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Sweetwater GearFest 2014: Homecoming In The Heartland

A city of better than a quarter million people, Fort Wayne, Indiana is a two-hop from all but a handful of major airports, and a significant drive from all but a handful of major cities. That Sweetwater Sound is based in Fort Wayne while becoming the largest online/telephone retailer of MI and Pro Audio gear in the USA is a fascinating story in itself, but that's not the story we're here to tell today. What if such a company threw a party and invited all its customers and manufacturer partners, near and far, to come and join in on two days of gear lust alongside compelling educational sessions? In Sweetwater's case, over 8,000 individuals would answer the call, coming from states across the nation and even foreign countries to take advantage of the open doors.

A city of better than a quarter million people, Fort Wayne, Indiana is a two-hop from all but a handful of major airports, and a significant drive from all but a handful of major cities. That Sweetwater Sound is based in Fort Wayne while becoming the largest online/telephone retailer of MI and Pro Audio gear in the USA is a fascinating story in itself, but that’s not the story we’re here to tell today. What if such a company threw a party and invited all its customers and manufacturer partners, near and far, to come and join in on two days of gear lust alongside compelling educational sessions? In Sweetwater’s case, over 8,000 individuals would answer the call, coming from states across the nation and even foreign countries to take advantage of the open doors. “We love Sweetwater GearFest because we love getting to know the people who use our products,” says Larry Droppa, President of API. “Spending time with API users, including our friends at Sweetwater is a worthwhile effort, as GearFest brings in people from all over the globe.”

The GearFest event was launched in 2002, and aside from a break while the company’s new headquarters was being built several years back, has been held annually since, each year setting new records for attendance. This year’s event was held June 6 and 7 on Sweetwater’s expansive (and expanding) campus.

The legendary Bruce Swedien was interviewed by Sweetwater Editorial Director Mitch Gallagher, one of numerous video interviews conducted during GearFest 2014.
The cost of attending GearFest, aside from travel expenses, is zero. That’s true for the representatives of the 200-plus exhibiting brands and for attendees. Attendees are welcomed with an amazing variety of opportunities, from the 185 workshops and seminar sessions to sale prices on everything in inventory, killer deals in the “open box” area and an attendee-stocked and -manned flea market. The Deal Zone, made possible with the cooperation of Sweetwater manufacturer partners, offers onsite-only heavy discounts, like Shure SM57 and SM58 microphones for $57 and $58, respectively, buy-one-get-one-free on JBL 3 Series monitors and $300 off the regular price of Mackie SRM550 portable PA loudspeakers. The Deal Zone products ranged from amps to mics to cables to mic stands to instruments. The exhibitors also provided over $72,000 of gear for hourly giveaways.

Outside, 20 huge tents (four dedicated to pro audio) housed table-top displays and demo systems from the exhibiting manufacturers. Harman’s Crown and Soundcraft brought their rolling trailer exhibits (complete with not only gear worth seeing, but air conditioning that was quite welcome in the middle of the afternoon). Always nearby were Sweetwater sales engineers to process purchases by attendees.

The Producers’ Panel featured (left to right), Bob Clearmountain, Fab Dupont, Ross Hogarth, Mick Guzauski, Bil Vorndick, Ed Cherney, Richard Chycki, and Bruce Swedien.

“The remarkable thing about Gearfest is that a dealer [Sweetwater] would put in that much effort to give all of us as manufacturers and distributors a platform to offer our knowledge and products to the marketplace,” commented Brad Lunde, president of pro audio distributor, TransAudio Group. “They have built a professional event that is free to customers and free to exhibitors yet offers extreme value to both. No other dealer invests this much into supplier and customer bringing them together in a format that is friendly and low pressure, offering education and experiences that are unique and memorable.” Lunde attended GearFest with sales manager Richard Bowman to represent and demonstrate gear including brands Drawmer, ATC, Sonodyne and Daking (with Geoff Daking also in attendance).

Echoing Lunde’s sentiment, Jonathan Pines, on hand with Tristan Rhodes to represent Rupert Neve Designs and sE Microphones, said, “GearFest is a wonderful gathering of professionals, manufacturers, end users, Sweetwater sales engineers and managers, and regional community. It is truly for the end user and professional, unlike many other Industry trade shows, which are more about dealers, reps, industry, and product releases. The workshops and panels are world-class and available to everyone, and thanks to Chuck Surack, it’s all free!

