Report On The AES 1997 Conference in NYC or
The Frantic Audio Fanatic Finds Peace At Last, In Chaos
[ No. 13 - November 1997 ]
"It's only audio...there's no lives at stake." - Geof Lipman
(avant-garde classical guitarist)
A hundred years ago, an elite group gathers in a private club to
discuss the infant magic of sound storage and reproduction. Maybe they
smoke cigars and wear waistcoats, from which hang heavy watch chains.
Two camps are represented. The scientists (for surely they are) have
tortured hair and bright eyes. The capitalists have big guts and an
appetite for turning concept into cash. Imagine in the daguerrotype of
your mind's eye.
Now, in a fluorescent-lit, underground concrete room the size of a
small battlefield thousands of poorly dressed hucksters do a bark and
shamble dance while avoiding each others' eyes. Inflated with the
atmosphere of their employers' reputation they strut and posture,
displaying hierarchical rules reminiscent of pack animals on the great
African Veldt two ice ages past. Common sense and common kindness are
behaviors from another culture, time and planet. It's year number one
hundred and three of the Audio Engineering Society's (AES) annual
conference and tradeshow. And it's in New York, New York.
Outside the notorious Javits Hall, a ziggurat of giant glass blocks
next to the Hudson River in the desolate lower West Side of Manhattan,
it's a beautiful end-of-summer day. Lou Reed, in shades, walks by.
There are long lines of women and men waiting for terrifying cab
rides. Inside the echoing halls phalanxes of grey-clothed people press
flesh and agendas.
On the large and active tradeshow floor, the net-based business
presence is low. Telos (manufacturers of Audioactive), Liquid Audio,
Waves, EDNet and Sonic Foundry (developers of Sonic Forge) are
sprinkled widely around a hall full of the standard audio industry
players like Sony, Quantegy, Neve, Meyer, JBL and a host of others. An
employee of Progressive Networks (an organization conspicuous in its
absence) wanders by and, when asked, tells us she "doesn't know" why
the company is not exhibiting this year.
The president of AES, Elizabeth Cohen, is observed on a television
monitor near a booth featuring multi-colored audio cable. She is being
interviewed about AES's ability to respond to the needs of the audio
industry. She uses the term "Internet time" to imply the speed with
which the AES operates. But few Internet related exhibiters are
present. Perhaps the audio community will catch up with their trade
groups' expressed mission soon. Almost every company includes in their
marketing strategy a website and email access. Organizations are
finally understanding that direct communication via the Internet is
critical to survival in marketing to a user base, as well as a cheaper
way to distribute product spec sheets and contact info. Ever try to
call the customer service line at an audio behemoth like Yamaha?
We spend a couple of nights in Bensonhurst, a section of Brooklyn near
Coney Island, at a small convent, hosted by a gracious nun. While
eating breakfast we listen to Zamfir. On the coffee table is an issue
of the Yahoo monthly magazine (this nun is wired) featuring an
interview with The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. The Artist is
asked if The Artist feels the Web is the death of the record industry.
The Artist says: "The writing is on the wall."
Waves Inc., from Tel Aviv, Israel, shows their gleaming new
streaming/server box: the Galim. Galim means "waves" in Hebrew. It's
a stand-alone netcasting box featuring an audio pre-processor with EQ,
de-esser, compressor and limiter. It also encodes the audio for
streaming and becomes the host server. All this in one 4-U rackmount
box. The ship date is the first quarter of 1998 and, as of this
writing, the price has not been set. The demonstration box we saw
supports RealAudio. The engineers say it will soon support Netshow and
This is a very interesting hybrid of audio and computer technology.
Imagine walking into an on-location netcast production and simply
attaching audio and video feeds to one end of the box and ISDN lines to
the other. Ostensibly the Galim will condense hardware for onsite
producers. We were curious whether or not this box would support
sending directly to a remote server on high bandwidth instead of having
to go through the server on the same machine. This was not known.
When asked about the commercial viability of the Galim, at this stage
of the audio industry's Internet acceptance, one Waves engineer
advised: "Once there's competition there's business."
