Aside from the varied and sometimes atrocious weather, it certainly felt as though there was an element of revolution to go along with the usual trade show evolution in New York at the Jacob Javits Center for the third co-location of these two key events for the audio technology and broadcast industries.
Within the exhibits of the 147th Audio Engineering Society Convention, there was a distinct feel of ‘back to the good old days’ of analog recording and mixing for music production, whilst off the floor there were demo rooms that showcased the latest intelligent home speakers as well as the usual ‘pro’ offerings and papers presenting audio research for autonomous vehicles.
Next door at NAB the show seemed to have more of a cut down feel with seemingly more smaller booths than in recent years alongside an undercurrent of caution as players big and small navigate the rapid drive towards cloud and agility in all areas of broadcast play-out and production.
This slightly downbeat feeling was accentuated by the organizer’s decision to dispense with the need for carpet, apparently on environmental grounds. Unfortunately, the way this was communicated through signage painted on the floor as you entered the NAB hall seemed, to us at least, to cry out as a parody of the iconic opening titles from the Star Wars movies. Perhaps it could have read “In an exhibition hall not far away is a trade show where they have carpet and the mood seems to be a whole lot brighter”.
The ‘Tale Of Two Cities’ theme was not only mirrored in the two shows themselves but also through the increasing presence and awareness of the two giant forces affecting and pulling at both audio and video industries. On the one side there are the media giants of Netflix, Disney, Spotify, Facebook, YouTube and others and on the other are the increasingly tech savvy consumers who are driving the need for better, faster slicker content whilst at the same time producing more and more of it themselves. These twin challenges are impacting directly on the manufacturers, integrators, resellers and production facilities who are currently caught in the middle of this particular revolution.
Against this backdrop we attempted to make some sense of it all, which was hard to do with such a lot going on across only a couple of days. Inevitably we didn’t get around everything but here we highlight some of what we did see.
Despite our initial observations from the NAB show floor, we also sensed a hint of optimism and excitement around the challenges and opportunities facing broadcasters and content producers. This was in the spotlight at the International Association of Broadcast Manufacturers’ traditional ‘State Of The Industry’ Business Breakfast panel session on the first morning of the show.
IABM CTO Stan Moote opened the session and set the tone by suggesting that “staff cuts are already starting to happen as a result of automation and AI”, and this seemed to be an effective gauntlet to throw at the assembled panellists.
Larry Johnson, Global Director of Media and Entertainment at Oracle Industry Solutions Group was first up, observing how and why the current business models cannot be maintained. He talked about the great shift to the “consumer centric business model and how it is no longer about eyes on a screen or a single event but about always being on demand, subscriptions and deep targeting of your audience”. Interestingly, he went on to say, “now content itself is being created and developed with an eye on growth and retention as well as just the immediate impact that it has on the viewer”.
Sasha Zivanovic, CEO of transmission services specialists Nextologies, addressed the issue of staff cuts head on and asserted that in his view, “for every job that technology eliminates, it creates two more, whether in training and support or within new business models and ideas with new opportunities for people to initiate and deliver”.
Much of the discussion focus was on the issue of on versus off premise, (or as it often translates, hardware vs software or CAPEX vs OPEX) and how this is clearly presenting enormous challenges to broadcasters, as well as manufactures, who are having to commit to work methodologies, future production facilities and technology solutions with this question in mind.
Renard Jenkins, VP of Engineering, Operations and Distribution at US public broadcaster PBS feels that the industry is currently stuck in a hybrid environment and that “technology is not quite there yet to double down and go all cloud”.
Andy Liebman, Founder and Chief Strategy Officer for Editshare, explained that from their perspective around content creation, there is already a clear desire to work in the cloud but the frustration is around getting content there in the first place. “Editing and colour correction are all up and working but there are still challenges with higher quality content, when superfast connections are not available”. He went on to explain: “When you think about a hybrid approach, workflows must be comparable and consistent in both on and off prem’ situations. Already an editor’s response and experience with a data centre is indistinguishable with an on prem’ implementation”.
