The FezGuys
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."

Seen On The Floor

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 VDO.

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 downloadable songs. <>

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 <> demonstrated what 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 commerce.

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.

Letters To The FezGuys

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. - Clayton <>

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! -The Fezguys

May the Fez be with you!

The FezGuys encourage participation in the Internet audio community. Please stop by: <>



About the authors:

Jon Luini is a working technophile, a musician (bass player/singer) with full-blown facility and extensive experience on the Web and no free time. He is a co-founder of IUMA and MediaCast, co-creator of Addicted To Noise, and runs an Internet and music consulting and technology company, Chime Interactive (formerly Evolve Internet Solutions). <>

Allen Whitman is a working musician (bass player/singer/producer) with a keen, real-world interest in the practical use of the Web. Music credits include: The Mermen, "Brine-The Antisurf Soundtrack, biL, Deep Field South, Doormouse, Delectric and Drizzoletto. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, Wired, EQ, Revolution, Yahoo Internet Life, Prosound News, Surround Professional, Replication News and others. <>

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