129th AES Convention, San Francisco

2010’s Audio Engineering Society convention had a common theme woven throughout it’s diverse presentations as well as in much of the gear on the exhibition floor:

The future is upon us, and it’s just like we remember it.

We can record a song and upload it to the wired world in seconds and relay our thoughts and emotions to the entire world without relying on a physical medium. Yet even that amazing achievement can be outperformed in speed and power by something as simple as a melody sung late at night, by candlelight, with that most powerful of wireless connections – the air around us – delivering voice to ear. Music, at it’s best, is a communion between people. The ability for everyone to be able to create and distribute their art will prove to be a benchmark of our era, but we mustn’t forget that music’s roots hold deep in people coming together to hear, feel, and breathe the same moving air.

Video game music is using the muscle of today’s computer technology to move away from the 8-bit loops of yore and toward a more dynamic and intelligent mixture of high-quality music and audio that is play-dependent, reformulating itself in real time, constantly reacting to the player’s actions. Sounds pretty futuristic, right? So as the engineers of the game world push further and further away from the roots of primitive game audio, they get closer and closer to the sound of the real world as it has existed since the day of the first ear: an always present, ever changing, meaningful collage of sound, not just a background-filler.

The evolution of the toolset of the audio engineer has taken quite a few turns during it’s existence. The most recent turn to digital recording and playback formats revolutionized the workflow but changed the sonics as we had known them. As evidenced by a great deal of the gear on the exhibit floor, there is a glowing acknowledgement of the contributions of past design and simple analog technology to the way a sound is transduced to electricity and back. Most engineers are now looking back with amusement at the 80’s folly of replacing traditional equipment with the newest (at the time) digital recorders and effects. We now have a range of choices of beautifully built microphones, EQ’s, compressors, monitors, and other transducers and processing gear that either faithfully emulate, improve upon, or even cleverly mutate tried-and-true designs, all of which are now centered around and seamlessly integrate with great sounding DA/AD conversion, hybrid consoles, and digital audio workstations. While music is being stored, manipulated and distributed with today’s great digital technology, the sound itself is more like we remember it.

These changes are the resonances of the synthesis of thousands of years of human sound communication and musical evolution, almost 200 years of achievements in audio technology, and broader advances in the speed and ease of digitally distributing art and ideas between people around the world. While many of the panelists, especially the old school guys, shared a concern with the technology overshadowing the performance (Autotune and Elastic Audio, anyone?), the core message was that it is up to us, right now, to make sure it goes in the right direction. We are at a crossroads. We now have the power, the quality, the experience and the time to make these elements sing together, to use them as means and not ends, in the pursuit of trapping the emotion and performance of a moment in digital amber, and the transcendence of space and time as that recorded moment is experienced over and over again by people all around the world.

“Nothing is fucked here, Dude.”
-Walter Sobchak