Blair's Blog

Some Thoughts on AES and TEC
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Fate and circumstance had cruelly conspired to keep me away from the AES convention for a couple of years, but since this year’s San Francisco confab was just a bridge-hop away from my palatial manor in Oakland, I had no legitimate reason to stay away: I don’t think my bosses would believe “I have to feed the cat” three years running. Actually, I was happy to check out the scene at the Moscone Center. I thought it seemed particularly auspicious that the gentleman registering right before me on the first day was none other than Rupert Neve. The glow of his celebrity had faded moments later, however, when a woman stationed at the top of the escalator down to the show floor dropped her entire stack of AES Daily magazines on my foot. Probably not intentional, but she might’ve seen my Mix badge.

I love the dissonant din of competing sound systems all over the hall and the way you’re bombarded by different stimuli with every step you take—here’s a woman playing some tasteful Michael Hedges-influenced acoustic guitar promoting something…never did figure out what; and over here a video is playing Rush in concert really loud…I think that might’ve been a loudspeaker manufacturer, but I never cared for Rush so I moved on quickly; and there’s a nice English chap with a very well-manicured beard demonstrating a DAW of some sort for a very attentive crowd. With the show happening on Halloween weekend, there were big dishes of candy here and there—the trick, though, is getting the treat without having to actually engage the person at the booth. In the worst-case scenario, I start speaking mock-Slovakian, take the candy and run.

I saw a lot of folks I hadn’t seen in a while and met many new ones, as well. Because I’m not really out and about that much, or have some distinguishing trademark look (“Ah, yes, there’s Jackson in his glittering bowler hat and red plaid pants again!”), most people don’t know me by sight. And when I see someone I think I remember from a past show, I’m usually two or three job changes behind them: “I thought you were with SSL!” “No, that was before JBL and after Alesis.” Or, as likely, it’s someone I think I know but actually don’t. So then there’s that momentary Dance of the Eyeballs, where he/she quickly steals a peak at my nametag and I surreptitiously do the same, and then we both carry on like long-lost friends. Hey, everybody does it. All jokey cynicism aside, though, I always come away from AES impressed anew with how nice the people in this industry are. And smart, too. For a field where there is, necessarily, a certain amount of salesmanship going on at all times at these shows, the level of out-and-out jiveness seems very low to me. Sure, guys have their raps down, but there appears to be more sincerity and true belief in the products than transparent hucksterism. Or maybe I’m just gullible.

For the next couple of months, all the audio magazines will be stuffed with descriptions of the cool new toys that were on display at AES. You don’t need to hear about that from me. Besides, I’d hate to give you a bum steer.

But here’s some of the stuff I will tell you about:

Best Matching Outfits: Always a very tough category, but this year there were four groups that distinguished themselves: The Texas Instruments crowd wore spiffy red polo shirts with black collars; they looked a bit like a NASCAR pit crew. Inner Tube Audio had their people decked out in retro-cool white lab coats that made them look like mad scientists. They may or may not have been hiding some mutant goat-dog in their booth. Yamaha reps were smashing in their sage polo shirts—classy and comfortable. But I think I have to give top honors to the crowd from Aviom: their dusky orange button-down shirts were perfect for the autumn gathering. Well done, lads! (And no doubt you all love their AN-16 input and output modules, as well!)

Best Booth Design: Adamson Pro Audio. True, there were bigger booths, and booths with more bells and whistles, but I loved the way they had a miniature version of a full SR truss defining their booth space, plenty o’speakers (natch) and, best of all, black leather couches—great for giving those barkin’ dogs a rest! In fairness, I should mention that TCS Audio also had a cool truss, but dudes, where were the leather couches? Honorable mention goes to Sennheiser for having an elegant booth with wonderful flow-through.

Booth Trend of the Year: Flat screen video monitors. It seems like every time I passed Dolby’s booth they were showing the incredible Prince-Beyoncé opening of the Grammy Awards. And every time it stopped me dead in my tracks…now that is star power! I also dug the David Gilmour concert DVD they were showing at the Bryston booth, though David’s legs are definitely not as attractive as Beyonce’s. But all over the show flat was definitely in and everywhere I went people were quietly jockeying for position to get in the perfect sweet spot for the innumerable surround audio demos. No doubt some woofer won Best In Show. Oh, sorry about that.

