Pursuing Paul McCartney: My Little Home Studio

b&w studio view
No T-Shirt, No Lonely Kid, No McCartney

Back when music used to come on large circular pieces of vinyl, I had a copy of one of Paul McCartney’s solo efforts entitled McCartney II.  Now isn’t the time to get in to the debate of Paul vs. John as songwriters, or the relative merits of their solo/post-Beatles work.  Suffice to say that I had (and still have) a huge soft spot for Wings Back to the Egg, a fetish that led me to the purchase of the above-described McCartney solo effort.

There are a lot of things I could say about that album, a fact that is probably itself suggestive that the recording has some merit.  For instance, I could tell you that this was one of the first times I ever bought a record by an artist expecting something rather specific but found, after purchase, that the record differed substantially from my expectations (we didn’t have HMV back then, you whippersnappers – you didn’t get a chance to listen first and buy second;  every purchase was a bit of a leap of faith).  I remember being taken aback by the album’s sound, and initially a bit put off by the distance between my sonic expectations and the actual product.   The entire record, you see, was recorded by McCartney at his home studio.  He played all, or substantially all of the instruments himself and recorded the thing to a (in relative terms) small multitrack tape recorder.  The result was – in many places – a spare and very reflective album that challenged my youthful and juvenile musical tastes, but one that that I came to love after spending time getting to know the songs.

I mention this album because it had this awesome photo on the inner sleeve.   In it, McCartney (wearing a sleeveless t-shirt, I think) stood with his back to the camera in front of the cabinet-sized multi-track recorder, looking down at the front panel of the machine and twiddling a knob with one hand.  The image is black and white, and there is a palpable sense of heat and humidity, of long days and hard work accomplished.  In  my mind’s eye, I remember the photograph showing a young child standing to McCartney’s left, next to his leg, reaching up and tugging at father’s shirt in a desperate bid for attention.

I loved that album and I loved that photograph;  among other things, the photograph gave a glimpse into the home life of one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, and it showed – much to my excitement – the studio gear in his home.   I’ve written before about the fact that my DNA is deeply and genetically imprinted with the tech bug.  I got thinking about this again the other day when I listened to my brother Doug’s first attempt at putting together a podcast (Doug talked a bit about how my granddad’s fetish for audio and recording equipment was passed down through my father to my brothers and me, and some of our early recording escapades).   I was thinking about how much I used to hold that inner sleeve and stare at the picture while I listened to Waterfalls, dreaming about having access to the kind of gear that was shown in that picture.

Testing 1,2, 3 - IMG_9521
Testing, testing - can you hear me in the back? (SCREEECH!)

That album was released in 1980.  We’ve come a long way in 29 years, and the truth of the matter is that I now have access to – in some ways, anyway – arguably much more powerful recording equipment than Paul used to put together that record.  The computer I’m typing this entry on has software in it that allows me to make multi-track recordings, to treat the signals I capture with an astonishing array of digital effects, treatments and modifications, and to synthesize entire portions of an audio track – summoning drums or strings where there are none in the house.   It’s difficult for me to imagine how the 14-year old me might have reacted, had someone told me back then that – in time – I would have the very technology depicted in that photograph at my disposal, and contained in a machine the size of a small suitcase rather than occupying the same amount of space as Grandma’s china cabinet.   The pace of technological achievement has been, in relative terms, rapid and consistent but in terms of the human scale of time gradual enough to become almost imperceptible, a phenomenon occurring in one’s peripheral vision but requiring careful attention to otherwise perceive.  Consider that the iPhone you might be carrying in your pocket contains a computer that is many times more capable and powerful than the computers that guided the lunar lander to it’s destination on the moon in 1969.  Consider that the same device is capable of almost instantly accessing a very large portion of the collected wisdom of the human race, or at least that portion of it that has been digitized to date.

All of that advancement and innovation, collected in softly humming piles and wired together in the physical embodiment of an electrical engineer’s psychotic break with reality was put to some use earlier today.  Doug and I hooked up via Skype to test a technical concept: we wanted to see if it would be possible for us to carry on a conversation over the ‘Net, to locally record our own half or end of the conversation, then sync up the two halves to produce a presentable recording suitable for use in one of Doug’s podcasts.  It worked like a charm.  We each used a microphone and Audacity to digitally record our side of the conversation;  when we were finished talking, Doug zipped his audio file and transferred it to me via Skype’s file-sharing capacity.  A few minutes of mucking about later, I was able to not only sync up Doug’s track with my own, but to also clean up my own file by gating the audio to prevent some of the talkback signal that had spilled into my microphone from cluttering the sound.  I also added a quick musical intro and end tag and compressed the whole thing into .mp3 format and shot it back via teh Intarwebs to Doug for his inspection and perusal.