Usman Shakeel, Worldwide Technology Leader for Media and Entertainment at Amazon Web Services, explained that AWS are continuously focusing on how to make the transition for customers easier. “We are looking to provide smarter as well as faster connectivity and making it easier for our customers to ‘cloudify'”.
The key issues of latency and overall reliability inevitably came up and Larry Johnson made a good observation: “We have to be cognisant of the forest, not just the trees – which are all good trees, by the way. How will these changes impact on people and how they do their jobs? We still need to maintain five nines (99.999%) reliability. Public and consumers depend on this and we can’t afford to relax or fall back from this standard.”
Mike Strein, Director of Engineering and Technology at ABC News in New York, explained how they are taking a progressive approach with the building of their new studios. “There will be no more dedicated control rooms or production space. We need an agile approach to facilities and no-one has their own workspace.” Yet striking a more pragmatic note, he went on to explain that a hybrid approach, with respect to on vs off prem’, will be the key to keeping reliability up. “There will need to be backup solutions, just as how power is and has always has been managed”.
It was encouraging to be reminded, amongst all of the technical talk, how the creative production process still needs to be at the centre of things. Andy Liebman made the important point that editing is all about rhythm and so latency and reliability are real potential creative problems, which impact not just working speeds and budgets but also the creative process itself.
It was a lively and thought provoking session, which perhaps went some way to explain the mixed atmosphere we picked up on the NAB show floor.
Following on with the atmospheric theme, we caught a little of a the NAB Keynote presentation with NAB CEO Gordon H Smith in conversation with ABC News Chief Meteorologist, Ginger Zee. It was good to see the event organisers are embracing and acknowledging climate change for an industry that is so driven by technology and consumer demand. The discussion on stage at one point focused on Ginger’s experiences of being ‘in the eye of the storm’ and this seemed to have a special resonance as an analogy to the current state of the broadcast and television industry. Somewhat ironically, this came on the day where visitors experienced near hurricane weather conditions outside the convention centre at the end of the day. We headed off in the torrential rain to a very pleasant soiree at LiveX TV courtesy of Clearcom for a private showing of their new FreeSpeak Edge system.
In the adjoining hall at the AES, it was almost like old times. Right at the front of the hall there was SSL sporting a new battleship console. Solid State Logic’s first new fully analog audio console in 25 years, the ORIGIN analogue desk, harkens back to the traditional in-line console designs of the 1970s and ‘80s, such as SSL’s famous 4000 series, which ORIGIN evokes and emulates in many ways, with a dual-channel design, 16 buses, E Series EQ, and SSL’s classic Bus Compressor. Novel twists, such as the new PureDrive mic-pre, conjures the clarity and purity of earlier SSL mic-pre designs. And if that wasn’t sufficiently nostalgic, SSL also brought back Phil Wagner, who culminated 17 years at the company when he was named President of US operations in 2005, before heading off to executive positions at Focusrite Novation Inc., Apogee Electronics and Ocean Way Audio. He’s back, as North American SVP of SSL.
Analogue was seemingly in abundance at AES. In addition to SSL’s new desk, API — which introduced its new 2448 recording and mixing console at last year’s event — this year celebrated its 50th anniversary by debuting two new limited edition units: the 862 50th Anniversary Edition Channel Strip and the 2500 50th Anniversary Edition Stereo Bus Compressor. (And a newly reanimated Capricorn Studios, in Macon, Georgia, announced at this show they had ordered a 2448 of their own.) And of course, Mara Machines were on the floor, showing how they are single-handedly keeping MCI open-reel analogue tape decks rolling.
But before anyone got too comfortable with the ideas of an analogue reprise, it was quickly apparent that pro audio has entered a networked environment, where it will be staying for a very long while. AES67 and AES70 protocols are now regularly bridging proprietary protocols such as the ubiquitous Dante and QSC’s increasingly popular Q-SYS platform. Focusrite released RedNet Control 2.4, a free software update that adds Dante Domain Manager (DDM) and AES67/AES70 compatibility, making all Focusrite Red audio interfaces, plus RedNet devices with Audinate Brooklyn 2, Ultimo and Ultimo X architecture, compatible with Dante Domain Manager.
