All Aboard The Doggie Express

“Oh look! They’re putting a dog in a bag into the luggage storage space!” my trusty travel companion Richard remarked, no, shouted, just as I was settling in on the top bunk of the virtually empty sleeper bus taking us from southern Sichuan to Yunnan.

I had been looking forward to some relaxed reading and gnawing on peanut sweets when my zen-like bliss was disturbed by Richard’s outburst. I could see nothing from my window, but now I could hear yelps and moans from a dog in evident distress.

Damn. I knew there had been something wrong about this bus. No means of transportation in China is “virtually empty” and especially not in the run-up to Chinese New Year which, like Christmas in Hong Kong, comes earlier and earlier each year.

And here we had been thinking we’d hit the transport jackpot on our Christmas trip, even welcoming the fact that the journey would take five hours instead of the normal three so we could relax properly! Now we had to stare in horror as the Dog Torture Express, winding its way around the unpaved country roads of southern Sichuan at 30 km an hour, stopped again and again to pick up ever more dogs trussed up like turkeys, some of them with their jaws bound with wire.

“I can’t be here,” I said, just as Richard was jumping off his bunk and getting his luggage.

Outside the bus was mayhem. The un-muffled dogs were yelping, howling and generally shouting for help. They seemed to understand that they were heading for restaurant tables to be gristly snacks for men who think eating dog meat makes them more virile. The yelping wasn’t the worst, however, although it cut us to the marrow. It was their eyes looking at us, pleading for mercy, which really made me wish I was a huge, AK-47 brandishing bruiser, no, had heaps of money so I could free them and set up a doggie rescue center and …

The driver and his gloved henchmen, wielding metal wire and shoving the dogs like so many postal packages into shallow shelves in the bus luggage hold, sniggered derisively; staring at us like we were some bleeding-heart liberal tree-huggers or something.

And really, having twice eaten dog meat in my youth and on this trip commenting on all the restaurants proudly proclaiming they served the best dog meat – where had I thought it came from? Organically reared dogs which happened to wander into the kitchen of an afternoon, accidentally impaling themselves on cleavers?

The driver’s assistant, it has to be said, was kind enough to drive us to the nearest train station, where we only had to wait five hours for the next train. He also gave us 80% of our money back. He seemed almost sheepish when I commented on the fact that the upholstery in his car featured cute cartoon dog figures.

That was New Year’s Day, something of a nadir of an otherwise suitably dramatic Christmas holiday with ample opportunity to wear our winter clothes, and with excellent hovelage.

Was it the repeated reading of Oliver Twist in my childhood that set me up for a life incessantly seeking out grim places full of hovels? I’m drawn to them like other tourists are drawn to beaches and dry martinies. In that respect, the trip didn’t disappoint. Guizhou, Guangxi and Sichuan all have their share of mud-encrusted, run-down, grey and grimy villages and city neighbourhoods with snotty children playing among stinking rubbish heaps and teenagers whose soot-blackened faces make them look like 65 year-old – truly hovelage to rival Dickens’ Isle of Dogs.

Grimmest of all and therefore my favourite, was Guizhou. Apart from superior grimness, Guizhou is the best province for winter travel: Its restaurants have coal-fired stoves with large surfaces on which you can put your condom-thin plastic beerglass without its melting.

Is that why large parts of the province’s population like to wander around in their pyjamas at all times of day, even when temperatures get uncomfortably close to zero? They know there’s always a stove waiting around the corner in Guizhou, whereas in for example Sichuan there is no source of heating, none, and even the tea they serve is cold.

Yes, Guizhou is in every way a place dedicated to people’s creature comfort and also their need for law and order. It was in Liupanshui (six basins of water) in the north-western part of the province, that Richard and I felt the full, crushing weight of the Chinese legal system.

We had remarked upon the ease with which we had been able to check into hotels of late; a glance at my Hong Kong ID card with my name in Chinese seemed to be sufficient to register us both – the receptionists were only too happy not to have to bother with cumbersome passports and tricky spelling.

Wandering through a market where chilies in their myriad forms ruled the roost, we were approached by a geezer in a black leather jacket. He pulled out a police ID.

“Police. What are you doing here?”

“Why are you asking?”

“I work at a station down the road and we’ve had a phone call about two foreigners walking around the market. Where are you staying?”

I showed him the hotel card. Cool! 19 years of travelling in China and I was reported on at last! He thanked us and buggered off.

Back at the hotel, the receptionists were in a state.

