After AES 2012: Asynchronous Audio
October 31, 2012 by David Weiss
Out of sync.
From the moment the 133rd AES Convention opened up the showfloor at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, you could feel it: Things were out of place – from the glaringly obvious to the subtly disquieting – that were going to take some thought to work through.
There were plenty of success stories to be found throughout the show, to be sure. Some brilliant new products were released, and with admirably minimal fanfare. People traveled from around the globe to reconnect in person, and potentially productive new friendships were formed. The AES itself worked hard, and hosted many interesting panels, papers and speakers.
But there was a disconnect between the audio world we know and the one that was on display at AES – one that was hard to reconcile.
It would be easy to blame the weather in a big way for the cloud that hung over this year’s convention. Hurricane Sandy impacted a high percentage of exhibitors and attendees, who realized soon after landing in California that we would all face a perilous and unpredictable return journey.
It’s tough to talk shop when sheer survival – yours and your family’s – are occupying your mind. Strategies for returning home, or finding a place to stay in San Francisco before you could hop another plane, kicked off the conversations that were usually focused on the latest and greatest gear.
Others who would have liked to have been there never even made it. Studio owners and manufacturer support staff either found their later-timed flights cancelled out from under them, or decided to stick it out on the home front rather than get stranded.
But everyone knows that fully 50% of AES is about the evening action outside of the convention center. Fortunately, gatherings large and small – held at the Bay Area’s diverse facilities like Tiny Telephone and Studio Trilogy, to Mission District clubs like Brick & Mortar – provided plenty of happy distractions that lasted into the wee hours. (See pics here!)
Missing in Action
Many of the seeds of this year’s misalignment were sown well in advance of the meteorological mayhem, however.
Looking to catch up on the latest offerings from the biggest and/or most influential players that you’d visited with in years past? You’d need sharp eyes to spot representatives from Avid, Apple, Waves, Universal Audio, Apogee, Roland, Mackie, and Yamaha – none of these ubiquitous brands had a booth.
Oddly, the other leading DAW developers – who must surely smell blood in the water as Avid’s financial problems continue to snowball – like Steinberg, Logic, Cakewalk, and MOTU, also all opted out of investing in floor space. You’ll almost undoubtedly see them at NAMM in January, down the road in Los Angeles, but the numbers apparently didn’t add up for converting users at AES.
Which leads to another fascinating oddity: For an industry that’s gone wholeheartdedly, unabashedly, deeply, madly, utterly, in the box, there were very few software developers representing at the show. Audio today is almost wholly dependent on DAWs and the plugins that they host – yet their voice was barely there.
Why was that? Some plugin developers told us that a once-booming business has gone flat at best. Business is not going down, but it’s not going up either. Others acknowledged that Avid’s shakier standing is giving them pause, as they’re increasingly forced to imagine a sales environment without the 800-pound gorilla to sell through to.
Still others explained that the move to 64-bit is forcing them to allocate virtually all coding resources to ensuring that their plugins will continue to work in the next-gen format – creativity will have to wait until they get fully up to speed on the fast-approaching processing platform.
If it was gear lust you came to satisfy, however, there were indeed aisles and aisles of beautiful hardware on display.
Producers and engineers who insist on the character or extreme accuracy that only well-built microphones, monitors, preamps, compressors, EQs, and summing boxes can deliver all found some fresh art objects to aspire to. The excitement around Slate Audio’s Raven – a giant touch-screen control surface that runs DAWs in a very 21st Century way – was palpable. And new 500-series modules once again abounded at every turn.
But this can’t be an easy time for the fiercely dedicated hardware designers that overwhelmingly populated the show floor. While most of their products are truly outstanding, overall demand for studio-grade gear can’t be what it once was: Big studios are being replaced by independent producers who are buying a few choice pieces, rather than one of each like in the good old days.
And, as you may have heard, recording budgets are on a downward trend. So while there may be a bigger pool of potential buyers out there, they have less to spend. And as the box builders saw when they roamed the aisles themselves, there’s plenty of competition from other hardware boutiques for the available 1RU or Lunchbox slot in a songwriter’s personal suite.
Standing at the Crossroads
What it added up to was a tantalizing oasis for every attending sound aficionado who wants something to shoot for – produce a hit, earn a heavy compressor!
But how do you really build that buzz when foot traffic is flat or down, and AES exhibitors are on decline?
An estimated 14,000 attendees registered for the AES this year – the same as attended the last SF show in 2010. That’s 2,000 fewer than visited in NYC in 2011, and 4,000 less than 2009. And the 310 exhibitors who showed up in 2011, were down 17% to just 256 this year.
Hopefully these trends will reverse. But if they don’t, what are you left with? A smaller number of companies meeting with a smaller number of visitors who, for the most part, are hoping to maybe buy their products someday – as opposed to learning more about the tools that they actually use. Which, for the most part, are not exhibiting at the show.
Out of sync.
If anyone gets the crossroads of where the AES is at, it’s incoming president Frank Wells, who has reported on the audio industry for decades and has its growth, rejuvenation, and relevance very much at heart.
We’ll be interested to see his plan for bringing the excitement back to AES, so that attendance is essential, and not something that audio pros do simply out of habit. Tradition is a beautiful thing, and this annual family gathering provides no shortage of heartfelt re-connections. But it can be costly and time-consuming to take part, and people have a right to expect their ROI – otherwise, everyone is going to have to start looking elsewhere.
It may seem like a lot to puzzle out. Fortunately, at least one thing stays true: Plenty more music remains to be made.
– David Weiss
Frank Wells, President of the AES, has responded to this column. You can read his reply here.