AES 2001:

Minuscule Mints Wrapped in Flags,
Speakers Speaking About Speakers


Ferry 'cross the Hudson

Audio Industry Regroups, Retrenches at Rescheduled 111th Convention

Standard Disclaimer: This dispatch is not intended to be objective reporting, nor should it be mistaken for such. It is the viewpoint of one person, an independent radio producer and veteran journalist who is also a DIY recordist, and who therefore approached the Audio Engineering Society Convention from her own unique perspective.

Disclaimer about the Standard Disclaimer: In actual fact, she approached the AES Convention from Hoboken via NY Waterway Ferry.

By Janet Dagley Dagley
jdd@biglisten.com

As some of you may recall from our last exciting episode in September, 1999, when the AES was last held in New York, the exhibit floors overflowed with a cornucopia of newer and better and cheaper gear than ever before, for home recordists and pro studios alike. And in the meeting rooms downstairs, many longtime industry pros worried about how to keep the rising flood of home recordists from eroding the very bedrock of their profession.

Two years and two months later — the convention had to be rescheduled from its original Sept. 21–24 dates after the terrorist attacks — I’m delighted to report that while this year’s audio harvest festival upstairs was more subdued in keeping with the season’s less-than-bumper crop, the conversations downstairs indicated the audio world is not only regrouping and reassessing, but maturing gracefully as it continues its transition from a manufacturing-based to a service-based industry. Even in the midst of recession, engineers are beginning to see opportunities where they once perceived only threats from the sweeping changes of the digital revolution. Despite the respectfully somber tone of the times, some of the top names in the business sounded downright optimistic about their own — and the industry’s — future.

The exhibit floor at an audio convention is one of the worst places to listen to audio, as it’s hard to hear much of anything with all that noise bouncing around in the background. This year the overall decibel level was a bit lower, what with fewer exhibits and fewer people perusing them, even though the AES offered free exhibit passes to all comers in recent weeks. The swag (promotional freebie) offerings have diminished as well. None of those rolls of mints in the shape of KM-180 series microphones at the Neumann booth this time — just a small dish of individually wrapped mints. More mints, some in American-flag wrappers, at many other booths as well — if anybody at this year’s AES had bad breath, it wasn’t for lack of remedies.

Discretedrums.com, the drum-sampling company that also hosted Roland rep Laura Tyson’s demonstrations of the VS-2480 digital audio workstation (since there was no Roland booth), gave away numerous very nice pairs of drumsticks. None of those heavy canvas Yamaha tote bags this year — no Yamaha booth, for that matter — although Genelec did offer a nice tote, made of thinner cloth festooned with a lovely color depiction of what appear to be a couple of cartoon mice canoeing in a sea of icebergs, promoting its “Active Monitoring” system. And in a sense, that bag was emblematic of this year’s gathering: a bit thinner than the convention freebies of yesteryear, but still strong, featuring an image of smooth sailing through perilous waters to plug the most-talked-about category of gear this season: speakers, both studio and consumer.

Many vendors pulled out after the rescheduling of the convention, necessary because the Javits Center was being used by emergency crews in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, citing commitments elsewhere, and the original keynote speaker also had a scheduling conflict, as did past AES President Marina Bosi and others attending a meeting of the MPEG standards group on the other side of the globe. Floyd E. Toole of Harman Industries stepped in to substitute with a back-to-basics address that turned out to be perfect for the occasion. “The final arbiter of quality is a listening test — but how do we know what caused the sound to be good or bad?” Toole said audio engineers are “trapped in a circle of confusion” because there are no rigorous standards for studio monitors — or consumer monitors, for that matter. “This is equivalent to doing measurements with uncalibrated instruments,” he said. “This circle of confusion can only be broken if professional and consumer speakers sound similar.”

Toole used a visual analogy, with a slide of an oil painting that turned out a bit greenish because the painter had seen too much red when creating the artwork. “A simple measurement could have prevented this problem.,” he said.

Using graphs showing the responses of an assortment of pro and consumer speakers costing from $300 to $11,000 a pair, measured in an anechoic chamber, with some (but not most) of the cheaper speakers doing better than some (but not most) of the more expensive ones, and no indication that speakers labeled “pro” or “monitors” were any better than those labeled for the consumer market.

“What the average person hears is getting better and better,” Toole said. Some of the cheapest mini-stereo systems, complete with CD burners, cassette decks, and AM/FM radios for as little as $150, performed comparably to expensive “pro” monitors. Some didn’t.

“We’ve spent too much of our energy worrying about wires, or whether we can hear 50 kilohertz,” Toole told his colleagues.

But even if there were a standardized measurement for speakers, and even if the industry adhered strictly to them, Toole pointed out that there is yet another variable even more important than speakers: the room, whether in a pro studio or a listener’s home. “The personality of the room overwhelms the personality of the speaker, Toole said. “We have to work on the loudspeaker/room/listener interface,” he said. “We need to learn more about room acoustics, and combine that knowledge with use of parametric EQ. We have most of the science, but we need to teach it more widely, and be MUCH more diligent about applying it.”

Other engineers echoed Toole’s call for speaker standards in several other workshops, in keeping with the unofficial “back to basics” theme of the convention. In a world where the unimaginable has just happened, where other even more unimaginable events may lie ahead, the laws of physics can indeed be a comfort. Every wave, not just a sine wave on an oscilloscope, has a peak and a trough, and so must the current economic slowdown as well as the upheavals brought about by the digital revolution.

On my way into the center on the second day of the show, I overheard a comment by a home recordist that summed up the mood of the show: “…But as bad as I have gear lust, I think instead I should…”

I can certainly identify. Gear, especially new gear, most especially expensive new gear that costs a lot and improves the sound a little, has moved down more than a few notches on our own priority list this year. Yes, President Bush and Mayor Giuliani have urged us all to go out and spend patriotically, but even so, many of us have no alternative but to scale back. We have plenty of company in that, both among home recordists such as ourselves as well as pro studios that have overextended themselves to keep up with digital inflation (can anybody hear the 192kHz difference?), only to have the bills come due just as CD sales reach an all-time low.

For home recordists every bit as much as for those who make their living with audio, it’s time to pay more attention to the gear we already have, and learn how to use it better. That starts with a piece of equipment that almost all of us have, even the little old lady with the decades-old clock-radio for whom radio engineers must ensure that even a mono signal comes across clearly: the room in which we listen.

Meanwhile, even in this lean year, there’s some great new gear out there, from Neutrik’s no-pop phone plugs to Neumann’s new $10,000 digital microphone, and of course digital audio workstations such as the Roland VS-2480, which with its new improved preamps and full-color-monitor/mouse interface is less expensive than the sum of its parts. And it was no coincidence that Laura Tyson was stationed in the Discrete Drums booth, since that company’s multitrack live drum samples, recorded at a top Nashville studio with Neumann mics and Neve consoles, are not only a bargain but a great alternative for home recordists such as Roland VS users.

I’ll be posting more on all that, as well as other convention highlights, in the coming days here at BigListen.com.

Next report: Bob Katz of Digital Domain asks, “How can we as pros recommend you go to a mastering house when nine out of 10 CDs sold today sound worse than a 45-rpm single on recycled vinyl?” as he and other golden-eared pros discuss the changing role of the mastering engineer. Click here to go to Part 2.

Janet Dagley Dagley has been an associate member of the Audio Engineering Society since 1999. She and her husband, Michael Dagley, also known as the Bohemian Hillbillies, have just released their first CD, Once Removed, available at CD Baby:

http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/bohemhill as well as Amazon.com

 

 


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