“You have to fill in forms! We forgot! It’s for your own safety! We need passports! Visas! … and your Hong Kong ID, how long is it valid?”

“I see. You’ve had a phone call from the police?”

“Er… yes. You must wait for them here. They must see your … er… your safety…”

Having already checked out hours before and with our luggage stored in reception, we saw no need to fill out any more forms. Ignoring the receptionists’ plaintive cries about our safety we legged it down to the train station to lose ourselves in the crowds heading home for Chinese New Year. With my blonde head and Richard’s 6 foot 3 frame, the law would never find us.

But the rozzers got us in the end. We were just about to board the train, congratulating ourselves on our lucky escape when a fat, uniformed policeman, a bruiser in fact, caught me by the elbow.
“Have you been taking photos in the station area?”

“Er… yes? And?” Damn! I should have said: What took you so long?

“We’ve been told about a foreigner taking photos in the station area. It is illegal and you have to erase them.”

It was true; I did have one photo of thousands of people fighting to get through the gates to the platform and also a particularly incriminating one of a Yi minority woman with a baby in a sling. These I deleted amid much commenting by bystanders. Oh well, the photos were of inferior quality anyway.

And reported, no, ratted on, twice in one day! This was the life. I made a mental note of looking up “I am a spy working for the Norwegian government.” Oh, the fun one can have in China … but I probably won’t eat dog meat again…

Best Children’s Books: Top Ten Picture Books

Possibly the most popular category among children’s books is Picture Books. Everybody loves a good picture book because the words are fewer, and they generally pack more of a punch. Also, the illustrator can make a so-so story into a knockout. Especially because of its brevity, the picture book usually has one very simple story line: Kid has awful day at school, Pigeon dreams of driving a bus, Machines transform a construction site, A tree gives generously instead of taking, and so on. Picture book stories can be very powerful. They can make us howl with laughter, or shed tears, or feel comfort, or care more about others, or identify with the main character. They can stir up almost any emotion on earth.

1. The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein: This is the unlikely story of love between a boy and a tree. When the boy is young and needs shade or wants to climb in in the branches the tree obliges. Then when the boy grows up he wants something that may mean the end of the tree, but the tree keeps on giving to him out of love. Though there may be several ways to interpret this story, the true message of love shines through. Even when the boy is an old man he finally uses the stump of the tree to rest on and the tree is there for him.

2. Alexander and the Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst, Ray Cruz: You gotta know your day is going to be bad when you wake up with gum in your hair. Alexander finds himself seeing more and more problems as the day goes on. From the gum in his hair to dropping his sweater in the sink to tripping on his skateboard, he finds himself in the middle of one of the worst days ever. Children and adults alike will love this tale of a boy, his bad day, and the humor that comes with the story. Bad days happen to everyone and we all can identify with Alexander.

3. Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crocket Johnson:Harold is one little boy who has an imagination that can help get him deal with trouble by means of his trusty crayon. This is an adventurous and endearing story with a tale that will charm and amuse. Harold receives help from his crayon by drawing a boat to save him from drowning, he creates landmarks to help him find his way home, and so his creativity and sense of adventure is contagious and helps, in turn, our own imaginations to soar.

4. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Judy and Ron Barrett: Nothing beats a good storm, especially when it consists of cool and yummy food, right? That may sound good if it’s raining cooking, but when the stuff raining from the sky becomes larger portions and messier foods, it can become a little scary. When there is orange juice rain, hamburger hail, and mashed potato snow, you don’t have to make grocery store runs anymore. This book is fun to read and even more fun to discuss with your children, who think this is one heck of a good idea for a storm.

5. Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, Mo Willems: Here’s a charming story when a pigeon uses the tactics of a small child to get his own way. When the bus driver has to leave the bus for a bit, he cautions the readers not to let the pigeon drive the bus. Asking nicely doesn’t give the bird what he wants so he moves from pleading, bribery, arguing, manipulating, and finally throwing a temper tantrum just like a misbehaving child. Funny and true to life comments throughout this tale will leave you giggling and feeling strangely good.

6. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig: Once a pebble-collecting donkey finds his lucky stone, the craziness begins. Once Sylvester accidentally turns himself into a stone, it seems all is lost, because he cannot transform himself back into a donkey. But eventually he comes back to his donkey self-and he begins wishing much more carefully!

7. Olivia and the Fairy Princesses, Ian Falconer: this book again stars the world’s most imaginative pig. Olivia launches a quest for identity with very ethereal goals-and being a princess is NOT one of them! Olivia is having an identity crisis. There are too many ruffly, sparkly princesses around these days, and Olivia is quite fed up. She needs to stand out! She has to be the zenith! She wants to do more than just fit in! So what will she be? Read it and find out.