I think that – had he found out about all of this – that 14 year old kid holding the inner sleeve to McCartney II would have been so excited, he would’ve had some trouble sleeping for quite a while.

Update (November 23, 2009): My brother Doug has, courtesy of the all-knowing Intarwebs, found a copy of the photo in question and passed it along to me (see below). My memory of the photo gets a “B”, possibly “B+”, I would say. In my mind’s eye, the photo was taken from directly behind Sir Paul, and he was wearing a sleeveless t-shirt; the photo seems considerably less tropical in mood than I remember it, as well. In fact, it looks kind of cold and clinical, if you get right down to it. Odd how memory plays tricks like that.

mccartney ii photo
The photo that sparked my imagination.

Revolution: The Storming of the Gondola Continues

One of the things I didn’t know about  Ron Wilson is that he is, and has been for some time, a bit of a tech nerd.  Here’s a link to an AP story from four years ago, when Wilson was still coaching the San Jose Sharks.

“I’m the type of guy who’s always got to have the new thing,” he said.

And Wilson’s technological savvy is all over the best season in franchise history for the San Jose Sharks, who have reached the Western Conference finals in Wilson’s first full season as their coach.

Wilson and his assistants, Tim Hunter and Rob Zettler, constantly invent new ways to make the Sharks better and smarter. They compile obscure databases, dissect game tapes and preach strategy with rinkside computers, personalized scouting reports and a wealth of digital, wireless gadgetry.

Constructive criticism: for those of you unfamiliar with the term, this is the kind of criticism that does not necessarily require use of either the word “suck” or “douchebag”.  It is to be encouraged, if only because in these troubled economic times, there has been a significant decline in research into innovative methods by which one might insinuate that a person is physically unable to distinguish his ass from his elbow;  as a result, non-constructive criticism can tend towards repetition and monotony.

As the Glorious Revolution continues, here’s my attempt to offer a little constructive criticism about the local mittenstringers’ coverage of the Toronto Maple Leafs organization:  instead of writing every other column about how the team’s fans are a bunch of gullible assholes whose offensive output, defensive liabilities and startling body odour have apparently produced, through natural forces too overpowering to resist, an Inevitable Vortex of Fail™ magically resulting in on-ice disappointments, columnists like Messrs. Berger, Cox or Simmons might want to consider mashing out a few monosyllables on the subject of the Leaf coaching staff’s use of computer technology.

According to a recent story by Mark Zwolinski, Ron Wilson, Tim Hunter and Rob Zettler are playing a leading role in the integration of this type of technology into NHL coaching:

Tablet PCs, hard wired into a Sling Box streaming device, will be mounted at both ends of the bench, lending a bit of Bill Gates wizardry to Leaf games.

“It’s all about getting information into a player’s hands quickly and efficiently,” Leafs assistant coach Rob Zettler said, making it sound easy.

Zettler, along with fellow assistant Tim Hunter, and head coach Ron Wilson, integrated the technology into their bench area while all three formed the San Jose Sharks coaching staff between 2002-07.

Zettler and Hunter are able to access real time video replays and real time stats from the Tablets, and relay them to players during games. The information is basically quick hit knowledge – the kind of live information flow common to a stock market trading floor. But under this new Leafs coaching regime, there’s much more to the high tech approach than bench monitors.

The coaching threesome utilizes the OS-X computer operating system for their laptops. Much of the video and stats streaming they do is also available on a Smart Board – a large, touch-controlled screen – built into the video room, coach’s room, and dressing room at the Air Canada Centre.

The real cool tool, though, is a vast stats database compiled by Wilson over his 15 years as an NHL coach.

The database contains everything from where the most goals are scored from, to individual players’ on-ice tendencies.

The point is that Wilson, Hunter and Zettler seem to be blazing a bit of a trail in this way, continuing a process that the three of them began while with the San Jose Sharks.  Evidently – unless the trio are personally ponying up for the new hardware – MLSE has embraced the idea and is financially supporting its implementation.

Zwolinski’s story is good, as far as it goes, and it’s not my present purpose to criticize his article, but I would love to know more about exactly how and when the technology is used.   I would love to hear from either a current Leaf player or a former Shark, someone who has experience receiving the tutelage that Wilson, Hunter and Zettler are trying to provide.  I’d like to be given a concrete example about a specific situation in which the technology was employed and whether the immediate access to the information in question had an appreciable effect upon the outcome of a game.  Do the players find it useful, and if so what limitations do they see in it?  Tech nerds like myself would also love to see some discussion with the software developers and IT nerds who are physically implementing the system to get a sense of what they were asked to provide, where they feel they fell short, and what developments they foresee in the future as the hardware used to do the job improves in performance and accessibility.

