Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Isolation Boxes

For those who want to know why I made these isolation boxes, please refer to the previous post.

There were a few goals when building the isolation boxes. We wanted to hold all of the sound inside the box, we wanted to be able to hold a fairly large combo (I have a Fender Hot Rod Deville 4x10), and we want to make it cool. I guess I should mention that I didn't want to break the bank too.

Before I go any further, I have to say thanks to a few people. There was one person in particular who really helped me a lot. He let me use his shop (I don't own a table saw or some of the other tools that were needed), and he came up with a lot of the ideas and methods that we used. He even created the blueprints. Next, I want to say thanks to another guy who helped me. He was a second pair of hands when I needed them, and it was great to have. Lastly, thanks to my wife for letting me do all this without complaint, and watching me throw several hundred dollars down the drain.

As you can see, there were several pieces to the box. The frame consisted of 3/4" plywood as the outer frame, and then 3/4" MDF for the inner frame. In between the frame is plain-old fiberglass insulation (the same kind you put in your house). It is in 2 x 6 feet strips, and I think it is type R-19. I bought a huge bag from Home Depot.

On a side note, I got most of my supplies from Home Depot, and I find the people there to be much more helpful than those at Lowe's. I bought some of my hardware elsewhere (Harbor Freight), and it was very well priced. Home Depot & Lowe's have a gigantic markup on a lot of items. Harbor Freight is much better priced.

The outside frames are 36" tall, 36" wide, and 30" deep. I can't remember exactly what the dimensions are on the inside frames, but I think there is 2" of insulation in between the frames (I think there is about 6" of insulation smashed down to 2"). The layer on the bottom of the box has 2 layers of insulation. If my calculations are correct, that would make the inside frames 30.5" wide, 30.5" tall, and 24.5" deep.

The inner box was easy to make. We simply cut it up, made holes for the joint biscuits (2 biscuits per side, which means 24 biscuits for the inner box, 48 biscuits per whole box), and glued them together. We made sure that the top and bottom pieces of the box were the pieces where we glued the other sheets into the face of the box, and not the sides of the box. The sides were tacked on with finishing nails after the glue was applied. We used size #20 biscuits, and looking back, probably should've done 3 biscuits per side.

The outer box was more tricky, because we had to build it with the inner box and the insulation being applied. In the end, it was easiest to go ahead and build 3 adjoining sides (basically the top/bottom and 2 touching sides) first, and get them glued together. Then we added the insulation for those sides, laid the inner box in, and started applying insulation and outer boards one side at a time.

The lids were cut 12" from the top of the box. It was quite difficult to get them cut. In the end, we just laid the box on the table saw, extended the table saw blade as high as it would go, and pushed it across. Once we had cut a whole side, we just rotated the box, realigned it, and pushed it across again. It was important to cut it after the boxes were completely put together, so that the lids would fit perfectly. To keep the inner box attached to the outer box in the lid, we drilled holes in the inner box, and screwed nylon strips to the outer box and inner box. It works great. I then applied some rubber stripping to the inner box to help with the seal.

I then applied paint: 3 coats of primer, 2 coats of black, 2 coats of polyurethane. If I had this to do over, I would've painted the bottom part first, applied the casters, and then painted the rest. Because I waited until the end for the casters, the box would scratch and the corners would crack a little when I would turn it from side to side. That could've been avoided, and some repainting could'be been avoided if I had put the casters on first.

Once the paint was on, I put the casters on (2.5" casters). Then it was time for the hardware. First, we started with the nylon strips that held the lid up. Then came some 'L brackets', which I applied to the top corners of the larger half of the box.

After the rest of the typical hardware additions (handles, latches, corner pieces), we added the plugs and soldered them to the box. We have male XLR plug, a female 1/4" plug, and a recessed male power plug. The XLR plug was soldered to about 6 feet of balanced mic cable which terminated at a female XLR jack, and then a female 1/4" plug was soldered to 6 feet of instrument cable, with it terminating at a 1/4" jack. The XLR is obviously for the mic, and the 1/4" goes to the amp. The power plug didn't need to be soldered (had screws, like a light switch), and it was attached to a standard 6 plug power strip.

The end goal was to make sure that all we had to do was plug in once, and the only time the box needed to be opened was to turn on the amp. We wanted to provide enough cable so that everything could be reached within the box, and to have enough power plugs so that wall-warts could be added if needed. Wall warts come into play because we were going to add fans (using standard computer fans, powered by soldering them to wall-wart (AC/DC converters). The problem was that we should've added fans in the beginning. The use of fans would require a beveling system, so that sound didn't leave out of the holes for the fans. We would need 2 (one for in, and one for out), and ideally would want the "in fan" at the bottom of the box, with the "out fan" at the top on the opposite side.

