AES 141 Los Angeles Introduction
When you write for a top drawer publication like Enjoy The Music.com, you fly first class. Here's the view from the pool area of my hotel - shades of Blade Runner.
The Audio Engineering Society (AES) meeting has a very mellow, relaxed vibe compared to the frenzy that is the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) or indeed any high end audio show. It is a fraction of the size of that behemoth. You could easily see all the exhibits at AES in a morning whereas seeing all the exhibits at CES is physically impossible -- just too many exhibits. Besides, Las Vegas in January, where CES is held, is positively arctic. Whereas today in Los Angeles, we lived up to our reputation and it was lovely, warm and mild.
AES is a meeting of the guild for pros to swap experiences and make new business connections. The atmosphere is one of quiet seriousness. Oh sure, the equipment makers would like to sell you stuff like at any trade show but there's also a lot of hail fellow, well met as old friends run into each other. That's the big difference with CES where most of the attendees don't know each other. At AES there's nothing but people who've known each other for a lifetime.
You might suddenly find yourself sitting next to Bob Margouleff listening to John Storyk give of his four decades of experience building recording studios, starting with Jimi Hendrix's Electric Lady or Lady as she's affectionately known. OK, I am not a member of the guild. I am just a squirelly amateur who had never heard of Bob Margouleff before I sat next to him. He gave the keynote speech at the One Hundredth and Twenty Ninth AES titled What the Hell Happened? (this year's AES being One Hundred and Forty One). He is Stevie Wonder's engineer and a pioneer of the synthesizer (he was a buddy of Moog), which he programmed for Mr. Wonder. Is that Stevie going up the up escalator as you go down the down escalator? Why yes. Yes it is. That is the kind of place AES is. Living legends around every corner.
That's another big difference with CES: the presence of live musicians. They're all over the place performing. How else are you going to show off your latest microphone? Whereas CES is all about recorded music so the music is mostly canned. The BURL guys were startled when I told them I used the BURL digital to analog (D/A) converter to listen to Compact Discs (CD). Why would you do that? they asked wonderingly. Their main thing is converting analog to digital (A/D). I mean they convert their Long Playing records (LP) to digital before listening to it (on digital loudspeakers). They live digital. To them, I was an analog dinosaur that had magically appeared out of the mists of antiquity.
Everywhere you look there are consoles, consoles, consoles whether of the real kind or a virtual image on a wide display. Everything is Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) these days. The thought of recording with just two mics and taking the feed directly to an analog tape recorder would seem outlandish to these folks. No-one, but no-one records that way anymore. (There is a wild rumor going round that some madman is setting up such a studio, but I wouldn't put any store in it.) Now it's all about tracking and mixing. Yeah, and compressing and EQ'ing. Yet straight to two track (or maybe three) is how recordings were made in what audiophiles consider to be the Golden Age of records.
One thing has not changed. The acoustic in which you record is paramount. Hot tip from John Storyk. Do not. Repeat DO NOT perch your monitors on top of your console. The sound reflecting off the console results in a millisecond delay which acts a comb filter that will totally foul up your mix. Put your monitors on stands just behind the console or mount them on the wall. Just anywhere but on top of the console. Here is the chart to prove it.
John's talk was titled Living the Dream: Project Studios at Both Ends of the Spectrum. Why We Still Want Them and WHY We Still Need Them. And he really meant both ends. One studio he flashed on the screen was an old trailer that had been lined with some foam. Yet the young lady who owned it made a very nice living doing voiceovers. She had an excellent mic (a Royer) which she kept covered with a sock when not in use. Very important that. Do not leave your mic exposed when not in use. Either cover it with a sock or better yet, put it away in its case. Water and dust are your enemy.
I do not think John really addressed the question WHY We Still Need Them, but no matter. He gave of four decades of savvy. His laser like focus was on getting the acoustic right. And yet he said that architecture must come first (he is an architect by training). Music making is a product of the nervous system and even if the acoustic is perfect, you will get the better results if the musician feels comfortable in the environment.