More than 200 vendors filled up 20 tents with gear and music—this aerial view, no doubt facilitated by Chuck Surack’s Sweet Aviation venture, was taken during pre-GearFest set-up.

“For a manufacturer” Pine continued, “it’s a wonderful opportunity to work side-by-side with the 240-plus Sweetwater Sales Engineers and help them better understand the key points about your product, and to talk to thousands of end users and customers in a relaxed atmosphere surrounded by your peers. Highly recommended!”

Sweetwater’s GearFest is a fabulous place to catch up with a broad swath of notables from the professional audio community. On the manufacturer/exhibitor side, that included Lunde, Pine, Rhodes, Mark Seman and Jordan Shirks from API (who had The Box compact footprint console on display, along with a selection of analog outboard processors), Dan Kennedy of Great River Electronics, Jeff Mac and staff from TechRep Marketing (whose expansive corner of the exhibits housed displays and demos across a range of brands including Sennheiser/Neumann, QSC Audio, Genelec, Universal Audio, Manley Labs, Aphex and PreSonus—many of those brands sending company luminaries, including Eveanna Manley and, from UA, Amanda Whiting), Fadi Hayek, VP Music Products and Senior VP, Don Wershba, from Solid State Logic, Michael Ketchell from MikTek Audio, Dave Hill from Dave Hill Designs and Crane Song, Nathan Adam and friends representing (and presenting on behalf of) the Multi Platinum education series, Gil Griffith and the Wave Distribution team (with gear from Empirical Labs)—the list could go on and on (with apologies to those not mentioned).

From the music production side, the June 7 Producer’s Panel roster gives an overview of the industry stars attending GearFest—Bruce Swedien, Bob Clearmountain, Ed Cherney, Mick Guzauski, Ross Hogarth, Richard Chycki, Bil VornDick, and Fab Dupont. The panel was moderated by Sweetwater’s own (and former EQ Magazine editor) Mitch Gallagher. Many of the producers’ and engineers’ attendance was sponsored by manufacturers with individual sessions also presented, like Bil VornDick’s acoustic miking tutorial (sponsored by MikTek), Ed Cherney’s recounting the secrets to his success, career advice and inspiration (sponsored by ATC), miking techinques by Ross Hogarth (with Kenny Aronoff, sponsored by Royer whose Jennings participated in the dialog), live performance recording and mixing with Bob Clearmountain (Apogee sponsored) an Anatomy of a Mix session with Richard Chycki (sponsored by SSL) and mixing with Mick Guzauski (sponsored by Avid, who presented three full days of sessions in three rooms—Sweetwater, after all, lays claim to being Avid’s largest Pro Tools dealer).

Based on decades of experience, Bil VornDick offered up sage advice on acoustic instrument miking at GearFest ’14.

On the musician side, presenters included the previously mentioned drummer, Kenny Arnoff, drummer Jason Bonham (whose Led Zeppelin Experience performed to cap the event), bass player Billy Sheehan, guitarists Jason Hook, Shaun Hopper, Don Carr, Devin Townsend, Emil Werstler, Carl Verheyen, and Brad Davis and keyboard player Larry Dunn.

Presentations during GearFest occupied a number of meeting spaces, such as the technologically impressive main theater and new spaces included in Sweetwater’s latest expansion (that expansion also creating a near doubling of warehouse pace—where better than $20 million in inventory lands and departs every 20 to 30 days—and also near doubling the space for the beehive of activity that is the hang for Sweetwater’s sales engineering team, complete with a spiral slide to bring them down from the second floor).

Recounting his rise from literally pounding the pavement and knocking on doors to get his first break into the studio, to his living-legend industry profile, Ed Cherney welcomed attendees in the opening session of GearFest ’14 with insightful and entertaining dialog and music.
Sweetwater made a substantial social media push during GearFest, with regular updates to its FaceBook page and postings on YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. Vids and photos from GearFest ’14 can be reviewed at Sweetwater’s FaceBook page, and video of interviews, product demos and the Producer’s Panel can also be found through the YouTube playlist.

