WAV file and its 256K MP3 equivalent. But I would bet dollars to donuts that about any professional audio engineer can readily tell the difference between them. Furthermore, when's the last time you compared a Beatles CD to it's 33 1/3 RPM LP counterpart? Don't do it……… You will be disappointed.

Today's society is accustomed to MP3's and listening to a song or a complete album's worth of material (or even the radio for that matter) on a tiny speaker housed in a cell phone. The last 3 radio stations that I visited were all using a playlist taken from a folder of MP3 files on their computer server. It has become not only acceptable but a happy norm. In addition, the small amount of correspondence that I do get anymore shows some very bad spelling or complete lack of attention to sentence structure or composition. Some emails are so cryptic I have to reply and ask for it "in English". I know. I am dating myself. Still, it doesn't feel right.

We should be advancing civilization. Instead, in many ways, I fear we are regressing for the sake of simplification. We advance technologically and yet I feel Americans are being "dumbed down". I don't know where this is all leading but I don't think it will be a good thing. I'm still glad we live where we do and I feel for everyone "out there" where great masses of people are gathered. I suppose I have become somewhat reclusive. It's pretty easy to do in the Ozarks.

So, I may have my head down, and I may have to consolidate my workload, but I'm still out here in the woods, writing and waiting. Praying and hoping. Just like the rest of you out there.


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