(Tangent: Motown is the exception that proves the rule. Famously, a basement was the studio. Acoustically lousy, yet it was a hit factory. Quick - which band has outsold the Beatles, Stones, the Who and Elvis COMBINED? The Funk Brothers. They were Motown's in house band and their beating heart was James Jamerson, the greatest bass player ev-ah. Played the bass on Marvin Gaye's What's Going On - flat on his back. ‘nuff said.
OK. Tangent to a tangent. Explorer in deepest darkest Africa hears ominous drums in the distance and turns nervously to his guide:
What are those ominous drums in the distance? What do they portend? What's goin' on?
Guide: Relax, Bwana. Only the brothers practicing drums.
This goes on for several iterations with the guide calmly reassuring the explorer each time that all is well - until the drumming stops. The guide turns white as a ghost and his eyes are big as saucers.
Explorer: What? What now? Why are your eyes as big as saucers and why have you turned white as ghost? What's going to happen now?
Guide: Bass solo.
In a big room, standing waves are a non-issue. In a small room (which means most rooms these days), standing waves are the only issue. This applies equally to your audiophile listening room.
All the rooms John showed were dominated by the big console. His life revolves around how to fit the big console into the recording studio. His ideal was to put the speakers in the glass cuz the control room has to have glass so the engineer can see what is going on the studio. Or does he? Some of the greatest recordings ev-ah were done in a studio where the console was housed in a trailer outside the recording room. No amount of isolation treatment beats actual isolation.
It's striking how it's just taken for granted that the studio will have a big console. Does it ever occur to anyone to try minimal miking so that the musician is in charge of the mix? Well, I guess when you've got product to put out you can't afford that luxury. I get it. It's reassuring to think We can fix it in the mix.
According to John, when isolating a room, you can either go rigid on the ceiling or float it. Rigid is cheaper, but there's a limit to the size of the ceiling. Beyond that you have to float the ceiling.
And remember to plug the back of the outlets! Otherwise you've just blown all that expensive isolation. The devil is in the details as in any construction project only moreso. He also talked about what he called social solutions. So instead of building a super expensive isolated room in an apartment building in mid town Manhattan, move to a forty acre farm in Woodstock. No need to block out the incessant noise of Manhattan then and you've solved the isolation problem with a social solution.
After you've isolated your room, you have to tame it's internal sonics. In a big room, that means minimizing standing waves. There are formulas for calculating the dimensions which will result in minimal standing waves or you can just use this handy chart. (Just make sure your room falls into the shaded area.) John didn't think much of the Golden Ratio. Take that, George Cardas!
There are only three ways to treat a room: Absorption, Reflection, and Diffraction. Use a mirror to determine the spot where the first reflection lands. Have an unindicted co-conspirator slide the mirror along the wall until you can see your speaker. Put up some absorptive material there.
John's talk dovetailed perfectly with George Augspurger's talk on History of Studio Acoustic Design. It was a disgrace. Firstly, they exiled poor George to Siberia. Secondly, turnout was disgraceful. The hall was barely twenty percent full. People, we're talking the leading acoustician in all of the United States of America. Digital has conquered all. Digital is king. Everything's done in the box. Musicians? What musicians? We don't need no lousy musicians! Why worry about acoustical space when all your musicians are electrons?
George once deigned to check out my humble listening room which being a converted garage was the dreaded square room. Asking George to check out a home listening room is like putting Albert Einstein to work as a dishwasher. After a few minutes with his handy frequency analyser, George fixed the one note bass problem (temporarily) by hanging up some blankets in a strategic position. His suggested long term solution was to get some big honking Tube Traps. The biggest they make. I've since moved on to another life and another listening room, but I still remember the magic that is George Augspurger. Amazingly, he still uses the hanging blanket treatment.
In this report, each manufacturer gets a separate page, however we have grouped the pages into sections of related stuff. Excepting the D/A got lumped together as did the schools.