The Gap Narrows
Dan Goldstein and Paul Wiffen go down and out in Beverly Hills - and drop in on America's biggest recording convention along the way. Within its walls, a quiet revolution is taking place...
This year's AES convention in Los Angeles didn't just give equipment manufacturers a chance to show off their latest innovations. It gave further evidence that the distinction between the music and recording industries is becoming almost impossible to draw.
COMPARED TO A MUSICAL instrument exhibition like the NAMM Expo, the Frankfurt Musikmesse or the British Music Fair a recording convention like AES has a number of obvious differences.
To begin with, it's a lot smaller. November's AES show occupied a relatively small area of space on two floors of the Los Angeles Convention Centre, plus a few rooms at the Hilton Hotel a few blocks away.
Second, it's likely to be a great deal quieter. Strict rules governing sound levels on stands were enforced throughout the show, so most demonstrations relied on banks of headphones for interested attendees. The exception to this rule was the upper level and Hilton demo rooms, where a decent level of soundproofing enabled exhibitors to make a bigger audible show of their products' capabilities.
But a recording show like AES also exudes a kind of quiet affluence. Wandering around the exhibits, you get the feeling that a lot of serious business is being done here, an impression that's reinforced by a quick glance at some of the exhibitors' price lists. Despite the increasing sophistication of hi-tech music products, recording equipment still rates as the costliest sector of the music business. And visitors to AES who owned recording studios (or who were making purchasing decisions for owners) seemed to have quite a bit of money at their disposal.
But at this latest AES convention, there were plenty of signs that the above differences are becoming little more than superficial. Because in terms of the kind of innovations that were on show and the kind of people they were aimed at, it was clear that the barriers between the recording and music production sides of this industry are crumbling - and crumbling fast.
As examples of this, one could point to the number (larger than ever) of musical instrument manufacturers attending the AES, not to mention the proliferation of music software companies occupying booths.
Then there's the fact that a surprising number of demonstrations were actually presented by musicians - Frank Zappa (for NED) and Jan Hammer (for Fairlight) were two of the biggest draws. And when you consider that both Zappa and Hammer make their living working from their own home studios in any case, you inevitably have to reconsider whether the distinction between musician and recording engineer is still a valid one to draw. Especially when, as in the case of many of the new machines on display at AES, new technology is being made as accessible to one group as it is to another.
Contemporary, direct-to-disk recording systems are a case in point. On the one hand, a system like NED's "Tapeless Studio" represents just that - a tape recorder without the tape. But on the other, it's an obvious extension of the kind of digital sequencing systems musicians have been using since before the advent of MIDI.
Technology is taking what were once two separate worlds, and drawing them inexorably together.
In fact, direct-to-disk recording was one of the major talking points of this particular AES. Its advantages over tape are that it's quicker and often more convenient to use (rewinding is instant, for example), that it potentially offers editing facilities down to a very fine resolution (per sample on the best systems), and that it makes onboard signal processing in the digital domain a realistic possibility.
Lexicon's Opus was the most sophisticated disk-based recording system on show, and at its most complete (and expensive) level, uses four Winchester hard disk drives (together with two CD ROM units for system information) to store up to eight hours of mono signal, four hours of stereo. Systems like the Opus, however, are likely to be of more interest in the film and video post-production arena than in the music business, where the ability to, say, move a piece of soundtrack so that it's in line with dialogue from another source could prove invaluable.
At the other end of the scale - and of more immediate interest to musicians - are systems like the PPG HDU and Hybrid Arts ADAP.
The PPG offers 12 minutes of recording time shared between four tracks, and a second drive memory expansion in the New Year will double the recording time. Time/pitch correction is one of the HDU's big plus points, as is its price - £12,800 next to something like £200,000 for a basic version of the Opus.