In a post show statement, Sweetwater founder and president Chuck Surack remarked, “This year’s GearFest was one of the most exciting and humbling experiences of my career. I personally greeted thousands of our customers at the front door as they arrived and was astounded by the enthusiasm everyone seemed to have for Sweetwater and GearFest. That, along with its continued growth in overall attendance and sales, has made GearFest a truly unique event in the music retail business.” There’s no hyperbole there—Surack was at the front door of the Sweetwater building welcoming customers when the doors opened for attendees and, along with the attendance numbers, Sweetwater reports that sales during GearFest were up 25 percent from last year’s event. But it’s not all about sales; GearFest represents a substantial investment on Sweetwater’s part, a giving back to those who made their success possible, with all hands on deck helping make the event remarkably smooth running and the atmosphere welcoming and friendly.

As Sweetwater founder Chuck Surack built a company on his passion for music, so he has taken his love for flying commercial with the founding of Sweet Aviation, dedicated to providing affordable, accessible flight instruction.
SSL’s Fadi Hayek offers kudos for both Sweetwater and the event. “SSL’s association with Gearfest has always been a perfect fit with our initiative to educate and grow the audio community,” said Hayek. “Sweetwater’s dedication in continuing to strengthen GearFest has provided SSL not only the opportunity for brand awareness but also a chance to reach out in a much more personal way to current and future fans of our products—I’m always astounded at how Sweetwater continues to lead the charge in what I like to call the future of retailing. And GearFest is a prime example of that.”

Sweetwater touts the “Sweetwater Difference” in the end-user’s sales experience, but there’s also a component of that difference in its relationship with its manufacturing partners, exemplified in GearFest. “I do lots of trade shows in a year,” remarked TechRep’s Jeff Mac, “but they are all focused on business to business relationships. Chuck opens up his gorgeous facility and we, and the vendors that Techrep represents, get to deal directly with the people that are buying the gear for two days. There is a real excitement to that. It is a great event and Sweetwater continues to raise the bar on their own excellence every single year.”

Another of Chuck Surack’s passion is fine automobiles, the motivation for the development of Sweet Cars. The most expensive price posted at GearFest was on this canary yellow 2008 Lamborghini Gallardo: $135,900.

John Jennings, VP of Sales and Marketing at Royer Labs, called GearFest “a unique industry event that has evolved into an entertaining and highly educational weekend for Sweetwater clients, as well as an important and fun industry hang for manufacturers and artists.” Jennings is a perennial participant in GearFest, along with sister brand Mojave Audio’s Dusty Wakeman (Wakeman is also a session presenter). Jennings said GearFest offers a glimpse of the inner workings that make Sweetwater tick. “I think Sweetwater’s success and great standing in the industry is due to a few key factors; the high level of ongoing product education for their Sales Engineers, an extraordinary commitment to excellence throughout the organization, and Chuck Surack’s ‘Because it’s the right thing to do’ mentality, which has impressed me for many years. Gearfest gives people a chance to see all of this up close and personal, and I think that learning about who/what Sweetwater is is as important as the rest of the event itself.”

Despite the available online resources, GearFest is an event that must be attended to be fully appreciated. Pro Audio Review technical editor, Lynn Fuston, attended GearFest for the first time this year and summed up his experience—and that of the record setting number of attendees—thusly: “The malaise in the overall music industry is nowhere to be found at Sweetwater. There may not be any hills in Fort Wayne, Indiana but there’s ‘gold in that there warehouse.’ Just like the tool suppliers of the gold rush in California, Chuck Surack has found a way to provide the tools for all those mining for gold in the music business. And all those millions of dollars worth of gear that he ships every week is a testament to creativity and ingenuity applied to meeting a need in a down economy. And what a facility! You have to see it to believe it.”

Jonathan Pines of Rupert Neve Designs and sE Microphone distributor, Fingerprint Audio, came up with a unique approach to not having to tear his booth down for the return trip, offering this entire demo production center for the bargain price of $49,000. He succeeded, at least, in having the second highest priced line item at GearFest ’14, though coming in well behind the Sweet Cars Lamborghini.
Pro Sound News‘ August issue will feature an interview with Sweetwater Studios head, Mark Hornsby, about the developing model for studio use and the new hybrid analog/digital console outfitted in the Studio A Control Room.