Posts Tagged ‘equipment’

ShopTalk: Burl Audio at Jackpot! Recording Studios

I recently had the pleasure of spending an evening at Jackpot! Studios. NARAS was kind enough to host an event with Larry Crane of TapeOp.

Next door, Scott of Hamptone was showing off his amazing collection. Ribbon mics, custom consoles, various products in various stages of development…

In addition, the Burl Audio Mothership was demoed to a receptive audience. Not that it was a scientific listening test, but we A/B against an Apogee box, and the Burl was somewhat preferred for it’s punchier sound.

I met some absolutely great people, including a half dozen (including the aforementioned Scott), who design and make their own gear.

Wherein I Wax Poetic:

This brings me to something that constantly surprises me (and really shouldn’t): Portland, stereotypically home of the hipster, their ex-hippy parents, microbrewerys, and innumerable ‘scenes’, is a manufacturing city.

Creativity drives industry, and vice versa. Hamptone and Jackpot share a building. What better way to develop prototype audio equipment than to throw it in the studio next door?

I see that all over Portland, from makers of fine artistic goods like Bullseye Glass and Gamblin inks to stalwarts like Oregon Iron Works and Precision Castparts. The industry and art drive each-other. More on this later.

On customer service…

My current job takes me to factories where ESD (electrostatic discharge) control is critical. One important control point is the human body. We all shuffled on carpet as a kid, then tried poking unsuspecting people to shock them. Well, I did, but I was strange.

Anyway, imagine that same shock going through your iPhone 4S Qualcomm MDM6610 baseband chip during assembly if a factory worker shuffles around a bit…Poof, you now have an iPod Touch. Or if that charge goes through an airplane’s avionics boards while a mechanic is repairing it…Or through the FPGA in a hospital EKG machine. Preventing a static charge from building in the body is important. To that end, I have to wear special conductive heel straps that connect my body to the floor electrically. These are annoying…

Enter Keen. They are a Portland hometown favorite, and they even started making some boots in the US, after using an overseas sourcing strategy for their entire existence. They sell shoes they claim are ESD-safe. I needed to know that the shoes actually passed the correct ESD test, so I tried emailing, with no expectation of a response. An email to customer service was answered by the developer of the shoe, which kind of rocks. No boilerplate, but a real answer. From the guy/gal who actually designed the thing.

Ordered. Will share my own test results soon.


Shoes arrived, and passed a quickie multi-meter test. Most importantly, they are comfortable. I brought them to China on my last trip, but wasn’t in a factory that needed to enforce ESD protocols. Next time though…

Mogami W2901 (And other adventures in re-purposing)

Since I transitioned from media/film/audio production to a job in manufacturing/engineering, I’ve noticed or been the cause of some neat re-purposing from the film industry to the manufacturing industry. The robustness demanded by the film industry has made certain specialized products very useful in manufacturing tooling.

Mogami W2901

I had a need for a high-strength, lightweight, cheap, and small high-flex-cycle cable. Sourcing something that meets a bunch of contradicting demands (strong and lightweight? flexible and durable? cheap at the same time?) makes for an interesting day at work. Luckily, I knew that an appropriate type of wire existed. I ended up with Mogami W2901:

177,000 flex cycles rated, Polypropylene filler thread for strength, 176 N breaking strength (about 40 pounds)…It was everything I wanted, at about $0.50/foot. It’s typically found in professional audio as a lavalier or microphone cable. If it’s good enough for daily use in a TV studio or on a rainy film set, it’s good enough for daily use in a manufacturing environment.

The Mafer Clamp

The day before my adventures in re-purposing lav cables, a sales rep comes in to demonstrate a product of theirs. What does he use to clamp it to the table, but a Mafer clamp. I chuckle:

The Matthews Studio Equipment Mafer Clamp

Next, the Manfrotto Magic Arm comes out. I laugh. Too bad the demonstrated product didn’t fit our needs.

Gaffer’s Tape

Not duct tape, not Duck tape, but a Gaffer’s tape. From temporary fixturing to guarding fingers while deburring, I use the stuff almost daily…Just as I would on set.

It’s neat to be able to use mainstays from one industry in another…At some point in the future, I will be able to talk a little about how film industry know-how benefits work with industrial vision systems.

The high cost of low value

It’s been a while since my last post. Life has been busy, but I can always find time to ramble about tools.

At work, I’m lucky enough to have access to high quality tools. Quality tools make me more efficient, and given the value of my time to my employer, paying for said tools is a no brainer.

As an example, the hex keys I use at work are Bondhus Goldguard ball-ends. They run double the cost of other, cheaper sets, but the rarely break, and I very rarely strip stainless screw heads. At $14 for a 9 piece metric set, they pay for themselves if I avoid stripping/breaking, then wasting time extracting a single screw. That’s a good deal. $14? That’s nothing for a tool I use every day. They would be a good deal at ten times that cost.