And then there were the TEC Awards at the Marriott Hotel on Saturday night.

Now, I’ll be right up front and say that awards ceremonies give me a queasy feeling. Y’see, if you invest any energy in caring about who wins, you invariably come away either disappointed or pissed off. I know this from three-plus decades of Oscar- and Grammy-watching. The tacit agreement of the awards world is that if you’re not a winner you’re a loser, and I just can’t go for that. It just ain’t true! And in the case of the TEC Awards, I also know that, as a Mix editor, at either the post-show party or on the phone the following Monday, I’m going to hear from a disgruntled “runner-up” about how unfair the awards are and, “How could (fill in the blank) win, when our product/service is so obviously superior?” Usually they’re right, too.

But actual trophy allocation aside, the TEC Awards is always a great party. It’s fun seeing everyone decked out so nicely and, for the most part, looking like they’re off-duty for a few hours. (That doesn’t mean there’s no shop talk, but it’s more uninhibited shop talk.) The cocktail hour gives everyone a chance to unwind from a day at the show, and then the dinner, with everyone seated at large round tables in whatever ballroom is hosting the awards ceremony, is always pretty darn good—this year there was filet mignon and salmon together on a plate, much to the horror of the non-meat eater sitting to my right. (Thanks for the extra filet!)

Year after year Mix Foundation Grand Poobah Hillel Resner and Omnipotent Queen Karen Dunn craft a wonderful divertissement that always includes an amusing host (this year it was Harry Shearer), a crack house band (led for many years by the awesome funkmeister Larry Batiste), and a superstar or two. Through the years there have been some amazing speeches at the TEC Awards. Who can forget Phil Spector’s rambling, disconnected, but somehow completely cogent remarks when he accepted his Hall of Fame award a few years back? Then there was Neil Young’s hilarious anti-digital rant one year, and Stevie Wonder’s glowing tribute to the recording community another. Even seeing Paul McCartney, in full-on “Paulie” mode, accepting via videotape, was a thrill.

This year, the first Hall of Fame award went to George Lucas, and like so many recipients of that award, he seemed somewhat humbled by receiving this recognition from his peers in the world of technology. He may be a billionaire and famous enough to be mercilessly skewered on The Simpsons, but there’s still a lot of Tech Nerd in him…in a good way, of course. It was fun to salute him for something other than his box office accomplishments, and I could tell he was moved by the standing-O. (Kudos, too, to sound design and film editing wizard Walter Murch, who was supposed to give the award to Lucas, but because of a commitment at AES, didn’t arrive at the TEC ceremony until Lucas was leaving the stage. He gave a charming little speech about Lucas anyway, recalling their days at USC and working at American Zoetrope. Neither of these giants has forgotten his roots, and both continue to do vital, important work.)

Also honored with a Hall of Fame induction was the supremely talented and beloved engineer Elliot Scheiner, who spoke movingly about his own path to the pinnacle of his profession, and the many kind souls who helped him along way. Scheiner, too, is still at the peak of his powers, as excited about recording today as he was as a young pup coming up under the tutelage of Phil Ramone.

The deserving winners of this year’s Les Paul Award for creative and technical achievement were producer/songwriters Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who were presented with their trophies by a surprise guest: Janet Jackson. Jackson spoke lovingly and at length about these two men who had done so much to foster her career. As one who has only seen her in videos or live performances on TV, I was so impressed by how un-showbiz she seemed, and by her natural grace, her calmness and her radiant smile. She truly lit up the stage, and then Jam and Lewis each tailored their remarks to the audio crowd on hand, thanking the assembled techies for continually coming up with new tools that made their job easier and more fun. All in all it was quite a love fest up there with the three of them—very nice to see and one of those TEC Awards moments that sticks with you and reminds you that it’s not about the trophies so much. It’s about the audio community getting together and recognizing what everyone in that room brings to the party.

By the way, congratulations to the folks who did win TEC Awards that night. They’re names are posted at

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