Five Questions: Alex Case

The AES president talks about new strategic directions for the society and how it finds strength in its membership
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Recording engineer and educator Alex Case has dedicated his career to the advancement of the art and science of audio engineering. He’s a longtime professor of sound recording technology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and a lecturer at universities and conferences around the world.

As president of the Audio Engineering Society, Case has focused on membership engagement and advancing audio within other disciplines. I sat down with Case to learn how the society is evolving with the ways audio pros work today.

I’ve known you since my UMASS Lowell days—a quarter century! How has your long career as an educator shaped your approach to the role of AES president?

Like everyone in audio who wants to remain relevant, I am a lifelong learner. And AES has been the focal point for that constant career-advancing education. Now, given the great honor to serve as President of the Society for a year, I am eager to help AES continue to deliver strong and relevant educational content. This October, we hold another gathering of the audio greats for our International Convention in New York City. There is terrific content lined up! In addition, AES members have hopefully noticed an ever-growing library of online videos we call AES Live. So far, we’ve posted almost 100 recordings of past AES events.

A critical reason for joining and attending AES events is to make friends and build your professional network. I mention this because that is also part of education. It is good for your career to keep in touch with your classmates. They become the core of your professional network; you’ll turn to them for help, and they might hire you one day.

What are the key priorities for the AES in the coming year?

Audio rarely happens in isolation. Today, we engage with media, we don’t just listen. So, AES has deliberately sought out strategically selected partners—organizations, events, and industries—to help advance audio, everywhere it happens. In October, we will share the Javits Center with the National Association of Broadcasters. The content within is all about audio, not in isolation, but in all methods of consumption and enjoyment: music, broadcast, games, film, and more.

AES connecting with other disciplines is a two-way street. It enables those of us keen on audio to help inform experts in other media about ways to make sure their work—their game, their AR experience, their documentary—sounds better. But it also helps us, the audio engineers, understand the technical and artistic challenges they face.

The AES is partnering with the NAMM Show; how will this change the experience of show attendees?

AES@NAMM is another one of those strategic partnerships in which AES seeks to refine the educational experience we deliver, and connect with more folks who share our passion for audio and our hunger to learn. For years, NAMM has had some technical audio content as part of their show, but we are planning, together, to raise the bar. Look for a distinct educational “campus” within the huge and exciting show environment. We’ve peeled off some space connected to, but undistracted by, the other essential activities of the NAMM Show, where we will hold training and educational events focused on live event production and studio recording.

What are the biggest reasons for musicians recording at home to join the AES?

I love that question because I share the trials and tribulations of being an electronic musician who often records at home. Music-making has never been more fully in the hands of the artist—it states the obvious to observe that many of the capabilities of the great studios of the past are now available to us, on our laptops, in our homes. However, we must never confuse the capability to do things—having the tools—with the ability to do things—having the artistic judgment and technical mastery. It is a mistake to build the home studio with tools that seem relevant because other people use them and they seem able to achieve certain things, without also accompanying those acquisitions with serious education and time to then practice and explore. AES gives you access to the people, the manufacturers, and the knowledge they share so that you get beyond the instruction manual and into the advanced musical applications that empower you to express yourself uniquely through informed use of the tools available. AES creates experiences through conventions, conferences, and collaborations with other organizations. And AES serves as a place for audio geeks and audio gurus to stay engaged in between those events, through AES member-only resources like the AES Live video library.

On another note, you recently presented a talk on Prince’s musical use of the studio, at the University of Salford’s conference on the artist. What was your takeaway from that discussion?

Prince made creative use of pitch shifting, generally as an analog effect through tape-speed manipulation in which you record at one speed, but play it back at another. He pushed this technique into interesting places, using pitch shift to fabricate new characters and personas, and fabricating new harmonies and new timbres, even changing his gender into female characters or, at least, bending it toward gender-vague roles that added meaning to his songs.

He took a process available to all artists at the time and, rather than do the obvious, instead saved it for times when the effect, the technique, and the sound were directly tied to a creative need. His mind’s ear first had the goal, and then he and his collaborators worked the studio to get there. He reminds us to keep that Art-over-Tech hierarchy straight.