Telos (an accepted authority on compressing audio for distribution over
phone lines) displayed two items of particular interest. The Omnia, a
3-U rackmount box with a Dali-esque molded faceplate, optimizes audio
signal prior to streaming. The Audioactive box (1-U rackmount) is the
MPEG Layer-3 based encoder. One useful aspect of the latter box is the
ability to monitor signal while scrolling through various bitstream
rates. One can easily tell the difference in audio quality between
transmission over standard phone lines and digital data lines. Both
Telos boxes are solidly built and easy to use, with high quality audio
touches such as XLR connectors instead of the tiny 1/8" audio inputs
typically seen on computers.
Anyone from the audio community winces at the thought of music
transported over phone lines. It's sobering to think how hard the few
Internet-based audio companies are working to make clean audio flow
over a voice phone network. The tools are starting to arrive, enabling
the independent musician to successfully run their own show. We've got
our work cut out for us.
Liquid Audio, in an alliance with Capitol Records, released Duran
Duran's recent single as digital downloadable music available only on
the Web. Mainstream labels are experimenting in the commerce of
At a Saturday afternoon conference entitled: "Networks and Interactive
Audio" a standing-room-only crowd crammed in to see Thomas Dolby
Robertson (Headspace's CEO) demonstrate, in a sharply truncated thirty
minutes, some of his company's technologies such as Beatnik, RMF and
something he called "Hypermusic." (See EQ cover story June 97 on
Robertson and Headspace) The former pop star has generated a lot of
interest in the Internet audio community with Beatnik. The technology
sends tiny RMF files back and forth instead of unweildy compressed
audio thereby speeding up the process, lowering the number and size of
tools necessary and guaranteeing identical sound quality at the other
end. Robertson told the crowd he is providing a flexible technology
for musicians to impress their own imprint upon. Anyone interested in
experimenting with the Beatnik editor might just end up being the
featured artist for the week on their site. Download the software at
Aric Rubin of Res Rocket Surfer
he called a "Distributed Realtime Groove Network" in which musicians
jammed in realtime via MIDI from widely disparate locations such as
Greece, England and upstairs. Res Rocket is more about social
interaction of the musical community than on technology. It's pretty
damn cool, actually, that their focus is creating opportunities for
musicians to meet and play together. An online chat window displayed
amusing simultaneous text conversation between the participants during
the creation of the music. Of course, the term "music" is used
loosely. Even Aric, upon being informed that the sessions were being
archived for the AES website, was heard to say: "Oh No! You're
recording this?" There was much laughter and genuine applause. The
Res Rocket Surfer client software debuted in mid-August and is
downloadable from their website.
Back on the show floor an employee of venerable Dolby Labs was heard to
ask: "How is anyone going to make money on the Net?" How indeed? We
wager there are many of you out there who are doing it right now.
While talking to several enthusiastic attendees from the mid-Atlantic
states we heard stories of independent musicians selling thousands of
CDs via mail-order using only the Web as promotion. No record
company. No collection society. No middle-men. That's a start.
Inexpensive multitrack hard disk recording systems and CD burners make
it clear an independent musician can supply music on demand to
listeners desiring to buy. Fulfillment based on individual demand is a
lot more affordable and efficient then standard record company business
methods. You don't need a warehouse. A musician now finds they can
make a comfortable living with a higher margin and lower overhead. The
blindly accepted economics of scarcity do not have to apply in Web
Downstairs, representatives of colleges and schools of music offered
literature and educational resources for the audio professional of the
future. Of course, even Ray Dolby (an Audio God if there ever was one)
said he was glad he "didn't have the disadvantage of being corrupted by
a formal education." Instead, as a teenager fresh out of high school,
he worked with the respected scientist Alex Poniatoff in developing the
prototype to todays' VCR record/playback head.
All things are possible.
Dear Fezguys - Just finished your September article and thought that
the time has come for creating a site for independents to produce and
distribute their works. I have the means and the access to do this and
would appreciate any input you might have. Thoughts about contract
terms, length of agreements, cost per track downloaded, special
features (like custom burning of a CD), who does and does not get on
line and who would make that decision...let me know what you think. -
Dear Clayton - Great! Go to
and enter the threaded discussion area where all manner of information
regarding your queries are being considered. Thanks for your letter!
May the Fez be with you!
The FezGuys encourage participation in the Internet audio community.
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