April 2000
KEEPING UP WITH TECHNOLOGY
ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT MEGANCK
A PANEL DISCUSSION, PART 1

by PAUL D. LEHRMAN

In an age when marketing is king, when R&D goes on at an unprecedented pace, and when awareness among the general public of the recording industry and its tools is at an all-time high, perhaps the greatest dilemma facing the professional studio owner is "How do I keep up?" Gone are the days when you could just concentrate on turning out quality product until your equipment wore out, or at least amortized itself. Every few months, a new "revolution" announces itself, and studios have to make instant determinations whether this is the coming thing that will bring new clients (or at least keep the old ones from defecting) or a colossal waste of money.

A year and a half ago, at Mix's first StudioPro conference, the issue of upgrading--when to and when not to--was the subject of a panel I moderated, and I wrote about it in these pages. A broader look at the same subject was the topic of the keynote symposium at the ninth Parsons Expo in November in Wellesley, Mass. Put on annually by Parsons Audio, an independent pro audio dealer in that Boston suburb, the Expo is a kind of mini-AES convention for New England (in fact, one of the scheduled events is the monthly meeting of the Boston AES chapter), and an occasion for folks in all walks of audio--commercial and personal studio owners, live sound engineers, TV audio mixers, educators and manufacturers' reps--to meet and greet, kick some tires, talk about new trends and old friends, and trade war stories.

The 1999 Expo was held just a week prior to the player-piano extravaganza concert I wrote about last month. Despite my frantic schedule, when company president Mark Parsons asked me to moderate the panel on "Keeping Up With Technology," I readily agreed. Loyal "Insider Audio" readers will recall that the last time I moderated a Parsons Expo panel, it was about education, and it went so well that I got a two-part column out of it. This year's topic was even more thought-provoking, and I believe the discussion went even further than the StudioPro98 session, covering some fundamental questions about the future of the industry. Originally scheduled for 90 minutes, the session went well over two hours, and almost nobody in the audience left. There were incisive questions from the floor, lots of laughs and a few surprises. In this month's and next month's columns, I'll present some of the highlights.

The participants came from a wide spectrum of the region's audio community. In the order they sat on the podium:

Andy Munitz, Northeast regional sales manager for Sony;

Jim Anderson, VP of Sound Techniques, one of Boston's top studios for music and post;

Scott Metcalfe, classical recording and mastering engineer, and chairman of the music production and technology department at Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Conn.;

Jonathan Wyner, owner of M Works Mastering in Cambridge, Mass.;

Tom Bates, a legendary independent engineer and consultant who has won eight Grammys, among many other awards;

Michael Bierylo, performer, project studio owner and professor at Berklee College of Music;

Jeff Largent, Academy Award-winning sound designer, head of audio for National Video Boston and a Berklee faculty member;

Allen Smith, chief engineer at Soundtrack, one of the oldest and most respected studios in Boston;

and yours truly, Mr. Insider, PL, the guy in italics.

Mark Parsons started us off with this comment: "I was out with my son's seventh-grade class at Walden Pond in Concord last week. There is a rail line that runs in sight of the pond. It was built in 1841 and was a radical change for the town. Back when Henry Thoreau was spending his two years living in his little hut at Walden, he made some remarks about that railroad. And as we were looking at the pond, one thing he wrote stuck with me: We do not ride upon the railroad. It rides upon us. I think all of us who deal with technology get a little bit of that feeling: We master the tools we work with, but we feel sometimes that they are master of us."

On that note, here's a question to get things rolling. Which of the new technologies that we are starting to deal with now are really important, and which aren't?

Wyner: I've got a question to your question: Important to whom and in what context? Is it important to us, as facility owners, to look at what our clients are asking us for? Clearly, the answer is yes. Are these technologies important to us as creative artists? Since surround opens up so many new possibilities, then in that context, the answer is yes. If we are archivists, trying to create something for posterity's sake, then 96 kHz/24-bit is important, and the answer is yes. But if you try and cross-patch any of those constituencies to other questions, then the answer might be no--all of it is not important to everyone.

Metcalfe: I find that I get really excited about new technologies, and I look at the educational side of my work as a way to legitimize exploring those technologies, which may or may not catch on in the consumer market. But when I put on my studio owner hat, I have to think pretty seriously about what my clients are going to be willing to pay for. I'm convinced that surround sound is really important--I've just done my first two classical projects in surround. But I haven't taken the plunge, so to speak, at my studio, whereas I have at the school. It's great to be able to explore that with the students, but is this really going to take off? Everybody's got these DVD-Video systems, but they've got MP3 players, too. Do they really care about 24/96, or are they just happy with an MP3 player they can plug into their car?

