RW145 - A Substantial Box

This week, Dan and John talk about:

Bonus-content for Patreon supporters:

The show title refers to the beautiful and well-designed box of the Neat Beecaster microphones that is big and very substantial and suggests that the microphone should be traveling in it.

John was recording from the staged dining room of his home. Technically he was not allowed to be in his home, but the owner of the house where he was staying (John’s daughter’s mother) decided that this was a good week to have her roof replaced and he woke up at 7:30am every morning to the sound of working men hammering on the ceiling. He had to cancel Roderick on the Line this week and by Thursday he decided to just go over to the house he owned and sit in the perfectly manicured dining room and talk to Dan because he couldn't keep living like this.

During the recording a car pulled up out in front of the house, which could have been a situation where a real estate agent and some normals would walk in to see a perfectly staged house with John at the dining room table. It is happening! ”Oh hi! Come in! Are you an agent? My name is John. I am the homeowner! Unfortunately I came here not knowing someone was going to show the house today." - "I'm just here to quickly get a coat that we left behind last time we were here." - "Oh perfect. What does it look like? Where would it be?" - "It is a four year old's coat. The agent said it was in the back.” Dan loves it that a coat would appear in John's house and John wouldn't notice it. ”Great house! It is neat, but it is a specialty environment. You have to be all in on some weird quirks." - "Thanks for coming by!" - "Appreciate it!" - "My pleasure! See you out in the world!”

John is getting over a little bit of a cold.

Draft version
The segments below are drafts that will be incorporated into the rest of the Wiki as time permits.

John’s Apogee USB audio interface (RW145)

John was using an USB microphone he got a long time ago, which Dan didn't think it was John’s regular MO at all, but this was John's traveling circus. The picture of his setup in Ken Jennings’ house where he was taking over his dining room table showed a Shure SM7B and a Røde boom!

John was given an Apogee USB audio interface by the reputable Apogee company called the Apogee Quartet. It is a bullet-proof unit, but John never really embraced it. Like those old drum machines or like a Yamaha DX9 it has all the capabilities within the machine, you just have to want to read the manual over and over. There are people in the world who love to scroll through all these different menu options, adjusting parameters, changing settings, making a mental map of the best route to get to where you want to go, designed by the programmers of this device.

Those programmers were living in Japan in the 1980s and a programmer has a map in their mind that is incredibly self-explanatory for them and is the natural path through the garden that anyone with any brains would agree on. They often are not mapmakers or even language-users and they do not dance the Shaman’s dance, but they have learned how to think of things as architectures and structures in a very particular language, which is the culture of programming where they learned it when they learned it.

To a lay person, the mental map that the programmer chooses as being as natural as the wind in the Willows is often completely incomprehensible and the programmer is frustrated by the dumb normal who can't see that when you are at the end of menu A you just toggle control X to get to the middle of Menu B, which is where you would want to be according to them.

This music gear is often programmed by people who aren't musicians, who aren't going to play those instruments live, or who aren't going to use the instruments the same way that a musician would. Brilliant musicians end up finding workarounds and ways to break the programming to make other cool things, which is the big old game of bleep bloop. John is struggling to pick up a ukulele and remember what key it is in and with a DX9 he scrolls and scrolls until he sometimes creates a mystical music event which is completely unduplicatable and he has no idea how he got there.

This Apogee device is brilliant! It has four XLR inputs, Firewire, Lightning, Zippidy Zap, and one big knob. They are expensive things and in return for that expansiveness John would think that the interface on the computer would be elegant, natural and self-explanatory, and that the box itself with one big knob and some buttons would perform reliably, not only in the sense of it doing it’s A/D conversion, but also that it would retain settings from the last time you used it, or if it didn't retain settings have an easy way to ensure that those settings were available somewhere under a name or some kind of routing. Maybe it does?

John wants this exact box, but without the big knob. One big knob is very appealing to people in audio right now because it is their idea of what we are somehow looking for in analog. With four inputs you need four sliders. If John wants input two to be louder, he doesn't want to have to push a button that then makes the one knob suddenly be input two and then push another button to have the knob become input 3. He wants four sliders so that each input has a slider. The same for in/outs, the same for phantom power, and the same for all these things!