We chose not to install the fans due to the fact that we would've had to have done a significant amount of cutting that would've been done, the risk of sound escaping, and the fact that I had exceeded my budget for this project. I ran the amps at church for about 3 hours one day, and while the boxes got a little hot at the top around the tubes, the heat was certainly within the boundaries of what is acceptable by an amp and its heat tolerances. I would prefer to have fans, but I just don't see it happening due to the amount of sound that would end up leaving the box.

After playing in the amp, we immediately noticed that bass notes were the worst. So we put the amp on some foam squares (actually, they were little foam seats for children to sit on), and it cut down on a lot of the vibrations. With my amp (60 Watt Fender DeVille 4x10) turned up to 7, you can still hear the sound outside of the amp, but it is definitely minimized, and is insanely quiet for the amount of noise inside the box.

As far as sound goes, it made my rig sound much better (going through a Digitech RP1000), but it made the other guitarists' rig sound worse (MesaBoogie 2x12 tube amp). The reason is that it deadened his sound. His amp was mic'ed in a huge room, and the sound was much more open and rich, almost like a natural reverb. Well, with the amp enclosed, that changed things big time, and it sounded very wooden. A reverb pedal is definitely in need.

Total, I think I spent about $350 a piece on each box. The wood was $300, and with all of the hardware, casters ($5 a-piece), wiring, insulation, and everything else, the price added up. The only upgrades that I wanted were some sort of assistance for opening the box, some locking casters, and some foam for the inside of the box (sound foam). If you have any questions, feel free to ask.

Why we needed the isolation boxes

I donate time to my church by playing electric/lead guitar on the Sunday morning services (and occasionally in other services). We usually have 2 electric guitarists playing at once, which is the first of two issues. The second issue is that the electric guitarists want to play out of amplifiers, and the amplifiers are causing problems.

The amps are located in a large high-bay (garage-esque) room with 30-40 foot ceilings, lots of concrete, and a big garage door (it is formally a 'prop room', but is used as storage as well). The prop room's walls are shared with walls with the outside hall and with Sunday School rooms, which means that the sound bleeds outside of the prop room, and it is causing complaints. Sunday School classes don't like a big distorted guitar bleeding into their room during morning rehearsals.

The second problem stems from the fact that there are 2 guitarists. A normal person wouldn't see the problem with setting 2 amplifiers next to each other and mic'ing them. But anyone who has any knowledge of musical instrumentation and amplification knows that you will run into 2 problems with this: bleed-over and phase issue. Bleed-over means that you will hear amplifier 1's sound in amplifier 2's mic. One may think 'well, what is the issue? You are mixing them both anyway.", but the problem is that if levels are being increased and decreased for solos and ambiance, the bleed-over will cause problems. If you are trying to elevate a certain guitars sound, you the bleed-over will elevate the other's sound as well.

The phase problems deals with audio engineering and physics. The sound waves that leave the amp do so in a sin wave. The peaks and valleys of the wave need to hit the mic all at the same time. With the bleed-over problem, you will have the sin waves from amp 1 hitting amp 1's mic at time X, and then hitting amp 2's mic at time X + N, where N is a number of milliseconds. While this may sound like a minimal problem, the differences in phase from the mics will cause a weird sound, and the sound will semi-pulsate and get muddy. It is not ideal.

That all being said, I decided to create some isolation boxes to house the amps. This will cause the amps to be contained to their own box, and the sound will be contained to said box. This means: there will be no more complaints from adjacent rooms about the guitar sound, there will be no bleed over from each mic, and we can crank the amps up a little louder, giving them more headroom and getting the tubes a little hotter.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

To be fair...

To be fair, I've ripped on music pastors pretty heavily.

I have to admit, I have only worked with 2 music pastors/directors/organizers in church, and one of them wasn't all that bad (it was the regular pastor who often ruined the environment).

I wanted to say this in full disclosure, because it is unfair to those I haven't worked with. In truth, I write this stuff in hope that another music pastor (or regular pastor) will learn exactly what people want out of their leadership.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

people just wont quit

Musicians in church (often referred to as "praise teams") are usually very committed people, and there isn't a lot of turnover when it comes to people leaving their service of the church. My grandmother has played the organ for church for over 40 years. A lot of the people at my church have been playing there since I've attended (several years now). I'd like to address exactly why there is so little turnover, and why music pastors can be so incompetent and yet retain so much dedication.