8. Never Take a Shark to the Dentist (and other things not to do), Judy Barrett: Well, this book offers sage advice that would prove handy for almost anyone. Do not take a shark to the dentist, don’t sit with a porcupine in the subway, don’t take a goat to the library, don’t take a raccoon to the bank… well, you get the idea. A hilarious instruction book about us and animals.

9. The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales, Jon Scienszka: These fairly stupid tales are not like the fairy tales you may have known while growing up. They are, rather, written with sarcasm and humorous scandal. Mangling the original stories and sticking in characters who belong in other fairy tales into some old favorites, the humor and hilarity is contagious. Kids tend to like the unexpected, and they can also appreciate a bit of choice sarcasm. This book is a lot of fun as kids try to correct the writer and find it overwhelmingly impossible.

10. Machines at Work, by Byron Barton: During a busy day at the construction site, the workers use a variety of machines to knock down a building and begin constructing a new one. And most boys, in particular, can’t seem to resist imagining themselves operating the massive machines that shape and reshape the earth. (After all, that’s why they call them earth-movers). For machine lovers, this one is irresistible.

Special mention: You Are Special, The Gardener, Owen, and The Velveteen Rabbit. In You Are Special, Lucado shows how no child should ever feel worthless or inferior because God doesn’t create junk. The Gardener is a charming story about a country child that moves to the city and brings a bit of the country with her. Owen reminds me of my little brother, who carried a blanket around with him everywhere until the sorry thing was so tattered it just fell apart. And The Velveteen Rabbit is a wonderful classic that just didn’t quite seem to fit into this list. Oh well, maybe a future list.

The Mixing Desk De-Mystified: How to Use It

You’re either looking at a mixer or thinking of buying one but either way you need to know exactly what it’s for and how to use it. Few bits of band kit carry more mystique than the mixing desk – it comes with its own language and resembles the flight deck of a large airliner. Don’t be put off by the jargon and the complexity, its really quite a simple beast once you’ve played around with it a little – and trial and error is the way that most of us come to terms with our mixers. Trial and error though can lead to costly errors and waste valuable time. I recently tried to record my band live but couldn’t be both playing and on the desk, and only discovered afterwards that the engineer hadn’t sent the signal to the DAW… All the complicated setting-up and checking was right but two and a half hours of live gig weren’t captured at all because a simple matter of pressing one tiny button was overlooked – but… there you go, it’s that easy to go wrong.

If you already have one, read this article with it in front of you. If you have yet to take the plunge, look up the one that interests you and check the specification, keep this handy while you read.

What is a Mixer?

A mixer, mixing console, mixing board or desk is a device that allows you to balance, position, effect and equalize various different audio channels into one sonic image – a mix. You can add FX to selected channels, position instruments to a location in the stereo field (pan), route channels to external FX units and shape the sound of each channel with a dedicated equalizer allowing you to adjust the bass, treble and mid range.

The first piece of ‘band’ kit we bought, as opposed to individual pieces of kit, was a Behringer mixer. Lots of venues have their own, as an integral part of the PA system, but many don’t, or – if they do, they often turn out to be less than perfect – with channels that don’t work, sticky faders, dodgy connections. The first gig we played, we found on setting up that the house mixer didn’t work at all ie – no PA. We simply plugged in our trusty beast and left it to our own sound engineer to sort out. At other gigs it’s proven a better desk than the resident one or it’s mixed our stage sound for us. Inexpensive digital mixers, like ours, include microphone pre-amps, phantom power and the ability to record from the desk. It can be used to get tracks onto a home pc for DIY recording projects and a wide variety of loops, samples and FX that can be triggered live. Get one. Now. What follows will make a whole lot of sense if you are looking at a mixer – and hopefully much more sense than the manual does.

Why do we need a mixer?

Acoustic sounds – voices or musical instruments – are often collected through transducers – microphones and pick-ups. These produce weak electrical signals which must be amplified to line level. Amplification is performed by a pre-amplifier (“preamp”). At line level, signals can be more easily manipulated by devices such as mixing consoles and tape recorders. Manipulation at line level is what the mixer desk is for – it takes a number of signals (vocals, guitars, bass, drums etc) and allows you to balance and blend them into an audio mix, an output signal blended from all those inputs. Output signals are then sent to a power amplifier, where they are amplified to levels that can drive loudspeakers, which then convert the signals back into sounds that can be heard through the air. When you consider the variety of different sounds (vocal, percussive, electronic etc) and volume levels that a band produces, the need for a mixing desk to put it all together as a cohesive, balanced sound is easy to see.