Bates: I would guess that even if surround is not in place within a short period of time, it's coming soon, because there's no definition about future delivery systems that does not have 5.1 incorporated as the standard. Everybody's got to look at it, especially if you're training the next generation of people to do this work.

I divide the new technologies into two categories: things that incorporate new functions and features we've never had before, and things that embody new ways of using features we have had before. Digital tape recorders vs. analog? We can argue which is better, but essentially it's just a new way of doing the same thing. But then there's things like Antares' Auto-tune, which lets you do new things, which ten years ago you would have had to do by hand. A lot of that stuff is good, even if it's something you use once a year to get yourself out of trouble. But unless you sold 20 million of your last CD, somewhere there has to be justification for the expenditure. What solves a problem I actually have vs. what can I afford to pay for this and still buy groceries at the end of the day?

I hate going up and down the aisles at AES and seeing 800 new little black boxes. I don't quite grasp what they do, and I'm not sure I need to do any of those things. It's all got to be work-driven. There's no point answering a question nobody has asked or solving a problem nobody has.

I would encourage you to think about how not all of the important new technology is high technology. We all look at HDTV and go "wow," but if you asked me what actually has had the greatest impact during the last few years in television, it's photofluorescent lighting, which makes stuff look good. If you ask me what has had the greatest impact over the last three years in audio, it's microphones. There's a slew of really great new microphones out there, and they may make a bigger difference to your recordings than that new DAT machine.

Bierylo: I had my surround epiphany this week. I've been reading about surround, seen demos and everything, but then I ran into someone in my condo association who said, "Boy, I've got this surround system at home, and it really sounds great. Are you doing anything with surround?" And all of a sudden it clicked: There's a man on the street who is aware of this and is approaching me. He's not a professional with information, or trying to push it on somebody. He's just saying, "This is great--I'm excited about it." So now I'm interested, because there are a lot of people like him. And I think that's really the answer: When the distribution format becomes common and everybody's on it, then it's useful and interesting. If it's just a bunch of insiders listening to great sound, that's a wonderful thing, but in terms of making a living, that's not where it's at.

Munitz: You can't go into a hi-fi store anymore and buy a stereo receiver. You walk in and say, "My old whatever blew up," and you walk out with a full surround receiver and a new set of surround speakers, and that's all that's available. So it's definitely down to the user level.

But how many of those people are putting their surround speakers in the bathroom and the front speakers in the living room? (Laughter)

Munitz: I would argue that the critical thing is that this new equipment has a chance of evoking newer and potentially stronger emotional responses from people sitting in their homes. I like the fact that they get excited about the media and the fact that we get excited about getting to work with new tools and get emotionally charged up. That's kind of why we're all around, to have fun while we're on the planet. It's a major change, and now a lot of people are getting to have fun with the stuff that we have been having fun with.

Largent: In my business, which is predominantly post-production, we're constantly driven by what can we sell to the client. So our first order of business is to determine if this technology is, in fact, sellable. Can we get a return on it, and can we posture to our clients that, yeah, we have the best stuff and do the best stuff? That's a bit of a dance for us, because half of what we turn to are the older pieces of gear that we know the best. I try and stay as open as I can to new ways, but most of the time, I've got a job to get done, and I've got to get it done fast. So it's more a question of how much more time am I going to spend learning this new tool, and how many more keystrokes is it going to take, and will the client pay for me to take that extra time?

Smith: Our facility does primarily spots. A year and a half ago, we had the first client walk in and say he wanted to mix something in 5.1. And we said, "Uh, we're not ready to do that." But we decided it was time to get prepared. With a great deal of research, we finally put in what we consider a really legitimate, well-equipped 5.1 surround room, and now we're waiting for some client to actually need it.

We have other technologies that we've gone out and gotten, like audio codecs that allow us to record a voice-over from California or London. We put the technology in, and then we had what we called seminars, which were thinly veiled sales-pitch sessions to demonstrate it to the clients. We get them to use it, and eventually they go, "How did we live without it?" But it isn't until we go out and kind of push it on them.

So we have to do a double dance. First, we have to look and say that we think 5.1 is going to be important because HDTV is coming down the pike. Then, our clients are going to come in and say, "Gee, our Toyota commercial was on last night, and the program was in surround, but our spot wasn't." We want to anticipate that and point it out to them just before it happens: You should be letting us mix this in 5.1. But we're not there yet.

If we go back to the advent of stereo, one of the big questions was, is it going to be mono-compatible? What will it sound like coming out of an AM radio in a car? We're way beyond that, but the same transition is in front of us. It's just gone up in scale.

Next month: Digital everything, when good companies go bad, and the role of the press.


Paul Lehrman is editorial director of Mix Online, and is the proud papa of a new record of some very strange music: See www.antheil.org.

These materials copyright ©2000, 2001 by Paul D. Lehrman and Intertec Publishing