The first thing that we should remember is that churches are dealing with volunteers. If musicians are paid for their services, then not all of this applies. But for the sake of my argument(s), I will assume that a music pastor is a paid employee of the church, and that the musicians that he/she is directing are unpaid volunteers.

Rallying volunteers is a difficult job, although I think it becomes easier when dealing with church. People in church associate their emotions toward their church with their emotions towards their God (or whatever deity). This means that pastors (regular & music) can get away with a little more, because people won't abandon church projects very easily in fear that God will view them as abandoning him. They won't express their displeasure because they don't want to create gossip within the church (oddly, a lot of gossip takes place at church), and because they feel that displeasure towards anything to do with church can be interpreted as displeasure towards God, and they don't want to run that risk.

Also, most musicians count their service as part of their tithe. We are told to donate the 3 T's: treasure, talent, and time (I'm told the Catholic Church has actual rules on how much of each you can use as your tithe). Therefore, we get away with donating less money to the church because we donate our time. Personally, I give about 6-8 hours a week of my time to playing music when you add in rehearsal time, personal practice time, and the performance(s) itself. I bill my time at $50/hour (this is approximately what it costs my current employer to employ me, and what I charge people when I do odd jobs outside of work). But I digress. Musicians often keep dedicated to their church service because they know that they are paying part of their tithe through time and talent. If the IRS allowed you to claim this donation of time as a tax deduction (as they do actual money donations), I bet every church in the nation would have a 90-piece band.

That donation of time and talent is part of the reason that musicians stay with the church. Add that with the great guilt that people associate their service with their God, and it's hard to get them to leave. The last thing on the list would be that, for the most part, church musicians are good people. They know that they are needed to serve a greater good, and gladly donate their time. When their music pastors show up to practice still not knowing what music will be played on Sunday, or not having copies of the music, or when they don't know the order of the music or what cuts to make, the musicians look the other way. They are very patient, which is a Biblical quality. But I have to say that we are all a little more patient when dealing with people whom we view as [borderline] retarded.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Do pastors have a clue? Probably not.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am very involved in church; specifically, I am a musician who plays for my church. I've played for 2 different churches now, and found a lot of similarities between the two. The first church is doomed in every way due to the fact that the pastor is insane. But the second church has been very successful and will continue to be successful. They have a lot of differences in how the churches themselves are run. But the similarities all deal with the same subject.

Pastors [usually] have no clue on what it takes to live in the "real world", and they are absolutely clueless on what it takes to keep people from getting angry and from burning out from being a volunteer within the church. Many times, they are extremely incapable. Today, we will discuss their distance from reality when it comes to time.

Normal people work at least 40 hour work weeks. Many people have kids. Time spent at the gym to stay healthy, at the ball field watching the kids, mowing the lawn, and doing all of the other normal things in life can take up another 10-20 hours a week. Then, if you go to church, you will spend 3 hours a week at church, and that is just for your typical Sunday service and Sunday School. If you make it to the Sunday night service and the Wednesday service, then you can add another 3 hours to your list. Add all of that up, you're talking about 70-80 hours of your week. Gone.

How is that different than a pastors life? Well, that 40 hour work week goes right out the window. That 10-20 hours a week you [may] spend at church is part of their 40 hour work week. Often times, their kid plays sports for the church's team, meaning their sports time can happen on the clock as well.

Granted, pastors have busy weeks. Christmas can be stressful. They occasionally go on mission trips. If there are 4 funerals in a week, they could have a lot going on. But you have to admit, a pastors life is easy.

A music pastors life is even easier. They have to decide the music on Sundays! This is even easier on weeks where there is no choir service or you have a small band. At my church, we have a guy who handles the actual conducting of the band, and the music pastor only handles the choir and selecting the music. If a music pastor has no woodwind section and no brass section, then the music pastor only has to worry about rhythm charts, and maybe some piano music.

Beyond that, what is a music pastor's job? They have to play and sing at funerals. They have to deal with the Christmas service (which only pastors at major churches deal with). Their normal week has to only consist of maybe 5-10 hours of real work. They pick the songs, find the music (which they sometimes don't even do), and maybe have to transpose songs into a different key (which they sometimes don't do). If they feel like it, they may even email the songs for the week or upload them to their church's site, so that the musicians can hear them ahead of time (if this actually happens, the songs will only be posted 2-3 days before they have to be practiced).

A music pastor's job is a joke. And that's okay in the sense that I don't care if they don't actually do any work, and can still get money. That's "the American way." But my problem lies in 2 things: music pastor's act like they are extremely overworked and overstressed, and they have no clue on how to manage a group of people.