Mixer Terminology

So, you’re looking at the desk, a bewildering array of knobs and sliders with strange, alien names. Sound engineers excel at creating new names for otherwise familiar things and concepts – our sound engineer once stared blankly and uncomprehendingly at a question I raised about ‘output leads’ and after several minutes of this said cuttingly – “You mean ‘feeds’. You should have said so”. There were other words, mostly shortish ones denoting body parts and sundry related activities. Such are sound engineers. So, you’re looking at the desk and you ask…

… What is a Channel?

A channel is an audio input that goes to a fader. A typical mixer channel will have an input selectorfor choosing mic (microphone) or line signals (such as a guitar output), a trim knobfor adjusting the input level (volume), and dedicated EQ(equalization) controls to alter the bass, midrange and treble bands of the signal (see above). A channel usually has sends which send part of the signal to an FX (effects) unit (or other destination). Finally a channel may have a bus selector switch which switches the channel output to a bus.

… What is a Fader?

A fader is a sliding level control that can be used to vary the loudness of any mixer channel. The name comes from “fading in” and “fading out” tracks. Look at your mixer – Is there a little “infinity”symbol at the bottom? Infinity means “zero” in mixer-speak. I did warn you about Sound Engineers’ terminology… See the heavy line nextto the solobutton? That is the marker for 0dBvu, sometimes called the “nominal” or normal level. It signifies that at that point the signal that exitsthe fader is the sameas the signal that enteredthe fader. If you lowerthe fader from that point you attenuate(ie reduce) the signal. If you raisethe fader from that point you add gainto (or boost) the signal.

… And What’s a Bus?

A bus is a faderwith its own dedicated output. You could also say that a bus is a major pathway from all channelsto a single faderconnected to an output. You can send everything going to that faderout of the mixer to another piece of gear – You can also bring the signal back in to the mixer on spare channels. Why would you want to do this? External FX processing for example – sending the signal for effects to be applied by an external unit then returning the processed signal so it can be sent on to a pa or other destination. On mixers with buses, there are routing buttonson each channel that lets you route the whole signal to one of the buses. The main busis often called the ‘L/R bus’. Other buses are often grouped in pairs, like the 1-2 bus and 3-4 bus. There may also be another switch that lets you route these bus fadersto the ‘master fader’. Typical uses of buses are to send a track (or groups of tracks) to a digital multi-track, or to a sound card or audio interface. Yet you can also be very creative with them, sending them to samplers, groove-boxes with analog inputs, surround encoders, separate compressors etc. Some buses may have channel inserts.

… Channel Inserts?

An insert is a pathway out and then back again into a single fader, letting you return the external signal to the mixer without using more channels. Use an insert to patch in an external piece of gear that only affects that one channel. Typical uses of inserts are patching compressors, outboard EQs, exciters, pedals, multi-track recorder input/outputs, and FX boxes. Lots of people route channel inserts to a patch-bay where they can plug in various devices conveniently. A well-featured mixer will have inserts on individual channels, busesand the master fader.

What is a Pan Pot?

Easy! A pan pot, is a little knob marked ‘pan’… OK, you’ll want to know what it is for – it is a panoramic potentiometer and it allows you to place the signal it applies to (see ‘channel’) anywhere in the stereo field, from extreme left to extreme right, and all stops in between. It helps you separate the sounds in the mix – very handy when you find yourself with flute, sax and harmonica playing guests.

What are the Mute/Solo buttons for?

The mute button silencesthe audio on a channel (so you can hear other stuff in the mix, from other channels). A solo button silences everything exceptthe signal on a channel so you can hear that channel in isolation. Our (un)sound engineer has been known to mute a channel not currently being used (lest someone inadvertently wreck his mix by coughing on a live mic or smacking a guitar into a mic stand. It’s reasonable, but not when he goes off in search of more beer and the next song up requires that channel… be warned.

What are Routing Buttons?

Routing Buttons switch the audio signal down the pathway to the buses. Think of them as an output selector. If you press the ‘3-4’ routing buttonand pan it (rotate it) all the way to the left / counter clockwise, the signal goes out by bus out 3. If you press the ‘1-2’ routing button and pan it all the way right / clockwise, the signal only goes out bus 2. If you press 1-2, 3-4, and L-R and pan to the center point, the signal goes out through all 6 outputs. I recommend you try all these options just to know what the results are – we had our desk for 6 months before we realised how useful this could be.