It’s all about value, cost is a secondary metric for tools.

Amusingly, Bondhus, the maker of the aforementioned hex set says this on their website:

Bondus doesn’t manufacture junk.

I guess that’s one short way of saying value is more important than cost. It’s an often-forgotten metric…a lens through which more purchase decisions should be made.

30 feet, 50 feet…100 feet? Does it stop?

So, the first prototype pictures of the Supertechno 100 are in the wild…Dollygrippery has them.

A 100 foot telescoping camera crane…This in and of itself is an amazing feat, given the relatively recent development of even 20 foot telescoping cranes.

The whip, vibration and movement on a non cable-stayed arm of that length with 3 (or more?) sections will be tricky to handle though. I bet the engineering is absolutely top-notch though. It’s an inspirational sight! The technology has come so far in a relatively short time…Louma, Techno, the Hydrascope…There are a ton of good options out there. Anyway…

I will be curious to see the thing in use, or at least at a trade show. The Strada trick of just lifting the operator, steadicam rig and all probably is impossible, though would be a wild ride for the operator. My money is on a stabilized head like the Scorpio or Chapman G-3 over the Techno Z head or other standard heads for most uses, given the inherent flexing.

And how many operators to effect a movement? Or are they going to motorize the base in addition to the crane and head? That’s a lot of weight to get around. Sounds like a 3-4 person job now…

Anyway, Dollygrippery has the goods. It’s worth a look, because really neat things come from Plzeň…

How’s that supply chain working for you now?

The boring thing to call this post is Supply chain comparisons in commodity versus specialty products. The fun thing would be Dell, you screwed up.

See, Dell recently ended up shipping servers with malware in the firmware. The firmware. The very heart of the machine. Servers. Not consumer computers, but machines business rely on to actually, well, do business.

In the film and music industries, there are a lot of gearheads, myself included. We require reliability and manufacturer support, because it really sucks when a $50,000/hour shoot comes grinding to a halt because a $0.25 connector failed. We look for quality, because spending $5 instead of $0.25 on a connector seems like a great deal, in the face of $50,000/hour downtime.

At any rate, in the film and audio industries, outside the fiercely ‘indie’ realm, the professionals look for quality and pay for it. From Altman for lights to Manley Labs for outboard audio gear to Zaxcom for digital production recorders and wireless, quality is the supreme factor, because it is cheaper in the long run.

So what does this all have to do with Dell? Let’s do a little comparison:

Company 1: Kudelski SA

We can look at certain devices like the Nagra VI recorder (link to David Waelder’s excellent review), and appreciate a lot of details: The Nagra VI is, of course, made in Switzerland by the Kudelski Group’s NagraVision SA division, a company with a very long history in recording technology and data security. They made cold-war spy gear. They made the Nagra tape machines, the standard production recorder for decades.

The Nagra VI recorder is made by a largely vertically integrated company. The metal case, the circuit boards, the firmware programming, even the transformer winding…It’s all done by NagraVision inhouse, not a subsupplier. The few things that are subbed are obtained from equally quality-obsessed companies. Take a look at this factory tour. They consider the aesthetics of everything: What will the knob feel like after a 200 day shooting schedule? Will the transformers work in Death Valley one week and on Denali the next?

Now, the other interesting thing about the Nagra VI is the core processor choice. They started using and programming their own FPGAs in the 80s with their first digital products. NagraVision sources the chip from Altera (Specifically, Altera’s Korean plant), but they program it and write the firmware themselves, and have complete control over the code. Altera does nothing buy deliver a blank slate. There is more info here (PDF).

End result: Someone working on a feature film, or recording that once-in-a-lifetime concert tour can rest assured that the Nagra VI will work.  Not only will it work, but you feel the Swiss engineering in every facet of the machine…decades of experience and quality engineering lineage wrapped up into a single small package.

The choice to buy a Nagra (or Zaxcom, Schoeps, Neumann, Sound Devices, and other quality gear) is easy when the cost of the equipment is virtually nothing compared to the cost of failure. Your cheap recorder died on set? Took a bunch of takes with it? Well, a single day of ADR with an A-list actor, the director and entourage costs as much or more than a Nagra VI (list: about $8,000 USD).

Company 2: Dell

How does this relate to Dell? Well, simply put, Dell doesn’t have control over their own production, engineering, supply chains or much else that actually is a Dell computer…

Dell has had to scramble recently to get replacement firmware to their customers. It seems that somewhere along their vast supply chain, some servers ended up with malware on them.  Instead of managing firmware in-house, as Nagra does, Dell seems to let someone else handle the brain of the hardware, as well as many other critical components like power supplies. Big mistake. Y’all lost the soul of the machine. Your users don’t seem happy either.