We have been doing this for decades: A mixer has buttons for things and everybody who has ever worked in audio knows how to use a little four-track mixer, but this device, in order to be elegant and cool, has one big knob. On the computer screen there appears a facsimile of a mixer, but it doesn't behave like a mixer and it has all these extra menu screens: ”Do you want to route it through your fucking mom's earballs?” John doesn’t know what an earball is, bro! Why would he want to route it through that?

All by way of saying: John has never quite gelled with his system. It doesn't feel like it is his system, but it is expensive which naturally makes you think it is the best. It has one big knob! How do you look askance at the biggest knob there is? Apart from that John feels like this Apogee gear is really good for doing the thing that it is there to do.

Neat USB microphones (RW145)

A couple of years ago a company called Neat got into the USB microphone business. The picture from their Patreon page shows John laying in bed with the Neat Bumblebee microphone on his stomach and his laptop protecting his genitals. Dan recently reached out to this company because people have asked him for his opinion of their stuff and he has never had a chance to use it directly.

The Bumblebee microphone It is a black box on a little arm with knobs on the base, a podcasters unit that is all in one. It is plug and play, you stick it in the USB, you go to your settings and you make it your in/out and then you are podcasting, buddy! The three knobs are headphone volume, mic gain and microphone patterns.

John has two different models of Neat mics, the one that in the picture on his lap had a knob that adjusted microphone patterns for mono, for not picking up any side noise, and a different setting for a microphone shaped like a figure eight so it will pick up somebody across from you, but also with no side noise. This is going all the way back in microphone history:

There are a lot of scenes where The Beatles are standing on either side of a microphone and their instruments are in the room, but their amplifiers are pointing at the side of the mic. They can play their guitars pretty loud and sing into the microphone front and back and there is not a ton of amplifier bleed into the microphones because the mic is intentionally not recording stuff coming from the sides. There are settings where the microphone is picking up everything in 360 degrees around the room.

This knob on the Bumblebee mic allowed you basically to make the same decisions as a $15.000 Neumann microphone from the 1950s. The one that John is using today also has a knob for the mic characteristics, but the settings are Music, Neutral, and Voice, meaning the manufacturer has made some decisions about some digital emulation of the frequencies that a microphone would want. John has it set on Neutral and he shows Dan the other two settings while they record.

The Neat company is now out of business, as far as John can tell, but there is still a Web site of Bumblebee DIY Pro Audio who does not appear to sell any of these USB mics anymore if this is even the same company (John was calling the company for Bumblebee, but the name is Neat, so he probably looked at a totally unrelated website. Neat was still in business at the time of recording of this episode).

Neat mics are packaged in a super-duper-cool and beautiful way. They are packaged for ”Wow!” It didn't quite wow John the way it was intended to wow, but these boxes containing the microphone are out of clear plastic with a layer of artwork that was visible from the outside and a lid. It was the kind of box that you might try to repurpose for something else. You want to put hats in it or something.

Inside the box there was some foam, the instruction book and some little gewgaws that had nothing to do with the microphone, but gewgaws you might want if you were really brand-identifying, an unnecessary piece of swag, the type of thing you find in a gift bag if you attended a conference. Unless you were a completist you would throw it in the garbage.

Because the box came with the microphone and had its own cutout space in the foam you felt slightly obligated to keep the microphone in there to have it completely encased in perfectly laser-cut foam. They spent as much on this packaging as they spent on anything! John’s instinct was to think of this packaging as a carrying case for the microphone. This was how it was meant to travel, staying in its little nest. The problem is that the box is about the size of a Vitamix blender. It is a substantial box!

If you took it on an airplane flight it would fit in the overhead compartment, but not under the seat. At one point John traveled in his RV and devoted a shelf somewhere in there to this Bumblebee mic inside of its beautiful box, but as time went on he started to resent in. It is a podcasting microphone! Make it so that it folds all the way down so you can put it in a bag or throw it in a briefcase! John was not going to bolt this to his desk because it is meant to be plugged into a laptop.

