Friday, November 09, 2007

From the world of Sound

Here is something new for you guys. A good friend of mine and the composer /sound engineer for Trenches, Mark Edmonson, attended the latest Audio Engineering Society convention and did a great write up for it I thought you guys would be interested to read what he had to say. Especially if you are into the industry of sound and technology, but even if you aren't, it's really interesting and the video industry is much in the same boat.

Mark did all the sound work for Pitching Lucas and has uber years of experience in his field of audio. I am so glad he joined me again to work all all things audio for Trenches.

Here is his knowledge and convention coverage notes for your enjoyment.
Take it away Mark!

Report from the 123rd convention of the Audio Engineering Society

Jacob Javitz Convention Center
By: Mark Edmondson

Conventions are a funny thing. In order to truly get a sense of what one has to offer, of its place in the world, one must try to attend a few, year after year. In this way, patterns begin to emerge; what people want, what the industry can (or in many cases, can not) seem to accomplish, and how, year after year, manufacturers manage to stay afloat by (no surprise here) trying desperately to offer higher quality at lower prices, and more importantly, continuing to refine each of their little niches.

And really, if one had to begin thinking of ways to characterize the audio industry of the 21st century, it is just that way- niches. The industry has, it seems, accepted a few things of itself. For starters, the Home Studio is no longer a revolution. It is more than a fact of life, more than a “necessary evil”; it is the standard. The most respectable, and respected, recording artists, producers and directors now perform anywhere from some to all of their audio-related work in some manner of home studio. And the Big Rooms aren’t scoffing any more at those who work in home studios- because they’re… well, they’re sorta gone.

Oh sure, Mix Magazine still manages to have a new picture of some sweet, unbelievably ├╝ber-hip recording space on its cover every month (and one must wonder… where exactly are all those facilities, 6 months after their cover story?). Of course, there will always be a need for the Abbey Roads of the world, to handle those moments when only John Williams and the LSO will do. And maybe, just maybe, the era of the Big Room will make a comeback.

Or then again- maybe not.

For now, the point is that it is no longer seen as anything other than completely and perfectly acceptable- many would say preferable- to hire a freelancer with a Pro Tools system in a town house to perform your sound design, track your band, compose or record your score, master your disk, or even perform full-scale film re-recording, ADR or foley. The tools are just that good, just that reliable, just that affordable.

And if there was one message at AES- it was that the industry isn’t about to sit around and cry about the passing of an era.

Rather than simply embrace the needs of the small/home studio market, audio manufacturers have set out to redefine it, make it… professional.

Virtually every type of system being demonstrated at this year’s AES offers, in some way, shape or form, the ability to be scaled and customized and adapted to small offices, bedrooms, garages- and to give those spaces the same properties and specifications that used to cost millions.

Acoustic treatment, for example: thanks to CAD-assisted acoustic modeling and design, there are now available at least 10 competing systems for acoustically tuning your average 10X12 space to accommodate advanced recording and mixing needs; duties that only a decade ago would have been solved with carpet remnants and egg cartons. Everything from bass traps to HF absorbers to midrange diffusors can now be brought home in a ready-to-install box for about the price of taking the family to a dinner and movie. And man, does this stuff look cool.

Cabinetry, consoles, racks and stands have also turned the corner. These are not your father’s dusty pressboard and laminate gear racks of the 90’s. Today’s consoles are available in virtually every design aesthetic, from classic to modern, of nearly the same sturdiness and reliability of custom-fabricated woodwork.

But in the end, it’s about the gear. And by gear, of course, one means, software.

While there will probably always be some degree of appeal for small, dedicated hardware-based studio recording systems, it is becoming quite clear that for the foreseeable future, studio recording is now the domain of the desktop computer.

Since its inception in the early 90’s, Pro Tools has reigned supreme as the de-facto method of recording and manipulating sound on a computer. However, during this time, not all were enchanted with its system of (relatively) expensive and proprietary hardware cards and rack units; so, for the last decade or so, a large number of very smart, talented people have been developing… perish the thought… alternatives to Pro Tools. And if anything is clear, it is that those alternatives have arrived.

In large part buoyed by simply ridiculous increases in desktop horsepower (a quad core Mac Pro is something like 32 times more powerful than the G5 processors of just 2 years ago), it is now completely realistic to want- expect- a desktop computer, running an alternative system such as Nuendo or Logic Pro, to equal (make that rival) a respectably-stocked Pro Tools HD system… with, um, no additional hardware.

And oh yeah- the Mac Pro is $40,000 less.

Case in point: Apple Computer’s Distributed Audio technology quite literally turns a Gigabit-Ethernet network of Intel Macs into a DSP farm; being infinitely scaleable, this can rapidly be made to outperform even the most high end TDM system.

The added benefit is, of course, that the network itself becomes the processor. Meaning, that simply by virtue of constructing a computer network (weren’t you going to do that anyway?), one creates an audio processor-sharing environment- one that is always on, requires no supervision or task management… it just works.

And who would have guessed that, thanks to an “if the user wants it, it will be coded” mantra, Steinberg’s Nuendo has become, virtually overnight, the film mixing platform of choice? Its offerings of custom macros (and nested macros), combined with its completely programmable and customizable key commands, its compatibility with every single I/O and control hardware made, to say nothing of its integration with the elegant and powerful Euphonix System 5 MC console, is simply too powerful, too accessible, for any creator of TV or film sound to ignore.

Put simply, users want power- gobs of it- and whoa, is it available. The key to power? Scalability and compatibility: let users expand their systems whenever they want, with whatever they want. Don’t make them buy new hardware each time a new Rev comes out. And especially, don’t limit your hardware’s compatibility to one application.