“Networking technology in audio systems [is] increasingly becoming the norm and not the exception,” AES New York Networked Audio Track chair Bob Lee proclaimed. “We in the audio industry have been fortunate to be able to leverage the off-the-shelf technology developed by the IT industry to meet our needs reliably and economically.”
Another new row to hoe for pro audio is podcasting. Zoom showed its LiveTrak L-8, a compact and cost-effective ($399) standalone mixer and multitracker with six mic ins, four headphone outs and six effects pads. Audio-Technica was out in front of this trend a couple years ago, when it developed various podcasting kits, including USB microphones (XLR versions are available, too), ranging from $149 t0 $199.
Music production, once the core sector of the AES Shows over decades, has re-emerged as a main attraction. Nowhere is that more evident than in the avid attendance at Mix With The Masters, the France-based education-come-celebrity event that puts classes by well-known engineers, producers and mixers right out on the show floor, as opposed to in the side chambers where these sorts of panels are traditionally held. Appearances at the show by Joe Chiccarelli, Michael Brauer, Eddie Kramer and other luminaries were standing-room only, reflecting, at least in part, music’s recently reinvigorated fortunes, thanks to streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music.
Whether that translates into an actual living wage for those who would follow in their footsteps, particularly those just starting out, remains to be seen. The student area of the show, on the Javits Center’s mezzanine, was also well attended, with prospective students mulling over pro-audio degree and certificate offerings from a variety of for-profit schools and state-run universities during the AES Career Fair. Also part of the AES Education Programme, the Student Recording Competition drew strong entries and packed in the crowds for the live judging sessions and there was also the Saul Walker Student Design Competition sponsored by API and supported by numerous other manufacturers as well as Interfacio with the provision of our mentoring award for product and career development.
A good note to end on is how high-resolution sound showed promise at the show. Amazon’s new Echo Studio high-fidelity smart speaker, with 3D audio and Alexa, was set to become available within days of the show, while Avid previewed a new release of Pro Tools that supports 4K and UHD playback at the show. And DDEX, the digital supply-chain standards organisation that’s been pursuing ways to better channel digital content assets, launched its Media Enrichment and Description (MEAD) and its Creative Credits Summit within a few days of the show. Together, they represent a significant expansion of the metadata that labels and distributors provide to digital music services such as Apple, Amazon, Spotify, Pandora, major labels, collecting societies and other interested companies and experts, with the intent of giving the names of content creators: musicians, engineers, producers, mixers, beatmakers, et al., a broader platform for recognition. Combine that with a good and affordable education and there’s a future worth working towards.
A few audio companies, notably Avid, LAWO, Clearcomm, Calrec and Riedel had a presence at both shows, but on the NAB side the emphasis was not surprisingly on video, and particularly on streaming technology, which in the age of Netflix has become even more critical to television than it has for music in the age of Spotify.
It’s important to remember that these two events are different. The AES Convention is the major North American event for audio engineering incorporating a significant technical and education programme alongside the commercial exhibition. Whereas the NAB show is very much a local North Eestern regional satellite of the main NAB event held in Las Vegas, in April and it is very much focusing on the New York Metro area as a key customer market. NAB NY is also only a two day show as opposed to the four day programme for the AES convention with it’s three exhibit days.
The difference in flooring in the aisles of the two events was certainly widely remarked on by all and with the co-location of the two shows there will inevitably be comparisons drawn between them by those who exhibit or visit both events. In the NAB hall, with its hard concrete floor, one wag said that this made it resemble “a Home Depot with nicer screens.” Apparently, despite the environmental motives for this move, exhibitors didn’t enjoy a reduction in their space costs, and clearly visitors found it quite uncomfortable walking around after a few hours. It will be interesting to see if this particular revolution sticks or is overturned by the people.