As John used the microphone he noticed that the headphone jack was a cheap piece of shit. After the third time you use it you have to jiggle it to get it in stereo. It is the cheapest headphone jack you can buy, sourced from somewhere, with no metal parts in it at all. The USB in the back is not the flat USB, but the square USB, and they also sourced the cheapest USB jack. If you move the microphone while you are using it the jack will pull out. It gives you no amount of satisfying snap or click when you put it in, but it is hanging there by a thread. When they were building this thing they put a lot of energy into the box and not a ton of energy into making the device sturdy and built to last, made of the highest quality material.

John used it for a long time when he was going back and forth between his house and Venice Beach where he was attempting to make a part time life with Millennium Girlfriend. At first he would take this microphone back and forth, then he left one down there in Venice and when they broke up she took it to the thrift store along with everything else John left at her house, as a gesture of finality with him.

No attempt was made to give John the opportunity to reclaim it or his father's tuxedo jacket or any of the things that he left there at her behest. At some point she said: ”You don't seem serious about living in Venice with me! You don't even leave any podcasting microphones or Hawaiian shirts here!” - ”Okay baby, I'm going to bring a bunch of stuff down there and you give me some drawers in your dresser!” It was the old ”I've got drawers in your dresser” thing! All the things that John put in the drawers in the dresser got thrown away as soon as she decided that they weren't dating anymore and John lost one of these Neat mics in that transaction.

As time went on John started to resent the microphones, not because they didn't perform, but because of the disparity between the amount of effort they put into their packaging vs the amount of effort they put into building their product. It seemed to be a metaphor for a certain kind of modern commerce where a lot of effort is put into marketing and into design and into disruptive entry into the market and the thing itself doesn't have a build-quality that would make you loyal to it over time.

It makes you want to buy and own it, and at first you are: ”Wowsy drowsy” Building a good thing because you want people to to use it for a long time and over over time develop a relationship with the product such that when it is time to replace it, which inevitably will happen used to matter a lot: ”Wow, I got my money's worth and this is a company that that I stick with!”

The cell phone industry then introduced the idea that there is no loyalty among thieves and they didn't care whether you are happy once they have you locked into a contract. They don't care about you, they are not a service industry, bit their business practice is ”Get as many people in here as you can!” and then they are obligated to fulfill their contract.

When John went to Verizon and said ”I'm not satisfied with your service!” they were like ”You are locked into a two year contract!” and John was going to pay through the end of this contract whether he liked it or not. John would probably still be on Verizon if he hadn't had such a bad taste in his mouth from that experience, but when he switched over to AT&T the experience was no better! The new business practice is not ”Let's retain customers!”, but it is a ”There aren't that many options!” business model.

”So here I stand, head in hand, and I turn my face to the wall” (lyrics from You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away by The Beatles) and John is in that industry as well, talking to Dan. If Marco Arment was on the phone with them right now he would have a slew of recommendations and the first thing he would say is ”Don't use a USB mic!” Dan would say the same and has been biting his tongue because John is not in his regular setup.

John knows what an XLR cable is and if you know that then you already know that your best option isn't a USB mic. John is working under duress. He is also someone who is a little bit disruptive in the marketplace. He wants you to get something that is a little bit ”whoop de do!”, something you tuck in your briefcase where you are just slipping through the world.

When John went through airport security with that Beecaster he would see a look of confusion on the face of the TSA agent. You are not supposed to rattle the cage or address the the security personnel, but John would lean over the top of the radar box and say that it was a microphone. More often than not they would look up, acknowledge him‚ and let it through.

It was only the rare person that gave you that blank look of ”I am not a human! You are not a human!” and they would insist that someone pull it out and look at it. The entire time during that security theater John would say "It is a microphone. It is just a microphone!”, but they would pull it out and look at it. "Ah, confirmed! A microphone!" - "Do you want to know more? The jacks are a little shabby!"

Now John doesn’t want anything to do with these things. They are toys that he should give a young person who maybe can use it to do young people music or something. There are many guitars at Guitar Center that are not good, but for a young person they are plenty good, way better than the stuff they gave young people when John was a young person! You couldn't play the entry level guitars they used to make, but now they are all more or less playable if you give it even one minute of extra attention.