Dell is no stranger to quality issues: The Optiplex had it’s share of problems, and Dell didn’t recall them.

So what is Dell?  They are a marketing and support firm, not a manufacturer.

Is it better to buy a computer from a marketing company with support division, or from a company that is in the business of designing and manufacturing computers?

The Blame Game

People working in film and music make large capital investments in quality equipment, because even if it goes obsolete faster than we like, it is rock-solid.  When is it acceptable to sacrifice long-term quality and buy on the cheap? Never…Unless someone comes up with a really complicated way of saying it.

Dell’s Customers: Have you taken advantage of short-term capital cost savings, while  minimizing your exposure to high capital investments in quickly depreciating technologies?

Yeah. Customers bought cheap to save money upfront, hoping it would go obsolete before it broke…Or before accounting identified even more ‘cost savings’ in “extending the deployment cycle of high-replacement cost technologies.”

Do the accountants even once think about including the cost of failure and downtime? Rarely. Do the CxOs listen even if they do? Hardly ever.

Look inside, Dell’s customers. You are not just victims here…

Dell’s Shareholders: Does your pervasive neurotic focus on quarterly results prevent Dell from making long-term capital investments that might hurt short-term projections?

About that:

Dell also said it will have spent an unscheduled $450 million, or roughly 14 cents per share, on operational issues. This will make its projected third-quarter earnings per share about 25 cents versus the previous estimate range of 39 cents to 41 cents.

“The charge also includes the costs of workforce realignment, product rationalizations and excess facilities,” the company said.

“Michael Dell basically said, ‘Well, if we can’t trade them up or sell a monitor, we really don’t want that business,'” Kay recounted.

…But those quarterlies? Yeah, the cake is a lie:

For years, Dell’s seemingly magical power to squeeze efficiencies out of its supply chain and drive down costs made it a darling of the financial markets. Now it appears that the magic was at least partly the result of a huge financial illusion.

But shareholders keep demanding the cake…Over and over and over, even if it’s a lie. Think beyond next quarter…Or watch your investment crash like a non-conforming mortgage on an underwater house.


Y’all simply screwed up. Big Time. Own it. Realize you have been screwing up for the better part of a decade.

Then make it better and get back to what you used to do: Lean computer manufacturing, with at least a touch of concern about quality…If  your institutional flaws ever allow you to vertically integrate your production. I’m not holding my breath. After all, you’ve done this:

“There was a sequence of human errors that led to the issue, That being said, we have identified and implemented 16 additional process steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” said Dell spokesman Jim Hahn.

Nice band-aid. Nice 16 band-aids. It still doesn’t solve the problem: How many more will you try and stick on to an increasingly festering gangrenous supply chain?

The bottom line:

Film and audio equipment is purchased based on total cost: The upfront+cost of repairs+potential cost of failure+ease of use/efficiency+aesthetic appeal+etc. Dell is very lucky, because most corporate accounting practices segment those costs across multiple books, so the true cost of owning lower quality equipment is never considered. This isn’t good for Dell, or the customer.

I guess my whole rambling point is this: Dell, get some Soul.

Buy quality, buy once…Or adventures in overkill.

I recently made the mistake of buying a replacement suction cup for my GPS unit. The first one broke when the suction cup rubber detached from the rest of the device. The second one promptly broke as well. In the same spot.

I don’t like wasting money or time. This wasted money, and time:

I broke two of these.

The thing about the film industry is that work invariably invades one’s personal life. Film equipment is useful to have around the house, not just on set. I’m not the only one.

Instead of wasting more money and time, I took the $7 I would have spent on a(nother) replacement, and went to my favorite hardware store: McMaster-Carr. A $3 phenolic ball, $5 thread adapter, and a Wood’s Powr-Grip from a car mount, I had this:

A 4.5 inch diameter suction cup, thread adapter, threaded riser and phenolic ball.

The mount in a car. My neighbor has something odd on their car antenna.

I have to add some loctite to the threads to keep them in place, but the suction cup will stay on a window for…ever.

Overkill? Yes.

The joy of never having to buy another badly made piece of crap? Priceless.

My new PA!

I bought some ridiculously expensive telemetry equipment in 2005. 1″ data tape transports, massive 5U cases for processing blades…Expensive enough that it was worth more than a house.

At least, that’s what the decommissioning paperwork said it cost new. It was worth nothing when I got it.

I bid and paid $80 on a government property liquidation website…Not because I wanted the equipment, but because I wanted the cases the equipment was in. 5 top-quality anvil cases, and one torn up one for a mere $80. I couldn’t pass them up. After a long time trying to find someone, anyone who wanted or needed the equipment, I finally ended up scrapping it.

I re-lined the cases with speaker carpet, and have been using them.

…I seemed to have ended up with my very own PA:

My new PA...Guarding case 1 of 5.