Sweetwater Gearfest 2013: Summer's Biggest Audio Technology Event

Although AES and NAMM are among the

Terry Bozzio’s drums on steroids. Although AES and NAMM are among the biggest trade shows in the world for gear manufacturers, they’re not often open to the general public. Instead, they’re places where deals are made with distributors and new products are shown to the press.

Then there is Sweetwater GearFest. Now in its 10th year, the two-day event (June 21-22) takes the best aspects of an MI trade show—master classes, product demos, and concerts—and brings them to the public. But unlike at other trade shows, GearFest attendees can buy the gear they see at a show-only discount price. My favorite examples were Shure SM57s priced at $57 and SM58s priced at $58. You have to physically attend GearFest to get these deals, which means traveling to Sweetwater HQ in Fort Wayne, IN. But the trip is worth it, and the prices and events attract people from all over the world. More than 7,000 attendees pre-registered, and I met visitors from Japan, Germany, and the U.K. during my visit.

Crowds braved sweltering temps for great gear deals. The layout of GearFest ’13 was remarkable: A dozen large tents were set up in Sweetwater’s massive parking lot, each filled to the brim with gear. Manufacturer reps were on hand to answer questions and share production techniques. This year there were four Pro Audio tents, where you could find everything from mics and preamps to iOS-related gadgetry and digital storage devices. Two tents were dedicated to electric guitars, one to acoustic guitars, and one to drums. One of the largest tents, Electronic Production, was home to a variety of hardware and software manufacturers including Ableton, Moog, Korg, Line 6, Vestax, M-Audio, Native Instruments, and Arturia, among many others. At the center of the tent was a DJ station where demos and concerts were ongoing throughout the weekend.

The reputation of GearFest has grown in influence to the point where many major manufacturers launch products during the show. This year the big news was Avid’s announcement of the availability of Pro Tools 11. Not surprisingly, Avid had the highest visibility of any manufacturer at the event, with workshops stretching from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each day, on topics ranging from video post-production techniques using Pro Tools 11 to “Getting Studio Sound Quality Live” using the Venue console. I sat in on “Pro Tools 11 A-Z for Experienced Users” in Sweetwater’s Russ Berger-designed Studio A control room, and was knocked out by every aspect of the presentation—sound quality, vibe, and depth of instruction.

Working the Electronic Production tent. In addition, there were master classes by leading producers and engineers including Chris Lord-Alge, Frank Filipetti, and Jack Douglas; performances by top musicians such as bassist Billy Sheehan, guitarist Brent Mason, and percussionist Terry Bozzio; and product-related workshops from PreSonus, iZotope, Mojave Audio, Vox, MOTU . . . just about every major brand that Sweetwater handles. There’s no way to see it all in two days, but it was fun trying.

And if that wasn’t enough, a flea market tent brought in used products from regional attendees. That’s where I found a 1920s, 28" Ludwig bass drum and matching concert snare (all with original calf heads), among tons of vintage amps and guitars. A few steps away, Sweetwater held its “open box” tent, where prices were slashed on demo units and closeout items of everything from Gibson and Fender guitars to stompboxes and digital interfaces. Attendees could also win new gear, with winners announced on an hourly basis.

This was my first time attending the Sweetwater GearFest, and it was so much fun that I’m already holding the weekends at the end of June 2014 open in anticipation of next year’s event. It wasn’t a bad way to spend the Summer Solstice.