It occurs to me, though, that these technological developments are the kind of thing that the brilliant columnists might want to consider.  They might want to discuss the fact that the Maple Leaf organization is taking steps to install the necessary electronics and to ensure that the coaching staff has the twenty-first century tools necessary to give them whatever competitive edge  they can thereby obtain.  They might attempt to evaluate what results, if any, were produced by this approach when the same coaching trio used this technology in San Jose.

They might examine the larger context within which this particular development is occurring and consider whether such initiatives are reflective of the way that – in a salary-cap environment – wealthy organizations can attempt to employ their resources to maximum advantage;  obviously, rich teams can’t just spend their way to success in the modern NHL by simply putting expensive players on the ice, but there is no limit on the amount of money that an organization can spend on other off-ice, management or player support and training issues.   They might see parallels  between this method of  trying to gain the upper hand on more impecunious rivals and efforts that a team might make to build and staff a professional, effective and co-ordinated scouting organization.  They might wish to examine what efforts, if any, have been taken within the Maple Leaf organization to pursue objectives such as these.

Of course it’s hard to discuss things like this technology initiative in the course of unwinding another cookie-cutter yarn about how management at MLSE is only interested in maximizing profit by minimizing expenditures and in serving up slop to the foolish sheep who shamble through the turnstiles year after year like characters from a George Romero film.  An angle like this doesn’t fit the narrative and the caricature of the penny-pinching suits cackling over their gold-plated success at selling tin-covered mediocrity to the local slackjaws like you and I.  It is confusing to them, because it doesn’t fit the conclusions they have already drawn.

It also takes some thought and a little hard work, so they don’t tell you about stuff like this.

Fire up the Reel to Reel

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Reading Mike’s short post today about his jury duty tomorrow and his plans to build a lens adapter for his camera, I found myself thinking about my grandfather for a little while.  Let me explain:  my Dad’s father was what we would now call an “early adopter” of technology.  He did television repair work before most people owned them;  he had camera equipment capable of taking and projecting colour home movies in the 40’s, and he was very proud of his Hi-Fi stereo system – much of which was home built.  I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture, but my father, my brothers and I have all followed along a similar path:  much to the chagrin of our various significant others, our respective homes are filled with equipment that needs to be plugged in;  that beeps, whirrs, flashes and hums;  and most of all, that is connected to other such devices by wires.  Though the tech is different, the thrill is no doubt the same;  looking back on it now, I can revel in my grandfather’s geekdom much as I revel in my own.

I think the reason this thought occurred to me following my visit to Mike’s page is that I suddenly saw the similarities between my own daily virtual journey into Mike’s life via the Internet and what my grandfather used to do:  he used to basically record voice letters on reel to reel audio tape and send them by mail (the kind with stamps and dog-fearing letter carriers) to a friend in Australia, if I remember correctly.  They corresponded in this fashion for years.  I can remember him carefully unwrapping a box containing a fresh tape and eagerly heading downstairs to his basement sanctuary, then sitting in a beat-up old reclining chair,  bottle of beer on the TV dinner table next to it, listening to the voice coming out of the speakers as the reels rolled steadily on.  When I was a kid, I thought it was kind of quirky – none of the other grownups I knew spent time recording their thoughts on tape and mailing them halfway across the world – but I was more focussed on the microphones and the reel-to-reel machines (shiny tech!) than on what was going on.  I guess I kind of half-heartedly wondered what he and his friend could possibly think of to talk about – complete strangers so far removed from each other by geography and circumstance, engaged in a series of alternating monologues.

See the parallels yet?

My grandfather didn’t live long enough to see the emergence and prevalence of personal computers in the home, but he would have loved the technology and the community of technophiles for which it provides a home.   I wish I’d had a chance to talk with him about it, as I’m sure he would have had some interesting thoughts to offer.  The only thing missing for me, as I sit here with the notebook computer on my lap and the wireless card granting me access to the router upstairs  and ultimately the Intartubes,  sharing this little corner of my life with Mike (and anyone else who cares to read), is the bottle of beer.  I can remedy that lickety-split;  as soon as I hit “publish” on this entry, I’m going to head to the fridge, grab a cold Alexander Keith’s, crack it open and drink a toast to grandpa.

In the meantime, Mike, I hope you manage to avoid getting selected, but I’m very interested to hear what your thoughts are about going through the jury selection process.  And this lens adapter thing is also intriguing to me;  I must know more…