A music pastor has no clue what it is like to have to meet actual requirements, to deal with budgets that can deal with millions of dollars, to participate in projects that are high stress and deal with people's actual lives and safety. They don't have to deal with budget cuts, worry about firing people, deal with dumb requirements from their management, and have to work within the corporate environment's policies and politics. In summary, they have no clue what stress is.

It is completely infuriating to come in at 7:30pm on a Wednesday, after you worked a 9 hour day, fit your entire evening in between 5 and 7:30pm, have no clue on what you are playing at church this week, haven't eaten yet, and have your music pastor break down because he is so stressed out.

It's even worse when they are ill-prepared. In any other instance, we would fire someone or quit if they behaved this way, but because we are serving God [in the end], we put up with it. If a budget director showed up at a project meeting and had no clue how much money was available for a project, we would hang them out to dry. If you hired a painter, and he came to your house and said that he didn't bring any paintbrushes, you'd tell him to forget it and hire someone else. But we put up with it when it comes to music pastors. It boils down to the fact that we are serving God, and therefore are being polite and unselfish, and the fact that most music pastors are fairly effeminate, and are hyper-sensitive.

It makes it really hard to respect music pastors. Barring a death in the family, it is inexcusable for them to ever be anything but 99.9% perfect at their job. It is incredibly simple, and they have all of the time in the world. I wish they would get it together so that I looked forward to dealing with them.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

$24 an hour

While sitting at work one day, I got a text. I didn't recognize the number, but when I saw the content, I knew exactly who it was from. The text said "i can't believe you said that stuff about NepotiSoft on linkedin". It was from the HR person at NepotiSoft.

I immediately knew what the problem was. On my LinkedIn profile, I had posted that I worked on a project at NepotiSoft that failed, and it did so because of the lack of requirements put forth by both the government and by NepotiSoft's management.

I could understand that this could be construed as distasteful, and possibly unprofessional, so I changed the LinkedIn profile, and replied back that I was sorry if I upset anyone, and that the post had been updated. With this reply, there was a small text conversation in which I was lambasted again for saying something [possibly] negative about NepotiSoft, and to which I replied that NepotiSoft has a lot of problems.

Then I got a reply that I didn't expect. The text said "We paid people $31 that 'claimed' they could do more then they really could, and wanted to only write code, writing code is a $24 an hr job..." (the grammar and mistakes are there because it is a verbatim quote).

This was an obvious shot across my brow, as I was paid $31/hour at NepotiSoft, and I failed at my assigned project (I will argue until my death it was of no fault of my own). I can understand that they may be pissed off that I left, and that the project failed (they will argue that it didn't fail, but that is a later post...). It wasn't the direct shot at me that made me think about the text, the conversation, and the situation.

It was the dollar amount. $24 for a software programmer?

I work in a room with about 15 other software programmers, and none of them make $24 an hour. I would say the minimum is probably around $30 an hour in respect to those 15 people. These are people that are extremely seasoned, and are experts in their respective areas (everyone is a C programmer, but many specialize in Java, or Perl, or C++, or Cisco, or dealing with Linux & it's configuration, etc..), and I consider myself one of these experts.

For a good C programmer who is knowledgeable about Linux, and who has expertise in legacy systems/programming/structures/code, it is not absurd to make $75k+ a year. In NYC, $100k jobs are common (so can be said all along the East coast). Government programming jobs will start around $50k-60k, and it is not uncommon to get the same amount when it comes to government subcontracting. Private sector jobs demand at least $50k-60k for a C programmer, and often more for someone with a particular expertise.

The only programming jobs where you can make sub-$60k are web-programming jobs. Web programming doesn't require a lot of expertise, and doesn't command as much expertise. But even then, there are some very creative and experienced web programmers who are well-worth much more than $60k.

It really bothered me that someone could think that programmers should only make $24 an hour. What a joke.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

good nights

On a good night, when I want to wind down and take the edge off, I usually drink a glass or two of Scotch. My favorite so far is the 18 year old Glenfiddich. It has a great flavor, is very smooth once you swirl it around in your glass a dozen times or so, and really progresses on your palette with every sip. Sometimes I will use a single ice cube in it, sometimes I won't.

When I start later, and want something good that will get me caught up on my buzz without losing too much flavor, I drink Knob Creek. It is 50% alcohol (vs 40%), and still has a good oaky, smokey flavor. It has a little more bite, and is definitely good with an ice cube or two, although is not near as smooth as the scotch. But when you are looking for a cheaper alternative, and looking to get relaxed a little quicker, it is a great alternative.