Friday, August 25, 2006

1979: Smile!

In the summer of 1979, Dirty Jack’s Theater staged a revue; a composite of scenes from several shows. When the actors showed up in May of that year, the show was not yet completely written. That was one of many bad omen.

Another was this actor who sticks in my memory but for the life of me I cannot remember his name. If any of you remember the cast in 1979, just one word will bring him to mind: Braces!

This guy was mildly pudgy with a doughy face and unremarkable features, but when he smiled we all gasped. These were not the little wires that some adults wear on their teeth: these were big shiny railroad tracks. Metal mouth. Tin grin. We all were in horror of the thought of the follow spot hitting his teeth… It would be like a big cheesy disco mirror ball, spewing daggers of light back at the audience. From his mouth, no less.

It was going to be an interesting season.

Have you ever heard the expression, “chewing the scenery?” It describes an actor who overdoes it; hams it up, emotes annoyingly. That was our boy with the braces. He would noodle around while others were delivering lines, upstaging them and diverting the focus. The actors privately seethed. The worst blow was when Jon “Dirty Jack” Stainbrook remarked one time that Braces Boy was the one cast member who might actually make it in big time show business, because he was willing to do anything. I don’t know if Jon really meant it or if he was jerking the actors around, but it surely got their bitch-eyes out. They were beside themselves.

I gotta hand it to Braces Boy, though. One night he ad libbed one of the funniest things I have ever seen in live theater. Out of the blue, when he was delivering one of his goofy lines, he did a pratfall, and he immediately bounced up with his hat askew, pulled down over his eyes, and he staggered around, bumping into things and fell again. And again. It was classic Dick Van Dyke stuff, delivered with perfect deft and timing. The audience was rolling in the aisles, and the cast was stunned, mouths agape, standing around looking at each other. Now they REALLY hated him.

I wish I could remember his name. I’d like to look him up and find out if Jon Stainbrook was right. If you remember him, please drop me a line.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Gear: Review of the TASCAM DP-01 Digital Recorder

The TASCAM DP-01 is an inexpensive digital hard disk recorder; it was my first DAW. I used it to record dozens of songs, and the results I got were mostly excellent. I strongly recommend it to others as an entry-level multi-track recorder. If you’ve been wanting to get that demo recorded, this is just the ticket. It makes beautiful recordings, as long as you navigate around its low-budget challenges.

The DP-01 comes in three flavors, 1) basic, 2) with FX, and 3) with a CD burner. The version I had was the basic no-frills unit, but it has everything you need to capture great recordings and none of the things you don’t need if you are handy with a computer. The TASCAM DP-01 is set up similar to a mixer, with a vertical column of knobs for each of the eight recording channels. The knobs control low and high EQ, effects send, and left-right pan. A big, smooth slider controls the levels for each channel, as well as the master output.

The inputs are on the front of the unit, with two ¼ - inch TRS phone plugs and trim knob adjustments. Therein lie two of the weaknesses of the basic DP-01: It is limited to two simultaneous recording channels, and it does not have XLR inputs. But most recorders in this price range (say, under $500) have only two simultaneous recording inputs, and inexpensive XLR to TRS adapters can solve the second problem.

The two-channel recording limit becomes a problem when you begin a session by recording stereo drums (through a drum mixer of some kind). Since both input channels are used, there is no room to put down a scratch track for reference. For example, you might want to have a bass player record along with the drums to give aural cues to the changes in the song, but you can’t do that if the drums take both inputs. And compromising with mono drums is just not an option. The risk is that you may return to this recording a few days later and have trouble deciding exactly what the drummer was doing, especially if the drummer is not there to remind you.

The solution, of course, is to lay down the bass line right after the drummer finishes his recording. That way, the groove is still fresh in the bass players mind, and any tricks the drummer threw in will be easily remembered. After that, you can layer the other tracks, which in our case were usually two guitar tracks, harp, and one or two vocal tracks.

Since the TASCAM DP-01 has no CD burner, you need a way to get the WAV files out of the box. This is done with a USB connection to your computer. However, the hard drive in the DP-01 has a proprietary operating system and does not mount as a drive when connected. You must use a function on the TASCAM’s small screen to export the WAV files, one at a time, to an area from which they can be copied via the USB to your computer’s disk. It is a bit tedious but it works fine.

I used the DP-01 as a capture device, and did all my music editing and mastering on the computer. Audacity is a very powerful – yet free – music software package that will allow you to do amazing things with the music you record on the DP-01, and it complements the recorder perfectly. I did not need the CD burner because I did that on my PC. I did not need the effects, because that, too, was all done in the mixdown on the computer. I used a cheap recorder and free software to make some pretty impressive recordings.

The TASCAM DP-01 is a terrific product for what it is: a no-frills entry-level Digital Audio Workstation. It sells for $299 everywhere. If you want to make good recordings and learn a lot about studio techniques along the way, I recommend it highly.

* 8-track recording at uncompressed CD quality into a built-in 40GB hard drive
* 2-track simultaneous recording
* Dedicated stereo mixdown track
* Dedicated controls on each channel for volume, pan, EFX send, EQ high & EQ low
* Two-band semi-parametric EQ per track
* Two 1/4 " TRS mic/line inputs
* Guitar level input
* Effects send and stereo return
* RCA line output
* S/PDIF digital optical output
* Headphone output w/level control
* MIDI Timecode 0utput
* USB 2.0 port for computer backup
* Track editing: copy, paste, move, erase, silence
* Dimensions: 17.8"W x 12.1"D x 4.3"H
* Weight: 9lbs

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Ten Weeks With A Circus

Dirty Jack’s for some of us, was a lot like joining the circus. The theater was the big top. Jon Stainbrook was the Ringmaster; Nancy was the attractive trapeze artist; Doc Holt was the primary barker; Rhonda Willford was the ticket mistress; and Uncle “Rondo” was the advance man. The three-ring included “Butch,” the performing mule. The audience was king.

If Dirty Jack’s seemed like joining the circus to us, imagine how it might have felt to an eight year old--the son of the “Ringmaster.” “Jon Jon” Stainbrook was there that summer, wide-eyed (as we were) with the magic of it all.

His experiences are reminiscent of the plot summary of a book (later a movie) called “Ten Weeks With A Circus:”

“…[the child protagonist] decides to leave life on the farm and joins up with a traveling circus...befriending eccentric and colorful characters, he is given the chance to fulfill his dreams by performing a daring horseback trick in front of a packed crowd...when he learns that his relatives have been searching for him, [he] discovers the true meaning of acceptance....”

There were certainly "eccentric and colorful characters!" You might recognize the summary (and book) as “Toby Tyler.”

Jon Jon was also on stage occasionally that summer, in costume and in character, sheparded for cues, entrances and exits, by Nancy. Rick got a recent note from Jon Jon, that expressed appreciation for the rememberances. Young Jon implied that the blog was possibly over-kind to the Stainbrooks. Well, the Stainbrooks never treated us like employees. We were treated as friends from the time we hit Jackson Hole--and certainly from the time of the initial “icebreaker” dinner at Jon’s house.

Kindness was a hallmark of Jon and Nancy...we were all one family...that’s how it was...especially in the circus, Toby.