John went on this microphone rant because he is a displeased person right now. Dan found the perfect mic for John and he reached out to these guys. 5 to 10 years ago everybody got the Blue Yeti microphone from Blue Microphones, which is a reputable microphone company. It came in right around $100-125 in all different colors. Podcasters loved this mic, it looked cool, and it worked fine.

Blue had the whole world convinced that this was the end-all-be-all microphone and people would ask Dan, especially when he was doing Podcast Method where he was taking lots of questions. ”How do I get rid of this sound? Why can I hear my air conditioner? How come my neighbor three doors down has a dog that barks and everyone can hear it? How come there is so much audio bleed when I am recording with other people?” and Dan would ask ”You are using the Blue Yeti, right?”

Dan continues to talk about microphones and entry level quality that is good, but not great. You figure out a way to make it work, but it is not where you want to live! When you are out and about in the world and you are traveling and you still want to be able to record a show, a lot of companies make these traveling mics and the one that Dan most wanted to try is called the Raspberry from Blue.

It is a very nice little portable travel mic. It will plug into your Mac, it might even plug into your iPhone or your PC, and you can take this thing with you wherever you go. Dan’s thought he could reach out to these people and do a review of one of these things and if it holds up this could be their official mic for when they are out and about.

Some of their microphones like the Blue Bottle are used by professional people and is a $4000 microphone‚ coming with some different capsules. They have a couple of $2000 mics and a $1000 mic. In a recording studio you will find these microphones being used for different applications. They are good mics.

A few years ago Dan was speaking at a podcast movement conference and some people were asking him what mic to use. He said he always loved the Shure SM7B and John is using it as well. It is $399, which is not expensive for a microphone because you can spend thousands and thousands on a microphone. And yet, for the average person who is just starting out, those $400 plus an amp and cables and stuff are a dealbreaker because it doesn't just plug into the back your computer.

You got to buy something else and that thing is going to cost hundreds. Dan can see why people balk at that when you suggest it and why a company like Blue is doing so well with their primarily USB microphones. Dan is still waiting to hear back from them. John found a picture of a woman named Sarah Nimitz with the same raspberry microphone hanging down like she was Ella Fitzgerald in the studio singing into an Neumann. It says ”Sarah Nimitz recording professional vocals with Raspberry”

Marco Arment expresses a lot of strong opinions about audio gear and what podcasters should use specifically. He doesn't step into the fray and say that this is a great microphone for recording a Stratocaster through a Twin, but he is very specifically in the realm of voice as recorded by semi-professional people. He feels very strongly about the Shure Beta 87A. It is not Dan’s favorite mic, but it is better than the SM58. Then there is the SM57, the black one, the universal mic used to point at all guitar amps. Dan thinks of those as stage microphones for the most part.

The one that Marco likes, 85A, is a nice step up from the SM58, but Dan doesn’t love it. More often than not, as recently as yesterday somebody asked Dan for a microphone recommendation and Dan will ask them what they are using right now. He said 87A and they got that based on Marco's recommendation because he is the only living human being who has ever recommended this microphone.

Everybody's taste in microphones is different and everybody's voice is different. When two people look at something that is painted blue they both are going to know that it is blue, but they are not seeing the same color. Bring a woman into it and she will see it even more differently. Dan’s wife can see thousands of colors that Dan can't even see. There is blue, red, maybe green, that is about all the colors he can even see, and he is not colorblind.

If you bring John’s mom into it, there is no color of blue that she won't tell him is green and no color of green then she won't insist is blue. It is even worse when it comes to audio stuff. Marco can listen to the 87A and can say ”This sounds really good!” and it is $200, it is a great mic for him, and he is right for a percentage of people.

As recently as yesterday someone said they don't like how their voice sounds through it and Dan knows this person, he has heard his podcast and he knows his voice and he actually recommended his favorite mic for most people, which is the SM7B. It is a much bigger microphone!

A beta 87A looks like an SM58, just a little bit bigger. You can hold it in your hand, you walk around the room, it is like an MC’s mic, like ”Hey everybody, welcome to the karaoke!” whereas an SM7B is a chunky mic with a chunky little bracket and it doesn't just fit into a little clip that you can put into anything, but it has a built in shock mount and it is a bigger deal. This guy has hundreds of thousands of downloads for his podcasts and he is the right person to upgrade.