These are areas in which the industry standard, legacy systems, have begun to truly show their “old school” loyalties.

As the concept of the single, large-format mix facility has gone by the wayside, so too has the idea that any one DAW will or could ever meet the needs of everyone. A walk around the floor of the Javitz Center makes one realize, quickly, that committing to any single workflow concept or hardware platform is, frankly, just not a choice people want to be made to make. And starting now, it’s not a choice people have to make. There are just too many options- too many good options, to expect users to want anything other than full compatibility between hardware and software- all of it.

To that end, Solid State Logic quietly announced the release of Pro Convert- which, as it turns out, may very well break more ground, and open the door to complete software universality, than any conforming- or translation utility before it. Pro Convert, rather simply and elegantly, performs a task many had deemed impossible- it converts timeline files, of any DAW format, to a timeline file of any format. Pro Tools to Logic, Nuendo to DP4, Logic to Nuendo… it’s all possible with this dongle-based application (projected price $1000USD). Pro Convert intelligently manages all plugin, automation, MIDI and other data, and asks questions during the conversion process any time it encounters a potential compatibility issue. Been putting off a purchase of that new, super-affordable DAW app because you didn’t know how you would get your Pro Tools files in to it? Go for it.

Long live open standards

As manufacturers once agreed on standards such as ¼” tape, 48V phantom power, and the guitar cord, so have they now hammered out standards such as USB 2.0, firewire, audio file formats like WAV and AIF, interapplication standards like Core Audio and ASIO, VST, XML, SMF, AU… the list goes on. The progressive hammering out of these standards have allowed the computer-based recording world to share the same level of compatibility, and the freedom to choose hardware and software based on needs and budget, as has existed in the analog world for decades.

Manufacturers of DAW’s based on the proprietary hardware concept are realizing their need to not only support open standards, but that any goal of “owning” the recording industry, of establishing “the standard”, is simply no longer realistic. The recording studio of the future will be based on many platforms, all speaking the same language.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

One area which seems to have gained little to no ground is the ongoing debate over how to measure loudness. In a 3-day panel, experts from TC Electronics, the (recently defunct) ITU, Dolby, CBC, and others firmly dug in and held their ground, as they have for the past few years; loudness is too subjective to measure… it’s easy to measure… it’s hard to measure… we should just compress everything, we should all just buy this one box… we should just give up…

If anything did in fact change this year, it was in the length and, at times, pitch of the debate. Short of finger pointing and name-calling, it became clear that no conclusions would be unanimously agreed upon by the end of this year’s panel. With the exception, perhaps, that it may simply be time for the AES to step in, establish some standard (one that many would certainly reject), and encourage the industry to continue moving forward.

If anything, it seems that the current level of disagreement can in large part be attributed to the fact that virtually all those on the panel were, in fact, representing an equipment manufacturer, or at minimum had a vested interest in some piece of gear or code.

One thing’s for sure: where there’s money to be made, there’s an agenda. Or sixty. Hence the loudness debate seems to be something that broadcasters will continue to be forced to shoulder, and push forth on standards, alone, for some time to come.

In that spirit, Dolby Labs has announced their automated quality control system for broadcast, the DP600. Based on the LM100 loudness monitoring technology, it is able to, via network, ingest, correct and output any program content, all in a fraction of real time. Their recent adaptation of the ITU response curve in future iterations of the LM100 might indicate some concession that there are at least a few valid ways to measure loudness, rather than just one.

Dolby was also discussing their soon-to-be released Dolby Volume - a technology aimed at the consumer market that corrects, or “smooths out” uneven broadcast audio levels, while reportedly, not utilizing any form of compression or audible alteration of program dynamic range. Dolby Volume would likely be installed in mid- to premium- priced consumer receiver units, and depending on implementation, may or may not offer any degree of user control. They were clear to point out two key facts- Dolby Volume is not based on the LM100 engine, and, it is not a “loudness button”.

While it remains to be seen whether the LM100 will “win” the loudness debate (or, certainly, at this point, if anyone will win), Dolby is clearly willing to go the long haul and stand behind their unit, and offer support to all customers who choose to utilize this standard.

“Standard”, of course, as in “one, somewhat contested and hotly debated, way of doing it”.

The take home

The real question, always, is this- how does one cull all the information bouncing around the halls of an AES convention, and get a sense of where we’ve been as an industry, and where we’re going? And will that sense be realistic? Will it hold true?

Trying to predict the future of audio is like, well, trying to predict the future. But, one thing is clear: we have turned a few corners.

The Big Rooms have closed; the Home Studio is now just The Studio. Hardware is software, and software is king. Including the word Digital in your company’s name now elicits the response, “um, duh…?” Networks are now multiprocessor grids.

Great stuff. Unfortunately, still nobody can agree on what the word “loudness” even means, much less how to measure it.

The best news is this: despite the decade of fears of the dumbing down of the industry by affordable, accessible computer technology, one thing is clear: no matter how many low-end players enter the market, Pro Audio ain’t going away. In so many ways, the low end is the high end.

But the concept of the convention itself seems geared against making that very type of judgment- so let’s look at this another way. If you realize that you’ve been working a certain way, with a certain toolset for a long time because it suits all of your needs- economically and in terms of productivity- if you are happy, then, by all means do what the “high end” is no longer positioned to scoff upon; keep doing what you’re doing. You’re the small time engineer/mixer/composer, after all, and you’re the sheriff in these parts.

Article by Mark Edmonson