If that is still too much, Hybrid Arts' system cuts costs further by using the Atari ST computer for much of its memory and processing power. This gives a total recording time of 20 seconds, but with a new hard disk buffer/interface, you'll be able to access the sort of recording times offered by more expensive systems via a suitable ST hard disk unit.
Incidentally, Hybrid were also showing the SMPTE version of their MIDItrack Professional sequencer for the ST, which besides being able to read and write SMPTE, now has the ability to request and store sound data (of both the synthesised and sampled variety) and send this out to connected machines at the beginning of sequence replay. The great advantage of this is that all your sound and sequence data can be stored on one disk, and you don't need to worry which sounds are loaded into your keyboards and expanders.
Conversely, if the record-buying public wants something as badly as it's likely to want R-DAT (just think, digital recordings of baby's first words), then there's not much the record companies will be able to do about it - especially with half the electronics factories in Japan all set up and ready to go into production of R-DAT machines. And you thought the musical instrument industry was political...
Speaking of musical instruments, quite a number of the major Japanese manufacturers were represented at AES, in the (quite realistic) hope of selling their machinery to demo studios and programming suites, the like of which are springing up all over the US, and beyond.
Korg were showing their SG1 electronic piano, DSS1 sampling synth (complete with a new range of sample disks), and DDD1 drum machine, which will soon benefit from the first shipment of sampling cards. Korg's outboard processors - including the new budget DRV1000 digital reverb - also created interest.
Roland were showing their new S10 and S50 sampling keyboards, both of which we reviewed in last month's MT. It's interesting to note that the S50 now has individual output assignment and a more complete manual - two things we missed on our preliminary review model.
Over at the Hilton, Yamaha themselves had several different demonstrations running. One of these was the Yamaha MIDI seminar, which concentrated on the use of MIDI processors (MCS2, MEP4 and MJC8) and controller keyboards (KX76 and KX88). After that came an excellent demo featuring the new QX5 sequencer, which highlighted the machine's ability to run on several different time signatures - 4/4, 5/4, 6/4, 6/8, you name it.
In the audio department, there was an innocent-looking eight-into-two mixing desk which would have been easy to walk straight by if there hadn't been a large crowd of people around it at all times. Innocent-looking it may have been, but this was a programmable, all-digital machine with fader automation and three onboard signal processors.
Turns out it's called the DMP7, and the way it works is this. Eight 16-bit A-to-D converters (with a 44.1kHz sample rate) lie at the audio inputs, while two similar D-to-A converters convert the signal back to analogue at the output end for the stereo outputs. The internal signal processors are the equivalent of three SPX90s, but with their bandwidth expanded by the 44.1 kHz sample rate. Servo-controlled faders are used to show not only the level of each channel, but also the aux send levels to the signal processors.
Each complete setup of the DMP7 can be stored in a memory, exactly like the programs on a synthesiser. There are 32 internal memories, but these can be expanded with 67 on a RAM cartridge to make 99 on-line.
The DMP7 should retail in the UK for less than £4000, and the idea of a 16-bit, all-digital automated mixer for that kind of money is going to appeal to many. Because of its eight-into-two format, the DMP7 is unlikely to be used in multitrack recording environments (though it is possible to chain two DMP7s together using MIDI System Exclusive data). However, seeing as program changes on the mixer can be controlled in real time from a MIDI sequencer such as Yamaha's QX1 (the demo used this feature impressively), there should be plenty of keyboard players for whom the ability to control their own sound on stage via MIDI will prove irresistible.
You could, of course, point out that in the interests of bringing the DMP7's technology down to a decent price level, Yamaha have had to implement the kind of digital parameter access found on modern synths - and there aren't going to be too many sound engineers who will relish the prospect of selecting parametric EQ and digital delay settings via that method, no matter how informative the LCD is.
But there's no getting round the fact that the DMP7 points the way ahead for digital signal control in general, and budget mixing consoles in particular. Like many of the innovations on show at AES, it's a taste of fascinating developments to come, as well as being an incredibly useful tool in its own right.
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