John wants something he can throw into a briefcase.

John’s house has not sold (RW145)

Although John's house has been featured in magazine articles it has still not sold, inexplicably. John was waiting for the real estate agent to share the hundreds of incoming offers and he was going to sit back in his chair with his pipe and peruse through them to pick the ones he liked most and make a decision. Everybody agreed this was going to happen.

On that appointed day last Thursday John woke up in the morning in his guest bedroom where he was staying, he cracked his knuckles and said ”Let's get down to business! By the end of today I will have accepted an offer on the house!” It would have been a bittersweet moment because he would feel a pain on behalf of the five or six young families who dreamt of owning his house and he had to dash their hopes, but unfortunately he was going to choose the young family that produced the largest amount of cash, as in all real estate transactions, or 95% of them.

If a guy with a big bushy mustache came and said ”I want to buy your house and tear it down and turn it into a salt factory!”, John would say ”Hold your horses, Mr. capitalist man! I'm going to sell my house to this young family who is trying to raise a new generation of activists”, but if it was three different families who were all trying to raise a young generation of activists he would take the one with the most money.

All day long he waited for his real estate agent to call him and say ”Come down to the office! The only reason we haven't called you yet is that we have been deluged with offers!” John had been hearing it from everybody for months: ”Look out, when you put that house on the market!” Then all these articles came out about it in addition to that. One web site that talks about cool real estate around the country had two feature articles. One of them was ”John Roderick of The Long Winter sells his amazing farmhouse in South Seattle” and the other one was ”Marc Maron sells his house with the garage that we all talk about that is the famousest garage in LA!” It felt like ”Wow I'm selling my house in an environment where it is a news item.”

At the end of the day the real estate agent called him and said ”We cannot account for this, but there were no offers!” They had an open house where 80 people came, it was a ”Redfin hot home” based on some algorithm that determines based on the number of looky loos or looks or faves on the Internet that you have a hot home.

The idea that his house was going to be competed for led John to believe that he was going to wade through increasingly large offers. Somebody would name a price and then someone else was going to go $20.000 higher. He was starting to count some imaginary money and he was starting to prepare to make an offer on the house that he wants to buy.

You can make an offer on something that is contingent upon the sale of your own house, but there are many buyers with a lot of money in Seattle and no-one ever takes a contingency offer when there is someone else standing there who is going to give you cash tomorrow.

The only thing that allows John to make a contingency offer on the house that he wanted was that the guy wasn't actually selling it. He basically went up to his door and said ”Here is an amount of money, you don't have to do anything!” and it is contingent on John selling the house, but he is not competing against anybody and would just make a side deal.

So here we are, one week later. There was a second Open House and people went through every day. A guy just came to collect a child's jacket that was left here yesterday when a family came to see the house. People are touring it, but John has not gotten a call saying ”Come down and wade through this pile of offers!”

It becomes increasingly likely that someone will make an offer at asking price or, horror of horrors, below asking price, and the asking price was ridiculously low, designed to generate this excitement. ”Wow! That house for only $700.000?” In the Seattle market that seems crazy! Just a couple of miles North $700.000 won't buy you a two-bedroom apartment!

The house has been on the market for two weeks which in the weird cult of real estate starts to be a little bit suspect. "Wait a minute? Shouldn’t this have sold already? What’s the issue?” Maybe people were intimidated by the hullabaloo and thought they would never be able to get this house and didn't even make an offer on it. They expected a bidding war where they were going to get priced out, so "Let's just not even be ridiculous!"

John starts to wonder if the defunct swimming pool is scaring people? Is it the fact that this is the nicest house in the neighborhood and a lot of other houses in the neighborhood have between five and seven cars parked out front? Is that frightening away the young urban professional family who is looking for a cute house in which to raise their adorable children? Is the very diverse neighborhood itself too intimidating to people who have $750.000 to spend? It does not read as a neighborhood full of hip artists with chin beards, but it reads as a neighborhood where people get up in the morning and go to work. It is a quirky house on a quirky plot of land and it is a very individual place.


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