What’s a Send – and a Return?

A send is a major audio path that goes out of the mixer. There is, usually, a knob on each channel for each send so you can direct variable amounts of that channel to the pathway. These knobs send a variable amount, a little or a lot of each channel to a single mono output. A send can function as a separate monitor mix and is used forstage monitors. In a recording situation, the send typically goes to an FX unit. The signal is brought back to the mixerby the returns, and can be added to the main signal. A send is effectively a sub-mix. You don’t have to bring back the sends to their returns. You can bring them back to an empty channel and continue to process with EQ, or on to a bus fader. You can use the returns like any other line input, patching in synths, other mixers, computer sound-cards, a CD player, decks and anything else you can think of.

Can you use a live console/mixer for recording to your DAW(digital audio workstation)?

Yes! Use the buses (now you know what they are) to get an isolated signal to your DAW, sound card, or audio interface. They all work the same way. Or use the inserts to connect to the DAW with unbalanced cables (see below and also your mixer manual will explain these). Shut off the global EQ. Things to look for – does the mixer have all the ins and outs you need? Does it have enough buses? Do you need direct outs? How many sends and returns, pre-amps, do you need? How is phantom power implemented? Are all the connections balanced (see below)? Which are not? This is a recording issue and beyond the scope of this article but any good home recording guide will give you the information you need. 90% of the digital mixers now available will do the job well – the size of the mixer, in terms of the number of inputs, is likely to be the variable factor but then – how many channels will you need to record at once?

How Big a Desk Do We Need for our Live Work?

The number of inputs is the key issue but note that 24 channels may only give you 12 analogue inputs and those are the ones you need for your mic’s and any Dis (direct inputs). Bear in mind that if you are mic’ing drums that could involve 3 to 5 mic inputs or more. Behringer typically indicate the specification of the mixer in the model name – for example the Xenyx 2222 has a USB interface (that’s the Xenyx bit), 22 channels, 2 buses and 2 master outs. The 2442 has 24 channels, 4 buses and 2 master outs. The former gives you 10 analogue inputs, the latter 12. Not all manufacturers use such descriptive model names however so be sure to read the specification data first.

Balanced and Unbalanced Cables

The XLR (mic’) lead is balanced, similarly speaker leaders, and the guitar/instrument lead is unbalanced. Three wire system, balanced, and two wire system, unbalanced. In the balanced lead the positive and the negative don’t contact the earth whereas in the unbalanced lead the negative and the earth are one and the same thing. The earth – (ground) is exactly that. The green earth wire goes to a copper stake in the ground so that any short circuit between the positive and earth will send the current to ground, but because the positive and the negative don’t contact the earth it is said to be floating ‘above ground’. The shield acts as a protection from interference by sending any extraneous electrical interference like hum, to ground. Unfortunately in the unbalanced circuit negative is ground! This makes your choice of stage box (multi-core cable) important as good ones feature a built-in ‘ground-lift’ that cancels that irritating hum which can drive sound engineers to distraction – and beers.

Unbalanced

The two signals of an unbalanced connection are referred to as “signal” and “ground”. The ground is the zero reference while the signal has a voltage level that is above or below zero. This voltage level determines whether the signal is a 1 or a 0 (VGA, Audio & Video are Analog signals, the analog signal can have a voltage level anywhere between the high and low voltage levels). Coax cabling reduces exposure to cross-talk.

Balanced

Balanced signals are often called “current loop” signals and travel on “twisted pairs” (UTP for Unshielded

Twisted Pair or STP for Shielded Twisted Pair). The two signals in a balanced pair are like opposite charges of each other. What that means is if one wire has 12 volts, the other wire will have -12 volts. As the signal travels the pair, one wire radiates a magnetic field but as its partner wire generates an opposite field, the two fields cancel out. This cancelling is how balanced signals eliminate ‘cross-talk’. Since Twisted pair wire is usually cheaper then Coax wire, balanced signals are more popular. Make sure that you have the appropriate cables and always have back-up. As with so many things in your live set-up, the cheap buy often turns out to be the most expensive over a period of time but a misplaced boot can swiftly kill the best shielded cable.

Your mixer can make a huge difference to your band’s on-stage sound and getting to grips with it will teach you a lot about sound engineering and how to get the best out of your kit. It can also lead you into the fascinating world of recording – and be a huge help in writing and developing your own songs. Along the way you can discover the fun to be had with samples and other ways to enhance your live sound. Good luck!