Using Gear for Good

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Using Gear for Good. After paying for yet another unforeseen auto repair (are there any other kind?), I found myself envious of the car mechanics who probably never pay full price to have their own cars fixed. When they need to replace their rusted rear shocks (as was the case for me), they simply do it themselves. Sure, they have to pay for parts, but they use their own expertise to save themselves a bundle of cash by not having to incur expensive labor costs.

So I got to thinking how I could apply my own musical skills in that way. Could I offer a useful service that someone would normally pay high prices for? (And I’m not talking about being hired as a performer.) On the gear front, I thought of an example right away: Several times I have donated the use of my portable P.A. and wireless microphone rig to events like the local street fair or Cub Scout pinewood derby contest. But recently I had to apply actual expertise, along with my equipment, for a task that would have cost a non-musician “civilian” an arm and leg in service fees.

My elderly neighbor had three vinyl albums he wanted converted to CDs. He loved the music on these decades-old records, but playing them on a turntable was no longer an option. We’ve known each other for years, so when he asked me if I knew of or could recommend a service that would transfer vinyl to CD, I told him I’d do the job myself for free. He was amazed that a “musician” (as opposed to a “lab,” I guess) could do this, and at first he declined the offer, saying he didn’t want to inconvenience me. (He also didn’t want me to think he was hinting for a favor, which I knew he wasn’t.) I reassured him it was no bother because the process was simple: you hook up a turntable to the computer, drop the needle, walk away, and let the whole side play. While recording the music, the software auto-senses the gaps and divides up the LP’s bands into corresponding digital files. Flip the LP, repeat for Side B, and you’re done. Then you just burn the auto-separated tracks to a CD—which takes less than 3 minutes.

 “It’s that easy?” he asked, incredulously.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s not like I have to monitor every step in real time or anything.”

I was telling the truth, because the software that comes with my Ion USB Turntable (a turntable that plugs directly into the computer for playback or digital recording of vinyl) does just that. But when I started the process, I knew I wasn’t going to be happy. For one thing, in a CD track, you want no time gap from the start of the track to the first note of music. Where you do want silence is at the end of the track—about 2 or 3 seconds’ worth. This ensures that you still hear a pause between tracks, but if you decide to select tracks out of sequence, the music plays instantly (which is what you want). The auto-sensing software wasn’t cutting it in that department.

The second problem was that, though the software captured the sound and converted it to CD-burnable 16-bit/44.1kHz wave files, the raw sound was pretty bad. It was crackly and lacked low end. I realized that through my restoration software (iZotope RX 2) and my various EQ plug-ins, I had more than enough resources to make the tracks sound much better if I simply ran them through my computer-based audio recorder and editor (called a DAW, for digital audio workstation). But then the automation options—along with the convenience—went out the window. This was now becoming “a job,” and not a “quickie, low-impact favor,” because of my own pesky standards.

No matter. I did the right thing and manually edited each track on my DAW, being selective and specific in the way I applied restoration strength, EQ, and volume normalizing (as long as I was doing these other things anyway). It took me a bit of time, but the results were far better than if I’d just “dropped the needle” (as I told my friend I would do).

For extra credit, I wanted to scan the album cover images and insert them in the jewel case covers, but realized that my 8.5″ x 11″ scanner bed wouldn’t accommodate a 12″ x 12″ album cover. By doing a little research, though, I found that my image-editing program (Adobe Photoshop) can stitch together separate scans of an image seamlessly, as long as there’s an overlapping region. The process is so simple that point-and-shoot cameras include this “stitching” feature internally, as “panorama” mode. It’s dead simple, quick (like, two keystrokes), and the results are completely undetectable. So in taking on a favor, I actually learned something new. As a bonus, I got to hear some unusual music: vintage Spanish bullfighting instrumentals and John Philip Sousa marches.

My neighbor was delighted beyond expectation to get back not only the CDs, but artwork in the jewel cases, and neatly typed-up track listings (couldn’t scrimp on that last step). For my part, I was happy to have helped a friend who would have otherwise paid a lot if he’d simply “opened the yellow pages.” As a collateral benefit, I had honed my vinyl-restoration skills and picked up a nifty trick in transferring LP album art to CD jewel cases. And though I had undertaken this project as a favor, I realized I could now probably advertise my services on the open market. Because I think I just heard my brakes squealing.

Jon Chappell

One Response to Using Gear for Good

  1. Sally Kitt says:

    Hey Jon, your French blood is showing again. Last time I wrote I said you were the “Montaigne of Musicians.” Based on the intricacy of your neighborly relations and the subtleties of intrapersonal psychology you showed in the “Using Gear for Good” blog I have found another Gallic ancestor in your literary family tree. You noted that the elderly gentleman next door asked you to recommend someone to transfer his favorites from vinyls to CDs, but when you voluntered to do it free he turned you down. At first he declined (you observed) because he didn’t want to inconvenience you, and didn’t want you to think he was covering up asking for a favor, which you knew he wasn’t. This is just the kind of gentle comment on human interaction you find in the opening chapters of REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST, so now I call you the “Neighborhood Proust.” May your mechanic have a Benny Goodman collection so you can swap services!

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