AES—your friends will yawn, roll their eyes, or make some tired joke about uber-geeks when you mention that you're attending this convention. To many, the event conjures a meeting of old white men in lab coats trying to outdo each other with increasingly complicated differential equations.
In reality, the Audio Engineering Society convention is an exciting mix of educational seminars, research-paper readings, star-studded panel discussions, studio tours, and, best of all, a tradeshow where manufacturers unveil new and sometimes groundbreaking technologies that change how we record, mix, master, and deliver music.
This year, the tradeshow seemed smaller than ever: Notably absent were many of the big-name manufacturers and software developers whose products are pro-audio staples. Nonetheless, the companies that did attend took advantage of the record crowds to get the word about their products and technologies.
AES 2013 in NYC didn't open with a bang: It was a stampede. Despite having fewer then 10 rows of exhibitors, and the feel of a smaller show than ever, the excitement in the Javits Center was palpable. And this was in the near absence of any announcements of major products.
The biggest press conference of the bunch was from API, which unveiled The Box, a "project console" capable of summing 16 channels while packing four inputs (mic, instrument, line), 4 aux sends, a pair of built-in 550A EQ modules, 2 additional 500-series slots, a stereo bus compressor, and many other features. Priced below $18k, it'll appeal to a niche in the market that few other mainstream manufacturers are supporting.
We also got a closer, in-depth look at Nectar 2 and RX2 from iZotope, both of which look quite powerful. As does the newly re-launched System 6000 from Dynaudio, which has separated its processing algorithms into four task-specific packages: Music 6000, Film 6000, Mastering 6000, and Broadcast 6000.
Two new products that I'm looking forward getting into the studio are ribbon mics: Coles has introduced the 4038L ($1,099 MSRP), which they refer to as an "entry level ribbon mic." Don't read that comment to mean that it's inexpensively made off-shore. The 4038L boasts a frequency response of 50Hz-20kHz, feels solidly built, but is much lighter than the classic 4038. My curiosity is piqued.
I was also happy to have a chance to get my hands on the AEA N22 (shown here with AEA founder Wes Dooley), an active (phantom-powered) ribbon mic with a custom transformer that is priced well under a grand. The N22 is designed for personal studios and will work with the lower-gain preamps you find in low- to mid-priced audio interfaces. Nonetheless, this promises to be a excellent-sounding mic.
Among the surprises at the show was a little box in the Little Labs booth called Pepper: Although in its early stages of development, it was described by Jonathan Little as a DI/pedal interface that has two output transformers providing discrete processed and dry signal paths, with pro-level send-and-return functionality. It should be perfect for instrumentalists who want to have parallel control over their effects while maintaining a high level of audio quality that is suitable for recording or gigging. We'll have to wait until NAMM to hear it.
A lot of attention was being paid to the Avid S6, a modular and customizable control surface that utilizes high-speed EUCON Ethernet connections for DAWs that support the protocol (Pro Tools, Nuendo, Cubase, Logic). Our demo was based around a Pro Tools session, of course, which clearly showed off the controller's touch screen workflow and detailed metering. The multi-color LCDs in the touch-sensitive knobs and buttons reflect the tracks and effects you're working on. Overall, the S6 feels very well thought-out, ergonomically speaking, with an emphasis on visual feedback that makes it fairly easy to navigate the controls.
Another hit of the show was the Neumann TLM 107 ($1,699.95), a multi-pattern, large-diaphragm condenser mic that the company is positioning towards the project studio market. The mic's frequency chart shows that it has a fairly flat response across much of its range, but with a slight presence peak that was surprisingly mellow sounding and not harsh on sibilants (which was fairly easy to tell even at a noisy tradeshow). The TLM 107's pad, lowcut filter, and polar patterns are selected with a multidirectional switch, like the kind you find on a digital camera, located on the back of the mic—easy and intuitive to use. And, the mic saves the most recent settings when you power it down.
Prism Sound unveiled Titan, an 8x8 USB audio interface with preamps and converters that are based on the company's high quality Orpheus interface. The Titan has an MDIO expansion slot which can be used to host a Pro Tools HDX card, for example. Additional features include a pad on each preamp and ADAT I/O in the mixer. Titan is priced just under $5k.
Sony's recent announcement of high-resolution PCM and DSD players for the consumer market was on the minds of many AES attendees, because it shows music industry support of high-end audio is just around the corner. To round things out on the content creation side, Sony introduced the PCMD100, a hand-held digital recorder that creates DSD (2.8MHz), PCM (up to 192kHz), and MP3 files, but can also playback WMA, AAC, and FLAC files. With its pair of condenser mics in an X/Y pattern, the PCMD100 can record a PCM and MP3 file simultaneously. Our editorial team heard recordings at the show that were made with this device and we were highly impressed by the overall sound, especially the solid low end that it captured when used on a set of drums.
Dangerous Music brought out the Dangerous Compressor ($2,799 street), a dual compressor with stereo linkable channels, auto attack/release, dual-slope detection, low-cut, and a side-chain input that can be individually monitored.
Cloud Microphones not only showed its 44-A active ribbon with its switchable highpass filter onboard, but it introduced the CL-4—a 1U box that houses four of the company's Cloudlifter modules. The Cloudlifter is a very handy device that adds 25dB of gain to any dynamic or ribbon mic before sending the signal to you preamp, making it perfect for bringing your ribbon mic up to a usable level when you're using low-cost digital interfaces. Now you use four of them in one convenient package!
Slate Digital was demonstrating its Virtual Mix Rack, a software plug-in that resembles a rack of 500-series modules and essentially provides a reconfigurable voice channel within a single plug-in slot: up to 8 modules can be loaded in one virtual rack. Making up the first four modules is a pair of EQs modeled after British console EQs (Neve and SSL, I suspect) and a pair of compressors, both of which sounded very good during the demo. Slate Digital promises more modules will be announced soon.
In the world of hardware 500-series modules, we found the Focusrite Red I mic preamp, which features a stepped input gain control (in 6dB increments), a Lundahl LL1538 input transformer, and a custom Carnhill output transformer. It was also great to see that Earthworks is now shipping its lunchbox-based preamp, the 521 ZDT, which is based on its popular ZDT Zero Distortion Preamplifiers.
Mercury Recording has entered the field of 500-series products with its G810 Rack. Using an external power supply, the G810 has a power regulation system that isolates each channel from the others. The units Chain switches allow you to internally route signals from one module to the next, while the Link switches will link modules that offer that feature. The I/O utilizes XLR connectors and a D-sub port.
One especially useful software tool could be found in the Sonnox pod at the Avid booth: Codec Toolbox is a plug-in that allows you to audition your mix through a variety of data compression formats in real time so you can compare the results to the unprocessed audio. Although it offers fewer features than the Sonnox Fraunhofer Pro-Codec, Codec Toolbox costs only $49! And, of course, it can encode and decode audio files, as well as perform batch processing, allow you to edit metadata, and encode iTunes+ files on the Mac.
Keep an eye on Electronic Musician magazine and emusician.com for more information about the products shown at this year's AES convention.